By Jennifer Ackerman
Houghton Mifflin; 249 pp.; $25
In Chance in the House of Fate, Jennifer Ackerman's exploration of molecular biology is nearly as intricate as her subject. She probes the mysterious world of cells, sperm, and bacteria with textbook precision and with a whole-hearted admiration for the human connection to the natural world. It is this genuine admiration that makes Ackerman's book a joy to read, an insightful and self-reflective study that is both scientific and lyrical.
The book is divided into 18 sections, each a close examination of the microscopic world that links all forms of life, from microbes to mice, cephalopods to human beings. Ackerman, a contributing writer and editor for National Geographic magazine and The New York Times, engages in a detailed explanation of genetics that, despite its specificity, is accessible and enjoyable. She approaches the subject of heredity from a personal desire to understand her sister's genetic disorder and from her awe of the beauty of childbirth, of the symmetry and perfection of her own infant's face. This curiosity about her own genetic makeup is manifested in a "pilgrimage to the heart of heredity."
Each living entity, each individual cell, becomes a world of wonder for Ackerman, whose unique philosophy relishes nature and reminds us that "any dividing of life, however useful, is also artificial, reflecting the particular needs of the human mind rather than the realities of nature." From Ackerman's intriguing perspective the genome of a fruit fly is connected to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the response of our immune system to Salmonella is a complicated play, like Shakespeare's Othello. Her fascination with all living organisms, with heredity, and with motherhood is a reminder of both the mystery and the realities of our existence. -- Virginia Benitez
By Roger Angell
Warner Books; 290 pp.; $24.95
A longtime editor with The New Yorker, Roger Angell has built a reputation as somewhat of a baseball scholar, with six books on the national pastime to his credit. His latest, A Pitcher's Story, is a collaboration with veteran big-league hurler David Cone, best known recently for his work with the latest New York Yankees dynasty. Before he pitched in five World Series and before he won the Cy Young Award as his league's best pitcher, Cone toiled on the mound as a Memphis Chick. He went 8-12 for the 1984 club and -- Rick Ankiel fans, take note -- led the Southern League with 27 wild pitches. Almost two decades later, Cone is approaching 200 major-league wins, now as a member of the Boston Red Sox.
Angell spent the entire 2000 season with Cone, a campaign that proved to be a bittersweet coda for the pitcher in Yankee pinstripes. Cone suffered through the worst year of his career, accumulating an ugly record of 4-14 (and separating his shoulder to boot) for a club that would win its third straight World Series. What was begun as a project to examine the craft of pitching at the hand of one who did it best became an attempt to convey what Angell describes as baseball's principle of connection: writer to subject, fan to player, past to present. Less an examination of the art of pitching, Angell's book became a study of the psyche of a professional athlete who finds his skills eroding ... in front of millions.
Reading about Yankee success is like reading about Kennedy fame. It's the bumps in the road that catch our attention. So it is with David Cone's story. Angell mentions the highs -- the 1999 perfect game at Yankee Stadium, Cone's gutsy win over Atlanta in the '96 Series -- but he grips his reader with the lows. Cone suffered a career-, even life-threatening aneurysm in his arm during the 1996 season. He was a member of the raucous New York Mets of the late '80s and early '90s and became fodder for the Big Apple tabloids when his nightlife somehow managed to outshine his stellar pitching. All along, though, Cone remained as cerebral a ballplayer as one can expect. His enormous role as a representative for the players union during the 1994-95 strike makes for the most provocative reading in the book. These are the chisel marks that have come to shape Cone the ballplayer and Cone the man. "His defeats and his stubborn energy and courage had become the story," writes Angell.
As with nearly every baseball writer, Angell's chief weakness is a tone that too often screams, "FAN." While he aims to provide insight into the atmosphere of baseball life, he does so from the perspective of someone who sees it from behind a notebook and maybe envies it a little. He goes so far as to write, "The more I saw Cone in confusion and pain, the better I liked him." While a little skewed, the comment says a lot about a book that describes an aspect of major-league baseball we examine far too little: its humanity. -- Frank Murtaugh
By Stewart O'Nan
Doubleday; 384 pp.; $14 (paper)
To this day, survivors recall that the worst part of it was the shrieking of the animals trapped in the terrible fire.
