This week: Walter Isaacson's biography of Leonardo da Vinci, plus Amy Tan's wise and profound memoir.
Blakeslee (Tulia), a writer at large for Texas Monthly, brings the feeling of a celebrity biography to the story of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and its aftermath. He centers on the rise, reign, and family life of O-Six, matriarch of the Lamar Canyon pack and so well-known to park visitors that the New York Times gave her an obituary. Blakeslee derives his beautiful, detailed descriptions of the interactions between wolves from a massive amount of observational material meticulously collected over years by wolf watcher Laurie Lyman and park wildlife expert Rick McIntyre. The latter receives a complementary profile here that almost works as a secondary biography in its own right. Blakeslee escorts readers up close to interpack conflict as well as human enemies of wolf preservation. He details legislative moves, which vary from state to state and are based in ranching politics more than science, that seek to remove wolves from the endangered list prematurely and establish hunting zones just outside of park limits—and within the ranges of the Yellowstone packs. Most extraordinarily, Blakeslee interviews the hunter who legally shot O-Six in 2012 (“She didn’t tell me she was famous before I shot her”), offering a close and unsympathetic view of the other side.
To the pantheon of Gone Girl–type bad girls you can now add Amber Patterson, the heroine of this devilishly ingenious debut thriller. Coming from an impoverished background in Missouri, Amber sets her sights on Daphne and Jackson Parrish, a wealthy couple living with their two young children, Bella and Tallulah, in the tony coastal community of Bishops Harbor on Long Island Sound. With singular focus, Amber moves in on the glamorous couple, befriending Daphne and ultimately seducing Jackson as part of her master plan to become the next Mrs. Parrish. The reader watches with shock and delight as Amber cold-bloodedly manipulates Daphne and Jackson and lays waste to anyone else who stands in her way. Then, about halfway through, the point of view switches from Amber’s to Daphne’s, and we get a surprisingly different take on the story. To say any more would spoil all the twists that Constantine (the pseudonym of sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine) has in store along the way to a surprising and entirely satisfying ending. Suffice it to say that readers would have to go back to the likes of Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying or Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley to find as entertaining a depiction of a sociopathic monster.
Crotty’s impressive debut collection is somehow both varied and cohesive. She never writes the same story twice. Her protagonists are women, mostly young and mostly single, but distinct from one another. This distinction is achieved largely through the specificity of detail Crotty brings to these characters and the worlds they inhabit. The title story depicts the tangled allegiances and collateral effects of an abusive relationship. In “Crazy for You,” the dynamics of a teen friendship are undermined by the involvement of another, sexually active teenage girl. The heroine of “The Next Thing That Happens” is a highly intelligent but volatile high school student in a relationship with a mechanic named Jimmy. In “The Fourth Fattest Girl at Cutting Horse Ranch,” a famous European model named Jessa disrupts the delicate balance of the other patients when she checks into an eating disorder treatment facility. And in “A New Life,” a tempting job offer leads to a move to Abu Dhabi for new mother Rebecca and her partner, Nathan, but the cultural shift has a profound impact on their relationship. These 10 sublime stories are reminiscent of Bobbie Ann Mason and Ann Beattie, thoroughly surprising and memorable.
Dawson (Extinction: A Radical History), a professor of English at CUNY, takes aim at the empty rhetoric of “green cities” in this forcefully argued and eye-opening polemic. The book’s locales are marked by “stark economic inequality”—the growing gap between those who can afford to insulate themselves from the consequences of climate change and those who cannot. Using New York City as his primary case study, Dawson argues that cities are both on the front lines of climate change and contribute disproportionately to it. Much-touted “fixes” to urban congestion and fragility, such as waterfront development and privately developed affordable-housing projects, serve only to reinforce social and economic inequalities while causing waves of what he dubs “environmental blowback.” Moreover, rising sea levels will likely also necessitate a retreat from coastal cities. For Dawson, countering the threat of climate change must involve dismantling the system of global capitalism that has pushed civilization to the brink of “climate chaos.” The book’s synthesis of reportage, urban history, and climate science can result in the oversimplification of certain issues, but Dawson doesn’t shy away from tough conclusions and makes clear that real climate justice must build “on anti-imperialist, antiracist, and feminist movements.” Dawson makes a convincing case that, unless urban dwellers and civic leaders engage in a fundamental reconceptualization of the city and whom it serves, the future of urban life is dim.
