Blogging for a Good Book
In one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.
The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.
The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship. From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.
Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.
But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems. Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.
In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.
Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.
Unreliable narrator? Check. Quirky characters? Check. Fish-out-of-water? Check. Funny scenes? Check. The Rosie Project manages to push all these buttons, plus add a semi-sweet love story, a bit of a mystery and some academic humor. No wonder it’s been a surprise international hit for debut author Graeme Simsion.
Don Tillman is a genius geneticist, the kind who makes other genius geneticists (and geniuses of all other specialties) look like…well, like me. Part of his success is an ability to focus on the work at hand; part of it is an eidetic memory; part is a determination to win at anything he turns a hand to. But those qualities also add up to an inflexible loner, probably with Asperger’s Syndrome and no idea why he never has a second date.
Stymied by women who smoke, who are never on time, who eat apricot ice cream, are adamant vegetarians, or show any conflicting values, Don decides he’s going to weed out those who are demonstrably unsuited for him. His method? A 16-page questionnaire covering every conceivable idiosyncrasy that might affect his ability to be around that person.
One of Don’s test subjects is Rosie Jarman, a barmaid, smoker, chronically late, pretty and opinionated young woman. Obviously not a match for Don on any count. However, she presents him with a puzzle he cannot resist—the opportunity to collect DNA from a limited but scattered population to find her natural father. The technical part is easy, but he’s intrigued by the difficulty of finding the subjects. Thus begins the Rosie Project.
Simsion perfectly captures the interior voice of a man with Asperger’s, and in multiple comedic scenes demonstrates why Don doesn’t get along with those who are conditioned to follow social conventions (as he sees it), or those who have learned to interpret the myriad of clues that lubricate social interaction (as everyone else sees it). The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster, the Jacket Man Incident, the Pig Trotter’s Disaster, the Flounder Incident, the Bianca Disaster, the Aspie Lecture—all point to Don’s seeming inability to function in public. But gradually, and in small ways, Don learns to look for and interpret, and finally to empathize with, distasteful human emotions.
If this sounds like a formula Hollywood script, it’s because it started as one (a script, that is), but Simsion realized that dialogue alone wasn’t enough to portray Don without making him an object of ridicule. The result of his move to the novel form is a romantic comedy with depth and original characters, and an unsympathetic narrator we quickly come to cheer for. It comes across initially as a light read, but I think readers will remember Don Tillman for quite a while.
Check the WRL catalog for The Rosie Project.
A team of researchers finds something unusual frozen in the ice of an enormous Arctic berg. When they reanimate it, it wreaks havoc on the researchers and breaks loose into the larger world where its existence threatens all of humanity. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, right? In The Curiosity, Stephen P. Kiernan takes that trope and turns it into a love story, a commentary on modern science, religion, and culture, and wistful insight into days long gone.
Although this discovery was an accident, the search that led to it was not. A private research facility run by the imperious Erastus Carthage sent a ship to search for “hard ice,” which forms so quickly that specimens’ cells don’t have time to freeze. Carthage’s theory is that such flash-frozen animals might be revived with a protocol he’s developed and is working to prove. Who knows what he expects as a payoff, except a Nobel Prize and scientific immortality? Having succeeded with krill, he hopes to extend the lifetime and complexity of the subjects he reanimates.
Then a research team led by Dr. Kate Philo finds an infinitely more complex creature and the stakes of reanimation skyrocket. With painstaking effort under dangerous conditions, Kate cuts the ice surrounding the specimen away and discovers a human body, cells intact, a perfect candidate for reanimation. When the “Lazarus Project” is announced, Carthage and his arrogant team of physicians provoke the critics, especially the religious activists, ensuring ongoing attention from around the world. Relegated to the sidelines, Kate and much of her team become a liability for the project but fight to retain some role. Thus it is that Kate is on hand when Judge Jeremiah Rice regains consciousness and moves from his 1906 drowning to a 21st-century laboratory and an expedition into unimaginable territory.
The judge is still a young man, but dignified and erudite in a way that her peers lack, and Kate becomes fascinated with him. She also recognizes that Carthage is keeping Jeremiah a virtual prisoner, and begins sneaking him out of the lab to see the changes time has wrought. As he recovers strength, their expeditions become longer and more elaborate, their conversations more intimate, and their reliance upon one another more profound.
