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Briefly Noted Book Reviews | The New Yorker


A Thousand Moons, by Sebastian Barry (Viking). This spare, lyrical sequel to “Days Without End” takes place in the backwoods of Tennessee, a state scarred by the Civil War. Winona, a young Lakota woman, lives in a community that is prejudiced against her race and her sex, yet she finds fulfilling work and a besotted fiancé. However, after she is brutally attacked, she is forced to reckon with her past traumas, and with the cruelties faced by Native Americans. Barry’s atmospheric prose captures the mid-nineteenth century’s language and hardscrabble spirit. “Be wise,” Winona tells herself. “Trouble always comes and no use wishing it didn’t. Thing is, to get through it—and out the other side.”

How Much of These Hills Is Gold, by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead). In this stylized and complex début novel, two children, born near the end of the gold rush, wander through harsh Western landscapes searching for a place to bury their father, a failed prospector. (Their mother, shipped from China to work on the railroads, died years before.) The story is narrated by the soft, scholastic twelve-year-old Lucy, as she journeys with her younger sibling, Sam, who struts in imitation of their father, and of the cowboys of their time. While the book presents a counter-narrative to conventional tales of America’s origins, it also interrogates the more intimate dimensions of belonging and memory, asking, over and over, “What makes a home a home?”

The Hot Hand, by Ben Cohen (Custom House). In 1985, a group of cognitive scientists released a study in which they concluded that hot streaks—one of the most avidly contested phenomena in sports—were a myth. Cohen, a sportswriter, begins his exploration of the subject with basketball, but soon broadens his scope to consider Einstein’s annus mirabilis, in 1905 (his output: special relativity, the photoelectric effect, and E=mc2), and Shakespeare’s, which occurred during the plague year of 1606. Sports statistics offer some answers as to whether streaks indeed reflect heightened abilities rather than chance and circumstance, but, as Cohen notes, the belief in them has its own value, because it implies that people can “transcend their places in the world.”

What Is the Grass, by Mark Doty (Norton). The author of this appreciation of “Leaves of Grass” animates Walt Whitman’s joyful proclamation that everything is connected. Doty interweaves an account of his own coming of age as a gay man with passionate close readings of Whitman that probe the poet’s multitudes, showing him to be lustful and wise, sure and self-doubting, and to draw on both Biblical language and the rough yawps of slang to create a new style. In the eighteen-fifties, before the Civil War, Whitman evoked a country in which the kind of affinity Doty practices here might bind us—in which “democracy might be founded in the body, on the affection between bodies”—and called out to his compatriots in that imagined future.

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