British science writer Fitzharris slices into medical history with this excellent biography of Joseph Lister, the 19th-century “hero of surgery.” Lister championed the destruction of microorganisms in surgical wounds, thus preventing deadly postoperative infections. This was a radical approach inspired by French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria. Lister, whose Quaker father introduced him to the wonders of the microscope, became an evangelist for the germ theory of disease and the sterilization of both surgical instruments and doctors’ hands. The medical community resisted Lister’s procedures, but his successful treatment of Queen Victoria boosted his reputation and techniques—winning converts first in Scotland, then America, and finally London. “Lister’s methods transformed surgery from a butchering art to a modern science, one where newly tried and tested methodologies trumped hackneyed practices,” Fitzharris writes. She infuses her thoughtful and finely crafted examination of this revolution with the same sense of wonder and compassion Lister himself brought to his patients, colleagues, and students. “As he neared the end of his life, Lister expressed the desire that if his story was ever told, it would be done through his scientific achievements alone,” Fitzharris notes, respecting his wish and fulfilling it in the context of a remarkable life and time.
Two cases with powerful personal aspects challenge Isaiah “IQ” Quintabe, known in his Long Beach, Calif., community for his crime-solving abilities, in Edgar-finalist Ide’s outstanding sequel to 2016’s IQ. The most painful open wound in Isaiah’s life remains the hit-and-run death eight years earlier of his older brother, Marcus, which Isaiah witnessed. His perseverance in seeking justice seems to have paid off when he locates the car that killed Marcus, but new evidence that Marcus was deliberately targeted raises a slew of troubling questions. The revelation comes just as Marcus’s girlfriend, Sarita Van, reenters Isaiah’s life to request help; her half-sister, Janine, a Vegas deejay, has racked up gambling debts that can’t be paid off. Since Isaiah still carries a torch for Sarita, he agrees to help. Ide again makes his hero’s deductive brilliance plausible, while presenting an emotionally engaging story that doesn’t shy away from presenting the bleakest aspects of humanity.
Praising the subject of this illuminating biography as “history’s most creative genius,” Isaacson (The Innovators) uses observations and insights in the 7,200 extant pages of notes Leonardo da Vinci left behind as interpretive touchstones for assessing the artist’s life and work. The key to da Vinci’s genius as an innovator, as Isaacson presents it, was his “ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities, and technology” coupled with “an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy.” Proceeding chronologically through the artist’s life—from his apprenticeship at age 14 in Florence under Andrea del Verrochio to his later years in the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan and his death in France in 1519—Isaacson shows how da Vinci’s inquisitiveness set him apart from his contemporaries but frequently distracted him from completing commissions or projects. The author portrays da Vinci’s minor works and major works such as Vitruvian Man and The Last Supper as steps toward his execution of Mona Lisa, “a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion” that represents “the culmination of a life spent perfecting an ability to stand at the intersection of art and nature.” Isaacson’s scholarship is impressive—he cites not only primary sources but secondary materials by art critics, essayists, and da Vinci’s other biographers. This is a monumental tribute to a titanic figure.
