This Week’s Hot Reads: March 3, 2014
All Our Names: A Novel
By Dinaw Mengestu
Towards the beginning of All Our Names, by MacArthur fellow and New Yorker 20 Under 40 Award winner Dinaw Mengestu, one character, a student in an unnamed African university, asks a fellow student named Isaac what he is studying. “This is Africa. There’s only one thing to study,” he replies. “Politics. That’s all we have here.” In his third novel, Mengestu displays his talent for the distinctly political fiction of post-colonialism, but also the deftly tragic touch of a dramatist. In alternating chapters, the two narrators of the novel describe their lives with Isaac, from two different periods in time. In the sections that take place in Africa, his classmate watches as Isaac becomes increasingly radicalized and pushes for revolution on campus, as a microcosm for greater African upheaval. In America some time later, a young caseworker named Helen slowly falls in love with the African refugee with the mysterious past. Mengestu has the good sense to avoid ideology himself; at the university, idealism slowly gives way to violent strife with an implacably mad logic reminiscent of the communist infighting depicted in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. And the well-earned twist that underpins the sections that take place in America will have readers rethinking the entire book after closing the back cover. With understated and finely-hewn style, Mengestu asks us to consider the slim border between victim and victimizer, and the power of the names we give ourselves.
Last night at the Oscars, both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto received trophies for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club, a film that was rightly praised for its visceral portrayal of the AIDS crisis at its height, when a diagnosis was comparable to a death sentence. The film is an important one not only because the victims of the disease deserve to have their stories told, but also because younger audiences are often simply unaware of how hard the crisis hit the country, the gay community especially. In Cured, Nathalia Holt presents a thorough account of the research that provides scientists with hope that a cure will one day be achievable. Much of the book follows the so-called Berlin patients; two subjects essentially cured of the disease using two different revolutionary methods, one in 1996 and one in 2008. The book is much more than a fascinating case study, though; Holt possesses none of the cold detachment frequently leveled as a criticism at those in the medical or scientific fields, and her empathy shines through in her prose. As she writes of a young man painfully coming to grips with his identity as an HIV patient: “He sat in the dark bar, talking to a man he didn’t know. His feelings seemed to pour out of him…The comfort of being invisible was a powerful drug, making him talk about things he rarely admitted to himself. He left that night with a man who would not be simply a one-night stand but instead his closest friend, his soul mate, the love of his life.” This is as important a social history as it is a medical document.
If the title Little Demon in the City of Light sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps you will recall Erik Larson’s 2003 massive-seller The Devil in the White City, which wove the murderous exploits of “America’s first serial killer” H.H. Holmes with goings-on at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The newer book, by veteran journalist Steven Levingston, tells an equally creepy story in an equally creepy setting (what is it about fin de siècle urbanity, lit by gaslight and scored with carnival organ music, that so intrigues and discomfits us?) The “little demon” in question is one Gabrielle Bompard, who, in the summer of 1889, conspired with her con-man lover Michel Eyraud to lure a wealthy mark into a murderous trap. Soon the body is in the river and the duo is on the run. The cutting-edge forensic work that it took to bring them into custody from abroad is retold with great aplomb by Levington. Here he is describing the state of the body when it is hauled ashore: “Its humanity had been lost to the ravages of nature.” As if the events of the case weren’t yet sordid enough to send the newspapers into a frenzy of sensationalism, the Little Demon’s legal defense was arranged around a new phenomenon that had captured the attention of the masses: she would claim that she had been compelled to commit murder through hypnosis. Equal parts period piece, forensic manual, and legal thriller, the book is a strong entry in the “fascinating case in a fascinating time” genre.