Alden Mudge

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When biologist and writer Aarathi Prasad learned that a piece of fabric woven from threads produced by a Mediterranean mollusk called Pinna nobilis had been found outside Budapest in a tomb of a woman mummified in the style of the ancient Egyptians, she got on a plane.

The museum holding the remains and most of the documentation of the discovery had been destroyed in a Nazi bombing during the 1940s, but she was undeterred. “I called the museum,” says Prasad, “and asked, Is there any chance you have anything? They said, Yes, yes, come and see. . . . My daughter asked, ‘Are you some kind of spy?’ I landed in Budapest and went directly to the museum. It was closed. They let me into the basement. [The mummified woman] was wrapped in hemp, very well preserved, they said. But did you find any silk? [I asked.] They said yes, when the sarcophagus was opened there was very fine fabric covering her. But it disappeared as soon as the lid was lifted.”

The unusual, hermaphroditic Pinna nobilis mollusks anchor themselves to rocks using distinct, transparent threads that spawned a regional weaving culture likely dating back to before the Phoenicians. The mollusks themselves had been a robust part of local diets until human-induced sea warming resulted in massive die-offs and imposed harvesting limits. That’s just one example in hundreds of fascinating facts and stories Prasad relates in her illuminating Silk: A World History, a book born out of her own obsessive pursuit of knowledge. “I have heard it said that scientific study can take away a sense of wonder because science reduces a miraculous organism into mere mechanical parts,” she writes. “I have never found that to be true. Perhaps I find miracles in mechanisms.”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive.”

Prasad devotes much of the lively middle of her book to the biology, culture and elusive history of Pinna nobilis silk, seeking to resolve how long people have been weaving mollusk silk fabric. “It’s so intriguing,” she says. “Chances are this fabric was widely used around the Mediterranean. It existed. Then for a while no one knew it existed, and now we are trying to prove it existed. In the meantime, the animals these threads come from are critically endangered because of human activities. There’s a big metaphor about life somewhere in that.”

Normally Prasad’s research is not so dramatic. She is now an honorary researcher at University College London, and her current project is as a geneticist on archaeological digs in Rome and Pompeii. She raised her daughter, Tara, now in her early 20s, as a single parent while holding down academic and research jobs. Employment and parenting meant she usually worked on Silk and her two previous books, one on Indian medicine and the other on how science is altering conception, in the early mornings and late evenings. Tara has traveled with her on many research forays, to India and “into different, difficult situations,” Prasad says with a hint of pride, “so that she now tells people trying to advise her on her studies, ‘Oh, I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.’” Tara has also dismissed her mother’s experimental efforts to grow silkworms herself. “They poop a lot,” Prasad admits. “My daughter was disgusted.”

Prasad’s interest in silk arose first “through science, through the application of silk in regenerative medicine, creating new parts for the heart or applying it to rebuilding the body in a more organic, less invasive way.” Her book profiles the contemporary scientists working at the cutting edge of bioengineering animals like goats (so far unsuccessfully) to produce silk with the strength of a strand of a spider’s web, or experimenting with ways to incorporate silk into biomedicine or even as alternatives to plastics. “I was surprised in talking to these scientists to discover that they found the environmental impact more interesting than the surgical or biological applications,” Prasad says. “Because to them it’s a material that could and should be applied to planetary sustainability.”

That outlook is the almost polar opposite of the attitudes of many of the Western scientists Prasad profiles in the opening section of Silk. Curious, eccentric and sometimes obsessed, these were men (and some women) of their times: the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As such, their interests reflected a colonizer’s point of view.

“European science has actually been quite extractive,” says Prasad. “So I fell down this rabbit hole of colonial history. I learned this from my India book [In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room] as well. Countries colonized by the British and the French had their own systems of knowledge cut off. The British asked their military men and doctors to do etymology on the side. They said, essentially, go out and find the coal, go find the trees, go find the animals and plants. That’s how they made their money. There was a lot of abusive behavior, not even mentioning slavery. And how would scientists from Europe know about plants and animals in another country? By speaking to local people. But it is impossible to know who those people were because they were never named.”

