The Great Library Rundown, Part 4: Here Be Black Holes

Space Reads

It may surprise you to learn, Dear Readers, that as a kid I wanted to be not a writer or a historian, but an astrophysicist. My parents gave me a subscription to Astronomy and a telescope, entertained my wild theories about gravity, and  took me out to see Mir and the planets after dark, which I loved.

And then I realized that astronomy and physics are all about math. Valiantly as I might have tried, math never clicked for me, and thus here you find me, an editor and writer.

Still, I love dipping back into the world of spacetime, so to speak. Here are two science-related titles for your consideration.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

IMG_7035I absolutely loved this tiny (81 pages, not counting the index) book. In plain language, Carlo Rovelli discusses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ greatest discoveries and theories in physics, ranging from relativity to particle physics and back again. The section on heat and the nature of time completely fascinated me. Do note that one isn’t going to completely grasp these concepts after reading; this is more of a mind-opening book, the kind that encourages curiosity and further reading (take this: “The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics”).  I will definitely be buying a copy of this book for my shelf at home–it’s the kind of book I want to dip back into from time to time. Highly recommended.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Jana Levin

IMG_6798I requested this book after reading Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) ringing endorsement, but I was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. The book is about the decades-long attempt to record gravitational waves (produced in the collision of black holes)—a worthy,  interesting, and timely topic: LIGO (the laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) detected gravitational waves in February, 100 years after Einstein’s prediction of their existence. Jana Levin focuses on the personalities of the original movers and shakers behind the push to build the massive LIGO machines, and while this might have been a good strategy, the execution is problematic. Long sections of interviews are reproduced without commentary, for example, leaving the reader in the dark about the author’s analysis of various points of contention. Throughout the book, crucial scientific terms that a layperson wouldn’t be expected to know aren’t explained, and I found multiple grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities (perhaps the book was rushed through production after the LIGO detection). This is, alas, a book that would have worked better as a long-form magazine story (like the story about earthquakes in the New Yorker that just won the Pulitzer).


The Great Library Rundown, Part 3: Afternoon Reads

Fast Reads

Today for your consideration, Dear Readers: two books you can read in an afternoon.

IMG_6535First is Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, a book of short meditations on her love for Italian. A few years ago, the writer acclaimed for books including The Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland moved to Italy and committed to reading and writing exclusively in Italian, which she had started learning in her twenties (and which is, by the way, her third language). Ms. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian, and the original is presented side-by-side with Ann Goldstein’s translation into English (if that names sounds familiar, it might be because she also translates Elena Ferrante’s work).

I loved reading this (and it was fun to dip into the Italian to look for phrases to puzzle out, or just to whisper all those delightful consonants), not only for the language, but also for its consideration of isolation, belonging, effort, mastery, and passion. Highly recommended.

IMG_6536Next is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, edited and with notes by esteemed Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger. Drawn from the Kalevala, a Finnish epic, the tragic tale follows Kullervo, one of the inspirations for The Silmarillion‘s Túrin Turambar. Here’s the summary from the publisher:

Brought up in the homestead of the dark magician Untamo, who killed his father, kidnapped his mother, and who tries three times to kill him when still a boy, Kullervo is alone save for the love of his twin sister, Wanona, and guarded by the magical powers of the black dog, Musti. When Kullervo is sold into slavery he swears revenge on the magician, but he will learn that even at the point of vengeance there is no escape from the cruelest of fates.

It’s a rather grim tale, and I think that if you’re not a Tolkien die-hard, this book isn’t for you, since the story itself is not fully fleshed out. The explanatory material is quite interesting, though, and it put the Kalevala on my to-read list.

Have you read any afternoon-long books recently?

The Great Library Rundown, Part 2: Beach Reads



I don’t know about you, but my stack of books to take to the beach generally weighs more than my four-year-old. I’ve recently read three library books with beach potential; June approaches, so let’s assess, shall we?

IMG_6537Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes

Yes, I know I might be the last person on the continent to have read this tearjerker (soon to be a feature film), but then again, there was still a waitlist for it at my local library.

Synopsis: Louisa, a quirky young woman from a working-class family, gets a last-ditch job as a companion for Will, a young businessman and adventurer paralyzed in a car accident. When Louisa finds out Will’s plans for physician-assisted suicide, she determines to prove to him that life is still worth living, and in the process, she opens up her own horizons.

