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I can't think of any author that can write about science and the people involved with science in such a compelling way as Andrea Barrett, and Archangel is a stunning example of her abilities. In this group of five interconnected stories, she writes about early aviation, Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, genetics research, and early x-ray technology. This is historical fiction, and the scientific pioneers are either named or easily recognizable, but Barrett writes so well that these real scientists never overtake the fictional characters she has created.
The interconnectedness of the stories is truly original. The young boy, Constantine Boyd, in the first story, "The Investigators", returns as a grown man and soldier in World War I in the last story, "Archangel". In "The Investigators", Constantine comes to know a neighbor named Miss Atkins who is interested in blind cave fish. Henrietta Atkins returns as a student and teacher in "The Island" where she comes to understand Darwin's theory of evolution from The Professor (Louis Agassiz, although he is not named in the story), but her understanding is quite different from what he is trying to teach. "The Ether of Science" deals with widowed science writer Phoebe Cornelius trying to reconcile what she knows and feels with the ideas of Sir Oliver Lodge. Phoebe's son, Sam, accompanies her to a lecture given by Lodge, one where she is just baffled and confused, but Sam understands what is going on very well, and writes a paper that amazes his mother. This scene has some of the best writing I have ever read about science, humans, emotion, and the reconciliation of science and spirituality. Sam later appears in "The Particles" as a geneticist aboard the Athenia, a British ship sunk by the Nazis in World War II.
I've most likely made this seem more jumbled and confused than Barrett's exceptional writing in Archangel really is, but these stories are all clear, direct, and simply beautiful. I listened to this as an audiobook, and while this was a fine way to experience the book, I will definitely be rereading this in print, so as to not miss any details and for the real pleasure of reading stories so beautifully written.
I really hope my sister doesn't think I lied to her when I told her how much I was enjoying this book initially. While it is a heartwarming, sweet book, developments at the end turn it into a sickeningly sweet, predictable, TV-movie-type stereotype of a book. I originally thought I might be able to understand A.J. Fikry and his curmudgeonly ways. That may still be true, but what I don't understand is the "magic" that surrounds everyone on Alice Island that makes everything turn out fine, despite child abandonment, suicide, alcoholism, etc. If an author is going to give her characters difficulties like these, I think they owe their readers a better written and deeper explanation of how characters dealt with them than just a few cursory sentences. For me, this book was much closer to a fairy tale than fiction. They all lived happily ever after, but as a reader I have no idea how that happened. The story was worthy of 2 stars, and while Scott Brick can be an excellent narrator for action, drama, or sci-fi, he would not have been my choice for a book of this type.
The premise piqued my interest and Parkhurst's writing held it. Octavia Frost has decided to rewrite the endings of each of her previous novels of loss. She is a woman who is estranged from her rock star son and who has experienced the tragic death of her husband and daughter. The original and revised endings are woven through the book, as Octavia cautiously reconnects with her estranged son who has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. I really enjoyed this original idea about rewriting endings; they are beautifully written in this book. I would definitely read a book of rewritten endings; Ann Patchett, Suzanne Collins, and Jeffrey Eugenides, I'm talking to you!
My Wish List is a difficult book to rate and review. Delacourt stated that he wanted to write a book about what would it would take to change your life. He does this by having his protagonist, middle-aged Jocelyne, win the lottery, to the tune of €18.5 million. The story unwinds when Jocelyne doesn't tell anyone about her new fortune, not her husband, grown children, or the twin hairdressers that encouraged her to play the lottery. The only person that Jocelyne reveals her secret to is her father who has suffered a stroke and has only a six-minute memory span. Jocelyne leads an ordinary existence, running her own haberdashery shop in a provincial French town, but one she seems quite content in. After her lottery win, she begins to make lists of things she needs, but realizes that many of them are ordinary - a new lamp, a lovely wool and alpaca coat, a non-flowery shower curtain. Her husband wants "more" - a flat-screen TV, a Porsche, and all the James Bond movies on DVD. She is afraid that if she gives her husband everything he wants, he will no longer want her.
I don't want to reveal any more of the plot because that is something each reader should discover for themselves. While not a heartwarming, light read, this book is definitely thought-provoking!
Addendum: The title of the original French version seems to be The List of My Desires. It may be a small thing, but I think that title works much better.
Caffeinated is a compendium of facts, interesting stories, and history about one of our favorite unregulated drugs - caffeine. Murray Carpenter writes about caffeine's physiologic effects (on adenosine receptors), why people metabolize caffeine at different rates (because of genetic predisposition, smoking, or other medications), and that there is no standard amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee or tea. He recounts his trips to Guatemalan coffee farms, Mexican cacao farms, and a synthetic caffeine factory in China. He covers caffeine research by the military, the beneficial and problematic aspects of caffeine use by athletes, and the many regulatory difficulties surrounding caffeine in foods, beverages, and supplements. The marketing of caffeine in sodas and energy drinks by “Big Beverage” is one of the most important sections of the book, sounding suspiciously like nicotine marketing by tobacco companies.
