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Archive for December, 2020

Sarah McCraw Crow‘s debut novel, The Wrong Kind of Woman is set in New Hampshire, where we both live (Yes, I know her; no she didn’t ask me for a review). It’s set in the early 1970’s on a fictional college campus that, as McCraw Crow notes in her acknowledgements, “bears some resemblance to Dartmouth College before coeducation.” In the opening pages, Oliver Desmarais dies hanging Christmas lights, leaving Virginia, his widow, and Rebecca, his thirteen year old daughter. Much of the book concerns how Virginia and Rebecca each deal with Oliver’s death and their new lives. Virginia copes with the fact that she gave up her own academic life when she got married and became a mother and decides to revisit her unfinished doctoral thesis over a decade later. Rebecca tries to deal with missing her dad, feeling embarrassed by her mom, and navigating early adolescence.

There is another thread in the book about Sam Waxman, a junior at the college, who is struggling to figure out where he belongs on campus, in his family, and in the world, and what he wants to do with his life. He’s a math major taking a course in a new field — computer science — learning to program and listening to lectures that predict there will be computers in every office before long. He falls for an activist who wants to involve him in plans he’s not comfortable with, but he wants to impress her, so he struggles to find a way to help.

I think what impresses me most about this book is that the characters are very believable. They are imperfect people who sometimes worry too much about what other people think, or what the best way forward might be. They stumble. Sometimes they realize they’ve done the wrong thing and try to make amends. Virginia realizes she misjudged the small group of women professors on campus because she had taken her late husband’s view rather than forming her own, for example.

I also enjoyed how McCraw Crow captured the time not just in better known historical references like the Vietnam War and protest movements, but also in things like the back to the land movement, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (which produced Our Bodies, Ourselves), frosted lipstick, and pop and jazz references. Virginia’s idea for taking her dissertation in a new direction by writing about Sarah Miriam Peale is another interesting aspect of the plot — it makes sense that a woman with an emerging sense of the women’s liberation movement and her possible role in it would choose to elevate a lesser known female member of a famous art family.

An entertaining novel about people trying to change with the times and with their changing lives. Book clubs will enjoy it — not too long, solid writing, and lots of interesting relationships to discuss.

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I’ve read previous books by Robert Harris, and especially enjoyed Pompeii and Enigma. So when I saw a New York Times review of V2 recently, I was intrigued. And then it was available to check out as an eBook right when I was ready for a quick, page-turning read. I was fascinated to read that Harris wrote this just since COVID, although he got the idea in 2016 when he saw an obituary for Eileen Younghusband and went on to read her memoirs.

V2 is the story of the rocket that Hitler hoped would turn the war around for Germany, and which Harris notes in his acknowledgements killed about 2,700 people in London and 1,700 in Antwerp, as well as 20,000 slave labourers who died building the rocket program. He also notes that it destroyed 20,000 homes and left 580,000 more damaged, causing more longstanding issues in England after the war.

Harris tells the story of the program through the recollections of Rudi Graf, a PhD engineer (who, by the way, the other character call Dr. Graf) who has worked on rocketry since he was a teen. Graf recalls his long standing friendship with the real life rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and describes the rise of the program, funded by Nazi money and built by slaves. He also remembers feeling ill about the forced labor, but being too deeply involved to extricate himself. In the novel, Graf is directing the technical aspects of the V2 launches from Holland that hit London.

Meanwhile, the other main character in V2 is a young WAAF, Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack that injures her lover. Fearing they’ve been found out by his wife and anxious to contribute more actively to thwarting the German V2s, Kay asks to be transferred from her unit, which analyzes aerial photographs, to a new unit in Belgium that will use mathematical calculations to find the V2 launch sites so the air force can bomb them. Harris alternates between Graf’s story and Kay’s as the V2 program heads towards its — and the war’s — inevitable end.

Graf is interesting, and some moments where his struggle with the immorality of his work turns to action. It’s interesting to think about whether people actually have enough agency in a regime like Nazi Germany to defy, openly or surreptitiously. And if some of them are, like Graf, a little ambiguous; he wants to see his engineering dreams realized even as he is sickened by the means and the consequences. Kay isn’t as fully realized, but parts of her story are interesting too.

I especially enjoyed thinking about this novel as I considered a thread on Twitter today about the representative who just declared he’d spend his final month or so in Congress as an independent because he has finally decided the Republican party’s full throttled support of Trumpism is too much. Many people asked “why now?” — where was this guy when children and parents were separated, white supremacy embraced, violence incited, etc? One person posted that he felt it was probably like asking someone why they don’t leave an emotionally abusive partner. It’s understandable that people who are sickened by political immorality, especially in a powerful and violent regime like Hitler’s, feel trapped, threatened, afraid — which explains why Graf kept most of his uneasiness to himself. Although plenty of people escaped.

Anyway, V2 is a quick, entertaining read that may leave you wanting to read some history.

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I’ve enjoyed several of Nick Hornby‘s books over the years. Especially High Fidelity, How to Be Good and Funny Girl. So I knew I would probably enjoy his latest, Just Like You. And I did — I read it in two nights, unfortunately two very late nights because I didn’t start reading until way too late. It’s the story of Joseph, a black twenty two year old who works in a butcher’s, a gym, and a football club as a kids’ coach, and dreams of making electronic music and being a famous DJ. And Lucy, a forty-two year old white English teacher and single mom of two boys. As in many of Hornby’s books, these main characters fall in love and then struggle to figure out what to do, whether to work at being a couple of allow things to end, etc.

