Review(s): ‘The Botany of Desire’ and ‘Cloud Atlas’

I feel guilty because I have been very remiss in my blogging duties. Other things have been consuming my evenings, and it’s taken me longer than usual to finish my latest book (Cloud Atlas). There always seems to be so many things to do. As it is now, I’m getting sleepy and I’m wondering if my evening of reading has meant I’ve forgotten to do something else (feed the kitten? lock the garage? take out the recycling?), so I’m going to try to write up two short(er than usual) reviews of the latest books I’ve read: The Botany of Desire and Cloud Atlas.

It really is a shame my blogging slump has come now, after reading two such wonderful books that I really have loved, but there it is. If I wait any longer, I know I’ll forget so many things I wanted to say about both, or I may never get around to writing them down. And when that happens, that’s really the tragedy.

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The Botany of Desire
By Michael Pollan

  • Date Finished: June 26, 2015
  • Genre: Science
  • Year: 2001
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2015
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

The Botany of Desire has, and will, become one of the few books that I just love talking about with anyone. Anyone, I tell you! Even people at my high school reunion who profess not to read, I’ll even talk about this book to THEM, and damn it if they’re bored. This book really was everything I thought it would be ever since I first saw it at Half-Price Books in 2009-10, where I was working at the time. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma earlier and just loved it, so I was on the lookout for anything by Pollan. This book answered that, as well as my curiosity and interest in the workings and order of the natural world, ecology, and botany (blame those silly science classes I was forced to take as an English major in college).

This book is pretty much great – there’s no other way to put it. Pollan takes an interesting approach to plants and botany in this relatively short book, written before The Omnivore’s Dilemma made him mega-famous. He takes four very common, very well-known plants – the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato – and explores their lives in relation to humans and the history of human desire. These plants have been majorly impacted in a variety of ways via their interaction with society, whether it’s the happy marijuana plants that flourish under controlled grow lamps, to the changing face (and taste) of the American apple when put up against market demands, to the inconspicuous flower that inspired an economic meltdown.

What I found most interesting, though, was the discussion of who is using who. Given that we all accept the concept of natural and artificial selection, it’s easy to see how the American apple tree has evolved, based on which apples people like best. But just as plants produce colorful flowers in order to attract the bees they need to survive, couldn’t we also say that a flower like the tulip uses the whims of its human admirers in order to ensure its own survival? Plants bend to the whim of humans’ desire, but humans also help those self-same plants fulfill their own deepest desire – sexual reproduction.

This book explores this topic and more, while also diving deep into the interesting histories surrounding the four star plants. There’s a particularly hilarious anecdote about Pollan accidentally growing a giant marijuana plant. I also learned a heck of a lot about plants, human culture, and how we interact with the resources around us. It’s pretty much everything I could ask for in a fun non-fiction, science read – and by that, I mean pretty great.

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Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell

  • Date Finished: July 14, 2015
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Year: 2004
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • Reading List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

I didn’t know what to expect from Cloud Atlas, although based on so many awe-struck, baffled reviews, I think I was expecting something incredibly complex and confusing, as well as something so densely written, I wouldn’t be able to see straight. Maybe Jonathan Franzen-like, or akin to David Foster Wallace.

I’m glad that initial impression was wrong . It did take me quite awhile to finish the book, although I attribute that to a big uptick at work, resulting in me forgoing my usual book at lunch. As I said above, stuff has been happening in recent weeks (a new kitten! house guests! a funeral! a high school reunion!), and coupled with the ten thousands things that need doing around here, I feel like I have less and less time to myself these days. No matter! I finished tonight, and I’m happy to report that despite a very slow start, things turned out awesome.

Cloud Atlas, as many reviewers and movie trailers will tell you, is a Russian nesting doll of a novel. The book follows six seemingly separate stories that take place on different continents and at vastly different places in time. The way David Mitchell structures this narrative is particularly fascinating, and if you’ve haven’t read it yet, I’ll leave that for you to discover. Cloud Atlas, however, is about more than that. It’s about the cyclical and repetitive nature of time. It’s about rebirth and souls moving through different times and places, only to fall for the same trappings of human nature again and again. It’s also a warning lesson, a story about what happens when humanity’s greed and selfishness is left unchecked over hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s about the evolution of society, and the end of civilization as we know it.

I will say, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book – somewhere in the first Somni section – that I really started to get into it and understand the very subtle connections Mitchell was making. This book takes patience. I’ve read several bloggers who complain that they couldn’t get through the first 10 pages and put it down, never to try again. To that I say – I’m sorry for you. Slog through the first story of Adam Ewing as best you can, because once you really hit a groove with this book, it’s hard to put down.

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Read This: Can Reading Make You Happier? (Of course!)

So many quotes from this fascinating New Yorker piece. Where to start:

In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

Also:

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans only start to develop around the age of four.

read thisCheck out Can Reading Make You Happy? in The New Yorker

Review: ’11/22/63′

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11/22/63
By Stephen King

  • Date Finished: June 16, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2011
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2015
  • Grade: A-

For being such a die-hard Stephen King fan, 11/22/63 kind of snuck up on me. At some point, I think, J must have bought it for me, because one day while I was casually browsing my own bookshelves (as one does), I came across this very pristine copy in the trade paperback edition, which is unusual considering my book-buying habits. I must have forgotten about it [sad]. However, while making my summer reading list, I always try to sneak in one Stephen King (since a frightening and disturbing yarn is my idea of light beach reading), and this seemed perfect.