In the meantime, the world wants to know about Judge Rice and claim kinship with him. He becomes a celebrity, with attendant privileges and loss of dignity he cannot comprehend. The nature of scientific and cultural progress becomes debatable among the team members who show him both the dark and light sides of that progress. And aspects of that progress overshadow the Judge and Kate, as we learn in the opening chapters.
Kiernan brings us the evolving story through the voices of four narrators—Kate, Jeremiah, Carthage, and the odious Daniel Dixon, a second-rate science writer given exclusive access to the project. As the book moves to its inevitable conclusion, each character and his or her changes are illuminated through their voices and through the observations of the others. The cast of supporting characters—especially a computer genius/stoner/Deadhead, a cell biologist, and Carthage’s flunky—flesh out the background.
Kiernan does not use Rice’s voice to condemn modern society or praise the past. His role as a judge gives him the poise to deal with contentious issues and people (of which there are many in this more relaxed time), but he also connects easily with those who crowd around him and finds ready allies wherever he goes. His entries are poignant with both the grief he feels for the world and people he left behind, the naive way he approaches the modern world, and his growing feelings for Kate. (Interestingly, I don’t believe Kiernan ever has him quote Miranda from The Tempest!)
Check the WRL catalog for The Curiosity.
Barry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.
Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.
Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.
The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.
Check the WRL catalog for Watch With Me.
Connie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library. She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities. Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché. Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression. She mixes humor and drama well.
That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace. Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.
The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible. Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers. So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator. Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread. As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.
The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines. I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety. The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.
Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book
I’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of contemporary story about high school and college sports. It involves programs where wealthy donors court spoiled players and break school and NCAA rules with impunity, where a jaded professional attitude infects even young players and every resource is put into creating stars. There are good and bad examples of this story, but it’s getting a bit familiar. In the end, I feel a little jaded after reading about another collection of athletes with disproportionately high opinions of themselves.
Muck City isn’t like those stories. It’s about Glades Central High School and a few other neighboring schools around Belle Glade, Florida, a place that is legendary for the athletes it produces on a regular basis (28 NFL players to date), but where there is no money to pour into the team. Belle Glade is a broken sugar town, a place where poverty, drugs, AIDS, violence, broken families, and unemployment are the rule, not the exception. Almost none of the players on the team have two-parent families. While Glades Central often wins or compete for state championships, its players are often in ragtag uniforms, drinking pickle juice on the sideline where other teams drink Gatorade, still playing both ways because the team can’t afford to travel a big squad.
Yes, the recruiters are after the Belle Glade kids, but Mealer’s book shows a squad driven as much by desperation as by fame. Football will be the only way out for most of these kids. Everyone in the community seems to have an opinion about how the team should be run, not just because they are sports-obsessed, but because the team is one of the few bright spots in a bleak place.
Mealer was given good access to the team and he uses it to good advantage, but focuses on half a dozen main characters. Quarterback Mario Rowley is a minor talent hiding major injuries, but through sheer force of will he competes for a college scholarship and to ease the memory of his dead parents. Jonteria Williams is a cheerleader trying to do something nobody at Glades Central does, make a better future through academics instead of football. Other players rise to the occasion, surprising their coaches and themselves, while at least one major talent falls prey to too much attention and not enough work ethic. Coach Jessie Hester, a former NFL player with his own demons, is trying to keep the team together while fending off a thousand second guesses and pressure to win at all cost.
And while other sports stories can turn into repetitive accounts of one game after another, leading inexorably to the big game that you know from the start the team will win, Mealer’s book is more about life, about what sports can solve and what they cannot solve. About the many tragedies that can befall those who live in the world’s forgotten places and the hard-won triumphs that occasionally can be scratched out. Yes, there are plenty of game accounts, but the real game here is life. That’s what makes Muck City a book not just for football fans, but for anyone who cares about the human drama.
Check the WRL catalog for Muck City
If you like writers as diverse as Joseph Heller, Neal Stephenson, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, or Charles Dickens, you’ll want to run to the novels of John le Carre’s son, Nick Harkaway. I can get away with that much name dropping in one sentence because Harkaway is that good.
