BNBC · mini-review · stuff I read

State of Wonder

Summary from Goodreads:
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, “State of Wonder” presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, “State of Wonder” is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

I am always hazy about Ann Patchett books. I like them, like the words, the way she makes sentences, but I get an odd feeling that I was expecting something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

The premise of State of Wonder is really interesting (even if it reminded me of the movie Medicine Man in basic outline at the beginning).  Brilliant/difficult researcher goes incommunicative while on a big R&D contract with a pharmaceutical company.  The first person to try and find her falls ill and dies prompting the company to send Dr. Marina Singh who has a lot of personal baggage to deal with (not to mention a) why the company sends two cholesterol researchers after a fertility specialist and b) Marina has been sleeping with her boss and it’s a weird relationship).

There is a lot of beauty in Patchett’s descriptions of the Amazonian rainforest as Marina heads deep into unknown territory and the whole thing takes on a lurid quality due to the hallucinogenic dreams induced by Marina’s anti-malarial medication.  The research lab environs are meticulously created in the reader’s mind, the relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson is developed to a very fine detail.  But…there is a part of Marina that I don’t quite understand and she makes some decisions that don’t seem to make much sense to me.

There is a great value in the medical ethics brought up, turned over, and examined throughout the course of the book particularly in the value (or lack thereof) the “bottom line” of the pharmaceutical industry.  It’s a multi-billion dollar business, very risky, and often will forgo the development of more “humanitarian” research in leiu of that which will benefit the western medical establishments who can afford the cost of questionably needed drugs.

Dear FTC: I purchased a copy of this book.

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Romantic Reads · stuff I read

With This Kiss (A Fairy Tales novella in three parts)

Summary from Goodreads:

With This Kiss: Part One

Lady Grace Ryburn, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Ashbrook, has fallen wildly in love with Colin Barry, a dashing young lieutenant serving his country in the Royal Navy. When he returns home to exuberant celebrations, will he even notice the quiet wallflower he grew up with … or will he fall for Grace’s sparkling, gorgeous sister?

With This Kiss: Part Two

Lady Grace Ryburn has accepted another man’s proposal after the love of her life, Lieutenant Colin Barry, asked for her own sister’s hand in marriage.

But when Colin returns home from the wars, injured in body and spirit, will she be able to turn her back and marry another? Or will she throw away every rule her mother taught her and try to seduce a man who has shown no interest in her kisses?

With This Kiss: Part Three

Lieutenant Colin Barry returns from the wars knowing that he has no right to steal Grace from the arms of her fiancé. Yet the same warrior’s spirit that won so many battles at sea is prompting him to throw propriety to the winds, imitate his pirate father, and simply take what he most desires!

[Note: the original review consisted of teasers for the first two parts with a review when the third part was published but in reconstituting it here, I decided to just put it into one review]

Grace, daughter of the Ashbrooks from The Ugly Duchess, and Colin, adopted son of the Barrys from Seduced by a Pirate, were close as children. In the first part of With This Kiss, Colin and Grace have grown up – Colin into a respected Navy Lieutenant and Grace into a shy, gifted painter.  He inadvertently breaks Grace’s heart by falling stupidly in “love” with Lily, Grace’s vivacious younger sister.  In the second installment, Grace accepts the proposal of a man who respects her but whom she does not love.  When a wounded (blind) Colin, appears on the Ashbrooks doorstep, Grace throws all caution to the wind and sets off on a solo trip with a sedated Colin and, well, things get a bit out of hand and downright naughty.  At the end of Part Two, Grace and Colin have just a spat following their escapade in the carriage. Colin can’t see and is momentarily thrown when told he has a wife. Wife?! Because Colin doesn’t immediately guess the correct woman, Grace panics, talks herself into then out of a life with Colin, and tries to flee from the inn.

