Most biographies start with their subject’s ancestry, but Laura Dassow Walls introduces Henry David Thoreau (Chicago, $35) by way of a survey of New England’s geography. She explains the region’s kettle ponds, drumlins, and rocky promontories, and describes the ways of its indigenous peoples. These were Thoreau’s early fascinations, and they shaped his entire life. As she traces how his ideas about nature, social justice, and transcendentalism grew from and supported each other, Walls brilliantly puts Thoreau’s thinking about ecology, equality, and a “higher law” into the context of his time and shows how very much ahead of his time he was—to the point that editors censored his essays. Much of her remarkable portrait revises common assumptions about Thoreau. He was neither a recluse nor a misanthrope. He joined many groups, lectured frequently, and made lifelong, devoted friends, including Emerson and Horace Greeley, who acted as his literary agent. Living “deliberately” at Walden Pond did not mean living alone. Thoreau had constant visitors there and became part of an overlooked community of freed slaves, Irish immigrants, and the impoverished. He aligned himself with the marginalized ever after. Walls has done prodigious research for this deeply affecting book. She explains why good pencils were so hard to make in the nineteenth century, shows us step-by-step how Thoreau built his Walden house, takes us on his hiking and boating trips, and traces his evolving ideas. The result is a Thoreau you don’t just know more about, but a living, breathing, thinking person you feel you really know.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume epic, My Struggle, astonished us with its brutal candor and self- awareness. It primarily centered on the author’s painful relationship with his father. By contrast, Autumn (Penguin Press, $27) is a slender book with beautiful illustrations by Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird. It is the first in a projected quartet, and gives us Knausgaard as a tender father speaking to his unborn daughter about everyday objects. His descriptions run about two-and-a-half pages in length, and flow in a seemingly random cascade, on subjects as diverse as doors, porpoises, vomit, and labia; buttons, apples, and chewing gum. “It is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this,” he writes, “showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.” In one piece he writes of a family photograph where everything about the lives has been stripped away so that what remains is “what we ourselves don’t see… that our lives are written in our faces and our bodies, but in a language so foreign we don’t even know it is a language.” Knausgaard’s perspective is compelling and razor sharp, and as in My Struggle, he makes the ordinary feel vivid again, and strange.
“How does one deliver an honest eulogy?” Sherman Alexie asks. And “how does one commemorate/ the ordinary?” The answer is to remember, confess, pray, rant, and ask more questions. Alexie does all these and more in You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown, $28) his powerful, poignant memoir of his mother, a woman so complex she’s “an entire tribe of contradictions.” Did she love him? Did he love her? He answers yes, but worries the questions through stories by turns angry, funny, and raw, and through a dazzling range of poems that include everything from ballads to rhymed couplets to a tour de force sequence of 52 haiku, each as perfect as the squares in the quilts his mother sewed to support the family. While his father steadily drank himself to death, Alexie’s mother was a recovering alcoholic who kept her family alive, if often hungry, in an unfinished HUD house on the Spokane Indian Reservation. She was honored by her tribe for her strength and generosity, yet she was often cruel to her children. With this jarring inconsistency at the heart of his brave, compassionate, book, Alexie traces a lineage of violence so powerful it can cause victims to become perpetrators.