This week: Oliver Sacks's new book, plus a look inside the world of an undercover Muslim FBI agent.
Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond, follows his 2004 Bancroft Prize winner, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, by telling the story of the final years of the Civil War in the Great Valley between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. Both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the valley was the scene of brutal fighting. Like its predecessor, this book is grounded in the experiences of combatants and civilians alike, enslaved and free, harrowed by bitter war and at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. Rather than centering the story on leading figures, politics, and military strategy, Ayers shares riveting details about average, resilient people trying to survive the devastation around them. He describes, for instance, the deadly violence perpetrated by marauding cavalry forces in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and the total destruction of the northern town of Chambersburg, Pa., by fire. Readers looking for a conventional history of the Civil War or a fresh interpretation of it will find neither here. They’ll instead discover on-the-ground, local history of ravaged communities and besieged Americans struggling through a terrible war and the vexations of Reconstruction. Ayers focuses on the thoughts, fears, and hopes of normal people struggling to stay alive and make sense of the murderous events taking place around them. The result is a superb, readable work of history.
As a child, Boltanski lived with his grandparents in what the French call a hôtel particulier, a nobleman’s mansion divided into apartments. But it was particular in the English-language sense as well: individual, specific, utterly nongeneric. Fittingly, Boltanski tells the story in a most particular way in this novel that, according to the translator’s note, “exists in a borderland between truth and fiction.” The book moves through the large apartment room by room. This Perec-esque approach lets him jump in time—sometimes one of the children sleeping on the floor around his grandparents’ bed is his father, sometimes it’s him—but it’s the same room. It allows him to cover events he wasn’t alive for, particularly the way his Jewish grandfather survived WWII by hiding in plain sight. The family functioned as a unit led by Boltanski’s fierce grandmother, who, undaunted by Nazis and polio, hid her husband, homeschooled Boltanski’s father and uncles, and wrote prolifically. Despite (or because of?—Boltanski leaves that for the reader to decide) barely leaving the family home, two of her sons became prominent scholars, and the youngest is the artist Christian Boltanski. Boltanski describes his family as afraid “of everything, of nothing, of others, of ourselves,” but what comes through in this short, smart, funny book is bravery and toughness, especially that of his grandmother, who in a world of imaginary and real terrors kept the family safe and together.
Investigative journalist Chatterjee (The Earth Brokers) and graphic novelist Khalil (Zahra’s Paradise) collaborate on this pointed examination of the controversies and ethical quandaries of drone warfare and the surveillance state. The first half of the book is a tense recounting of the all-stars of government surveillance whistleblowing, with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and former CIA employee Edward Snowden all playing their parts. The second half follows Chatterjee’s own investigations into the drone warfare that relies on this surveillance, even when the vaunted, supposedly precise intel is known to be unreliable, resulting in the deaths of innocents. Khalil’s sketchy figures fall somewhere between caricature and realism, while the diagrams scattered throughout help clarify the tech-heavy narrative. Though Chatterjee lays most of the blame for drone killing at the feet of the Obama administration, he also devotes a chapter to the state of surveillance intel under Trump, including the disastrous January 2017 raid and drone strike in Yemen and the increase in strikes since Trump has taken office, ensuring the continued relevance of this troubling work.
De Hamel, a renowned British authority on medieval manuscripts, reveals his devotion to his trade in a glorious book about 12 documents, including the Gospels of Saint Augustine (late sixth century) and the Hengwrt Chaucer (ca. 1400), that surpasses its title’s promise. Despite the somewhat obscure subject matter, de Hamel pulls readers in with his unmistakable passion for every facet of these handcrafted treasures. “I want to know who made them and when and why and where,” he writes. De Hamel travels to far-flung archives, waits for guardians to produce a book and lay it on the reading table, and then he pauses a moment to absorb the splendor before gently opening. He sensually describes the feel of vellum pages, the joy at discovering bits of marginalia, and the frustration of trying to discover what an erasure has hidden. De Hamel details each document’s idiosyncrasies while contextualizing its time and place of creation. The author shares his adventures with wry humor. For instance, his first attempts to see the Codex Amiatinus (ca. 700) were refused, though he learns that in Italy “the word ‘no’ is not necessarily a negative.” He also shares his befuddlement during a visit to the “bewilderingly infinite” Getty Museum in Los Angeles. De Hamel’s delightful book is bound to inspire a new set of medievalists.
A Muslim American working as an undercover agent in a counterterrorism unit in the FBI grapples with his faith while posing as a jihadi sympathizer in this multifaceted, action-packed account of real-life spycraft. Elnoury, writing under a pseudonym, opens the book on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, as he prepares to intercept a major drug deal while working undercover narcotics in New Jersey; it isn’t until 2008 that he begins his work with the FBI’s counterterrorism undercover unit. Written with journalist Maurer (coauthor of Mark Owen’s No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL), the book largely focuses on Elnoury’s attempt to penetrate into a plot to blow up train tracks on the route between Toronto and New York City. The plot is led in part by Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian doctoral student living in Montreal, who was flagged by the Feds after contacting al-Qaeda operatives online. Elnoury heightens the suspense in vividly described scenes, such as when he nearly gets run over by a train while scouting locations for the attack with two suspected terrorists, and provides insight into the worldview and intentions of al-Qaeda affiliates. There is never a dull moment in this intimate story of an American Muslim going to great lengths to serve and protect his country.
