Not Near The Far Field

The Far Field

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has everything to recommend it: a flawed protagonist, a parent that puts the “fun” in dysfunctional, a foreign setting beset by war that I am unfamiliar with, a clash of cultures, a mystery, and it was a Book of the Month selection. You’re probably waiting for the BUT. Here it is: BUT, it just didn’t do it for me; it was like soup missing an ingredient that would pull it all together– salt? thyme? After a while I gave up trying to identify the missing flavor and stopped eating entirely– 100 pages short of a 432 page book. In the hands of a more seasoned author, this story could have been told in 332 pages.

The novels centers around a thirty year old woman named Shalini who reflects on her childhood with an eccentric, hard-nosed mother and an earnest, hard-working father in India. Her mother develops a relationship with a garment salesman from Kashmir, and their relationship propels Shalini, years later, to go to Kashmir to find out whatever happened to him. She travels from the cosmopolitan Bangalore to the war-torn Kashmir, and even though she is both completely uninteresting and out of her depth, she is befriended and taken in by families in the area where more trouble is brewing. The story is told through the narrative of her childhood and the narrative of her time in Kashmir, and I am going to guess that the mysteries of her mother and the mysteries of the man will come to a head in the last few pages and the reader will gasp and look up in shock at the revelations. That reader is not me.

I hate to give a two star rating and not good review of this book. It’s Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel and it feels like a labor of love. I wish she had written a shorter novel; once a book goes beyond the 350 page mark, an author needs to ask herself if the story really warrants such length. If an author is going to demand such time from a reader, it better be one hell of a story. This novel is easy to read, but it drags on. There is an attempt to build suspense, but because it is so long, the pacing is off and the plot felt episodic. None of the characters, beyond the mother, are very memorable, and at one point a character’s name was mentioned and I had to sit there for a bit trying to recall that person. Ultimately, I gave up trying to remember because I did not care. I wish the editor sat Vijay down and worked to make it shorter; there’s a good story here, but I just lack the patience, and finally the interest, to finish.

View all my reviews

Biding My Time with the Clockwork Universe

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I am an English teacher and deal more in parables than in parabolas, I found this to be a very interesting book despite there being SO. MUCH. MATH. Dolnick delves into how we managed to turn to the Renaissance into the modern world by demonstrating how Isaac Newton’s discoveries in math and science made our universe much more understandable. To do this he goes back to the “shoulders of giants” Newton stood on to be able to see what he saw. This takes us back to Kepler and Galileo, who lived during times when to explain the workings of the world was to doubt God and his perfection. Kepler kept his revelations secret until he was almost dead; Galileo died under house arrest. To explain each man’s discoveries, Dolnick feels it necessary to also explain the math– of angles, inverted squares, Pythagorean thereom, mass, velocity, this formula, that formula. He does a clever job at explaining complex equations by using analogies, but analogy or no analogy, I just don’t get it and was bored.

The math stuff made the human stuff way more exciting. Dolnick shows how we take the modern world for granted as we know that there is a solution or an answer for everything. Plague? Fleas. Massive fire that burns down whole city? Poor city planning. Children dying in infancy? Disease or unsanitary conditions. In the 17th century, there was one answer: God. In a world where not much was understood, everyone relied on God’s mercy, which he had in short supply. Galileo was imprisoned and Bruno burned at the stake because they questioned God and hence the whole socio-political order. By Isaac Newton’s time and in another country, thinkers were encouraged to help explain God’s plan and to show his perfection. So Newton and Hooke and Boyle and Halley and Leibniz over in Germany could pursue their whims without persecution. It was very interesting to learn how they used math to solve the mysteries of the world and put the world into perspective. Also how Newton and Leibniz’s feud muddied the philosophical and religious waters as each tried to prove how each other’s theories minimized God’s role in the world while their own elevated him. I think we forget or do not realize how far their world is from ours today, where science is science and God based on your belief. I appreciated Dolnick’s writing because he made many modern day comparisons and he is funny. Very interesting book if you can withstand the math.

View all my reviews

Review of The Plateau

The Plateau

The Plateau by Maggie Paxson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“With all of our chances– and all of the moral tools we’ve derived from any number of spiritual, religious, and philosophical orientations– we haven’t learned. It’s like we still don’t even recognize the moral hazard of deciding we are anything– any nation, any race, any religion, any gender– before we are a human being. Even when we must know, in our deepest places, that the oneness of humanity is an absolute truth, we behave as though we don’t” (309).

