This week: new books from Amy Hempel, Laila Lalami, and more.
Crease (The Quantum Moment), chair of the philosophy department at Stony Brook University, here makes the work of important thinkers both accessible and relevant. In profiling various people concerned in some way with the nature of scientific authority, Crease aspires to help advocates for evidence-based decision making more meaningfully and effectively address climate-change deniers, who “are exploiting real vulnerabilities in science itself”—namely, that it is intellectually abstract, necessarily uncertain, and opaque to outsiders. Crease begins with Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and René Descartes, to show how science first challenged religious and political authority. He moves on to Giambattista Vico, Mary Shelley, and Auguste Comte to explore the limits to scientific authority in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and then to Max Weber, Kemal Atatürk, and Edmund Husserl, in the later 19th and 20th centuries, to trace the relationship between the scientific community—the “workshop”—and the outside world. The concluding chapter pulls insights from the writings of Hannah Arendt into the nature of authority and authoritarianism, and into maintaining a public space open to serious intellectual discussion. The result is a masterpiece that explains sophisticated concepts without shortchanging them, and demonstrates “why the dwindling authority of science” threatens human life.
This look at Samuel Johnson, his biographer James Boswell, and their social circle delightfully captures the bonds of friendship and competition which joined some of the late 18th century’s greatest minds. The titular club, which began meeting weekly at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London in 1764, was first proposed by painter Joshua Reynolds, as much to raise Johnson’s frequently depressed spirits as to provide a place to wine, dine, and, above all, converse until the wee hours of the morning. Over the next 20 years, its membership would come to include political philosopher Edmund Burke, actor David Garrick, playwright Oliver Goldsmith, historian Edward Gibbon, economist Adam Smith, and other luminaries. Damrosch (Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World) doesn’t provide a fly-on-the-wall account of the Club’s meetings but rather crisp, colorful portraits of its members, illuminated by quotes from their lively, sometimes contentious interactions with each other. Boswell, agreeing with Reynolds about Johnson’s love of debate, observed, “He has no formal preparation, no flourishing with his sword; he is through your body in an instant.” This effervescent history shines a light on the extraordinary origins of a club which still exists to this day.
Biographer Harman (Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart) effectively uses a novelist’s approach to recreate a now obscure 1840 English murder case that was a sensation at the time. Lord William Russell, uncle to the secretary of state for the colonies, was found in the bedroom of his London home with his throat slit. But while the wound was horrific, almost severing Lord Russell’s head, oddly there were no bloodstains anywhere besides the bed. The crime panicked the upper classes, who wondered, if the victim had not been “safe in his bed, in the most exclusive and privileged residential enclave” in England, who was? Although some household items were missing, the evidence of theft was equivocal, leading the affluent to fear that the murder may have been motivated by underclass hatred of the privileged. The police focused on the theory that the killer was a servant, and charged Lord William’s new valet, François Courvoisier, who eventually confessed to his attorneys and was executed after a trial. By exploring concerns about the glorification of criminals in the fiction of the day and addressing some lingering mysteries, such as whether Courvoisier had an accomplice, Harman adds depth to a fascinating true crime narrative.
Short story virtuoso Hempel's first collection since 2006 consists of 15 characteristically bold, disconcerting, knockout stories. The title story, which fits on a single page, offers no plot, names, dates, or setting—just snippets of dialogue, a proverb, and a gesture to capture a moment of personal connection. "The Quiet Car," in two pages, shows a moment of disconnection signaling the end of a relationship. A volunteer who relates better to dogs than people narrates "A Full-Service Animal Shelter," an 11-page rant/lament about working with dogs on the "euth" list. In "Chicane," a woman longs for closure when she meets the French actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. In "Greed," a woman seeks payback as she tracks the older woman with whom her husband is having an affair. The volume ends with the remarkable 62-page "Cloudland," a visually rich, heart-wrenching portrait of a Florida caregiver haunted by thoughts of the baby girl she gave up for adoption at a Maine maternity home years ago. In stories that can be funny, brutal, poetic, blunt, elusive, or all of the above, this accomplished collection highlights Hempel's signature style with its condensed prose, quirky narrators, and touching, disturbing, transcendent moments.
Snippets of dialogue between Jacob (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing) and her family and friends form the basis of this breezy but poignant graphic memoir that takes on racism, love, and the election of President Trump. The bisexual daughter of Indian immigrants, Jacob effectively conveys how the 2016 election impacted LGBTQ folks and people of color in ways that were searing, personal, and often misunderstood (such as that awkward moment when the older gentlemen at her mother-in-law’s dog’s “bark mitzvah” think she’s the help). As her Trump-supporting Jewish in-laws insist they still love her, her six-year-old son wants to know not only if he can turn white like Michael Jackson (and “Did he lose his other glove?”), but how to tell which white people are afraid of brown people. Jacob pastes simple character drawings, cut like paper dolls staring directly at the reader, over grainy photos of New York City, her childhood home in New Mexico, and other locales, emphasizing the contingency of identity. The collage effect creates an odd, immediate intimacy. She employs pages of narrative prose sparingly but hauntingly, as when she learns that a haughty, wealthy woman once lost a child: “in that place where you thought you would find a certain kind of woman... is someone you cannot begin to imagine.” The “talks” Jacob relates are painful, often hilarious, and sometimes absurd, but her memoir makes a fierce case for continuing to have them.
