PositiveThe New RepublicPathogenesis suggests that the course of history has less to do with our own volition and more to do with the ways in which different diseases fared in different climates ... At times, the thesis seems stretched a little thin ... But this quibble doesn’t detract from the main idea that drives Pathogenesis.
MixedThe New RepublicWolfish moves back and forth between these and other narratives like a wolf weaving through trees at night—assembling a story that’s ultimately about what we fear and why ... Tracing a wolf’s path through the Pacific Northwest invites a misplaced desire to make a story out of it, but while Berry is growing, OR-7 is simply moving ... As such, charting the wolf does not bring one closer to the animal. But what it does do for Berry is reveal the layers and webs of interconnectedness that we and the wolves share ... She distrusts her own fear, and she also distrusts this distrust. Wolfish maps out the ways in which patriarchy is in the business of gaslighting women, who are taught both not to feel safe and simultaneously to doubt that feeling ... The prose itself in Wolfish is brisk and essayistic, and makes for a compelling read. But among the many things Berry is afraid of, at times she is also afraid of her own voice. Throughout the book, Berry cites other essayists and poets (Cathy Park Hong, Elisa Washuta, and Carmen Maria Machado among them): Many of these quotations appear mainly as single sentences, without much elaboration or exposition, and seem designed mainly to shore up Berry’s own writing, as though she doesn’t quite have the confidence to bring her own lyrical flair to the page and needs to borrow. Often, these quotes feel as though they’ve been put here out of Berry’s fear that, as a white woman, she needs to demonstrate her awareness of and debt to writers of color. But this backfires ... It seems curious that Berry repeatedly quotes books explicitly about Blackness ... But this is how fear works—it throws up any barricade it can think of, any defense against the beast at the door. In the process, it shapes the world in its own image. As a book written not just about fear but written in fear, Wolfish is a fascinating document illuminating how white women’s fear is used to make and unmake the world.
PositiveSlateThe journey of the scroll makes up 1 of 3 overlapping narratives in The Curse of the Marquis de Sade; it parallels a biography of Sade’s life, with a catalog of his repeated arrests and imprisonments for blasphemy, sodomy, and rape. These depravities, in turn, are interspersed with a third narrative, subtitled \'The Empire of Letters,\' which follows the scroll in recent decades, when an entirely different form of lawlessness came to be associated with Sade ... The one thing largely absent... is the novel itself, The 120 Days of Sodom. While the manuscript—the physical book—is discussed at length, Warner, like many of his subjects, seems to not really want to talk about the text itself ... And while the history of the manuscript itself is more than fascinating enough to justify Warner’s book, it may be worth reinvestigating Sade’s own writing, and what value—if any—it has for us these days.
RaveThe New RepublicWe look to family trees perhaps because of an interest in history, but ultimately because we want to know more about ourselves. Newton starts with a similar curiosity but quickly moves to more interesting questions. How much of what is inherited is inescapable? What is nature, and what is nurture? ... Ancestor Trouble does what all truly great memoirs do: It takes an intensely personal and at times idiosyncratic story and uses it to frame larger, more complex questions about how identity is formed. Using her own family tree, with its mix of colorful characters, closet-lurking skeletons, and truly vile monsters, Newton recounts the tall tales about these folks she grew up with before revealing what dogged and thorough research has turned up about their actual lives ... the book ends a far sight from where it’s begun, having sloughed off simplistic questions about heredity. Its genius lies in its unmasking of the real motives that drive us to send off our saliva for DNA analysis.
PositiveThe New RepublicRather than feeling like a dive into minutiae or a specialist’s niche, Tresch’s approach manages to open up the world of Poe’s writing in an unexpectedly fascinating way. What emerges is how Poe’s interest in—and sometimes misunderstanding of—science drove some of his greatest works of horror. Anyone already familiar with Poe’s life will see all the same beats hit here ... Unlike earlier accounts, though, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night highlights several underexamined episodes in Poe’s life, including his years in the Army and at West Point ... Tresch shows in Poe an almost methodical program to take scientific and psychological advances, and wring horror from them by pushing them to their limits.
