Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Crime, ethics and truth   Leave a comment

In Bad City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Pringle provides an in-depth look at the culture of silence regarding scandals at the University of Southern California while addressing the threat to journalistic integrity at the Los Angeles Times.

When Pringle, a Times investigative reporter, gets a tip about Carmen Puliafito, then dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine involving drug abuse he’s initially skeptical.

Through diligent inquiry, Pringle pursues the doctor’s activities, which include dispensing and using illegal drugs. His wealth and power allow him to lead a double life as a respected member of academia and the medical community. He’s also the manipulating lover of a much younger woman to whom he provided drugs, money and apartments.

Inquiries to USC are dismissed at the same time his editors attempt to quash the story. Slowly, Pringle suspects a conflict of interest with the paper and its relationship with the renowned university. This only further motivates him to continue his probe.

Pringle is able to substantiate his story, but his editors want more thus delaying publication. When it’s evident the story will languish indefinitely, he and a handful of other reports secretly work to expose the Times and USC connection.

While the focus is on Puliafito, Pringle also addresses other USC scandals including the gynecologist who sexually abused hundreds of women; and the Varsity Blues scandal involving bribes to gain admission to elite colleges and universities around the country.

Pringle successfully challenged both the power in play USC while championing journalism’s important role.

Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels

Four Bookmarks

Celadon Books, 2022

289 pages including acknowledgements and notes

More than scientific inquiry   Leave a comment

The best books are those you don’t want to pick up because once you do, you don’t want to put them down. It’s a conundrum.  Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is one such book. It’s a love story (on many levels) wrapped in science, specifically chemistry.

Elizabeth Zott is not a woman to be dismissed. Even after her post-graduate education is derailed due to sexual assault, she’s relentless in her pursuit of science.

Well ahead of her time in the late 1950s early ‘60s, she refuses to let her gender restrict her dreams, nor does she allow her good looks to dictate how’s she’s perceived. She’s exceptionally intelligent with a strong sense of self and a desire to be a chemist in the male-dominated scientific community.

She’s hired at a research lab where she meets Calvin Evans, a socially-awkward but distinguished scientist.  A relationship based on mutual respect, desire and, ultimately, love flourishes despite the ill-will of their colleagues.

Garmus deftly illustrates the sexism and hypocrisy of the era.  Yet, this is not a male-bashing narrative. When circumstances change, Elizabeth finds another way – round-about though it is – to pursue a career in chemistry: she hosts a television cooking show where she takes an unusual approach. Instead of identifying ingredients by their common names, she uses scientific terminology (ie., sodium chloride vs salt). Surprisingly, the program is a hit.

Humor and tragedy are incorporated in equal measures with several endearing characters the reader would love to spend more time with.

Lessons in Chemistry

Five Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2022

390 pages (includes acknowledgements)

In Einstein’s Shadow   Leave a comment

Thanks to National Geographic’s limited TV series, “Genius,” several years ago, I knew of Albert and Mileva Einstein’s marriage and his dismissal of her. Marie Benedict’s fictionalized account of her life in The Other Einstein adds nothing new.

It does, however, reinforce my negative perception of Albert. More disappointing is the portrayal of Mileva. Although her brilliance is never underplayed, she’s rendered as a weak, indecisive woman where Albert is concerned.

The narrative focuses on their courtship, which begins at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich where she and Albert are studying physics. It soon becomes evident that she is an excellent student, despite being scorned by her professor because she is a woman.

Her gender is a constant obstacle to her ability to make a name for herself as a scientist. Benedict gives credence to Mileva’s contributions to numerous theories, particularly that of relativity for which Albert is, perhaps, most well-known. Although. her name is never included in any of the studies.

In Benedict’s hands, Albert is a selfish, insensitive man. Mileva recognizes this, yet she still falls for him. The relationship distracts from her ability to obtain her degree. She becomes pregnant, something Albert comes to view as an impediment to his own future. When their daughter is born, he has nothing to do with her.

I have enjoyed Benedict’s other novels about interesting, strong women in men’s shadows. However, this is the most unsatisfying. Mileva is pathetic in her vulnerability to what she mistakenly sees as Albert’s charms.

The Other Einstein

Two Bookmarks

Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016

304 pages

Counting on one another   Leave a comment

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Some things aren’t as simple as One Two Three, the title of Laurie Frankel’s novel about triplets who call themselves by those numbers. Their given names are Mab (One), Monday (Two) and Mirabel (Three). They live in the small town of Bourne, where 17 years ago the poisonous discharge from a chemical plant turned its water green with many residents suffering a range of illnesses and repercussions.