His first novel, The Gone-Away World, takes place in a near future after some kind of event has left only a narrow band of land habitable, protected by the mysterious chemicals from a pipeline. In Harkaway’s tour de force first chapter, we discover that this pipeline has been breached and the refinery that fills it is aflame. A misfit crew of mercenaries, including the unnamed narrator and his lifelong friend Gonzo Lubitsch, is asked by a powerful bureaucrat to fix the problem.
After that, the story alternates between exploring the narrator’s adventures in the present and the past. Slowly, we discover the twisty story of how the world came to an end, how the narrator was rendered unreal, and how he attempts to recover his life. This plot is impossible to condense, but the astonishing thing is that although this story is halfway in fantasy, halfway in reality, half serious and half parody, and loaded with characters like pirates, ninjas, and mimes, in the end it all makes a perfectly bizarre kind of sense. There are plot twists you won’t see coming in a million years, enough eccentrics to populate a small country, and enough madcap but spot-on social observations to make every page an adventure.
This is a dense read. Expect a challenge. But whether you enjoy science fiction, literary fiction, or humor, I think you’ll find it truly rewarding, a book that’s worth the effort for vivid style, biting social commentary, audacious metaphors, and imaginative world building. Don’t expect a standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, expect a weird, bumpy ride through a surreal landscape. Strap in and enjoy!
Check the WRL catalog for The Gone-Away World
James Garfield is an American president most don’t know more about than that he fell victim to an assassin. That’s a shame, because unlike so many of our presidents, whose lives stand up poorly to scrutiny, Garfield was a truly admirable man. If you read Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic: a Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, you’re guaranteed to finish with a much better knowledge of a great American and the times in which he lived.
The book begins at the Republican convention of 1880, and reading about it will make readers understand how completely the political process has changed. Garfield is there to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohio Senator John Sherman, the major competitor to the machine-backed Ulysses Grant. His speech is so good, that when the convention is deadlocked between the other two candidates, the little known Garfield sneaks onto a few ballots as a compromise choice. With each ballot, his support grows, until despite Garfield’s stunned objection, he finds himself the Republican nominee for President. Back then it was considered distasteful to stump for oneself much, so Garfield returned to his Ohio farm for the duration of the election, where he indulged his love of books, learning, farming, and family while others campaigned on his behalf.
Soon Garfield was President, but not without enemies. The powerful Roscoe Conkling, whose candidate Grant had been beaten by Garfield wanted someone his political machine could control. He even managed to get his stooge, Chester Arthur, a man with no real qualifications, on the ballot as Garfield’s VP. More dangerous to Garfield was the deranged Charles Guiteau, a failed commune dweller, lawyer, street preacher and writer, who was convinced that his support of Garfield during the election entitled him to an important appointment. When that wasn’t forthcoming, Guiteau started hearing voices that told him to shoot Garfield, and even imagined that he would be made a hero after he did it.
The book isn’t just about Garfield. It’s just as much about the medical practices of the time, and the lack of support for antiseptic techniques that killed Garfield more slowly and surely than Guiteau’s bullet. It’s about Alexander Graham Bell and his feverish attempt to create an invention that would locate the bullet in Garfield’s body exactly. It’s about the now hard-to-fathom practices that allowed a US President to travel without accompaniment or much attention in public. The pages are full of fascinating minor characters and detail that brings this little known period of history to vivid life.
Pair this with Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, another look at the unknown details of presidential assassination or Millard’s other great work of popular history, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.
Check the WRL catalog for Destiny of the Republic
I’m the kind of hardcore theater devotee that reads the scripts of plays as pleasure reading. Sure, I’d rather see a good production, but given the economics of modern theater, if you don’t live in a large city where there is enough demand that theater companies can draw an audience with some new or lesser-known plays, you most likely won’t get to see many of these shows on stage.
Besides, plays make for good reading. The time limits of the stage mean that a play is a quick read, something one can squeeze into a day if need be. I enjoy playing the game of imagining which of my favorite actors would be good in the roles as I read them. Even more fun, reading a play is an invitation to project yourself into the role of actor, even if you’d never go near a stage in real life. Plays are full of cracking good dialogue, meaty conflict, and even the heavy dramas often contain real belly laughs.
