He also knows how to tell stories. The first chapter contrasts the biographies of two of DNA’s discoverers, Mendel and the less well-known, Johannes Friedrich Miescher, who because he studied fish slime had to work in very cold conditions so that his material would not deteriorate before he could examine it. And who knew that Mendel joined a monastery so he could secure a university education? His passion for raising peas taught us so much about human inheritance.
This book tackles and at least partially answers many of life’s great questions including: Why did it take eons for life to become complex? What is our most ancient DNA? Why do humans have no more DNA than so many smaller, less complex creatures? Why did we almost become extinct? Why did we break away from monkeys? Is the impulse for art conveyed by our DNA? Why are identical twins not identical? Read more »
Do you like spy novels? Ones that mix in politics and love? If so McEwan’s Sweet Tooth is for you.
It’s set in the rollicking early 70s in England—a time of drugs, rock and roll, miniskirts, and--on a more serious note--women’s entry into careers en masse. It tells the story of Selena, a bright vicar’s daughter who loves to read and read fast. Her mother, in the only moment of life- dissatisfaction she’s ever expressed to her daughter, advises Selena to go to Cambridge and study “maths” so she can have a challenging career. Selena, being the good older daughter, follows her mom’s advice and gives up studying literature for something better career-wise.
But Selena’s real education begins the summer after college. An older tutor she meets through a boyfriend soon becomes her lover. In the process he teaches her about food, wine, politics, international relations, and how to read the newspapers for hidden facts and government policies. He’s grooming her for a role in M15, the spy service. But then Tony leaves her abruptly after an argument so Selena goes to London and does find a job with M15. Read more »
if missing capitals drive you crazy, this may not be the book for you. however, i hope you will try it because the colour of milkbrims with a young girl’s voice. despite the fact that she lives on an english farm and does back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk under her brutal father’s command, mary still possesses a sense of wonder at the world.
the time period covers the years of our lord, 1831 and -32. throughout this compelling novel, mary repeats over and over “this is my book and I am writing it in my own hand.” you’ll have to finish it to understand why these words resonate.
mary shares the harsh farm work with her mother and three sisters. violet sneaks off at night for sensual adventures in the hay loft. (mary discovers this when she goes out to press her head against the cow she loves dearly and almost the only creature who gives her any comfort). whenever she is not working, beatrice holds a bible in her hand, but when she recites what is inside it, mary notices that she’s holding it upside down. hope suffers from the same bad temper as their father and dreams of living in her own house with a rich husband. Read more »
If you look back to those long summer afternoons of reading during your childhood with longing, this book is for you. Three years after losing her beautiful and talented older sister, Anne-Marie, to cancer, Nina Sankovitch decided to do something she had long dreamed of doing, making books central to her life again. Of course as the mother of three teens and one preteen—all boys—she didn’t have much free time. But from Oct. 28, 2008 to the same date in 2009—Nina read and read and read some more.
In the intervening years after her sister’s death, Nina had kept fiendishly busy, driving, cooking, cleaning, heading committees, and organizing literary projects--all the myriad duties of raising a family and being involved in her Connecticut community. But each day she felt guilty to be alive because her sister had died. This lovely book is both a tribute to a sister, and a memoir of their relationship. It’s also a narrative about how concentrating on reading finally healed Nina, so that she was eager to go forward again.
Nina resurrected (reupholstered) the big purple chair that one of their cats had made its own by spraying on it. Here in this regal chair for two, three, even four hours a day, Nina both lost and found herself through books.
Besides telling Anne-Marie’s story, Tolstoy and the Purple Chairalso relates the story of her father, Anatole, who lost three aunts and uncles in a shooting during WW 2. All were shot in his family’s kitchen in Poland while their terrified Read more »
No other author manages to squeeze so much historical detail and under-the-surface emotion into her short stories as Canadian writer, Alice Munro. Her short fiction has enthralled me for years. Although she’s written a novel or two, almost her whole output—17 published books—is in the short story form.
In Munro’s stories time is never strictly chronological. Munro artfully flits between the present and the past. She never loses control. Her transitions are seamless; the reader never has to search or root around for the correct time and place. Also, important to these stories is the emotional arc.
Dear Lifeis her most personal collection yet. To the ten stories included, Munro has added four memoir pieces that are not fiction, although Munro said that she fictionalized certain elements of them. If you’ve read the author’s other collections, you’ll recognize the farmland and small towns near Lake Huron, marked by poverty that Munro returns to again and again. There’s also the young girl or woman breaking away from her family, seeking a better life. Sexuality often becomes a main theme and the endings are seldom happily-ever-after, but more like life, both good and bad, always complicated. Read more »
Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel The Lifeboatrestores your faith in 21st century writing. In this historical novel, two narratives intertwine: the more dramatic one being the story of the shipwreck of the Princess Alexandria during the first months of WWI on a voyage from England to America. The second story is about Grace, a young woman whose family has suffered a financial collapse. Suddenly, needing to make her own way in the world, Grace’s choices are narrow: to become a governess or find a rich husband—Grace being resourceful and not wanted to be tied down by a job with long hours and little pay chooses the latter.