The exhaustive research presented in Caffeinated is both a strength and a weakness. I'm a person who loves to see a good argument supported by relevant data and details, but there were quite a few times that the numbers presented by Carpenter became simply overwhelming. I'm also a person that can admit that there are many mornings where the only thing that gets me out of bed is the lovely anticipation of my morning cup of tea and how good it's going to make me feel. Caffeinated doesn't judge whether my dependence on that cup of tea is good, bad, or otherwise, but it does make the reader think about caffeine - not just coffee, tea, or soda - in all its myriad presentations.
It's possible that I'm an old curmudgeon that overthinks things and takes them too seriously, because that would explain why I did not like this book at all. My biggest problem was that I couldn't tell if the author was laughing at or with the protagonist, Don Tillman, who is most likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. To be honest, much of the book felt the author just wrote sit-com-like scenes for the reader to laugh at Don and be entertained by his inability to understand social norms and cues. I thought Gene, Don's best friend, was fairly repulsive, and Rosie was just immature. As others have said, the book is predictable, reads too much like a screenplay, and Simsion should have stopped writing the ending sooner than he did. This was just not a book for me.
Wild Ones is one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year. I know it's only April, but I have a feeling that this book will still be a top contender at the end of the year. Jon Mooallem takes a look at the connections (or disconnections as the case may be) between the anthropomorphic animals that populate his four year-old daughter's world and the animals in the real world. He writes about three species that are at different points along the endangered species arc – polar bears, Lange's metalmark butterfly, and whooping cranes. What is so extraordinary about Wild Ones is that Mooallem doesn't write to scare, preach, or belittle his readers, but rather to provide a balanced look from many different perspectives and let readers reach their own conclusions.
“Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. Scott and his colleagues gave those creatures’ condition a name: conservation-reliant. It means that, from here on out, we will increasingly be forced to cultivate the species we want, in places we protect and police just for them, perpetually rejiggering some asymmetrical balance to keep each one from sliding into extinction. We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.”
What animals and plants are worth saving at all and who gets to decide? Wild Ones can be disturbing at times because it questions even our success stories, such as bald eagles, the California condor, and whooping cranes. Should we be bothered that extreme, expensive measures are required to keep many species from disappearing forever? Or should we be inspired that people are willing to do so much to keep the remaining few whooping cranes or condors around, even if the rescue of something in nature requires it to live out its days unnaturally? These are incredibly valuable questions to ask, and Mooallem does that brilliantly.
Still Life with Bread Crumbs has been called the literary equivalent of comfort food, but it just made me feel uncomfortable. I really wanted to like this, since it is authored by Anna Quindlen and the premise sounded somewhat interesting; after the story devolved into a vaguely creepy May-December romance lacking Quindlen's usual gifted writing I was sadly disappointed. I had hoped for a book with more than a predictable plot, one-dimensional characters, and rambling writing, but when I came to the list of words that Rebecca's dog could understand and read the phrase "But that was later" for what seemed like the fiftieth time, I knew I wasn't going to find the depth and exceptional writing I was looking for in Still Life with Bread Crumbs. I've read and really enjoyed several of Quindlen's previous novels and essays, but I'm afraid I may pass on her future books.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is everything other reviewers have said, and more. It’s a wonderfully-written and varied collection of Ann Patchett’s essays, ranging from musings about how she considered joining the Los Angeles Police Dept. in order to write about it and how she is influenced by her father, a retired LAPD police captain, to her feelings about her dog Rose and Sister Nena, the nun that taught her to read and write, to the eloquent and moving account of caring for her grandmother during her progression into dementia.
I’ve read and enjoyed (with reservations) several of Patchett’s novels. Bel Canto was great but I hated the ending, and I liked State of Wonder, except for some of the more ludicrous plot points. I personally found this collection of essays much more engrossing than any of her novels that I’ve read. She can write about almost anything, revealing thoughts, emotions, and advice without becoming preachy and overbearing.
I was completely unaware of Lucy Grealy, Patchett’s long-term friendship with her, and the controversies arising from their relationship. I’m very tempted to read Patchett’s Truth and Beauty to delve into this further, and may do that after I’ve had some time to digest the essay from Grealy’s sister in The Guardian. I’m hoping that Patchett will further show, as she did in this collection, that there are often quite a few ways of viewing a situation, and one absolute truth does not always exist.
I do have to thank Ann Patchett for leading me to an epiphany. In “Love Sustained”, she writes about the long and painful decline of her grandmother Eva:
“My grandmother had spent her life taking care of other people, cooking their food, cleaning their houses. It was her proof that she was valuable in the world. Now I cleaned my grandmother's apartment, which hurt her every single time. My cleaning was an accusation, no matter how quietly I went about it.”