Prasad’s awareness of cultural appropriation and the dismissal of Indigenous expertise percolates through the book, adding voltage to her depiction of the pursuit of knowledge about silkworms. The most common silkworm, Bombyx mori, was at the center of global trade. “The fact that it was bred for so long in homes and factories specifically for its silken cocoons,” Prasad writes, “made this caterpillar so docile, prevalent, and immobile that it would also become the focus of intense scientific study.” As described in magnificent detail here, Bombyx mori would become one of the first insects to be analyzed in precise anatomical detail in the 17th century by Marcello Malpighi. Silkworm studies also led an early researcher to propose a germ theory of disease before Louis Pasteur’s widely known discoveries. Later researchers would discover that the patterns on silk moths and other moths absorb sound energy from predatory bats using echolocation to hunt. The moths mimic the sound waves, allowing them to create a cloak against detection.

“I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them?”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive,” Prasad says, explaining her decision to nest the science in her early chapters within miniature biographies of the researchers and their cultures. “I grew up in the Caribbean and came to England as a teenager. I loved history but I had to choose at some point between history and science, and I chose science. In England I learned about the Normandy landings in the Second World War—not that there were Indians and Africans fighting in the war. Just the European perspective. Whereas in Trinidad, I learned about slavery and the Aztecs and all of these cultures that weren’t ours. Sometimes we have to educate ourselves because what we’re taught in schools is not necessarily going to give us the full story.”

She adds, “In writing the book, I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them? Their work was used but rarely acknowledged.”

Prasad found one of these women, Maria Sibylla Merian, particularly captivating. A 17th-century Dutch illustrator and naturalist, her drawings were used by Linneaus to classify more than 100 species. But her observations were often dismissed by male scientists. “She got on a ship and sailed with her daughter across the Atlantic,” Prasad says. “She was the first person to go to study nature as a scientist. Other people went for other reasons. Darwin went as a doctor. She went for science and nothing else. . . . She was a single mother too, and she wanted to see with her own eyes.”

Read our starred review of ‘Silk’ by Aarathi Prasad.

Photo of Aarathi Prasad by Tara Lumley-Savile.

Driven by obsession, Prasad records what silk can teach us about medicine, culture and scientific discovery itself.
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In The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud mesmerized readers with her psychologically astute character portrayals. This Strange Eventful History, her much anticipated sixth novel, draws from the stories of generations of Messud’s own French Algerian family and their reckoning with their position in colonial history.

“I’d been preparing all my life to write this book”: Read our starred review of This Strange Eventful History.

While This Strange Eventful History is a work of fiction, in the afterword, you note that your characters’ “movements hew closely to those of [your] own family.” Would you say more about the process of composing a novel inspired by your family history? Was your experience writing this book different from previous novels?

This novel is more ambitious in scale than anything I’d attempted previously—it spans seven decades and five continents. The places that the characters live at various times in the novel aren’t random—they’re the places where members of my family lived, at the times in which they lived there. The novel is shaped, then, by basic facts; and in some cases by historical incidents. I did a lot of research, in particular for the first half of the book—a good bit involving family documents, but also lots of plain old historical research.

The novel follows three generations of the Cassar family, beginning in Algeria as its colonizer France fell to the Nazis in 1940 and ending in Connecticut in 2010. What impelled you to explore this longer arc of family history?

In his retirement, my devoutly Catholic French grandfather wrote for my sister and me a family memoir about the years before and during the Second World War (covering 1928-1946). He called it “Everything that we believed in”—because he wanted to try to convey to us, his granddaughters, whose secular North American upbringing was so far from his own, what their lives had been like. I’ve realized, over the past decade or so, that the world in which I grew up—the world of the late 20th century, shaped by the postwar years that preceded it—has vanished. In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what it was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War. Because that cataclysm, of course, determined everything that followed.

Would you tell us about your choice of the novel’s title?

The title is a line from near the end of Jaques’ famous soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage,” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion; / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The novel is framed around François’ life—from the age of almost 9 until his death, over seven decades (“and one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages”). I chose the title both because it refers to that speech (which is reflected in the novel’s form) and because the shape of François’ life, and of the lives of his family members, are, to me at least, strange and eventful, without being grand or important.

“In order to explain to people of my kids’ age what [the world in which I grew up] was like—what we believed in, and what our parents believed in—I needed to write a novel that began with the Second World War.”

The Cassars’ unhappiness seems to be linked both to a scandalous secret and to being out of sync with history writ large. In your view, what is the relationship of your characters’ lives to larger forces of history?

