Books June 2009

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Endangered Species: Black Rhinoceros 1983: Collection of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Newy York; 2009, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/ARS, New York

Rhinoceros
Kelly Enright
Reaktion

The latest monograph in the winning Animal series—truly natural histories, each title a wide-ranging look at a single creature, replete with splendid illustrations—is perhaps the finest yet. Like its predecessors, this volume alternately informs, delights, moves, and astonishes. Success here owes as much to author as to subject. The former, a cultural and environmental historian, acquits herself admirably, distilling fact from fiction, employing supple and incisive prose, and trailing casual acumen in her measured wake. On the latter count, well, few animals have seen their appearance (horned, armored), reputation (fearsome, violent), and temperament (shy, solitary) more cartoonishly conflated. Though its endangered status, shrinking habitat, and coveted horn (widely used in Asian medicine) have brought it some measure of modern sympathy and acclaim, the rhinoceros remains among the most misunderstood of beasts (and mistaken, on a genuinely mythical level: it was long considered a unicorn). Sketched by Dürer, demonized by Pliny, prized by Hemingway, and ridiculed by Barnum, it is only now being considered in toto, by Enright.

In the Kitchen
Monica Ali
Scribner

On the cusp of realizing his dreams—opening his own restaurant (haute cuisine, perfectly executed) and proposing to his remarkably attractive girlfriend—the executive chef of a London hotel finds himself running way, way off the rails. Ambitiously, as in her first novel, the widely acclaimed Brick Lane, Ali embeds her main character’s personal crisis in the swirl of multicultural London; the hotel’s kitchen is staffed with recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Eastern Europe, their histories dark, mysterious, and distinctly un-British. Juxtaposed against the mosaic population of this still-booming service industry are the English in the dying northern mill town of the chef’s childhood, pushed up and over, if not out, 30 years ago by an influx of Pakistanis. In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, two old mill workers, one English and one Pakistani, obviously have far more in common, and more sympathy, with each other than either has with his own grandchildren.

Florence Nightingale
Mark Bostridge
FSG

Devout and unforgiving, inexhaustible and chronically unwell, the farsighted and exacting Florence Nightingale famously gnawed her way through the barriers that kept genteel Victorian women trapped “in a meaningless round of trivial occupations” in order to promote her vision of a modern public health-care system. Both driven (her selected writings will fill a projected 16 volumes) and driving (she could be said to have worked two of her loyal supporters to death), she always put her cause first, with remarkable results. As Bostridge notes, to Nightingale, “earthly friendships” were merely “a hindrance on the path to true righteousness.” All this we knew from Lytton Strachey’s biting and elegant 1918 portrait in Eminent Victorians, a book that’s famously debunking; Strachey had a keen eye for Nightingale’s acerbity and a relish for describing it, but also plainly admired her achievements and her courage. Bostridge, author of a biography of Vera Brittain, doesn’t fundamentally alter that picture but, by virtue of his prodigious research, enormously enriches it with the nuance and detail that fill in the nooks and crannies of a real, and enormously complicated, personality. Absorbing, superbly written, and authoritative, this is a terrific biography of a woman to whom we owe a great deal, but would perhaps never want to meet.

Reading Dance
Edited by Robert Gottlieb
Pantheon

The subtitle of this 1,300-plus-page doorstop—A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras—fairly summarizes its contents and aptly billboards its appeal. Which is to say that if a loving, deeply inclusive anthology of dance writing, annotated and curated by a literary luminary like Gottlieb (former editor in chief of Knopf, Simon & Schuster, and The New Yorker, as well as a noted dance critic and New York City Ballet associate), sounds like endlessly exciting one-stop shopping, well, it is. Certainly most of the major (and many of the minor) figures of the past two centuries are here: Bournonville, Duncan, Nijinsky, Astaire, Balanchine, Nureyev, Tharp, Baryshnikov—the list goes on and on (and on), with a few mincing surprises (recipes from LeClercq’s The Ballet Cookbook, anyone?) thrown in for good measure. Ultimately, though, the worthiness of such a primer—obviously selective but seemingly exhaustive—is rooted squarely in the reader’s basic interest in the art form. So give Gottlieb credit for not prancing around the obvious: as he notes at the outset, “One man’s ideal anthology is another man’s mess.”

Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet
Oliver Morton
Harper

This original account of photosynthesis does what every popular-science work strives to do: provide a lucid-to-the-lay-reader explanation of a mundane or complex phenomenon. Yet Morton goes well beyond that laudable achievement. Folded cunningly into his disciplinary synthesis (physics, chemistry, cellular biology, environmental science) and basic explainer (what, exactly, photosynthesis is, and why apprehending “the most important process on the planet” is crucial to our understanding of today’s pressing energy and climate-change issues) is nothing less than a majestic terrestrial biography—a meticulous look at the history and future of the Earth itself. All this is in a well-paced, smartly plotted, bouncingly written package. Buoyed by a tone of optimism and uplift (“The science that enriches our wonder at the world also offers us ways of making things better”), Morton’s clear-eyed assessment makes visible a heretofore unseen world—ours—and illuminates its possibilities.

Admission
Jean Hanff Korelitz
Grand Central

That Korelitz has previously produced a thriller or two is evident in the sublimely paced plotting of this sharply observed and written novel about a Princeton college admissions officer faced with a secret she’s buried since her own undergraduate days. Among its delights is the book’s thoughtful insider’s guide to the delicate, arcane workings of elite-college admissions. While negotiating her personal crises, the protagonist works steadily through stacks of applications, articulately and sympathetically assessing waves of ambitious high-school students, Princeton itself, and her role as gatekeeper to a garden of academic brilliance to which she doesn’t quite belong. Korelitz, married to the poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, knows her stuff. Better yet, she knows how to tell a story.

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