This was the cause of the girls’ father’s death, shortly before they were born. Their mother has been fighting for justice ever since, and the triplets were not left untouched. Mirabel is considered a genius, but she only has the use of one hand to control her wheelchair and voice box. Monday will only eat yellow foods, does not like to be touched and has assumed the role of the town librarian. Books are stashed throughout the family’s small home. Only Mab is left unscathed, which is not necessarily as easy as one might think.

When plans are announced to reopen the plant, despite assurances from the owners that things will be different, the girls become detectives certain there are secrets to unearth.

Chapters are alternately narrated by one of the triplets, each providing her own perspective. The narrative incorporates laugh-out-loud humor, instances of impending doom and even a sense of joy as the girls work together despite their physical and mental limitations. Mab, meanwhile, is distracted by a love interest. Yet, despite their differences and abilities, they’re committed to uncovering the truth.

One Two Three

Four-and-half bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2021

400 pages

Race has several meanings   Leave a comment

Horse by Geraldine Brooks is much more than about the equestrian world. Along with some history of horse racing, other topics include slavery, art history, modern science and even romance. However, racism is the primary underlying theme throughout.

The narrative incorporates several threads across different, non-chronological time periods: 1850-75; 1954; and 2019. Blending perspectives and experiences of several characters across time to create a complete picture is one of Brooks’ trademarks.

Although Theo, a Black art history graduate student in Washington, D.C., in 2019, is the first character introduced, readers spend the most time with a 13-year-old slave identified by his masters’ name as Warfield’s Jarret in 1850. As the story progresses and Jarret matures, his owners’ names change as do his situations. Jarret has inherited his father’s horse training skills making a name for himself as an exceptional trainer working with Lexington, a thoroughbred whose lineage now extends through generations.

Other major characters include Jess, an Australian scientist working at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History; Thomas J. Scott, a 19th century artist, whose paintings of Lexington are a significant part of the plot; several of Lexington’s owners; and a 20th century gallery owner.

A discarded painting of a horse leads Theo to learn more about the work, and Jess to discover more about its subject.

As the novel moves back and forth through time, the issue of race remains a constant. Brooks’ deft approach provides an engaging look into the past and an important reflection on our times.

Horse

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Viking, 2022

401 pages (including “Lexington’s Historical Connections”)

Improving the Palate   Leave a comment

After watching the HBO series about Julia Child and how she not only elevated American cuisine but also played a significant role in the rise of Public Television, I became interested in Judith Jones.

Jones edited Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As a fictional work, the TV series played with some facts, not just about the Childs, but also Jones. This led me to her memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.

Jones grew up in a privileged family where food was given little attention. If not for the family cook, meals would have been completely uninspired. Food was meant to be consumed not talked about. This makes it fascinating to learn about how not only her palate but also her passion evolved.

Jones approach is unassuming and engaging. Yes, she drops names, as in culinary celebrities, but not before she shares her experiences as a college coed in New York City and Paris. The City of Lights is where she met the loves of her life: Evan who she would marry and fine cuisine.

After spending several years in Paris, The Joneses return to New York, where she worked first at Doubleday and later at Knopf. It was there she saved The Diary of Anne Frank from oblivion and made her name as an editor.

Jones recounts her interaction with chefs, her own cooking endeavors and her efforts that helped home cooks move from the bland to the sublime. Jones also includes many recipes in the memoir.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food

Four Bookmarks

Anchor Books, 2007

290 pages, includes photos and index

Looking forward   2 comments

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible is bleak; it’s not for kids. It’s a cross between Bless the Beasts and the Children and The Road; it’s an allegory about climate change.

Ironically-named Eve narrates. On vacation at a lakeside mansion, she’s one of 12 children whose parents pass the time drinking and doing drugs.  The kids have nothing but disdain for the neglectful adults. Instead, they create their own games and adventures, including a camping trip via canoes to the shore.

These are not your average youths. They carefully plan their excursion ensuring they bring the right supplies. They also know that when weather alerts forecast a major storm it’s time to return to the estate.

To their credit, the parents are aware of the approaching tempest, which evolves into a storm of massive proportions. However, once power is lost and food supplies run low, it’s the adolescents who understand it’s time to go. Unable to convince their parents how urgent the situation is, the kids leave them behind.

Tension builds as the children discover their world is now an apocalyptic nightmare.  Although they encounter kindness from some adults, they also face armed men willing to battle for any resources needed to survive.