But no animals died that day -- what everyone heard was the agonized screams of more than 200 men, women, and children who perished when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus tent caught fire in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 6, 1944.
No one ever discovered what caused the blaze, whether it was intentionally set by a disgruntled circus employee or whether it started from a cigarette, carelessly tossed into the straw below the stands. But in a matter of minutes, the canvas "big top" became a raging inferno, trapping more than 7,000 people inside during an afternoon performance.
I've read many history books over the years, and perhaps I have a morbid streak, since quite a few of them have involved disasters, but The Circus Fire, fully illustrated with photos taken during the blaze, is one of the best stories I've encountered in a long time. Stewart O'Nan makes us feel we are there in Hartford on that awful day and takes us minute-by-minute through the events of July 6th. We meet many of the families who decided to spend the day at the circus, we experience the horror of the fire almost first-hand, and we learn how those who survived coped with the memory of that day for the rest of their lives.
Among other things, we learn that the tent blazed so fiercely because it had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline -- good at repelling water, but strike a match to it and it becomes, in effect, a giant torch. We learn that most of the exits were blocked by tent poles, guy wires, and bleachers -- forming an obstacle course as the tent filled with smoke.
We also learn the pathetic story of the dead girl who came to be known nationwide as "Little Miss 1565." That was the number they tagged on her at the makeshift morgue after the fire, and that became the inscription on her tombstone. Though she wasn't disfigured by the flames (many bodies were totally consumed by the intense heat), no one ever came forward to claim her, even when newspapers and Life magazine ran her photo. Today, she remains one of the mysteries of the tragedy that came to be called simply the Circus Fire and just one of the compelling stories of that day in Hartford that O'Nan tells so well. -- Michael Finger
By Ana Menéndez
Grove Press; 229 pp.; $23
In the realm of literary fiction, first story collections by younger authors have a tendency to come out pretty uneven -- such revered works as Barry Hannah's Airships and Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome To the Monkey House are examples -- in that some of the stories are so faultless as to make you shake your head in envy, while others miss their mark by a wide margin. This is only natural, a common criticism. Rarely do you find an artist, even a master, who pulls off what appears to be perfection regularly.
This is what strikes me as so impressive in Ana Menéndez's debut collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. It's pretty damn even. Granted, some tales shine, other sparkle, and some are merely polished, but the book is a fine, coherent rumination on the hearts and minds of Cuban exiles growing old in Miami.
The stories are surreptitiously linked; you'll follow a new protagonist around for five pages before you realize he or she appeared two stories back as a secondary character. This is telling. Menéndez's Miami is populated by the fainter doppelgangers of those native Cubans who fled Castro's revolution 40 years before. Some seem but ghosts of their former selves. And as we follow them or they skirt the perimeters of these stories, their pain almost imperceptible, an appropriate impression of otherworldliness descends upon the reader -- every bit of dialogue becomes weighted with memory and remorse, characters breathe and dream. And you are convinced that, of course, they are in another world, unable to shake off the ache of being torn from their families' homes (whose corridors they still walk).
This quasi-novelistic approach is a wonderful way to flesh out a community so colored by the past. The connections between these characters are tenuous, yet their comfortable familiarity recalls their common ailment: They are Adams and Eves who fled a crumbling Eden. Paradise is lost, and they can never return, but every day they hope to wake to the dissolution of Castro's Cuba, the rebirth of theirs.
Menéndez has given us a sensitive, humorous, and sad look at ourselves, and rarely does she miss her mark. -- Jeremy Spencer
By Francine du Plessix Gray
Viking; 246 pp.; $19.95
Leslie Fiedler once called Simone Weil, in this, the age of alienation, our kind of saint. Flannery OConnor, who pretty much knew sainthood when she saw it -- foolishness, too -- countered by once calling the life of Simone Weil comical. (No telling what OConnor would have made of Fiedlers insinuating our.)
