Reading a friend’s manuscript is always a fraught enterprise; when the friend is a former spouse, ambivalence adds to the burden. Susan Morrow, long divorced from Edward Sheffield, receives his unpublished novel in the mail one day. He wants her opinion about the book. After ignoring it for months, Susan reads it over a long holiday weekend when her current husband - to whom she’s been married for 25 years and with whom she has three children - is out of town. “To be fair’’ to the book and its author, Susan thinks, “she must deny her memory and make as if she were a stranger,’’ but of course this is impossible, and as she wades into Edward’s book she finds herself reminiscing about both their marriage and the events leading to its end (including Edward’s self-centered and failed attempts to make it as a writer).
Austin Wright’s novel, first published in 1993, has been resurrected, first in England in 2010 and now here, and readers should be grateful. Wright, who died in 2003, masterfully blends Edward’s book - a taut, stylish, ultimately brutal thriller - with Susan’s experience, both as she remembers her life with Edward and as she lives her current life, one that combines comfort with ennui. The Tony in Wright’s title is the protagonist in Edward’s book, “Nocturnal Animals,’’ and while parallels between the two men are subtly drawn they are powerfully unnerving; both strain against their essential passivity, both wonder whether being civilized is a sign of weakness. Wright weaves the two threads together into an elegant meditation on the process of reading, the relationship between reading and writing, the dance between writer and reader. Tony’s story ends in violence, Susan’s in ambiguity; together, they are beautifully wrought, troubling, and hard to forget.
A smile is never just a smile. According to psychologist Marianne LaFrance, the happiest of all facial expressions is “a multifunctional tool’’ containing, among other utilities, “a social magnet, a trustworthiness meter, a device for diffusing anger, a patch for repairing frayed interpersonal bonds, and a lubricant for keeping social ties in good working order.’’ Our relationship with smiles - both producing them and receiving them - starts early. First smiles appear in the womb (these are practice for facial muscle development, scientists believe), but soon after birth we begin to learn that “smiles make things happen’’ - the most basic of which, of course, is building a bond with caregivers. Smiling is “nature’s way of securing an infant’s survival,’’ LaFrance writes, and social and emotional development flourishes when babies and parents trade smiles. Just as with other essential facial gestures, “smiling is wired into the more primitive parts of the human brain.’’
Primal yes, but not universal. Smiles, as LaFrance catalogs them in this lively book, vary from the authentic to the posed, reflect and affirm paradigms of status and power, and differ according to cultural expectations. Different countries favor distinctly different types of smiles (the English show more bottom teeth than do Americans, for instance), and of course there are smiles that convey ambiguous or mixed emotions: “sad smiles, contemptuous smiles, bored smiles, and angry smiles.’’ The book is especially probing in pondering forced smiles - those deployed by workers whose jobs require emotional labor, such as waitresses or nurses, or those demanded from women passing by cat-callers on the street. At times the gee-whiz pop-science tone smoothes over harsher realities, as when LaFrance describes cabdrivers using smiles to decide which fares to pick up and which to pass by, and it goes too easy on positive psychology proponents who would suggest that smiling more makes people happier (even a great smile can’t fix alcoholism, homelessness, or entrenched poverty). Still, this is a charming, thoughtful book, one that makes a powerful case for smiles as “social acts with consequences.’’
Forty years ago this fall, a man calling himself Dan Cooper hijacked a regional flight between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, extracted $200,000 and four parachutes from the airline, and escaped by jumping out of a jet over wild, wooded terrain. The man was never found and his identity has never been established - though not for lack of trying. Geoffrey Gray, a magazine journalist, first encountered the Cooper legend when a private investigator connected him with a man proposing his brother as a possible Cooper. Following the lead led to others, then to a quest he shared with an off-kilter assortment of FBI agents, freelance scientific types, online conspiracy theorists, and one near-feral mountain man. Gray began his investigation with visions of a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, but things took a turn (or several) toward the trippy and paranoid in this highly entertaining tour of Cooperiana.
Gray isn’t able to prove any of the possible Coopers is the one, but he can’t prove they aren’t, either. Answers aren’t really the point; this is a book about the perils and pleasures of a great mystery. Trying to untangle the various theories, separate real clues from background static - and there’s a lot of chatter out there in conspiracy-land - is the best Gray can hope for, and while it’s not enough to land him that Pulitzer, it’s the basis for a very satisfying book. Among its virtues are sensitive sketches of the Cooper suspects, as well as a clear-eyed portrait of a time often remembered for happy faces and funny polyester suits, but one equally full of fear, uncertainty, and anger.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.