Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
by Ed Yong
Ed Yong’s dense but vivid first book “has a terrific story to tell,” said Jonathan Weiner in The New York Times. Our fastevolving understanding of the role that microbes play in sustaining us—and killing us, too—is “one of the most interesting developments in biology today.” Yong, a science writer for The Atlantic, begins the relevant history in 17th-century Delft, where pioneering microscope maker Anton van Leeuwenhoek first noticed that living bacteria—what he called “animalcules”— were everywhere. Two centuries later, Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and others pioneered germ theory, saving countless lives but also branding bacteria, in the public’s mind, as a scourge. Only in the late 20th century did microbiologists begin to see the whole truth: that the disease-causing species of bacteria are far outnumbered by those that keep our bodies functioning. About half the cells that comprise your body are not human in origin.
“This is not a book for the squeamish,” said Michael Prodger in The Times(U.K.). But its “plea for microbial tolerance” is convincing. We know of 1,000 or so bacteria that help regulate our gut; others rebuild our bones, boost our immune systems, and guide our behavior. Bacteria benefit non-humans as well, of course, generating half of the planet’s oxygen and producing nutrients for the soil. Yong rejects the idea that there are “good” or “bad” bacteria, noting that a microbe that’s deadly in the bloodstream could be harmless, perhaps even useful, in the stomach. And while he disputes the popular notion that eating yogurt nourishes the beneficial bacteria in our guts, he shares stories about researchers who’ve harnessed the power of microbes to treat stomach ailments without surgery and to save certain frog species from a potentially extinction-causing fungus.
Trying to keep the science interesting, Yong proves “more than happy” to adopt a fanboy outlook, said Heather Havrilesky in Bookforum. His enthusiasm, unfortunately, too often leads him to race ahead of the reader, gushing about the capabilities of, say, Wolbachia pipientis, without putting its significance in perspective. I Contain Multitudes also generates more questions than answers, as might be expected, said Megan Scudellari in The Boston Globe. In a field still shrouded in uncertainty, many questions will likely take 20 or 30 more years to answer. “Perhaps Yong will someday write us a sequel. I hope so, because by the end of the book his sense of wonder for microbes was, well, infectious.”
Novel of the week
by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson, an award-winning author of young-adult fiction, has given adult readers “a rare, perfectly cut diamond of a book,” said Caroline Leavitt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her African-American heroine, August, is looking back on her adolescence in 1970s Brooklyn, when a friendship with three other girls felt like salvation. Angela, Gigi, and Sylvia were August’s makeshift family, helping her navigate the perils of the streets and easing the pain of her mother’s mysterious absence. But a tide of drugs and violence spreading across the city eventually touches them all. “It’s as much a compliment as a complaint to say that I wish the story were fuller,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Complex matters, such as the decision of August’s father to join the Nation of Islam, are barely explored. But what remains unsaid is at least as important as what August tells us. “When you’re 15,” she recalls, “pain skips over reason, aims right for the marrow.” Ultimately, that’s “right where this exquisite novel strikes, too.”
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo
by Amy Schumer (Gallery, $28)
It could be said that we’ve seen plenty of celebrity books like this before, said Megan Garber in The Atlantic. Amy Schumer’s conversational essay collection fits squarely into the “funny lady sharing stories of her life” mode recently established by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham. In other words, it delivers the expected mix of skin-crawlingly embarrassing memories and bawdy jokes. But the star of Trainwreck and Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer is also unafraid to talk seriously about darker moments in her life, including the physical abuse she endured in a relationship she had in her 20s. Better yet, she reveals that her celebrated feminine selfconfidence was no innate gift, but something she had to teach herself, “failure by failure.”
“The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo is no confession,” said Marcie Bianco in Salon.com. It’s a performance, one in which Schumer is still playing a full-figured everywoman and still battling the sexism in our culture by talking graphically about her body, her desires, and her sexual experiences. Sure, it’s tempting to believe when she writes that she’s only had a single one-night stand that she’s finally revealing her true self. But how much should we trust a writer whose chapter-long list of “Things You Don’t Know About Me” includes “43: I am a pathological liar” and “44: Just kidding?” This doesn’t negate the book’s entertainment value, or its liberating social value. “The key is to understand that a story is just a story.”
Yet Schumer does seem to open up at times, “especially on issues she cares about,” said Emily Donaldson in the Toronto Star. She dedicates a heartfelt chapter on gun control to two young women who were gunned down in a Louisiana movie theater that was showing Trainwreck. She also puts comedy aside when she discusses the boyfriend she couldn’t leave even after he tried to kill her. These passages, it should be said, appear in a book that begins with a series of jokes about the author’s vagina. Somehow, it all works. “Though Schumer continually riffs on her averageness,” the book’s deft juggling of moods “reinforces our sense of her exceptionality.”