The age difference causes them some consternation. For example, Joseph figures out that Lucy and his mother are the same age. Their perspectives on Brexit are different, although Joseph sees both sides. And although Hornby takes pains to make clear that interracial relationships are not an issue in London, Lucy & Joseph experience some friction. For example, when Joseph plays a new song he’s working on and Lucy suggests it needs vocals and says he must know a lot of people who can sing, and he wonders whether she thinks all black people are musical. Or when her neighbor is suspicious of a young black man at her door at night. Or when a girl he took out gives him a bit of a hard time about the rumors that he’s dating a white woman, and when he takes Lucy out to a club with his friends and is afraid it will be awkward because he thinks she dances strangely (Hornby isn’t clear about why, and implies it’s a generational difference). And yet, Hornby’s enduring belief (at least in his books) in people’s underlying kindness prevails, because even when they stumble with each other (or others), Joseph and Lucy end up redeeming themselves.

Now, I have already noted I enjoyed the book. It was entertaining, and I can see it being adapted, as so many of Hornby’s books have been, into a film. There is an entire subplot about Brexit that is interesting (it gets into who is voting which way and what, if anything they know about each other’s perspectives). Hornby as always provides amusing social commentary with plenty of little details that bring the people and places to life. And as he often does, he looks at life through the eyes of people different from each other, with different backgrounds and experiences.

But, I couldn’t help but wonder about Hornby writing from a black man’s perspective — . Then I wondered, how do I feel about him writing from a woman’s perspective? And haven’t writers down the ages written from other genders and cultures than their own? Maybe because this book is well written, entirely fictional, and at its core, an entertaining love story, I feel better about this than I did when I recently reviewed a historical novel written by a white writer about a black man? And because Hornby makes both Lucy and Joseph, and their friends and families, complex people, and not “types,” who have to understand all kinds of differences about each other. Most of them are neither “good” or “bad” but whole humans who figure out what to do or say in the moment, like most of us. And Hornby also makes it clear that Lucy and Joseph share a lot: discomfort with their parents’ views, nervousness about whether their friends will be kind to their new partners, the desire to share each others’ interests, awareness of their own differences and a desire to bridge those, love for each other and for Lucy’s sons, generosity of spirit.

I kept hunting for stereotypes, and while Hornby has some fun with London liberals who think they’re so “good” (as he does in other books), I didn’t really find any. I don’t know his view on Brexit but he’s generous to both sides and makes clear that the “debate” in the public sphere wasn’t terribly helpful to actual publics, which is probably pretty accurate, if American “debates” are anything similar. I read a review that implied Joseph’s interests in football and DJing are “cultural” stereotypes, but I have a white son who at 22 was very into both. There are plenty of 22 year olds who are into some kind of sport and some kind of music, regardless of their “cultural” background. The same reviewer took issue with Hornby using urban slang. I wondered, again, if that isn’t more or less what writers have always done. And whether that is just his screenwriter’s ear for detail at work. I could see this being a good movie.

Anyway, this was a fun, humorous read, but with enough interesting materials to discuss (age differences in relationships, family dynamics, how the Brexit vote was presented to the public) to make it potentially interesting to book clubs that like love stories.

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Our younger offspring gave her father The Body: a Guide for Occupants by family favorite Bill Bryson last Christmas. It caught my eye when I was clearing piles of books off the table in the living room (actually just moving to the shelf underneath) to put out a candle carousel nativity scene the first Sunday in Advent. That was nearly two weeks ago. At 383 pages plus notes, this book is a commitment.

Bryson’s writing is as delightful as ever. As in his previous books, he tracked down stories of little known accomplishments and forgotten heroes, this time in the history of health and physiology. There are plenty of human interest stories throughout the book — I had no idea how many people have experimented on themselves, or their family members, for the advancement of science. Like Ernest Lawrence, who used the cyclotron he invented for his research as a physicist to shoot radiation at his mother’s cancer (it worked).

Bryson also relishes debunking myths, such as this beloved trope: “The more or less univeral belief that we should all walk ten thousand steps a day — that’s about five miles — is not a bad idea, but it has no special basis in science. Clearly, any ambulation is likely to be beneficial, but the notion that there is a universal magic number of steps that will give us health and longevity is a myth. The ten thousand-step idea is often attributed to a single study done in Japan in the 1960s, though it appears that also may be a myth.”

Even better, he goes on to say that the CDC’s recommendation for the amount of exercise one should get in a week is “. . . based not on the optimal amount needed for health, because no one can say what that is, but on what the CDC’s advisers think people will perceive as realistic goals.” Well, that’s not very reassuring, is it? Bryson reveals all kinds of myths and misconceptions, and repeatedly reminds readers that science is a process of discovering not only what we know, but also expanding what we don’t know. It’s refreshing to read a popular science writer who is unafraid of uncertainty. I spent a fair amount of time over the past three years in University of Edinburgh’s Science Communication and Public Engagement graduate program thinking about how to communicate uncertainty without causing people to distrust science. Bryson does it very well.

To be clear, Bryson also notes when the science is settled, which isn’t often. My takeaway is that moderation is generally a safe bet — be reasonable about sleep, food, exercise, etc. I heard an interview with Bryson last year (it may have been this one, from BBC’s Science Focus podcast) where he said the most important thing we can do to live longer is not sit around. Sitting is worse for us than most things. Which sucks, since most of us sit a fair bit; even more during COVID when we don’t have any other offices to wander into and have a chat during the workday.

Anyway, because of the subject matter, not the writing, I was ready for the book to end. Which it does, fittingly, with a chapter called The End (how we die and decompose). Nearly 400 pages of detailed information about how the various systems of the human body work (or stop working properly), what can go wrong, and how ineffectual or misguided much of what we do to take care of ourselves actually is, was plenty. If you are a Bryson fan, or like good science writing generally, The Body is certainly a good read. And in retrospect it might be a good book to leave on a living room table and dip into, rather than tackling all at once.

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