The third installment of the novella, out today, picks up here.  Colin, wisely, prevents Grace from leaving and spends a considerable amount of time and attention making her “see.” Both hero and heroine have suffered from a lack of insight. Colin didn’t realize that it was Grace’s letters keeping him alive and sane until he feared he might lose her. Grace, for all that she loved Colin, saw only what she wished to see and limited her scope of vision to her experience as a woman in the shadow of a vivacious sister. Literal blindness – through injury and circumstance – force the couple to open their other senses and find the truth. Eloisa James has written another lovely novella for her Fairy Tales series – wry, witty, bittersweet, and satisfying. Grace and Colin are very much their parents’ (and creator’s) children and are still so very, very real. Grace could be the talented, quiet young woman next to you on the bus while Colin could be any of our servicemen returning from military service to his loved ones. Placing their story in a historical setting only serves to make their romance more palpable. I was moved to tears when Colin began to re-read and respond to all of Grace’s letters. A beautiful scene. But then the last line had me laughing so hard – a wonderful Eloisa James juxtaposition!

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

And Then She Fell (Cynster Sisters Duo #1, Cynster #19)

Summary from Goodreads:

The only thing more troublesome than a Cynster man…is a Cynster lady who believes love is not her destiny. Famously known in London society as “The Matchbreaker,” Henrietta Cynster’s uncanny skill lies in preventing ill-fated nuptials – not in falling victim to Cupid’s spell.

But then she disrupts one match too many and feels honor-bound to assist dashing James Glossup in finding a suitable bride for a marriage of convenience.

A task infernally complicated by the undeniable, unquenchable attraction that flares between James and Henrietta, who continues to believe she will never fall…

The romance in this new Stephanie Laurens novel has a sweetness that isn’t always part of a Cynster novel. Instead of a conflagration it’s more of a slow burn and a mutual acknowledgement of feelings. After the customary miscues, of course (and the pendant that worked it’s way through Heather, Eliza, and Angelica). Even the bedroom scenes have a restrained, subtle quality – the use of “purple prose” is lighter and less meticulously detailed and it makes for a very nice change of pace. The sweet contrasted nicely with the zest of the assassination plot. So many things happen to Henrietta and James – runaway horses, falling objects, accidents in crowds – that this slim novel barely stops for breath once it gets going.

Nearly every previous Laurens couple puts in an appearance in some way – Bastion Club, Cynster, Barnaby Adair. The only real laggards are Chillingworth and Francesca (Cynster #7) and Roscoe and Miranda (The Lady Risks All). A family reunion as it were. Also a nice lead-in for Mary’s book – The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh – in the epilogue.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Pirate King (Mary Russell #11)

Summary from Goodreads:
In England’s budding silent-film industry, megalomaniac Randolph Fflytte is king. At the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell is dispatched to investigate rumors of criminal activities. At Lisbon rehearsals for “Pirate King”, based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, thirteen blond-haired, blue-eyed actresses meet the real buccaneers Fflytte has recruited to provide authenticity. But when the crew embarks for Morocco and the actual filming, troubles escalate.

Continuing in my Mary Russell run, I picked up The Pirate King from the library.  Here, Mary grouchily poses as secretary/administrator/general fixer for the suspicious motion picture production of an extremely reductive adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance.  It is easier to take the job – even if that means she has to deal with Mycroft – than refuse.  So she finds herself soothing ruffled feathers, finding costumes, babysitting rehearsals, and snooping through the cast and crew hotel rooms.  The possibly-deranged producer/director has hooked up with Fernando Pessoa – a real-life writer with some sort of dissociative personality disorder – who finds “real” pirates to play the pirate crew and an actual derelict sailing ship for the production.  And that isn’t even the worst part.

