The Autumn of Our Content 

Books new and upcoming

Books new and upcoming

By Michael Sims

The equinox is only a few weeks off; already days are noticeably shortening. Unless you’re a burglar, fewer daylight hours mean less time outdoors. What to do with all those extra indoor hours? Why not grab a new book and retire to a quiet corner. Here are some suggestions of new volumes that will provide good companionship on lazy autumnal evenings—a novel, a biography, poetry, some nonfiction, and a reissued classic. Some have been published recently, and others will be out in the next month or two.

A more perfect union

Josephine Humphreys, the author of such acclaimed novels as Rich in Love and Dreams of Sleep (Viking, $13, 232 pp), has turned her gaze back in time to the Civil War and its aftermath. The narrator of her new novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, is a strong-willed girl who becomes a strong-willed woman—and whose story is based upon the real adventures of Rhoda Strong, a half-Lumbee Indian woman who lived on the coast of South Carolina during and after the war. Evocative, lyrical, but also both tragic and comic (sometimes in the same scene), the novel seems to grow out of an obsessive vision rather than bare journalistic allegiance to facts. Humphreys said in a recent interview that the real Rhoda captured her imagination long ago and has been struggling for years to find her voice.

The poet's war

Sensualist, revolutionary, patriot, humanitarian, poet—Walt Whitman was all of these and more. Many of these aspects of his personality grew out of his experiences as a wartime nurse. The first full-length treatment of this decisive era in the life of America’s most original poet is Roy Morris Jr.’s The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, $25, 270 pp). Morris is the author of biographies of Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce, and the editor of Bierce’s hilarious Devil’s Dictionary.

Morris writes beautifully. His casual knowledge of the period and of Whitman’s life leaves the reader aware of a teeming world just outside the margins of this impressively concise volume. Most importantly, Morris manages a level-headed compassion for people caught up in a terrible era. As Morris states in his opening sentence, “The Civil War saved Walt Whitman.” Who could read that line and not be interested?

Poetic license

If you haven’t read Sandra M. Gilbert’s poetry, you may have encountered her nonfiction, including two collaborations with feminist scholar Susan Gubar—the critically praised The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Imagination and the three massive volumes of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the 20th Century. More accessible and more moving is Gilbert’s latest poetry collection, Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999, (Norton, $30, 320 pp). Dozens of poems survey the impressive 30-year career of a major poet.

Whether speculating on the inner life of an uncle long confined to a madhouse or imagining the thoughts of dolls shut up in a cupboard, Gilbert seems to be trying to speak for the voiceless. In one poem, the narrator walks after a rainstorm. When she feels words rising from the wet ground, she holds out her hands with fingers spread like divining rods. These Proustian moments of communing with the inanimate—a sky “electric with geese”—enliven Gilbert’s imagery and leave the impression of a poet almost frighteningly awake to the moment. However, Gilbert’s poems are by no means all lyrical ecstasies. One moment she’s grief-stricken and the next she’s bemusedly admiring a lover’s eyebrows. She imagines the voices of the dead around us like the calls of insects, noticed only during moments of silence. She watches unprotected anemones on seaside stones and thinks, “Can such nakedness be safe? / How should I live / when even the blackest rock / is elastic with life?”

Einstein's baby

If you prefer your approach to nature more intellectualized and less zenlike, you might turn to an excellent new science book by David Bodanis, E=mc²: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation (Walker, $24, 240 pp). Bodanis is the always-reliable encyclopedia behind such popular books as The Secret House and The Secret Family. His new book, however, is more personal and quirky. With wit and style, he explains every factor in the world’s most famous and least understood equation—energy, the equal sign, matter, the speed of light (represented by c for celeritas), and even why the c is squared.

However, like all good science writers, Bodanis never forgets that scientific knowledge (as opposed to its practical application in technology) derives from human beings humbly following the advice of Solomon: “speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee.” Every page is rich with surprising anecdotes about everything from Einstein’s youth to the behind-the-scenes workings of the Roosevelt administration. Here’s a prediction: E=mc² is one of those odd, original, and handsomely written books that will prove more popular than even its publisher suspects. Walker publishes it this month.

If ever a wonderful wiz there was

L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Like the rest of us, publishers find all those zeroes irresistible, and therefore Norton is publishing a centennial homage to Baum’s evergreen fantasy, Michael Patrick Hearn’s Annotated Wizard of Oz. At $40, it’s a steal, because it’s absolutely gorgeous. A precise facsimile of the original edition, it contains all of the W. W. Denslow illustrations in their true colors, matched to each section of Oz. This is the perfect gift for either the right child or the right bookish adult.

I laughed till I cried

Two other quirky new nonfiction books demand at least a mention. In October Viking will publish Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, by Robert R. Provine. Tom Lutz’s Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears is not a new book, but it will be out in trade paperback from Norton in January. When good writers tackle the overlooked aspects of everyday life, the result is frequently an eye-opening invitation to understanding and appreciation. Sometimes it seems as if everything around us and everything that’s part of us holds a fossilized history of the past. These books help us restore our awareness of the histories that made us, and are a great way to enjoy the cooler weather.

If ever a wonderful wiz there was

L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. Like the rest of us, publishers find all those zeroes irresistible, and therefore Norton is publishing a centennial homage to Baum’s evergreen fantasy, Michael Patrick Hearn’s Annotated Wizard of Oz. At $40, it’s a steal, because it’s absolutely gorgeous. A precise facsimile of the original edition, it contains all of the W. W. Denslow illustrations in their true colors, matched to each section of Oz. This is the perfect gift for either the right child or the right bookish adult.

I laughed till I cried

Two other quirky new nonfiction books demand at least a mention. In October Viking will publish Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, by Robert R. Provine. Tom Lutz’s Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears is not a new book, but it will be out in trade paperback from Norton in January. When good writers tackle the overlooked aspects of everyday life, the result is frequently an eye-opening invitation to understanding and appreciation. Sometimes it seems as if everything around us and everything that’s part of us holds a fossilized history of the past. These books help us restore our awareness of the histories that made us, and are a great way to enjoy the cooler weather.

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