Anthropologist Maggie Paxson has written a book unlike any I have read before: an exploration of peace that is part anthropology, part memoir, part history, part religious meditation. She begins by asking what made the people of the Plateau region of France, a place known for harboring refugees and Jews in great times of danger, do so? In the course of finding her answer, she lives on the Plateau, studies the history of Daniel Trocme who lived there briefly during WWII to harbor and teach refugee children, and befriends the newest refugees in the area. All of this sidetracks her from getting down to the nitty-gritty data of why this area is so special. Instead she veers into an exploration of humanity, religions, and nations to determine what makes one good and put their life on the line for another. I am personally okay not having charts and diagrams and boxes with numbers in them to map the bell curve of goodness. Goodness is subjective, caught in the mess of our psyches.

Paxson’s goal is ambitious. How DOES one chart peace? Especially during a time when there was no peace? Also, how does one study a population’s motives for helping others when not all members shared the same goal? There are so many stories of sacrifice made by people all over Europe who helped shelter and feed and welcome into their homes Jews and other displaced peoples that I don’t think the answer lies in one area. It lies in ourselves. Paxson gets drawn into the lives of those in the past and the families seeking shelter on the Plateau now. She learns who they are and what caused them to flee their homelands. She explores how religions and the ideas of nations (which replaced kingdoms which served religions) have failed humanity. Deeply religious herself, in a secular field, she questions how religions can lead one astray– especially when every religion intones that we must love one another. Not being religious myself, I found this interesting as she discusses how the “why” one is religious impacts how much they love their neighbor and how they can use that same religion to shun him. Those who strive for peace, place humanity front and center– just because somebody else made them an enemy because they are of a different race, religion, political persuasion– doesn’t make them your enemy, too. When the time comes to act, who will we be? Will answer the call as whatever we label ourselves– white? Christian? American? Or will we be humans responding to human needs?

There is a tremendous amount of pain in this book. I learned more about the Holocaust that I had not known before; I learned about the atrocities happening in other countries; I learned about how much pain and death and suffering arise from ultimately arbitrary means. I again learned that being good will not save you, and it instead makes you a bigger target. Their is a lot hope here, too. We can in our small and big ways help others and do what we can. This seems miniscule in light of the horrors of the world, but think of the amount of good and how many people are saved when we act selflessly. In the words of Jesus, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Paxson reminds us that it is not who we say we are that defines us, but what we do.

View all my reviews

The Hours Under Birches

The Hours

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oftentimes during this book I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”, where the speaker reflects on Truth of winter bending the birches rather than the fantasy of a solitary country boy swinging on them. Michael Cunningham follows a day in the life of three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Clarissa Vaughn, nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, the character that connects all three lives. All three contemplate and resist the banality of their lives where even “crystal shells” are also “broken glass”; they are each trapped by the loveliness of their lives. Like the speaker in the poem, they wish to escape from Truth and a “pathless wood” to a life that is a bit more dangerous, authentic, and true, even if it’s just for a little while. The tension arises when, as in the poem, fate may “willfully misunderstand [them]/ And half grant what [they] wish and snatch [them] away/ Not to return”. Is “Earth the right place to love” for them?

This book is masterfully written, and Cunningham explores the limits that are put on women’s lives that render their lives boring and mundane, whether one be a genius or a housewife. Their lives are prescribed by men and the duties of womanhood. Virginia’s writing life chafes against that of lady of the household, where ordering afternoon tea is too binding, and Mrs. Brown need for solitude and reading chafes against her role as dutiful wife and mother. These roles are really roles as each women “performs” her duties. To contrast is Clarissa Vaughn, a feminist who lives with her female partner, and who should be liberated in almost every sense. Through her Cunningham shows how the role we have chosen for ourselves and the expectations that come with it are also limiting. Each’s life is like the birch under the ice, “once they are bowed/ So low for long, they never right themselves”.

But speaking of Truth, Cunningham portrays women honestly, and the feelings of disassociation each woman feels with their lives feels very true. I think women often find themselves wondering about how they ended up where they are in their lives, with a sense of “is this it?”. If maybe we punctured the veil of our womanhood, and reached through and past the expectations of us, there real life awaits. The puncture leaves a wound, and can we rightfully live with the knowledge of that, too?

Highly recommend.

