in brief

‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones,’ ‘The Human Age,’ and more

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FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES

By Charles M. Blow

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

240 pp., $27

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This memoir, by New York Times columnist Blow, will get a lot of attention for its narrative of child sexual abuse (an excerpt on that topic that ran in the Times last weekend evoked an enormous, passionate response). Blow tells his story with searing honesty and probing self-reflection (and occasionally overwrought prose). He writes of a mostly-absent father and a confused relationship with male attention — he seeks, above all, “that feeling of being chosen.” Being singled out for sexual abuse by a male cousin, and later finding himself facing carnal desires for other men, seem to him “like two strands of the same rope.” For Blow to link his adult sexuality (he later writes that the term bisexual is “technically correct”) to having been molested as a boy will strike many as reactionary or problematic (most agree that sexual orientation is inborn), but he is telling his own story and his own truth.

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The book feels most solid when Blow maps the distance between his childhood and his adult life — two worlds, really, that know little about each other. In his family’s rural northern Louisiana life, beauty, and pain coexisted daily, as did the pervasive influence of Baptist Christianity and folk spiritual traditions — it was a place, he writes, where “superstition was doctrine.” Formerly segregated, his town was still largely divided by race (“white children seemed to me like ghosts”), with distinctly different opportunities. “I could find no real place for myself in the world,” Blow writes, and the book’s most moving aspect is that by the end, he has.

THE HUMAN AGE: The World Shaped by Us

By Diane Ackerman

Norton, 352 pp., $27.95

“Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies,” writes Ackerman, and these qualities served us well until we began destroying the planet’s climate; we can only hope that they will enable us to save it. In her new book, Ackerman, a veteran writer on nature and humankind, traces an arc from despair — the “plausible nightmare,” as she describes our current trajectory toward planetary doom — to a vision of scientific healing. “Our mistakes are legion,” she writes, “but our talent is immeasurable.” Sadly, for the book and for us, this redemptive dream seems less plausible.

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As always, Ackerman is a gorgeous writer and perceptive observer. Here she writes with great empathy about the human plight — our position as rational animals “makes us endearingly compassionate, and mighty strange primates.” But in paying such reverent attention to our scientific brilliance, she ignores the political and social obstacles that seem likely to thwart technology’s promise. Despite its charm, in the end the book’s optimism feels misplaced.

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty

Norton, 272 pp., $24.95

As a young child, Caitlin Doughty witnessed another girl falling to her death in a shopping mall, a gruesome and frightening sight that left invisible scars. After growing up and getting a history degree, Doughty found herself seeking a connection to death — she even imagined opening a hip, beautiful funeral home she would call La Belle Mort — in the end, she settled for a job at a Bay Area crematorium. Burning the remains of the recently (or occasionally, not-so-recently) departed leaves her coated in a “fine layer of people dust,”but it also forces her to contemplate issues of mortality, identity, and meaning.

If at times Doughty’s voice is a bit too breezy (she notes that La Belle Mort would “put the ‘fun’ back into ‘funeral’), her observations are solid. In modern American culture we avoid “unsavory encounters with the dead,” cloaking our grief and fear in euphemism and lilies. But this leaves us “terrified and ignorant of death,” she writes; better to face it as an inevitable and inextricable part of life.

100 ESSAYS I DON’T HAVE TIME TO WRITE: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater

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By Sarah Ruhl

Faber and Faber, 240 pages, $23

Ruhl is a playwright so it’s not surprising that these essays are as compressed as the best dialogue: economical, suggestive, precise. Some of Ruhl’s essays are fortune-cookie brief — “I admire minimalism” is the full text of one — but most are about a page or two. They are deceptively simple, and a smart reader will take them one at a time, then ruminate.

The book’s early sections mostly talk about drama, the theater, acting, and writing — which is to say, they are also about race and gender, the real and imaginary, comedy and tragedy. Later, she writes about motherhood, about working while also caring for children, and about the dramatic possibilities of children and childhood itself. “Failure loosens the mind,” Ruhl writes. “Perhaps we would have more sublime plays if we had more tolerance for and interest in imperfect plays.” At its best, the book plumbs a fertile creativity that lies at the intersection of parenting and art.

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