Books

In Brief

Capsule reviews of four recent books

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

By Pamela Newkirk, Amistad, 336 pp., $25.99

It happened in 1906, more than 40 years after emancipation: Ota Benga, a black man from present-day Congo was brought to America and exhibited among the animals at the Bronx Zoo. The zoo director responded to criticism he received from black clergy (among others) by insisting that Benga was comfortably lodged in “one of the best rooms in the primate house.” The New York Times covered the Bronx Zoo’s new attraction as a highly amusing, if vulgar, demonstration of the natural differences among the races of men. Writing of a man on display in a cage “littered with bones to suggest cannibalism,” the newspaper’s editors argued that people like Benga “are very low in the human scale,” and therefore, perhaps, more comfortable in a cage than anywhere else.

In this deeply researched and thoughtful book, journalist Pamela Newkirk chronicles Benga’s life during, before, and after the time he spent caged. By turns discouraging and outrageous, Benga’s story takes place amid the rise of scientific racism in which white men “with impeccable credentials and influential friends” invented categories of humankind and placed themselves at the top. Among them was Samuel Phillips Verner, the failed missionary who brought Benga to the zoo, laughably presenting himself as the African man’s friend and savior; yet his villainy pales in comparison with what Belgian King Leopold II was doing in Benga’s native land, then known as Congo Free State, whose actions spawned the term “crimes against humanity.” Writing with precision and moral clarity, Newkirk indicts a civilization whose “cruelty was cloaked in civility,” leaving us to examine its remnants.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

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By Henry Marsh, Thomas Dunne, 288 pp., $25.99

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“[A]s I approach the end of my career I feel an increasing obligation to bear witness to past mistakes I have made,” writes Henry Marsh, and in this charming memoir he unsparingly does just that. Other neurosurgeons might avidly document their successes, but Marsh seems compelled to reveal his failures. Some are medical, as when overzealous tumor removal leads to nicked nerves or blood vessels, while others are personal — anger, impatience, and irritation at patients, colleagues, and family members.

Marsh writes with the generous, explanatory tone of a natural teacher, titling each chapter with a medical term. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious. Marsh describes the first aneurysm surgery he witnessed up close as “elegant, delicate, dangerous, and full of profound meaning.” His passion lingers 30 years after that first operation; with each new neurosurgical challenge, Marsh writes, “I feel like a medieval knight mounting his horse and setting off in pursuit of a mythical beast.” This tension between exhilaration and humility is likely what makes Marsh such a good doctor — it certainly makes for a wonderful read.

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

By Wednesday Martin, Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., illustrated, $26

Wednesday Martin’s memoir about moving to New York’s Upper East Side and trying to fit in among that neighborhood’s moneyed natives has gotten a lot of press, much of it focusing on money and brands: Burberry, Birkins, and Botox, oh my! Martin takes an anthropological approach to studying her fellow nursery school moms. They arrive for pickup in a line of matching Cadillac Escalades, wearing “crinkly Lanvin flats, or the high heels that screamed, ‘I have a driver.’ ” She carefully catalogs what the same women wear to charity luncheons: “There were snakeskin leggings and paper-thin leather jackets and delicious, cream-colored, demure silk blouses . . .” One particularly gorgeous jacket caught Martin’s eye; when she looked online, she found it cost $7,000.

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We are meant to gawk along with her, yet Martin’s outsider status is difficult to gauge. “Our home on Park Avenue was far from huge,” she writes, adding “(though I did have an entire closet just for my handbags).” Still, the conceit is useful at times — especially when Martin details the causes that combine in “a perfect storm for anxiety,” leading many of these pampered women to self-medicate: “To be an Upper East Side woman with young children is to drink wine.” While often amusing and (briefly) moving, the book ultimately feels rather empty — though it’s impossible to know whether to blame the author or her subjects, all of them numb in their towering Louboutins.

The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families

By Kevin Cook, Norton, 288 pp., illustrated, $26.95

The first father-son pair to play Major League Baseball was Herm and Jack Doscher (Herm played in the 1870s and Jack’s rookie year was 1903), and scores have followed them. In fact, as Kevin Cook points out, a century ago it wasn’t uncommon to see “single-family nines — a father and eight sons, or seven or eight brothers joined by a cousin or two — barnstorm[ing] the Northeast and Midwest, sometimes playing other bands of brothers.” These teams were a novelty, sure, but they appealed precisely because baseball has always inspired nostalgia, and because it’s a sport that, sometimes self-consciously, maps itself onto the complicated love among fathers, sons, and brothers.

Cook is himself the son of a baseball father — his dad, Art Cook, was a minor-league phenom before the screwball messed up his arm — and this book is a love letter to his dad, with whom “[w]e talked baseball as a way of talking about everything else.” Here, he deftly interweaves sports and family stories. Sure, Cook spends more time with Aaron Boone than most Boston fans might like, and less time pondering the fate of baseball daughters than many women would wish, but ultimately the book works on the same level the game does: as a time machine shuttling between childhood games of catch and wobbly video of Babe Ruth hitting a homer.

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