Humans “imagine every adoption of their behaviors to be an advancement. I see it otherwise, as downdrift, the seepage of traits across species.” So posits the Archaeon, the 3.8-billion-year-old creature who narrates Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift. With no little disdain, this unicellular bit of genetic code monitors the animal world’s behavioral adaptations in response to humanity’s psychic toxins.
As the Archaeon watches, animals across the globe are infected with human emotions, a toxic disease resulting in behavioral change at a cellular level. Like any adaptive response, this change isn’t instantaneous, but, once begun, it is inevitable. Inhabiting all of these complex organisms, but nevertheless its own being, the Archaeon rides the evolutionary wave, delivering commentary as it dips its distributed consciousness into various hosts’ bodies. At the center are two particular felines—a Boston house cat named Callie and a lion from Africa’s savanna—who are compelled to seek each other out amid the changes within and around them.
Downdrift change is accelerated beyond anything the Archaeon’s long memory has seen before, leading the organism to posit that it’s not genetic mutation but a cultural phenomenon that’s transferred socially. Established early, this framework allows Drucker to plumb human social behavior in satirical and terrifying ways.
Sentient slime molds with their first crush won’t take no for an answer. Certain adult baboons pander to juveniles and mimic their behavior. Various small rodents engage in competing industries, vying for supremacy in fashion and adornment. And without the pressure of survival to provide basic drives, interspecies laws have made virtually everyone a vegetarian.
Laughing or crying, Drucker skewers the current cultural moment in a novel extrapolation of epic proportions. Taken to the furthest extreme, Downdrift is dogged by an urgent need to understand the difference between the domestic and the wild, measure it, and recalibrate its implications for survival.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (February 27, 2018)
Heather Chisvin’s pensive, eloquent novel traces the paths of two Russian Jewish sisters: one based in Winnipeg, the other in Manhattan; one who commits suicide, one a survivor left with unanswerable questions. It reveals the trauma that follows immigrants to new shores.
When Anna is called back to Canada, where she and her elder sister, Esther, were sent as children to avoid pogroms, she refuses to believe that Esther’s death was a suicide. Through exchanges with a local inspector, her sister’s journals, well-timed flashbacks, and a spiraling journey through her own memories, Anna weighs key events that shaped her family. A history of loss leads to a haunting portrait of Esther’s mental illness.
With a graceful, realistic balance of fondness and dismay, Esther is drawn through Anna’s memories as a fragile, elusive beauty, as much a burden as she is beloved. Anna, who left her adopted family’s home under difficult circumstances, is made stronger by necessity.
Determined to stay in New York on her own terms, she moves from a position sewing coats in a factory to thriving as a door-to-door saleswoman. Along the way, modern activism and feminism arrive in the form of Margaret Sanger, whose influence shapes Anna’s perspective. A few romances add color to an otherwise brooding plot.
Masterful in its bleak, wintry landscapes, measured pacing, and unspoken rifts between a Russia that no longer exists and a new world that for Esther never entirely paves over a violent past, Chisvin’s work strikes deep chords and captures the pain of caring for someone who is slipping away.
As Anna recounts segments of her life alongside Esther’s, the differences between them leave chasms that no one can cross: why one mind retreats while another finds ways to press forward, and why, despite all the signs, suicide still comes as a shock when it happens. A Fist around the Heart is a dark psychological gem.
KAREN RIGBY (February 27, 2018)
What would we do differently if we knew where we were going? Crackling with detail, Courtney Kersten’s memoir Daughter in Retrograde explores her relationship with her mother through the lens of horoscopes, astrology, and other divination tools. Set in the Midwest, it finds miracles in the mundane and illuminates the deeper truths of love.
Kersten and her mother Victoria are the perfect pair of oddniks, complementing one another and rarely at odds. Their challenge isn’t a mother-daughter conflict; rather, Victoria has cancer. The memoir chronicles her last years, decline, and passing. Throughout, Kersten asks herself: Could I have seen this coming?
