Harvey Freedenberg

In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.

Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.

In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.

Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.

Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.

Though Emma Smith’s lively and engaging history of the book reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight general readers and bibliophiles everywhere.

It’s been seven years since the publication of John Irving’s last novel (Avenue of Mysteries), so for fans who’ve followed him over the course of a career spanning more than half a century, The Last Chairlift will feel like settling into a well-worn pair of slippers. They’ll have plenty of time to savor that comfortable sensation in this 900-page family story that’s packed with emotion, insight and compassion for our flawed humanity.

“My life could be a movie,” writes Adam Brewster, the first-person narrator of the novel, and there’s definitely a cinematic quality to the story. (The novel includes two of Adam’s full-length screenplays, and a character from the film business plays a central role.) Like Irving, Adam was born in 1942, raised in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire, and is a novelist with a “disaster-prone imagination” who writes several bestselling books after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. These are far from the only correlations between creator and protagonist.

The Last Chairlift follows Adam from birth through late middle age, and much of the story is animated by his search for the man who fathered him in Aspen, Colorado, at the real-life Hotel Jerome. Adam is raised by his ski instructor mother, Rachel, and, as he enters his teens, a stepfather, Elliot Barlow. Elliot eventually undergoes a gender transition, and Rachel settles into a long-term relationship with Molly, whom she meets at a New Hampshire ski resort. Two other characters play major roles: Adam’s cousin Nora and her nonspeaking partner, Emily, who perform a standup routine called “Two Dykes, One Who Talks” at a New York City comedy club with the lugubrious name of the Gallows Lounge.

Along with raising questions of sexual identity and gender bias, The Last Chairlift nods prominently to Irving’s earlier novels The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, and features many of his familiar narrative flourishes: murders, wrestling, spectacular accidents (a lightning strike and an avalanche-caused train derailment, for starters), pointed social commentary on subjects such as the Vietnam War and the AIDS epidemic, and loads of dark humor. Irving has long acknowledged his debt to Charles Dickens, and the novel does have its Dickensian moments, but the work whose spirit hovers most prominently over this story is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a favorite of several characters and a frequent reference point.

“Unrevised, real life is just mess,” Adam writes in one of his screenplays, and Irving has served up a substantial helping of that messiness in this empathetic novel. With Irving celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, his publisher has announced that The Last Chairlift will be his last big novel. For all the enjoyment more modest works may bring, this one is a fitting valediction to his distinguished literary career. 

With John Irving celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, his publisher has announced that The Last Chairlift will be his last big novel. For all the enjoyment more modest works may bring, this one is a fitting valediction to his distinguished literary career.

In his 2021 book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders turned to Russian literary giants like Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy to provide the source material for a stimulating master class on the craft of the short story. With Liberation Day, Saunders offers up nine of his own inimitable stories, each serving to enhance his status as a contemporary master of the form. It’s his fifth collection, featuring four new stories and five previously published in The New Yorker.

Saunders has a fondness for challenging readers by dropping them into an alien environment and then patiently revealing details that bring a hazy picture into sharp focus, gradually making it all feel uncomfortably familiar. That’s true of the novella-length title story, in which a group of characters, led by the narrator, Jeremy, is programmed to deliver reenactments of historical events—in this case a graphic rendering of Custer’s “last stand” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In “Ghoul,” another unfortunate coterie serves as actors in an underground amusement park, slowly discovering, to their horror, the truth of their plight. And in “Elliot Spencer,” the already damaged titular character finds himself manipulated by an unscrupulous group of political activists.

Not all of Saunders’ stories qualify as material for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” “A Thing at Work” is a nightmarish version of “The Office,” shifting seamlessly among the perspectives of four characters in a chess game of escalating retribution, while “Mother’s Day” explores the bitterness that remains between two aging women who once loved the same man. “Love Letter” is a moving and at times chilling letter, written by a grandfather to grandson, that serves as both an apologia and a warning. The letter describes a turbulent political era uncomfortably similar to our own, when the grandfather and his wife watched as the TV “blared this litany of things that had never happened, that we could never have imagined happening,” all the while assuming “that those things could and would soon be undone and that all would return to normal.” 

The volume concludes with the small gem “My House,” a haunting tribute to the persistence of desire and human folly, whose seven pages are a gorgeous example of Saunders’ ability to evoke heightened emotion with the most economical prose. 

