Briefly Noted Book Reviews | The New Yorker

Briefly Noted Book Reviews | The New Yorker

Must I Go, by Yiyun Li (Random House). Lilia, a woman in a retirement home who believes that she lacks a “porous heart,” recalls a love affair with a man whose posthumous journals have recently been published. She never told him that he was the father of her first child, Lucy, who killed herself. When the home offers a memoir-writing class, Lilia, reflexively cynical about her fellow-residents, is scornful, but she independently starts work on a personal history for Lucy’s daughter, Katherine, her favorite grandchild. The account suggests the places where Lilia’s hardness readily cedes to something tender. “People will say all sorts of things about those who’ve committed suicide,” she writes. “But, Katherine, your mom was a brave woman.”

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline (William Morrow). In the small Ontario town where this novel is set, indigenous inhabitants are constantly pressured to sell their ancestral lands for natural-resource development, as the rougarou, a mythical beast of folk legend—part man, part dog, part wolf—stalks the streets. Joan, the book’s sharp narrator, whose family has lived there for generations, suspects the rougarou’s dangerous influence when, eleven months after her husband disappears, she finds him preaching in a revival tent and unable to recognize her. As she struggles to reclaim him, she follows the revivalists through mining and indigenous communities in Canada, unknowingly tracing the path of a proposed oil pipeline, which is connected in strange, dark ways to her husband’s story.

Character, by Marjorie Garber (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This wide-ranging history of our “cultural obsession” with character as a moral quality notes how often public figures are denounced for not possessing it. But what, exactly, does it mean to say that a politician, for example, has “failed the character test”? Drawing on ancient philosophy, Victorian educational tracts, Shakespeare’s plays, and Freud, Garber shows how slippery the concept can be. Is character fixed and intrinsic, she asks, or is it capable of being “formed,” as the Victorians believed? Answers remain elusive in this thought-provoking work, but, as Garber writes, one thing about character becomes clear: “We may not agree on what it is, but we know when it is lacking.”

The Vapors, by David Hill (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Hot Springs, Arkansas, was once a casino hub that rivalled Las Vegas, despite a state law criminalizing gambling. As this history shows, from 1870 until 1967 businessmen openly disregarded the law, with the connivance of the police and lawmakers. The narrative focusses on three figures: a New York gangster who consolidated the city’s gambling industry; his protégé, a local boy who becomes gambling boss; and the author’s grandmother, an impoverished pill addict. Bribes, kickbacks, campaign contributions, ballot stuffing, and intimidation steered the profit to those in power, but the casinos also enjoyed genuine popular support, something that leads Hill to a consideration of what makes an enterprise legitimate.

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