And it was! Gosh, how many ways can I yammer on about King’s ability to write such perfectly engrossing tales? Wait, I already have? Ten thousand times, you say? Just on this blog, you say? Thank goodness we don’t know you in person, you say?

Now, SK has been known to kill some trees with his tomes, and 11/22/63 is no exception (850 pages … yikes!). And so in the opposite spirit of this book, I am going to try to contain my comments to two subjects.

First, this is a really interesting, really fascinating story. The premise King plays with here is time travel, specifically, one guy’s quest to go back to 1960’s America and prevent the assassination of JFK. He’s convinced (or, someone has convinced him) that doing so will prevent much of the social unrest that unfolded in the succeeding decades, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam War. Along the way, our hero (Jake) has plenty of stuff to deal with.

Not too much of it is the typical Stephen King-style “stuff”, however. The only real supernatural element in this book is the “wormhole” that allows Jake to travel back to one specific moment in time – September 9, 1958. The wormhole (which is geographically bound in the storage room of a small town diner in Maine) also dumps you out into the exact same spot in that moment of time. It’s an interesting idea of time travel – more of the accidental rip in reality premise, rather than a mean you can bend to your will.

I did have my issues, though. First off, I’ve read a lot of Stephen King, and like most writers, his best characters are those he knows intimately inside and out. The young guy growing up in the 1960’s. The dad/writer in the 1980’s. These people are Stephen King. These are times and places where he lived, and thus, those characters that also live in that time and space feel the most real. King’s ability to make his characters feel like authentic human beings is one of the things I love best about him.

In this book, I feel King falls back on what he knows best … while in reality, it’s not the best thing to do. You see, our hero Jake is in his 30’s in 2011. That means he was born in 1976. But does Jake feel like a real, authentic 30-something dude who grew up during the 80’s and 90’s? No. Instead, we have a character who we’re told is 35ish, but who sounds and talks like he was born a generation earlier. In Stephen King’s generation, that is. In one scene, Jake accidentally belts out a Rolling Stones tune while cruising along in 1962, startling his girlfriend. But my question is: why isn’t Jake singing something more culturally relevant to his generation? In that moment, I realized that Jake didn’t feel authentic to me, which is disappointing because it’s one of King’s strong suits.

Along those same lines, the entire premise of the novel seemed a bit shaky to me. OK, OK … discover a wormhole that will take you to the past. Cool, let’s work with that. There’s so many things you can do! But what does our hero decide to do? He decides to … prevent the assassination of JFK?

First of all, Jake is not a history buff and really has no conception of the historical, social, and political ramifications of what preventing that event will mean. Second, the only reason Jake decides to go on this crazy, life-changing adventure (one that will require him to live 5 years in the past) is because the dying man who discovered the wormhole … a guy Jake first describes as a passing acquaintance … is convinced this is the right thing to do. Does Jake use the critical thinking skills he should have (being a high school English teacher) to ask himself, “Wait, I know I like this guy, but is he right? Isn’t messing with history a really big deal? Doesn’t this have the potential to go really-really-really wrong? And what do I know about JFK anyway? I was born in 1976.”

Does he ask himself these questions? No. Instead, he barrels along on an adventure to save the president, with nary a glance back. I don’t know. I feel like if you’re going to write a book about time travel, and using time travel to change the course of history, your underlying premise and motivations should be more … solid. I found myself questioning the book out loud multiple times (don’t worry, I made sure to do it when no one else was around), and it kept bugging me right until the (very, very, good) end. At least there was that.

Read This: Why we shouldn’t worry too much about the “technology of books”

…wondering aloud why some are in such a rush to discard a technology that has endured for centuries. “It’s not as if books have lost an argument. The problem is there hasn’t been an argument. Technology always gets a free pass. … [People] take it for granted that if the technology is new it must be better.

read thisCheck out Technology of Books Has Changed, But Bookstores Are Hanging In There from NPR

Read This: The perils and pitfalls in academic publishing

All of this has led to a new model of disseminating social science research through the media. Several economists at top departments said colleagues were now tailoring and pitching their academic papers to journalists, rather than writing papers and allowing the news media to discover them on their own.

One danger is that many journalists are not equipped to distinguish good science from shoddy science. That is a particular risk when the work does not wend its way through the usual academic channels before entering the
news media’s consciousness.

