‘Geek Sublime,’ ‘A Cup of Water Under My Bed,’ ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace, ‘Dr. Mütter’s Marvels’
GEEK SUBLIME: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
By Vikram Chandra
Graywolf, 272 pp., paperback, $16
“I came to computers while trying to run away from literature,” the novelist Vikram Chandra writes, chronicling his somewhat accidental career as a computer programmer. Writing code was a side hustle Chandra undertook to make money while a graduate student in creative writing, a period in his life he remembers for its “highbrow conversations in low-end bars.” In this dazzling nonfiction debut, the author muses on the relationship between literature and computer code, in particular the proposition, in vogue among some tech leaders, that a programmer is a kind of creative writer, the two endeavors linked by their attention to “craftsmanship, elegance, and beauty.”
As a way into the subject, Chandra — who grew up in India — turns toward Sanskrit, a language notable for both its formal grammar and long literary tradition (one of its foundational texts is a book setting forth 3,976 linguistic rules, itself a kind of program, Chandra points out). It would seem that Sanskrit could be a place poets and hackers could coexist, a site of beautiful algorithms and algorithmic beauty. Revealing Chandra’s conclusions feels like spoiling a movie’s ending: a sign of how compellingly he frames the book’s rich intellectual drama.
A CUP OF WATER UNDER MY BED
By Daisy Hernández
Beacon, 200 pp., $24.95
As a child, Daisy Hernández cadged candy from a clay dish in the shed; only later will she learn that it was an offering from her Cuban father to Elegguá, a Santería deity she finds more compelling than the Catholic saints her mother’s Colombian family worships. In this beautiful memoir, Hernández describes growing up in New Jersey as the daughter of immigrants, her fierce intelligence and curiosity often getting her in trouble. Hernández sketches her cast of characters so economically it’s easy to miss the brilliance. One aunt “is a library,” full of stories; another woman, who tells fortunes, “keeps her back so straight,” Hernández recalls, “[s]he reminds me of an explanation point: arrogant.”
Language is a source of both pain and pride; the same public schools that taught Hernández English left her illiterate in Spanish until after college. Later, when she tells her mother she’s dating women, some in her family stop speaking with her. In her nascent journalism career she confronts constant reminders of her ethnic difference. “Newsrooms are set up like mazes,” she writes; “everywhere you turn is another white man.” Gorgeously written from start to finish, the book’s emotional heart is in the author’s childhood, and it reverberates through her adulthood. “Writing,” she says, “is how I leave my family and how I take them with me.”
MIDNIGHT AT THE PERA PALACE: The Birth of Modern Istanbul
By Charles King
Norton, 480 pp., $27.95
No other city has a history like Istanbul’s. Poised astride Europe and Asia, it has been the capitol city for both Christianity and Islam, the seat of a succession of empires, from the Byzantine to the Ottoman, and home to a richly diverse population. But during the period between the two world wars the city underwent its most radical reinvention yet, “struggling to shape its own way of being Muslim and modern at the same time.” In Charles King’s elegant, engaging new book, multiple biographies unfold against the backdrop of an old city’s growing pains.
The book begins amid the horrors of World War I and the Armenian genocide, as the Ottoman Empire ends and Allied forces occupy the city (led by a pair of comically vain French and English generals, each of whom planned “a ceremonial entry into the city on a white horse,” only to find they had copied one another). By its end, Istanbul has hosted exiles from the Russian revolution, lost most of its Greek population, and emerged as a center for refugees fleeing Nazi Europe. Amid the upheavals of history, the city’s dynamic, cosmopolitan nature is what has endured.
DR. MÜTTER’S MARVELS: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
By Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Gotham, 384 pp., $27.50
When he died in 1859 at 48, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter was an admired physician, one of the most famous surgeons of his day, and a beloved professor of medicine. He had come a long way from a sad start; as his biographer Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz writes, at seven he was “a little boy whose entire immediate family had been felled by illness.” Perhaps in part because of these early losses, he grew into a doctor known for his compassion, especially for those patients facing serious disfigurement.
As a member of the faculty at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, Mütter found himself at the center of the discipline’s major debates over such matters as germ theory and anesthetic use. A poet, Aptowicz has a keen eye for the era’s grotesque details (amputation accidents, for one thing) and an obvious sympathy for Mütter’s passion and legacy: his collection of anatomical oddities, now housed in a museum bearing his name.