Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Science journalist Sabrina Imbler dives deep into the waters of human and marine life in their luminous essay collection, How Far the Light Reaches.

In the book’s 10 essays, Imbler cannily observes the lives of sea creatures, drawing out lessons about resilience, survival and wildness and tying those insights to their own experiences as a biracial, queer writer. For example, goldfish that survive being thrown from a tiny fishbowl into a larger pond revert to a feral state. When Imbler encountered these wild fish, they saw “something that no one expected to live not just alive but impossibly flourishing, and no longer alone.” Imbler compares a female octopus who starves herself in order to nourish and protect her eggs to their own efforts at dieting to please their mother. Imbler eventually started to feel good in their body, learning to “revel in queer bodies and the endless and inventive ways we crease into ourselves.” In the deep rivers of China, sturgeon forage for food to survive in the murky waters, just as Imbler’s grandmother foraged for food to survive after fleeing Japanese-occupied Shanghai during wartime. In perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the book, Imbler alternates the necropsy of a whale with the necropsy of a relationship. Like the carcass of a whale, the threads of a dead relationship—“once so staggeringly alive”—float through space and time with no sense of what is to come.

How Far the Light Reaches meditates radiantly on the ragged ways we adapt to the world around us, probing the lives of marine animals for strategies for our own survival. Imbler’s first-rate science writing glistens with the same sheen as the best of Oliver Sacks’ essays.

How Far the Light Reaches dives deep into the waters of human and marine life, glistening with the same sheen as the best of Oliver Sacks’ essays.

In 2010, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies provided a stunning history of cancer and medical scientists’ ongoing research into ways to overcome it. In 2016, he delivered a similarly breathtaking treatment of genetic biology in The Gene. Now, in The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, Mukherjee tells the compelling story of cell biology and the ways that cellular engineering can help us rethink what it means to be human.

Drawing on case studies, interviews, visits with patients, scientific papers and historical archives, Mukherjee tries to understand life in terms of its smallest unit: the cell. As he puts it, he’s listening to a cell’s “music” when he observes its anatomy and the way it interacts with surrounding cells. For example, the genes, proteins and pathways used by healthy cells are “appropriated” or “commandeered” by cancer cells. “Cancer, in short, is cell biology visualized in a pathological mirror,” Mukherjee writes.

Such knowledge allows medical researchers and doctors to imagine how cellular therapy could modify a patient’s cellular structure to treat their disease or medical disorder. In one case, a girl named Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, received CAR T-cell therapy: Her own T-cells were extracted, modified to target her disease and infused back into her body. Although there was an initial setback because of an infection, the cellular therapy succeeded. Mukherjee includes other stories like Whitehead’s, as well as those of heroes such as Rudolf Virchow, who discovered that “it isn’t sufficient to locate a disease in an organ; it’s necessary to understand which cells of the organ are responsible”; John Snow, the founder of germ theory; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who discovered insulin.

According to Mukherjee, the cell sings of a new human who is “rebuilt anew with modified cells [and] who looks and feels (mostly) like you and me.” Using cellular engineering, he writes, “we’ve altered these humans to alleviate suffering, using a science that had to be handcrafted and carved with unfathomable labor and love, and technologies so ingenious that they stretch credulity: such as fusing a cancer cell with an immune cell to produce an immortal cell to cure cancer.” Captivating and provocative, The Song of the Cell encourages us to rethink historical approaches to medical science and imagine how cellular biology can reshape medicine and public health.

This captivating, provocative book from Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee encourages us to imagine how cellular engineering can reshape medicine.

In the popular imagination, the banjo is an instrument played by white bluegrass or old-time musicians plucking out traditional Appalachian ballads on their front porches. Many folks associate banjo music with the theme from the “Beverly Hillbillies,” played by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, or Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance. However, in 2016, Laurent Dubois’ The Banjo probed deeply into the instrument’s true origins, revealing that the banjo evolved out of enslaved communities in the Caribbean and North America as Black musicians preserved the sounds of their African cultures by fashioning instruments similar to the ones from their homes. Kristina R. Gaddy’s superb Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History builds on Dubois’ work to provide an even more detailed look at the “culture and lived experience of the people of African descent who created, played, and listened to the banjo.”