Having interned at a scholarly publisher while in graduate school … and still being very interested in the field … and having once wrote a research paper on this subject that was named a national finalist for an information science and technology organization …  I found this article particularly fascinating.

read thisSee Beyond Publish or Perish: Academics Seek a Big Splash in the New York Times

 

Review: ‘Ethan Frome’

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Ethan Frome
By Edith Wharton

  • Date finished: June  3, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1911
  • Project: Revisiting the Classics Project
  • Reading List: Summer 2015
  • Grade: A-
  • Thoughts:

When I started my Revisiting the Classics Project many years ago, I didn’t know what I’d discover when I set out to re-read all the classics I had once taken a dislike to. For many of the books, re-reading them merely reaffirmed my initial impressions and prejudices – I still didn’t like The Scarlet Letter, nor the Lord of the Flies. However, giving Emma a second chance was one of the best reading decisions I’ve ever made, and nearly 10 years after graduating high school, I finally understood a little bit of The Catcher in the Rye.

I’m happy to say that re-reading Ethan Frome is another check in the “I’m-glad-I-gave-this-another-chance” column. I can’t say when, and in what context, I first read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, though I want to say it was in high school, but not for a class. It was around the time that I decided I needed to “educate” myself outside of the books we read in English class, so I began picking obvious classics during our daily SSR (sustained silent reading) period. The Red Badge of Courage was one. Ethan Frome was another. I’m guessing I picked it because it was short.

I don’t remember much of what I actually thought of the book, except that it was boring. I also had a good friend at the time, and when we hung out together, we thought very highly of our wit and “intellectualism”. Anyway, I remember this friend making some joke about how dull Ethan Frome was, and then I distinctly remember me laughing along, probably saying stuff like, “Ah yes yes, it simply was atrocious. What do they think they’re trying to say, with all that sledding down hills?”

Anyway, that was me being a bit of a 17-year-old asshole, as we all are sometimes. Anyway, that random recollection has colored my opinions of Ethan Frome for many years now, and all I can say now is, “Thank God I’ve managed to get over myself, stop being such an asshole, and learned to love Ethan Frome.”

Sure, not much happens in this book. The primary action takes place over the course of a few days, and in fact, much of the “action” is largely internal, happening inside the head of our tormented, sad hero Ethan, a poor farmer living in a remote village in upstate New York around the turn of the century. What follows is a recollection of the stifled yet passionate adulterous relationship between himself and his wife’s cousin. As our narrator explains to us very early on, things do not end well for poor Ethan. But yet, we as readers are swept away by his sad tale of longing, and reminded of the bittersweet nature of love, passion, and loss.

I think what changed my interpretation of Ethan Frome was actually, finally, reading the introduction (you would think I do these things more often). There, I learned that Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome in the aftermath of a passionate, yet disappointing, extramarital affair. This book is very different from the Edith Wharton that I know – specifically, from the young, wealthy, urbanites in The Age of Innocence. And yet, knowing where Wharton was in her personal life while writing this book, I feel that makes Ethan Frome all that more special – a quiet statement, deposition, and plea from the author. Because the scope of this story is very limited, readers are able to become intimately acquainted with Ethan. We feel his hopelessness, his passion, his longing, his sadness, his loneliness, his desperation.

I don’t want to say that this book is a warning against extramarital affairs and other sins of the like; instead, I believe this small, quiet book is about being human. It’s about feeling trapped between duty and doing the right thing, and giving in to deep-seated passions and desires. One is not necessarily the “right choice” when compared with its opposite. Instead, life is about the moments when you’re faced with the decision of one or the other, making that decision, and then living with the consequences. Sometimes affairs of the sort Ethan fantasizes about, and Wharton actually engaged in, don’t end well. A lot of the times, they end miserably. But does that mean that that initial decision to enter into such an affair is wrong? What if it’s the difference between being happy and free, and being miserable and lonely? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Regardless, once you give in, there are consequences. Dealing with those consequences is where life happen, and that kind of life is exactly we see in Ethan Frome. It’s a wonderful, poignantly-written story, and one that deserves a bit more credit.

Review: ‘Music for Chameleons’

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Music for Chameleons
By Truman Capote

  • Date Finished: May 27, 2015
  • Genre: Short Stories, Narrative Nonfiction
  • Year: 1980
  • Project: Favorites Project
  • Reading List: Spring 2015, 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25
  • Grade: A+
  • Thoughts:

I feel like I’ve given a lot of books an A+ this year – more than in years’ past, that’s for sure. But this A+ is worth it because it’s part of my Favorites Project, it’s Truman Capote, and it’s the book that made me fall in love with Truman Capote – so much so that, after reading this book, I counted him among my favorite authors.

I actually don’t want to say too much about Music for Chameleons because I feel like knowing about this book takes away some of its magic. That’s, at least, how I feel given that so much of the pleasure I derived from reading this book came from the sheer surprise of, “This is a book by Truman Capote?” If all you’ve read of Truman Capote is Breakfast with Tiffany’s, then you’re truly missing out. I contend that Music for Chameleons is one of Capote’s most lyrical, sweetest books, even if it’s only a collection of brief stories, most of them true. We see Capote playing around with the narrative nonfiction style he pioneered in In Cold Blood with another chilling crime story, as well as quirky line-by-line recollections of conversations Capote held with various individuals during his life, from his cleaning lady to Marilyn Monroe.

And so if you’ve never thought of reading this book – try it. Give it a shot. You may not know anything about it. You may never have heard of it before today. But sometimes, when you give a book a chance, it can change your reading life forever. This was one of those books that did it for me.