Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays
Little, Brown and Company (September 24, 2019)
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99
I ordinarily would not consider reading a book with a title like this, but I read at least two highly approving reviews of the book, and an Amazon review said the title had very little to do with the content of the book. The reviews I read said that the writing in this book of essays was excellent, and I’m always looking for great writing. So I bought it.
In the first half of the book the author writes about a variety of topics. She tells us about a whale whose song is at a very different frequency than that of any other whale, and who captured the imagination of thousands of people. She writes about social conditions in war-torn Sri Lanka. She describes how the Second Life virtual reality environment can give meaning to the lives of those whose circumstances in the physical world are less than optimal. She goes into detail about how James Agee’s article for Fortune magazine about sharecroppers in Alabama, which was never published, is so very different from the book he did publish, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
And can this woman write? Yes, she can. Here is an example of her marvelous prose, in which she describes Las Vegas:
All of Vegas tries too hard. But is it inauthentic? I’ve never thought so. If inauthenticity depends on pretending you are something you’re not, then Vegas has always been adamantly honest. It is all fake, all the time.
The second half of the book is different. She writes about her own life. As an individual in recovery, about failed relationships, about becoming a stepmother and trying her best not to be an evil one, and about her own high-risk pregnancy.
The writing is vivid and direct. Jamison is an accomplished essayist.
Trust Exercise: A Novel
by Susan Choi
Henry Holt and Co. (April 9, 2019)
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.81
I had seen positive reviews of this book, and it was in my collection of Kindle samples. It was about the time I was ready to start a new book when I read that it had won the 2019 National Book Award for fiction. I decided that it was time to read it.
The plot line involves a high school for the performing arts and the school’s students and faculty, along with a group of visiting British theater students and their teacher. Those visitors are critical to the plot. The relationships among the characters get complicated, which moves much of the plot forward.
The structure of the novel is interesting. The first half of the book reads like a straightforward novel told in the third person. The second half of the book takes place thirteen years later and is told from the perspective of one of the characters who, in the first half, plays a secondary role. Interestingly, Choi alternates between the first and third person in this section. There are also flashbacks that explain why the character has put a rather heinous plan into action.
The novel ends with a sort of epilogue that takes the story a number of years into the future. Loose ends do not get tied up, but I nevertheless did not feel cheated. The characters and the writing left me with the feeling that the novel had accomplished what it set out to do.
On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden
Yale University Press (October 29, 2019), 336 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99
We often think of the Galápagos Islands as something pure and pristine that were undiscovered until Charles Darwin showed up on the Beagle. This book will disabuse you of that notion.
As it happens the islands were discovered very early on, and were a way station for ships making their way up and down the west coast of the Americas. While the Galápagos are today a national park in the country of Ecuador, there has never been an uncontested belief that the ecology should be preserved in its natural state. Some islands in the group have been used as penal colonies and some as military bases. One island was host to a failed utopian society experiment. In the present day we learn that some locals appreciate eco-tourism and others do not.
The author provides a balanced history of the region, dispelling many myths. Towards the end of the book she candidly relates her own experiences in the islands as a researcher.
Nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. This book makes that clear.
Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, September 10, 2019
$14.99 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but this is the second audiobook on quantum mechanics that I have listened to in the past couple of months. The previous book was What is Real?. The books cover some the the same material, but are really quite different.
The author of What is Real, Adam Becker, has a degree in physics but works as a writer and journalist. Sean Carroll, author of the present book, is a working physicist, although he is well known for his popular books on science. Becker discusses the history, people, and politics around quantum theory in addition to the theories themselves, while Carroll sticks mostly to the science, touching on those other matters when necessary. Becker tries for a balanced approach to the various theories, which can get confusing. Carroll, on the other hand, openly advocates one theory, which can get confusing.
The dominant school of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen interpretation, while the school that Carroll advocates is known as “many worlds.” The Copenhagen interpretation says that we should accept the the mathematics of quantum mechanics and not try to understand what is actually going on behind it (“shut up and calculate”). The other schools, including many worlds, try to explain why we get the results that we do.
The book is capably read by the author. Since he wrote the book he knows what to emphasize and what requires less stress. You can hear in his voice when he is frustrated or exasperated by a particular approach or theory.
This is not light material, and is perhaps better read in print (paper or electronic), but it’s all fascinating stuff.