The Cassars’ unhappiness both is and isn’t linked to a scandalous secret; each member of the family has their own relation to that secret, and for some it’s not unhappy at all—quite the opposite, indeed! I hoped to convey that events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference. If you’re devoutly religious, for example, something will look a certain way, and if you’re not, it looks different. The same of course goes for any of our beliefs.

The family is perhaps not so much out of sync with history as simply at the mercy of it. In this case, the family are French colonials in Algeria, and must make their lives elsewhere when Algerian independence comes. Again, each family member has a different reaction to that situation: Gaston and Lucienne put their faith in God, as he says, “like the birds on the breeze”; François creates a life far from France and never speaks of the past; while Denise shapes her life’s narrative around what she experiences as loss. This, I think, reflects the broader reality that each of us is always at the mercy of history’s great events—consider our lives just in the past few years, my goodness!—and that the only thing we have any control over (and sometimes precious little control at that) is how we understand and contend with our challenges.

Uprooted by war and the collapse of French colonialism, the Cassars move frequently, from Algeria to Massachusetts to Argentina, Australia, Canada and France. Your depictions of these places are vivid and precise. What kind of research did you do in composing the novel? How much arises from memory and how much from invention?

I did a lot of research—and I was fortunate to have a lot of help. This is the first time in my life that I’ve worked with research assistants. Over the many years that I worked on the novel, several amazing people helped me discover all kinds of things: political and military history about France, World War II and Algeria, but also what Amherst College was like in the early 1950s; what CEI, the business school outside Geneva, and its environs looked like; and about the man who ran it from the beginning—a great idealist. I’m very grateful to these brilliant helpers. I read lots of published books, of course, as well as my grandfather’s memoir (which is close to 1500 pages handwritten) and many family letters, spanning decades. For example, while I don’t have any letters my dad wrote when studying at Amherst, I have all the letters that his family wrote to him from Algeria. It was an amazing experience to unfold the onionskin sheets and know that nobody had read these pages since my dad tore open each letter, probably while walking out of the campus post office, back in 1953, and then stuffed them back in the envelope—reading them, time collapsed.

Chloe, the youngest Cassar, is the only character to narrate in the first person. From childhood, Chloe sees herself as a guardian to her family and a storyteller. She is curious, sometimes to the point of being nosy. She aspires to be a writer. Do you feel a particular kinship with Chloe?

Yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to a certain kinship with the character of Chloe—of course, that’s partly why her sections are in the first person. But they’re also in the first person because the understanding is that she’s the speaker in the prologue, and that she’s writing the book, as it were. I wanted the novel to reflect in some way her evolution, along with the narrative’s, from more traditional third person storytelling to increasing interiority and subjectivity. Hopefully that’s something the reader can feel in the changing rhythms of the prose as well as in the voice.

“Events are simply themselves, and how we understand them makes all the difference.”

Your novel contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have recently read. They are long, elaborate, stately and often inward-dwelling in a way that feels deliberate. Could you tell us about your choice of sentence structure?

Thank you so much—I’m so glad you liked the sentences. I don’t know that it’s so much a choice as almost a sense that the sentences come through me—I hear them in my head, their rhythms, like music. I can feel when a word is off, or the syntax. I have an innate feeling of the shape of a sentence—of each sentence, and of how they sit together as well as each on its own. For me that’s a big part of what writing is—the music of the language, interwoven with meaning. They’re inseparable.

At what point do you share drafts of your work in progress, and with whom?

Historically I’ve shared work earlier, but this time around, I simply had my head down, mostly. I’d written about 100 pages over several years and couldn’t find the space to do it properly while teaching full time, so I took an unpaid leave to write the rest of the book. That meant I had a bit less than eight months and no time to loiter. I write by hand, on graph paper, pretty small, and nobody can really read my manuscripts, or not without effort. So I had to type it into the computer before anyone could read anything. My husband is my first reader, and eventually he read parts of it, and then ultimately the whole thing. Luckily for me, we know each other well at this point; he’s great at being a cheerleader at the right moments, and then offering real criticism when that’s what’s called for.

What were the biggest challenges and satisfactions of writing This Strange Eventful History?

That’s a good question—I think they are linked, in fact. As I mentioned, the scale of this novel is bigger than anything I’d written before; finding a form that would enable me to take on such a long stretch of history, while still exploring the characters’ interiority and while not having the book collapse under its own weight—that was for me a central challenge. I can honestly say that I’d been preparing all my life to write this book, and I couldn’t have managed it earlier, for all sorts of reasons. So there’s real satisfaction simply in having got the book written, at last!

