Briefly Noted Book Reviews

Born of Lakes and Plains, by Anne F. Hyde (Norton). A new way of looking at the American West emerges in this history of the mixing and marrying of Indigenous people and settlers. Beginning with the fur trade, Hyde shows how marriage and procreation were crucial to integrating newcomers and building alliances. Commerce relied on networks of kin, and, as Native American clans would share knowledge only with those they considered family, mixed-descent children were vital intermediaries. The stories of five families through the nineteenth century illustrate how these intermediaries were also vulnerable to racist and expansionist policies. Though some were forced to hide their heritage, Hyde highlights their acts of agency, and tells “a narrative of our past with shared blood at its heart.”

Jena 1800, by Peter Neumann, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This vivid group biography captures the moment, at the end of the eighteenth century, when Jena, a small university town, suddenly emerged as the “intellectual and cultural center of Germany.” Neumann’s cast of writers and philosophers includes Fichte, Novalis, Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel, and Caroline and Wilhelm Schelling, with cameo appearances from such luminaries as Goethe, Schiller, and Hegel. Neumann is adept both at conveying the gossip, feuds, and eccentricities of this tight-knit milieu and at grappling with his subjects’ political and philosophical ideas, which were crucial to the development of German Romanticism.

The Hummingbird, by Sandro Veronesi, translated from the Italian by Elena Pala (HarperVia). “How do you begin telling the story of a great love when you know it ended in disaster?” this novel asks. Its answer is to narrate the life of its protagonist, a Florentine ophthalmologist named Marco Carrera, out of sequence. We see him first as a husband and father, and later as a boy and as a grandfather; we learn about the dissolution of his family, his wife’s mental instability, and the infidelities of both of them. Letters, e-mails, poetry, and telephone transcripts are interspersed throughout. The temporal leaps, though sometimes disorienting, cunningly mimic the eddying, insistent nature of memory itself.

The Door-Man, by Peter M. Wheelwright (Fomite). The narrator of this novel, Piedmont Livingston Kinsolver III, is a doorman at a fancy apartment building on Central Park West, who, unbeknownst to his colleagues, commutes home to a penthouse on upper Fifth Avenue. The job, he says, affords him “solitude and invisibility,” the thrill of “hiding out inside one’s own life,” and the chance to “keep an eye on things” at the Central Park Reservoir. The reservoir’s water, it turns out, originates at a Catskills dam that submerged the Kinsolver ancestral home. When mysterious fossils appear at the reservoir, Kinsolver is forced to confront family secrets, including murder and incest, connected with a paleontological discovery made by one of his forebears at the dam site.

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