The books we love coming out this week include new titles by Daniel Pyne, Gal Beckerman, and Maja Lunde.
From intimate conversations grow world-shaking movements, argues this probing intellectual history. New York Times Book Review editor Beckerman (When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone) surveys small circles that incubated subversive thinking, including 17th-century French polymath Nicolas Peiresc’s scientific letter-writing network; Britain’s 1839 Chartist campaign for universal suffrage, which galvanized working-class politics; Soviet dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya’s samizdat journal, the Chronicle, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital; and the 1990s feminist punk scene sparked by the zine Riot Grrrl. He also investigates the internet’s role in modern-day movements: the Facebook page that publicized Egypt’s Tahrir Square demonstration; the Discord chat rooms where alt-right activists organized the 2017 Unite-the-Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.; and the Red Dawn email group of health experts who brainstormed Covid-19 interventions. Drawing on communications theory, Beckerman analyzes these intellectual channels for their ability to foster accessible but private conversations that shape innovative ideas, though he’s skeptical of social media as an organizing tool because it’s too public, volatile, emotional, and virtual to nurture serious thinking and politics. Beckerman unearths fascinating lore about these ideological hothouses, from the Futurists’ love triangles in early 20th-century Italy to the alt-right’s public-messaging strategies. The result is a timely and stimulating take on how the fringe infiltrates the mainstream.
In Pyne’s outstanding sequel to 2021’s Water Memory, 50-year-old Aubrey Sentro, a former CIA agent, joins the hunt for Günter Witt, a former Stasi agent who has resurfaced. In 1989, Sentro, then 18, was posted to Berlin, where she was tasked with infiltrating the East German secret service. After blowing her cover to protect other American agents, she was arrested, taken to jail, drugged, and tortured. Witt was her chief tormentor. She subsequently lost much of her memory of her 11 months as a captive. Meanwhile, in the present, ex-Basque separatist Xavi Beya and his wife and children are captured by two terrorists, Yusupov, a Chechen, and Mercedes Izquierdo, a Cuban. To protect his family, Beya is forced to commit terrorist acts. Yusupov and Izquierdo’s subsequent attack on Sentro’s home in the New Mexico desert, in which Sentro’s hired hand and lover is killed, causes her daughter, Jenny Troon, to become involved in Sentro’s return to the spy world. Sentro has serious skills, but her fragile mental state leaves her always on the edge of disaster. Pyne keeps the pages racing by. This gripping cinematic thriller will leave readers transfixed.
Like Lunde’s The History of Bees, her stellar latest hinges on a threatened species, this time the takhi, a rare ancient breed of horses. In 1880 St. Petersburg, a colleague brings zoologist Mikhail Kovrov the skull and hide of what looks like a takhi, which is believed to be extinct. Kovrov leaves his comfortable urban life to travel with animal-capture expert Wilhelm Wolff to Mongolia, where the remains were found, with a plan to bring living takhis to Europe to preserve their bloodline. Though they succeed in capturing the horses, Kovrov’s time with the passionate, fearless Wolff throws his beliefs about his identity and future into crisis. A century later, German veterinarian Karin realizes her longtime dream of flying a group of European-born takhis back to Mongolia to reestablish them in the wild. Joining her on the expedition is her son, Mathias, a heroin addict in unsteady recovery who hopes to win the love his mother has never seemed able to express. In 2064 Norway, Eve and her teenage daughter, Isa, inhabit the dystopia caused by climate change. Isa wants to join migrants seeking a more sustainable habitat, while Eve is determined to stay at the family’s defunct wild animal park to take care of its takhi, one of the world’s last, and her foal. Each of the segments are brilliantly complex, and they conclude with satisfying revelations. Throughout, Lunde delivers a perfect blend of gripping human stories, historical and scientific fact, and speculative elements. This standout should win her wider attention in the U.S.
Anthropologist Lockhart and social worker Chama frame this transcendent study of the street children of Lusaka, Zambia, around an unlikely murder investigation. Beginning in 2014, the authors and a team of six collaborators immersed themselves in Lusaka’s “street culture” in order to “call attention to the growing problem of street children around the world.” They document the discovery in Chunga Dump of a boy’s mutilated body by Lusabilo, the “quasi leader” of a scavenger crew, who worried that the murder would be pinned on him. The story of Lusabilo’s search for the real killers intersects with profiles of other street children, including Timo, an ambitious would-be drug runner; Moonga, an eight-year-old from the countryside who was abandoned in Lusaka’s bus station; Kapula, the illegitimate teen daughter of a powerful political figure; and “the Lozi kid,” who became Lusabilo’s sidekick (“like the Batman and that other guy, the one whose name he could never remember”), despite a language barrier. As the children’s backstories and links to the murdered boy emerge, Lockhart and Chama expose the “overwhelming structures and forms of violence” impacting their daily lives, as well as the “small acts of kindness” that gave them hope. Fans of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Strength in What Remains will flock to this riveting and deeply reported portrait of life on the margins.
