The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature portrays four writers, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith, in crazy post-Gold Rush San Francisco, and how they created a movement quite separate from the literary tradition of the East Coast. The best part of the book for me was the description of the city and its wild boom time madness.
Monthly Archives: June 2014
History of the Rain features a dead twin, a dying teenager, a loser dad, and a strong Irish mum. A soppy sentimental drama? Not at all. Ruth Swain shines as she writes a classic family saga, but with many wonderful twists and told in a pitch-perfect contemporary voice. I was sorry when I got to the last page….
Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist tells the story of the woman chemist who came up with the formulation of the fuel for the first US satellite. Told with stupefying awkwardness by her son, the story is at its best when it sticks to the biographical details. Mary Morgan was born on a farm, was prevented by her cruel father from going to school, and had to make her own, solitary way through a few years of college, interrupted by the war. That made her not only the lone woman on the Rocketdyne technical staff, but also one of the rare staff members without a proper engineering degree — and yet she was one of the best.
If you can get past the unnecessarily breathless style, the irrelevant, invented details, and the back stories of how difficult it was for the author to get information from relatives, the tale of the young pioneer chemist is well worth reading.
Crossing to Safety is the masterful story of a friendship between two academic couples who meet in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Depression and remain friends for decades. There are challenges along the way, some easily surmounted, it turns out, such as a vast difference in economic circumstances. Others are more difficult, especially how friends can witness, suffer from, but not do very much as a couple struggles through relationship issues. The author’s plain style captures the small moments of life perfectly — including the rigid sex roles from decades past, which interestingly create much of the conflict in the story. The willful Charity (what a name!) today would be writing Lean In, not pressuring her poor husband to publish books he has no desire to write…
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur is the dreadful diary of a perfume creator, written with a mix of arrogance, vanity, and, perhaps surprisingly for someone so successful, shame at not having a formal education or degree.
This is not to say that there are not interesting tidbits in the morass. Every now and then, the author sees fit to leave his name dropping to describe his craft (he would probably say art, but I found the crafty aspects most interesting) of creating perfumes and discusses the ingredients he uses, his methods to systematically explore various aspects of a theme for a perfume, and how he finds inspiration. I cannot recommend suffering through the book for those crumbs, however…
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is written by an Israeli journalist who sees his country as besieged and besieger, with both aspects rooted in history and leading to his inexorable conclusion that the two-state solution often touted as the only one is just dead wrong. Instead, a single state with equal protection for both Jews and Palestinians is required. The author mixes history and personal stories to great effect to make his point. Highly recommended.
The last name of the author of The Exiles Return may sound familiar, and indeed she is the grandmother of Edmund de Waal, of The Hare with Amber Eyes fame, a memoir of his family, which I highly recommend — and she is not, to my knowledge, related to Frans de Waal, the primatologist. The novel, unpublished until now, has an authentic autobiographical feel and tells the story of Jewish exiles returning to Vienna after WWII. There is a chemistry professor, who finds himself in a lab headed by a not-so-reformed Nazi, and a teenage aristocrat sent by her parents to live out her angst in the motherland. I much preferred the story of the chemist, with its insidious whiff of antisemitism. The teenager’s story feels dated, with the young girl caught in tedious, almost caricatural romantic entanglements — but here again the weight of the conventions of that era are perfectly rendered, and perhaps it’s only the wish for wider possibilities that makes the story less appealing to a modern reader.
That Part Was True is the story of an epistolary friendship between an American mystery writer and a British woman recovering from a very bad mother and anxiety attack, surprisingly centered around cooking. Wait, don’t give up yet! The letters flow very well, even the emails, and don’t have an iota of phoniness, and although it’s best to care about food, a bit, to read the book, this is not a foodie-only story. If anything does not feel quite right in the novel, it’s the way that the men talk, and talk, about their feelings and emotions. Granted the hero is a writer but still, it’s a bit much. His tangled involvements with unsuitable women are much more believable (and fun to read about!)
The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind is an encyclopedic compendium of the state of research into the mind today. It’s written by a theoretical physicist, which may explain both the comparison of the brain neurons to stars and the recurring references to science fiction movies — none of which I’ve seen, so that approach did not resonate so well with me. Actually, my main beef with this book is totally undeserved: because I am interested in the topic of brain research I have become somewhat allergic to yet another opening starring poor Phineas Gage, whose brain was impaled with an iron rod and whose personality changed as a result. As an introduction to brain research, it’s perfectly adequate.
Diary of a Mad Old Man recounts the narrow existence of a sick, aging man, who carefully records the details of his medical regimen, lusts after his daughter-in-law, who happily complies to extract all kinds of privileges from him, and generally hates everyone else in the family. While the story is artfully dribbled out and the duel for power between the writer and his daughter in law is perfectly matched, I just could not care much for the vain self-centered central character — nor for the scheming daughter in law, even less for the weaklings around them that allow them to manipulate everyone else…