Francine du Plessix Gray in her fine new book, Simone Weil, the latest in Vikings very fine Penguin Lives series, stays out of the sainthood business and mounts the simpler, well-put argument that Weil the intellectual powerhouse, Weil the Marxist-turned-anti-Soviet socialist, Weil the non-Catholic Catholic mystic, and Weil the undereating champion of the economic underdog was in actuality a classic case of anorexia nervosa complicated by crippling bouts with massive migraine.
The diagnosis isnt du Plessix Grays and it isnt new, but it does help make sense of a life often shorn of sense. The same diagnosis had occurred to Weils friend Dr. Louis Bercher as early as 1950, seven years after a coroners report described Weils death in England, age 34, as Cardiac failure due to ... starvation and pulmonary tuberculosis. But it did not appear in Berchers memoir till after the death of Weils devoted (and doctor) father, who categorically denied any such ailment in his daughter and had all references to it struck from the literature surrounding her.
So what is it with Simone Weil? Is she saint or clown? Intellectual or mystic? Martyr or neurotic? The correct answer is seven: all six.
Simone Adolphine Weil was born in Paris in 1909 and grew up in a household it seems only the French can come up with. Her father -- kind, loving, and thoroughly enlightened, but taciturn and easily overwhelmed by his forceful spouse -- practiced medicine. Her mother -- as scrupulous about her childrens physical well-being as she was about their education -- practiced a dreaded fear of germs to go with her absolute faith in learning. Neither practiced the former family faith, Judaism. A son, André, was born in 1906, and in addition to being a mathematical prodigy, taught himself classical Greek and Sanskrit by the age of 12, when he was not on his way to becoming an accomplished violinist. Du Plessix Gray calls this household a hermetic, rarified world, but when you read that the youngsters André and Simone often communicated with each other in spontaneously rhymed couplets, or in ancient Greek, or that [w]hen reciting scenes from Corneille or Racine they corrected each other with a slap in the face when one of them made a mistake or missed a beat, you might want to call it closer to science-fictional. Whatever. This is the world Simone Weil was born into, a world she never felt herself entirely smart enough to be member of (what came naturally to André came, through sheer hard work, to Simone) and a world she never entirely outgrew. Not even after she developed a take-no-prisoners style of argument at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Not even after various teaching appointments in the secondary schools of 30s France took her from Paris but not from her attending parents.
As du Plessix Gray describes it, the career Weil followed and the leftist politics Weil professed were only broadly typical of her time and intelligence. Dressed head-to-toe in the most belligerently unbecoming get-ups possible, Weil smoked too much, ate little, then less than little (according, always, to the insufficient diet of those with whom she wished to identify), and so positively felt for the working class that, unlike her political soulmates, she felt it necessary to submit to physically punishing and mind-killing factory work so as not to think herself above and outside it. This, despite an in-built inability to perform safely the most routine manual tasks, and this, despite developing and highly idiosyncratic ideas on the nature of beauty, power, affliction, and the Cross.
The civil war in Spain got Weil wounded when she clumsily stepped into a line of friendly fire (a pot of boiling cooking oil), and the Second World War saw her proposing ideas to the Free French when the Free French had little time for either her or her brand of unrealism. Same with the priests from whom Weil sought counsel on doctrinal issues so as to permit her, conscience clean, to be baptized in the Catholic faith. True, Weil found comfort here. Also true, Weil found Logic, true faith of the French, opposed to the one, true Church, Rome.
The whole, final scenes described in this book make for sad reading, because we in hindsight know that this impossible figure, Simone Weil, was acting in and outside her time as witness or fool. But what of this hold Weil continues to have on the imagination, especially the imagination of those who grant her uncommon intelligence but who cannot grant her humility and charity as anything more than an eating disorder or super-headache? OConnor may be right, but since when is comical necessarily not to be confused with saintliness? -- Leonard Gill