Claire Messud author photo © Lucian Wood.

The acclaimed author's latest family saga follows the French Algerian Cassars, who find themselves bit players in the global shifts following WWII.
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Claire Messud’s enthralling sixth work of fiction recounts the wanderings of three generations of the Cassar family over seven decades, from the Nazi occupation of France in June 1940 to the passing of François Cassar in Connecticut in 2010.

This Strange Eventful History opens with 8-year-old François wanting to write to his father in Salonica, Greece, to alert him about the French surrender. His father Gaston, a French naval attaché, has of course heard the sorry news and considers his options with a mixture of doubt, shame and defiance. He longs for his wife Lucienne, who has been and will be to the end of their days his “aIni,” his source. She and their children, François and Denise, have fled to their home in Algeria to wait out the conflict.

The Cassars are French Algerians, pieds-noirs, who have lived in Algeria since its colonization. They feel French, but they are regarded as outsiders in mainland France, especially after the Algerian revolution in 1954. François’ sense of not fitting in is one reason he leaves for America. Gaston, in a new career in the booming oil business, also learns he doesn’t fit in. A colleague tells him, “We lost the war, my friend. . . . To the victor go the spoils. The future is in oil, and the future is in English.” For this family, every success carries a germ of defeat.

But it isn’t only business and geopolitics that stymies the Cassars. Some whiff of family shame or dysfunction leaves François always feeling inadequate and warps his sister Denise into a delusional and increasingly alcoholic spinster, devoted to the care of their aging parents.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her descriptions of people and places are beautiful, precise and illuminating. Her understanding of the human soul is profound. This is reason enough to read the novel.

Yet the novel’s magic casts a wider spell. Chloe, a third-generation Cassar, is a novelist, like Messud. She wishes to write about and understand her family’s uncomfortable history. She observes, “A story is not a line; it is a richer thing, one that circles and eddies, rises and falls, repeats upon itself.” In This Strange Eventful History, Messud has given us that richer thing. It is amazing.

Read our interview with Claire Messud for This Strange Eventful History.

With thrilling, adventurous sentences, Claire Messud leads readers along the elusive edges of life, where family and national histories entwine. Her understanding of the human soul is profound.
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Aarathi Prasad does not exaggerate when she subtitles her fascinating new book “A World History.” Silk says little about trade routes or the precious fabric itself, but a lot about the ancient and modern cultures that cultivated silkworms and the wonderful biology of this shape-shifting insect.

Prasad is a biologist, so it is not surprising that the first and longest section of Silk relates the extraordinary stories of some of the methodical, obsessed, passionate observers—today we would call them citizen scientists—who steadily deepened our understanding of a variety of silk-producing insects. Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, began studying and drawing insects in 1660 when she was 13, and later produced beautiful, highly sought-after etchings of the transformation of caterpillars. Her observations led her to accurate conclusions about the life cycle of moths that were at odds with the standard wisdom of many trained men of science. Merian later traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, probably the most brutal slave state in the Americas, to continue her observations.

Merian, like the other appealing and idiosyncratic researchers Prasad portrays, was a product of her times. She was often dismissed because she was a woman, but she also participated in her society’s ingrained racism. Prasad is alive to these frictions. For example, she underlines the researchers who relied on unacknowledged native informants, and the vain British explorers who thought it impossible, even when confronted with evidence, that ancient Asian cultures could have produced technologically sophisticated societies. These complications increase our awareness that silkworms were as culturally fraught to the economies of their times as oil is to us today.

The second section is about sea silk, the weird, easily degradable thread from a Mediterranean sea mollusk now threatened with mass extinction. Prasad also explores with equal verve the many attempts to cultivate and monetize filaments of silk produced by spiders. In her final section, she examines the promises of using silk, a sustainable, biological material, for smart technologies “promoting health and preventing the further desecration of our natural world.”

Silk is entertaining and enlightening, brimming with story and scientific detail. It reveals a surprising history well worth knowing.

 

Aarathi Prasad’s entertaining and enlightening history of silk brims with story and scientific detail, revealing a surprising history well worth knowing.
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Kao Kalia Yang’s mother grew up in a Hmong village near the juncture of two rivers that run through the forests and highlands of Laos, a land that Yang writes evocatively about in the opening chapters of Where Rivers Part: A Story of My Mother’s Life. The Hmong, an ethnic minority in southwest China, Laos and surrounding countries, were devastated by the Vietnam War, which began soon after Yang’s mother Tswb (pronounced “chew’) was born. Her home village, Dej Tshuam, was a place where people were bound by family ties and ancestral traditions; her family fled the invasion of North Vietnamese soldiers when she was 14.

