Books

in brief

‘Literchoor Is My Beat,’ ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy,’ ‘Windows on the World,’ ‘Sex on Earth’

LITERCHOOR IS MY BEAT: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions

By Ian S. MacNiven

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pp., $37.50

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Although his was never a household name, James Laughlin wielded enormous influence over midcentury literary America as founder of the publishing house New Directions, which brought out books by everyone from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to Herman Hesse and Thomas Merton. In this expansive new biography, Ian MacNiven presents Laughlin as a man of enormous energy, vitality, and brilliance who simultaneously battled doubts about his own literary talent, fears of inheriting his father’s bipolar disorder, and a knack for falling in love with too many women at once.

Born in 1914 into a wealthy steel family, Laughlin was a “shy, clinging, and rather delicate” child, MacNiven writes, close to his father and afraid of his strict Presbyterian mother. He fell for modern literature at Choate, prompting a row with his mother, who “wept and prayed over him” when she read a passage from his copy of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” While a student at Harvard, Laughlin went to Europe each summer, meeting Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, who would become his lifelong friend, teacher, and albatross. Laughlin was so successful at spotting and nurturing talent that he saw many of his most successful writers scooped up by bigger presses, but he maintained rich friendships with most, and MacNiven makes great use of the trove of their letters. As one might expect from the biography of a prolific publisher (Laughlin founded New Directions while still an undergraduate, and never really retired), at times one can feel as if one is reading a book catalog — but what a catalog it was!

HACKER, HOAXER, WHISTLEBLOWER, SPY: The Many Faces of Anonymous

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By Gabriella Coleman

Verso, 464 pp., $26.95

It started with the lulz (a word derived from the online acronym LOL), which Gabriella Coleman describes as “a deviant style of humor and a quasi-mystical state of being.” In the beginning, much of the community we now know as Anonymous gathered in online spaces devoted to chaotic, often deeply offensive, mischief-making. Descendents of the counter-culture “phone phreaks” of the 1960s, these trolls were “connoisseurs of forbidden fruit,” Coleman writes, addicted to “mockery, spectacle, and transgression.” Yet in the past few years, Anonymous has seemed to change — taking an active role, for instance, in publicizing WikiLeaks; aiding the Arab Spring uprisings; exposing rape culture in Steubenville, Ohio; and outing KKK members over threats to protesters in Ferguson, Mo. “What began as a network of trolls,” Coleman writes, “has become . . . a force for good in the world.’’

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Coleman, a professor at McGill University trained in cultural anthropology, began studying the group around 2008. By 2011, she writes, “this side project became my life.” At times Coleman’s sympathy for and faith in Anonymous feels misplaced (some of its jargon and in-group culture remain vile), but anyone hoping to understand this mostly hidden world will find her book crucial and even prescient. “If vigilante justice is rightly deemed problematic for skirting the legal process,” she points out, “it arises because existing channels for serving justice are weak or nonexistent.” In other words, Anonymous will likely be with us awhile.

WINDOWS ON THE WORLD: 50 Writers, 50 Views

By Matteo Pericoli

Penguin, 152 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Some writers delight in life unfolding outside their windows. At home in Lagos, Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie looks out onto “an ordinary view,” but one that is “choked with stories, because it is full of people. I watch them and I imagine their lives and invent their dreams.” Then there are those like the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who prefers a lousy view: “In the Keret family tradition my writing space is always one of the least desirable spots in our apartment, a place which only a person who is busy writing can bear.”

This original, beautiful book pairs these and 48 other authors with line drawings of the views from their desks. We hear from Nadine Gordimer and Orhan Pamuk, from Geraldine Brooks and Teju Cole, people writing from South Africa to North Carolina, from Bangkok to Reykjavik. The artist is Milan-born Matteo Pericoli, an architect, journalist, and teacher, and his work here is precise, careful, and somehow nearly surreal — perhaps because the scenes have no people in them, there is a sense of anticipation, of wondering what happens next. In other words, his illustrations work very much like the best fiction.

SEX ON EARTH: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction

By Jules Howard

Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $27

It hasn’t always been socially or scientifically acceptable to study the sex lives of animals. When polar explorer George Murray Levick, trapped in Antarctica for six months, witnessed “a litany of perversion” among the penguins there, he chose to chronicle the harshest bits (which included sexual coercion and necrophilia) in Greek, the better to hide the ugly truth.

Nowadays, of course, the study of sex is fairly mainstream, if occasionally mocked when public funds are involved. Its primary downside, wryly noted by Jules Howard in his terrifically entertaining new book, is that it can be a bit slow; as he describes observing a pair of copulating frogs in his yard, one sentence sums it up: “Another day passes.” If anyone can make this kind of thing interesting, though, one suspects it is Howard. A British zoologist, he writes with self-deprecating charm and genuine enthusiasm. By the time you reach a chapter on duck genitalia titled, “The Cloaca Monologues,” you will be as thoroughly won over as a mallard hen observing her drake’s bright yellow bill (a sign he’s healthy and free of STDs). Hubba hubba.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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