MixedThe New RepublicThere’s a scene in the 2011 film Moneyball where Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane is mentoring young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) on how to cut a professional baseball player from the roster: bluntly, without euphemism. \'Would you rather,\' he asks, \'get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?\' Imagine, if you will, that this was not a rhetorical question or an analogy about firing someone but rather a serious, literal question. Now imagine 206 pages of this, and you have a sense of what it’s like to read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book. The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is a nasty, brutish book—if it’s also short, it’s not nearly short enough. It is a breathless and narratively riveting story ... The Bomber Mafia is adapted from an audiobook, which means that what sounds conversational and engaging on tape can sound garrulous on the page, but it also allows Gladwell to telegraph his breathless fascination ... The mildly grating aspect of Gladwell’s style when he writes about ketchup or The Beatles here becomes an unforgivable moral lapse as he writes about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
PanThe New Republic... a book devoted to the importance of objective journalism, even in the face of widespread dissimulation. Sober instead of smug, Karl still can’t quite get past Trump as an individual ... This is Trump as a case history instead of Trump as the expression of a deep rupture in the country. By limiting our opprobrium to Trump himself, we manage to both feel superior to him while also dismissing him ... Karl, like other journalists, positions himself as a sober-minded and fair arbiter of the truth, doing his duty tirelessly and hewing to the notion that facts and objectivity, by themselves, will carry the day. But such lofty ideals are undercut by the book’s promise of delivering more inside gossip and unbelievable spectacle ... Marketing national crisis as page-turning diversion, Front Row at the Trump Show makes the administration seem slightly less than real, a distant episode that might almost involve some other country ... Unable even to muster this milquetoast call to action, Karl’s book ends by suggesting that if we just do nothing, the bad dream will go away on its own.
PositiveThe New RepublicGertner does not mince words ... By the time The Ice at the End of the World nears its conclusion, a bleak assessment of the future sprinkled with small bits of hope, the subjects of the book’s first half have completely disappeared. There’s not much mention of Peary, Nansen, or the other early explorers in the book’s second half, and not much of an attempt to bind the two unwieldy halves of the book together ... Another problem with Gertner’s book is his general lack of interest in the Inuit people whose relationship with Greenland long predates Europeans and Americans ... Gertner’s story writes off some 4,500 years of earlier history and human habitation ... the original inhabitants of Greenland are nothing more than foils to white men; they don’t seem to deserve their own role in this telling of Greenland’s history. But what the first half of the book does allow Gertner to do is to treat the scientists of the second half with...narrative gusto ... The evolution of the ice core hypothesis, the refinement of the techniques, and the gradual, stunning lessons learned by analyzing them, is a fascinating, compelling story that could have survived on its own without the earlier age of exploration. It is refreshing to read an actual history of climatology, and see how the succession of technological advances, accruing data, and new perspectives turned a hypothesis into solid data.
PositiveNew RepublicMorris’s book does for American history what Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium did for pre-modern European history: Rather than accept that the United States is ever proudly marching forward toward progress, enlightenment, and democracy, American Messiahs makes plain that we have always been a nation waiting on the cusp of the Millennium, and that time and time again we’ve turned to the prophets shouting that the End is close ... As such, they are, Morris reminds us, \'symptoms of the system’s health, not its disease.\'
PositiveLos Angeles Times\"Unlike Worsley’s grueling advance across an inhospitable continent, Grann’s prose moves at a brisk pace. Polar journeys are inevitably stories of monotony — the endless treks over unchanging landscape, the interminable periods of downtime waiting against the weather — but The White Darkness proceeds aplomb, with a style that conveys the immensity of Antarctica and the difficulty of Worsley’s journeys without ever bogging down. At times, the pace is a little too quick: Worsley’s second polar expedition in 2012 is covered in only two paragraphs. The photographs help fill in some of these gaps ... With more space, Grann might have delved into the historical and political implications of such a gripping yarn...\
PositiveLos Angeles Times\"... a svelte work of nonfiction that bridges memoir and the history of sleeplessness ... a wild ride through mythology, science and art ... These ideas and meditations often slip away from the reader before they’re fully-formed, as though Benjamin’s prose, itself sleepless, can’t hold on to one thought for too long before another is conjured. But the writing itself is so luminous that you hardly notice ... [Benjamin\'s writing can feel] effortless as a sleeping dog, [as it] carries you through Insomnia, the kind of book for those late hours of the night, keeping you company when you’re most alone.\
PositiveThe New RepublicMark Jacobson’s Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America traces Cooper’s life and the unlikely spread of his book Behold a Pale Horse, released in 1991 by Melody O’Ryin Swanson, a New Age publisher who claims she’s never read it, despite its perennially strong sales. It’s a story of the incubation of the politics of conspiracy, a kind of prologue to our era of Birthers, Pizzagate, and QAnon ... Behold a Pale Horse attempts to connect this story to the world we now inhabit, one where belief has eclipsed truth, and paranoia has eclipsed trust.