Eve’s little brother, Jack, has a picture book of Bible stories with many connecting to the dire conditions.

Relying on the younger generation to first recognize the danger caused by the storm and then seek solutions is symbolic given the existing climate crisis.

A Children’s Bible

Almost Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton, 2020

224 pages

A Holy Matrimony   Leave a comment

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings is the kind of creative and well-researched novel that’s hard to put down. The premise is based on the idea of what if Jesus had married?

It’s addressed with the fictional portrayal of the life of Ana, Jesus’s wife.  As the daughter in a wealthy family in Galilee, Ana is expected to bide her time until she is suitably married. However, this is not what she sees as her life’s objective. Instead, she surreptitiously studies and writes about women whose lives are ignored or silenced. This is her personal rebellion in a patriarchal society.

Ana first briefly meets Jesus in a Galilean markets. She’s drawn to him but can’t explain why.  Through some not-so-chance subsequent meetings, they become further acquainted.

The author draws from the Bible and fills in the blanks with Ana’s life, from her near-arranged marriage with a much older man, to her ultimate union with Jesus, and later her escape from Galilee to Alexandria with her intrepid aunt.

Interestingly, Jesus is a minor character, as are his mother and his brothers. The focus is on Ana. Once married, although she has Jesus’s support and appreciation of her talents as a writer, she is too busy on the family compound near Nazareth to pursue such aspirations.

Tension builds as Ana and Jesus independently evade authorities for different transgressions. Jesus’s fate is known, Ana’s isn’t. However, her intelligence, passion and understanding of Jesus’s purpose, in Kidd’s hands, make her the ideal partner.

The Book of Longings

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2020

418 pages

Love in the time of chaos   Leave a comment

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez  is beautifully written with tough themes portrayed with a disarming touch. Abandonment, betrayal, family secrets, relationships, rebellion and politics are among the many themes throughout this debut work.

Olga and her older brother, Prieto, were abandoned by their mother, a revolutionary for Puerto Rico’s independence. The children were raised in Brooklyn by their father, a former activist, before dying from AIDs, the result of his heroin addiction.  Relatives, especially their grandmother, took charge. Despite this rocky upbringing, Olga and Prieto are seemingly successful adults. She’s a wedding planner and he’s a congressman.

Although their mother never returns to see them, she is aware of their lives as proven in the sporadic letters written to Olga. The letters, sent from 1990 to 2016, are like harsh lectures about Puerto Rico’s history.

The narrative begins in July 2017 leading to before and after the devastating hurricanes that struck the island. Olga’s life is filled with her business, her relationships with her family, clients and a new romance. Prieto is a popular politician in his Brooklyn community, although Olga and others soon wonder about his recent voting record.

The characters are vibrant and the settings, Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, are vivid. Olga is a likeable. She credibly weathers her personal storms. Her circumstances, and her family’s, may be different than those of many readers. Yet, Gonzalez makes them relatable.

Olga’s mother is harsh in denouncements of the status quo. Although her methods are questionable, her cause isn’t.

Olga Dies Dreaming

Four+ Bookmarks

Flat Iron Books, 2021

373 pages

Sherlock Holmes Redux   Leave a comment

The idea of pairing an older Sherlock Holmes with a young woman as a crime-solving duo is, well, elementary!

Laurie R. King has done just that in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, set many years after Holmes has retired to Sussex Downs, near the sea and far from London. There, he has mostly settled into life keeping bees and taking on the occasional case.

One day on a walk, he encounters 15-year-old Mary Russell, a bright girl, whose intellect captures his attention. The two begin a friendship based on mental acuity, powers of observation, science, deduction and a flair for the audacious.

There’s little mention of Dr. Watson, but Mrs. Hudson continues as Holmes’s housekeeper – and Mary’s surrogate caregiver. (Mary is an orphan left in the care of a cold, ill-disposed aunt.)

Through the years, Mary’s education is augmented by her time spent with Holmes. Even after she leaves for Oxford, they remain in touch.  It comes as no surprise when they work together to solve, at first minor crimes, before being thrown into webs of deceit and danger not unlike those once constructed by Holmes’ arch enemy, the now-deceased Moriarty.

Her intelligence, thirst for knowledge and appreciation of Holmes make Mary a likeable character. She understands him without being intimidated.

King injects humor and warmth into her writing and provides a different perspective of Holmes thanks to the strong, female character she has created in Mary. The thrill of the chase is evident in the way Holmes and Mary work together.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Four Bookmarks

Laurie R. King

Bantam Books, 1996

405 pages