Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You
A Series of Fortunate Events is a lighthearted exploration of the roles that chance and coincidence play in human existence.
That there is life on Earth at all, let alone human life, is a happy accident, Sean B. Carroll writes. Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid destroyed three-quarters of life on the planet. In the subsequent era of climate variation, only the most resilient creatures, including semiaquatic animals, burrowing animals, and hominids, endured. Since then, genetic mutations (which, like typos, seem small) have led to useful adaptations. For example, woolly mammoths thrived in the Ice Age because their hemoglobin was better at releasing oxygen at low temperatures.
From these foundations, the text moves toward considering the causes of everything from cancer to casino wins. Carroll illustrates his concepts through apt, surprising situations that all come down to chance. For instance, in a case of “dumb luck,” television comedian Seth MacFarlane and actor Mark Wahlberg were scheduled to be on one of the airplanes that hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, but both happened to miss their flight out of Boston.
Acknowledging that humorists are as likely as scientists to mock notions of determinism, the book culminates in a brief imagined dialogue about chance between six comedians, two writers, and a Nobel Prize-winning biologist. Sarah Silverman tells how she survived a freak bout of epiglottitis, while Kurt Vonnegut recounts multiple lucky shaves during World War II. The voices, recreated from the figures’ writings and interviews, are convincing. The novelty of this playful finale makes up for familiar material on natural selection and DNA.
Golf games, coincidental immunity, and pandemics: A Series of Fortunate Events ranges from examining trivial events to sobering ones, but remains relevant throughout, revealing how chance affects everyday life.
REBECCA FOSTER (August 27, 2020)
“The world you know is a lie … The world that’s coming, that’s the one you should believe in.” So says a Dragon Knight who serves the Sire, a dragon-turned-human who’s targeting the Blazewrath World Cup. But this year, seventeen-year-old Lana is going to fulfill her life’s purpose and play as Team Puerto Rico’s Runner, the only player without a dragon steed. Lana will race to the top of a magically conjured mountain without getting blown away by fireballs or beaten to a pulp. Between the danger of Blazewrath’s world stage and the nearer world of her family, Lana has to figure out what it means to take a stand for all the competing parts of herself.
For Lana, Blazewrath goes deeper than just a love of dragons and sport. She hasn’t been to Puerto Rico for twelve years, ever since her Puerto Rican father and white American mother divorced. Lana’s complex family configuration highlights the personal toll of the United States and Puerto Rico’s unequal relationship.
There is so much that the novel does with ease, not least of all acknowledging the multitudinous natures of individual and cultural identities. It excels at establishing Puerto Rico as proud and fractured: not only are the people of Puerto Rico white, Black, and multiracial, straight and queer, cis and transgender, rich and poor, but the people of the larger world are also, and all are worth claiming and celebrating as central parts of this story.
Filled with the thrill of magical sports, international intrigue, dragons, and an unlikely team of teenagers who band together to save the world and each other, Blazewrath Games manipulates contemporary young adult fantasy conventions to tell a fantastic story that feels both familiar and all its own.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (August 27, 2020)
A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature
The fabulist translated Yiddish tales collected in Honey on the Page speak with grace to the tensions and joys of Jewish life.
Both didactic and celebratory, the collection first concerns itself with stories about Jewish holidays, including Purim and Lag BaOmer. Three tales emphasize how Shabbat is a time of miracles: in one, a mute girl finds her voice; in another, a gentle man finds respite in a blizzard; in a third, a rabbi in the desert shares his challah with a lion who’s taking his rest, too.
The book’s folk tales emphasize virtues like charity, honesty, and kindness, while its parables depart from pure religious emphases: in “The Birds Go on Strike,” bird song ceases until caged birds are set free.
Sholem Asch’s “A Village Saint” lauds those whose religious expressions emerge from within, rather than mimicking rote practice. In it, a boy finds a new way to pray, emerging from his sense that God is always near:
Yashek … saw [God] right there, where the stream flowed quietly and murmured deep secrets to the quiet, calm, grassy bank; and over there, faraway, where the cloud pulled itself across the sky with a sad darkness.
Elsewhere, tales find shtetl Jews binding together, their communities warm and giving even when their circumstances are bleak. European antisemitism is a dark presence in tales like “Gur Aryeh,” wherein a wise rabbi catches the ear of the king and the resentment of his courtiers. History lessons wind into stories that evoke the Spanish Inquisition, but humor is present, too, as with a tale of Chelm’s shlemiels and schlemazels building a synagogue whose foundation is a great and heavy stone.
Miriam Udel’s essential, rich collection of Yiddish tales revives the appealing stories that early twentieth-century Jewish children were told to introduce their history and traditions.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (August 27, 2020)
The secret lives of fairies are finally revealed in this whimsical field guide for open-minded naturalists. Its creative combination of scientific facts with folklore accompanies its detailed illustrations of sprites, will-o-the-wisps, oleads, and fairies. Discover the immense diversity in the habitats, physical features, and behaviors in fairies from all over the world, or marvel at their delicate wings and life cycles. This is a lovely volume for anyone looking to expand their collection beyond Tinker Bell and friends.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (August 27, 2020)
A Life Well Lived
Not just one of the most renowned women artists, Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most iconic American artists. Her challenges and sustained dedication in achieving this status were great. This new collection of photographs and essays rounds out a portrait of the artist in her nineties: firm, serene, and in control of her personal and artistic legacy.
Many of these photographs of O’Keeffe, her beloved New Mexico landscape and homes, and her coterie of friends and employees have never been published before. They were taken by her preferred art photographer, Malcolm Varon, and grouped in a trilogy to showcase her intense personality, relationship with long-time assistant Juan Hamilton, and the people and places around her during her last years.
Barbara Buhler Lynes’s introduction notes that O’Keeffe took great pains to shift from the sexualized artistic identity cultivated by her mentor and husband Alfred Stieglitz. After his death in 1946, she moved to the Southwest and began painting her large-scale flowers and desert landscapes, bedecked with bones and floral imagery. Varon’s color portraits depict the serious, self-determined artist in her signature black-and-white clothing and broad-brimmed hat. Even in her nineties, skin furrowed and vision limited, she is a striking figure against an equally dramatic backdrop of weathered rocks and trees—at ease, but still aware of how to model for the camera.
A more relaxed and candid portrait emerges in photographs of O’Keeffe with Hamilton. He, with his floppy hairstyle, wrist loop camera, and denim shirts, contrasts in an acute way with his subject. An unguarded O’Keeffe is seen smiling and laughing, and these revealing images, and Varon’s documentation of the architectural and interior details of O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch and Abiqui residences, are valuable contributions to understanding more about the intriguing artistic genius.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (August 27, 2020)