So it is with Seminar, a play headlined first by Alan Rickman then by Jeff Goldblum a couple of years ago on Broadway. Four aspiring young writers have pooled their money to schedule a private seminar from a literary icon, an event held at one of their homes. In her preface, playwright Theresa Rebeck notes that part of her pleasure in writing this play was to create a chance for an older actor take some younger actors to school. The writer Leonard is sour, used up, and manipulative, but one can’t help but stifle a nasty laugh at the way he finds the vanities and insecurities of the pretentious students and dissects them after reading a few sentences of their writing. He doesn’t have their best interests in mind and uses them in every way imaginable, but in the end, each learns something valuable from the contact.
If you’ve ever shaken your head at some of the blowhards that seem to populate the world of modern literary fiction, I think you’ll enjoy the way that Leonard puts a pin in the pomp of these four young writers while facing his own demons. Give this Seminar a look.
Check the WRL catalog for Seminar
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect from a book about a deadly disease, but it is also a majestically hopeful story because of its descriptions of the great strides in treatment. Practicing oncologist and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, covers the vast sweeping history of cancer and its treatment, while focusing on a huge range of real people who played a role in cancer’s study, research and burgeoning cures. He always comes back to real individuals with cancer whom he has treated or studied and how their own struggles with their own disease are impacted by improvements in treatment. This is definitely a book about a disease but Siddhartha Mukherjee comes across as a deeply humane man writing a deeply humane book.
The earliest mention of cancer that the book talks about is a quote from scroll written by the Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep over 4000 thousand years ago. The scroll gives a perfect description of breast cancer, but unfortunately for breast cancer sufferers from that time up until recently Imhotep concluded that there was nothing that could be done to help. Two centuries ago the standard treatment became a mastectomy without an anesthetic which is horrible to even contemplate. Today a range of options including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation mean a much higher survival rate.
Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that cancer is actually more than one disease and survival rates for some forms of the disease have improved rapidly, while others haven’t changed much. One joyful and astonishing story is the treatment of some common forms of childhood leukemia which went from a 5-year survival rate of less than 10% in the 1960s to a 5-year survival rate of over 90% today.
The Emperor of All Maladies is very readable and extremely compelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non fiction in 2011. Unless you are an oncologist be prepared to learn a lot from this 500-page epic of human ingenuity in overcoming a horrible disease that has caused untold suffering. I learned some astonishing facts, for instance that a chemical similar to mustard gas, the World War I trench horror, is used in chemotherapy.
As you’d expect from a reliable scientific book, The Emperor of All Maladies includes extensive notes with references, a glossary and an index. It also has some black and white photographs and drawings of notable people, events and procedures in the fight against cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a good choice if you like Oliver Sacks for his deep compassion for the people he treats and his profound knowledge of his area of expertise.
Check the WRL catalog for The Emperor of All Maladies.
Talmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.
A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist entraps the reader into its world. First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest). But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can.
Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks .
I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.
Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.
Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.
The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne
This sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.
At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.
Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.
Don’t assume this is a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”
Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.
On the arresting cover of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil we see one chubby baby’s arm labelled “Good” and the other labelled “Evil”. Like many people, I instinctively feel that babies as young as those pictured can’t be described as “good” or “evil,” no matter how annoying their habits, because their moral sense isn’t developed. I certainly feel older people can have these labels, so is the moral sense of older children and adults learned (Nurture) or innate (Nature)? This debate may never be completely settled but developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom argues that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us.”
Paul Bloom is a working scientist and has performed numerous experiments and published several scientific papers designed to tease out the moral behavior of those who can not yet talk. He broadly concludes that babies of around six months feel empathy and compassion, have a sense of fairness, and are capable of judging the actions of others. He is not doing this as a parlor trick (see, I can upset a baby by pretending to be hurt) but because ”an appreciation of the moral natures of babies can ground a new perspective on the moral psychology of adults.” He adds that “moral deliberation is ubiquitous” and all societies create a formal and informal moral code. Many observers over millennia have noted that “people everywhere have a natural disapproval toward actions such as lying, breaking a promise, and murder.” He then argues that the circumstances under which the great human capacity for kindness can turn into a terrible human capacity for horror occur when people assign other people to categories, and then decide that some categories are deserving of compassion and some are not. As travel, migration and communication have developed, many people are learning compassion for an ever widening circle, and Bloom asserts that this is a wonderful thing.
