This week: the new voices of science fiction, and more.
By turns scholarly and salacious, biographer Bair (Samuel Beckett) has loosened decades of polite tongue-biting to write the backstory in what she calls a “bio-memoir” of two influential writers. With humiliating candor, she admitted to a complete ignorance of how to write a biography when she approached Beckett in 1971 and obtained his promise to “neither help nor hinder you.” Interviewing those in his social circle, Bair discovered that by “compartmentalizing people,” Beckett pitted them against each other, each currying favor and reporting back to him on her research. She struggled to fund research and travel, balance her obligations as a wife and mother, and write. Upon publication in 1978, her Beckett biography was disparaged by several critics—some of whom accused her of trading sex for access; it eventually won a National Book Award. Bair refused offers to write another biography, until 1980, when a colleague suggested she write one of Simone de Beauvoir. Theirs was a more cordial relationship, marred only when Beauvoir grew cold and dropped “the Lucite curtain” to avoid uncomfortable topics. Beauvoir’s death in 1986 propelled Bair into an extensive rewrite, delaying publication another four years. No matter her subject, Bair, a generous and graceful writer, has followed her dictum in writing biographies: “those of us who wrote literary biographies should ensure that our readers ended our books by wanting to turn immediately to our subjects’ writing.” Bair’s exhaustively detailed and lively memoir also serves as a solid study in the art of biography.
MIT professors Banerjee and Duflo (Poor Economics), winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, apply pragmatic, real world–tested economic ideas to such issues as global trade, immigration, prejudice, income inequality, and the feasibility of a universal basic income in this lucid and frequently surprising account. The authors’ findings often run counter to conventional wisdom, as in their conclusion that immigrants do not lower wages or steal jobs from native workers, but actually create more wealth and income as they expand local communities. Banerjee and Duflo contend that employment provides people with dignity and an identity, not just income; therefore, a universal basic income won’t solve problems stemming from the lack of well-paying and meaningful jobs. Misguided moral thinking, the authors reveal in their takedown of claims that the U.S. welfare system is rampantly abused, often gets in the way of sound economic policy. They also make the case that impoverished people make sound financial decisions more often than they’re given credit for, citing the example of a Moroccan man who prioritized buying a television over purchasing food. When the lack of entertainment in his remote village and the value of relieving his family’s boredom are taken into consideration, the authors write, the man’s decision makes sense. Banerjee and Duflo’s arguments are original and open-minded and their evidence is clearly presented. Policy makers and lay readers looking for fresh insights into contemporary economic matters will savor this illuminating book.
Living just outside Atlanta, Allie Abraham is the daughter of a Texas-born American history professor who is Circassian. Allie has hazel eyes, pale skin, and blonde hair, and she’s always been encouraged to keep her Muslim heritage secret for safety and convenience (“I don’t trigger people’s radar”), but when she’s out with her father, people “take one look and decide he’s clearly From Somewhere Else.” Now, feeling compelled to embrace the religion her father turned away from, she begins to explore what it means to be Muslim while encountering prejudice in the American South, including from those who don’t consider her “Muslim enough.” At the same time, Allie begins falling for cute fellow student Wells Henderson, who happens to be related to a nationally known Islamophobic bigot. Courtney (Romancing the Throne) examines matters of subtle and blatant Islamophobia, privilege and erasure, and questions of faith and identity with a sensitivity born of experience and respect. Ages 12–up.
With this debut, Davidson, a dress and textile historian, has done a superb job of placing clothing in Jane Austen’s fiction and in her journals and letters within the larger context of Regency fashion and its reflection of a rapidly changing, and globalizing, society. As Davidson emphasizes, mentions of clothing in Austen, be it Fanny arriving at Mansfield Park with only two sashes or Miss Bates’s unfashionable wardrobe in Emma, always carry social significance. Davidson’s contribution is not only to note this significance within the context of the novels but to tie it to larger trends in British, European, and global life. She comprehensively shows how factors such as the cold and damp English climate, the ban on French goods (and resulting black markets) during the Napoleonic wars, and widespread familial ties around the globe influenced what both Austen and her characters wore. A particularly strong aspect of the book is its placement of the Austen family’s own clothing use in a wide context, including through Austen’s brothers’ naval travels, family members making and procuring clothing and textiles for each other, and the Austens’ access to the global textile market. This extensively researched and beautifully illustrated book is fascinating to read, fills a gap in Austen scholarship, and makes an impressive contribution to Austen studies.
A terrorist atrocity reshapes a victim’s life in this biting memoir. Journalist and novelist Lançon (L’Élan) was wounded in the 2015 attack by two al Qaeda followers that killed 11 of his colleagues at the Paris satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo; one bullet caused a disfiguring jaw injury. The book is anchored by his stark account of the massacre—“My eye turned to the head and saw, through his hair, the brain tissue of this man, this colleague, this friend”—but mostly concerns his medical struggle through many months and surgeries to repair his maimed face. In Rendall’s excellent translation, Lançon’s convalescence is an agonizing comedy of pain and humiliation—his uncontrollable salivation keeps causing his bandages to droop off—that’s fascinated with healing; the tubes and implants invading his body become characters in their own right, along with the long-suffering nurses, the silent policemen guarding his hospital room, and his brusquely humane lead surgeon. Woven throughout are Proustian reveries that mark the divide between past and present: “I’d acquired the habit of devouring cookies in the family kitchen, when my parents were away, walking barefoot on the cold tile floor.” Clear-eyed, endlessly curious, and never sentimental, Lançon’s engrossing saga shows how a writer’s rich powers of observation and reflection bridge a chasm of tragedy.
