Turn a wall on its side, and you have a bridge. Of course, as Miller knows too well after covering border issues for 15 years, it’s not that simple. The world is suffering from a severe case of “wall sickness,” which fuels and is fueled by nationalism and xenophobia, afflicts nearly everyone whether they work or live near a border or not, diverts resources from, for instance, fighting climate change, to criminalizing climate refugees, and has caused the number of border walls worldwide since 1989 to grow from 15 to 70-plus. Focusing on Southwest desert crossings, Miller draws on a wide range of statistics, analysis, and, most powerfully, interviews with border agents, activists, refugees, and their families to examine arguments for and against open borders. Offering water to a dehydrated man, listening to a father’s anguish over a missing daughter, and recounting an agent’s epiphany when he watched an injured teenager die, Miller argues for the value of our common humanity, showing how we could reinvent the world by replacing competition with cooperation; as with Covid, to heal the ills of discrimination and division, we need to work together for everyone’s benefit.
“Brood” has many meanings—from the hopeful act of nesting to the melancholy of dwelling on unhappiness—and Polzin’s accomplished first novel partakes of all of them. In short, vivid sections with the intimacy of journal entries, the unnamed narrator takes us through the events of a Minnesota year in a town cursed by “a failure to reach potential,” where she waits for news about her husband’s academic appointment, cleans houses, copes with weather, and cares for four chickens. The descriptions of the hens’ daily routines, laying habits, pecking order, appearances, and sad demises are meticulously detailed and lovely: feed in a chute rattles “the small cage that is a chicken” and its comb is a bit of “lobed flesh from outer space [in] an ordinary red.” When, a third of the way in, Polzin’s narrator describes her devastating miscarriage, all the references to eggs and motherhood acquire a sharp emotional resonance, one all the more powerful for the few direct references to it. As she struggles to come to terms with what she can’t understand—both in herself and the birds—the protagonist renders her world in unforgettable images; from “the corner shop, which is always changing hands but never changing,” to uprooted trees that “float up from the ground and dance a tarantella,” Polzin’s language shimmers with beauty and wisdom; like the miracle of sun and nutrients that is a hen’s egg, her prose “appears to glow because it glows.”
A fable/cautionary tale for the future of our life with technology, Ishiguro’s thought-provoking novel is narrated by Klara, a robot—whose name signals both lucid rationality and, in its spelling, Kafkaesque unreason. An Artificial Friend (AF), Klara and her ilk are designed to save young people from a loneliness that’s become so endemic even the AFs feel it. To fulfill her duties, Klara strives to understand as much as possible about human behavior. But for all her acute observations of her human family and its circle, the “rules” she seeks to learn are elusive—and shifting. Love, hope, commitment, faith—the timeless mysteries that have defined humans—are under increasing pressure from a world where success demands “genetic editing,” regardless of the risks, and, in Ishiguro’s most chilling vision, where robots can “continue” the lives of the deceased. If there’s really no “human heart”—nothing “that makes each of us special and individual”—what does it mean to be human? Ishiguro leaves it for readers to ponder.