Paul Bloom concludes his book with a chapter called “How to be Good,” in case you were wondering how to achieve this. Babies have a strong desire to “be good” and see others around them being good, but so do adults although we usually express it a more sophisticated way. He points out that many real life moral challenges have no clear cut right answer, but if we are aware that some of our moral reasoning is innate, but that most importantly, we can use our reason and judgement as well to expand and reveal our full humanity because ”our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”
Try Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil if you are interested in the intersection of science, social science, and everyday behavior, such as in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by the popular Malcolm Gladwell. It is also a good choice if you are fascinated with questions of justice, retribution and meaning in books like Man’s Search for Meaning. Or just read it for a well-written, very readable book written by a real scientist explaining his own life work.
Check the WRL catalog for Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
These are the first lines of Roald Dahl’s retelling of Cinderella, but it applies to all his Revolting Rhymes. They are all familiar stories with characters such as Jack climbing his beanstalk or Goldilocks breaking into the bears’ house, but as readers of Roald Dahl’s acclaimed children’s books know – he never sugar coats the nastier aspects of life.
With wonderful rollicking rhythm and Roald Dahl’s hallmark mastery over words, Revolting Rhymes is full of quotable tit-bits. My family has been quoting them for over twenty years. I am not sure what it says about us that one of our most quoted lines is, “She beat the boy for half an hour, with (and nothing could be meaner) the handle of a vacuum cleaner” from Jack and the Beanstalk.
All the old favorites are here including Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs and Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. In these retellings the hero isn’t always who we assumed it was. Goldilocks is described as a “brazen little crook” because after all she does break into a stranger’s house, steal their food and break their furniture. The morals of these stories might not be what you expect either. Which one of these well-known tales do you suppose has the moral of “A bath he said does seem to pay. I’m going to have one every day” or “Which shows that gambling’s not a sin. Provided that you always win”?
These are great read-aloud poems for all ages. I read them with great enjoyment (on both sides) to my children for years. Before I had children I read them to the residents of a continuing care home where I worked. Even those who were confused seemed to enjoy the readings. They are familiar stories and these versions are fast, punchy and funny. Try Revolting Rhymes for something light and humorous to be shared among the generations these cold winter days.
Check the WRL catalog for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes
At the opening of this postapocalyptic novel, Sheriff Holston is walking up a spiral staircase to his death. For generations, his community has lived and died on the 144 levels of an underground silo, and Holston has just committed a capital crime—asking to go outside. Technically, it’s a suicide. Everyone knows the outside world is a toxic wasteland. Three years ago, on the big-screen monitors that show the surrounding desolation, Holston watched his wife die out there, and now he’s going to join her. Just like all the others who have been pushed out the airlock, he’s given a protective suit. It lasts just long enough for the condemned to do some silo cleaning and maintenance—for one thing, scrubbing the grimy outdoor camera lenses so that folks inside have a nice, unblurred view of your death. Now, why the condemned should care what’s shown on the big screens…that’s what Holston is about to find out.
My brother, who hasn’t read a book in dead-tree format since the invention of the smartphone, insisted that I read Wool, and read it immediately, sending it from his app to my app with a tap and a swipe. In a nutshell, that’s the success story of Wool. At the time author Howey first self-published the story direct to Kindle, Holston’s atmospheric, claustrophobic story was all there was to the Silo universe. But as word-of-mouth reviews drew more and more readers, Howey began to elaborate.
In later, serial-style installments, the search for a new sheriff takes the silo’s mayor and deputy down through the floors of the silo, through hydroponics and the nursery and IT to the mechanical levels. As they descend, readers learn more about how this society works, and doesn’t work, stratified both literally and by an inflexible class structure. With the appointment of a hardworking mechanic, Juliette, as the new sheriff, a longer story arc begins. An outsider from the bottom levels, Juliette shakes up the power struggles of the upper floors. She’s a character that readers rally behind, as she learns more about the factions governing the silo, especially on the IT level, which controls what’s left of the silo’s forgotten history on its closely-guarded servers.
The original, novella-length Kindle releases have been collected in omnibus print editions, starting with Wool and continuing with Shift and Dust. It’s a little bit old-school Twilight Zone, a little bit Shirley Jackson, a little bit Lost, without quite so many characters. With a compelling storyline and characters who you can root for, Wool should appeal to teens as well, and it fits right in with the current YA mania for dystopias. Plus you can get in on the ground floor—see what I did there?—before the inevitable movie.
