Samba music and its allure beats beneath this winding and sinuous tale of ambition, memory, and identity.
The long road to musical stardom followed by the privileged Graça, a Brazilian woman from a wealthy family with stakes in the brutal sugar-cane industry, runs parallel to that taken by her childhood friend and rival, Dores, the child of a promiscuous local woman who was taken in at birth by the plantation’s cook. Peebles (The Seamstress, 2008) traces the girls’ growing attachment to each other—despite divisive class distinctions in early-20th-century Brazil—and their growing enchantment with the samba style of music they first heard on the plantation before their joint escape. Their extended sojourn in the gritty and hedonistic Lapa neighborhood of Rio exposes the girls to privations and degradations but also allows them to enter the world of music they both yearn to conquer. Differences in talent and temperament strain their relationship, but shared ambition propels them toward unlikely levels of fame and notoriety as Graça transforms into Sofia Salvador, an international samba star (whose life experiences may echo those of Carmen Miranda). Alliances, romances, and friendships made by the women over the courses of their lives shift and reform as the girls from the plantation pursue pop stardom. Questions of loyalty to family, culture, and self are not always resolved in a comfortable fashion, and the scarifying price for achieving one’s dreams runs far beyond the girls’ childhood imaginations. From the perspective of old age, Dores’ recounting of the duo’s experiences is steeped in melancholy but also alludes to the unreliability of memory (and the necessity of forgetting in order to survive).
Peebles’ detailed and atmospheric story is cinematic in scope, panoramic in view, and lyrical in tone.
A masterful history of a new field of molecular biology that has wide-ranging implications regarding “human identity, human individuality, [and] human health.”
In their evolution from a common ancestor, multiplying species branch and branch again, forming a “tree of life”: a mainstay of biology teaching for two centuries that turns out to be wrong, writes bestselling National Geographic contributing writer Quammen (Yellowstone: A Journey Through America's Wild Heart, 2016, etc.) in this impressive account of perhaps the most unheralded scientific revolution of the 20th century. It’s the result of a new area of study called molecular phylogenetics, which involves “reading the deep history of life and the patterns of relatedness from the sequence of constituent units in certain long molecules, as those molecules exist today within living creatures. The molecules mainly in question are DNA, RNA, and a few select proteins.” After admitting that this is a mouthful, the author describes three surprising discoveries that paved the way. The first revealed that genes don’t always move from parent to offspring. Sometimes organisms pass them back and forth, which is called horizontal gene transfer. Then researchers, led by the book’s central figure, biophysicist Carl Woese (1928-2012), while comparing bacterial RNA, identified a group so different that they weren’t bacteria at all but an entirely new kingdom: the Archaea. Finally, studies kept showing that bits of hereditary material simply float independently inside cells and regularly move to neighbors, other species, or even other kingdoms. No exception, the human genome is speckled with bacterial and viral DNA. The tree of life looks more like a web. An indefatigable journalist covering a revolution whose participants are mostly alive is an irresistible combination, and Quammen seems to have interviewed them all.
A consistently engaging collection of vivid portraits of brilliant, driven, quarrelsome scientists in the process of dramatically altering the fundamentals of evolution, illuminated by the author’s insightful commentary.
Harrowing travels through the land of the hypermedicated, courtesy of hopelessness, poverty, and large pharmaceutical companies.
A huge number of Americans, many of them poor rural whites, have died in the last couple of decades of what one Princeton researcher has called “diseases of despair,” including alcoholism, suicide, and drug overdoses caused by the hopeless sense that there’s a lack of anything better to do. Roanoke-based investigative journalist Macy (Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, 2016, etc.) locates one key killer—the opioid epidemic—in the heart of Appalachia and other out-of-the-way places dependent on outmoded industries, bypassed economically and culturally, and without any political power to speak of, “hollows and towns and fishing villages where the nearest rehab facility was likely to be hours from home.” Prisons are much closer. Macy’s purview centers on the I-81 corridor that runs along the Appalachians from eastern Tennessee north, where opioid abuse first rose to epidemic levels. She establishes a bleak pattern of high school football stars and good students who are caught in a spiral: They suffer some pain, receive prescriptions for powerful medications thanks to a pharmaceutical industry with powerful lobbying and sales arms (“If a doctor was already prescribing lots of Percocet and Vicodin, a rep was sent out to deliver a pitch about OxyContin’s potency and longer-lasting action”), and often wind up dead or in jail, broke and broken by a system that is easy to game. Interestingly, Macy adds, “almost to a person, the addicted twentysomethings I met had taken attention-deficit medication as children.” Following her survey of the devastation wrought in the coal and Rust belts, the author concludes with a call to arms for a “New Deal for the Drug Addicted,” a constituency that it’s all too easy to write off even as their number climbs.