Venom researchers Jenner and Undheim record the stunning, often beautiful diversity of the world’s venomous species and the parallel evolution of poisons and venoms in this generously illustrated—and shudder-inducing—volume. The authors carefully convey substantial physiological, chemical, and ethological information about the functions of nature’s aggressive pharmacopeia, which has evolved numerous times for predation, defense, and other more surprising uses. Jenner and Undheim devote a chapter to venoms used for human medicine, but focus mostly on the natural roles venoms play in their particular environments. The authors make plain that the study of venomous creatures is worthwhile in its own right and that researchers can learn lessons relevant to human physiology by studying the function of venom at the systems and molecular levels. However, they never imply that the value of these astonishingly well-targeted chemical cocktails derives from their potential service to the human world. The text itself is well-balanced, even occasionally bland, and the authors largely refrain from introducing their own emotional reactions, except in defending animal experimentation. The book is well suited to inspire budding biologists, while discussions about lethal capacity and stories of researchers bitten intentionally or unintentionally will still satisfy the curious thrill seeker.
Will, 15, is following his neighborhood’s well-established rules—don’t cry, don’t snitch, but do get revenge “if someone you love/ gets killed”—when he leaves his apartment, intent on killing whoever murdered his older brother, Shawn. He’s emboldened by the gun tucked into his waistband: “I put my hand behind my back/ felt the imprint/ of the piece, like/ another piece/ of me/ an extra vertebra,/ some more/ backbone.” As Will makes his way to the ground floor of his building, the elevator stops to accept passengers, each an important figure from his past, all victims of gun violence. Are these ghosts? Or is it Will’s subconscious at work, forcing him to think about what he intends to do and what it will accomplish? The story unfolds in the time it takes for the elevator to descend, and it ends with a two-word question that hits like a punch to the gut. Written entirely in spare verse, this is a tour de force from a writer who continues to demonstrate his skill as an exceptionally perceptive chronicler of what it means to be a black teen in America. Ages 12–up.
Journalist and author Slater (Escargot) offers a riveting account of the events that preceded and followed a 2013 assault in Oakland, Calif. Both Sasha (a white, agender private school teenager) and Richard (an African-American public school student who had lost numerous loved ones to murder) rode the 57 bus every day. One afternoon, Richard—egged on by friends—lit the sleeping Sasha’s skirt on fire, and the resulting blaze left third-degree burns over 22% of Sasha’s body. Sixteen-year-old Richard was arrested and charged as an adult with committing a hate crime. The short, easily digestible chapters take a variety of forms, including narrative, poetry, lists (including terms for gender, sex, sexuality, and romantic inclinations), text-message conversations, and Richard’s heartrending letters of apology to Sasha. Using details gleaned from interviews, social media, surveillance video, public records, and other sources, Slater skillfully conveys the complexities of both young people’s lives and the courage and compassion of their families, friends, and advocates, while exploring the challenges and moral ambiguities of the criminal justice system. This painful story illuminates, cautions, and inspires. Ages 12–up.
Stein (Bright-Eyed at Midnight) finds beauty in the mundane in this warmhearted collection of diary comics originally published online at Vice. From a walk across the Manhattan Bridge to a bit of slapstick in a retirement home to fretting over her relationship with her mother, Stein portrays every moment with sincerity; cynicism is laudably absent from this candy-colored world. Darker themes also emerge; some of the best comics contemplate aging and loneliness. But every page is suffused with empathy, while resisting the saccharine: there are no tidy endings, nor smug moralizing. Stein’s vibrant watercolors are a marvel, especially in the palette: dribbles of cerulean, slashes of black, and dots of deepest crimson are as captivating as any plot twist. Even the lettering tells a story, often exploding on the page in different colors and sizes. It all adds up to a sweet, relatable portrait of the minutiae that make life worth living.
