An earth scientist explores the broad historical branches extending from her own roots.
Many geologists limit their subjects of inquiry to the Earth, probing contours of the land to reveal how past developments have come to shape the present. In Savoy’s (Environmental Studies and Geology/Mount Holyoke Coll.; co-author: The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, 2011, etc.) latest study, however, the quest of this self-described “Earth historian” begins closer to home. She traces her Native, African-, Euro-American ancestry across the United States in the hope of learning what her extended family experienced. The author’s parents both served in the military during World War II, her father in the segregated Army Air Forces and her mother as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. Impelled by their reticence when recounting their experiences in different communities, Savoy retraces her parents’ steps from Washington, D.C., to California, South Carolina, Arizona, and the Mexican borderland, searching in each destination for the muted historical realities of the marginalized. Along this trek, the author unearths unfathomable stories of racial discrimination and federally sanctioned hypocrisy—e.g., Charles Drew, the African-American physician who developed the blood bank, was fired when he tried to end the “government-approved” policy of segregating blood; African-American nurses in the ranks of the Army Nurse Corps experienced segregation when forced to serve where white nurses refused to. Savoy’s well-researched account, which includes numerous lyric eyewitness descriptions of place, also delves into recently declassified National Archives records to note how prisoners of war “expressed to the nurses their surprise that Americans would fight to preserve democracy abroad and at home exhibit prejudice to other Americans solely because of their skin color.”
Springing from the literal Earth to metaphor, Savoy demonstrates the power of narrative to erase as easily as it reveals, yielding a provocative, eclectic exposé of the palimpsest historically defining the U.S. as much as any natural or man-made boundary.
An enthusiastic history of and appreciation for all things horse.
In this “scientific travelogue…biography of the horse…and worldwide investigation into the bond that unites horses and humans,” one of the only elements Williams (Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, 2011, etc.) doesn’t address is how to ride a horse. But there’s more than enough to teach readers how to approach a horse and how it will communicate its feelings. The author begins by asserting that horses had their beginnings in the New World rather than the long-held belief that Europeans introduced them to the Americas. When the land bridges were available, horses could travel through Asia to Europe, and Williams notes that horses are not only herd animals, but that they don’t stray far from their environments. As she traces their evolution, she makes it clear that horses tend to adapt to their surroundings rather than move away in search of comfort. The evolution of their hooves, from three to four toes, was caused by the change from marshy ground, where toes helped balance, to dry grass plains. In an equally thorough manner, Williams explains the changes to the animals’ eyes and teeth, which changed with their diet as grasslands formed and they required teeth that could grind effectively. Horses are also red-green colorblind because their eyes only have two types of cones, whereas humans have three. That, as well as the placement of their eyes, affects their acuity and depth perception. The author also explores how horses’ eyes moved back in their heads, allowing wider vision. This made room for larger teeth, which evolved to adapt to the grass that appeared due to changes in global temperatures caused by tectonic plate movement and changing ocean currents.
Anyone with a love of horses will treasure this book, which provides scholarly yet accessible insight into a beautifully constructed animal that has chosen to domesticate man, just as dogs have.
A motivational speaker, who's often on the road dispensing wisdom though he has problems of his own, turns to reviewing hotels online—and Moody tells his story primarily through his reviews.
Thanks for the synopsis, Captain Obvious. The conceit runs deeper, for Moody’s (The Four Fingers of Death, 2010, etc.) Reginald Edward Morse—his trinomial perhaps an indication of Brahmanic tendencies and amplitude of ego—has a seeming need to criticize, sometimes fussily but usually rightly, and moreover to let the world know of it. The M&M cookies are a little stale? Send a dispatch, and then reflect and perhaps grouse: “when I am stressing, in a lecture on motivational speaking, how certain words can do a lot for you, fresh is often a word I often rely on.” Reginald has a few characteristics in common with Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary, though in The Accidental Tourist, Tyler takes a somewhat more forgiving view of us foible-philic humans. As Reginald moves from hotel to hotel and continent to continent (for, as we learn, he’s not confined to North America), we discover, detail by carefully rationed detail, more about his life: he has control issues, he has a checkered family history and a troubled daughter, he often travels with a companion, he has a thing for grits (“and I do not mean cheese grits”). All pretty ordinary, really, the failings and the accomplishments, but Moody offers both a subtle psychological portrait and even the hint of a mystery—“what I would call the mystery of Reginald Morse,” he writes with game-is-afoot breathlessness in an afterword. It’s a slyly delightful turn, considering all we’ve learned about Reginald and his views, whether on hotel pornography or the three chief shortcomings of B&Bs: “throw pillows, potpourri, and breakfast conversation.” To say nothing of gazebos.
