“Call Me by Your Name” is a graceful debut novel by memoirist/literary scholar André Aciman (“False Papers,” 2000,), joining young love to his familiar themes of dislocation and wandering.
One could be arrested in certain parts of the world for the young love in question, which joins a 17-year-old bookish musician who is improbably well educated — not many college-educated adults have read Celan, heard of Athanasius Kircher or have a context for the Latin cor cordium — with a 24-year-old scholar with one foot in the world of the classical Greeks and another in whatever demimondes an Italian seaside village can offer. Oliver has cruelly good looks and looks cruelly at the world, a “cold, sagacious judge of character and situations.” Slathered in suntan oil, bronzing in the Mediterranean sun, he sends young Elio into a swoon at first sight. Oliver is well aware of the effect, for everyone, male and female, falls in love with him: Elio’s professor father, whose houseguest Oliver is, has appreciation for the younger man’s fearlessness in arguing over philosophy and etymology, the young village girls for his “muvi star” affectations, older women for his cowboy manners. Possibilities worthy of Highsmith loom, but though Oliver has his dangerous side (for one thing, he’s a cardsharp), Aciman never quite dispenses with innocence; Elio’s love has a certain chaste quality to it (“I was Glaucus and he was Diomedes”), which doesn’t lessen the hurt when the whole thing unravels, at which point intellectual gamesmanship fades away and the wisest man in the book is revealed to be Elio’s gently thoughtful father, who has unsuspected depths and offers consolation as best he can: “Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy you the pain. But I envy you the pain.” That pain yields a happy ending, of a sort.
With shades of Marguerite Duras and Patrick White, “Call Me by Your Name” is a quiet, literate and impeccably written love story.
(Aciman will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
An academic look at beauty
Another look at Darwin’s once-controversial theory of sexual selection, Michael J. Ryan’s “A Taste for the Beautiful” argues that sexual beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
His study of the sexual behavior of the tungara frog led Ryan, a zoology professor at the University of Texas and senior research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, to develop an explanation of how the brain is involved in mating behavior. The calls, whines and chucks of male frogs are designed, he found, to inform, charm and seduce the females, but they can also attract hungry predators. The author’s work with frogs launched a lifetime interest in discovering how beauty is found not just in animals’ calls, but in the scents they give off and the colors they show. He argues that certain domains in the brain help determine what is perceived as beautiful. Thus, understanding the biology of the brain is vital to understanding the biological basis of sexual aesthetics, and those aesthetics drive the evolution of sexual beauty. This is not simple stuff. Ryan works hard to write for general readers, and the narrative is replete with entertaining stories of the sexual marketplace that we and the rest of the animal world inhabit. “Survival is secondary to sex,” he writes, “merely an adaptation to keep animals alive so they can have a shot in the sexual marketplace.” However, many of Ryan’s descriptions of his and other researchers’ work demand close reading and some background in scientific vocabulary, including such terms as “major histocompatibility complex” and “asymetrically dominated decoy.” Small, uncaptioned, black-and-white illustrations open each chapter, and what does come through clearly is the diversity of beauty — and the diversity of sexual behavior.
Despite its appealing title, this is one primarily for the academic market — a good choice for classrooms.
(Ryan will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 2 p.m. Feb. 24 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)
The Austin American-Statesman has teamed with Kirkus Reviews to bring you select reviews from one of the most trusted and authoritative voices in book discovery. For more reviews from Kirkus, visit kirkusreviews.com.