This week, we highlight new books from Anneliese Mackintosh, Deborah Baker., and Ruby Hamad.
Astronomer Murdin (Universe: Exploring the Astronomical World) takes the reader on an awe-inspiring tour of the solar system’s most noteworthy celestial bodies, delving into their quirks, secrets, and possible futures. (One such prediction: one day life may be discovered on Mars that has originated from fragments of Earth thrown up into space by meteorite hits.) To smooth out the ride for nonscientists, Murdin makes inventive use of earthbound analogy, as when he remarks on Jupiter’s “distinct belly, like a dissolute monarch: the planet visibly bulges at the equator, and is flattened at the poles,” or describes two of Saturn’s ring moons as “shaped somewhat like ravioli, with a central, white, smooth, spherical body circumscribed by a raised equatorial ridge, corresponding to the [pasta’s] pinched edge.” Also pleasing is the way he interweaves topics including history, mythology, and linguistics, into astronomy. He discusses how the planets’ names preserve the ancient world’s beliefs about their namesake gods— “Mercury moves quickly; Venus is the beautiful goddess of love; Mars is warlike red in colour”—and how the planets’ astrological significance have come to be reflected in words such as martial, mercurial, and venereal, which are the “fossil relics of astrology.” Murdin’s fondness for his subject is evident throughout this elegant, imaginative survey and should be contagious to all who encounter it.
Seanan McGuire, writing as Baker, crafts a delightful, fable-like portal fantasy that works as a charming standalone adventure and serves as a metafictional tie-in to her 2019 blockbuster Middlegame, which features Baker as a character. When two children climb over a mysterious wall, they’re transported to the realm of the Up-and-Under, a bizarre land where dangers abound and anything is possible. To return home, they must “walk the length of the improbable road, all the way to the Impossible City” to speak with its ruler, the Queen of Wands. It’s the adventure of a lifetime for bold Zib and methodical Avery, and along the way they brave elemental hazards, encounter confounding talking animals, and become best friends. McGuire embraces the nonsensical internal logic of the plot with glee. On the surface, this reads like a sophisticated contemporary take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but the connection to Middlegame adds a complex, self-aware edge that elevates the story beyond the children’s fantasies that inspired it. Readers won’t have to have read Middlegame to enjoy this, but those who have will take pleasure in the multiple layers of meaning behind each scene. With lyrical prose and deep stores of emotion, this grown-up fairy tale works on every level.
Bestseller Robinson (Forty Signs of Rain) again tackles climate change head-on in this gutsy, humane view of a near-future Earth careening toward collapse. Mary Murphy, head of the Ministry for the Future, a UN watchdog agency created as a result of the Paris Agreement, takes to heart the ministry’s mission “to advocate for the world’s future generations.” Mary spends her days promoting relief for the afflicted and wrestling with the financial powers-that-be to change the carbon balance before it tips too far. She must also be on the watch for ecoterrorists, even as she plans to use their attacks in her pitch for a carbon sequestration cryptocurrency to a group of influential bankers. Then Mary is abducted by the traumatized survivor of a heat wave that killed 20 million in India, who furiously cuts through the political weeds to demand change (“You’re killing the world and you want me to remember what words you used to cover your ass?”). Galvanized by his demands, Mary attempts to start a “black wing” working in secret within the Ministry for the Future to make larger changes than she can aboveboard—only to discover that such a group already exists. Robinson masterfully integrates the practical details of environmental crises and geoengineering projects into a sweeping, optimistic portrait of humanity’s ability to cooperate in the face of disaster. This heartfelt work of hard science-fiction is a must-read for anyone worried about the future of the planet.
Kirsch’s excellent follow-up to 2016’s The People and the Books again explores “central aspects of Jewish experience” through essential reading material. This time he focuses on crucial works of 20th-century literature by authors including Saul Bellow, Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, and Elie Wiesel. Kirsch argues that events of the 20th century caused a “liquidation of the Jewish concept of exile” and also caused a dramatic expansion of Jewish literature, through which it became “possible to gain an unprecedentedly rich and intimate understanding of Jewish experience.” The ways in which exile was mooted—by the Holocaust, by American acceptance of Jews, and the creation of the nation of Israel—are explored in three geographic sections: Europe, where Jews saw their future disappear; the U.S., where, in Kirsch’s estimation, Jews could voluntarily abandon “most of what had long defined Jewishness”; and Israel, where writers confronted the “tension between Zionist dream and Israeli reality.” Kirsch smoothly places the unprecedented events of the last century in a broad literary context that will help readers deepen understanding of them. Kirsch’s wide, trenchant reading of Jewish writings provides insight for lay readers and scholars alike.