View all my reviews

The Silent Patient Makes Some Noise

The Silent Patient

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not typically a fan of mystery/thrillers or popular fiction, but this one, with its short chapters, gets-down-to-business plot, fast pace and a twist worthy of being called a twist, I like. I read it because a friend wanted to read it for book club, and while I was engrossed in the story there were several inconsistencies that annoyed me. I shrugged them off because I was reading popular fiction and what can one expect. (Yes, I freely admit I am a snob.) Then I got to the end, and, “Oh!”. Had I not been so dismissive and eye-rolling, I might have caught on sooner. Hats off to Alex Michaelides for writing a great mystery and for proving me wrong.

Highly recommend for when you have a flight or a period of time when you need to be utterly absorbed and not too thinky; preferably a chilly fall afternoon.

View all my reviews

Peeling Back the Layers of Life: A Review of Body of Work

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very enlightening memoir, not only about anatomy, but about an obscure part of medicine: the history of dissection and the procural of cadavers. Montross takes us through her anatomy class where she must dissect a cadaver and reflects on how this disturbing and disorienting process impacts her relationship with the human body, medicine, and how she provides care to others. She explores the muddy moral waters of the end of life and what does it mean to be no longer alive or to be dead, and are those the same things? While this is at times a hard book to read, it is important to read. She details the process of cutting into a dead person, and while she is reverential towards her subject, the process is still a disturbing one. Through this she shows how dissection allows future doctors to not only learn the body, but confront the discomfort of handling bodies, both alive and dead, and how they develop “detached compassion” to best guide their patients to make tough decisions about their or a loved one’s health.

The discomfort not only comes from the process, but how cadavers have been (and in some places still are) procured. There have been many cultural taboos about disturbing the dead and most cultures are against using humans for dissection. Doctors and hospitals turned to unsavory methods to get their supply. Unsurprisingly, it was often the poor, criminals, and minorities who were preyed upon; mostly in the belief that their afterlife is not as important as rich white people’s. Montross also explores the paradox of belief surrounding dissections.

This is not a knee-slapper of a book, but it is very interesting to know how med students become doctors and what is asked of them. I appreciated Montross’s insights and connections to her own life and medicine’s history.

View all my reviews

Review of Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia


Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one who does not enjoy science fiction, I didn’t think I would ever read Ursula Le Guin. However, she decided to apply her talents at world-building to bring to life Aeneas’ wife Lavinia and pre-Roman Italy, and gave me an opportunity to experience all that makes her Le Guin. Lavinia has a very minor part in The Aeneid, but as Le Guin cleverly plays upon the literary present, Lavinia still exists and can tell her story. Lavinia is a princess fated to marry the warrior Aeneas and she must follow the standards for such a woman, but since she also lives in pagan times, she must follow the will of her gods. These two goals are brought into conflict, and her life is guided by piety, meaning responsibility beyond oneself. Living piously does not guarantee an easy life; guided by the poet Vergil, Lavinia’s decision to reject all of her suitors in favor of a foreign warrior leads to war and bloodshed as her suitors feel betrayed by her. While this novel is about female strength, it also just as much about what it means to be a pious man. Le Guin’s Aeneas is an answer to toxic masculinity; he is the embodiment of how to be a strong warrior merciless in battle, but also be tender, loving, and circumspect with the ability to set aside his ego when things do not go his way.

I really enjoyed this novel, and I really liked Lavinia herself. She feels very human as she tries to live both in her society and beyond it.

View all my reviews

Fall in Love with Eric Newby

Love and War in the Apennines

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prior to seeing the collection of Eric Newby books at the bookstall at the Tavistock Pannier Market, I had never heard of him. I now realize two things: I should have purchased them all, and I am kind of smitten. In this memoir of being an POW in Italy during WWII and then a fugitive from the Germans after the Italian Armistice, he recounts what life on the run in Italy is like. It’s a pretty surreal experience. Not only does he meet his future wife, he is helped by many Italians who risk their lives and livelihoods to feed and shelter him when they themselves have so little. He writes with warmth and humor about those he met and his experiences in the Apennines.

I was not expecting this type of memoir. Normally when I think of POWs or people in hiding from the Germans, I think of terror and fear, of which there is quite a bit here, but I wasn’t expecting the humanity or the beauty of the mountains. Newby brings the setting to life to where I felt I was there. His writing and reflections reminded me of Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and his descriptions of the Spanish people right before the Civil War. During the Spanish Civil War and WWII there were many people of the Resistance who helped people cross the Pyrenees, and while those journeys are written about, I have not read a first hand account of them and have wondered how such a journey is made. Newby fills in that gap with the Apennines. I was also not expecting this to be funny, and Newby has a wry sense of humor and finds the absurdity in many of the situations he is in.