The ruinous impacts of the war on the lives of Yang’s parents and relatives are related here. But the point and power of Where Rivers Part lies elsewhere. In an audacious act of love and art, Yang writes this memoir from her mother’s point of view. We hear from Tswb’s perspective about her own mother’s marriage at 15 to a much older man with children, and how her mother transformed herself from a submissive wife and daughter-in-law into a matriarch. Later we experience teenage Tswb’s decision to marry a handsome 19-year-old boy named Npis (pronounced “be”) she met on the trail while their families were fleeing capture. Soon there are doubts and reassessments. We witness the emergence of the fierce determination to survive that will see her family through harrowing years of deprivation in a Thai refugee camp, and that will impel Tswb, Npis and their children forward as refugees making their way in the alien world of Minnesota.

There are moments of poignant beauty. There are also humiliations. Tswb is small and brown; her English is not good. In America, she is easily overlooked. In this exceptional book, Yang shows what a mistake it is to underestimate her: “I wanted to claim the legacy of the woman I come from, the women who had to define for themselves what it meant to live in a world where luck was not on your side.” She has done so with deep feeling and grace.

In the extraordinary Where Rivers Part, Kao Kalia Yang writes with deep feeling and grace about her mother, a Hmong woman who escaped the cascading violence from the Vietnam War.
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In her fourth novel, bestselling author Shilpi Somaya Gowda continues her empathic exploration of Indian American immigrant identity and experience. The central characters of A Great Country unexpectedly find themselves at the intersection of some of the nation’s most perilous social and political fault lines.

The novel opens on a Saturday night at a dinner party held to welcome Ashok and Priya Shah to their new neighborhood in Southern California’s wealthy Pacific Hills. The Shahs arrived in the U.S. some 20 years ago as penniless students and worked “their way up the socioeconomic ladder, as they were expected to as new immigrants.” This new life in the hills is a financial stretch, but they hope they can convince their longtime friends, also at the dinner, to make the move as well.

Meanwhile, the Shahs’ U.S.-born children are in trouble. Oldest daughter Deepa, a junior in high school, is being detained with her friend Paco after a protest at the U.S.-Mexico border turned violent. Their middle child, Maya, finds herself preoccupied with the Bakers, the Shahs’ extremely wealthy neighbors. And their 12-year-old son, Ajay, has just landed in jail, suspected of being a terrorist after flying a home-built drone next to the airport.

It’s Ajay’s arrest that sets the plot rolling like a ricocheting ball in a pinball machine. Ajay is scientifically gifted, brown skinned and tall enough to look older than he is. He might long ago have been diagnosed as autistic except that his father resisted the “culture of overdiagnosis in this country.” Ajay is misidentified by the press as a Muslim. The family is embarrassed when activists against police brutality take up their cause. Their inner domestic lives are blasted open in a media frenzy that makes most of their new neighbors suspicious of them.

If this sounds like a lot, it is. But somehow, in A Great Country, it mostly works. Gowda is superb at plotting and pacing, and the book spirits readers along. At the same time we learn enough of the histories of her characters to slow down and understand their dilemmas and the deep emotional stress these events place the family under. We feel for them and we will continue to think about them. Which, really, is just about the best we can hope for from a good read.

In Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s A Great Country, an Indian American immigrant family is unexpectedly thrown into the intersection of some of the nation’s most perilous social and political fault lines.
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Valerie Martin’s captivating new novel, Mrs. Gulliver, lies just beyond the horizon. The year is 1954. Verona Island floats a longish ferry ride away from the mainland. Lila Gulliver’s clients enter through a side door behind a hedge, unseen from the street, though prostitution is legal on the island.

Lila, who tells this tale, is a keen observer of surfaces. She crisply describes the clothing and demeanor of everyone we meet. Of the two destitute farm girls who arrive in her drawing room one humid day, Carita stands out. She possesses a rich velvet voice and “an archness as well, distant and amused.” Carita has been blind since birth. Lila thinks Carita might just fulfill a fantasy of some of her clients.