Music writer Less presents a fascinating history of the music of his native Memphis. He begins by saying he isn’t attempting to write “the ultimate, comprehensive story of Memphis music,” and rather focuses on “the events, personalities, and circumstances that led to Memphis’s rightful recognition as a key capital on the map of American music.” In doing so, he captures what makes Memphis special: “The great paradox of Memphis music is that it transcends race and genre while simultaneously being defined by both.” Less explains how, from the early days of Beale Street in the 1940s—which offered big-band music in concert halls, country blues in parks and on street corners, and barrelhouse boogie piano in gambling joints—Memphis was a cohesive community that broke racial barriers in music. Less expertly shows how this interracial spirit infused Memphis music: in the early 1950s, the rise of Sam Phillips’s Sun Records and of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, coincided with that of bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and Ike Turner. The late 1950s saw the emergence of HI Records, founded by record store owner Joe Cuoghi and singer Ray Harris (and which featured soul singer Al Green as well as the Bill Black Combo). Stax Records—founded in 1957 as Satellite by siblings Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart—would release records by Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Less brings to vivid life the music of Memphis.
This illuminating and powerful collection is filled with pieces on climate change originally published in the New Yorker. The selections are bookended by entries by science writers Bill McKibben—whose 1989 “The End of Nature” was, the editors note, “the first extensive exploration of climate change” for the general public—and Elizabeth Kolbert, with her disillusioned “Afterword.” In between, the collection includes work by essayists (Ian Frazier), novelists (Jonathan Franzen), foreign correspondents (David Filkins), and sociologists (Eric Klinenberg). It covers shrinking glaciers in the Indian Himalayas; how the acidification of the world’s oceans threatens marine life; and the unprecedented scale of wildfires in Australia, California, and the Great Plains. Other essays describe how life is changing for whale hunters in Point Hope, Alaska, one of North America’s oldest continuously settled communities; reforestation efforts in sub-Saharan Africa; a company’s efforts to wean America off meat with plant-based burgers; and scientists who explore drastic geoengineering technologies. Permeated by a sense of urgency—McKibben comments in a more recent piece that “what has defied expectations is the slowness of the response”—this is a memorable book with a resounding message.
Journalist Hamad debuts with a searing and wide-ranging condemnation of “strategic White Womanhood” and “the historical debasement of women of color” in Western culture. Citing her own experiences as an Arab woman working in the “suffocatingly white Australian media space” and those of other “brown and black women” who have been routinely disbelieved, exoticized, or accused of bullying by white women, Hamad contends that the tears of white women are “a weapon that prevents people of color from being able to assert themselves or to effectively challenge white racism and alter the fundamental inequalities built into the system.” She analyzes cultural archetypes, including “the lascivious black Jezebel” and “the submissive China Doll,” that inhibit women of color, and compares the actions of “BBQ Beckys” who call the police on Black people for noncrimes to the lynching of Black men for “perceived transgressions against the virtuous bodies of white women.” Hamad also documents the exclusion of Black women from the suffrage movement and explains why white women’s inroads into white male power structures don’t benefit women of color. Skillfully blending autobiography, history, and cultural criticism, Hamad makes a devastating case against white women’s complicity in systemic racism. This insistent and incisive call for change belongs in the contemporary feminist canon.
Journalist Morgan debuts with an exhaustive and deeply reported history of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan’s Pech river valley and its tributary valleys, Korengal and Waygal. Since the start of the war against the Taliban in 2001, Morgan writes, resistance in this northeastern corner of the country has been relentless. American troops built bridges, roads, and networks of translators and informants, and navigated local rivalries over control of the logging and gemstone trades, but persistent “friendly fire” incidents and the mistreatment and even murder of detainees poisoned local relations. Morgan details the counterinsurgency theories driving U.S. strategy under top commanders such as Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and reveals how frequent rotations and redeployments undermined the institutional knowledge of frontline troops. He chronicles firefights and drone strikes against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda operatives, tracks troop surges and withdrawals, profiles U.S. special forces soldiers who have deployed to the region multiple times, documents the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and describes the mixed reactions of Pech valley veterans who are now seeing American forces coordinate with the Taliban in their fight against ISIS. Morgan enriches his impressive research and insightful analysis with vivid writing and deft character sketches. The result is a definitive portrait of the epicenter of America’s longest war.
British writer Mackintosh’s powerful U.S. debut explores a woman’s struggle between her desire to join a Mars resettlement program and stay on Earth to start a family. At the start of the novel, Solvig Dean, 37, is out stargazing with her boyfriend, James, on a scenic cliff in Cornwall. The opening line of dialogue (“ ‘It’s incredible,’ I tell James. ‘I’m sitting here with you, but I’m looking light-years away’ ”) sets the tone for what follows: Solvig is an ambitious dreamer, while the plans of James, a tattoo artist, extend to nurturing a sourdough starter for the rest of his life. Solvig, a deep-sea diver for the oil industry, working 10-hour shifts on the ocean floor and away from home for months at a time, loves James, but she’s restless on land and in their relationship. After James tells Solvig about the Mars Project, Solvig is captivated by the prospect, but conflicted. With graceful prose and elegant metaphors, Mackintosh connects Solvig’s search for herself and desire for balance with her process of coming to terms with the loss of her mother. Solvig’s difficult choice is further informed by Mackintosh’s brilliant weaving in of a history of women in space. When Solvig finally makes her choice, the reader is left breathless, astounded by her courage. This is a deeply moving story about love, loss, and the strength it takes for women to realize their dreams.