When I read “It was her proof that she was valuable in the world.”, I gained a much better understanding of my dear mother-in-law. She raised five children with lots of hard work and no time to herself. Now that she has too much time to herself, she is missing that visible proof that she is valuable in the world. I could see her so clearly in that one simple sentence. I’m grateful for this entertaining and elucidative collection of essays that was a pleasure to read, and even more so when read by the author in the audio version.
To paraphrase Dickens, “It was the best of books, it was the worst of books, it was a book of wisdom, it was a book of foolishness, it was a book of belief, it was a book of incredulity.” This begins to describe some of my thoughts about The Goldfinch.
Theo Decker, the thirteen-year-old narrator of The Goldfinch, has been suspended from school. He and his mother have an appointment with the school principal, but because they are getting drenched in a downpour, they escape the rainstorm in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is a terrorist bombing at The Met in which many people are killed, including Theo’s beloved mother. In the midst of the chaos, a dazed and frightened Theo spirits away his mother’s favorite painting, “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius. After the bombing, Theo lives with a friend’s dysfunctional family on Park Avenue, later with his estranged father in Las Vegas where he meets larger-than-life Boris, and back to New York where he again meets up with antique furniture restorer Hobie, who he is connected with through the bombing. Throughout it all, Theo carries “The Goldfinch” as his last remaining connection to his mother, despite the many difficulties his possession of the painting causes. Don’t let my clumsy recounting of the plot deter you; Tartt has written a vast plot with interesting characters, but the really important parts of this novel are Tartt's details and writing.
Other readers may have been bored and exasperated by the detail, but for me it was an important part of the book. The details and descriptions of the dysfunctional Barbours, their Park Avenue apartment, the desolation of Las Vegas, the wry and philosophical personality of Boris as it has been formed through appalling parental neglect, and the incredible details about antique furniture and its restoration helped create a world that at times was more fully drawn for me than the world in which I was sitting and listening to the book. David Pittu is an excellent narrator for this book, especially in his treatment of Hobie and Boris.
First and foremost, Tartt is an incredible writer. She is able to write sentences and paragraphs such as these:
“I accepted all this counsel politely, with a glassy smile and a glaring sense of unreality. Many adults seemed to interpret this numbness as a positive sign; I remember particularly Mr. Beeman (an overly clipped Brit in a dumb tweed motoring cap, whom despite his solicitude I had come to hate, irrationally, as an agent of my mother’s death) complimenting me on my maturity and informing me that I seemed to be “coping awfully well.” And maybe I was coping awfully well, I don’t know. Certainly I wasn’t howling aloud or punching my fist through windows or doing any of the things I imagined people might do who felt as I did. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”
There were some missteps for me in The Goldfinch. Pippa is a red-haired girl that Theo notices at The Met, and over the course of the book, he comes to imagine her as his soul-mate. The character of Pippa and her relationship with Theo are among the few areas in the book that are lacking in detail, but more is really needed. There is also a scene concerning Theo and his ethical slide about three-quarters through the book that made me want to stop listening. I had to stop reading for a week or so, but I thought about the book and what was happening to the characters so much that I had to start reading again.
I’ve read several reviews in which people state that the characters aren’t likable and Theo is too passive. I didn’t find the characters especially likable myself, but for me, any unlikeability was simply part of who they were and was necessary within the novel as a whole. Theo was passive, buffeted by cruel and arbitrary circumstances, randomness, and many well-meaning adults who were damaged themselves, but that is exactly how I would expect a traumatized thirteen-year-old to behave, even as he was growing up over the course of the novel. Theo says and recognizes, “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” and they certainly would have.
Nobody writes minutiae like Bill Bryson, but that's a good thing. He manages to take some big events along with odd tidbits about people and tie them together in an interesting and entertaining way in One Summer: America, 1927. The summer begins with Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic and goes on to include Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs, Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Great Mississippi Flood, Henry Ford, and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. But wait; there’s more! Gertrude Ederle (“the most forgotten person in America”), Calvin Coolidge’s naps and cowboy uniform, Ruth Snyder and her corset salesman lover Judd Gray (the basis of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), and Shipwreck Kelly, flagpole sitter. But wait; there’s still more! That may be one of the books weaknesses. There are times when Bryson’s detours begin to get slightly tedious, and dare I say boring, but the plethora of information is also one of the book’s strengths. Bryson managed to give me a better understanding of everything that was going on during this particular summer and how these people and events interacted, like how Hoover’s leadership during the Great Mississippi Flood put him in position for the presidency. One Summer: America, 1927 is not an exhaustive, extensively-researched, focused history, but it is an accessible, easy to read work that is both educational and entertaining. The fact that I got to listen to Bill Bryson read his own book on audio makes it even better.
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