The good: I liked that Lou comes from a working-class family, and that the book doesn’t attempt to skate over the difficulties of job loss and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Lou and her sister Treena, a brilliant single mom, have an interesting relationship, combative and loving at the same time.

The not-so-good: I thought the pacing was off and the changes in perspective were annoying. I wish there’d been more balance in the depiction of life as a quadriplegic; Will is pretty damn miserable—despite his enormous financial advantages—but certainly not all quadriplegics feel the same way (there’s an attempt to show this through a fictitious message board, but why not introduce another character?).

Verdict: Depends entirely on your taste for tearjerkers.

Maestra, by L.S. HiltonIMG_6838

Judith Rashleigh is an assistant at a London auction house who becomes embroiled in intrigue after she’s unjustly fired from her job and ends up on the French Riviera, trying to pass as one of the rich and carefree. Sex and murder and art fraud shenanigans ensue.

[Sidebar here: Whoever did the marketing on this book is very good—from the cover to the deliberate comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl, they’ve tried very hard to make this a hit. Oh, and the book already has two planned sequels and a movie deal. Le sigh.]

The good: This book had so much potential—there’s one good twist, the bits about art and appraisal are fascinating (I wished the book had stayed more focused on the art world), and somewhere there’s some good material relating to young women’s righteous rage at being undervalued at work and treated like sex objects all the time.

The bad:  Well, let’s see: there’s fat-shaming (lots of it), gratuitous name-dropping of designer labels (this gets worse as the book goes on), unconvincing plot maneuvers, repetitive, humorless sex scenes that try too hard to shock readers . . . I could go on.

The verdict: Leave it at the library.

Eligible, by Curtis SittenfeldIMG_6864

Synopsis: In this modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters are natives of Cincinnati. Liz and Jane, both approaching 40, are home from New York to care for their dad after his heart attack when they meet Chip Bingley (former contestant on a Bachelor-type show) and his haughty neurosurgeon friend, Darcy. You can take it from there, folks.

The good: Part of the fun of reading this was, for me, guessing how Ms. Sittenfeld would update Austen’s plot points for twenty-first-century readers (CrossFit makes an appearance, for example). Liz and Jane are pitch-perfect, I loved the choice of Cincinnati as setting, and I think the Bennets’ socioeconmic status makes sense. And the last chapter is a-mazing.

The not-so-good: I think the attempts to highlight race and LGBTQ issues were a good idea, but not taken far enough. There’s quite a bit of silliness at the end, which I could have done without.

Also, I’m a transplanted Ohioan, and good lord did this make me miss Graeter’s and Skyline.

The verdict: Not destined to be a classic, and not Curtis Sittenfeld’s best (I think the consensus points to American Wife), but 100% beachworthy.

What’s on your beach reading list this summer?

YA Foray: Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King

IMG_6429About once a year*, I read a YA book to see what the youth are up to these days (or, what publishers think the youth want to read, I guess). I’m never disappointed, for while YA isn’t my go-to bookstore section, I think YA authors tend to be folks passionate about the lives of teenagers, and that passion shows in their work.

Enter Jeff Zenter’s debut novel The Serpent King. Set in rural Tennessee, the book follows three friends through their senior year of high school. Dill is a soulful and sad musician, haunted by family history and dogged by his father’s reputation (the former minister is in jail for possession of child pornography) and his mother’s refusal to acknowledge that he might want to leave Forrestville. Lydia is a savvy fashion blogger (and fan of Donna Tartt & Leonard Cohen, so I was contractually obligated to like her, despite her annoying tendency to brush off her privilege) who dreams of moving to New York, though she’ll miss her supportive, Trader Joe’s-loving, hybrid-driving parents. Travis has a rough time at home and at work in the lumberyard, but he copes by retreating into a Game of Thrones-like fandom, not caring what anybody (including Lydia) thinks of his all-black ensembles, dragon necklace, and staff.

The novel revolves mainly around Dill, who’s distressed not only at the prospect of losing Lydia (he’s got a crush), but also at his lack of prospects. His parents have made it clear that he’s responsible for helping to pay off the debts they incurred; his mother even thinks he ought to drop out of high school.