MixedThe New Republic...it’s important work in these perilous times. With fascism and authoritarianism once again on the rise, it’s more vital to do more than simply denounce something like Mein Kampf, and work instead to understand why so many readers found it appealing ... Kalder waits until the very end, past sometimes perfunctory synopses of other writers and regimes, to get to Turkmenistan, where his prose becomes suddenly luminous, elegiac, and even moving...Catching the regime at the perfect moment when its demise was evident but not yet realized, Kalder’s observations of Turkmenistan are among the most poignant and acute moments in the book ... one is reminded of how much is kept out of view in The Infernal Library—which is exactly the opposite way one should feel after finishing a book about writing and power. (It’s quite possible this was an editor or publisher’s decision, rather than Kalder’s, but it’s still not a good precedent.)
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times...while it can be tempting sometimes to see hoaxes as more or less victimless crimes (certainly Barnum thought they were), Young’s litany instead makes clear that there’s far more at stake here ... But it is not just a history of hoaxes Young is after; Bunk also offers a tour of the 'hoaxing of history': how the hoax threatens to overwrite actual history in favor of its pablum and nonsense ... long, overstuffed with anecdote and argument, a stylistic counterpoint to his spare, minimalist poetry. Its 477 some pages (plus another hundred of notes and sources) may seem daunting to some readers, but it’s a wild, incisive, exhilarating tour through Western culture’s sideshows and dark corners. Like a sideshow barker, Young writes with unbridled enthusiasm, a showman’s conviction, and a carny’s canny, telling a story that at times defies belief.
PositiveThe New RepublicBob Berman’s Zapped: From Infrared to X-Rays, the Curious Story of Invisible Light, tells the story of Röntgen’s rays, alongside so many other invisible waves we now take for granted ... Perennially curious and fascinated by this invisible world, Berman wants to bring to light these strange photons and wavelengths that went unseen for centuries, giving us insight into how they make and transform our world ... Like any good pop science book, along the way Zapped offers an endless series of tidbits... The history of invisible light is ultimately more than simply a history of technological discovery; it opens up news ways of thinking just as it closes others.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesBlind Spot features the same quality of Cole’s luminous prose, but if his earlier works, including his PEN/Hemingway-winning debut novel Open City, favored longer sentences flavored with Proustian digression, the writing here is tighter, more condensed. Like the images, the writing here is often dramatically cropped, offering fragments in lieu of extended arguments and reveries ... Blind Spot uses the interplay of visual information and textual information, creating connective threads that span the individual locations, multiplying their resonances ... Teju Cole has succeeded in shredding experience into tiny fragments, all of which add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksWriting about the conflict from the perspective of animals means approaching the subject obliquely, searching for traces that have been obscured, ferreting out voices among the voiceless. As such, Kean’s book works around the margins of World War II’s documentation ... By unearthing this odd but significant moment of compassionate hysteria, Kean’s book undercuts this portrayal of the resolute Empire, suggesting the terror and irrationality beneath the stiff upper lip.