An urgent, eye-opening look at a problem that promises to grow much worse in the face of inaction and indifference.
How Russia’s campaign to undermine democracies threatens the European Union and the United States.
In a hard-hitting analysis of current events, Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017, etc.) argues persuasively that Russia under Putin is aggressively working to destabilize Western nations and export “massive inequality” and “the displacement of policy by propaganda.” Beginning with the strenuous revival of totalitarian thought in 2011, Russia has widened its efforts to attack the EU and to infiltrate American politics by masterminding the election of Donald Trump. For Russia, the EU, which requires that its member countries are democratic and promote human rights, exists as an affront to its “native kleptocracy.” Because “Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe and America,” writes the author, it sought to gain “relative power” by weakening other nations. Using targeted Twitter campaigns, trolls, and bots, Russia manipulated a “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum and later directed its attention to working against Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. Snyder chronicles Putin’s successful influence in Trump’s nomination and election: “a cyberwar to destroy the United States of America.” Russian connections to Trump began in the 1990s, when Russian gangsters laundered money by buying and selling apartments in Trump Tower. Trump, who at the time was bankrupt and owed about $4 billion to more than 70 banks, welcomed funds from Russian oligarchs, who bought his properties through shell companies. The author expertly details Russian involvement in the 2016 election by Paul Manafort, who “had experience getting Russia’s preferred candidates elected president”; Trump’s foreign policy adviser, pro-Putin Carter Page, who became a lobbyist for Russian gas companies; and Michael Flynn. Russian use of Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sources “exploited American gullibility” and cynicism. Freedom, Snyder writes, “depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear.”
A highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.
A journalist and criminal defense lawyer combine their knowledge about wrongful convictions in Mississippi to expose a corrupt system, with a keen focus on a lying medical examiner and a dentist who concocted phony evidence based on bite marks on the bodies of crime victims.
The medical examiner is Steven Hayne; the dentist is Michael West. In the small world of detectives, lawyers, judges, and journalists trying to reduce the number of innocent citizens in prison, the perplexing rise to influence of co-conspirators Hayne and West is well-known, as is their eventual disgrace. But the saga has never been explored in such depth. Carrington devotes his life to freeing innocent inmates, serving as director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Balko’s (Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, 2013) focus as a Washington Post opinion journalist and investigative reporter is more broad, but he has experience chronicling innocence cases. Although the authors have reported on many wrongful convictions, the book focuses heavily on two murder cases, both involving innocent men: Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both of whom were exonerated after years in prison. Their exposé of systemic injustice across Mississippi goes beyond Hayne and West to name prosecutors, judges, legislators, and others who catered to them. Why cater to two such craven incompetents? Because those inside the criminal justice system were more interested in closing cases (usually with black defendants) than in identifying the actual perpetrators. Detectives, prosecutors, and judges intent on getting cases off the docket knew they could rely on Hayne and West to testify dishonestly under oath. The authors explain the motivations of Hayne and West: zealotry on the side of law enforcement, money for accepting a huge volume of cases to lie about in court under oath, and perhaps racism.
A horrifying exposé of how a few individuals can infect an entire state’s criminal justice system.
A brilliant, tragically timely second novel from the author of The Young Widower’s Handbook (2017).
FORMER TEACHER HAD MOTIVE. When this chyron rolls across the bottom of a cable news segment, Anna Crawford becomes complicit in a high school shooting. Never mind that she had nothing to do with the crime; once she’s part of the story, she’s guilty of...something. This novel is an indictment of gun culture, hot-take journalism, and social media, and if that sounds like a miserable premise for a novel, fear not: McAllister is a brave and stylish writer, and Anna is a singular creation. At first, she seems like a classic unreliable narrator, but it quickly becomes hard to decide which is crazier: Anna or the world she’s describing. As a one-time teacher and a thoroughgoing misfit—she was fired for being “unpredictable” just before the shooting—Anna is perfectly positioned to understand the shooter even as she recognizes that both his teen angst and his deadly rage are hackneyed. Once she achieves secondhand fame, she notes that the strangers who want to kill her, those who want to rape her, and those who want to do both—in that order—share the same fantasies of dominance. “In America,” she says, “we send children to school to get shot and to learn algebra and physics and history and biology and literature. Less civilized nations don’t have such an organized system for murdering their children. Mass murders in undeveloped countries occur because they are savages.” Anna doesn’t just worry about guns; she sees how misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and classism shape a society in which assault weapons are fetish objects. The horror is offset—or maybe thrown into sharp relief—by moments of mordant humor. When an evangelizing acquaintance tries to frighten Anna with images of darkness and demons and a final battle between good and evil, Anna says, “You might want to make this sound less exciting…I kind of want to not repent just so I can see the whole scene.” Then she adds, “People don’t want to be bored.”