Check the WRL catalog for Wool.
Humorist Allie Brosh has been blogging at Hyperbole and a Half since 2009. Her posts, a combination of written anecdote and quirky illustrations drawn in Paintbrush, chronicle the sort of everyday topics that only work in the hands of a really good storyteller: hijinks from when she was a hyperactive five-year-old, weird dogs, that time a goose got into the house. Brosh, of course, is a really good storyteller, and this book, which collects some of her classic posts along with new material, is a great opportunity to curl up in a chair and just giggle. And giggle some more. And snort in an unladylike manner.
Brosh has said that she thinks of her pieces as stand-up comedy, with the illustrations as punch lines. Her drawings may look like a preschooler’s, but they communicate a lot of raw emotion, whether she’s talking about being a procrastinating twenty-something stuck in a guilt spiral or a kid on a monomaniacal quest for forbidden cake.
My favorites are the stories about her pets, Simple Dog and Helper Dog. Whether they are not understanding basic concepts, like moving, or snow, or “sit,” or whether they’re having an epic running-away adventure, I recognize the thought balloons that float over their heads. I can picture them floating over the head of my own Helper Dog.
Hyperbole and a Half isn’t all madcap humor, neurotic animals, and kindergarteners on a sugar high, though. Brosh’s blog went dark for a year and a half, during which she was both constructing this book and dealing with major depression (and my hat goes off to anyone who can do both of those things at the same time). The most painful pieces in the book—and yet still, somehow, funny—talk about what it feels like to feel nothing at all.
Check it out if you need to explain depression to someone, but with cartoons; if you worry that your dog is too stupid; or if you just need a good laugh.
Check the WRL catalog for Hyperbole and a Half.
Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a criminal past. Following a train ride home, she finds herself alone on the platform with a distraught woman who sets her purse down before taking off a pair of stylish high heels. The woman turns and stares at Sarah, who is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the stranger. The woman then walks off the edge of the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the stranger’s suicide, Sarah makes a split-second decision that puts her in the center of a mystery. With emergency personnel focused on the stranger, Sarah sees an opportunity for a quick score, and she walks away with the woman’s purse. Sarah learns her doppelgänger’s name is Elizabeth (Beth) Childs. Beth shares an expensive house with her boyfriend. She also has a large sum of money in the bank. Sarah decides to use her resemblance to Beth to her advantage and assume Beth’s identity. Once she has emptied Beth’s bank account, she’ll use the money to start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and foster brother, Felix.
Sarah believes she will be able to pull off the scam and quietly slip out of town; however, Beth’s life is far more complicated than she originally thought. First, there are calls from a man named Art and texts from an unknown number. There is also the matter of a safety deposit box containing copies of the birth certificates and photographs of other women who bear a striking resemblance to both Sarah and Beth. As additional secrets from Beth’s life surface, Sarah learns that the women—Beth, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, and Katja Obinger (also Tatiana Maslany)—are all clones and she is a clone as well. This discovery is the gateway to a mystery involving a scientific movement called Neolution, led by the charismatic Dr. Aldous Leekie. Will the women unlock the secret of their connection to this group before they become the next victims of a killer who’s on a mission to eliminate the clones?
Orphan Black is a thoughtful and complex show that deftly balances questions of personal freedom and what it means to be an individual with a delightful streak of dark humor. The acting is first-rate. Tatiana Maslany succeeds at giving each clone her own distinct personality and unique set of characteristics. My favorite clone is Alison Hendrix, a conservative wife and mother whose sense of self is completely upended by the discovery she is a clone. The fine supporting cast includes Kevin Hanchard as Beth’s partner Detective Art Bell; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S; Dylan Bruce as Beth’s boyfriend Paul Dierden; and Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother Felix Dawkins. In a clever bit of casting, Dr. Aldous Leekie is played by Matt Frewer, who became famous in the mid-‘80s playing a character named Max Headroom.
Fast-paced and well-plotted, Orphan Black quickly builds momentum and maintains it throughout the season. Now is a good time to catch up with the show—or discover it—before the second season starts in April.
Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Black.
This was a lovely book to spend an afternoon reading. I was sorry to leave the small English town where Cleo and her friends live. Nicely woven plot lines kept the story amusing and moving between the main characters.