Despite her fascination with the occult and her desire to predict the future using every new-age tool known to man, the answer is still no. Victoria’s illness is a shock, and Kersten makes it clear exactly what, and who, is lost.
Victoria is larger than life, leaping from the page like a character from myth. Sunbathing in an early spring heat wave, flashing the camera in a family holiday photo, believing her parents are reincarnated as a pair of red cardinals: she is vivacious, messy. Kersten is her foil, an emotional, introspective girl who yearns to travel and see the world beyond Wisconsin. The tension between the two heightens as Victoria’s cancer progresses, forcing Kersten to leave the world of make-believe and return to earth.
Daughter in Retrograde is Kersten’s first book. Chapters sometimes read like short stories, packed with dialogue, flashbacks, and astrological detail. At times, scenes can feel cluttered. Others, like a masterful passage about the astrologer Linda Goodman, positively sing. Through it all, Kersten alternates between a gimlet-eyed perspective on who she and her mother really were and the childhood dreams of who she hoped they’d be.
Daughter in Retrograde is a finely written memoir that captures the sass and splendor of two unforgettable women.
CLAIRE FOSTER (February 27, 2018)
Parts per Million veers back to the early 2000s, as America somberly moves into a new millennium already shadowed by 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Three activists have banded together in Portland, Oregon, sharing a house and a passion for justice and change. They are intense, committed, and uniquely flawed, and their actions and relationships give Parts per Million an impressive depth beyond its social messages.
Fetzer is the eldest of the trio, a free spirit and Vietnam veteran, generally up for a challenge while managing to be both sage and young at heart. At twenty-eight, Jen is the most strident, willing to protest on the streets or subversively, as well as waging cyberbattles, hacking her way into classified places and riling up fellow rebels in chat rooms.
Nelson, a former US Forest Service employee, left his steady government job and materialistic marriage to do more and take action. Nelson can be moody and uncertain, but he has excellent public speaking skills and the ability to compel and persuade others.
The novel shifts perspective among these three main characters, including their varied perceptions of aspiring photographer and recovering addict Deirdre, who makes her mysterious way from Ireland to their doorstep and changes the group dynamic. Deirdre and Nelson’s romance adds a poignant sensuality to the plot, but it fortunately does not diffuse the broader outrage against covert government activity, ecological destruction, and oil wars. The city of Portland also becomes a colorful presence in Parts per Million, fostering its well-known culture of protest and spirited nonconformity.
Deftly layering humor, strong rhetoric, and human complexity, Parts per Million is inspiring without being preachy and gives a sense of the individual’s role in fighting the wrongful status quo. Fetzer, Jen, and Nelson bring different strengths to their collective fight and tirelessly refuse to accept no as an answer.
MEG NOLA (February 27, 2018)
Musings on the Food, Wine, and Culture of the South of France
Tuscany and Provence—does anywhere else on earth deserve equal standing alongside those two glorious places? Beautiful, of course, but also fertile, temperate, and richly cultured with longstanding traditions in agriculture, cuisine, wine making, architecture, and art.
Truth be told, when you take into account Provence’s seaside Côte d’Azur, navigable Rhône River, enigmatic mountains, Greek and Roman history, and ancient trade-route positioning (both land and sea), its allures and intrigues far exceed Tuscany.
Windows on Provence: Musings on the Food, Wine, and Culture of the South of France places us in the capable hands of Georgeanne Brennan—James Beard award winner, cookbook author, culinary journalist, and Provence homeowner. Alongside high-quality photographs, Brennan’s essays explore legendary cities like Nice, Arles, Marseille, and Aix-en-Provence, as well as ancient ruins, markets, wineries, lavender fields, and restaurants. Also, look for classic fish soup, chicken, and lamb recipes, as well as Artichoke and Fava Bean Barigoule. Brennan’s goal is to help the Provençal traveler get their fill: food, wine, culture, what have you.
MATT SUTHERLAND (February 27, 2018)