Books

IN BRIEF

‘The Narrow Door,’ ‘The Social Life of DNA,’ ‘Poor Your Soul’

THE NARROW DOOR:

A Memoir of Friendship

By Paul Lisicky

Graywolf, 218 pp., paperback, $16

“We are characters in an Almodóvar film yet to be made,” Paul Lisicky writes of himself and Denise Gess when they first knew each other as young writers in the same graduate program. Denise was straight, sexy, confident, a few years older; Paul was closeted, self-conscious, so terrified as a rookie teaching assistant, he writes, “I must work very hard to control my stage fright in order not to throw up all over some girl in the front row.” The arc of their friendship — by turns intimate, competitive, dutiful, grudging, and nurturing — is at the center of Lisicky’s new book, a memoir of almost unbearable openness.

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The book bounces around in time and place, from Rutgers in the mid-’80s to heady stints at Breadloaf to the dinner parties and literary conferences that mark Lisicky’s steadily advancing career and long relationship with M, a successful poet. His friendship with Gess falters — partly a victim of their diverging fortunes (while his star rises, she’s struggling with a book that won’t sell, a steady teaching gig that isn’t offered) — as does his relationship with M. Amid a backdrop of aging parents and ecological disasters, Lisicky writes about the final chapters of both love stories. By turns raw, wry, and meditative, Lisicky offers a painfully honest accounting of his own failures and limitations; ultimately, this is the story of how a heart opens, and the endless, literally death-defying work of keeping it that way.

THE SOCIAL LIFE OF DNA:

Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

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By Alondra Nelson

Beacon, 216 pp., $27.95

When “Roots” hit the small screen in 1977, the dramatic miniseries, a multigenerational family saga spanning Africa and America, riveted viewers from all backgrounds. For black families, watching “Roots” was “unforgettable,” writes Alondra Nelson, both an occasion for children to see their parents and grandparents in a new light and for African-Americans to think anew about their own connection to family trees uprooted or mutilated by slavery and racism. In the decades following, genetic testing became an increasingly useful tool for those seeking their own roots. Not only individuals: Scientists studying the unearthed African Burial Ground in New York City used DNA to study the ethnic makeup of those interred three centuries ago. As Nelson writes in this smart, timely book about race and genetics, “DNA has become an agent in the politics of repair and reconciliation; it is sought after as a communal balm and social glue, as a burden of proof and a bridge across time.”

“DNA is the ultimate big data,” Nelson writes early in the book; perhaps inevitably, DNA testing hasn’t delivered on all the outsize expectations people have for it. Nelson chronicles the complexities and ambiguities that arise when individuals test their DNA to find their African roots, seeking a “usable past” to help anchor identity and community. Its use in the public sphere, particularly in a long-running legal battle for reparations, has been similarly complicated. “The repair that is sought cannot necessarily be found in genetic science solely,” Nelson points out. A professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, Nelson writes with academic caution and understatement — at times readers may yearn for more story — but ultimately this is a creative, thoughtful, and clear-eyed look at a thoroughly fascinating subject.

POOR YOUR SOUL

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By Mira Ptacin

Soho, 311 pp., $26

At the outset of Mira Ptacin’s memoir, we learn she has just lost a pregnancy — shoving frozen cabbage leaves into her bra to stop her breasts from leaking milk, she thinks of her body as “a sad, broken machine.” She’s just 28, and the pregnancy was unplanned; she hadn’t known the man very long. The future grandparents had been wary at first, then delighted — Ptacin’s tough-as-nails Polish mother cried, “Finally, something good is coming into our lives. Not a funeral, but a baby!” Soon after, they learned it had birth defects that would prove fatal. The doctors gave Ptacin a choice — termination, early induction, or simply waiting — but the baby’s death was inevitable.

As a writer, Ptacin ploughs through this landscape of unbearable sadness with surprising vigor and even more unexpected humor. The portrait of her indomitable mother — who herself had lost a child — shines particularly bright and provides an example of how to survive the unthinkable, how to move forward through sheer force of will, in a world riven by an unfixable wound. “The question isn’t: When will I stop grieving?” Ptacin writes. “The question is: How do you keep on living?”

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