Caul Baby, by Morgan Jerkins (HarperCollins), £20.
When Laila, a wealthy young woman living in Harlem, New York City, loses her latest pregnancy after a string of heartbreaking miscarriages, she descends into madness. In her grief and anguish, she points her finger at the Melancons, a notorious family involved in folk magic who she blames for the stillbirth of her baby. The Melancon women grow caul (the amniotic membrane that encloses a fetus) on the outside of their bodies.
This magical ability provides the family with protection and immortality, which they can share with others by cutting chunks of the caul off. In the past, caul-bearing women have been hunted for their magic healing abilities, so the Melancon women begin selling theirs before anyone can take it.
By 1998, when the book begins, the Melancon women stop helping their community, favouring selling their caul to wealthy white people. Their ‘otherness’ leads to increasing isolation from the outside world and growing resentment from their neighbours, all of which comes to head when they fail to help Laila. But inside the Melacon’s crumbling brownstone, the family face issues of their own; haunted with an inherited duty to sacrifice parts of themselves for money, each woman wrestles the connotations of slavery that come with selling their caul.
Morgan Jerkin triumphs at the difficult task of addressing critical issues surrounding black motherhood in a plot laced with imaginative magic realism. Brimming with different experiences of motherhood and exploring issues of fertility, gender and identity, Caul Baby is an exceptional fictional debut. Rarely does a book drag you so immersively into its world like Caul Baby; it is by far the best book I have read so far this year.
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker), £16.98.
Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of stories is a Gladstone bag of half-remembered incidents; a distant voice, the elusive features of an old girlfriend, a ghostly song. The only constant is the hero, the First Person Singular, but whether he is actual or confected is part of the fun. Needless to say, a claque of woke critics have already upbraided our heroic author for treating the female partners in the majority of the stories as outlines, ciphers or shadows.
That misses the point. This is the old master of magic realism in fine voice and on song. He is my undisputed favourite at the game, as good as Calvino, Borges and Bulgakov. He tells it all with such wit and empathy. Some of the one-liners brought out a short, sharp laugh out loud – an expletive of joy.
The prime piece of realism in the new collection is ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection’, his homage to his neighbourhood and fairly no-hope baseball team, subjects of a lifelong devotion. Not that the romance started auspiciously – his first anthem to the team concludes:
It makes me wonder –
Why in the world do I cheer on a team like this ?
This in itself is a kind of –
Riddle as huge as the universe.
These are piquant tales deploying sharp images and beguiling words. And short sentences. Memories of voices, faces, music and strange beings. A strange riddle from an old man. An elusive girl carrying a Beatles album. The cold cheek on a stone pillow. A book of sheer delight.
How to Think, by John Paul Minda (Little Brown Book Group), £14.99.
Why do we think the way do? How do we make sense of the world? And can we learn to think better? John Paul Minda tackles all of the above in his thought-provoking book How to Think. Minda is a trained cognitive psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). Simply put, he knows the mind like the back of his hand. Minda wants readers to join him in “thinking about thinking” by providing a basic understanding of cognitive psychology, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience.
The first part of How to Think includes a basic history of cognitive psychology. We learn about the metaphors that have framed scientific enquiry in the past, from the era of nativism (the mind is part of the divine) to the age of enlightenment (mind is a blank slate) to the industrial revolution (mind is a stimulus-response engine) right up until to the current era of data, algorithms and AI; where the mind is primarily likened to a computer – a neutral network that runs like an information processor.
With this foundational grasp of cognitive psychology under your belt, Minda looks at how our senses can be untrustworthy, why our memory is imperfect, why we focus on some things and not others, why we have a desire for knowledge and why our decision-making is fraught with potential errors and biases.
Throughout the book, Minda deploys a range of case studies, diagrams, and personal anecdotes, which massively enlivens the read. How to Think won’t be a breakthrough read for the trained eye, but for the untrained and curious it is a comprehensive account of thinking and behaviour that showcases the sheer brilliance of the human brain.