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Books

Short Takes

‘The Last Gun,’ ‘Life After Life’ and ‘The Bonobo and the Atheist’

Life After Life

By Jill McCorkle

Algonquin, 340 pp., $24.95

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Talk about a convenient location: The Pine Haven Retirement Center in Fulton, N. C., abuts the town’s cemetery. Not only the eventual resting place of most of Pine Haven’s residents, the graveyard also serves as a meditation spot, meeting place, and repository of secrets. It’s where Rachel goes to talk to her late lover, buried there along with his long-suffering wife; Pine Haven employee C.J. sneaks in to check for love notes in a memorial urn. The line between life and death is never so powerfully ambiguous.

A powerful gift for dialogue has always animated Jill McCorkle’s fiction, and here, in her first novel in 17 years, we hear some astonishing voices; for those living in Pine Haven, good talk is what remains after so many other pleasures have faded. Once or twice the book threatens to become a little too garrulous, but always in service of an intricate plot and genuinely moving characters. “The pain of losing people you love is the price of the ticket for getting to know them at all,” says Sadie, a retired elementary school teacher and Pine Haven’s moral compass. Another character, a hospice worker who helps patients die, is our stand-in; as readers, we feel honored to witness their passages.

THE LAST GUN: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It

By Tom Diaz

New Press, 319 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Why, Tom Diaz asks, do many Americans accept incursions into constitutional rights (particularly those listed under the First and Fourth Amendments in the Bill of Rights) as a trade-off for security in the ongoing war on terrorism, while at the same time declaring any regulation on the Second Amendment absolutely out of the question? It can’t be because of the relative dangers: While fewer than 6,000 Americans died in terror attacks from 1969 to 2009, more than 30,000 die of gun violence every single year. Yet as Diaz argues in this blistering takedown of the gun business and politics, the death toll is largely obscured from public view (partly due to legislation that makes it difficult to gather and disseminate accurate information about gun deaths). It’s crucial for the industry to keep people in the dark about the true death toll, Diaz writes, because “when the broader public debate about guns and gun violence is fact based, they lose.”

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Cowed politicians and a complacent media are no match for a highly motivated National Rifle Association, which Diaz says has morphed from an independent organization for hunters and sport shooters into what is essentially the lobbying wing of gun manufacturers. Thanks in part to NRA-written laws, the industry enjoys more protection than those producing other consumer goods — Diaz contrasts the success of regulations in auto manufacturing, road design, and speed limits in cutting down highway deaths and injuries, while no such public health measures are attempted with regard to guns, which kill as many people each year as die in car wrecks. In addition, he says, the NRA helps gin up a potent brew of patriotism and paranoia that helps market the military-type assault weapons so popular among mass killers. “Why are these weapons of war on America’s streets?” Diaz asks. “Simply to make money for the gun industry.” An afterword addresses the shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 first-graders. Many felt that the horror of that event could (or should) be enough to nudge our nation’s gun conversation toward real policy solutions; “The Last Gun” reminds readers that these outpourings of grief and anger are nothing new, and useless without sustained action.

THE BONOBO AND THE ATHEIST: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates

By Frans de Waal

Norton, 289 pp., illustrated, $27.95

If humans are moral beings, why? Do we act morally by following rules set forth by religion (or deduced by logic) — or do our acts of compassion and generosity spring from hard-wired biological impulses that we share with our primate cousins? Frans de Waal’s work with chimpanzees and bonobos has convinced him that these social primates demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity to others in their communities, from caring for the sick to mourning the dead.

An elegant stylist, de Waal writes about these animals with great affection and respect. When discussing his fellow human beings, he’s more astringent, equally critical of those who would ground all goodness in God and those neo-atheists whose unbelief can itself seem dogmatic. A rabbi’s comments that only religion can explain why parents lovingly raise children with Down syndrome leads de Waal to remember Azalea, a rhesus monkey with the same chromosomal disorder and cognitive disabilities, and Mozu, a Japanese macaque born without hands or feet; both were accepted and nurtured by their families. “Instead of making us do things we normally wouldn’t,” de Waal suggests, “religion may render its chief contribution by endorsing and promoting certain natural tendencies.”

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

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