Arts

in brief

Four recent nonfiction titles

ONE OF US:

The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway

By Åsne Seierstad

Translated from the Norwegian

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by Sarah Death

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 544 pp.

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Anders Behring Breivik, who grew up to kill 77 fellow Norwegians (8 in a car bomb in Oslo and 69 gunned down at a teen summer camp on the island of Utoya), was raised by a chronically depressed and disturbed mother who had herself grown up in a house “tainted with shame.” Abandoned early by a father who serially abandoned his many children, Breivik was a moody and solitary child; as a teen and young adult, his plans always seemed to fizzle out. At 27, he moved back in with his mother and immersed himself in two online fantasy lands: One was the multiplayer game “World of Warcraft”; the other comprised blogs and websites warning against what they called “the Islamisation of Europe.” He began planning an action against those who welcomed immigration and diversity — when he finally carried out his massacre in 2011, his sleeve bore a badge reading “Multiculti Traitor Hunting Permit.”

In “One of Us,” Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad chronicles the chilling crime and the stunted, misguided man who committed it. Her taut narrative also reveals a series of heartbreakingly incompetent official decisions, without which many lives would have been saved. It would be an unremittingly dismal book if she hadn’t also profiled many victims and their families — in particular, the politically engaged youth gathered on Utoya, a tiny island owned by Norway’s Labour Party, whose loss to their parents and to their nation is clearly incalculable. The juxtaposition of their stories with their killer’s is what makes this book unforgettable.

BEYOND THE PALE:

Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes

By Emily Urquhart

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Harper, 288 pp., $27.99

Emily Urquhart’s newborn daughter was the talk of the maternity ward for her white-blond hair, but nobody used the word “albino” to describe her until a hospital worker applied the label with “a note of alarm in her voice.” Further testing revealed that Sadie Jane had albinism (the term “albino” on its own is considered offensive by many these days, Urquhart points out). As a mother, Urquhart worried about her daughter’s low vision and increased risk of skin cancer; as a folklorist, she knew that the world hasn’t always been kind to those with albinism, either in antiquity or today.

The family travels to a convention of people with albinism, where Sadie dances among her peers, and they go to Tanzania to meet people who have been brutalized because of their albinism. The memoir’s loveliest and most surprising turn takes place in Urquhart’s own family tree, where ancestors with albinism are unearthed, their stories unraveled as if in the most intimate sort of folk tale. “Here is the value of folklore,” Urquhart writes, “it gives shape to the unknowable.” This too, is the value of this kind of memoir: a journey toward knowledge of the self, a research project undertaken out of love.

MAN IN PROFILE:

Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker

By Thomas Kunkel

Random House, 370 pp., $30

For longtime New Yorker readers and fans of his 1992 collection “Up in the Old Hotel,” Joseph Mitchell represents a kind of paradox: a writer’s writer whose work showed that nonfiction could be taken seriously as literature and a cautionary tale about writer’s block, perfectionism, and the inability to finish. In this, the first biography of Mitchell, Thomas Kunkel brings great sensitivity and sympathy to both aspects of his legacy. Born and raised in North Carolina, Mitchell was the oldest son of a successful farmer but chose journalism in college and New York even sooner (Kunkel tells a family story of the 10-year-old Mitchell first visiting the city and telling his father, “This is for me”).

After honing his reporting and writing at the Herald Tribune, Mitchell joined the New Yorker staff in 1938 and would spend the rest of his life working there — although what he was working on, after 1964, when his last piece appeared, nobody quite knew. Known for his lyrical yet plainspoken profiles of the nonfamous, Mitchell was “a writer of uncommon craftsmanship and imagination,” revered by his colleagues yet increasingly stymied by some combination of his own expectations, an inability to settle on a story, and an accumulation of personal losses. Midcentury literary New York is catnip for contemporary biographers — Kunkel’s previous work includes a one of Harold Ross, the New Yorker’s founder — but it’s to the author’s great credit that he brings equal authority and wit to Mitchell’s long fallow period, making us care about the man, not just the writer.

THE PERFECTION

OF THE PAPER CLIP:

Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession

By James Ward

Touchstone, 304 pages, $25

We all know Henry David Thoreau, whose “Walden” is a touchstone in the American cultural heritage, but who knew that he also helped invent the number two pencil? It’s true: While working at his father’s pencil company in Concord, the great naturalist philosopher developed a process of combining graphite and clay that produced pencils of different grades of hardness — including that perennial tool of the test taker, the number two. James Ward, who describes himself as “possibly just shy of a hoarder of free pens and complementary postcards,” has also amassed a trove of information about the history of office supplies, which he shares in this charmingly nerdy new book.

In chapters addressing such topics as paper clips and staplers, Ward unspools each tool’s origin myth (often invented by marketers) and cultural legacy. Some became almost magical talismans for those who used them — like the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil, adored by writers John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov and the cartoonist Chuck Jones, or the red Swingline stapler adored by the character Milton in the 1999 cult film “Office Space.” In today’s world of smartphones and cloud storage it’s natural to ask, as Ward does, “[w]hither the ballpoint?” — before pointing out, reassuringly, that just as the incandescent lightbulb didn’t kill off candles, neither will office supplies cease to exist.

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