To go beyond the call of duty—that depends on how you define “duty.” Consider this thought experiment: you see people drowning and can save either a relative or two strangers. What do you do? For most, the first impulse is to save the relative, but the utilitarian view would dictate helping the strangers; why save only one person when you can do twice as much good by saving two? Most of the issues of Strangers Drowning (Penguin Press, $27.95) spiral out from this scenario. Is altruism a matter of emotion or of logic? Is rescue the same as saving? Are humanitarian NGOs just colonialism in another guise? And when have you done enough, if suffering continues? In detailed and compelling narratives that make the moral questions immediate, Larissa MacFarquhar profiles people variously called saints, heroes, or obsessive-compulsives. A couple feels their calling is to save unwanted children—and end up with a family of twenty-two. Driven to eliminate as much sheer suffering as possible, a man advocates on behalf of the millions of agri-business chickens. Another couple, realizing that a few dollars buys a mosquito net, gradually donates every expendable dime to charities, equating buying a soda for themselves to committing a murder. The size of donations, of course, depends on the donor’s income—a woman deliberates whether it’s moral to stay in a low-paying position she loves, if a more lucrative career allows her to give away more money. And if these “do-gooders” never really change the world, does that negate the improvements they make, or render “selfish” the satisfaction—even the exhilaration—they feel in trying?
The Scapegoat (Melville House, $24.95), by Sophia Nikolaidou, is a gem of a novel by one of Greece’s finest contemporary writers. It begins with events surrounding the murder in 1948 of American journalist George Polk in Greece and the false conviction of a local journalist who confesses to the crime only after being tortured by Greek authorities. Told through the eyes of several generations of Greeks who are connected directly or tangentially to the murder, Nikolaidou’s narrative explores the often murky relationship between individuals and the state and draws uncanny parallels between postwar Greece and Greece today. The author’s story-telling is probing, sophisticated, at times humorous, and deeply humane. And the translation from Greek to English by Karen Emmerich is superb.
With a journalist’s respect for facts and a novelist’s imagination, Geraldine Brooks has proven herself a master of historical fiction. She won the Pulitzer for March, her character study of the father in Alcott’s Little Women, and has vividly evoked the early United States in Caleb’s Crossing and told the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah in People of the Book. In her fifth novel, The Secret Chord (Viking, $27.95), Brooks takes the charismatic David of legend and gives us the flawed, contradictory man: this is David as viewed by the central figures in his life, including his wives, children, generals, and his greatest rival and friend, Jonathan. But the pivotal voice here is that of Nathan, who may in fact have chronicled the actual David. Though any Book of Nathan has long been lost, Brooks masterfully recreates what it might have told us. In the process she complicates received images of her subject, juxtaposing his violent acts with his capacity for benevolence, his artistic temperament with his ruthlessness. She also expands on the roles women played in his life, and delves into his emotional response to Jonathan’s death. Finally, Brooks underscores the significance of these ancient figures by following her compelling narrative with a personal note about what prompted her to write this novel in the first place.