We readers, like Lila, her clients, her colleagues and a college boy named Ian, are soon enchanted by Carita. Lila notes that Ian is “a romantic, self-righteous boy, and I liked the idea of him with Carita, two healthy young bodies driven together by sexual attraction and not much else. . . . She would forget him in a month, but he would remember her for the rest of his life.”

Alas, Lila is not quite right. Ian decides he must save Carita from this den of iniquity. (Lila’s house, by the way, is a place where part-time sex worker Mimi describes the economic theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and Carita decides Marx is right.) Ian, scion of the wealthiest family on the island, is involved with a murder that may be a gangland hit. He loses his mind. He and Carita flee to an impoverished fishing village.

Many complications ensue, mostly having to do with money, and the varying temperatures and power dynamics of love. In her afterword, Martin writes that she did not want Carita to end up like Juliet Capulet, a tragic heroine. Instead, in Mrs. Gulliver, Martin offers us an idyll, perhaps even a comedy. Her touch is tender and light. There are shadows and there is sunshine. All’s well that ends well. We hope.

In Mrs. Gulliver, Valerie Martin offers us an idyll, perhaps even a comedy. All’s well that ends well. We hope.
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In Karen Outen’s adroit first novel, Dixon, Descending, Dixon Bryant carries a lot of baggage up Mount Everest. And even more coming down.

Part of that baggage involves his relationship with his brother, Nate. Sixteen months older than Dixon and now approaching 50, Nate, the long-awaited first son, has always been the “gift” to their parents. Charismatic, irrepressible and sometimes irresponsible, Nate is a bright balloon floating high in the air. Dixon, the wise, soulful, solid brother, holds the string. It is Nate who proposes that the brothers become the first Black American men to summit Everest.

Everest and the people who climb it form a world all their own. Outen, whose endnotes describe her passion for the mountain, writes breathtaking passages about the brothers’ experiences there: the competitive companionability of other climbers; the smell and sounds of the ever-shifting mountain; and, of course, the gut-wrenching dangers of the ascent. Nate and Dixon and their climbing team have lighter moments in camp, but as the brothers climb higher, things get deadly serious. In the rarefied air near the summit, slowed by the long line of climbers and barely able to breathe, the brothers have to make impossible choices about their ambitions, responsibilities and love for one another.

Back near sea level in Maryland, Dixon has more to contend with. Family and friends, for one. But more pressing is a matter at the middle school where he works as a beloved school psychologist. He has taken a bullied boy, Marcus, under his wing. When Marcus is viciously beaten, in an uncharacteristic moment, Dixon violently confronts the tormentor, an irreparably damaged soul named Shiloh. As a result, Dixon goes on leave and follows an unexpected path to self-discovery and expatiation.

That Outen can rather seamlessly meld these two fraught strands of story is a marker of her flowering skill as a writer. An additional gift of the novel is how much it has to reveal about love and friendship among Black men. That alone makes Dixon, Descending a worthy read.

In the rarefied air near the summit, two brothers must make impossible choices about their ambitions, responsibilities and love for one another as they attempt to become the first Black American men to climb Everest.
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Edda L. Fields-Black’s extraordinary Combee: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee River Raid, and Black Freedom During the Civil War will not be for every reader. It is long and very detailed. Reading it is sometimes like watching the slow, painstaking process of an archaeological dig—but readers who stick with the book will come away satisfied by Fields-Black’s patient unearthing.

The event at the center of her excavation is the June 20, 1863, Combahee River Raid. During that pre-dawn attack, 300 Black Union soldiers torched seven South Carolina rice plantations along a 15-mile stretch of the river, causing millions of dollars of damage to crops and property and striking “fear into the heart of the rebellion.” Their guide was Harriet Tubman—today known around the world for her work in the Underground Railroad, but less so for her courageous military history. With Tubman acting as intermediary, 746 men, women and children fled to the river’s edge and boarded the Union boats to escape slavery. The raid served notice that Black men—both formerly enslaved and free—could become effective, disciplined Union soldiers.

These events have been narrated elsewhere, but never with such a passion for factual depth and precision. Combee is often revelatory. The author of Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora, Fields-Black conveys that the South Carolina rice economy was essential to the Confederacy and involved remarkable feats of technology and engineering, much of them performed by enslaved people taken from rice growing regions of Africa. Fields-Black’s approach to the Combahee River Raid also provides insight into the remarkable abilities of Tubman to communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers and to move stealthily through the South unnoticed.