Lively and lightly written. Not the strongest of Moody’s books but of a piece with them, offering a sardonic but entertaining look at modern American life.
A collection of recent work from this venerable publication includes a dozen short stories that range as widely in style as they do in quality.
The term “unprofessionals” aims to distinguish the writers here from those who “write long and network hard” in search of commercial success, Paris Review editor Stein says in his introduction. That’s somewhat disingenuous: the author bios note 16 published or imminent novels, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker’s poetry editor. Never mind. Along with 5 essays and 14 poems, the fiction here represents what Stein calls “the intensity and perfection found only in small things.” “Intensity” certainly applies to some. Ottessa Moshfegh writes of a man’s weekend flight from his pregnant wife to an unplanned tryst with his brother’s lover. Angela Flournoy seems to capture a lifetime in a few hours of a gambling addict’s life as it moves from eviction to the roulette wins and then broke again. An S&M session between two men gets out of hand in Garth Greenwell’s painfully clinical prose. Atticus Lish carries the torch for Raymond Carver in his laconic tale of a blue-collar worker in and out of prison. Several pieces have the callow ring of MFA exercises. "Perfection” came to mind only with Zadie Smith’s angry, tense, hilarious story of a black transvestite shopping for a corset in prose that manages to suggest both Lou Reed and Flannery O’Connor. Special mention goes to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s evocative essay on the time he spent with 92-year-old Southern literary critic Andrew Lytle, an atmospheric portrait that some of these unprofessional fiction writers would do well to study.
The collection may give a sense of contemporary U.S. writing, but the marked unevenness is surprising given the magazine’s illustrious history.
A wide-ranging and compelling account of marathons and the very fastest men who run them.
Caesar, a British journalist with many American credits (New York Times Magazine, Outside, the Atlantic, etc.), explores the world of high-speed long-distance running. The dream of running the 26.2-mile race in less than two hours has not yet been achieved, and the author shows us the pursuit of that dream. Besides giving a capsule history of the race, from its mythical beginnings in Greece through its 20th-century ups and downs in popularity to its present dominance by East Africans, Caesar reveals its personalities and delves into its economics, science, and psychology. While the author depicts a host of runners, both well-known and otherwise, at the center of the story is Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai, a Kenyan runner whose personal best is 2:03:02. Caesar spent time with Mutai, observing the lives of Kenyan runners and how and why they run. Their mastery of marathon running has been variously attributed to geography (altitude, terrain), lifestyle (diet, arduous training), biology (genetic makeup, physique), and to an overwhelming desire to escape a difficult life. Caesar, whose admiration for his subjects is palpable, examines all of these, including the question of possible drug use. He also looks into the role of the runners' managers, the efforts of shoe companies to create the perfect running shoe, the varying design of marathon courses in different cities, and the outside factors affecting speed, such as wind and temperature. Readers should not skip the endnotes: this usually dry addendum is unexpectedly entertaining and informative. “Whatever science or common sense one uses to rebut the possibility of a two-hour marathon,” writes the author, “we still cannot resist its lure.”
Caesar’s winning prose will keep even armchair readers turning pages, perhaps tuning in to watch the next marathon.
Redniss (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, 2010) delivers an arrestingly unconventional exploration of weather.