While the trajectory of the plot is somewhat predictable, I enjoyed reading this book because Mr. Zentner depicts a segment of the population that is often overlooked. Dill and his mother are flat-out poor, and Travis’s family is just scraping by. Despite her attitude towards Dill’s education, Mrs. Early is depicted as a person who’s making choices using the arithmetic she knows, one that’s bound up with job insecurity (even with multiple jobs), no health care, and mountains of debt. She’s not a sympathetic character, but she’s understandable, not a caricature, and I think that’s important. Mr. Zentner shows readers that circumstance is a powerful force in shaping character.

And so is friendship. Forrestville has its racists and bullies, but it’s also chock full of beauty and people of outstanding moral fiber if you know where to look, and the three heroes of the tale do. It’s a pleasure to hear the sounds of night insects with them, or visit a college campus through their eyes. This book is full of heart; Mr. Zentner clearly loves his subject, looking at rural Tennessee life with affection, and with eyes wide open to its flaws.

I’d recommend this book  to YA fans and to readers (like me) who dip into the genre just once in a while.

Have you read any YA books lately?

* 2013: Sara Farizan, If You Could Be Mine

2014: John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

2015: [I did say about once a year. It averages out, right?]

Review: On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-rae Lee

I wanted so much to love this book so much.

photo (60)(Yes, I meant that both ways). I’ve read two of Chang-rae Lee’s other novels, A Gesture Life and Native Speaker, and came away amazed that a writer could approach brutality with such gorgeous prose — without once letting the reader escape from the cruel reality of history. And one of the best books I’ve read in the last three years is another instance of a “literary” writer venturing into the realm of speculative fiction — Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I hoped On Such a Full Sea would become another great entry in the genre. The title comes from Shakespeare, after all.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Pretty much everything I feel about this novel has been better expressed by the grande dame of speculative fiction herself, Ursula K. Le Guin, in this pitch-perfect review for the Guardian.

The novel is framed as a quest narrative: a young woman named Fan leaves her (relatively) safe home to find her beau, Reg, who’s been spirited away to a mysterious lab thanks to a genetic quirk that makes him impervious to ‘C’ — a group of diseases that virtually everyone eventually succumbs to (cancer, unless I’m misreading, and I don’t think I am). Fan and Reg live in B-mor, a future Baltimore stripped of its former residents and converted into a city, built in the novel’s past, for Asian immigrants and their descendants to live and work in — a sort of hive for producing high-quality food for Charters (for these think The Hunger Games‘s Capital, without the outrageous get-ups), towns where the rich competitively and conspicuously consume income derived from white-collar type employment. Between these centers of production and consumption lie “the counties,” where there is loose governmental structure, if any, and survival is never a safe bet.

Fan sets off into the counties, of course, with almost no preparation, preparing to rely on her wits and her physical strength (she’s a fish-minder, and an incredibly strong swimmer, despite her small size) as she searches for Reg.

The novel is narrated in the first-person plural by an amorphous group of B-More citizens, who somehow have access to what goes on during Fan’s journey, and to what goes on in her head. It’s a technique that works well when describing life in B-Mor, and what little we get of this new world’s history, but it’s incredibly off-putting when it turns to Fan. And Fan herself remains a cipher, with very little personality to hold on to. She’s quiet, single-minded, quick-thinking, but somehow cold, not life-like.

As you can probably tell, On Such a Full Sea reads like a contemporary American liberal fantasy of what the world will come to if global warming goes unchecked and economic inequality isn’t ameliorated. That would be all well and good — one of the functions of science fiction, after all, is to critique the present world — but Mr. Lee doesn’t attend to the conventions of the genre (in particular, cohesive world-building), with detrimental results.

Here’s an example. Commodities in the novel are simultaneously difficult to acquire and unreasonably available. At one point Fan is offered a carton of soy milk, and then another, and while it’s impressive that her counties host has access to comestibles, at the same time it seems impossible that a world that can’t repair roads is still producing single-serving soy milk containers. As Ms. Le Guin writes,

Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction is granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

Exactly. So very disappointing.

However, Mr. Lee’s prose is still gorgeous as ever, and (again, as Ms. Le Guin points out) he embellishes standard tropes and themes with creative details and few unexpected plot twists. I suspect that we’ll be enjoying Mr. Lee’s contemporary fiction again soon.