Prior to this account, many of these freedom seekers had been lost to history. Most, like Tubman, were illiterate and did not record their experiences; plantation records were destroyed in the raid. Through herculean research and cross-referencing of land, bank, U.S. Army pension and slavery transaction records, Fields-Black is able to name names (including her great-great-great grandfather Hector Fields) and offer readers a sense of who these people were and what their lives were like. Combee holds many additional revelatory threads and insights within its depths, but this act of resurrection alone makes the book profoundly important.

Edda L. Fields-Black’s revelatory Combee narrates the 1863 Combahee River Raid, in which Harriet Tubman led Black soldiers to liberate more than 700 enslaved people.
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In the past two decades, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—widely known as the Mormon church—has relaxed its iron grip on its archives, allowing some historians to conduct research in its vast library. Professor of religious history Benjamin E. Park has availed himself of this new access and of the work of other contemporary historians to write an absorbing history of the church and its culture. American Zion: A New History of Mormonism argues that Mormon history is surprisingly complex, and its evolution mirrors the struggles of American society. 

Mormons were, from the outset, outsiders. They interpreted the Constitution’s protection of freedom of religion as extending to the practice of polygamy; this belief did them no favors as they sought a home. They were dispelled from state to state as zealots, sometimes through violence—their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob in Illinois. Escaping to the Utah desert, they were beset by the federal government, which refused to let them form a “State of the Desert” unless they renounced polygamy. Wary, they zealously guarded their records, putting their own spin on their history. In this century, they allied with the religious right and the Republican Party in culture wars and more fully entered the American mainstream, even producing a formidable presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

American Zion presents an engaging account of the personalities that loom large in the religion, especially Smith and the church’s second president, Brigham Young. But Park also shows how events and attitudes outside the church have divided the faith. He traces its complicated history of racial bias; its misogyny and, fascinatingly, history of feminism among early Mormon women; its stance on LGBTQ+ rights; and how a church still governed largely by elderly white American men is faring as its membership grows internationally. 

Park, a Mormon himself, tells the story from the inside with neutrality; while he’s critical of the faith’s leaders, he has no ax to grind. If you’re looking for a more dramatic treatment, a la Jon Krakauer’s The Banner of Heaven and its ensuing television series, American Zion may not be for you. But if you’re a curious, measured reader, you’ll likely agree with the author that “Mormonism is a deep well.”

Benjamin E. Park’s absorbing history of Mormonism, American Zion, effectively argues that the faith’s evolution mirrors the struggle of American society.
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There are WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the demographic that dominated American culture well into the 20th century, and there are WASPs, the subset of the demographic that the late political columnist Joseph W. Alsop labeled the “WASP Ascendancy.” These were the Americans who, Michael Gross writes in his delightfully provocative new book, formed “a hereditary oligarchic upper class” for most of our history. This ruling class, Gross admits, was not a monolith. But despite internal disputes, it ran the government and economy and defined the culture of the American experiment for 350 years.

Now WASP power is in eclipse. That’s not a completely bad thing, Gross says, because in addition to founding the Republic and enshrining lofty ideals, WASPs enslaved some, excluded others, fattened their wallets and jealously guarded their privileges. He writes that the presidency of Donald Trump “represented the clan’s nadir—a repudiation of the tattered remains of WASP virtue.” Still, Gross wonders if today, “a selfish, narcissistic, tribal, atomized nation might still look to WASPs for a restorative example of America’s civic conscience.”

This is the argument of Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class. The theory—though absorbing and debatable—isn’t the star of the show. The book’s real delight lies in its brisk biographies of the people who illustrate the ascent and descent of WASP hegemony. Gross begins with the Pilgrim leader William Bradford, who helped establish the New England theocracy that eventually gave rise to the ideals and practices of American self-government. A marvelous chapter spotlights the too-little appreciated Gouverneur Morris, often called “Penman of the Constitution.” Gross also describes less savory figures like John Randolph of Virginia, a virulent advocate for slavery who infamously caned an opponent on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, an esteemed paleontologist and longtime head of the American Museum of Natural History—and, alas, co-founder of the wildly racist American Eugenics Society.

Gross’ choices of biographical subjects are unexpected, even idiosyncratic. They will convince many readers of his overall argument, or send them on to further reading. Well-researched and well-written, Gross’ portrait gallery will, if nothing else, illuminate the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite and American history itself.