Describing the work of his Russian subjects in Swim, Saunders wrote that they “seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool.” In Liberation Day, Saunders is actuated by similar concerns, focusing his attention on how, for better or worse, we weigh the moral choices we’re called upon to make and how we live with the consequences.

In his fifth story collection, George Saunders focuses his attention on how, for better or worse, we weigh the moral choices we’re called upon to make and how we live with the consequences.

Ever since the publication of her first novel, Jack (1989), and continuing through her 2018 story collection, Days of Awe, A.M. Homes has focused with laserlike precision on some of the darkest corners of contemporary American life. It makes sense, then, that in her provocative novel The Unfolding, she would turn to a bitingly satirical exploration of our current political predicament. 

Homes’ novel smartly imagines the machinations of a shadowy group of rich and powerful men who organize for action in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Calling themselves the “Forever Men,” they’re led by a character identified only as “the Big Guy,” who divides his time between a Wyoming ranch and a luxurious home in Palm Springs, California. There’s also a retired general with connections at the deepest levels of the American security establishment, a Texas judge and a “mad scientist” whose expertise includes a gift for spotting emerging trends.

When they’re not riding in a hot air balloon or participating in target practice, the men ponder in self-aggrandizing terms “how to reclaim our America, a traditional America that honors the dreams of our forefathers.” In truth, the heart of their project is ensuring the preservation of an American democracy that they believe is about “capitalism, guns, and lower taxes.” The suggestion of a “seamless transition unfolding in the corridors of power, a slow roll to the right that no one sees coming,” has an eerily familiar feel.

But even as the conspirators plot to wrest America from the Obama coalition and return it securely to the control of their fellow wealthy white men, the Big Guy must deal with a complicated assortment of challenges closer to home. His wife’s alcoholism is worsening, and his independent-minded 18-year-old daughter, safely ensconced in an all-girls boarding school in Virginia, is beginning to formulate her own ideas of how the world should to work. When the Big Guy is forced to reveal a long-buried family secret, his once-tidy life teeters on the edge of implosion. 

Homes ends her story on January 20, 2009, Obama’s inauguration day, before the group’s hostile takeover plan is actually set in motion. If only for that reason, The Unfolding is a novel that cries out for a sequel. On the other hand, Homes cannily suggests, maybe that sequel is playing out right before our eyes.

Through the story of a shadowy group of rich and powerful men who organize for action in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election in 2008, A.M. Homes offers a bitingly satirical exploration of our current political predicament.

Like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, The Last White Man, awakens one morning to find that he’s undergone a startling change. But instead of assuming the form of an insect, Anders, who went to sleep a white man, rises to discover that his skin has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Hamid, whose previous novel, Exit West, explored the plight of refugees and the issue of immigration through the lens of magical realism, now employs a similar technique to consider the concept of race in this thoughtful allegory.

Once Anders overcomes his initial shock and summons the courage to re-enter the world in his changed condition, he discovers, to his surprise (if not necessarily relief), that his altered appearance is “not unique, nor contagious.” When he returns to the gym, he finds himself suddenly contemplating the possibility of a different relationship with the “dark-skinned cleaning guy,” but Anders’ interactions become increasingly strained. Through his eyes, and those of his girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor who must “will herself to see Anders” in the man who, in reality, is different only in a superficial way, Hamid subtly exposes how judgments of others are so often based on the most superficial characteristics, like skin color.

Hamid only alludes to the dislocation that results from the gradual but inexorable physical transformation of more and more people in the unnamed town and country where the novel is set. Mentions of riots and kidnappings give a sense that society is spinning out of control and hint at the breadth of the disruption, but the struggles of Anders and Oona remain in the foreground.

But Hamid doesn’t confine his attention to The Last White Man’s theme of racial identity. This is also a novel about families, and specifically about the complex relationships between adult children and their parents. Anders’ father, who’s entering the final phase of a terminal illness, is baffled by his son’s changed appearance, and yet he provides a safe haven when white vigilantes arrive at Anders’ door. Oona’s mother, in contrast, is terrified by the present events, her anxiety fueled by the apocalyptic conspiracy theories she consumes obsessively on television and the internet. For both Anders and Oona, the limits of filial love are put to the test.

In recent years, and increasingly since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there have been countless sociological and political analyses of Americans’ fraught encounters with the construct of race. Hamid adds a worthy voice to the conversation and reminds us yet again that fiction sometimes provides the most direct path to truth.

