Second Nature, by Nathaniel Rich (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Tales of greed, corruption, and indifference abound in reporting on climate change and ecological disaster, and there are plenty in this vibrant book: DuPont and the poisoning of Parkersburg, West Virginia; SoCalGas and the poisoning of Porter Ranch, California. But there are also stories of bravery, passion, and inventiveness, like the quests to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction, and to create eggless egg and meatless meat. Rich has an appreciation for dreamers, even for billionaires whose idealism may be indistinguishable from hubris. Will the three-hundred-foot-tall clock Jeff Bezos is building inside an excavated mountain in Texas really make humanity think more about its future?
Finding the Raga, by Amit Chaudhuri (New York Review Books). The author of this compelling meditation on Indian and Western art-making is both a novelist and a performer of Indian classical music. Whereas Western classical music enjoys a kind of élite status, educated Bengalis seem to keep their region’s classical music, freighted with religious overtones and musty traditions, “at arm’s length.” Chaudhuri writes absorbingly on the divergences between two cultural modes of listening to and making music. A symphony may evoke images or moods, and it is unchanged by the time or location of a performance. But the melodic framework of a raga is nonrepresentational and “of the world”: a raga sung at the wrong hour suffers “jet lag.”
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton (37 Ink). In this début novel, set in the nineteen-seventies, the author, a music-industry veteran, mimics the form of rock oral histories to deliver a portrait of an iconoclastic artist. Opal Jewel, a Black singer from Detroit, sings less well than a sister she performs with, but she is punk, and the Zeitgeist is with her. Nev Charles, a white British singer-songwriter, sees in her the “difference I wanted,” and plucks her from obscurity. Together they plunge into New York’s anarchic music scene, in a fruitful collaboration that nonetheless moves toward tragedy. The novel offers a lively take on the music industry’s commercialism, racism, and sexism, and also a commentary on how history and memory are refracted through changing cultural currents.
The Elephant of Belfast, by S. Kirk Walsh (Counterpoint). Based on real events, this engrossing novel takes place a year into the Second World War. A three-year-old elephant named Violet arrives at Belfast’s Bellevue Zoo, where Hettie Quin, a young zookeeper mourning the recent death of a sister, finds purpose and solace in caring for her. Hettie “preferred animals to people,” but is pursued by several men, including her sister’s widower, who is active in the I.R.A. When the Luftwaffe begins bombing Belfast, many of the zoo’s animals face euthanasia. The novel vividly evokes the speed with which war makes the commonplace surreal, as Hettie and Violet become fugitives in a ruined city.