Well, the worst part for me was that Mary frequently sounded a bit whiney to my ear.  Granted, she’s got some ground – getting dragged around the world, saving her husband from some nut in India-Pakistan, reclaiming part of her past in San Francisco, then entering into a lethal cat-and-mouse game with someone who fancied himself a spymaster to rival Mycroft.  All at the cost of her own academic work.  But she doesn’t seem to offer much resistance to the request that she go undercover – she doesn’t want to be at the house in Surrey if Mycroft is there.  And so she whinges for about 100 pages.  Until Sherlock shows up, then things get interesting again.  Their relationship has always been the best part of the series for me, how they push and pull against each other with their considerable intellects and will.  I think I will take a pause before I read Garment of Shadows.

mini-review · stuff I read

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Summary from Goodreads:
Anne Fadiman is–by her own admission–the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.

This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope (“My Ancestral Castles”) and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections (“Marrying Libraries”), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony–Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.

I had previously read Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan (both the original and the new edition supplemented by John Major) so Anne Fadiman had hung around on my periphery.  So one rainy day I snuggled up on the couch and the cats and some tea to read Ex Libris.

Anne Fadiman and I must be long-lost relatives.  I, too, have compulsively read anything with print (like the back of the cereal box) out of desperation.  The small volume is comprise of beautifully written essays and love letters (in a sense) to books and reading in all shapes and forms.  The essay describing the trepidation and process of “marrying” her book collection with her husband’s (and he also had many books) was very funny.  I only wish Ex Libris was a bit longer – I guess I’ll just have to pick up her other similarly-sized collections.

Incidentally, I bought my copy at a local used bookstore (I’m sure Fadiman, with her love of secondhand bookstores and books, would approve) – the previous owner had only read through the Preface, the rest of the pages were untouched (Fadiman would not approve).

mini-review · stuff I read

Read This!

Summary from Goodreads:
There is no greater joy for a bookseller than introducing a reader to a book they will love for the rest of their lives. Those of us in this business are, after all, matchmakers at heart. So consider this little book you now hold in your hands a sort of catalog of matchmakers.”—Ann Patchett

“If I were still a bookseller, I’d be thrilled to share this wealth with my customers. As a reader, I’m deeply intrigued by the range of selections. . . . Do yourself a favor. Add Micawber’s Top 50 project to your must-read list.”—Robert Gray, Shelf Awareness

This book offers lists of favorites that have flown under the radar, but off of bookstore shelves. First published on Hans Weyandt’s blog for Micawber’s Books, each list includes a bookseller’s top fifty books, anecdotes, and interviews about the life of being a bookseller, reader, and engaged citizen. All proceeds will go to American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).

Contributing bookstores include Book Passage, Tattered Cover Book Store, Three Lives & Company, Boswell Books, City Lights Bookstore, BookCourt, Harvard Book Store, Carmichael’s Bookstore, Prairie Lights, The King’s English Bookshop, Square Books, Magers & Quinn, Micawber’s Books, Unabridged Bookstore, Regulator Bookshop, Subterranean Books, Faulkner House Books, Skylight Books, Maria’s Bookshop, Inkwood Books, Rakestraw Books, RiverRun Bookstore, Sherman’s Books and Stationary, Iowa Book, and Fireside Books.

This is a darling little book of lists of book recommendations from independent booksellers across America.  Ann Patchett wrote a lovely introduction and I found many great books that I hadn’t yet heard of to add to my TBR lists.  Shout-outs for the local (to me) Prairie Lights and Iowa Book and Supply!  My only regret is that there are SO MANY BOOKS and never enough time!

Chemistry · mini-review · stuff I read

Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts

Summary from Goodreads: 

For centuries, we’ve toyed with our creature companions, breeding dogs that herd and hunt, housecats that look like tigers, and teacup pigs that fit snugly in our handbags. But what happens when we take animal alteration a step further, engineering a cat that glows green under ultraviolet light or cloning the beloved family Labrador? Science has given us a whole new toolbox for tinkering with life. How are we using it?

