This week: the art of the wasted day, plus how to write an autobiographical novel.
Ranging from downright funny to deadly serious, each chapter in this guide from social geography professor Bonnett (New Views) takes the reader on a journey to an unusual location. These spots are physical (infamous Mokattam Village, also known as Cairo’s Garbage City) and virtual (the online world Second Life), and exist in the past (Doggerland, a chunk of southern England now sunk beneath the sea), present (the Islamic State) and future (new islands rising in the Gulf of Bothnia, between Sweden and Finland.) On the surface, these places have little in common. But Bonnett isn’t interested in surfaces. His point is that even in the age of Google Earth, many places defy mapping, and that defiance reveals much about how humanity both influences and is influenced by its natural and man-made surroundings. Bonnett calls into question the very solidity of “place” itself, and big issues like pollution and global warming, ethnic violence, and the plight of the global poor hover over all he has to say. “The world exhibited here is fragmented and fragmenting,” he writes. By turns delightful and sobering, this book, like the best travel, inspires both the mind and the imagination.
This beautiful book, part memoir, part love letter, gives a glimpse of the art of translation, as Briggs recounts her struggle to render into English Roland Barthes’s late lecture courses, La Préparation du roman and Comment vivre ensemble. She attributes her title to Thomas Mann’s translator Helen Lowe-Porter, who saw translation as a “little art,” little “as distinct from the big ones. Neither very important nor very serious.” While differing with Lowe-Porter’s view, Briggs shows her craft to be fraught with difficulty; one wishes to avoid mistakes, but often the correct interpretation of a sentence requires a deep level of empathy with the author. Translation is the product of “the dance of readerly excitement: the smack of an open hand on a desk, abrupt shifts in position, breath quickening or slowing down.” Or it occurs in reaction to a sentence or paragraph that “you find... has acted upon you.” It is in such encounters with the text, and through the text, with the author, that translation happens—almost, it seems, as the byproduct of an intense intellectual adventure. Lucid and engaging, Briggs’s book is essential, not just for translators, but anyone who has felt the magic of reading.
“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it,” short story writer and novelist Chee (The Queen of the Night) alerts readers here. In the 16 essays assembled, he reflects on a breadth of experiences that, collectively viewed, offer a portrait of the developing writer. In Chee’s hands, varied subjects, however disparate they may seem, coalesce—a summer in Mexico as an exchange student, a stint as a Tarot-deck reader, a writing course with Annie Dillard, an AIDS march, performing in drag, meeting William F. Buckley on a catering job, tending a garden. Chee’s aphoristic pieces “100 Things About Writing a Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” implicitly counter the notion of a direct memoir. “The memoir [is] a kind of mask too, but one that insists you are only one person,” Chee asserts. Chee’s collection is, at its core, about writing itself: about how writing happens and writers are formed. A duller, less evocative title along the lines of How I Became a Writer might have been more accurate, but that would have failed to convey Chee’s marvelously oblique style as an essayist—his capacity to inform and educate readers while they’re too enraptured to notice.
Novelist Hampl (The Florist’s Daughter) offers a wonderfully lavish and leisurely exploration of the art of daydreaming. As an eight-year-old child in a Catholic household, Hampl learned that daydreaming was considered to be one of the “occasions of sin” in the Baltimore Catechism. She made her decision then: “For this a person goes to hell. Okay then.” Decades later, retired and widowed, she commits herself to the task of wasting her life “in order to find it.” Here, Hampl reveals her true purpose: to write a book for baby boomers who “are approaching the other side.” Hampl leads by example. She visits the home of Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, two women who discovered that “the act of leaving the world’s stage” could be the “best way to attain balance and... integrity.” Hampl enjoys leisurely meals in south Moravia where she ponders the patient monastic life of Gregor Mendel. Later, she visits Michel de Montaigne’s tower in southwest France. As Hampl rumates and escapes, her late husband is palpably present. Hampl captures art of day dreaming with astonishing simplicity and clarity in this remarkable and touching book.
A lot can be said about farts, but one thing is certain: they reveal character. Case in point: Kaplan’s Krupke family. While driving in silence to “their dreaded weekly food shopping,” someone toots. Sally notices it, then denies it, as do her parents and younger brother, Vinnie. The farting continues, and the Krupkes land in jail after nearly getting into a traffic accident (“They were put in a cell with a couple of kidnappers and some thieves”). Pushed to the breaking point, the Krupkes realize that they love each other—even if Sally continues to vehemently deny any gassy responsibility. Dad gives “an impassioned speech about blame and shame and love and family and, of course, farting” that brings the judge to tears. Kaplan’s totemic watercolor-washed characters may be blank eyed, but they’re fully capable of expressing fury and affection (although fury does seem to be their métier). Soon enough, the Krupkes are back in their car and on their way to dreaded shopping, having learned an important lesson about life and/or flatulence: this, too, will pass. Ages 4–8.
