Jeremy Denk reviews The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places by Bernie Krause. Krause, who used to be a member of the Weavers (he replaced Pete Seeger), has spent years recording the sounds of animals, the sum of which, at any moment, he refers to as a "biophony." It has given him a fascinating and unique viewpoint. As Denk writes, "In Krause's world, everything is seen through the lens of sound. He even maps by ear." Denk continues, "Yes, I thought, as irritable honks floated up Broadway and through the window of my apartment: we all live on mutating maps, in the land of the audible, whether we like it or not." Krause examines the music of a forest (sound complexity is a measure of relative health), the "levels of intent" in various animals' music, how musicians mimic animals, and more. Denk points out that the book "is not tightly written; at times, it resembles a howl more than an argument," but that it's also "a passionate amalgam. At heart aesthetic and holistic, it wants to be data-driven too." In the end, Denk writes, "Krause wakes up your ears, gives you a desire to experience these wild soundscapes. How could you not want to hear the Indonesian gibbons, whose 'songs are so beautiful that ancient Dayak myths speak of the sun rising in reply'?"
The talented author Helen Oyeyemi reviews Children in Reindeer Woods by the Icelandic writer Kristin Omarsdottir. Oyeyemi notes that this is the first of the author's novels to be translated into English and that it is "an assured introduction to her work." The set-up is that three armed soldiers show up at a farmhouse in an unnamed country. The farmhouse has been set up as "a temporary home for children." The soldiers offer the children food, and then "several murders are committed in rapid succession "” with no threats, no struggle, no rationale, just point-blank gunfire." This is followed by more deaths shortly after, and in the end just one soldier and two children remain at the farmhouse. This is a raw book that explores the human condition in an odd, poetic way. Oyeyemi points to "Omarsdottir's skills as a poet and playwright," writing that her "human characters are less committed to one another than they are to the state of limbo they inhabit." She calls it a "daringly droll, wholly perturbing book."
Steve Almond has written a fabulous review of Edgar Keret's Suddenly, A Knock on the Door. It begins with some thoughts on our notions of reality and being real, and how "this bias has long informed our literary tradition, in which realism signifies authenticity and adulthood, the normative and hallowed province of James, Hemingway and Carver. Depart from it at your peril, ink-stained wretches, for a conveniently labeled ghetto awaits you "” experimental, fabulist, surreal "” all terms that signify, in the popular imagination anyway, artifice, obscurity and a kind of childish indulgence." Whoa, there! Don't pull your punches, Mr. Almond. After pointing out that Keret is an award-winning filmmaker, he writes that, "Keret is also one of Israel's best-selling authors, a status he earned in a manner that would be downright heretical here: by writing extremely short, fantastical stories. Worse yet, they are frequently funny. Were he living in Brooklyn, Keret would have been hogtied by a pack of rabid agents and ordered to drop the shtick and write a novel already." There are great stories in this collection. "A man left by his wife is continually mistaken for other people, and goes along with it, engaging in a series of urgent colloquies that jolt him from his depression. A stoic restaurateur who refuses to sit shiva for her late husband is descended upon by a mob of customers whose voracious appetites awaken her grief." And one of my personal favorites: "A woman named Ella finds a small zipper under her lover's tongue as he lies sleeping. When she pulls it, her lover opens up 'like an oyster,' revealing a second man. Ella soon realizes she has a zipper under her tongue as well, and the story ends with her fingering it uncertainly, trying 'to imagine what she'd be like inside.' It's an eerie meditation on the instability of identity, and spans all of five paragraphs."
The Post opens its review of Edward O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of Earth by asking, "What are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?" Reviewer Colin Woodard tells us that Wilson sets out to answer these three questions, and "The result is an ambitious and thoroughly engaging work that's certain to generate controversy within the walls of academia and without." Not surprisingly, the man who did much to promote altruism as a selective force in nature, talks about the selective forces behind it: "Wilson argues that altruism is a result not of individual or kin selection, but of group selection. Charles Darwin himself proposed that a tribe that had many members willing to contribute to or sacrifice themselves for the common good 'would be victorious over most other tribes.' Drawing on recent evidence from social psychology, archaeology and evolutionary biology, Wilson builds a compelling and multi-faceted case that Darwin was right. Species that have developed advanced social lives, or eusociality "” certain bees, ants, termites and ourselves "” have been staggeringly successful and extremely rare."
Paula L. Woods gives Olen Steinhauer's An American Spy, the third in a series, a rave review. She's impressed by the complexity of the book, writing that it is "enriched by a diverse international cast of players." The novel is divided into five parts, and throughout "these players will reveal motives both personal and professional that give the novel textures uncommon in most spy fiction. Each successive retelling of events yields new answers and more troubling questions..." Woods describes the novel as an "irresistible masterwork of love, guilt and revenge."
Perhaps you've heard... J.K. Rowling has a new book on the way. And it's for adults.
Here are some Tumblr tips for writers.
Kind of a downer article, but Salon's Laura Miller, who has served on the Pulitzer committee, sounds off on why there wasn't a fiction prize given this year.
Fellow editor, Mari Malcolm, sent me the link to this site. Be sure to check all the links. It's pretty spectacular.
Mari also sent me this link, which might be better than the one above.
The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is this weekend.
Last week, I talked about the publisher Atria's mystery bus tour. Here's the first video from the tour.