PositiveThe New RepublicThe Stranger in the Woods is partly about what it means to be a hermit: Tactically, practically, psychologically. But Finkel’s book is also about what we want from hermits—why we’re endlessly fascinated by them, and why we’re just as often frustrated by them ... Among the more fascinating aspects of his story is just how close he was able to live near civilization, without ever being seen ... Reading The Stranger in the Woods, one is reminded of China Miéville’s sci-fi police procedural, The City and the City, in which two neighboring cities, Bes?el and Ul Qoma, overlap one on top of the other, even though they remain completely separate entities. This separation is maintained via conscious acts of will by the cities’ citizens, who 'unsee' anything that happens in the other city. It is a similar act of will that each of us employs to unsee the world that Knight discovered, even though it’s only a few feet in front of our faces ... Christopher Knight is an anti-Thoreau, and Finkel’s book, an anti-Walden.
PositiveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksSouth and West is an odd and compelling book — rooted utterly in a past now all but lost to us, while also incredibly timely and relevant ... Even underwater, and in its unpolished state, South and West still bears the hallmarks of Didion’s sparkling prose: her use of detail, juxtaposition, and compression ... The diary format plays to Didion’s strength; like The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, as well as older pieces like The White Album, South and West works because it is fragmentary, a constellation of observations in lieu of an advanced thesis. But this style also cannot help but highlight some of Didion’s usual shortcomings. Her penchant for gnomic phrases means that some of them, lacking elaboration, simply fall flat ... It may be unfair to read too much of 2017 into South and West, but given its publication at this moment in time it’s also impossible not to read too much into it. What emerges here, between California and the Real America, are not just two different communities, or political affiliations, but two different articulations of time itself ... South and West is vital, ultimately, for how it demonstrates (even inadvertently) how such a tension plays out.
MixedThe Los Angeles Review of Books...while this digression into the world of the detective doesn’t fit with the book’s other chapters per se, it does set up Braudy to move into his next archetype: the doppelgänger, the monster who is by definition Janus-faced. The doppelgänger is both monster and detective together in the same body ... At some point, inevitably, these beasts begin to blur and the distinctions strain, given Braudy’s ability to marshal so many different examples and draw so many conclusions from each. If anything, one wants more of Haunted...Each of Braudy’s monsters is fascinating in its own right, and each might have warranted its own book, or at least a longer section in this one. But what we do have is filled with various nuggets of insight that reflect Braudy’s acumen with close readings.
PositiveThe New RepublicGuilty Thing captures that propulsion that drives De Quincey’s greatest writings ... But that’s not to say that Guilty Thing doesn’t also ably cover De Quincey’s life; nor does it lack the small nuggets of joy one expects from a good biography...But mostly Wilson’s book seeks to capture the rush and urgency of a life lived in extremis ... Yoking De Quincey’s life to Wordsworth’s Prelude has its weaknesses.
PositiveThe New RepublicGleick’s narrative rarely proceeds chronologically, opting instead to bounce from topic to topic, back and forth along multiple axes, guided in many ways by the twin lights of H. G. Wells and Albert Einstein ... Time Travel remind[s] [us] of the way that one of literature’s great powers is to remind us that this might be the best of all possible worlds, and that we are here because we could be nowhere else.
RaveThe Los Angeles Review of BooksHaag’s book documents how the tragedy of American gun violence — including Newtown — emerged ‘from the banality of American gun business’ ... The Gunning of America details how, starting in the 1840s, manufacturers began to reconceptualize the gun from being an ‘exceptional martial tool,’ used only in wartime by governments, to an ‘unexceptional commercial commodity,’ like a stove or a wagon, to be owned by anyone … The current debate around the Second Amendment, and the notion that owning a gun is an American’s inalienable right, Haag shows, was the result of a concerted effort by gun industrialists to ship as many guns as possible to turn a buck.
RaveThe New RepublicA depressing litany, to be sure, though often unexpectedly poignant ... The term of art in Manseau’s book is the 'melancholy of its title: These reports, taken together, are not just a history of firearm accidents but also an archive of melancholy itself. For in the absence of a morality play with guilty parties, or an affirmation of a divine plan that may someday be known to us, what is left?