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‘Season of the Witch,’ ‘The Year of the Gadfly,’ ‘Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History’

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“In the course of a lifetime,” Florence Williams writes, “breasts meet many friends and foes: lovers, babies, ill-fitting undergarments, persistent pollutants, maybe a nipple ring, a baggie of silicone, or a dose of therapeutic radiation.” In this engaging book, science journalist Williams sets out to provide what she calls “an environmental history of a body part” that is rarely, it seems, examined on its own merits. Even the evolutionary significance of breasts, she argues, has long been ignored by male scientists who saw in them powerful signifiers of fertility — attractors of men, that is, rather than feeders of babies. This persistent male focus on the sexual breast has obscured and even thwarted their primary function (as evidence she cites both low breast-feeding rates and an ever-increasing number of surgical augmentations). More troubling still, Williams says, in breasts we see early warnings of the long-term, devastating impact of environmental toxins — due to their high fat content, breasts “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.”

Much like “Stiff,’’ Mary Roach’s look at the lives of cadavers, “Breasts” benefits from its author’s field trips to learn from various experts; among the most illuminating come during her investigation into the world of breast implants. Williams talks with America’s first recipient of a silicone-implant boob job, as well as Houston’s hottest plastic surgeon, whom she hopes will deem her own breasts too perfect to need implants (spoiler: he doesn’t). More serious sections exploring multigenerational fallout (infertility, cancers, precocious puberty) from exposure to everyday chemicals are terrifyingly convincing. Seen this way — the breast as canary in a toxic coal mine — the author’s call to protect them feels both timely and urgent.

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At the dawning of the Age of Aquarius came 1967’s Human Be-In, a San Francisco festival where Beat poets and psychedelic jam bands dispensed joy to a blissed-out crowd. In David Talbot’s sprawling, ambitious history of his adopted hometown, he chronicles San Francisco’s flowering from “a very uptight Irish Catholic city” to “a haven for the young, broke, and visionary.” As hippies and teenage runaways flooded the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a community ethos developed; in San Francisco, Talbot argues, we see the birth of the idea of “free” — free health care in volunteer clinics, free mind-expansion via music and poetry, free love. Even the town’s bona fide adults, from rock impresario Bill Graham to newspaper columnist Herb Caen, projected a freewheeling style that fit perfectly in “an enchanted city that was more than slightly cracked.”

Talbot’s energetic, highly entertaining storytelling conveys the exhilaration of ’60s counterculture as well as the gathering ugliness that would mark the city in the ’70s.

Iris Dupont is a high school freshman whose journalistic aspirations are so intense that she routinely speaks to Edward R. Murrow in her head (and sometimes, embarrassingly, out loud). After the family moves from Boston to a small town on the edge of the Berkshires, Iris’s parents enroll her at Mariana Academy. They hope the prestigious private school will provide a fresh start for Iris. But Mariana, it turns out, is home to a secret society that publishes a scandal sheet, stages incendiary pranks, and blackmails students it suspects of breaking the school’s Community Code (“Brotherhood, Truth, and Equality for All”). When Iris discovers a connection between Lily Morgan, the former headmaster’s daughter who left Mariana a decade earlier, and her biology teacher, Mr. Kaplan, another Mariana alum, she pulls out her reporter’s notebook and gets to work.

In alternating sections from Iris, Lily, and Mr. Kaplan’s points of view, Jennifer Miller’s first novel focuses intensely on the prep school’s discontents. Battles for popularity and belonging, for friendship and power feature prominently (as they do in all prep school novels), but Miller expands her reach into issues of guilt and moral responsibility. At times she exceeds her grasp, studding an overly complicated plot with allusions to the Columbine shooting, not to mention modern art, entomology, and Greek myth. For all its messiness, the book engages and provokes.

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