In 2011, when the Pulitzer committee awarded Siddhartha Mukherjee the non-fiction prize, it praised The Emperor of All Maladies as “an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal.” Well, he’s done it again in The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, $32), which tells the story of the development of genetics by weaving science and social history with some of Mukherjee’s personal narrative about his own relatives. As Mukherjee recalls in the acknowledgments, he was actually so physically and mentally exhausted after Emperor that he hadn’t expected to write another book. But The Gene turns out to be a natural pairing with Emperor—a sort of prequel in that it focuses on biological normalcy before things get distorted into the malignancy of cancer. If you’ve ever wondered how much of our lives is determined by genes or by external environmental factors, read this book. But don’t expect a simple answer!
Like a plant’s, the life of a research scientist is subject to conditions she can’t fully control: funding, adequate equipment, successful experiments. But while a tree has to stay put, a geobotanist like Hope Jahren is mobile. As long as she has a lab of her own, whether in California, Georgia, or Hawaii, she can set down roots and thrive. A woman in a notoriously male-dominated field, Jahren, aka Lab Girl (Knopf, $26.95) often feels insecure, but she’s a dedicated scientist, and always has been. “I grew up in my father’s laboratory,” she says. Now an award-winning Fulbright scholar and tenured professor, Jahren has had her share of failures. She tells lively stories of exploding glass tubes, of field trips ending in ditches, and anxiety severe enough to be clinical. But her warm and engaging memoir, interspersed with telling mini-essays on germination, soil, pollen, and roots is more than disasters, long hours, and meticulous measurements of leaf growth. Her lab partner and best friend is an endearing character somewhere on the genius end of the Asperger spectrum. He and Jahren share jokes and junk food in addition to a passion for plants, and their continual banter—and Jahren’s spirited prose—make this a compelling and funny story about friendship and adventures that belies the image of scientists as pale and asocial creatures in need of a life.
The world should thank the Nobel committee of 2015 for calling its attention to Svetlana Alexievich. A previously little known Belarusian journalist with a remarkable talent for oral history, Alexievich is an unconventional choice in a field of novelists and poets. Yet her books have the complex plots, memorable characters, lyricism, pathos, and truth of any great literary work. This is especially the case with the wrenching Secondhand Time (Random House, $30). Assembling hundreds of interviews conducted since the end of the Soviet era, Alexievich worked to “admit feelings into history.” As she talked to workers and students, victims and executioners, heroes and parents, she tapped into an almost overwhelming vein of emotion; her subjects laugh and cry at once. They give way to cathartic outbursts worthy of the classical tragedies. They exclaim that they’ve never told anyone these things before. Some stories have been repressed for decades, other are as fresh as the ethnic divisions of today’s headlines; all carry an irresistible intensity and urgency. Together, they reflect the “sheer schizophrenia” of this moment in Russian history, when the older generation regrets the lost idealism of communism, defends the “socialist idea,” and wonders if “instead of a motherland, we live in a huge supermarket,” while younger people are impatient with tradition, dismissing the great “Russian novels” because they ”don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich.” Can a land of such sharply discordant views cohere? Maybe. When Alexievich abandons individual interviews and records the diverse statements she overhears at public events, the result isn’t incoherence or non sequitur but a monologue as eloquent and compelling as any.