The Book of Barely Imagined Beings:
A 21st Century Bestiary
By Caspar Henderson
University of Chicago, 427 pp., illustrated, $29
Although this strange and lovely book is most immediately influenced by Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Book of Imaginary Beings,” the English writer Caspar Henderson reaches even farther back for inspiration. Animal images drawn in French caves 30,000 years ago, he argues, show that since the beginning, humanity’s “attempts to understand and define ourselves have been closely linked to how we see and represent other animals.” Here, Henderson introduces us to an assortment of bizarre beings, most of them endangered or extinct, whose outlandish gifts spark questions about perception, language, intelligence, emotion — no attribute we claim as part of human nature, it turns out, is uniquely human after all.
This is a curious book, in both senses of the word: as unusual as the creatures it examines, and relentless in probing each beast’s biology. In the first essay, we meet the oddly adorable axolotl, a salamander whose four-limbed shape sends Henderson searching for the meaning behind morphology; looking at this baby-faced amphibian, Henderson invites us to consider the concept of neoteny, in which seemingly immature features persist in adulthood. Pondering the ill-use of neoteny and its close cousin — the notion that an individual’s development replays its evolutionary path — Henderson points out that in many cases “it has not always been clear where science ends and where metaphors begin.” To his credit, Henderson isn’t content with metaphor — he’s not one of those high-concept pop-science wunderkinds — instead ranging along the intersection of biology, history, and philosophy (with fruitful digressions elsewhere) in search of the beautiful, the small, and the real. In discussing camouflage and illusion, he writes that “human beings regularly see things which are not there,” but, of course, the reverse is also true; too often we miss what is right before us.
By Austin Grossman
Little Brown, 383 pp., $25.99
“I was born in 1969,” says Russell, “which was the perfect age for everything having to do with video gaming.” Austin Grossman’s lovely, achingly nostalgic second novel is set in 1997 at an Alewife office building where venture capital still flows, and where, most crucially, Russell, our main character, gets a job developing video games at a company founded by two of his classmates from Newton North after he quits law school. In flashbacks that paint as perfect a portrait of a certain kind of suburban Boston Gen-X adolescence as one can imagine, we meet off-kilter genius Simon and his smoother best friend, Darren, along with terminally socially awkward Lisa, the core of Mr. Koettke’s computer programming class, where the foursome wrote the first “Realms of Gold” in 1983. Now Simon is dead; Darren has left the company; and Lisa and Russell have just a few months to relaunch the game, which at his worst moments Russell sees as “just another medieval pastiche, a sub-Narnian, off-brand Middle-earth.”
“You” is a mystery (the pair must find a hidden code Simon left behind), a razor-sharp comedy of pre-bust business mores, and a smart meditation on the nature of gaming. Grossman, who has designed video games, brings experience but more importantly abundant affection to describing this world — the welcome recognition of one Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast for another, the surreal happiness that comes from mastery, the semi-ironic clinging to juvenile aesthetics.
Why Men Fake It:
The Totally Unexpected Truth
About Men and Sex
By Abraham Morgentaler
Holt, 306 pp., illustrated, $26
Male sexuality is often treated as a joke: simple, stupid, easy. Yet according to Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, a Boston-based urologist, the truth is that men, like women, bring complicated feelings to their sexual lives and identities and can suffer mightily from insecurity. Male culture often leads men to suffer silently from real or perceived sexual insufficiency, and until recently, Morgentaler argues, even professionals held outdated, incorrect views about the causes and cures for male sex problems such as erectile dysfunction.
An enthusiastic proponent of testosterone therapy for men whose levels are low and a surgeon experienced in penile implants and other procedures, Morgentaler makes for a warm, encouraging guide through the maze of male sexual issues. At times, the recreated dialogue with patients can feel a bit stilted, but the author’s sensitivity toward gay men, transgendered people, and aging men is notable and welcome. Most heartening is his message that “men are complex, thoughtful, and eager to be a valued and respected partner.”