Short takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2009

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By Holly Robinson,
Harmony, 304 pp., $23

It sounds like an intriguing title for a novel - “The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter’’ - but in fact it is a memoir of a mid-century American upbringing typical enough in all respects but one. Holly Robinson’s father, a naval officer, had a dream that took outsized shape as the family moved around the country during the Cold War years: He wanted to raise gerbils.

By the time the Robinsons settled down on a derelict rural property in Central Massachusetts, he had become the entrepreneur of a cottage industry, a self-taught expert on gerbil behavior and breeding, and a leading supplier of the miniature rodents to research laboratories. More biddable animals - cats and dogs and, especially, horses - helped Holly cope with a lifestyle that demanded frequent dislocation and no whining.

The problem with childhood memoirs, even those as frank and energetic as this one, is that adults are more interesting than children but inscrutable to them. The senior Robinsons are emblems of changing times: The author’s father, although a military man, opposes the Vietnam War, while her gritty mother prepares meals from the “I Hate to Cook Book,’’ the kitchen bible of passive-aggressive Betty Friedan-era housewives. Their private dramas, however, unfold on the far side of closed doors.

By Nick Laird, Viking, 256 pp., $25.95

Fat, bitter, and nearing 40, David Pinner, a onetime art student turned English teacher, has ample time to consider where his life took a timid turn as he spends his solitary evenings venting his frustrated creative impulses in an anonymous blog.

When, at a London gallery opening, David shyly but firmly latches on to Ruth Marks, a glamorous American artist who has forgotten he was once a pupil of hers, we can see the desperation pouring off him like sweat. But when Ruth, invited for dinner at his nondescript flat, falls not for the adoring David but for his tenant, James, a good-natured bartender as handsome as he is naïve, and young enough to be her son, David metamorphoses into Iago with a laptop, deviously diverting the mismatched lovers down paths of doubt and jealousy.

Nick Laird (gifted author of the highly praised “Utterly Monkey’’) presents each character in the round, fully, convincingly, and with a compassion liberally spiked with cool humor and an exhilarating originality of expression.

By Thomas Levenson,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $25

On the morning of March 22, 1699, the notorious counterfeiter William Chaloner was hauled from the festering cells at Newgate prison through the streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn. As skillful at con artistry as at counterfeiting, Chaloner had forestalled justice but could not escape it, thanks to the dogged efforts of the man who played Sherlock Holmes to his Moriarty - the Warden of the Mint, none other than the great mathematician-philosopher Isaac Newton.

Bizarre as that may sound, with the treasury crippled by counterfeiting and other assaults on the kingdom’s silver coinage, England’s rulers wanted the problem tackled by the man with the best head for figures, and that man was irrefutably Newton. With his best work behind him and his spirits depressed by an unrequited and surely unconsummated homoerotic passion for a young Swiss mathematician, the aging Cambridge scholar needed a change of scene. Newton took surprisingly well to the demands of his bureaucratic post, supervising England’s revolutionary introduction of paper currency and pursuing offenders with a degree of zeal rarely seen since Savonarola.

In depicting what his subtitle calls “The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist,’’ Thomas Levenson gives us history as it ought to be written, vivid and engaging.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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