Cleo is pretty happy with her lot in life. She has an interesting job as a chauffeur and has recently started seeing Will, who is showing potential of being “The One” for her. He has a good job, is good looking, and best of all, came to a funeral so she could show up the boy who tormented her all through school. You’d think after 13 years the resentment would fade, but Johnny LaVentura just pushes all her buttons the wrong way. It doesn’t help that Johnny is now a famous sculptor and dates super-models.
Unfortunately, Will turns out to be much less than she had hoped. His wife, Fia, didn’t think he was all that great either—after finding out about the affair! Despite the odds, Cleo and Fia become friends. And it turns out that Johnny isn’t so bad either…
Then there’s Cleo’s sister, Abbie. Her world is turned upside down when she finds out that her husband fathered a child many years ago. Georgia is now a young woman wanting to develop a relationship with her dad—and Abbie feels like a third wheel in her own home.
The conflicts are nicely resolved by the end of the book. And there’s plenty of happily ever after to put a smile on your face!
Check the WRL catalog for Take a Chance on Me.
The 1930s crime fiction of Friedrich Glauser seems to me to be the dark bedrock from which the immensely popular body of Scandinavian crime fiction springs. In four years, Glauser, a depressive, morphine-addicted writer, who was once committed to an insane asylum, and who died at the age of forty two, published five detective novels featuring the Swiss Sergeant Studer.
Now being published for the first time in English by Bitter Lemon Press, Glauser’s novels will appeal to a wide range of crime fiction readers. Glauser is often referred to as the “Swiss Simenon,” and like Simenon, his novels focus more on the psychology of both the detective and the criminal than on fast-paced action. There is a lot of talking here, and the Austrian-born Swiss Glauser seems to share an interest in psychology with his compatriots, Freud and Jung. It is through conversation that Sgt. Studer most frequently comes to the solution of the crime. Glauser’s novels explore the dark side of human nature as it is played out in families, schools, and in one case, an asylum.
Glauser also shares with Simenon an interest in food, and there is a lot of eating and drinking going on in these stories. Sgt. Studer is a fascinating character. Once a promising detective, Studer was somehow compromised in a bank investigation, and his career was derailed. He now finds himself a pariah to most of his colleagues and supervisors, and he is the man who is sent out on hopeless cases. While Studer is not always quick to see connections, his relentlessness and his commitment to the truth eventually lead him to the solution.
Fans of Simenon should find these novels interesting, but they will also appeal to readers who enjoy more contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction. Thumbprint is a good starting point for exploring this forgotten master of police fiction.
Check the WRL catalog for Thumbprint.
Those six words were all it took to bump this science fiction debut to the top of my list. Also, although I try not to read detailed reviews of books until I’ve finished them myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the reviews I wasn’t reading had lots of ALL CAPS and exclamation marks.
So, One Esk—sometimes she calls herself Breq—used to be a ship. The narrator of this twisty space opera is an ancillary: one body, one segment, of a twenty-bodied corps of soldiers that share a single consciousness, tied into the artificial intelligence of an orbiting warship. Her life as a troop carrier, the Justice of Toren, unfolds in flashbacks to the military government of the latest planet annexed by the Radchaii empire and the events that provoke One Esk’s present-day mission of single-minded, and single-bodied, revenge. Who is she now, without her ship or a captain or the other 19 ancillaries, and what is she up to on a frozen backwater planet, following her own agenda?
The narrator’s unusual point of view(s), sometimes individual, sometimes corporate, is (are) the first cool thing about this book. Like a janissary, One Esk serves now in the military of the empire that conquered her people. Her body(ies) are human, but her awareness is not; she judges human emotions by temperature and heartbeat fluctuations and has a lot of trouble figuring out gender. The second cool thing about this book is trying to figure out who is actually male or female and who is referred to as “she” just because One Esk doesn’t feel like dealing with pronouns.
For all her dispassionate narration and history of shooting people, One Esk is a thoughtful and sympathetic character. Deliberately paced and well worth the attention you have to pay, her story reminded me strongly of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Leckie creates a fascinating universe, layered with convincing details of different cultures, classes, and religions, and leaving plenty of big ideas to play with in the next books of what is planned to be a loose trilogy.
Check the WRL catalog for Ancillary Justice.
You can read the first chapter online at Orbit Books.