Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

Historical fiction comes in two basic flavors: the kind that teaches you about history as you read it (e.g., The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, 1008 pages about building a 12th century cathedral), and the kind that is more opaque, where the history, while important, is not so spelled out. I like both kinds, but I often get more of a kick out of the second type, especially when the historical details intrigue me enough to go off and read more on my own, later.

The Wives of Los Alamos is definitely in the second category. In spare prose, author TaraShea Nesbit tells the story of the community of scientists and their families who lived and worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the 1940’s, where the scientists developed the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Most of the scientists were civilian men, formerly university professors, many of them with families and children. The U.S. government moved them to New Mexico where they worked for years under top secret conditions. Their families were kept in the dark about the nature of their work, and everyone’s contact with family members and friends from outside the community was strictly monitored. In some cases, where a scientist was well known within the field, names were changed as well. The restricted nature of their lives meant that the women, especially, formed close bonds with one another as they attempted to create a semblance of normal life in the isolated desert community.

Nesbit reinforces the women’s closeness by writing this novel in third person plural, which I thought would bother me, but which didn’t. The wives speak as a group, about their children, the landscape, and the difficulties of being cut off from extended family. They reveal both the petty (whose government- issue house has a coveted bathtub) and the frightening aspects of their lives (what, exactly, are their husbands working on? Something very dangerous.).

Real historical figures inhabit this novel (Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr) but their influence is minimal. It’s not the kind of historical novel where you play “guess who this character is?” It’s more diffuse than that, because of the third person narrative voice and also because it’s mostly about the wives, whose names we don’t know anyway. After I finished reading it I read the Wikipedia articles about the Manhattan Project. On her website, Nesbit recommends another book, The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan, which is nonfiction, about the women who worked in the secret Oak Ridge, Tennessee uranium separating plant. Now I want to read that, too.

(Book 19, 2014)

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm is J. K. Rowling’s second mystery novel written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and featuring the curmudgeonly detective Cormoran Strike and his clever assistant Robin Ellacott. Strike is hired to find Owen Quine, a missing novelist, and find him he does. Quine is dead--murdered, it turns out, by a grisly method described in his latest (and not yet released) book. The initial list of suspects includes anyone who may have read the manuscript, and this list contains more folks than you might imagine: family members, his agent, his publisher and the office staff, fellow authors, lawyers, etc., many of whom had good reasons to hate Quine, whose capacity to offend was outmatched only by his ego.

Who knew there was so much vitriol in the staid world of publishing? Rowling apparently knows. As her characters offer observations on the state of modern literature, book marketing, and fame, it’s hard not to interpret them through this lens. The world that Rowling/Galbraith describes is a hotbed of jealousy, spitefulness, incompetence, greed, and decades-old grudges, all of which seethe under a thin veneer of respectability.

While it’s interesting that Rowling brings all this publishing world angst to the novel’s backstory, the real question I’m thinking about is, what makes this book better than the hundreds of other mysteries out there? Or more precisely, why did I like this book (and the first one in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling) better than many other mysteries I’ve read? Here are my reasons, in no particular order:

1. Rowling hews to some classic mystery character tropes (an outsider detective and a clever assistant who have some unresolved sexual tension between them) but her skill and experience as a writer elevate them beyond the cliche. Hence Strike and Robin are well-developed, sympathetic characters--Strike is not very good looking or overly macho, and he makes mistakes. Robin is smart and self-motivated, but still learning. She and Strike treat each other like colleagues, despite whatever might be simmering underneath.

2. The crime, while gruesome, is not titillating or exploitative. I’m really tired of mysteries that include sexual violence, and The Silkworm is blessedly free of that.

3. The book is just not as dark as a lot of current mysteries. Strike, despite his difficulties, remains essentially a hopeful man, and if he has a self-destructive streak, he’s working hard to get it under control. While the publishing industry takes some shots, Rowling avoids the tendency of a lot of modern mystery writers to engage in broad (and usually negative) social commentary. The death of Owen Quine is not viewed as a symptom of some larger social ill and we are not called upon to draw any such conclusions. (That said, this is certainly not a "cozy mystery" where all unpleasantness happens off screen and recipes are interspersed through. Not that there's anything wrong with those.)

