Arts & Culture

New & Noteworthy Reads: Nov. 14, 2014

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Friday, November 14, 2014

‘Lila’ | Marilynne Robinson ’66 

On an average day, Robinson teaches at the nation’s best writing program, the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. On her good days, she wins awards like the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Humanities Medal. Robinson’s third novel — a finalist for this year’s National Book Award — returns to the same scruffy, midwestern town where its predecessors, “Housekeeping” and “Gilead,” unfolded. “Lila,” which explores the years around the Dust Bowl in a non-linear manner, tells the fragmentary tale of its eponymous protagonist that partially explains her brief and enigmatic appearances in Robinson’s previous novels. Grounding abstract, theological themes in the gritty realities of poverty and starvation, Robinson follows Lila’s inauspicious beginnings through to a conclusion of redemption, wonder and grace.

 

‘Being Mortal’ | Atul Gawande

As the generation of baby boomers faces the certain inevitabilities of old age, medicine must also confront increasingly salient issues of palliative care, death with dignity and the specter of mortality that looms in the interim. At least, this is the argument espoused by Atul Gawande, a surgeon, MacArthur Fellow and New Yorker staff writer whose widely published works have dissected hot-button health care issues like Ebola, obesity and medical costs.

Through personal anecdotes, case studies and data-driven cultural critique, he calls for health care’s realignment back to more human priorities. Rather than sacrificing the sick and the aged, he raises a more chilling question: “What if the sick and aged are already being sacrificed — victims of our refusal to accept the inexorability of our life cycle?” Urging patients and doctors alike to come to terms with the frailty and finitude of the body, he outlines why the medical profession should not solely seek to prolong life, but to also enrich it.

 

‘A Map of Betrayal’ | Ha Jin

Jin won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his 1999 debut novel, “Waiting” — an especially impressive feat as a non-native English speaker. His new book explores these cultural tensions through protagonist Gary Shang, whose upbringing within the framework of Chinese communism now sits uneasily with him in his position as a mole in the American C.I.A. The narrative shifts between Shang, whose loyalties become complicated as he builds a family and home in America, and his daughter, Lilian, as she struggles to piece together her father’s personal and political past. Through layers of deception and doubt, Jin explores what it means to be a liminal figure torn between the tradition from which he is slowly detaching and the new life he is tasked to betray.

 

‘Not That Kind of Girl’ | Lena Dunham

Dunham established herself as a fierce young talent when she wrote, directed and starred in the 2010 film “Tiny Furniture,” — she then went on to create, write and act in the successful HBO series “Girls.” Concurrent with her rise to cultural significance, she has become a polarizing conversation topic. Her supporters praise the spunk and intellectual brazenness with which she addresses issues like gender, relationships and mental illness; her detractors often question the implications of her privileged upbringing on the value of her work; still others declare her the embodiment of today’s solipsistic twenty-something. But, seemingly unfazed by the eight Emmy Award nominations and two Golden Globe Awards by the time she was 28 or the $3.7 million advance Random House reportedly paid her to write her book, Dunham continues to express in her writing the thoughtful confidence that has defined her public persona. Her essays, interspersed among lists, imaginary emails, open letters and open wounds, offer a lighthearted meditation on what it means, for better or for worse, to be unapologetic about oneself. She’s not that kind of girl.