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.
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De QuinceyFrances Wilson
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.
Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural WorldsLeo Braudy
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.
Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad LuckPeter Manseau
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?
South and West: From a NotebookJoan Didion
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.
The Stranger in the WoodsMichael Finkel
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, Besźel 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.
The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two's Unknown TragedyHilda Kean
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.
Blind SpotTeju Cole
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.
Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible LightBob Berman
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.
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake NewsKevin Young
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.