With verve and an infectious love of music, jazz critic Friedwald (A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers) tells the stories of 57 jazz and pop albums that have become benchmarks by which subsequent recordings have been measured. Some of the 57 are first albums, such as Meet Marvelous Marilyn Mayes (1963), which showcases an artist whose relentless drive and swing appealed to both the pop and jazz crowd. Other albums discussed here illustrate the ways in which an established singer moves into a new phase of her career, as with Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee (1956), a jazzy concept album that got her away from the pop singles she’d been putting out. Jazz and pop aficionados will be surprised to find God Bless Tiny Tim (1968), by the singer and ukulele player Tiny Tim, among the albums presented, but Friedwald convincingly makes a case for it based on the album’s brilliant production and songwriting and its singer’s vocal range. Fans and critics are likely to argue about Friedwald’s choices, but his passionate description of each album in this indispensable guide will drive readers to listen to the albums once again, or for the first time.
Agatha “Aggy” Abrams, 18, has just received her Meant-to-Be (MTB). An MTB is the name of a person’s true love, which magically shows up above his or her heart. Unlike her best friend Lish, Aggy hates the idea of MTBs (“Fuck fate. Screw destiny. I’m team free will”), and she plans on ditching college and heading to Australia to go backpacking. When Aggy’s longtime crush Luke proposes a summer fling, she jumps at the opportunity, but matters get complicated when it becomes clear that Luke might be more serious about their romance than she is, and Lish rapidly escalates her relationship with her own MTB, Travis. Halpern (The F- It List) tackles questions of soul mates and destiny in this charming and bawdily funny novel. Aggy’s stubborn skepticism gives the story a healthy dose of realism, and Halpern’s setup is a smart allegory for the choices teens are forced to make after high school. Whether these decisions are ours or part of a greater plan is irrelevant, Halpern suggests. What matters, as Aggy discovers, is making a choice to begin with. Ages 14–up.
Houts skewers high fashion, the wedding-industrial complex, Instagram fame, and more in this caustic collection. Comprising illustrations, short prose fiction, and sequential art, all based on Houts’s Instagram account, the book’s focus runs the gamut: a story about the four horse-men of the apocalypse as young women attending Coachella and a chronicle of the long, slow death of a ficus tree in an upscale boutique bookend the volume. But it never feels scattershot—rather, Houts finds the commonalities in the seemingly disparate subjects. This is truly funny work, but there is a darkness underneath; tales of a bride living off of “dust biscuits” to look perfect for her big day elicit laughter, but also highlight the impact of omnipresent images of female thinness on actual women. Houts’s pithiness has earned her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, and it is on full display here.
Acclaimed neurologist Sacks (1933–2015) demonstrates the range of his knowledge of evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts in this collection of 10 essays he was working on before his death in 2015. The book is a tribute to his appreciation of all that’s beautifully complex in humans. In “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers,” Sacks examines Darwin’s late-career studies of plants and worms, writing of Darwin’s belief that natural beauty “always reflected function and adaptation at work.” In “Speed,” he lauds William James for his exploration of the perception of time and how it was altered “by the effects of certain drugs.” Sacks also lends his own perspective on the perception of time, gleaned from working with patients with “disorders of neural speed,” which he documented in 1973’s Awakenings. One of the most moving pieces, “The Fallibility of Memory,” argues that humans are “landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections—but also great flexibility and creativity.” Sacks pays homage to Freud in “Mishearings,” asserting that Freudian slips are more than expressions of repressed feelings: “They reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences.” Sacks also writes about his own cancer in “A General Feeling of Disorder” and how a respite from sickness filled him with gratitude. Readers will feel a similar sense of gratitude for the extraordinary work that Sacks left behind.
David “Kubu” Bengu, an assistant superintendent in the Botswana CID, investigates a particularly baffling murder in his sixth, and best, outing (after 2015’s A Death in the Family). Ian McGregor, the pathologist for the Botswana Police Service in Gaborone, discovers some striking anomalies when he performs an autopsy on the body of a Bushman discovered in a game preserve: the youthful internal organs don’t match the victim’s aged exterior, and an old bullet inside him has no apparent means of entry. Soon afterward, the corpse is stolen from the morgue, strongly suggesting that it held secrets someone wanted kept hidden. Clues are hard to come by, but Kubu is interested to learn that the dead man, identified by acquaintances as Heiseb, recently met with anthropologist Christopher Collins, a researcher from the University of Minnesota. Collins, who has gone missing, was studying the Bushmen’s oral traditions, which included a mode of storytelling in which the narrator pretends to have been present at events that predated his birth. Stanley (the pseudonym of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) keeps the intriguing plot twists coming.