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.
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Ye Chun’s ambitious first novel, Straw Dogs of the Universe presents a concise dramatization of the history of early Chinese immigration to the American West. Many of us know the outlines of this era, which began with the importation of Chinese labor for the construction of the transcontinental railroad and ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first law to restrict immigration to the U.S. based on race or ethnicity. Using a relatively small number of characters, Chun personalizes both the fear and despair that pervaded the lives of so many of these immigrants, and the fortitude, hope and love that they cultivated anyway.

The central quest of the novel is for Sixiang to find her father, Guifeng, whom she has never met. Sixiang is 10 years old when her village in Guangdong, China, is destroyed by a flood and subsequent famine. She holds faith in her ability to survive even after her mother, for food and money, trades her to a trafficker who transports her to “Gold Mountain,” a Chinese name for the western U.S. in the period during and after the California Gold Rush. Too young for prostitution, she is sold as a house servant, then taken in by missionaries. After escaping the mission and sheltering with a man who had known her father while working on the railroad, Sixiang begins the journey that takes her into the Sierra near Truckee, California.

In alternate chapters, we learn about the life of Sixiang’s father, Guifeng. Tantalized by his own father’s dream of Gold Mountain, he leaves home and contracts with a railroad building team. On his first and only day in San Francisco, he sees a woman from his village he had loved from afar as a boy, Feiyan, who has been enslaved as a prostitute. Although he is sent the following day to a work site in the Sierra, he continues to obsess over Feiyan, eventually returning to help her escape and later starting a second family with her. But his new life falters when he becomes addicted to opium.

At each juncture of her story, Chun examines both large-scale injustices—Chinese people murdered and their white killers released—and smaller humiliations—a temporary employer finds Sixiang’s name too hard to say and instead calls her “Cindy.” The novel culminates with the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from Truckee, once the second largest Chinatown in the US. It is a time of shock and terror, but for this novel’s protagonists, also a time of adaptation and endurance.

Ye Chun personalizes both the fear and despair that pervaded the lives of 19th-century Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and the fortitude, hope and love that they cultivated anyway.
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As an immigrant from a “rich Arab country,” Lamya H was often asked by acquaintances in the American LGBTQ+ community how she could possibly remain a practicing Muslim, given Islam’s reputation for oppressing women and queer people. Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya’s memoir, is a generous, probing and candid response to that query.

Through its 10 chapters, the memoir generally follows the arc of Lamya’s life, beginning when she was a young girl in an international Islamic school, discovering her attraction to women and sometimes feeling suicidal. She moved to New York City at 17 to attend university, feeling unsure of her sexuality and of America’s gay culture. Now in her mid-30s, she has found love, her people and a life she could not have imagined as a teenager.

What is beautiful and brilliant about Hijab Butch Blues is that in each chapter, Lamya evokes a formative moment in her life through emotional and intellectual dialogue with a story from the Quran. The first chapter, “Maryam,” centers on a narrative that Christians will recognize as a version of the story of the Virgin Mary. As a young teenager, Lamya was transfixed by it because of how a despairing Maryam considers committing suicide, just as Lamya herself had. Thoughtful and questing, Lamya continued reading and found in Maryam’s story a way forward. The year she discovered this story, she writes, is “the year I choose not to die. The year I choose to live.”

Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

In a chapter on Allah, Lamya recounts her questions about the nature of God, which she began asking as a 6-year-old. Is God a woman? A man? A pious religious teacher told her that Allah is not a man or a woman. This was a mystery and a revelation, and it helped her in later years as her family attempted to mold her in traditionally gendered ways. She learned how important it was “for me to use the pronoun they for God,” she writes, “my God, whom I refuse to define as a man or a woman, my God who transcends gender.”

Chapter by chapter, readers will feel a growing appreciation for Lamya’s intelligence, eloquence and courage. Along the way, we learn vivid details about her life and outlook—that, for example, she was a diligent, bright student with a disruptive sense of humor; that her parents immigrated to an Arab nation from a South Asian country for better opportunities and, as a result, that she and her brother experienced bias because of their brown skin; that she was immediately uncomfortable in New York’s gay bar scene and struggled to feel “authentically gay”; that she is ambivalent about America; that she loves her parents and feels OK not coming out to them.

Lamya H is a pseudonym, and her reasons for using one make sense. But even without using her real name, in Hijab Butch Blues she is observant, passionate and anything but voiceless.

Lamya H’s memoir is a generous, probing and brilliant response to the question of how she could be both a queer person and a practicing Muslim.

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