Sometimes there’s a book every bookseller evangelizes for and this year it’s Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World. Nominated for the Booker International and the National Book Award for translated literature, this is a true nonfiction novel about math and physics and faith that brilliantly slips between fiction and fact to humanize some of our greatest mathematical breakthroughs. Labatut beautifully illuminates the horror and transcendence of science in the last century through the lives of some it’s most recognizable geniuses; Werner Heisenberg, Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck are characters in a narrative that resonates acutely with a time when we question the ethics of scientific discovery and confront the knowledge that improving some lives may come at the expense of others and of the planet itself. The most strangely compelling book I’ve read in a long time.
I’ve been waiting for this book to be republished since 2012, when I stumbled on a chapbook featuring Veselka, in conversation, considering the interrelationships of writing, violence, and the body; it utterly blew my mind. Which is just to say, Zazen is incredible and I can’t wait to share it with others looking for strange, challenging, transcendent books about community and identity at the end of the world. Della is trying to survive in an America on the brink of war. Torn between those who leave and those who stay, she finds a small joy calling in bomb threats to capitalist enclaves, but must reckon with her actions (and inactions) when bombs actually go off in the sports bars and corporate parks she's targeted. Della is a perfect window into a generation terrified of the destruction passed down to it and desperate to find beauty and a path into change. “Every generation gets to decide its own relationship with the universe,” Della says. “And whether I liked it or not, this was my generation.” There are few apocalyptic novels which make me hopeful, but Zazen was one and Veselka is a writer I would follow anywhere.
Anyone who loves mythology, fairytales, or even Star Wars has likely stumbled at some point across Joseph Campbell’s seminal Hero with 1,000 Faces, but for readers less than satisfied with Campbell’s male-centric theory of heroism, Tatar offers another route. Not so much a rebuttal as an expansion, Heroine with 1,001 Faces unthreads the many different ways in which female characters throughout the long history of storytelling have gone against the traditional tropes of what it means to be “heroic.” Using as foundational texts everything from Ovid to The Hunger Games to Sex and the City, Tatar offers a theory of heroism that includes compassion, empathy, and curiosity, and often prioritizes the fight for justice over the desire for glory. An incredibly fun and erudite reworking of familiar archetypes to create space for new stories and storytellers.