Briefly Rated Book Reviews | The New Yorker

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Everybody, by Olivia Laing (Norton). In this ‘book on freedom’, a novelist and critic presents a broad exploration of topics such as sexual liberation, feminism, disease, incarceration, exile, gay and trans rights and the nature of the protestation. Drawing always surprising corollaries from history and art, Laing jumps from subject to subject. She returns several times to her own experiences (including as a non-binary person) and to the life of radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose career began with groundbreaking work on bodily autonomy and sexual politics but s’ ended with quackery, isolation and a prison sentence. Although Laing cannot fully explain the “strange border between self and the world” that fascinates her, her research paths are captivating and enlightening.

Geniuses at war, by David A. Price (Knopf). Colossus, the first digital electronic computer, was developed by the British Secret Service during World War II, to decipher the encrypted messages between Hitler and his generals. This story places the famous achievements of computer scientist Alan Turing alongside the work of his mentor Max Newman and Tommy Flowers, the engineer who designed the machine. Price describes the complexity of the codes produced by German cipher machines and recounts the triumph of Colossus in obtaining military intelligence before the Normandy landings. Noting that Colossus marked the beginning of the digital age, Price observes that it was not the product of impersonal forces but of the coming together of extraordinary individuals within an extraordinary institution.

Dirty animals, by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead). When asked to explain a recent suicide attempt, Lionel, the main character in this collection of related stories, said: “You know how sometimes an animal bites its arm to free itself if it is enough. desperate? Lionel, a queer black graduate student, is drawn into a relationship with a bisexual dancer and the dancer’s girlfriend. This tale is interspersed with stories of other characters, whose passivity threatens to give way to violence: an abused woman babysitting a child; a man rejected by his mother for his homosexuality; a teenager caught in the occasional web of cruelty, who wishes “he could step into another version of his life, one in which things haven’t turned so horribly wrong.”

The big mistake, by Jonathan Lee (Knopf). This historical novel is in part a proceeding built around the 1903 murder of Andrew Haswell Green, a force behind the creation of Central Park and the New York Public Library. But Lee’s real project, as he recounts Green’s remarkable career, is to trace self-formation through “the concert of barely connected moments that make up all life”: a first homosexual encounter; Green’s first job in New York as a store clerk; his stay in Trinidad supervising the sugar cane workers; his friendship with Samuel Tilden, the future governor. The result is an immersive novel, in which the fluid and regrettable protagonist observes that “the past was as much a work of the imagination as the future”.


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