With his fifth novel, a thoughtful allegory featuring a Gregor Samsa-esque physical transformation of light skin to dark, Mohsin Hamid reminds us yet again that fiction sometimes provides the most direct path to truth.

If it were possible to sum up Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome and Other Stories in a word, it would be humane. In the 12 wide-ranging, consistently empathetic stories that compose his second collection, he creates a memorable assortment of characters who bump up against life’s inevitable obstacles, large and small, then stumble through or surmount them.

The collection’s titular novella embodies all these qualities. Its protagonist, Jack Rigel, is an unhappy 21-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, who improbably receives a scholarship from the local Knights of Columbus to study Latin in Rome in 1993. After he arrives, he inadvertently encounters an Italian actress he’s idolized and an American TV star whose career is on a downward trajectory, setting his life on an unexpected new course. The story of Jack’s coming-of-age is both wistful and often comic.

The Angel of Rome audiobook
Read our starred review of the audiobook for Jess Walter’s collection.

Walter makes use of his hometown of Spokane, Washington, as the setting for several of these stories, among them “Mr. Voice,” selected for Best American Short Stories 2015. The eponymous character, who’s a ubiquitous presence on local radio whose “rumble narrated our daily life,” turns out to be more than a set of well-tuned vocal cords. In “To the Corner,” which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2014, an aging widower contemplates the end of his life as he watches the young boys hanging out across the street from his house, never imagining the role they might play in giving him a reason to live.

The collection’s concluding story, “The Way the World Ends,” is representative of Walter’s light touch and ability to expose his characters’ flaws with a combination of candor and sympathy. Two climate scientists interviewing for the same position at Mississippi State University spend an alcohol-drenched evening with their faculty hosts, bemoaning the rapidly approaching demise of the planet. Jeremiah Ellis, a Black student manning the desk at the university guest house where they’re carrying on their revels and who’s recently come out of the closet, overhears their grim musings. His reaction in the bright light of the morning is both chastening and a reminder of the persistence of hope.

The tales in The Angel of Rome aren’t easily categorized, but each one, in its own way, provides a refreshingly honest glimpse into what it means to be alive.

The tales in Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome and Other Stories aren’t easily categorized, but each one provides a refreshingly honest glimpse into what it means to be alive.

Sleepwalk is a wild ride across an eerie near-future America in the company of a surprisingly endearing kidnapper, arsonist and hit man. As emotionally charged as it is comically bleak, Dan Chaon’s fast-paced novel is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Chaon’s off-the-grid 50-something protagonist, Will Bear, thinks of himself as a “blank Scrabble piece” whose collection of aliases is rivaled only by his stash of burner phones. Fresh from a courier assignment, he answers one of those burners and is greeted by the voice of a young woman who calls herself Cammie and claims she’s Will’s daughter, the result of a sperm donation made three decades earlier. Things only get stranger from there, as Cammie reveals that Will’s contributions may have resulted in a small army of offspring.

Sleepwalk follows Will and Flip, the pit bull he rescued from a dog-fighting compound, in a race across a bleakly beautiful American landscape that’s scarred by civil unrest and plague cities, its endless highways now dotted with military checkpoints and “rabbit-beetle hybrid drones.” Though Will, who’s fond of microdosing LSD and ruminating about his epitaph, is increasingly intrigued by the prospect of being the patriarch of an expanding brood, the criminal syndicate that employs Will has reasons for dispatching him to eliminate Cammie—reasons that slowly become clear to him.

As Will shifts from being the target of Cammie’s outreach to becoming her ostensible pursuer in a shifting game of cat-and-mouse, he also has considerable time to reflect on his own troubled early years in the company of a mother who was “on the sociopathic spectrum, I guess,” and was “part of an anarchist collective that was more or less a cult,” a life that launched Will on his own shadowy career.

In Sleepwalk’s short, tightly written chapters, descriptions of apocalyptic cults, bizarre eugenics schemes and sheer mayhem vie with Will’s moments of profound regret and the faint hope that somehow his life could take a different path, as he longs to “wake up someday on a desert island with amnesia.”

The author of six previous books (both novels and story collections) that feature suspenseful plots and a distinctive literary flair, Chaon marries those qualities once again in memorable fashion while never losing sight of Sleepwalk’s emotional core: an interrogation of the power of ancestry and the way it helps shape our destinies.