Almost everyone I know is reading Robert Galbraith’s books. The library waiting list for The Silkworm has over 400 people on it, and a few hundred more are still waiting for The Cuckoo’s Calling. For some reason this fact brings me a lot of pleasure.

(Book 18, 2014)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Abundance by Amit Majmudar

This book held my interest while I was reading it, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked it.

It’s about an Indian family in the U.S. The matriarch is dying. Her relationships with her adult children are tenuous, conflicted. It’s old country vs. new country; she is still rooted in India while her children and grandchildren are firmly American. The conflicts play out in food, in approaches to childrearing, and in expectations of attention. The daughter, Mala, a doctor, is an anorexic control freak. The son Ronak works in finance--his most successful relationship is with his iPhone. No one can meet anyone else’s minimal expectations, let alone make anyone else happy.

For a while the mother and daughter attempt to use cooking as a means to connect to one another, as the mother teachers her daughter the family recipes. But even that doesn't really work. While the mother revels in the creativity of cooking, of using food to express love, to evoke memories, and to create sensory experience, Mala treats the whole activity like a science experiment, reducing each recipe to a series of unconnected ingredients and precise measurements, completely missing the point. And her eating disorder provides further subtext throughout the activity--Mala restricts herself to tiny portions of what they make together (insert interpretation of food=love symbolism here). It was all just sad. Is that what the author intended?

I never know what to say about books that are well written but unpleasant. Or, for that matter, how to recommend them. Do you want to read a book about some miserable people who really don't get one another and can't connect at all? Here you go.   

(Book 17, 2014)


Saturday, September 06, 2014

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

I’ve come to regard books by Jojo Moyes as little treasures, to be indulged in when I need a special treat. When I get a new one I hang on to it for a while before reading it, enjoying the anticipation. (The same is true for J. K. Rowling’s mysteries that she writes under the pen name Robert Galbraith; I'm reading The Silkworm now.) My only problem is that neither writer is cranking out books fast enough to satisfy me. Maybe I could stick them both into a parallel universe where there are more hours in a day, enabling them to produce more books, faster. I’ll have to get right on that.

In One Plus One, Jess is a single mother who is just barely getting by, working as a cleaner and barmaid in a resort community in southern England. She lives in a crappy apartment in public housing, her kids are being bullied at school, and her ex-husband hasn’t sent her a penny in years. In the face of these problems, Jess remains unrelentingly cheerful, buoying everyone along through creative budgeting, hard work, and unflagging optimism.

On the other side of town, where the rich folks have their beach houses, we find software entrepreneur Ed Nicholls, who is hiding out from, well, from everyone. Under investigation for insider trading, Ed is dodging phone calls from his ex-wife, his ex-business partner, his lawyer, and his sister, and sinking further and further into self pity.

Jess cleans Ed’s house, and she waits on him at the bar. She finds him arrogant and rude; he barely registers her existence. But through a series of events too complicated to get into here, Ed ends up driving Jess and her kids to Scotland so that Jess’s daughter Tanzie can compete in a math competition. It’s Jess’s last desperate attempt to get Tanzie, a math whiz, out of the local school and into a safer place where her skills can be nurtured. It’s this road trip (complete with a huge flatulent dog) that takes up the lion’s share of the book, and where of course, Jess and Ed fall in love.

Nothing in this book is as simple as it sounds here though. Moyes can sketch out a character in a few telling lines, and provide unexpected richness and depth to simple situations. She’s really a great writer and this book works on a lot of different levels: as a love story, a modern family drama, and an investigation of entrenched class differences in modern Britain.

The trickiest thing she does is to make Ed sympathetic. He transitions from a clueless self-absorbed whiner into a man who takes responsibility for his poor decisions and moves forward with insight and compassion. My favorite part of the book is where Ed dismisses £50 as “nothing” and Tanzie schools him on all the things that her family can buy with that amount of nothing (the school lunches, bus fare, and other expenses that Jess sweats every day). A lazier novelist would have been content to make Ed the knight in shining armor who rescues Jess from poverty. In this book the person who really gets rescued is Ed.

