Briefly Listed Book Reviews | The New Yorker

Natural magicby Renée Bergland (Princeton). Although Charles Darwin and Emily Dickinson are not known to have ever crossed paths, this study finds meaning in their shared fascination with nature. In the 1930s, when «natural philosophy» began to be renamed «natural science,» emotion and wonder were overshadowed by objectivity and mastery. Darwin and Dickinson resisted this binary: Darwin saw his theory of natural selection as an opportunity for humility, connecting humans with other species; Dickinson, whose poetry reflects her extensive scientific training and interest in Darwin’s ideas, depicted the natural world with both botanical specificity and an emphasis on its beauty. Bergland links their thinking to an earlier tradition of «natural» (as opposed to supernatural) magic that emphasized the interconnectedness of life and valued emotions as forms of understanding.

Traces of Enayatby Iman Mersal (Transit). Literary obsession and detective work combine in this biography of Enayat al-Zayyat, the Egyptian writer who died by suicide in 1963, aged twenty-six, years before publishing her only novel. Mersal traces the threads of al-Zayyat’s life, portraying the Egypt she grew up in and the largely vanished Cairo where she lived, chronicling her search for a forgotten author. «Following someone,» writes Mersal, «is a dialogue that is one-sided.» Despite persistent research and interviews with surviving friends and family, Mersal experiences «desperation to know» al-Zayyat’s true story, embroidering its remnants with photographs, speculation and personal reflections, leaving behind a tantalizing mystery.

Illustrated by Rose Wong

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