This week: Curtis Sittenfeld's story collection, plus the natural history heist of the century.
As Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, ably demonstrates, dinosaurs are not just for kids. His captivating text explores the excitement associated with searching for and discovering new dinosaur species, provides clues to many long-standing questions associated with dinosaurs, and furthers the understanding of ecological and evolutionary principles. This volume is a mix of memoir, chronicling Brusatte’s personal odyssey from a child smitten by dinosaurs to a member of a vibrant scholarly community, and first-rate science writing for the general public. Brusatte does a superb job of relating current research, both his own and that of many colleagues around the globe. His explanations of how sauropods became so large, the reasons for the dominance of Tyrannosaurus rex, the evolution of flying ability in some dinosaurs, and the factors leading to the demise of most of these creatures are carefully crafted and presented. Brusatte is not shy about saying what is not yet known, while making it clear that this is a truly exciting period, in which new fossils are being uncovered at a dizzying pace.
In her meditative and engrossing English-language debut, Hesselholdt dives into the consciousnesses of six cerebral, animated, eccentric, and occasionally melancholy Danes. “I want to have my portrait done in a shower of puzzle pieces,” says Camilla, the book’s central figure, in one of the many reflexive statements of this homage to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The six titular companions are childless and (mostly) 30-somethings, three men and three women who have coupled and decoupled over the years. Edward spends his days writing a mourning diary for his deceased parents and strolling for hours with his dog. His ex-wife, Alwilda, is less mopey: “I have been out mating,” she informs the assembled group. Exhausted from years of taking care of her mother and ailing husband, Camilla, seeking solitude, retreats to the countryside and tends to her animals, a dog and the horse she impulsively buys. Her best friend, Alma, is a writer who has left her husband, Kristian, an Eeyorelike man whose “self-loathing is like a ram.” Their stories are told in introspective monologues by turns splenetic and lyrical. The anxious characters wrestle with whether to retreat from or let oneself be “consumed by life,” turning to the “saturate[d]” works of Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Thomas Bernhard, and Sylvia Plath for sustenance. For this bookish lot, literature supplies invaluable companions, and readers will be captivated.
Kertzer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Pope Pius XI (The Pope and Mussolini), expertly captures the tension of a deeply devout population, loyal to their church but receptive to the stirrings of both liberalism and nationalism. When Giovanni Mastai Meretti was unexpectedly elected pope in 1846, throngs of adoring Romans heralded his rise, convinced that the humble and fair-minded archbishop of Spoleto would loosen the screws of theocracy in the Papal States and usher in a golden era for Italy. The first months of Pius IX’s rule seemed to bear out this vision, but before long political upheaval forced him to flee—and after his return, chastened and mistrustful of democracy, “[t]he pope’s embrace of a medieval vision of society could not have been clearer.” At the end of his papacy, Pius IX presided over “the death throes of the popes’ thousand-year kingdom... the death of a doctrine of faith that had a huge impact on the course of Western civilization.” From the arch-conservative secretary of state of the Papal States, Giacomo Antonelli (who oversaw daily affairs), to the avatar of Italian independence, Giuseppe Mazzini (a leading dissident fighting against clerical rule and for a united Italy), Kertzer brings to life a cast of characters whose divergent voices arose from a new Europe. A consummate storyteller, Kertzer blends academic rigor with fluid, energetic prose, and the result will satisfy specialists while entertaining those who might otherwise expect to be bored stiff by a volume of church history.
The perversions of justice under Jim Crow chart a devious path in this labyrinthine true crime saga. Pulitzer-winning historian King (Devil in the Grove) explores the aftermath of the 1957 rape of a white woman named Blanche Knowles, the wife of a wealthy citrus baron in Lake County, Fla., a locale notorious for trumped-up prosecutions of black men. A dragnet led by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall rounded up African-American suspects, but then Jesse Daniels, a mentally impaired white teenager, was accused of the crime. Despite evidence that his confession was coerced, he was committed without trial to a hospital for the criminally insane. King follows the Daniels family’s struggle to free Jesse for two decades as it played out against Florida’s intensifying civil rights movement, untangling along the way the extraordinary web of lies that racism wove around blacks and whites alike (for example, Blanche’s family dismisses a lead on a new suspect to spare her husband “the indignity of having a wife who had been violated by a black man”). At the story’s center is the decades-long reign of terror of Sheriff McCall, a Klan leader who killed prisoners, beat suspects, brutalized interracial couples, and railroaded innocent people, and was opposed only by crusading journalist Mabel Reese, who braved death threats and bombings to help Daniels. Packed with riveting characters and startling twists, King’s narrative unfolds like a Southern gothic noir probing the recesses of a poisoned society.
Schulman’s wonderful, intricate novel (following Three Weeks in December) is set in the palpably near future. When the superstar of the biological research world, 33-year-old Frankie Burke, joins the team at an ape foundation in the Midwest, she thinks things are finally falling into place. She has just undergone major surgery to eliminate the chronic pain from endometriosis she’s suffered from since childhood, she is fresh off a MacArthur “genius grant,” and she now has a fascinating group of bonobos to help test her wild new theory about evolution—that women cheat on men because children born of extramarital affairs have evolutionary advantages. What she doesn’t plan on is the arrival of a dust storm, which causes a power outage, rendering useless the technology that keeps the foundation functioning—from the screens and cameras in the researchers’ eyes to the 3-D printer that feeds the apes. She also doesn’t plan on the closeness she develops with Stotts, her ex-military fellow researcher, or the relationships she will build with the creatures she cares for, or the harrowing journey they’ll all have to take together out of the research station. Schulman’s vision of the future is powerful and strange, but it is less a commentary on society’s dependence on technology than a propulsive story rooted in a future that feels possible. The incorporation of research into the narrative is seamless, and the result is an astute, impeccable page-turner readers will savor.
