Briefly Noted Book Reviews


Natural Magic, by Renée Bergland (Princeton). Although Charles Darwin and Emily Dickinson are not known to have ever crossed paths, this study finds meaning in their shared enchantment with the natural world. In the eighteen-thirties, as “natural philosophy” began to be reframed as “natural science,” emotion and wonder were eclipsed by objectivity and mastery. Darwin and Dickinson resisted this binary: Darwin saw his theory of natural selection as an occasion for humility, relating humans to other species; Dickinson, whose poetry reflects her extensive scientific education and interest in Darwin’s ideas, depicted the natural world with both botanical specificity and attention to its splendors. Bergland links their thinking to an earlier tradition of “natural” (as opposed to supernatural) magic, which emphasized the interconnectedness of life and valued emotion as a form of understanding.

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Traces of Enayat, by Iman Mersal (Transit). Literary obsession and detective work merge in this biography of Enayat al-Zayyat, an Egyptian writer who died by suicide in 1963, at the age of twenty-six, years before the publication of her only novel. Following the threads of al-Zayyat’s life, Mersal depicts the Egypt in which she grew up and the largely vanished Cairo where she lived, while chronicling her search for the forgotten author. “To trace someone,” Mersal writes, “is a dialogue that is perforce one-sided.” Indeed, despite assiduous research and interviews with surviving friends and family, Mersal experiences “despair at the possibility of knowing” the true story of al-Zayyat, whose remnants she embroiders with photographs, speculation, and personal reflections, leaving behind a seductive mystery.


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