Jessen’s U.S. debut is a powerful and intimate portrait of a woman who, after two decades of marriage to a stoic and affectionless man, finally builds a life and identity on her own terms after her husband dies. Set mostly in the rural village of Thyregod, Denmark, in 1927 and told in a series of diary entries, the book starts with Fru Bragge—in her mid 40s and referred to for most of the book by her married name—visiting her husband, Vigand, in the hospital, where even in his dying days he is unable or unwilling to give her the tenderness she has craved all their marriage. After he dies, leaving her the means to live the rest of her life in relative comfort, Fru Bragge sifts through her memories to recall the young woman who arrived in Thyregod 20 years earlier. As she gets on with her life, including learning to drive and moving out of her house, she revisits and is visited by old school friends and other citizens of Thyregod, whose presence reminds her that she will not have to rebuild her life outside of Vigand alone. “My heart runs on ahead of me,” Fru Bragge writes in the final pages of her diary. And the reader is relieved when she follows it up with, “And I, I run after my heart.” Jessen is a talented and empathetic writer (and kudos must be given to translator Aitken, whose translation is supple and luminous), and has imbued a quiet story about a woman finding herself after her husband’s death with poignancy and stunning humanity.
Lalami’s powerful third novel, after 2014’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Moor’s Account, uses nine narrators to probe the schisms of American community. When Driss Guerraoui is killed in a hit-and-run, his single daughter Nora—a struggling composer who survives by substitute teaching—leaves Oakland for her parents’ home in Yucca Valley. There she navigates her strained relationships with her mother Maryam, who hopes she will abandon music for a law degree, and sister Salma, who unlike Nora chose a conventional path of marriage, children, and a lucrative career. As Nora grapples with grief for her supportive father and pushes the police to find the driver who killed him, her encounters with Jeremy Gorecki, a former elementary school classmate, lead to intimacy she isn’t sure she wants. Nora, whose parents emigrated from Morocco in 1981, initially worries that Jeremy, a veteran traumatized by his time in Iraq, represents an American aggression that she fears, even as their relationship deepens. The novel depicts characters who are individually treated differently because of his or her race, religion, or immigration histories, but its focus is the sense of alienation all of them share. In a narrative that succeeds as mystery and love story, family and character study, Lalami captures the complex ways humans can be strangers not just outside their “tribes” but within them, as well as to themselves.
“Anything is possible with rabbits,” Emma muses presciently as she and her game warden father rescue a distressed rabbit that she’s allowed to keep. But it’s the bunny that rescues Emma, who’s beginning fifth grade at a Maine public school after being homeschooled. She’s worried that no one there will need a new friend, and Owen, her older brother and soulmate, exacerbates things by becoming preoccupied with his new friends. In a characteristically articulate observation, Emma notes, “I’d been carrying a hole inside me since Owen went off to school last year and this little rabbit had jumped right into that hole and made himself at home.” Her new pet (Lapi, short for Monsieur Lapin, a character from tales her beloved late grandfather shared) also fills an emotional void when her friend-making gets off to a slow start—and then helps her connect with classmates, primarily a boy who seems to be on the autism spectrum, as she learns the rewards of patience and understanding the perspectives of others. Newbery Honor author Lord (Rules) offers a note detailing her personal inspirations for this insightful story—lucidly written from the heart. Ages 8–12.
Serpell’s debut is a rich, complex saga of three intertwined families over the course of more than a century. The epic stretches out from a single violent encounter: in the early 20th century, a British colonialist adopts North-western Rhodesia (now Zambia) as his home, settling in the Old Drift, a settlement near Victoria Falls, where the colonist gets into a fateful skirmish with a local hotelier. After this, readers first meet Sibilla, the hotelier’s granddaughter, a woman born with hair covering her body, who runs away to Africa with a man who frequents the wealthy Italian estate at which her mother is a servant; then, in England, there’s Agnes, the colonialist’s granddaughter, a rich white girl and talented tennis player who goes blind and falls in love with a student who, unbeknownst to her, is black; and Matha, the servant’s granddaughter, a spirited prodigy who joins a local radical’s avant-garde activism. In part two, Agnes’s son, Lionel, has an affair with Matha’s daughter, which leads to a confrontation that also involves Naila, Sibilla’s granddaughter. Serpell expertly weaves in a preponderance of themes, issues, and history, including Zambia’s independence, the AIDS epidemic, white supremacy, patriarchy, familial legacy, and the infinite variations of lust and love. Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel.