The wry and nimble novellas and stories in this collection by Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) focus on how homes and objects shape the lives of those who own them. The collection, which concentrates on middle-class Brits and Americans, is bookended by two richly detailed and sardonic novellas. In the first, “The Standing Chandelier,” a freelance web designer’s relationship with his girlfriend is tested after his high-strung ex-girlfriend gives them a gift that dominates their house. In the concluding novella, “The Subletter,” an American journalist who has been making a meager living in Belfast for years is brought to the edge of a breakdown when she has to share her apartment with an ambitious young subletter. In between, mordant tales touch down in the lives of a young American making herself at home in an African household (“Kilifi Creek”), a recent widow discovering that her late husband had done more than she thought to take care of a seemingly simple garden (“The Self-Seeding Sycamore”), and a slacker whose parents find him impossible to uproot from the household (“Domestic Terrorism”). Shriver’s stories will make readers laugh when they feel they shouldn’t, and the uniting theme of houses and humans works exceedingly well, turning up new wrinkles with each successive story.
In her thoroughly satisfying first collection, Sittenfeld (Eligible) spins magic out of the short story form. Bookended by tales concerning the election of Donald Trump, the collection comfortably situates itself in contemporary America, focusing on female protagonists navigating friendships, family, politics, and social media. In “A Regular Couple,” a semifamous defense attorney reconsiders her past after she runs into a high school frenemy also honeymooning at the same resort. In “The Prairie Wife,” a woman contemplates whether to make public a bombshell revelation that would ruin the image of a lifestyle celebrity she dated as a teen. Another celebrity story, “Off the Record,” places a small-time interviewer in the home of an up-and-coming starlet, with explicit instructions to leave her appointment with juicy details on the starlet’s recent breakup. And in “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” perhaps the collection’s best entry, a young volunteer at a shelter for mothers and children in Washington, D.C., develops a hatred for a new, bubbly volunteer. As in her novels, Sittenfeld’s characters are funny and insightful. Reading these consistently engrossing stories is a pleasure.
Johnson (To Be a Friend Is Fatal) makes his true-crime debut with this enthralling account of a truly bizarre crime. In 2009, Edwin Rist, an American student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, stole 299 rare and scientifically significant bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring, in Hertfordshire, England, plucked their feathers, and sold them for top dollar to men who shared his obsession with the Victorian art of salmon-fly tying. Johnson explores the expensive and exotic hobby of salmon-fly tying that emerged in the 19th century and uses that context to frame Rist’s story, including his trial. Rist did not serve jail time after his lawyers successfully argued that Asperger’s syndrome was to blame for his crime. In the book’s final section, Johnson goes deep into the exotic bird and feather trade and concludes that though obsession and greed know no bounds, they certainly make for a fascinating tale. The result is a page-turner that will likely appeal to science, history, and true crime readers.
Wamariya, a human rights advocate, and Weil, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, tell the powerful story of Wamariya’s experience fleeing Rwanda after the genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group began in 1994. While visiting her grandmother at age six, Wamariya and her older sister, Claire, were told to sneak out of the house after they heard a knock on the front door. For the next six years Wamariya and Claire crossed through at least seven countries, separated from their parents and living in refugee camps; when Wamariya was 12, they were granted asylum in the U.S. and landed in a safe home in Chicago. Wamariya was an ambitious student and even became interested in cheerleading. After graduating high school, she attended Yale, where she came to terms with the horrors she endured and read the works of Audre Lorde and W.G. Sebald (who taught her that “we live in all times and places at once”). At last, the sisters were reunited with their parents in 2006. This book is not a conventional story about war and its aftermath; it’s a powerful coming-of-age story in which a girl explores her identity in the wake of a brutal war that destroyed her family and home. Wamariya is an exceptional narrator and her story is unforgettable.
Philosopher Young (Philosophy in the Garden) investigates the act of reading with essays on six virtues he sees exemplified by it—namely curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, and justice—in this brisk and delightful collection. Its short length belies a book heavy with insight, creativity, and wit. To Young’s credit, he treats all types of reading, from scholarly meditation to frivolous binge reading, with seriousness and respect. His literary examples include both highbrow works, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” and Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, and beach reads, such as Star Trek novelizations and The Da Vinci Code. The essays vary in their tightness and persuasiveness—some hew quite closely to their featured virtue and give analyses that feel acute and surprising, while others have less well-defined theses—but all uniformly entertain. Young sometimes uses scholarly language (“If curiosity like Borges’s resists the inertia of being, Heidegger’s was a characteristic rejection of stubborn facts altogether”) that requires close attention and even rereading, but his thoughts are lucid and accessible, repaying the reader’s work. Moreover, the closing bibliographic essay will inspire reading lists for months to come. This literary study is serious but also witty and fun—a tough balance to strike, but Young nails it.