Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Searching for Stars coverSearching for Stars on an Island in Maine
Alan Lightman
Pantheon (March 27, 2018), 240 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.04

I nearly purchased this book a while back, but let myself be put off by an Amazon customer review. Bad decision. After reading the review in the New York Times Book Review I knew I needed to read it. I was not disappointed.

Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist who has written a number of popular books. He is very effective at writing intelligently for a wide audience.

Lightman covers a lot of territory in this book. His main theme is appreciating the order and wonder in the universe while maintaining his perspective as a scientist. He writes about hummingbirds, ants, and the Big Bang. He has studied Buddhism and read St. Augustine, yet he is an atheist who does not believe in an afterlife. He does, however, place a great deal of value in the beauty and wonder of the world as we know it. His description of spending several minutes watching ants and other insects on one square inch of land is marvelous.

Lightman’s current position is professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT. I do believe that is an ideal role for him.


The Written World

The Written Word coverThe Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization
Martin Puchner
Random House (October 24, 2017), 458 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $17.90

Martin Puchner is a professor at Harvard and the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature. He knows a thing or two about the written word, or as he calls it, world.

In this book he writes both about the influence that the written word has had over the millennia and about the specific places where those influences arose. When he writes about The Iliad the describes his visit to Troy. When he writes about the revolutionary impact that Gutenberg had with the development of movable type he describes his visit to Mainz, Germany where Gutenberg did his work. When he discusses the work of Derek Walcott he actually visits the elderly author, since deceased, on the West Indies island of Saint Lucia. I’m not sure how Puchner obtained his travel budget, but he got around.

Snark aside, however, this is an engaging book. One of the great things about it is that he does not limit himself to the Western literary canon, though that gets plenty of attention. Puchner writes about the Tale of Genji in Japan, the independent literary tradition of the native peoples in Central America, and the oral tradition in West Africa.

This is interesting material and engaging reading.


Left Bank

Left Bank coverLeft Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50
Agnès Poirier
Henry Holt and Co. (February 13, 2018), 333 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.47

Sometimes I read a book review and I know that book is the next book I have to read. I felt that way after reading the review of this book.

I was not disappointed. At the center of the book are the existentialists: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Their activities occupy a good portion of the book. But there are a lot of other individuals who show up as well. The refugee from Eastern Europe, Arthur Koestler, plays an important role, as does the American novelist Saul Bellow, who moved to Paris after World War II. The African-American author Richard Wright and his family did the same. They weren’t existentialists, but they interacted with the existentialists and their lives were intertwined.

As the title indicates, the book covers the World War II era and the early postwar years. The author talks about those who stayed during the war, those who left (or like Sartre were sent to concentration camps), and those who arrived after the war. The work of these people had a profound impact on the intellectual life of the United States and Europe in the mid-twentieth century and the story told here is a fascinating one.


an unfinished novel

The Flame Throwers coverThe Flamethrowers: A Novel
by Rachel Kushner
Scribner; Reprint edition (April 2, 2013), 404 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $15.30
Purchased during a BookBub sale for $1.99
(or maybe it was Book Riot)

I was looking for my next book to read when this title showed up in one of my BookBub emails on sale for $1.99. The book got significant critical recognition, so I thought it worth a try.

The novel started out engaging enough. The first person female narrator graduated from the film program at the University of Nevada, Reno in the 1970s. She moved to New York City, but returned to Nevada where she set out across the salt flats on a borrowed Valera motorcycle, that being a fictional Italian make. Her boyfriend, Sandro Valera, is a company heir and an artist. He had obtained the bike for her, which she managed to destroy on her salt flat run. She then proceeded to break the land speed record for women on a different motorcycle which an Italian had used in an attempt to break the men’s land speed record.

Back in New York she spends a lot of time in the art world with Sandro and his group. Eventually I felt that the novel was just bogged down with the goings on there in New York. My iPad Kindle app told me that I was 41% through the book and I just didn’t care what happened to the narrator, her boyfriend, or the other characters.

Time to move on to another book. I probably got my $1.99 worth.


Memories of the Great & the Good

Memories of the Great and the GoodMemories of the Great & the Good
by Alistair Cooke
Open Road Media (March 3, 2015), 288 pages
originally published in 1999
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon hardcover 19.95
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

Many of us knew Alistair Cooke as the avuncular British host of Masterpiece Theater for so many years, but he did a great deal more than that. He broadcast his long-running radio program, Letter from America, back to the United Kingdom. He was also a prolific chronicler of individuals, history, politics, and life in the United States.

This volume is a collection of profiles that he wrote about a variety of individuals, ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Erma Bombeck to the golfer Bobby Jones. The essays were written across several decades. Cooke has an engaging writing style and often seems to understand the United States better than Americans themselves. These are essays well worth reading.


Life at the Dakota

Life at the Dakota coverLife at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address
Stephen Birmingham
Open Road Media (December 1, 2015),  243 pages
originally published in 1979
Kindle edition $6.00, Amazon paperback $12.20
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

This book tells you more than you would ever want to know about a building.

The Dakota is well known as being the residence of a number of famous people. It’s probably best known as the home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, sadly because it was there in 1980 that Lennon was killed. This book was originally published in 1979, so it refers to “the Lennons” (as Birmingham rather oddly calls the couple) in the present tense.

John and Yoko were, however, just two of many famous residents. Among the original tenants in the nineteenth century were the Steinway and Schirmer families, Gustav Schirmer being, of course, the founder the music publishing company that bears his name. Residents of the building included Boris Karloff, Jose Ferrer and his wife Rosemary Clooney, Gwen Verdon, Judy Garland, Betty Friedan, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Rex Reed, Jack Palance, and playwright William Inge. Roberta Flack was the building’s first and, at the time the book was written, only black resident.

Life at the Dakota is not just about the people, although there are plenty of gossipy stories. It’s really a biography of the building. Birmingham describes the design, architecture, finances, electrical infrastructure, and plumbing of the building. It was interesting to read about how the building converted from rental apartments to a cooperative in 1960.

There are some fascinating passages in Life at the Dakota, but in the end the book is really too much of a good building.


Sourdough

Sourdough book coverSourdough: A Novel
Robin Sloan
MCD, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First Edition edition (September 5, 2017), 272 pages
Amazon hardcover $15.08, Kindle edition $13.99

I actually read a physical hardcover. Terry bought this book and I read it when she finished it.

Author Robin Sloan understands high tech culture. His novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore involved Silicon Valley and the Google campus. Sourdough centers around San Francisco’s Silicon Gulch (though he doesn’t use the term) and the high tech world there.

Lois is a recent college grad recruited by a fictional San Francisco robotics company. Her long work hours prompt her to order some rather tasty delivery dinners from a service owned by a pair of brothers who not-so-legally set up a commercial kitchen in their apartment. When authorities start following up on their not-so-legal immigration status the brothers leave the country, but make a gift of their sourdough starter, a heritage of their culture, to Lois.

Lois starts baking sourdough bread and it eventually becomes her full-time work. Things get out of hand, however. I’ll leave it at that, because if you enjoy either bread making or high tech culture you’ll want to read this book.