Summer of ’69
Little, Brown and Company (June 18, 2019)
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $21.21
This novel has an interesting structure. The matriarch of the family in the story, Exalta, has a daughter named Kate. Kate has three daughters: Blair, Kirby, and Jamie. Each chapter is told in the third person, but in a rotating manner from the perspective of Kate and each of her daughters. With the exception of a short prologue and epilogue, the entire novel takes place in the summer of 1969, although there are many references to past events. The action is focused in and around Exalta’s summer home in Nantucket and on Martha’s Vineyard where Kirby has a summer job. There is, by the way, no scene in the book that remotely resembles the cover illustration.
Hilderbrand effectively interweaves a fictional family saga with actual events of that summer, including the war in Vietnam, the moon landing, and the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick incident. Kate’s son Tiger was drafted and is serving in Vietnam, Blair’s husband is a scientist who is at Mission Control in Houston for the moon landing, and Ted Kennedy is a guest at the boutique hotel on Martha’s Vineyard where Kirby works.
The novel maintains momentum throughout; it rarely if ever lags. Hilderbrand reveals some interesting twists near the end and ties things together relatively well. Summer of ‘69 is good summer escape reading even in December.
I write about this every year, but it is well worth the annual mention. NPR has released its 2019 Book Concierge, and it is delightful as always. If you haven’t checked it out before and you’re a book lover you are in for a treat.
National Public Radio compiles all of the books it has reviewed throughout the year and assigns multiple categories to each. You can then view the books by category. But what is really cool about the book concierge is that you can mix and match categories. For example, you can select Staff Picks and For Music Lovers. Or you can select Book Club Ideas and Historical Fiction. With 369 books in this year’s catalog, that’s a lot reading choices for you.
My favorite category is Seriously Great Writing. What surprised me was how many books in that category I have read this year. Here’s a rundown of the books I’ve read in 2019 that NPR considers Seriously Great Writing.
- The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison – To me this was a sort of mixed bag. There are many genres in this collection: essays, speeches, and meditations as the subtitle indicates. I suspect that I might have chosen another Toni Morrison book to find the best of her writing, but as a memorial to someone we just recently lost The Source of Self Regard belongs in this category.
- Horizon by Barry Lopez – Lopez is, after all, the dean of living nature writers and this book is a highly readable account of his sojourns in the last couple of decades.
- The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine – This is an absolutely delightful novel about twins who were born sharing a private language, grew up loving words, and took different paths in their language journey as adults.
- Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino – I listened to the author read her own essays in the audiobook version. If you think think that millennials are not up to standard as generations go, read this book. You will change your mind.
And then there’s:
- Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth – I read the prologue of this history of the Bering Strait as a Kindle sample, bought the e-book, got part way through the first chapter and returned it for a refund. There was just too much about how whales and other mammals are killed for survival and for profit in the region. But, yes, the writing is seriously great.
- Nobody’s Looking at You by Janet Malcolm – I read the Kindle sample and decided that the subject matter didn’t interest me. But that’s no reflection on the writing.
Yes, that’s only a handful of books out of eighty-eight, but at least I seem to be making some good choices with regarding to my book reading.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (December 6, 2016), 271 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $6.99
Peter Godfrey-Smith comes from the field of philosophy, but he is also a scuba diver who has spent a lot of time in the water with octopuses. (That is the plural he uses. Both Merriam-Webster and American Heritage allow either octopuses or octopi, with the former listed first in both dictionaries.)
As a philosopher Godfrey-Smith is interested in the unique nervous systems of cephalopods, a class that also includes cuttlefish and squid. He is intrigued by how much independence the arms of the cephalopod have, often acting separately from the main cephalopod brain. He writes:
In the octopus’s case there is a conductor, the central brain. But the players it conducts are jazz players, inclined to improvisation, who will accept only so much direction. Or perhaps they are players who receive only rough, general instructions from the conductor, who trusts them to play something that works.
Godfrey-Smith describes how the octopus can behave very badly in captivity, letting its keeper know that it is not happy. In the wild a cephalopod can be wary of strangers, although he also describes leaving a remote camera near a cuttlefish den and discovering that the behavior was mostly unchanged whether or not divers were nearby.
The author does not try to hide his sadness at the fact that the octopus lives a relatively short life: just a few years. He seems to think that such and interesting and complex creature deserves better.
Having read his book I am inclined to agree.