What the Kids Are Reading: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsI realize that I may be the last literate person to have read this novel since it was published two years ago this month. Generally speaking, I try to avoid anything filed under “What Teens Are Reading” at Barnes and Noble (yes, I was in there exchanging things), despite my occasional forays into YA. But The Fault in Our Stars has been so widely acclaimed that I felt safe joining the library wait list.

Sidebar: Was the term “YA” around when we were younger? I’m 29, for the record, and I don’t remember seeing “YA” as a teenager, although it’s possible that I missed it because I was pretentious enough then to turn up my nose at a wide swath of literature (What’s that you say? I’m still pretentious? I don’t want to bite my thumb at you, but . . . ) and hated being categorized as a “teen.”  I did read a bunch of Judy Blume novels in grade school (Yes, grade school. My second grade teacher couldn’t figure out what to do with me during class reading time, so she handed me Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I was really confused, and a search through the bathroom cabinets didn’t help much.) I remember leafing through them in the library —  to this day, I can’t really keep a straight face around anyone named Ralph — but I don’t remember how I found them.

My point, which got lost somewhere in there, is that I don’t see Forever .  . . (don’t worry, didn’t read that one in second grade) shelved near the Boyles and Byatts these days, and maybe that’s a trend that’s been around for awhile. Then again, sometimes I can’t find Neil Gaiman books anywhere except the SF/F fantasy section, so maybe we should all band together and protest the isolation of genre fiction. Or do separate genre markers make it easier to find something along the lines of what you like?

But I digress.

Spoilers Ensue. You have been warned. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to read again. 

I loved The Fault in Our Stars, even if it meant that I started my New Year by sobbing all over my favorite sweatshirt and causing my two-year-old to worry about Elmo’s health. It’s a testament to the writing that I knew just what was coming by page 18 (“Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.”), but I still wanted to keep reading. Hazel and Augustus are hilarious, winning characters, perfectly imperfect, precocious but never precious. The book treats people with illnesses as people, which is rarer than it ought to be, and I thought the medical issues were handled well.

Here’s where the book first won me over: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer” (8).  It’s the rare adolescent-centered book that fully acknowledges the burdens of parents, and this is one of them. I happen to be personally conversant with untimely death, and now, as a parent, I can tell you that, yes, being the parent would be worse.

I wonder, and I’d be pleased to know if you have the answer: Is this book as popular as boys as it is with girls? I know that it was mostly girls who read Twilight (tried some of that in an effort to get to know my students’ tastes: disaster.), but I can see how The Fault in Our Stars would appeal to boys, too.

As I read, part of my mind was engaged thinking about texts that I’d teach with The Fault in Our Stars, since it’s a commonly-read book among high school students and people entering college. It’s a dream of a book for English nerds, with tons of discussions about metaphors and books; Laura at Reading in Bed has a great post on the allusions in the book (and I agree with her critique about the sex scene too).

End of Spoilers.

Here’s a short list of books that I think would complement The Fault in Our Stars, not just from a teaching standpoint, but from a general reader’s standpoint too.

W;t, by Margaret Edson. A play about an English professor dying from ovarian cancer. Brilliant, beautiful, full of John Donne. I’ve taught it three or four times, and college students (freshmen to seniors) have loved it. There’s quite a bit here about how the medical establishment dehumanizes patients, and I think the de-emphasis on hospitals in The Fault in Our Stars would provide a good counterpoint and spur discussion about lenses in literature.

Gain, by Richard Powers. The best novel about cancer I’ve ever read (sorry, John Green). It’s dense, engaged with history and what it’s like to be human and sick. It both is and is not historical fiction, environmental fiction.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you missed this book, go read it immediately. It’s stunning. I won’t give away the plot because it’s so exquisitely rendered. Like The Fault in Our Stars, it features young adults facing circumstances entirely out of their control, and navigating though first loves at the same time.

What would you add to the list? What did you think of The Fault in Our Stars?

Recommended Reading: Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon

snow huntersI’m so pleased to end my year of reading recommendations with this lovely, lovely work by Paul Yoon.

Snow Hunters follows Yohan, a tailor who lives in Brazil, as he adjusts to his new life, new occupation, and as he struggles with his memories of war and friendship in his native Korea. It’s a novel about place and time. Reading it, I could imagine standing in the sun on the coast of Brazil, what it would be like to feel the small triumph of learning a street’s name.