Gaddy’s lively storytelling re-creates scenes from 17th-century Jamaica to 19th-century Washington, D.C., and beyond, illustrating not only the birth and development of the banjo but also its co-optation by white people. In 1687, the governor of Jamaica’s physician recorded his encounter with perhaps the earliest incarnation of the banjo, two- and three-stringed gourd lutes he called Strum Strumps, played during religious rituals by enslaved communities from West Africa. By the 18th century, the instrument—variously known as a banjo, bonja, bangeo, banjoe and banger—was being made and played by enslaved musicians on plantations, with some banjo players leading the wider community in song. In the 19th century, white performers who wore blackface in minstrel shows often included a banjo or two in their productions, mocking the Black musical experience while also popularizing the banjo. By the end of the 19th century, collections of slave songs had started to circulate, preserving the heritage of the banjo as an instrument used in religious ceremonies by Black communities.

Well of Souls’ coda points to the work of Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Allison Russell and other Black musicians who are reviving the African history of the banjo through their albums, workshops and performances. Gaddy’s captivating book likewise recovers chapters in what is still a little-known history of this quintessential American instrument.

Kristina R. Gaddy’s captivating book reveals the African history of a quintessential American instrument: the banjo.

“A few months after my pastor asked God to kill me, my mom ran to the bathroom, and I ran after her.” You can’t look away from the riveting opening sentence of Casey Parks’ spellbinding Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir. It draws you quickly in to her atmospheric tale of self-discovery after coming out as a lesbian to her mother in her small Louisiana town.

After Parks came out, her grandmother revealed that she “grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man” named Roy Hudgins in the town of Delhi, Louisiana. Astonished, Parks asked if Roy was happy, and her grandmother replied that she didn’t know but that she’d always wondered what happened to him. Parks announced to her grandmother, “I’ll find out about Roy.”

Seven years later, Parks, then working as a reporter for The Oregonian, made a series of visits to Delhi in search of clues about Roy, interviewing anybody who would talk to her. Although she was on a quest to find out about Roy for her grandmother, Parks also started to unravel clues about herself, her sexuality and her fraught relationships with family and church. The more she learned about Roy, the more she learned about her own yearning for the love and acceptance that Roy seemed to have felt in a town where the church had rejected him but where his neighbors looked out for and took care of him. Then, as she flipped through Roy’s journals, she discovered a poem titled “The Town Misfit” in which he had written, “When my life on earth is over, and it’s time for me to die, / No one here will miss me. There will be no one to cry.” Parks had hoped “reading Roy’s diaries would settle something inside me. . . . But I understand now that most of what haunted me before might haunt me forever.”

Like Harper Lee, Parks evokes the simmering suspicions of a small Southern town. Like Eudora Welty, she tells a poignant story of people trying to fit into a way of life that once suited them but no longer wears well. And like Truman Capote, she packs her memoir with eccentric characters—especially her mother, whom Parks describes as “bright and joyous when she was off the nose spray, vacant and mean when she was on.” Parks’ dazzling narrative gift imbues Diary of a Misfit with all the makings of a great Southern story that readers won’t be able to get out of their minds.

Casey Parks’ dazzling narrative gift imbues Diary of a Misfit with all the makings of a great Southern story that readers won't be able to get out of their minds.

By the mid-20th century, Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures were turning heads in France and Germany, ushering in cubism, a new artistic style that challenged older styles. At this same moment, American art was dominated by a devotion to realism and the old masters, and therefore resistant to and repulsed by the “modern art” of Picasso. In 1939, that all changed when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit titled “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” featuring pieces that two Americans, who never met, worked tirelessly to make available to the public. Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War tells the scintillating tale of how John Quinn, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and others brought Picasso’s work to America and changed the face of American art.

