Briefly Noted Book Reviews | the new yorker

From South to Americaby Imani Perry (Ecco). Structured like a journey, with chapters organized by location, this history of the American South examines its subject from both personal and sociopolitical perspectives. Perry, an Alabama-born Princeton professor, meets a Confederate reenactor in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and visits the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, in Montgomery, Alabama, which is located near a liberation office conditional. She draws connections between past and contemporary experience – for example, she reads Thomas Jefferson’s racist observations of black people in light of her own Ancestry.com findings. Threading the stories of its protagonists through the book, Perry admits “a bit of navel-gazing”, but observes that “if you look anywhere with a critical eye, you also have to look at your own belly”.

the innocentby Katharine Blake (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). When the author of these sketchy memoirs was in law school, a teenage cousin had a psychotic breakdown and killed a young boy. Blake, now a law professor, traces the aftermath of murder and his attempts to understand it, examining Anna Freud’s writings on defense mechanisms after a psychotherapist told her that “a psychotic breakdown is not than an intense fear”. Having kept his distance from his cousin, Blake ends up corresponding with him and visits him in prison. She avoids hard-line conclusions or a sense of absolution, but her legal training and insights give pause for thought about the limits of our criminal justice system.

The stars are not yet bellsby Hannah Lillith Assadi (Riverhead). Through the fog of dementia, Elle, the narrator of this novel, recounts her life on an island off the coast of Georgia during World War II. She, her husband and a man named Gabriel (whom she is in love with and who pretends to be her cousin) have come to mine an enigmatic mineral, Caeruleum, which glows blue in the coastal waters. They hope that its gem, even pharmaceutical, properties will make them rich. But the events surrounding their excavations lead Elle to wonder if “beauty and death are coincidental, codependent.” As his thoughts drift back and forth in time, a double mystery comes to the surface: what happened to his grip on reality, and what happened to Gabriel?

The Swank Hotelby Lucy Corin (Graywolf). Set in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, this hypnotic and ancient novel revolves around two sisters: Emilie, who works a lackluster job in a nondescript town where she bought an “adorable first house”; and Adeline, who suffers from mental illness and has disappeared. News arrives that Ad killed herself, then survived, and Em flies off to be with her in Kansas City. Corin gives the impression that the madness is everywhere: in the sisters’ family history, in a colleague’s case, in the news stories and the plot of a television documentary. “Mad people see the invisible,” she writes. “What the collective suspects but cannot express, a perpetual frictionless sway from object to subject.”

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