“Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”
By Robert M. Sapolsky
Penguin Press. $35
If you ever thought that neuroscience was too boring or complicated for pleasurable reading, “Behave” will change your mind. You’ll find yourself guffawing at Sapolsky’s quirky humor, and you’ll begin to question whether that decision you made so many years ago not to go into the sciences might have been too hasty. A professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Sapolsky brings together a variety of scientific disciplines to tackle a fundamental mystery: What drives humans to harm each other or help each other? He finds the answers in our biology and takes readers on a journey through the nervous system, hormones, evolution and the environment. For any layperson who wants to understand why we behave the way we do, Sapolsky has created an immensely readable, often hilarious, romp through the worlds of psychology, primatology, sociology and neurobiology.
“The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia”
By Masha Gessen
Vladimir Putin has inspired a number of books seeking to explain his remarkable rise – and his remarkable hold on power. Few accounts are as ambitious, insightful and unsparing as Gessen’s “The Future Is History.” This is a sweeping intellectual history of Russia over the past four decades, told through a Tolstoyan gallery of characters. It makes a convincing if depressing case that Homo Sovieticus, the unique species created a century ago with the Bolshevik Revolution, did not die out along with the Soviet Union. What makes the book so worthwhile are its keen observations about Russia from the point of view of those experiencing its heavy-handed state. Gessen’s provocative conclusion that Putin’s Russia is just as much a totalitarian society as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany may not convince all readers. But you don’t need to agree with this assessment to find her book a sad, compelling indictment of the country where she was born, a country so traumatized by its monstrous past that it seems intent on repeating it.
“I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street”
By Matt Taibbi
Spiegel & Grau. $28
This gut-wrenching account of the death and life of Eric Garner is a deep dive into every aspect of the case, including its legal impact, which is minimal, and its cultural and political ones, which have been profound. Most revealing are the stories Taibbi tells about other African-Americans, mostly male and poor, who were stopped and frisked, strip-searched, sexually assaulted, set up, beaten or killed for the tragic reason that racist cops didn’t like them or the even more tragic one that those kinds of humiliations are ordained by U.S. law and policy. The stories relate to one another and to the Garner case, which gives “I Can’t Breathe” the feel of a police procedural. The narrative unfolds like an episode of “The Wire” but without the comic relief – or the show’s grudging empathy for the cops. Some readers might object to Taibbi’s tone of sustained outrage. But the author is mad as hell at the police and the politics that empower their brutality.
“I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad”
By Souad Mekhennet
Henry Holt. $30
In her memoir of 15 years of covering jihadists, journalist Mekhennet sets out to answer a perennial question: Why do they hate us? As a Muslim woman and brave, resourceful reporter who speaks English, German, French and Arabic, Mekhennet seems well-suited to the task. She explains the nature of reporting on jihad in her role as a Washington Post national security correspondent, the time spent waiting for sources to call back, puzzling over whom to trust. On several occasions, she gets anonymous tips about imminent danger to her life and whether militants or hostile governments intend to kidnap, torture or rape her. Her portrayals of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters and sympathizers in countries around the world make her memoir a work of significant merit. But what of her original question? In her telling, the root of hate is not Islam; it’s not U.S. politics or foreign policy, nor is it American racism or Islamophobia. The answer is elusive and troublingly mysterious.
By Andrew Sean Greer
Lee Boudreaux. $26
Too often, our standards of literary greatness exclude comic novels – which is usually fine because there are so few great comic novels. But you should make more room for “Less.” In the opening pages, a writer named Arthur Less is depressed about turning 49. His anxiety about aging has been exacerbated by news that his former boyfriend is about to get married to a younger man. Confronted with the prospect of sitting through their wedding, Less decides to send his regrets and flee. He blindly accepts the invitations he’s received from around the world: a hodgepodge of teaching assignments, retreats and readings. Those gigs provide the novel’s structure – a different country for each chapter – and Greer is brilliantly funny about the awkwardness that awaits a traveling writer of less repute. Unfailingly polite, hypersensitive to the risk of boring anyone, Less remains congenial throughout, but “the tragicomic business of being alive is getting to him.” This is the comedy of disappointment distilled to a sweet elixir.