Irish American lawyer Quinn championed modernist novels and poetry and avant-garde art, introducing Americans to William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” A great collector, Quinn had a “growing aversion to what he called ‘dead art,’” Eakin writes, and wanted to promote painters and writers who could “express the values and forces of his own time.” Although he personally never understood cubism, he believed that “American art needs the shock that the work of some of these men will give.” After he met Picasso, the artist started reserving his best work for Quinn, who built a modest collection. Quinn dreamed of opening a museum devoted explicitly to modern art, since the Metropolitan Museum of Art excluded such art as “degenerate.” He never saw his wish come true, however. He died of cancer in 1924.

In 1926, Barr took up Quinn’s vision for such a museum, aided by wealthy patrons who shared Quinn’s hope. Three years later, Barr opened the Museum of Modern Art using pieces from Quinn’s collection, striving to build a collection of premier work by the most important modern artists. He worked incessantly to open a show devoted to Picasso, but he was hampered at several turns by challenges from Parisian art dealers and even by Picasso himself. By the late 1930s, though, as Adolf Hitler’s campaign against so-called degenerate art ramped up and museums and galleries in Paris began removing and hiding certain paintings, Picasso and his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, tried to get as many of the artist’s paintings as possible to America. Such forces enabled Barr to put on his 1939 Picasso exhibit and to secure a place in the American cultural world not only for Picasso but also for the Museum of Modern Art, which flourished following the Picasso exhibit.

Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about this illuminating chapter in cultural history.

Hugh Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about the fight to bring Picasso’s art to America.

Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.

At the center of Li’s story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”

In 1937, during Japan’s war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China’s mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,’ in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”

Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People’s Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Zhuqing Li tells the moving story of her aunts, separated by the Chinese Civil War, and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have left us with many lingering questions: How long can a virus live? Why weren’t we better prepared to handle the virus? How long will vaccines keep us safe from the virus and its variants? How can we distribute vaccines and other medical interventions equitably to protect and save human lives? What kinds of robust public health policies do we need in place to help us mitigate the effects of widespread outbreaks in the future? Scientist Joseph Osmundson answers these and other questions in his luminous and stunning Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between.

As Osmundson dives into the intricacies of science and medicine, he also takes time to consider the emotional toll of gauging health risks. In a world full of viruses—and especially in light of the most recent pandemic—we will always face the risk of infection, he says. He thus challenges readers to “reframe the very notion of risk, of fear” since “the more we all minimize risk, the less there is to fear.” Though perhaps eschewing this fear is easier said than done since, as he writes, “there are 250 million viruses in every 0.001 liters of ocean water, and so 7,393,387,354, more than 7 billion viruses, in 1 single fluid ounce, a mouthful.” Moreover, all viruses are so different from one another that what we learn about HIV or Ebola, for example, may not help us understand or diminish the effects of coronaviruses.

As a queer person, Osmundson candidly shares the moments he has calculated the risk of contracting HIV while having sex. At the same time, Osmundson points out that being queer provides him and others with a “legacy and a history of care even in the face of systemic oppression.” Queer people, he observes, have been “training for this moment—to sacrifice, in the face of a virus, to care for one another.”

Despite the ubiquity of viruses and their variety, Osmundson illustrates that humans and viruses evolve together. Recognizing this provides hope for all of us, he insists, especially through the development of vaccines. In addition, we can learn from our responses to HIV and COVID-19 and find the paths we need to follow for more robust public health: research into each virus, development of drugs and vaccines, community-led vaccination and health programs, and universal healthcare.

A collection that weaves together the raggedness of the personal with the chaos of the political, Virology will take its place next to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journal as a model for cultural criticism. Sparkling prose, glittering insights, lucid thinking and accessible writing about sometimes difficult topics makes Virology a must-read. It’s one of the best science and medicine books of the year.

Sparkling prose, glittering insights, lucid thinking and accessible writing about difficult viruses make Virology one of the best science books of the year.

