A distinguished NYU law professor and MacArthur grant recipient offers the compelling story of the legal practice he founded to protect the rights of people on the margins of American society.
Stevenson began law school at Harvard knowing only that the life path he would follow would have something to do with [improving] the lives of the poor.” An internship at the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in 1983 not only put him into contact with death row prisoners, but also defined his professional trajectory. In 1989, the author opened a nonprofit legal center, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Alabama, a state with some of the harshest, most rigid capital punishment laws in the country. Underfunded and chronically overloaded by requests for help, his organization worked tirelessly on behalf of men, women and children who, for reasons of race, mental illness, lack of money and/or family support, had been victimized by the American justice system. One of Stevenson’s first and most significant cases involved a black man named Walter McMillian. Wrongly accused of the murder of a white woman, McMillian found himself on death row before a sentence had even been determined. Though EJI secured his release six years later, McMillian “received no money, no assistance [and] no counseling” for the imprisonment that would eventually contribute to a tragic personal decline. In the meantime, Stevenson would also experience his own personal crisis. “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it,” he writes. Yet he would emerge from despair, believing that it was only by acknowledging brokenness that individuals could begin to understand the importance of tempering imperfect justice with mercy and compassion.
A closely observed meditation on isolation and loneliness “in a world in which no social problem was addressed till it was a disaster.”
Eric is a middle-aged “small-town lawyer with no cases,” struggling with separation and lost love, when he lays eyes on a young woman in the supermarket line who's just such a disaster. Danielle is a hot mess brimming with suspicion and hostility, to say nothing of being hobbled by a bad sprain and no immediate prospects. When Eric helps her with her groceries—and then, episode by episode, with bits of her torn-up life—young Danielle responds mostly with cagey bitterness, dismissing the train wreck that is her existence with tossed-off observations like “[p]eople are complicated.” Yes, they are, and Danielle—if that is her real name, for, as she tells him, it’s “Danielle, for now”—is more complicated than most. Set against the backdrop of a howling Maine blizzard (“Storm of the Century, that’s what I heard,” says Eric. “Of course that’s what they always say”), Roorbach’s story never takes an expected or easily anticipated turn. Eric makes a project of Danielle, a project that brings some glimmer of meaning into his life. Danielle, in turn, resents being made into said project. She’s an exceedingly strange bird, but strange is better than nothing—maybe, for Danielle is harboring enough secrets to keep a National Security Agency agent busy for years. “I’m sure I lied,” she tells Eric, simply, in one typical exchange. And so she has, though she has her reasons, which we learn as Roorbach’s superbly grown-up love story unfolds.
Lyrical, reserved and sometimes unsettling—and those are the happier moments. Another expertly delivered portrait of the world from Roorbach (Life Among Giants, 2012, etc.), that poet of hopeless tangles.
A long-awaited—and brilliant and disquieting—novel of faith and redemption by Scotland-based writer Faber (The Crimson Petal and the White, 2002, etc.).
Eschatological religion and apocalypse make a natural fit. Throw in a distant planet that's not populated by L. Ron Hubbard acolytes, and you have an intriguing scenario prima facie. Peter (think about the name) is a minister who, aspiring to be useful, signs up for a stint, courtesy of one of the world’s ruling corporations, on far-off Oasis, a forbidding chunk of rock on which the crew of the Nostromo, of Alien fame, wouldn’t be out of place. “This was not Gethsemane: he wasn’t headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure.” So he thinks, allowing for his habit of casting events in religiously hallucinogenic terms. The natives are shy—and who wouldn’t be, given the rough humans who have come there before Peter—but receptive to his message, which deepens as Peter becomes more and more involved with his mission. Trouble is, things aren’t good back on Earth: His wife, with child, is staring what appear to be the end times in the face, even as life on Oasis, as one human denizen snarls, turns out to be “sorta like the Rapture by committee.” Is Peter good enough to make it through the second coming? He’s lived, as we learn, a fully charged sinner’s life before becoming saintly, and he’s just one crisis of faith away from meriting incineration along with the rest of the unholy; good thing the alien-tongued aliens of Oasis will put in a good word for him, even though their tongue may not be entirely comprehensible. Faber’s novel runs a touch long but is entirely true to itself and wonderfully original. It makes a fine update to Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle for Leibowitz, with some Marilynne Robinson–like homespun theology thrown in for good measure.
What would Jesus do if he wore a space helmet? A profoundly religious exploration of inner turmoil, and one sure to irk the Pat Robertson crowd in its insistence on the primacy of humanity.
“Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground,” Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs, 2011, etc.) writes in this sweeping, thrilling tale of three radical innovations that gave rise to the digital age. First was the evolution of the computer, which Isaacson traces from its 19th-century beginnings in Ada Lovelace’s “poetical” mathematics and Charles Babbage’s dream of an “Analytical Engine” to the creation of silicon chips with circuits printed on them. The second was “the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast companies.” In the rarefied neighborhood dubbed Silicon Valley, new businesses aimed for a cooperative, nonauthoritarian model that nurtured cross-fertilization of ideas. The third innovation was the creation of demand for personal devices: the pocket radio; the calculator, marketing brainchild of Texas Instruments; video games; and finally, the holy grail of inventions: the personal computer. Throughout his action-packed story, Isaacson reiterates one theme: Innovation results from both “creative inventors” and “an evolutionary process that occurs when ideas, concepts, technologies, and engineering methods ripen together.” Who invented the microchip? Or the Internet? Mostly, Isaacson writes, these emerged from “a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas….Innovation is not a loner’s endeavor.” Isaacson offers vivid portraits—many based on firsthand interviews—of mathematicians, scientists, technicians and hackers (a term that used to mean anyone who fooled around with computers), including the elegant, “intellectually intimidating,” Hungarian-born John von Neumann; impatient, egotistical William Shockley; Grace Hopper, who joined the Army to pursue a career in mathematics; “laconic yet oddly charming” J.C.R. Licklider, one father of the Internet; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and scores of others.
Isaacson weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries whose imaginations and zeal continue to transform our lives.
A Caribbean honeymoon turns into a media circus over a mermaid sighting in this laser-focused satire from Millet (Magnificence, 2012, etc.).
Deborah, the narrator of Millet’s smart and funny novel, her ninth, is an LA woman who’s snarky to the core: She’s skeptical of her fiance’s hard-core workout regimen, of the rituals of bachelorette parties, even of her best friend’s own snark. So when her new husband, Chip, proposes a honeymoon in the British Virgin Islands, she’s suspicious of tourism’s virtues. Deb’s early interactions seem to justify her defensiveness: One man gets the wrong idea when she accidentally brushes her foot against his leg over drinks: “He made me feel like my toes were prostitutes,” she tells her husband. “Like my toes, Chip, were dolled up in Frederick’s of Hollywood.” The comic, unbelieving tone Millet gives Deb helps sell what happens next: Roped into a scuba dive by an aquatic researcher, she and a small group spot a bunch of mermaids at a nearby reef. Despite the group’s efforts to keep the discovery hidden, the resort gets the news and rushes to capitalize on it, while Deb and her cohorts are eager to preserve the sole example of unadulterated wonder the 21st century has offered them. The novel has the shape and pace of a thriller—Deb is held by corporate goons, the researcher goes mysteriously missing, paramilitary men are called in—and it thrives on Deb’s witty, wise narration. Millet means to criticize a rapacious culture that wants to simplify and categorize everything, from the resort profiteers to churchy types who see the mermaids as symbols of godlessness. The ending underscores the consequences of such blinkered mindsets without losing its essential comedy.
An admirable example of a funny novel with a serious message that works swimmingly. Dive in.
The Iranian-American author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) makes a passionate argument for returning to key American novels in order to foster creativity and engagement.
Having taught literature both in post-revolutionary Iran and in America, teacher and author Nafisi (Things I’ve Been Silent About, 2008, etc.) finds in works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers important lessons in combating nefarious trends in the West: insular thinking, bias and a utilitarian mindset. Literature, writes the author, is deliciously subversive because it fires the imagination and challenges the status quo. This can be dangerous in an authoritarian, repressive state such as Iran, but it is necessary for an informed citizenry. In America, however, where Nafisi became a citizen in 2008, she finds that the free access to democratic ideals and institutions have bred a complacency toward and even scorn for what cannot be used for political or ideological purposes, namely the liberal arts. In the character of Twain’s Huck Finn, Nafisi’s first and favorite example, she finds a quintessential American character from whom all others derive: a searching soul and a homeless “mongrel” whose “sound heart” gradually beats out his “deformed conscience.” In Babbitt, from Lewis’ 1922 eponymous novel, Nafisi reacquaints us with a smug, self-congratulatory figure of conformity who (still) mirrors our contemporary selves. In the fragile, childlike characters of McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Nafisi notes the yearning for personal integrity and shared humanity. The author’s literary exegesis lightly moves through her own experiences as a student, teacher, friend and new citizen. Touching on myriad literary examples, from L. Frank Baum to James Baldwin, her work is both poignant and informative.
A literary study that derives its emotional power from Nafisi’s personal story and relationship.