Murugan (The Story of a Goat) delivers a powerful fable of star-crossed lovers and societal intolerance. Kumaresan, a young man from an isolated village in southern India, works as a deliveryman in a larger town, where he meets and marries Saroja, a leather worker’s daughter. After he brings her to his village, his widowed mother and the rest of the community are outraged that the bride is of a different caste and complexion. Hounded mercilessly, Saroja cowers in her hut and discovers she’s pregnant just as the village council decides to excommunicate the family unless her caste is revealed. Murugan describes rural life in piercing detail, making the everyday toil and inner lives of humble people the backdrop to the unfolding drama of escalating threats from Kumaresan’s relatives and neighbors. The simple, elegant prose of Vasudevan’s translation ranges from poetic (“The day slowly leaned over and fell to the west”) to suspenseful as the hopeful innocence of young love bristles against tradition and Saroja faces increasing danger from the villagers. The author himself was censored in 2014 by government-affiliated activists in India and briefly gave up writing; thankfully, he has returned. Murugan deserves worldwide recognition.
Insel, former director of the National Institute for Mental Health, debuts with a profound diagnosis of the ills and promises of the United States’ mental health-care system. Insel admits that during his tenure as the “nation’s psychiatrist,” he struggled to grasp the problem underlying the country’s mental health crisis: “Our science was looking for causes and mechanisms while the effects of these disorders were playing out with increasing death and disability, increasing incarceration and homelessness, and increasing frustration and despair.” In breaking down how mental illness became so pervasive, Insel explains the history of health-care policy in America, covering the Kennedy administration’s revolutionary attempts to supporting non-institutional care and the Reagan administration’s slashing of community health-care budgets. Insel offers a solid history of how systemic issues such as homelessness, mass incarceration, and for-profit health insurance keep the country tied to ineffective means of treating mental illness. But it’s not all doom and gloom: he offers a sense of hopeful solutions, including an expansion of community-based mental health programs, the use of technological innovations such as “digital phenotyping” that can help keep track of how people behave outside of clinics, and initiatives that provide employment, housing, and social connection. It’s as compassionate as it is comprehensive.
Duncan (coeditor, Book Parts), a lecturer in English at University College London, mixes humor and scholarship to brilliant effect in this accessible deep dive into the history of indexes. Contending that indexes have had a profound yet overlooked impact on the evolution of human knowledge, he highlights key innovations in the centuries-long development of this search tool, including the trend towards putting words in alphabetical order; the shift from scrolls to codexes, whose page numbers were crucial to the creation of a usable index; and the rise of medieval universities, where scholars needed “new ways of efficiently finding parcels of text.” Characterizing the index as the precursor to Google search, Duncan dismisses fears that an overreliance on search engines will diminish humans’ cognitive abilities as “nothing more than a recent outbreak of an old fever.” Despite long-standing worries that indexes will reduce engagement with books and alter reading habits and attention spans for the worse (“the book index: killing off experimental curiosity since the seventeenth century”), Duncan makes a persuasive argument that it is natural for reading methods and text technology to evolve in order to make information easier to find. Readers of this enlightening and entertaining survey won’t take the humble index for granted again.
German historian and novelist von Trotha (The English Garden) offers a brilliant take on collector and curator Ludwig Pollak (1868–1943), whose discovery of the missing right arm of the Vatican’s Laocoön sculpture created a sensation in 1906. Von Trotha imagines the final days of the famed scholar and art dealer: in 1943, an envoy to the Vatican pleads with Pollak to leave occupied Rome before the German SS arrest him and his family. Rather than flee, Pollak determines to tell his story and commences to recount the stories behind the many treasured objects he’s collected over the years. As he relates, Laocoön warned the Trojans of the wooden horse meant to destroy Rome. Because he angered the gods, Athena sent serpents to kill him and his two sons. Pollak saw the bent arm, unearthed by a stonecutter on Via Labicana, as a sign of anguished suffering. Against the backdrop of Rome falling to the fascists and the worsening violence against Jews, Pollak’s words gain intensity and resonance (“Man will never win against serpents sent by the gods”). There is to be found in here as well a cautionary tale about the beauty of art often being no match for the boot and the fist. This multilayered account of myth and injustice has much to offer.
Fresh Eggs Daily blogger Steele (Duck Eggs Daily) lays down as many tips and recipes as her chickens do eggs in this innovative and plucky collection. Combining her expertise as a fifth-generation chicken keeper in Maine with inspiration from her Scandinavian forebears, she succeeds at her aim to share “unique and creative ways to use eggs” in delectable recipes that run the gamut from eggs in a hole to frothy cocktails. Eggs are baked inside roasted rings of butternut squash as a healthy way to bring together protein and veg, while a plate of egg yolk ravioli on marina sauce is made “deceptively simple” thanks to wonton wrappers. Recipe headnotes contain helpful pointers—such as dry-shaking egg whites with an acid before adding ice for optimal foam in one’s lime bourbon sour, and that a turmeric-vinegar soak ensures a stunning presentation for deviled eggs. In addition to sharing basic cooking and curing techniques, she weighs in on whether fresh eggs are really better (they are) and divulges insider info on how commercial eggs are graded and coded. Most unexpected of the lot—and highly useful—is the book’s recipe index listed by the number of eggs needed. This will be hard to beat.