Iran, Extinction, and UFOs 

This month, our reviewers dig into alien research, teen brides, and the human brain.

This Blinding Absence of Light

By Tahar Ben Jelloun

Penguin, $14

In light of recent news reports about Guantánamo Bay, it's only fitting that we examine narratives about underground prisons and concentration camps, lest we forget that in some parts of the world, people really are manacled and sequestered in cells with no warmth or light. Jelloun illustrates this with cheerless precision in his novel about a group of militants held captive in Tazmamart prison after planning a coup d'état against Morocco's King Hassan II. As its title suggests, Jelloun's book combines turgid, lugubrious prose with crude symbolism — images of caged doves, screeching owls, bugs, dogs, and of course, darkness — not only to create stark contrasts between good and evil, but also to bring emotional depth to an otherwise numbing account of suffering. The prisoners in Tazmamart survive on tasteless, high-starch meals, sleep amongst armies of cockroaches, and watch their friends die of improbable causes such as gangrene, syphilis, and constipation. It's a quick, absorbing, and thoroughly unpleasant read, made bearable by the narrator's literary allusions and pop-culture references (including Camus' The Stranger, a retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire, and a "Moroccanized" version of Bu–uel's The Exterminating Angel). You'll just be happy that tonight's dinner isn't roach eggs and porridge.

— Rachel Swan

Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa

By Linda Diebel

Carroll & Graf, $27

On October 19, 2001, one of Mexico's leading human-rights lawyers was found dead in her Mexico City office. Digna Ochoa y Plácido had known exactly how dangerous it was to accuse the army of human-rights abuses; perhaps she'd suspected she would end up this way, with a bullet in her brain. But could she imagine that her friends and colleagues would be complicit in her subsequent character assassination, helping investigators reach a conclusion of "probable suicide"? Toronto journalist Diebel brings Ochoa back to life, recounting her story from childhood (when her father was arrested, tortured, and "disappeared" temporarily for his political activism), to her rape and numerous kidnappings by various authorities, to her moment in the spotlight as an Amnesty International Enduring Spirit Award winner, and her last weeks working for justice in the case of peasants who'd been accused of terrorism for opposing logging in their ancestral lands. But what happened to Ochoa is just the beginning of a long tale of bumbling corruption that might never be fully be brought to light — especially because Diebel aims the blame all the way to the top, accusing not just current Mexican leader Vicente Fox but also the frontrunner in this year's presidential election, Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of allowing the cover-up so as not to lose the military's support for his campaign. As Diebel immerses herself — and her readers — in Ochoa's world, each new perversion of justice feels like a blow to the gut. But even though you know how it ends, you've got to keep reading.

— Nora Sohnen

An American Demonology

By Colin Bennett

Headpress, $17.95

At one point in this book, Bennett uses M.C. Escher drawings to illustrate the difficulty people have in processing UFO experiences. "The effect is one of disorientation," he writes, "rather like a feeling of an object being very near and very far away at the same time." The same claim could be made about his book. Ostensibly it's a professional biography of Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of Project Blue Book, the US Air Force's study of UFOs during the 1950s and '60s. Prior to Ruppelt's appointment, Air Force studies of "flying discs" operated under a debunking mandate, and UFO reports were explained away with little actual investigation. With Blue Book, Ruppelt attempted to legitimize UFO investigation; he coined the term "unidentified flying object," analyzed case reports and computerized data, and took steps to de-stigmatize the reporting process for UFO witnesses. It should be grist for a fascinating read, but Bennett's narrative never gathers steam, and his shifts of focus from Ruppelt's work to broader views of the military-industrial complex, post-WWII science and technology, and even Cartesian philosophy are dizzying. For a clearer look at how the military handled investigations of UFO phenomena, track down Ruppelt's own The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, published after he left Blue Book and still the most balanced account on UFOs by a government insider.

— Michael Ansaldo


By Douglas H. Erwin

Princeton University Press, $24.95

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, long before dinosaurs marched onto the stage, a mysterious mass extinction swept across the globe, nearly bringing all life on earth to an abrupt end. Little is known about why this happened, although it was far deadlier than the famous cataclysm that ended the age of dinosaurs some 65 million years later. Smithsonian paleobiologist Erwin presents the story of this annihilation as a whodunit, examining competing hypotheses, from a chain of volcanic eruptions to a meteor impact. Unfortunately, Erwin is a product of academia: His idea of writing for a lay audience isn't so much avoiding scientific jargon as it is interspersing paragraphs of jargon with frequent joking asides to the reader. The result is an uneven read, full of interesting anecdotes but also stretches of tedium. Erwin is a careful and precise chronicler, but to really get involved in a mystery, the reader has to know the victim, and to want the murderer to be brought to justice. Erwin never adequately sets the stage, instead leaping almost immediately into a discussion of what did these creatures in. He finally does break to introduce exotic life forms in later chapters: insects, amphibians, and oodles of squidlike critters called ammo-noids. But by then readers will have spent too much time wondering: What exactly did this extinction exterminate?

— Mike Rosen-Molina

The Three-Pound Enigma

By Shannon Moffett

Algonquin, $24.95

First-time author Moffett, a Stanford medical student, profiles a cast of eccentric and touchingly fanatical researchers trying to map how, through the cooperation of billions of neurons in the human brain, a bumpy bus ride brings to mind the smell of an aftershave worn by the uncle who used to bounce you inappropriately on his lap. Juggling a hefty central question (How do you make the human soul — the ultimate intangible — tangible?) with textbook-worthy primers on neuroanatomy and the whiz-bang technology used to literally read the mind, Moffett keeps things grounded with lively anecdotes about tiptoeing through brunch with a surly Nobel Prize-winner, sitting courtside at open-brain surgeries, and wondering whether her contraceptive device will explode during a magnetic imaging session. The book's central character, the brain, emerges enigmatic indeed: The world's best scientific minds are reduced, in the end, to shaking the brain by the shoulders and crying, "Speak, damn you, speak!" With a triumphant finale set at a Zen meditation retreat, Moffett shows how spiritual inquiry both humbles and elevates the work of the scientists she profiles. Complex and elegant, this is a beauty of a popular-science book.

— Philip Huang


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