On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his novel, Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe reflects upon his life in The Education Of A British-Protected Child (Knopf, $24.95), a collection of 16 autobiographical essays. Few authors manifest such diverse influences as does Achebe. An African passionately embracing his Igbo tribal heritage, but also the product of a colonial education who praises the colonizer, he speaks eloquently for the complexities of postcolonial Africa. Nothing more symbolizes the tensions of such a diverse heritage than Achebe’s need to justify writing in the English language. Since 1990 he has been living in exile from his country’s civil war, and the cauldron of emotions stirred up by his inability to be proud of his country permeates these intelligent, ambivalent essays.
Suddenly, without foreshadowing, he died. I mean John Updike, whose carefully crafted flow of adjectives and adverbs, bursting with resonance, continue to give so much aesthetic pleasure. He wrote movingly about his mother’s death but seemed to leave us with a blank canvas at his own sudden exit. But then Random House surprised us with three volumes put together in the year before his final deadline. The author and publisher, it appears, stealthily planned this canonical bequest.
From his midlife, The Maples Stories (Everyman, $15), those poignant linked short fictions of a disintegrating marriage, originally—30 years ago—titled Too Far to Go, has been reissued with a new addition, “Grandparenting,” along with Updike’s reassurance that the Maples are “both still alive and look well, considering.” My Father’s Tears (Knopf, $25.95), Updike’s last short story collection, is quintessential Updike: thinly veiled autobiography. The volume’s final story leaves us with a benediction as a toast is drunk to the visible world, “impending disappearance from it be damned.” Finally, Endpoint (Knopf, $25) is a book of poems Updike wrote in the last seven years of his life. I loved all of them, especially Updike’s own valedictory farewell, “Requiem”: For life’s a shabby subterfuge,/ and death is real, and dark, and huge,/ the shock of it will register/ Nowhere but where it will occur.”
For Theo Gray’s Mad Science (Black Dog & Leventhal, $24.95), Theodore Gray, the man behind the “Gray Matter” column in Popular Science magazine, has selected some 55 of his favorite electric or chemical experiments. He performed these when he was growing up, and thereby discovered the sense of fun and adventure that scientific experiments can bring. Gray would let his ten-year-old son do some of these experiments unsupervised, but this is not a kid’s book. One of the more flamboyant exercises involves mixing hydrogen peroxide with chlorine to create a vivid orange-red glow. Like most of the experiments described here, Gray’s scientific directions require an adult and common sense.