Acclaimed novelist Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table, 2011, etc.) returns to familiar ground: a lyrical mystery that plays out in the shadow of World War II.
In what is arguably his best-known novel, The English Patient (1992), Ondaatje unfolds at leisurely pace a story of intrigue and crossed destinies at the fringes of a global struggle. If anything, his latest moves even more slowly, but to deliberate effect. As it opens, with World War II grinding to a gaunt end, Nathaniel Williams, 14, and his 15-year-old sister, Rachel, learn that their parents are bound for newly liberated Singapore. Rose, their mother, has made the war years bearable with Mrs. Miniver–like resoluteness, but the father is a cipher. So he remains. Nathaniel and Rachel, Rose tells them, are to be left in London in the care of some—well, call them associates. They take over the Williams house, a band both piratical and elegant whose characters, from the classically inclined ringleader, The Moth, to a rough-edged greyhound racer, The Pimlico Darter, could easily figure in a sequel to Great Expectations. “It is like clarifying a fable,” Ondaatje writes in the person of Nathaniel, “about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later.” But that clarification takes a few hundred pages of peering into murky waters: Nathaniel, in adulthood, learns that Rose, who slips back into England soon after sailing away, has been a person of many parts, secretive, in a war that has extended beyond the cease-fire, as partisans battle unrepentant fascists and the early Cold War begins to solidify, a time of betrayal and murder. If Rachel and Nathaniel’s adventures among their surrogate parents, who “did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson,” are far from innocent, the lives of all concerned have hidden depths and secrets, some shameful, some inviting murderous revenge.
Ondaatje’s shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue.
In her first book for adults, Williams imagines a not-too-distant future in which people find happiness with the help of machines.
It's 2035, and for the last nine years Pearl has worked as a technician for the Apricity Corporation, a San Francisco company that's devised a machine that, using skin cells collected from the inside of a subject’s cheek, provides “contentment plans” for those seeking happiness. (The firm’s name means the feeling of warmth on one’s skin from the sun.) The machine’s prescriptions veer sharply from the benign to the bewildering, telling one of Pearl’s clients to “eat tangerines on a regular basis,” “work at a desk that receive[s] more morning light,” and “amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.” “The recommendations can seem strange at first…but we must keep in mind the Apricity machine uses a sophisticated metric, taking into account factors of which we’re not consciously aware,” Pearl reassures the client contemplating going under the knife, in a speech she has memorized from the company manual. “The proof is borne out in the numbers. The Apricity system boasts a nearly one hundred percent approval rating. Ninety-nine point nine seven percent.” Never mind the .03 percent the company considers “aberrations.” Pearl herself appears to be a generally happy person despite the current circumstances of her life. Her husband, Elliot, an artist, has left her for a younger, pink-haired woman, Val, who has her own secrets—yet Elliot persists in flirting with Pearl. Her teenage son, Rhett, has stopped eating, perversely finding contentment in dissatisfaction and self-denial. Pearl’s own contentment plan, which includes painstakingly building elaborate creatures from 3-D modeling kits, keeps her on a steady keel even as she yearns to rescue her son from his unhappy state. Following the trajectory of today’s preoccupation with self-help and our perhaps not-entirely-justified faith that technology can fix everything, Williams explores the way machines and screens can both disconnect us, launching us into loneliness, and connect us, bringing us closer to one another. In this imaginative, engaging, emotionally resonant story, she reveals how the devices we depend on can both deprive us of our humanity and deliver us back to it.
With its clever, compelling vision of the future, deeply human characters, and delightfully unpredictable story, this novel is itself a recipe for contentment.
A bold new voice, at once insolently sardonic and incisively compassionate, asserts itself amid a surging wave of young African-American fiction writers.