This is a terrific celebration of weather as an elemental force in not only our daily lives, but in our global stories, myths, history, and cultural identities. It is part powerful graphic novel (with impeccable color sense) and part meteorological text. The author divides the book into chapters such as Cold, Rain, Sky, Heat, Dominion, Profit, and Forecasting, and within each chapter is an array of anecdotes and factoids, vest-pocket biographies, and elegant place descriptions. After an introduction to the Arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, Redniss discusses the demographics of the far-north Svalbard archipelago (“Today, Svalbard has a population of approximately 2000 people and 3000 polar bears”). Then she moves on to a lightshow in South America’s Atacama Desert: “in the shifting light, the Atacama’s sands turn gold, orange, and violet. In the shadows, the landscape is blue, green, violet. Treeless, plantless expanses of stark grandeur roll out like a Martian landscape.” Redniss details what we know about the dynamics of lightning and why lightning often gives us the shivers. “Lightning can charge out of a bright blue sky,” she writes, “traveling horizontally 10 or more miles from a nearby storm. Lightning can, and does, strike twice.” The author also looks at the meteorological effects of the death of Kim Jong II as reported by North Korea’s official news outlets (“winds were stronger, waves higher, and temperatures the coldest of the season”), the money to be made off ice at Walden Pond, and Benjamin Franklin, who “was a proponent of air baths, the practice of sitting naked by an open window.” This book is not simply a collection of oddments and odd fellows, but rather a genuine demonstration of weather as a phenomena and how it is fantastical on both the symbolic and systematized levels.
A highly atmospheric, entertainingly earnest, and intimate engrossment with the world’s most popular topic of conversation.
This debut novel from a bestselling essayist follows a circle of friends on a quest to find a priceless necklace and regain an even rarer treasure: a genuine connection.
This trenchant first novel from the author of I Was Told There'd Be Cake (2008) and How Did You Get This Number (2010) is about a necklace; Guy de Maupassant’s classic short story, “The Necklace”; and an interconnected circle of friends from college who, like beads on a broken necklace, have dispersed and rolled off on different paths. Some of these young people have gotten lost—or lost some essential part of themselves—along the way as they hurtle toward their 30s, watching their 20s blur by and disappear in the rearview mirror. While the luckier (wealthier, more successful) of them marry and move toward parenthood, three of the pals—hapless, unemployed data-crunching Brooklynite Victor; charismatic yet not quite successful LA screenwriter Nathaniel; and clever, spritelike Kezia, whose job working for an offbeat jewelry designer in Manhattan is, she fears, hardening her soul—all single, are beginning to wonder if they're wasting their lives pursuing goals as false and worthless as a paste gemstone. Crosley’s smart, sardonic, sometimes-zany, yet also sensitive story is told from the alternating perspectives of these three linked characters, taking the readers along as they reunite first for a friend’s wedding in Miami and then again for a road trip in France, setting off from Paris in pursuit of, yes, a priceless necklace but also of things far more valuable: the truth about themselves and one another, a genuine sense of purpose (or, at least, an antidote to their approaching anhedonia), and, perhaps most precious of all, a connection to one another.
This novel about a chain of interlinked friends on the brink of their 30s has a few overly manufactured plot elements but overall is a real gem.
Lawson (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, 2012), “The Bloggess,” pokes fun at herself as she addresses the serious nature of her mental and physical illnesses.
“I’ve struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid,” writes the author, “but clinical depression is a semi-regular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend.” Rather than hiding the facts, she openly divulges, in a darkly humorous way, how she copes with rheumatoid arthritis, depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and the days when she is driven to pull her hair out or cut herself. Along with discussions about taxidermic giraffes and raccoons, whether cats yawn, and mobs of swans attacking her, readers learn the particular ways Lawson has learned to cope with those moments that threaten to overwhelm her—e.g., readings that send her cowering behind the podium or fleeing to the bathroom, passing out during a gynecological exam because she’s afraid of medical coats, or trying to find a solution to her sleep problems by attending a sleep clinic. The details are sometimes graphic—“I always tell gynecologists that if I pass out when they’re in my vagina they should just take that opportunity to get everything out of the way while I’m out”—but always honest and usually funny. Lawson’s goal is not to offend, although that might happen to some readers, but to lay bare the truth about her struggles in life so that others can benefit. She does a solid job exposing the hidden nature of mental illness by putting a direct spotlight on her own issues, thereby illuminating an often taboo subject. Her amusing essays open up a not-so-funny topic: mental illness in its many guises.
Kudos to Lawson for being a flagrant and witty spokesperson for this dark subject matter.