Which is more important: telling the truth or “honorable lying” out of loyalty to family? In 1985, this question plagues 11-year-old Lyndon Baines Hawkins (named after the 36th U.S. president), especially now that she and her parents have been living with her paternal grandparents in Love’s Forge, Tenn., since her father, a troubled Vietnam vet, lost his job. Lyndie, a Civil War history buff and a “stubborn, sassy know-it-all,” faces a stiff adversary in her stuffy grandmother, Lady, who values saving face at all costs to preserve the family reputation. The dynamic between the two plays out in Shepherd’s crackling debut, which—in addition to examining the importance of truth on both a personal and a historical level—tackles alcoholism, PTSD, and juvenile crime. The story moves at a quick pace as Lyndie struggles to understand why her father has become so different and her mother so withdrawn; a strong counterpoint to Lyndie’s family troubles is the development of her friendship with the “criminal boy” living with her best friend Dawn’s family. Noteworthy for its strong narrative voice and dramatic character development, including well-drawn secondary figures, this book depicts both the troubling and uplifting vicissitudes of family and camaraderie with unflinching honesty and humor. Ages 10–up.
In this revealing exploration of programming, programmers, and their far-reaching influence, Wired columnist Thompson (Smarter Than You Think) opens up an insular world and explores its design philosophy’s consequences, some of them unintended. Through interviews and anecdotes, Thompson expertly plumbs the temperament and motivations of programmers. Thompson explains how an avowedly meritocratic profession nevertheless tends to sideline those who are not white male graduates of prestigious university computer science programs, tracing this male-dominated culture back to 1960s and early ’70s MIT, where the “hacker ethic” was first born. Remarkably, though, he makes clear that programming is an unusual field in that successful practitioners are often self-taught, many having started out with only simple tools, such as a Commodore computer running the BASIC programming language. This book contains possibly the best argument yet for how social media maneuvers users into more extreme political positions, since “any ranking system based partly on tallying up the reactions to posts will wind up favoring intense material.” Impressive in its clarity and thoroughness, Thompson’s survey shines a much-needed light on a group of people who have exerted a powerful effect on almost every aspect of the modern world.
This expertly rendered and wrenching graphic narrative relates the experiences of Mohammed el Gharani, a native of Saudi Arabia who, at the age of 14, was detained by Pakistani guards during a trip to Karachi shortly after 9/11, falsely accused of having ties to Al-Qaeda, and subsequently transferred to American control and held at Guantánamo Bay for eight years. Routinely facing cruelty, privation, and torture, el Gharani never loses his tough, rebellious spirit, protesting for better conditions whenever possible. He also relies upon his religious faith, which helps power him through even the worst of the abuse: “I believe that in Guantánamo, God was testing us, too. He was testing our patience.” Though el Gharani was released in June 2009, he relates his continued difficulties in an appendix interview; as of 2018, he lives in West Africa “still waiting for a ‘safe country’ to grant him asylum.” Tubiana, who scripted the story in collaboration with el Gharani, keeps the often complex story clear and focused, while illustrator Franc’s fluid, appealingly cartoony black-and-white drawings imbue even the most harrowing passages with grace and humor (such as a soldier drawn like Beetle Bailey). This is an astounding account of human endurance and faith against overwhelming odds and terrible injustice.
As a volunteer ambulance driver in London in 1940, Maisie Dobbs aids the victims of the German blitz, in bestseller Winspear’s excellent 15th novel featuring the psychologist/investigator (after 2018’s To Die But Once). One night while on duty, she meets American journalist Catherine Saxon, who reports on the horrors of the blitz for radio listeners in the U.S. Maisie enjoys the company of the effervescent American, who unfortunately is found murdered in her flat the next morning. When Scotland Yard enlists Maisie’s help in solving the case, she’s reunited with Mark Scott, an American agent with whom she once had a brief flirtation in Munich. As the number of suspects in Catherine’s murder increases, Maisie’s romantic feelings grow for Mark, who’s also investigating the American ambassador to the U.K., Nazi sympathizer Joseph P. Kennedy. Meanwhile, Maisie seeks to adopt a war orphan. In Winspear’s capable hands, Maisie has evolved into a deeply sympathetic character. Readers will eagerly await her next outing.
These darkly hilarious and forthcoming essays from Young, cofounder of social commentary blog Very Smart Brothas, center around the “perpetual surreality” of the African-American experience. For example, he writes with honesty and humor about his youthful worry that, if no white person called him the N word, his authenticity as a black man was in question. One of the funniest essays contains excerpts of his college-era poetry, often plagiarized from rap lyrics. In another, he recalls sneakily renting pornography as a teenager, feeling he was being watched by “my recently deceased aunt Toni, the first Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Maya Angelou, and the ghost of that guy Morgan Freeman played in Glory.” He critiques toxic masculinity and admits to a major error in judgment: writing a “triflin’-ass” piece dismissing a rape victim’s critique of rape culture. He wants, he realized, not to be just a “decent” man, but a man “worthy” of friendship with the women in his life. Young uses pop culture references and personal stories to look at a life molded by structural racism, the joy of having a family that holds together in a crisis, and the thrill of succeeding against difficult odds. Young’s charm and wit make these essays a pleasure to read; his candid approach makes them memorable.