7 Most Favorable Reviews in January 2023

  • February 3, 2023

We came, we read, we gushed. Here’s a recap of the titles that left us especially warm and swoony last month.

7 Most Favorable Reviews in January 2023

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith (Knopf). Reviewed by Molly McGinnis. “Smith begins her story of stories with a dip into ‘The Master and His Pupil,’ a folktale about the dangers of a book falling into the wrong hands. While neither the master nor the pupil is described in detail, the book discovered by the ignorant student has a vivid physicality. Smith takes care throughout Portable Magic to strike a note often heard in creative-writing workshops: Form is content. Don’t judge a book by its cover, she suggests, but don’t discount the power that cover might wield, either.”

A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing: A Memoir Across Three Continents by Mary-Alice Daniel (Ecco). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “The entirety of Daniel’s debut memoir, A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing, is written with this playful yet formal mastery. The book interweaves her coming-of-age story with a brief history of her birth country, Nigeria. It is essential to avoid the phrase ‘home country’ when referring to the author’s relationship with the African nation because her longing for a sense of home is elusive. The question of ‘Who am I?’ is one she asks frequently. Sometimes, it is asked explicitly; other times, it hums just below the surface.”

The Huxleys: An Intimate History of Evolution by Alison Bashford (University of Chicago Press). Reviewed by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre. “Bashford focuses her book on two members of the family: patriarch Thomas H. Huxley and his grandson Julian. From Thomas’ birth in 1825 (he died in 1895) to Julian’s death in 1975 (born in 1887), Bashford proposes ‘thinking of them as one long-lived man, 1825-1975, whose vital dates bookended the colossal shifts in world history.’ Both were prolific, inquisitive, creative, provocative, and famous. They took science beyond the bench to consider big questions around the origins of life, the linkages between humans and animals, and the relationships within our own species.”

The Matter of Everything: How Curiosity, Physics, and Improbable Experiments Changed the World by Suzie Sheehy (Knopf). Reviewed by Stephen Case. “Thus did this unconnected gaggle of five fin de siècle experimental physicists kick off the atomic age, with its world-changing, still-being-revealed wonders and terrors. One such wonder was the magnetron, a souped-up descendant of Röntgen’s glass tube once used in radar. Back in 1945, a radar engineer had a Mr. Goodbar in his pocket. When he was fiddling with his magnetron, the chocolate suddenly melted into a gooey mess. That’s funny. Since then, ‘Microwave ovens powered by magnetrons [have become] the everyday household appliances we all know.’”

The Lost Paratroopers of Normandy: A Story of Resistance, Courage, and Solidarity in a French Village by Stephen G. Rabe (Cambridge University Press). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “Most of the valiant men in the village ultimately lost their lives to marauding Boches, who also murdered U.S. medical personnel who’d stayed behind to tend the casualties. Ignoring all protocols of the Geneva Conventions, the Nazis slaughtered the medics, bayoneted the wounded, and shot the local priest, his religious associate, and two elderly housekeepers. Some villagers were forced to dig their own graves and then stand in them while the Nazis put a bullet in the back of their heads. The Germans then torched the village, burning all but two of its 200 structures, and ordered those remaining to evacuate.”

Night Wherever We Go: A Novel by Tracey Rose Peyton (Ecco). Reviewed by Carrie Callaghan. “While their communal voice emphasizes their unity, each woman gets her own voice, too, in a deft maneuver that Peyton executes perfectly. The story moves easily from woman to woman, including even Lizzie, the white woman who owns the enslaved and clamors for them to have babies so she can have a ready wet-nurse to replace her own uncooperative breasts — no matter that doing so would mean weaning any enslaved babies early. The composition of the group waxes and wanes, as one woman leaves and another arrives, only to depart. ‘The road to becoming a we was not a honeyed one,’ they tell us. Part of the genius of the novel is that we feel their individual and their mutual pain.”

A Left-Handed Woman: Essays by Judith Thurman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis. “A Left-Handed Woman by New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman deserves the top spot on anyone’s bedside book stack. Neither unremittingly didactic nor frothily superficial, these 38 essays and profiles are the perfect blend of keen observation, thorough research, and deft wordsmithing. ‘The writers I admire most never use a careless word. Their sentences are unimprovable,’ Thurman writes, and in A Left-Handed Woman, she meets her own standards.”

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