Monthly Archives: February 2017

** The Invention of Science by David Wooton

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution is a massive tome written by a historian who believes, convincingly, that the scientific revolution was the defining event in history. It is not an easy book to read: if you expect fast-moving stories of hero scientists, go elsewhere. Indeed, the author goes on for dozens of pages on whether the word revolution is indeed appropriate for the events of the 16th through the 18th century, a discussion that is probably interesting for specialists, but not so much for the general public.

That said, the book does a great job of demonstrating how changing the way we looked at the world changed the way we thought about knowledge itself, from something we know to something we are forever seeking. I would quibble with some of the author’s interpretation of how differences between English and French shaped the scientific discourse but his knowledge is encyclopedic.

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*** His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project describes itself as a historical thriller, but one that is entirely made up — a good thing, since the author wisely avoids exposing dry trial transcripts and instead devotes most of the book to a supposed autobiography of the killer, a teenager who likely could not have written the text. The autobiography is interspersed with testimony from his neighbors, his lawyer, and a criminal psychologist who views the accused as a member of an inferior race and treats him accordingly as subhuman. Along the way we discover the tough life of sharecroppers in Scotland in the late 19th century (no wonder so many Scots emigrated to find better lives elsewhere) and the suffocating nature of village living. We will never know exactly what happened, and that’s a good thing.

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*** Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth is the story of a complicated family that makes it way into a novel and eventually a movie, creating uncomfortable moments for the various family members who feel variously betrayed, forced to revisit awkward moments of the past, and exposed in ways they had never imagined they would be. The book within a book idea is clever, but the strength of the story is the imaginative, deeply felt family saga with complicated characters and relationships.

If you were disappointed by State of Wonder, as I was, give this one a try: it’s a keeper.

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* The Evolution of the West by Nick Spencer

It seems pretty obvious that Christianity has left a deep mark in Western societies, so it’s not exactly clear why we would need a book to discuss this, but the author argues, rather strenuously, against atheists’ claims to the contrary . In any case, I did not really understand The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values. It is certainly written by someone with impressive knowledge of history but I could not grasp its arc.

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** Urban Forests by Jill Jonnes

If you find yourself creating a running commentary in your head on how trees would improve the streets you walk on, read Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape, which tells a series of stories about tree planting campaigns and efforts to find various blights and epidemics amongst street trees. If not, the weaknesses of the book may be too much for you. Each chapter seems to have been written in isolation, so facts are repeated across chapters with no effort to cross-reference them, and the succession of diseases makes for a gloomy feeling overall. Still, there are some inspiring stories of individuals who brought about major changes, from the woman who waged a decades-long battle to bring the now iconic Japanese cherry trees to Washington, D.C. to the California college student who convinced the forestry department to deliver 8000 seedlings to his dorm rather than chuck them. It may make you want to launch your own urban forestation campaign.

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** Difficult Women by Roxanne Gay

Prepare to be sad. The stories in Difficult Women range from melancholic to dismal to truly horrifying, with women who let themselves be exploited, who are attacked and raped, whose children die, whose partners treat them atrociously. Perhaps reading in small doses would make it less onerous?

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** Strangers In Their Own Lands by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right starts with a wonderful mission: to listen to conservative voters in the Louisiana bayou and understand how their lives and circumstances brought them to support the Tea Party and Donald Trump. It’s a noble cause, embraced somewhat naively as the author starts with a conviction that people who have suffered many disastrous pollution events should naturally lean left — but of course there are more reasons to choose sides than the environment, and in any case regulations and government interventions post-disasters have left locals bitter about slow and ineffective solutions.

That said, it is very interesting to see how deep-seated emotions such as the disgust at people taking advantage of government benefits (sometimes, interestingly, themselves!) and the deep-seated beliefs that oppressed people should rise up and resist rather than leave their countries can be stirred and exploited by political parties and candidates into cries for lower taxes and fewer refugees.

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*** Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

You may have many reasons not to read Gone With The Wind: (1) it’s too long (2) it is more history than plot (3) it’s racist (4) I already saw the movie. Let’s discuss.

(1) Wouldn’t you rather have 1000 (almost 1100!) pages of fun than just 250 pages of fun?

(2) There is a lot of history in this book! I’m no historian but if someone qualified could check that the facts are correct, it would be a great idea to assign it to American History classes. Much more enjoyable than a dry textbook, and a masterful demonstration of the impact of wars on the civilian population, not to mention the after-war, aka Reconstruction period. And of course lessons can be drawn for more modern conflicts, especially the need to allow the losing side to keep some dignity.

(3) Even the saintly Melanie Wilkes never thinks for one moment that slavery may be a problematic institution, and the way African-Americans are addressed, treated, and talked about is often appalling. The book is plenty sexist as well, with what we would now call spouse abuse pretty much tolerated and viewed as normal. Perhaps we can view both racism and sexism as expressions of a time and place rather than a prescription for us today.

(4) Gone With The Wind was the first movie I saw unchaperoned, with my favorite cousin, so I remember it very well, including our great surprise to discover that movies could have intermissions. But the book! It pulled me along, page after page, even though I knew very well Scarlett’s fate (or I thought I knew: I did not remember what happened after that intermission very well at all). It pulled me into another world in which I heard the canons of the Union, I saw the gaudiness of Scarlett’s Atlanta mansion, and I felt the contempt of the old guard for her. It’s much more than a few movies lines. It is an intricate story with characters that are not just complex, but also evolve over time. And it’s an excellent portrait of women and how they adapt to circumscribed roles.

In brief: pick it up and start reading. (Thank you Lyn for suggesting this book to me.)

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* Same Family, Different Colors by Lori Tharps

Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families is a brave book for daring to tackle the topic of color bias within families. Sadly, the book does not rise above a series of anecdotes and casual chats, which certainly give interesting insights on how family members treat those with different skin tones in a society that is hyper-conscious of color — but it’s very difficult to see any kind of strong pattern without a more detailed analysis.

The author quotes Far From The Tree multiple times, a book that focused on raising children very different from oneself. I would suggest reading Far From The Tree instead of this one.

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*** Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

In Mothering Sunday, an aging novelist remembers a Sunday when she was in her early twenties, working as a house servant and about to lose her aristocratic lover. The story unfolds slowly, capturing not just the events of the day, but the heroine’s entire life as well as her thoughts and feelings as she moves through that unforgettable day. A delightful story full of shadows and complicated relationships.

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