“Lincoln in the Bardo”
By George Saunders
Random House. $28
“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an extended national ghost story, an erratically funny and piteous séance of grief. The spirit of the story arises from a tragic footnote in American history when President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, died of typhoid fever during the Civil War. Everything about Saunders’ first novel, which won the Man Booker Prize, confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like. It’s composed entirely of brief quotations – some real, some imagined – from people who worked for the president, his friends, colleagues, enemies, biographers and, most strikingly, ghosts trapped in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, where Willie was laid to rest. Despite that bizarre chorus, the heart of the story remains Lincoln, the shattered father who rides alone to the graveyard at night. As the spirits pass through the president’s body like light through a glass, they catch his thoughts and fears. We can hear Lincoln wrestling with his faith, struggling to maintain his composure against an avalanche of grief and a torrent of criticism from a nation devastated by war.
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown. $26
Excitement about this dystopian novel has been arcing across the Atlantic since it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year in England. Alderman’s premise is simple, her execution endlessly inventive: Teenage girls everywhere suddenly discover that their bodies can produce a deadly electrical charge. The capacity of women to shock and awe quickly disrupts the structure of civilization. The narrative moves from an American girl’s bedroom to a British gang’s hangout, to a European forest and beyond, tracing the way this new power surges through families and governments, singeing male pride, inflaming chauvinism and burning the patriarchy to a crisp. This surprising and provocative story deconstructs not just the obvious expressions of sexism but also the internal ribs of power that we have tolerated, honored and romanticized for centuries. Alderman’s story sparks with such electric satire that you should read it wearing insulated gloves.
“Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”
By David J. Garrow
William Morrow. $45
This probing doorstop of a biography explores the calculations Barack Obama made in the decades leading up to winning the presidency. Garrow portrays Obama as a man who ruthlessly compartmentalized his existence and made emotional sacrifices in the pursuit of his goal. Every step – whether his foray into community organizing, Harvard Law School, even his choice of whom to love – was not just about living a life but also about fulfilling a destiny. The book is most revealing in its account of Obama’s personal life, particularly the tale of a woman of Dutch and Japanese ancestry the future president lived with before he met Michelle. After asking her to marry him, Obama had a change of heart. As Garrow puts it, for black politicians in Chicago, a non-African-American spouse could be a liability. Garrow, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., concludes with a damning verdict on Obama’s determination: “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.”
“Saints for All Occasions”
By J. Courtney Sullivan
From the outside, nothing about this plot seems noteworthy: Irish Catholics settle in Boston; they drink too much; they struggle with the church; they gather for a loved one’s wake. That sounds as fresh as a pint of last week’s Guinness, which makes this quiet masterpiece all the more impressive. In a style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family. In the present, the story takes place over just a few days – the period between when 50-year-old Patrick Rafferty loses control of his car and when he’s laid out at his funeral. But within those hours, Sullivan spins the captivating history of Patrick’s mother and her sister, reaching all the way back to a little Irish village in the late 1950s.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing”
By Jesmyn Ward
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is built around an arduous car trip when a black woman and her children drive to a state penitentiary to pick up their white father. The narration passes back and forth between the convict’s 13-year-old son and his drug-addled mother, Leonie. Ward draws us deep into the bile of a woman who sometimes dislikes her children and often resents their claims on her. But Leonie’s failings, which she knows are numerous, have been aggravated by addiction, grief and a racist culture that offers her no opportunity and little justice. These are people “pulling all the weight of history.” Ward, one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country, represents those necrotic claims with a pair of restless ghosts, the unburied singers of the title, who speak to Leonie and her son. The plight of this one family is tied to intersecting crimes that stretch over decades.