While I am smitten with Newby, I love those who worked to hide him. The Italians he met seemed to straddle the old and new worlds. They worked without electricity or running water; they relied on homegrown remedies for illness; they maintained the art of storytelling; yet they were modern and savvy to keep abreast of what is happening in the war and in their area– enough to keep Newby safe for most of the remainder of the war. They used both worlds to their advantage. I kept thinking that with our reliance on our phones and GPS, we would be absolute toast in the Apennines. They also had generous spirits– much of what many our country today could learn from: they took someone who was once the enemy into their homes and fed him when they had so little. They helped him without any expectation or desire of reward. Newby mentions that after the war the British government tried to recompense them for their generosity and bravery, but they did not want money; they most desired to hear from those they helped save.

Let Newby take you back in time and renew you with the best parts of humanity.

View all my reviews

Review of If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a combination of being a little wine-drunk (meaning I had a half a glass) on a Friday night when I received an email from Amazon recommending this book. My already tenuous defenses were down, and that is how I came to own a book with the most depressing title. The premise of this novella is that the narrator learns that he is going to die soon and the devil (wearing loud Hawaiian shirts) offers him a deal to have something disappear from the earth for each day of extended life. The narrator thinks of all of the useless junk in the world and agrees. However, the devil is in the details as he, not the narrator, gets to choose what goes. This leads the narrator and his cat Cabbage on a week-long odyssey into reflecting on what makes life worth living and examining the worth of our own lives, blah, blah, blah. I’m so over this trope. It’s like a Japanese “Tuesdays with Morrie”, and I always feel a little emotionally manipulated by such books. They are specifically crafted to evoke to get readers to reflect on mortality, come to the same conclusion, and shake up their lives. I do not need a book to remind me about death and mortality; they are my constant companions and are on my mind all of the time. It’s a bit of preaching to the choir.

However, this is probably one of the most upbeat Japanese novels I have ever read. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese aesthetic, it’s always a bit quirky and depressing with a subtle humor. This book is all three, but more so. While I might roll my eyes, the messages in this book are important: how we spend our time, who makes our life meaningful, what things bring us joy, how we let routine and habit take over, and how we let our relationships fall to the wayside. It is a cute and clever novel, and do not let me, Ms. Death and Despair, prevent you from reading it. Your life might depend on it.

View all my reviews

Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there are things in your life that need to be accomplished, then you should probably not read this book, because nothing will get done. However, I did not let that deter me! This is an engrossing and disturbing tale about the systematic murders of members of the Osage tribe for their oil headrights and the money that came with them in the 1920’s. In conjunction, Grann shows how the case to solve the crimes also helped establish the FBI. He brings all of the players in this little known part of American history to life and conveys the immediacy of the fear that gripped the Osage community and the federal agents that investigated the crimes. I had a hard time putting the book down; it had the pace of a crime thriller with its twists and turns, and I learned a lot from it. For one, I did not know that the Osage had so much money– they were fantastically wealthy, and I did not know how much the government limited their rights to spend their own money. They were made to be wards under white guardianship, and this made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The extent of the crimes against them took my breath away.

As I read this book, I felt the frustration I often feel when I read historical works: that history does not stay in the past. We like to think that the racist ideals that lead white people to brazenly commit orchestrated crimes against people of a different race are over, but as white nationalists continue to have a louder voice in this country, the attitudes that lead those to kill the Osage because they thought they were inferior still prevail. I know this is not a profound thought; we just need to turn on the news to see it is so. Sometimes I think some people think that such incidents are discrete and isolated, executed by one person at a time. Grann reveals how much of the abuse was supported by laws and many of the white community working together against the Osage. Racism of the past and racism today are not just result of people’s attitudes, but the result of the laws, policies, and codes we have in place to keep people “in their place”. People can never truly be free if the system works against them. I read a one-star review of this book (not on Goodreads), and the reviewer cited the book as something people on the Left would gobble up and criticized Grann for not providing enough “context” and for applying today’s values on the past. One might conclude that this reader thinks that racism and discrimination was/is okay and it’s only part of the Leftist agenda that it’s now wrong to kill and exploit others. This review dispirited me as we like to think (or I like to, anyway) that if we confront people with documented facts and human stories that they will understand, but some do not want to understand. They are some of those who keep history present.

View all my reviews