Dan Chaon's Sleepwalk is both a dystopian thriller chilled to perfection and an often-touching exploration of the enduring power of parental and filial love.

Fans of Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, Election (the inspiration for the beloved film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick), will be delighted that protagonist Tracy Flick gets another star turn. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the sharp-elbowed high schooler with visions of becoming the first female president is now a 40-ish, world-weary (albeit still driven) assistant principal of Green Meadow High School in suburban New Jersey, where she hopes to ascend to the top job after the principal announces his retirement. The darkly comic story that ensues is further proof of Perrotta’s mastery of the subtle complexities of American suburban life.

Tracy’s quest for what she believes is a well-deserved promotion plays out against the search for the first inductees into the high school’s Hall of Fame. The institution is the brainchild of Kyle Dorfman, an alumnus and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s returned to his hometown and now serves as president of the school board. Kyle believes the plan to honor some of the high school’s distinguished graduates will help dispel the “pall of mediocrity and depression hanging over the place.”

As the principal succession search plods on, fueling Tracy’s anxiety at the prospect that she’ll be passed over for a less-qualified candidate, the Hall of Fame committee dutifully sifts through the list of nominees. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Vito Falcone—a former football star who played briefly in the NFL—but the memory of his achievements on the field has been darkened by his alcoholism and the wreckage of three failed marriages. Several of the other candidates, among them a local car dealer and an obscure novelist, possess even more dubious backstories.

Perrotta expertly plumbs the depths of his characters’ lives and loves from multiple points of view, sympathetically assessing their achievements and regrets at falling short of their own expectations and those of the people around them. At the center of the story, of course, is Tracy, whose dream of a life at the pinnacle of American politics vanished long ago in the face of familial duty.

With a light touch, Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success and how we judge what counts as a meaningful life. By the time the Hall of Fame induction ceremony arrives, he has skillfully laid the foundation for the shocking climax of this fast-moving novel. Just as in real life, there are winners and losers, but as he reminds us in this deceptively simple but memorable story, assigning them to their respective categories may not be as easy as it might appear.

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by Lucy Liu and a full cast!

With a light touch, Tom Perrotta raises thoughtful questions about the true measure of success in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, his memorable return to the heroine of Election.

You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

In 2014, the well-known literary blogger Maud Newton wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine titled “America’s Ancestry Craze.” Now, in her first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, she significantly expands on that piece, blending a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.

Newton introduces a large cast of characters from her lineage, some of whom were accused of murder and witchcraft. The conflict-filled marriage of her parents—a father from whom she’s been estranged for two decades and who would welcome the return of slavery, and a mother who believes in demonic possession and once led a fundamentalist church in her living room—provides rich narrative material, as do Newton’s often moving reflections on her markedly different relationships with her Texas and Mississippi grandmothers.

Maud Newton, author of ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ shares how she’s working to acknowledge the sins of her ancestors.

In the most incisive and tough-minded chapters of the book, Newton confronts the twin “monstrous bequests” of her ancestors: their ownership of enslaved people and involvement with the dispossession of America’s Indigenous population. She was able to trace her father’s forebears’ slaveholding back to 1816, which she more or less expected. But in the process, she made the unpleasant discovery that there are also slave owners in her maternal lineage, and that she’s descended from Massachusetts settlers who expropriated the lands of native tribes through treachery and violence.

As absorbing as it may be, Newton’s family story is only one element of her account. Ancestor Trouble broadens into a much deeper excavation of the subject of ancestry that ranges widely across an abundance of topics, among them the allure and danger of websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and the spiritual practice of ancestor veneration. She also investigates controversies in cutting-edge DNA research, acknowledging that apparent scientific advances are not always unalloyed goods.

Newton’s family history is uniquely hers, but her book arms anyone who’s ever been tempted to visit their own ancestry in a serious way with a host of provocative questions to consider.

In her striking debut, Maud Newton blends a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.
Interview by

According to an article in the MIT Technology Review, by early 2019, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the four leading commercial ancestry and health databases. That level of interest cries out for an in-depth examination of genealogy’s broad appeal, and Maud Newton gives us just that in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

Speaking by FaceTime from her home in Queens, New York, the red-haired and bespectacled Newton is relaxed and cordial as she sits in front of a wall of glass-enclosed bookshelves. She speaks thoughtfully but with evident passion about a project that had its genesis some 15 years ago, when she started researching her family on Ancestry.com. But it wasn’t until 2010, when she received her 23andMe DNA test results, that her interest in the subject took off. Even then, she admits, she was “puzzled by my obsession with it. I wasn’t really sure exactly what I was trying to get at.”

