THE TRUE AMERICAN: Murder and Mercy in Texas
By Anand Giridharadas
Norton, 336 pp., $27.95
Rais Bhuiyan, an immigrant from Bangladesh, was working in a Dallas-area mini-mart when he met Mark Stroman on Sept. 21, 2001. Stroman, an ex-con with a drug habit and strong ideas about patriotism and racial purity, shot Bhuiyan in the face that day, one of three shootings Stroman intended, he said, as an armed response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bhuiyan survived (the others didn’t), and after Stroman was convicted of murder, the victim became an outspoken advocate for his assailant to escape the death penalty.
In this thoroughly compelling book, New York Times writer Giridharadas tells the stories of two men: the ambitious newcomer Bhuiyan, who “grew up with America on his television screen, so that he felt he knew it before he set foot there,” and Stroman, a hard-luck guy who exemplified “the same racial anxiety, the same sense of embattlement, confronting white-guy drifters” throughout the land. After the shooting, Bhuiyan struggles to pay his medical bills (he becomes well acquainted with “this essentially American institution of debt”) and hopes to regain the sight in his damaged right eye (he fails). Even more baffling to him is an American culture in which nobody helps one another — not neighbors, not even family — a landscape dominated not by community but by “a dream, which had outlived the frontier itself, of being alone.”
Bhuiyan’s quest to save Stroman from execution, kindled in part when the devout Muslim took his mother to Mecca, is indeed inspiring. But it’s in Giridharadas’s masterful reporting into the chaotic, dysfunctional, paranoid milieu that produces men like Stroman that he raises profound questions about America and American-ness. Bhuiyan is far from home, yet it’s native son Stroman whose life feels rootless and disconnected. As the book ends, we learn about Stroman’s children and granddaughter, two more generations raised on the edge of poverty, bounced around from place to place; “[o]n and on it went,” Giridharadas writes, “and it was difficult for anyone with any sense to look at the girl and assume that this time would be different.”
MEN EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME
By Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket, 130 pp., illustrated, paperback, $11.95
In the title essay, Solnit recounts the time a rich, older man began telling her about a “very important” book on the subject they were discussing. The book’s author, it turns out, was Solnit herself — a fact that took the man several minutes to fully grasp. Both sexes, she writes, can be rude know-it-alls, but “the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.” Solnit doesn’t feel uniquely, personally oppressed by such experiences, she goes on, but she’s outraged that women still face a battle “to be treated like human beings” in everything from the cultural arena to the justice system.
This slim book — seven essays, punctuated by enigmatic, haunting paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez — hums with power and wit. Solnit, who has previously taken on aesthetics, politics, and the environment, here focuses on women’s survival, whether from an epidemic of violence or from more genteel forms of silencing and erasure. “There are so many forms of female nonexistence,” she writes, but she takes heart in the new generation, calling young feminists “a thrilling phenomenon” and hoping, too, for a time when men will pull their weight in the task of liberation.
THE TALE OF THE DUELING NEUROSURGEONS: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
By Sam Kean
Little, Brown, 407 pp., illustrated, $27
Taking its title from the doctors who attended King Henri II after his fatal 1559 joisting accident, this book is appropriately both entertaining and gory (it begins and ends with brain injuries that involved pierced eye sockets). Kean, whose last book found human narratives behind every two-letter abbreviation in the periodic table, does the same service here to the history of our understanding of the human brain.
Many of the topics Kean covers have been written about before — amnesia, phantom limbs, Vermonter Phineas Gage and his iron tamping rod — but he proves an able guide, connecting each story with the science behind it, always with an air of enthusiastic curiosity. People once thought the seat of our souls was in the heart, Kean points out, and now we look for it in the brain. If these tales tell us anything, though, it’s that we needn’t search so hard for evidence of our humanity; just like our exquisite, complicated brains, “[w]e’re all fragile, and we’re all very, very strong.”
EATING WILDLY: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal
By Ava Chin
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25
Single and childless in her late 30s, Ava Chin finds herself seeking sustenance — literal and metaphoric — in the overlooked plants growing amid bricks and pavement in New York. An urban forager, she delights in the history and science behind each uncultivated crop: the rich mulberries, tasty lambsquarters, and reishi mushrooms (this last makes “a clear, brownish red tea that smelled like a cross between an old shoe and a locker room, with a squirt of lemon” — they can’t all taste good).
Urban foraging can sound a bit faddish and twee, but Chin roots her memoir in a strong family story, including a grandfather well-versed in Chinese cooking and medicinal herbs. Her quirky, gentle humor proves difficult to resist, as does the image of plucking a bouquet of unassuming greens, “silently transforming the earth into a living, breathing salad.”