In this wise and profound memoir, novelist Tan (The Joy Luck Club, etc.), now 65, looks back on her life, illuminating the path that led her to writing. Tan’s fans and writers of all kinds will find her latest work fascinating; she explores how her writing has evolved, and how memory sparks imagination. She also reveals how listening to classical music helps her create scenes during the writing process. Writers will find a chapter of emails between Tan and her editor Dan Halpern to be clever and endearing, illustrating how an exceptional editor helps shape a book and shore up a writer’s self-esteem. Tan also reveals that it takes her years to write a novel, with each more difficult than the last. Woven throughout are tales from the writer’s sometimes traumatic past. Her mother, once married to an abusive Chinese pilot, left her husband and three daughters in China, married Tan’s father, had three more children, and occasionally threatened suicide. When Tan was 15, her father, an electrical engineer and part-time evangelical minister, died of a brain tumor—as did her older brother six months later. Despite hardships and sacrifices, the Tan family held fast to one another, and the “resilience” of love is apparent in these pages. The memoir reveals that, for Tan, the past is ever present, serving as a wellspring of emotion and writing inspiration.
Predicting the future of scientific endeavor isn’t easy, but this fun title from this husband-and-wife team gives readers plenty of amazing possibilities to think about. Kelly, an adjunct faculty member in the biosciences department at Rice University, and Zach, creator of webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, explore cutting-edge advances in 10 different technologies, including space travel, fusion power, augmented reality, and brain-computer interfaces. Each chapter’s discussion concludes with a look at how success might change the world as well as potential problems that must be taken into consideration. The authors leaven even the most serious topics—for example, altering DNA to achieve the de-extinction of mammoths or create brand new life forms—with pop culture references, sarcastic comics panels, and tart asides. Topics such as “origami robots,” space elevators, and bioprinted replacement organs will pique the curiosity of budding scientists and seasoned lab rats alike. A gratifyingly large bibliography will guide the curious into further reading on each topic. The Weinersmiths deliver a fascinating look at the most provocative and promising research going on today and how it could alter the way we work and live.
White (Renoir: His Life, Art and Letters) delivers a moving biography of French impressionist painter Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), sourced from thousands of letters and hundreds of previously unpublished writings by the artist, his family, and his friends, including many first-generation impressionists. Renoir got his start studying art in the studio of Swiss painter Charles Gleyre at age 21, which experience placed him in the orbit of Manet, Monet, and Degas, with whom he exhibited in their early independent exhibitions. Still, his art was often ridiculed by the critics, and he lived in abject poverty into his mid-40s. By the 1880s, the public had gradually warmed to the impressionistic style. Bolstered by a receptive American public, sympathetic art dealers, and the critical success of now-iconic works such as The Boating Party, Renoir became famous and financially secure enough to finally marry his longtime model and mistress, Aline Charigot. But as his fame increased, his health deteriorated. Severe rheumatoid arthritis left him wheelchair bound, and, his hands rendered nearly useless, he relied entirely on assistants to place his palette and brushes in his hands as he worked. Nevertheless, much to the admiration of his colleagues (Monet especially), he continued painting in spite of his physical ailments, motivated by a selfless desire to impart beauty to the world even as Europe plunged into the cataclysmic inferno of WWI. White’s research is exhaustive, her enthusiasm is infectious, and her style is unaffected, ensuring that this touching biography will enjoy a broad readership encompassing both specialists and general art enthusiasts alike.
Yousafzai, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, grew up in Pakistan dreaming of possessing a magic pencil like the one on her favorite TV show. At first, she believes that such a pencil could solve any problem—from keeping her brothers out of her room to erasing war, poverty, hunger, and gender disparity. But as Malala grows, so does her sense of purpose and agency; she realizes that change comes not from magic, but from the force of her own words and ideas. When “powerful and dangerous men” (the unnamed Taliban—an afterword provides details) forbid girls from attending school, she speaks up; when “they tried to silence me,” an allusion to her near-fatal shooting, “they failed.” Kerascoët’s bright, reportorial watercolors match the text’s directness and sincerity, adding gold embellishments to give Malala’s hopes and optimism a radiant physicality. The Malala in these pages is both approachable and extraordinary: even at her most vulnerable, turned away from readers and looking out the window of a darkened hospital room, her determination seems unstoppable. Ages 4–8.