Mr. Yoon’s pose is spare but illuminating; it often reminded me of Hemingway’s writing, but with more light behind the shuttered windows. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

And he understood that he would never be able to hold all the years that had gone in their entirety. That those years would begin to loosen, break apart, slip away. That there would come a time when there was just a corner, a window, a smell, a gesture, a voice to gather and assemble. (151)

Beautiful. Writing that bears re-reading.

(Cecilia has a wonderful review of Snow Hunters on her blog, Only You.)

Recommended Reading: Orkney, by Amy Sackville

This is a small book, modest in its ambitions.  Light on plot and heavy on atmospherics, you might say. Orkney

A middle-aged professor takes his young, mysterious bride to Orkney (the Seal Islands, north of Scotland) for their honeymoon. Everyday his research languishes as he watches her out the window; she stares into the sea, and her closed thoughts and wishes torment him.

I was drawn to the book by its premise and because I love the sea, and I’ve always been fascinated by the very cold shores that are barely inhabited, so old and so weathered that they seem out of legend and myth, or the very beginning of the world.

Orkney brings this kind of landscape into beautiful focus — I’ve never read so many words for the colors of the sea or the sound of the wind. It’s lovely — enchanting, even. It’s not a page-turner, but it’s food for the imagination, and so I recommend it.

Recommended Reading: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I’d been lingering for two months on the library waitlist for Kate Atkinson’s new book, so it was with glee that I delved in to this 500+-page thumper.  Life after Life

I went in cold, and was blind-sided by the inventive structure. The novel attempts to answer that unanswerable question: what would you do if you could live your whole life over again? What would you change? How would you try to get it “right?”

You see, Ursula Todd, the novel’s lens and protagonist, can live her life over again, and not just once. This twist ensures that she also dies, over, and over, and over again, so many times that I lost count. She begins again at her birth (though sometimes, mercifully, Atkinson fast-forwards to another precipitous event), and, until she makes it past childhood, her first focus is to avoid the things that carried her off in those years: accident and illness.

Once she successfully navigates into adolescence, Ursula begins to recognize her peculiar form of reincarnation, and starts trying to prevent not only her own death, but those of her family and neighbors, and finally, even greater catastrophes. But she finds that every choice engenders unintended, often dangerous consequences.

I loved this book, not only for its unconventional, even experimental form, but also for its carefully-chosen language and attention to the details of time and place and families. If I had the chance to speak with Ms. Atkinson, I’d ask her how she kept track of the detailed strands of narrative; the continuity across times and lines of plot is striking.

And I’d ask how she decided when to stop the book, when in theory the variations could continue on and on.  And I’d ask her if she’d like the chance to live over and over again, or if once is enough. I’m asking myself that question right now.

Recommended Reading: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

If I hadn’t read the jacket copy, I would have assumed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the work of an accomplished, many-times-published novelist. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

But it’s Anthony Marra’s first novel, and when you read it, you’re going to weep, not just because there’s no way that should be possible, but because the story is so moving and so perfectly told, a gut-wrenching exploration of two Chechen wars, history, family, and the significance of place.

Eight-year-old Havaa’s father, Dokka, is disappeared by Russian forces in the middle of the night. Their neighbor Akhmed (like Dokka and Havaa, an ethnic Chechen) finds Havaa in the woods the next morning, and (rightly) fearing for her safety, takes her to the last doctor in the only hospital in the neighboring city, an ethnic Russian named Sonja. Sonja is processing her own trauma — the disappearance of her sister, Natasha. Over the course of the novel, the threads connecting all the principal characters — Dokka, Havaa, Akhmed, Sonja, Natasha, and Dokka’s betrayer and the betrayer’s father — slowly reveal themselves, forming a web more complicated and more harrowing than any of the characters understand.

The narrative jumps back and forward over a period of ten years, but the tendrils of connection reach back into Soviet Russia and forward into a future that’s not yet known. Tangential sequences that reveal information about secondary characters were masterful; the level of detail, the attentiveness to the minutiae of human survival, are impeccable.

I could write about this book for pages and pages, but I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s sense of discovery. It’s a December book, in that it will make you feel grateful for whatever and whomever you have to wrap around you.

*Be forewarned: there are torture scenes that made me physically ill, and I have a strong stomach.