In her debut story collection, Thompson-Spires flashes fearsome gifts for quirky characterization, irony-laden repartee, and edgy humor. All these traits are evident in an epistolary narrative entitled “Belles Lettres,” which tells its story through a series of increasingly snarky notes exchanged between two African-American mothers via the backpacks of their young daughters, the only two black students in their class at a California private school, who are engaged in some stressful and, at times, physical conflict with each other. The next story, “The Body’s Defenses Against Itself,” follows these girls, Christinia and Fatima, through high school and into adulthood as they continue to needle each other over issues of appearance and weight. (Yoga appears to be the answer. Or at least an answer.) The theme of self-image carries into the third story of this cycle, “Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” in which youthful romantic rituals, awkward as ever, are further complicated by presumptions of racial “authenticity.” In these and other stories, Thompson-Spires is attentive to telling details of speech, comportment, and milieu, sometimes to devastating effect. The title story carries a subhead, “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” that only hints at the audacity, drollness, and, in the end, desolation compressed into this account of an altercation outside a comic book convention between two young black men, a flamboyantly costumed fan and an ill-tempered street entrepreneur. It seems difficult for even the most experienced storyteller to achieve an appealing balance of astringency and poignancy, and yet Thompson-Spires hits that balance repeatedly, whether in the darkly antic “Suicide, Watch,” in which an especially self-conscious young woman named Jilly struggles with how best to commit suicide (and to tell her friends about it on social media), or in the deeply affecting “Wash Clean the Bones,” whose churchgoing protagonist struggles with her soul over whether she should raise her newborn son in a racist society.
In an era when writers of color are broadening the space in which class and culture as well as race are examined, Thompson-Spires’ auspicious beginnings augur a bright future in which she could set new standards for the short story.
Noted culinary writer Pollan (Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, 2013, etc.) makes the transition from feeding your body to feeding your head.
The lengthy disclaimer on the copyright page speaks volumes. The author, well-known for books on food and life such as The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has been opening some of the doors of perception with the aid of lysergic acid, its molecular cousin psilocybin, ayahuasca, and assorted other chemical tools. His journeys are timely, since, “after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance.” For one thing, LSD and its kin have proven potent tools in treating depression, anxiety, addictions, post-traumatic stress, and other ailments. Through the use of neuroimaging technologies that were not available to the pioneers of psychiatric psychedelia, we can see that in interrupting ordinary patterns of thought and helping regroove the brain, these drugs are in fact mind-expanding, as the “hoary 1960s platitude” would have it. Pollan traveled deep into the woods to undertake acid-laced spirit journeys with people who are off the grid, and perhaps a touch off their rockers as well; at the Esalen Institute, he learned the latest from a place that served a historic role in spreading the psychedelic gospel. As Pollan notes, there are risks in unguided forays into the dustier corners of the mind, but the old scare tactics of chromosomal damage and going blind after staring at the sun are just that—though, as he also writes, “once introduced into the culture, these urban legends survive and, on occasion, go on to become ‘true.’ ” The author’s evenhanded but generally positive approach shoos away scaremongering while fully recognizing that we’re out in the tall grass—and, as he notes, though credited with psychological evenness, he’s found himself “tossed in a psychic storm of existential dread so dark and violent that the keel comes off the boat,” reason enough to seek chemical aid.
A trip well worth taking, eye-opening and even mind-blowing.
Affecting portrait of a Chinese dissident who found a home among like-minded democrats in faraway New York.
Journalist Hilgers, who has covered China for the New Yorker and Businessweek, among other publications, met Zhuang Liehong in his home village on the southern coast of China. There, in 2011, as she reported, villagers had rebelled against corrupt officials, who had returned to power with a vengeance, backed by a brutal police force. “A proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom,” Zhuang knew he had to get out while he could, and he weighed three plans to escape, including finding a boat to take him to the American territory of Guam. He settled on an expensive solution, signing himself and his wife, Little Yan, up for a tour of the United States that they then overstayed, making their way to Flushing, where, in time, they encountered other dissidents, notably the Tiananmen Square protest leader Tang Yuanjun. Hilgers closely chronicles Zhuang’s travails, among them the struggle to attain legal residency against the backdrop of an immigration regime that worried about offending China and seemed reluctant to house so public a figure, even if his renown had not spread widely in his adopted country. Finally, thanks to the pragmatic Little Yan, he found suitable work—and, thanks to Tang, continued his anti-corruption campaign in New York, protesting at Trump Tower, where an unimpressed Trump supporter yelled at him, “why do we have to pay attention to your problems?” Hilgers answers that question with admirable attention to narrative detail, giving a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood comprising a “community of activists” who have lent dissidents like Tang and Zhuang their support.
This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.