Read our starred review of Maud Newton’s ‘Ancestor Trouble.’

A 2014 cover story for Harper’s Magazine on “America’s Ancestry Craze” led to a book contract and launched Newton, a writer and former book blogger who briefly practiced law before her literary career began, on a long and sometimes circuitous path through subjects like the heritability of trauma and the spiritual importance of ancestors in various cultures. “As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited,” she says, “but I really wanted to do my best.” The broad reading list reflected in her book ranges from ancients like Aristotle and Hippocrates to the work of contemporary writers such as Dani Shapiro and Alexander Chee.

At the core of Ancestor Trouble is Newton’s complex and often difficult family story. She describes her birth as a “kind of homegrown eugenics project,” writing that her parents “married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together.” The union between her father, a Mississippi-born lawyer and unabashed racist, and her mother, a Texas native who later in life became a fundamentalist minister who conducted exorcisms in the family living room, lasted only 12 years but left Newton with a colorful, though at times painful, lineage to explore.

Among the most memorable characters in her family line are her maternal ninth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced multiple allegations of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, and her maternal grandfather, Robert Bruce, who reportedly married 13 times. (So far, Newton has only been able to document 10 marriages, though she’s still searching.) Another is Charley, Robert’s father, who was accused of murdering a man in downtown Dallas with a hay hook in 1916. He died in a Texas mental hospital, but Newton became so engrossed in his story that she purchased a tombstone to mark his previously anonymous grave.

“As a layperson, my ability to understand the deep science was limited, but I really wanted to do my best.”

For Newton, the most problematic aspect of her ancestry concerns her family’s connections with slavery and with efforts to expel Indigenous peoples from their native lands. On her father’s side, that history hardly came as a surprise; he was, after all, obsessed with the Confederacy. But Newton was dismayed to discover that some of her mother’s ancestors also enslaved people and participated in genocide against Native Americans. “It was an unpleasant surprise, but ultimately a healthy and useful one,” Newton says, “to recognize that it wasn’t possible for me to divide my family into the part that enslaved people and that I didn’t relate to as much, and the part that I related to more that didn’t have this history. It was on all the sides.”

Though her family history is rife with material, Newton wanted to write a book that was more than a conventional family memoir. “The only way I wanted to write it was if I could . . . look at it through these different lenses, both through my own family history and in the larger historical, sociological, scientific, philosophical and religious history context,” she says.

That broad perspective magnified Newton’s reservations about online DNA research websites like the ones that launched her investigation. “I am very skeptical and very concerned about the data those sites are collecting and the lack of control we have over what is done with that data,” she says. “And I also continue to use both of those sites regularly. I objectively think they’re highly problematic, and on a personal level, I continue to be seduced by the tools that they offer.”

“Making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Newton’s comprehensive approach also led her to explore different ancestor veneration practices, such as Tomb-Sweeping Day in China and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. As she studied these rituals throughout history and the world, she came to realize that “we in the contemporary West who do not venerate ancestors or minister to them in the afterlife are the aberration, not the other way around.” That intriguing and moving investigation, she says, provided her with “a spiritual connection now, a healthy connection to my ancestors, including to some of the ancestors who were problematic when they died, with whom I had difficult relationships in life.” In the end, she says, “it’s less important or interesting whether there’s some objective reality to this feeling that I have of connection to my ancestors. What’s important to me is the healing potential that this inquiry can have.”

Readers will connect with many aspects of Newton’s vivid story, but there’s one—what she calls “acknowledgment genealogy”—that she hopes will especially resonate. This encompasses, as she puts it, “personal harms that we can acknowledge within our own family or larger harms that relate to the systemic problems that we’re facing now as a country. . . . If each of us can feel a little more comfortable coming forward and recognizing these harms and thinking about them and feeling about them in a larger context,” she says, “we’ll move a lot further along as a country toward the kind of conversations and healing that we need.” Newton believes this and brilliantly reflects it in Ancestor Trouble. After all, she says, “making it personal is the most powerful force we have for change.”

Maud Newton author photo credit: Maximus Clarke

The essayist and critic has penned a thoughtful investigation of genetics and inheritance as viewed from the branches of her own family tree.

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