Lendler (Saturday) tells a creation story based on evolutionary biology, using the “dot” of the title to refer both to things in the sky (“One of these new dots—the third one from the sun—was a very special shade of blue”) and to microscopic organisms (“The green dot was lonely”). In a style evocative of a documentary film, Paroline and Lamb’s silkscreenlike artwork in quiet earth tones portrays the progression of creatures from simple to complex. When Lendler gets to dinosaurs (“land-fish”), catastrophe strikes: “Then one day a dot fell out of the sky.... The explosion turned the whole sky red.” All the land-fish disappear, but mammals flourish, giving way to humans, who boast something new—“a big brain.” Fur-clad hunters evolve into a contemporary biracial couple celebrating the birth of their child: “They had families. They had you.” Lendler ends with a final puzzle: “There was one question that they could not answer... Where did that first dot come from?” Spirited debates are sure to follow. Ages 4–8.
Miller (Only a Theory), professor of biology at Brown University, confronts both lay and professional misconceptions about evolution from both scientific and philosophical perspectives. He begins his fascinating work with a brief but cogent summary of the basics of human evolution, focusing on current data detailing highlights in the fossil record, genomic patterns attesting to the similarities found across a wide array of species, and the chromosomal relationships between humans and other primates. The conclusion he draws is clear and firm: “The intellectual burden of denying human evolution in the face of so many lines of evidence would be far too great for any fair-minded person to sustain.” Miller builds on this perspective as he addresses three controversial topics: evolutionary psychology, the nature and evolution of consciousness, and the existence of free will. He finds a middle ground between those who believe that evolution should explain every individual behavior and those who criticize evolution for not providing ready-made answers to vexing problems. Miller succeeds in his aims to correct misconceptions while showing that, instead of fostering a sense of pointlessness, learning about human evolution can produce a sense of “joy that we are approaching a genuine understanding of the world in which we live.”
Reynolds, professor of modern languages at Grinnell College, incisively scrutinizes the intersection of tourism and Holocaust remembrance in this revealing book. He first questions how sites associated with the Holocaust interact with the tourism industry, defending that industry against claims that all disaster tourism is superficial or voyeuristic. He then discusses how representations of the Holocaust at heavily visited locations (such as Auschwitz and Dachau) have evolved over time as knowledge and political agendas have changed, addressing specifically the “memory boom” of the 1990s that helped spur the refashioning of many sites into museums. At lesser-known sites, such as Chelmno and Sobibor, he explores the different approaches to preservation and discusses whether commemoration alters history. Cities central to the Holocaust enter his view, too, as Reynolds outlines the dilemmas in Warsaw posed by the desire to commemorate both Polish Catholic and Jewish victims of Nazi aggression while acknowledging Polish complicity. In Berlin, “counter-memorials” (purposefully inconspicuous memorials that aim to question the idea of memorialization) invite alternative interpretations of history, while Israel’s Yad Vashem offers a redemptive narrative for those lost during the Holocaust and Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum reveals, in Reynolds’s view, an anxiety about Holocaust memory in a period when eyewitnesses are dying. Reynolds covers a wide range of issues, handling his subject carefully and thoroughly. While he sometimes belabors his points, he raises important questions about history, tourism, and genocide.
Set in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, this somber story blends history with current events. Jerome Rogers, a black 12-year-old, is playing outside with a toy gun when he is shot and killed by a white policeman who views him as a threat. Now Jerome wanders the earth with other “ghost boys” whose deaths are all connected to bigotry. Ironically, the only human who can see Jerome is Sarah, the young daughter of the officer who took his life. Jerome meets the ghost of Emmett Till and learns the horrific details of his murder. Emmett, like the other ghost boys, cannot rest until the world is swept clean of discriminatory violence; maybe Jerome can help if he can make Sarah understand that her father’s act was a result of deeply ingrained racism. Rhodes writes in short, poetic chapters that offer graphic depictions of avoidable tragedies; her hope for a better world packs a powerful punch, delivering a call to action to speak out against prejudice and erase harmful misconceptions. Ages 10–up.
Ugrešic´’s soaring, incisive novel uses the shape-shifting avatar of the fox to explore story-making. The linked narrative structure is reminiscent of her novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, as an unnamed narrator in exile from the former Yugoslavia struggles with the complications of 21st-century writing. There are six sections, tonally varied save for the inevitable appearance of a fox in each, that cascade together in the thrilling climax, which merges the emotional—the narrator’s love for her niece—and the practical—the narrator’s disappointing visit to a Holden Caulfield-themed MFA program in Italy (it’s named Scuola Holden). Two sections take on the form of essays, with some factual material and some invented by the writer. One examines a Japanese narrative by the Russian writer Boris Pilnyak; the other is a sketch of Dorothy Leuthold, a minor figure in the Nabokov cosmos. Two sections are set in Europe’s literary community, as the narrator suffers the minor indignities of life as an “economy-class writer” while she is taught lessons about storytelling by two older women who are each associated with obscure Russian authors named Levin. In the remarkable third section, “The Devil’s Garden,” the narrator inherits a house in Croatia and forges a surprising connection. “The urge for home is powerful,” she writes; “it has the force of primal instinct.... The greatest feat of every emigrant seems to be making a new home.” Ugrešic´’s novel is a wonder; it’s essential reading for writers and lovers of writing alike.