In Frankenstein’s Cat, the journalist Emily Anthes takes us from petri dish to pet store as she explores how biotechnology is shaping the future of our furry and feathered friends. As she ventures from bucolic barnyards to a “frozen zoo” where scientists are storing DNA from the planet’s most exotic creatures, she discovers how we can use cloning to protect endangered species, craft prosthetics to save injured animals, and employ genetic engineering to supply farms with disease-resistant livestock. Along the way, we meet some of the animals that are ushering in this astonishing age of enhancement, including sensor-wearing seals, cyborg beetles, a bionic bulldog, and the world’s first cloned cat.

Through her encounters with scientists, conservationists, ethicists, and entrepreneurs, Anthes reveals that while some of our interventions may be trivial (behold: the GloFish), others could improve the lives of many species—including our own. So what does biotechnology really mean for the world’s wild things? And what do our brave new beasts tell us about ourselves?

With keen insight and her trademark spunk, Anthes highlights both the peril and the promise of our scientific superpowers, taking us on an adventure into a world where our grandest science fiction fantasies are fast becoming reality.

A very well laid-out book of popular science with chapters building off previous chapters. Anthes has a great tone – she doesn’t use a lot of tech-speak but also doesn’t bog down in explaining every, tiny bit of biology so a wide range of people should be able to enjoy the book. You’ll need to understand how cells work and replicate at a basic level on your own.  A great sense of humor at times, too.

Anthes brings a lot of good ideas to the fore that I think have slipped past the news feeds because they just don’t have the right “hooks”.  Like the frozen zoo – what are the ethical issues with banking DNA from endangered animals before they are lost to us forever?  How does genetic modification effect our livestock (and since GMO crops are a current hot-button issue, if a cow has been engineered to be resistant to mad-cow disease is that good or bad)?  We love biotech that helps us – humans – to have stronger hearts, better prosthetics, and less chronic disease but that same technology surrounds us in the animal world, too.

Dear FTC: I obtained an ARC of this book via a friend who attended a conference.

mini-review · stuff I read

Practical Classics

Summary from Goodreads:
What do the great books of your youth have to say about your life now? Smokler’s essays on the classics—witty, down-to-earth, appreciative, and insightful—are divided into ten sections, each covering an archetypal stage of life—from youth and first love to family, loss, and the future. The author not only reminds you about the essential features of each great book but gives you a practical, real-world reason why revisiting it in adulthood is not only enjoyable but useful.

Remember all those books we had to read in high school English?  The Great Gatsby, Jonny Got His Gun, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Grapes of Wrath, Oedipus Rex, Cry, the Beloved CountryOne Hundred Years of Solitude, 1984, Brave New World, Catch-22, As I Lay Dying, Ethan Frome?  I do, a bit, since I know that I was assigned more books than the ones I listed here.  Well, Kevin Smokler decided to go back and take a look at pieces that were assigned as high school reading and give them another shot.

The result is an eclectic collection of recommended reads. Some, like David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and Amy Tan’s The Joy-Luck Club, were published just as I finished high school (Smokler is a few years older than I am, so we are in the same boat here). A few others, like Walter Benjamin and Annie Dillard, I didn’t read until assigned as post-grad reading. But a good chunk of the books Smokler re-read (Animal Farm, Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, etc) were and still are mainstays of the HS curriculum (he did not revisit Hemingway or Faulkner, though, which is fine but I would have liked a few more of those and less of the newer works).  There is a good variation in the chapter formats: some are more like fan letters, some are outlines, and a few are straight-up short essays. All chapters are short so the book is easily read in small bites.

A note about an annoying mistake:
On page 138, it is noted that Leslie S. Klinger created the feminist character of Mary Russell to rescript the Victorian Holmes. The citation is from an NPR article (link to article). However, the quotation given by Klinger is conflated with the actual author of the Mary Russell series, Laurie R. King (or, in Miss Russell’s opinion, Ms. King is Miss Russell’s literary executor) who is also interviewed in the article. Simple fact-checking. I happened to notice the error because I’ve read 90% of the Mary Russell series and I’m a bookseller besides. A reader unfamiliar with the series might not notice. I hope the error is corrected in the next printing.