(Book 16, 2014)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a big sprawling book that reads like classic literature. In fact, maybe someday it will be classic literature. Elizabeth Gilbert has written an old-fashioned historical novel that has more in common with works by Rebecca Stott (Ghostwalk) and Andrea Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwhal) than it does with Gilbert’s most famous work to date, her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

The title refers to German mystic Jakob Bohme’s belief that every object in the natural world contains some hidden meaning, put there by God to help people make sense of the universe. And indeed, this book’s protagonist Alma Whittaker, is searching for meaning. But she’s not waiting to hear it from God; she’s going to try to figure it out for herself. Alma has very little time for God and a lot of time for scientific analysis, specifically botany. And human nature. And world exploration. All of which she engages in over the course of her long life.

Alma is the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia botanist and plant collector Henry Whittaker, who makes his fortune developing a method for manufacturing quinine, and whose story takes up the first quarter of the book. Henry and his Dutch wife have unorthodox ideas about women’s education (the book is set in the late 18th and early-mid 19th centuries) and they train Alma to manage their vast pharmaceutical empire, botanical collections, and gardens.

Considered physically unattractive (tall, big-boned, with unmanageable hair), Alma eschews traditional women’s pursuits and spends her time at her parents’ sides learning both business and science. She devotes years to studying various plants before happily settling on mosses (bryology) and becomes the world’s leading expert in this field. (Note: historians tell us that botany was actually rife with women scientists in the 19th century as it required little more than a notebook, pencil, magnifying glass, and long walks in the woods, all of which were more available to women than, say, a laboratory filled with chemicals or a surgery for dissecting things.)

Tragic events, including a failed love affair and her father’s death, upend Alma and force her to step outside her tiny moss world and embark on her quest for meaning in the universe. This section of the book (especially the long middle section about her voyage to Tahiti) reminded me of those books by Victorian women travel writers like Isabella Bird, who stoically endured shockingly harsh conditions aboard 19th century sailing vessels and lived rough among the natives. Alma’s journey echoes her father’s earlier explorations, but while he was singled-mindedly focused on plants, Alma remains open to discoveries about all aspects of the world and about herself. And it’s while she’s in Tahiti that she hits upon her own theory of the signature of all things, the pursuit of which takes up the final part of the book.

What a great novel! Carefully researched, ranging among a huge variety of historical and scientific topics, and intensely personal, this book is unique and delightful.

(Book 15, 2014)

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Wake by Anna Hope

Wake tells several stories at once, some very personal, and some public. Set in England in the years immediately following World War I, it follows several characters whose worlds intersect, and uses a real-life event as an anchoring device to bring the stories together.

Running throughout Wake is an account of the 1920 state funeral of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in London. Author Anna Hope follows the anonymous soldier’s body from its exhumation from an unmarked grave in France, to its burial alongside kings on November 11, 1920. Hope’s report is well researched and well told. As we know, the British excel at pageantry and they pulled out all the stops for this event, providing the poor unknown soldier with a battleship escort on the journey from France, and a Field Marshall’s funeral, complete with a 19 gun salute.

Intertwined with this narrative are several fictional stories of women who could be the wives, mothers, or sisters of the unknown warrior, and the men who escaped that fate, but whose lives were nevertheless ruined by their experiences in the war. Their tales are dark and brutal and the women, especially, rail against the futility of their losses. The funeral of the unknown warrior was in part designed to help British citizens start to heal; this book shows how impossible that process was for many people, and how little the men in charge understood that. This book is extremely sad, but it's beautifully written and very moving. Don't be put off by the topic--Hope's characters are compelling and I love how she mixed the fiction with the nonfiction.

I’ve read a lot of Second World War fiction, but not as much about the First World War. A lot of World War II fiction focuses on the victims of the war—on those oppressed by the Nazis or on the civilians who were collateral damage. But it seems to me like World War I fiction often focuses more on the soldiers themselves. Wake joins books like My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by Louisa Young, the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, and even the Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd in identifying the soldiers themselves as primary victims. Wake especially continues this approach.

(Book 14, 2014)

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Dog Year by Ann Garvin

I had the pleasure of reviewing this for Isthmus. The article is here. Enjoy!


(Book 13, 2014)