She finds her husband material in an unlikely place: the engagement listings of a London society paper. Henry Winter, an American financier, is handsome and rich and works for a company rapidly increasing in power and influence. Amazingly, this part of the plan works. They marry and set off for America. On the ship, as a sign of her newly altered status, Grace and Henry are invited to sit at the captain’s table.
But there Grace’s good luck ends. For one thing, Henry has not cabled his parents about the marriage, and seems reluctant to do so. His parents send him telegrams about his “former” fiancée but does she even know that she’s become history to him? In the middle of the night the Empress explodes—mysteriously—and the new bride finds Read more »
In The Last Runaway(as in all Tracy Chevalier’s historical novels), you feel as though you are living exactly in the time period that she is describing. Her combination of research, realistic dialogue, characters true to the day, plus her skill at capturing the myriad details of daily life make her writing very believable. In this novel, Chevalier transports us back to 1850s Ohio to a small town at the edge of the wilderness. But first, we experience a grueling ocean voyage from Quaker Honor Bright’s perspective.
Honor Bright accompanies her sister to America where Grace plans to wed someone from their English hometown. After Honor suffers terrible seasickness on the journey, she refuses to take the lake route to Ohio, so they proceed by train and carriage. However Grace comes down with yellow fever and dies on the trip. Not knowing what else to do, Honor continues the journey to Faithwell, Ohio.
She catches yellow fever also and stops in Wellington at a local milliner’s shop. Belle Mills takes her in. Unfortunately, she’s already met Belle’s brother on the journey. Donovan is a slave hunter and he has stolen the key to Honor’s trunk after ransacking the carriage while searching for runaway slaves. Read more »
TED talks, “pay yourself in chard,” shoeless Microsoft techies, Molly Moon ice cream--you don’t have to be a current or ex-Seattleite to enjoy this funny book by Hollywood scriptwriter (Arrested Development) Maria Semple. If you’ve ever lived in a politically correct zone (Bloomington anyone?), you’ll recognize many of the interpersonal dynamics pictured here. Where’d You Go, Bernadettetells the story of a family—Bernadette, Bee, and Elgin Branch-- and their relationship to their child’s school community.
Bernadette, a former architect and MacArthur genius award winner, has given up working on any creative projects to devote herself to her family. Her daughter Bee was born with a serious heart condition and for years Bernadette felt that she could not commit herself to any new designs due to her daughter’s condition. But Bernadette, a woman full of prodigious talent and energy, has been driving herself and everyone around her nuts while her husband worked his way up the Microsoft hierarchy.
Minor Seattle annoyances set her off, say five-way traffic interchanges where one waits an eon for a turn at the green light. Too friendly Canadians provoke Bernadette’s ire also. And turning her almost ballistic are messages from her Read more »
The defining moment of Kati Marton’s life occurred when she was six and the police came for her mother during the Hungarian Revolution. Her mother was imprisoned for a year, joining her father in prison. The authorities forced Marton and her sister to move in with strangers. Before that their lives had been blessed especially by Communist Hungary standards. Kati’s parents had hired a French nanny and she learned to speak French as a child.
If you love Paris or even if you are just curious about life in the famous city, this memoir makes a good read. I wasn’t familiar with Kati Marton’s books or journalism—she worked as a foreign correspondent for ABC news and NPR—so this memoir made a nice introduction to her work.
Marton was one of the first women to be hired as an international corresponded for ABC. She met Peter Jennings in London before beginning her post to German in the 1970s. They fell in love and began an international romance that was mostly centered in Paris. But before that Kati had studied abroad in the city of light during the momentous year of 1968. She came from the States where her parents had emigrated after leaving prison. Read more »
I journeyed back into the 1950s with this novel about a closeted gay editor. It’s all here: the strong prejudice against homosexuality, the gender stereotyping, the cold war, the loyalty oaths, friend turning against friend and colleague against colleague. Some accused Communists leap out high-rise windows when their livelihoods are destroyed.
But McCarthyism is just a side issue in this intriguing novel—The Man on the Third Floor centers on a very successful editor who has a secret domestic life. When he and his wife, Phyllis, and their two young children move back to New York after the World War II years in Washington, Phyllis decides they can afford a house of their own. They—rather she—finds a nice brownstone with three floors, the top of which was originally servant quarters. But Phyllis is a modern woman, college-educated who worked in radio and journalism until she had children, and she’s not keen on having servants live with them.
But one day, a very handsome man comes to measure Walter’s office for new carpeting. Although Walter has had only one sexual experience with another male in his life--he was raped at camp as a teenager--he immediately finds himself inviting Barry, the carpet man, to a bar. Almost immediately, he offers him a job as a driver despite the fact the family owns no car, and soon gives him a room on their third floor. For some reason, Phyllis agrees to both ideas. Read more »