Debut author and transgender rights advocate Lemay tells the story of her four-year-old child’s gender transformation in this engrossing and compassionate memoir. Born in 2010, “Em” (a pseudonym) was the middle daughter of Lemay and her husband, a software engineer. Lemay’s story segues between her past as an ultra-Orthodox Jew born in Israel in 1976 and her coming to grips with her child’s gender identity. While attending college in Boston, Lemay abandoned Orthodoxy and later married a man outside the faith. Their daughter, Lemay writes, changed clothes 10 times daily, threw tantrums, and declared she was a boy at the age of two. Lemay sought the help of a social worker and learned that persistence, insistence, and consistency are signs that an individual may be transgender. After a near car accident with her three children in tow, Lemay decided to embrace Em’s trans identity, a difficult choice, she writes, given her rigid religious upbringing. Lemay came to realize how vital it is to nurture a child’s true nature—a decision reinforced by statistics revealing the high rate of attempted suicides by transgender individuals who are not supported. Lemay eventually helped Em, now Jacob, as he entered kindergarten. This fascinating, heart-wrenching memoir offers invaluable insights into issues of gender identity.
Poe (The Gospel and Its Meaning), professor of faith and culture at Union University, chronicles C.S. Lewis’s first 20 years in this meticulous biography, the first in a planned trilogy. It is the death of Lewis’s mother, when he was nine years old, that Poe asserts caused Lewis (1898–1963) to ponder life’s big questions and the problem of suffering. Poe closely examines Lewis’s education, starting with two years at Wynyard School in England—a miserable place known for beating its students—then short stints at other schools, before, at age 14, studying under William Kirkpatrick, who influenced Lewis’s atheist beliefs (Lewis’s conversion to Christianity didn’t occur until his 30s). Because of a genetic defect with his thumbs, Lewis was clumsy and others bullied him for being bad at sports and activities. He didn’t have any friends until age 16, when he met fellow student Arthur Greeves, whom Lewis began to open up to. Much of Lewis’s personal life (including details of his sexual desires) has been pieced together by Poe through his letters to Greeves. As Lewis’s knowledge of literature grew, and as he immersed himself in Norse mythology, fantasy, and epic poetry, readers can see how his ideas for his books began to form. This excellent work will have readers eagerly anticipating the next volume.
This fascinating selection of “13 very different stories” about textiles “help illustrate the vastness of their significance,” restoring them to their rightful place as a central human technology. Fashion writer St. Clair (The Secret Lives of Color) writes that “technologies using perishable materials... may have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has... been absorbed back into the earth.” She takes readers across the globe, following discoveries of ancient fabric from the Caucasus Mountains (some of them 23,000 years old) to Egypt (where, St. Clair explains, the language contained many words for fabric and wrapping) and then on to China (where silk was used for clothing but also embroidered poetry) and Viking lands (St. Clair highlights the English preoccupation with wool). Textiles went hand in hand with human evolution as Homo sapiens moved from warm climates to cold ones, advanced from sewing pelts to weaving fabrics and from spinning silk to spinning wool. Chapters on more modern textiles include thoughtful disquisitions on space suits, sweatshops, and blue jeans (and the denim tuxedo jacket Levi’s made for Bing Crosby after a hotel ejected him for wearing jeans). Written in elegant prose, this tour of textile history will draw in readers interested in human evolution and culture.
In the introduction to this superlative anthology, Weisman (The New Voices of Fantasy) declares the future of science fiction resides in the sure hands of the authors of these 20 recent award-winning or award-nominated stories. Rajaniemi, a mathematical physicist and author (The Quantum Thief), adds that their various perspectives create “a tonal freshness” in the genre. Most of the included works extrapolate contemporary technological and social changes into near-future nightmares, as in Jason Sanford’s “Toppers,” a scalding look at survival in a devastated New York; Sam J. Miller’s “Calved,” a heartbreaking vision of parenting gone hopelessly wrong in a warmed Arctic; and Sarah Pinsker’s “Our Lady of the Open Road,” a haunting view of musicians trying to connect to listeners in a future of deep anxiety and isolation. Others explore dangerous extensions of popular science: in Amman Sabet’s “Tender Loving Plastics,” AI foster parents shape human children; Alexander Weinstein’s “Openness” explores the staggering effect of social media gone amok. Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s rollicking “A Series of Steaks” and Suzanne Palmer’s “The Secret Life of Bots” are more lighthearted. All these stories provoke the reader to ponder not only what the future might be but what it should be.