Novelist, journalist, editor and television producer Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop radiates brilliance. In dazzling prose, she casts a spotlight on the creative genius of Black women musicians including Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mariah Carey, Marilyn McCoo and many more.

Weaving together the threads of memoir, biography and criticism, Smith illustrates how her intense love of music has been shaped by Black women’s art. These women helped her find her way as a Black girl in 1970s Oakland, giving her strength and the confidence to write about the music that defined her life. Now, when people ask Smith, “Why does Tina Turner matter? Why is Mary J. Blige important?” her answers, she writes, “are passionate and learned because I want credit to be given where credit is due.” For Smith, this especially includes giving Black women credit for being the progenitors of American soul, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and pop.

For example, Smith traces the career of Cissy Houston who, as part of the singing group the Sweet Inspirations, shaped the sound of megahits such as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Son of a Preacher Man”—works that became foundational to the classic rock format and went on to influence everyone from the Counting Crows to U2. As Smith writes, “The Grammy Awards of the artists they have influenced would fill a hangar,” yet the Sweets are rarely mentioned in connection to these and other iconic songs.

As Smith teases out the immeasurable influence of both underappreciated background singers and idols who are household names, she illuminates the qualities these artists have in common, “most of which revolve around the transmogrification of Black oppression to fleeting and inclusive Black joy.” Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

Combining the emotional fervor of a fan and the cleareyed vision of a critic, Danyel Smith charts a luminous new history of Black women’s music.

In her brilliant study of the relatively little-known lives of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again.

Berwald first entered the fairyland of the coral reef when she was contemplating a career in marine biology and snorkeling in the Red Sea. “It was love at first sight,” she writes, “for my part anyway. I’m pretty confident the corals felt nothing more than the waft of a current rolling off my flapping fins as I struggled to control my movements.” The beauty and intricate ecology of that reef stayed with her, and a decade later—as a science writer rather than a marine biologist—Berwald took a cruise to the Bahamas in hopes of seeing the splendor of a coral reef again. To her chagrin, she only found “broken and displaced piles of rubble.”

In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050.

Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies—such as growing coral in nurseries and placing coral larvae on substrates designed to give them a head start—for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face.

Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans.

Juli Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks does for coral reefs what her first book, Spineless, did for jellyfish.

Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.” 

As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.

Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”

South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.

In a vibrant blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, Imani Perry zooms in on the South to show its iniquity and beauty in vivid detail.

Growing up in Florida, with roots in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, Edgar Gomez was confronted very early in his life by a culture of machismo—a glorified, aggressive masculine pride. Within such a culture, “men must marry, spawn children, and head their households.” If it weren’t for his queerness, Gomez writes, “which made many of the benefits awarded to men who uphold machismo unappealing, I would have likely accepted them without question.” With alternating notes of gut-wrenching emotion and humor, High-Risk Homosexual chronicles not only Gomez’s coming-of-age and coming out, but also his choppy navigation of a culture and family that refused to accept him.

Much of Gomez’s memoir recounts his struggles to find guides to help him growing up, gay and Latinx in a world that often violently rejected gay men. His mother and stepfather couldn’t live with the thought that Gomez was gay. His uncles tried to “reform” him by setting him up with a woman one night after a cockfight. Along the way, Gomez found solace in conversations with trans women in Nicaragua, with people in the Castro District in San Francisco and with drag queens at gay clubs in Miami and Orlando—including at Pulse, before the shootings that killed 49 people and wounded 53.

It was when he visited his college health clinic that he was dubbed a “high-risk homosexual” for sleeping with more than two sexual partners a week—a label he knew would not be applied to people who had a similar number of opposite-sex partners per week—and given pills to mitigate HIV. When he learned that taking the pills might be more dangerous than the disease, he dumped them down the toilet and vowed to “live a life that acknowledges [AIDS] as a possible outcome.” Gomez concludes that “what you do when you’re not afraid anymore is the same thing you do when you are: keep going.”

In High-Risk Homosexual, Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

Edgar Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

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