Book Reviews

By Carolyn Piper

wicwas@wcvt.com

I had it in mind for this issue to wax lyrical about Bill Bryson's new science book. Fate, as it often does in our lives, intervened. I shall get to Bryson in due time, but first I want to tell you of a novel I stumbled on when visiting a friend--who is, of course, a reader. My Dream of You is a novel by Nuala O'Faolain, and a book that tends to stick to your ribs in ways that I suspect will differ for each one of us. For me it brought three things to the fore: a feeling of being a part of a touching and unsparing exploration of what it means to be middle aged (though I doubt I will live to be 118, I still cling to that title--albeit a bit frantically at times), an awareness of the power of the past to influence the present, and an angel dusting of heartbreaking insight on what it means to be passionately and completely human.

This is a leisurely told, beautifully written, tale by an author who knows what she is doing and uses her words with surgical skill. The result is the creation of a full bodied central character--an Irish woman named Kathleen, who fled her native land at 20, and returns at 49, having become fascinated by a historical event, long past. In doing so she ends up confronting herself, both past and present, her native land, forgiveness and passion and the meaning of life itself. As the story slowly unfolds, we follow not only the story of Kathleen but that of a woman who lived, suffered and, perhaps, loved 100 years ago. A woman as filled with stunted passion as Kathleen herself.

These two stories are interwoven with tales of the potato blight--or, as the Irish call it, The Great Hunger.

And a Great Hunger it was. From a purely historical viewpoint this novel was an eye opener for me. We have all heard of the potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1800s, and how it resulted in a mass migration to America. But did you know that upwards of 1.5 million people either starved to death or died of famine related illnesses? And that, not unlike the black death in Europe, corpses lined the fields and roads, while the British government according to a report of the time, "... blinkered by free market dogma, and by a profound, almost malevolent indifference to Irish ills.." stood by and watched, more often than not repossessing land and destroying the houses of those who otherwise owned nothing else. The resentment bred during that time lives with us yet, bearing fruit more than 100 years later.

I do not mean to insinuate that this is a historical treatise. It is anything but. The history, built into the story as it is, is integral to the novel and is skillfully woven into the whole. As we read we are made, slowly but surely, hauntingly aware of how both events, and lives, of the past, are part and parcel of the events and lives of the present.

One of the primary tenets of Buddhism is that we are all, each and every one of us, connected. O'Faolain deftly allows us to see that connection as Kathleen comes to understand not only who she is but who she was and, most importantly, who she is in the process of becoming as a result of these connections. That life is an ongoing journey without end was recognized by the Greeks. They called it Paedia. And as we follow Kathleen's journey in life we come to recognize this ongoing process; the timeless and endless ways that the events of the past, and the people, both past and present, connect us all into one whole entity.

Looking at life in this manner is a wonderful thing really... and I rejoice that O'Faloain has caught the nuances of this notion with such precision and almost heartbreaking, for life involves loss as well as gain, beauty. Far too often we humans tend to see existence as something static: a condition which holds us captive, leaving us both unable and unwilling to change and grow. My Dream Of You puts that fallacy, for such I am convinced it is, to rest, and for that reason alone is worth reading. It is in the end an eminently readable story of a complex woman, that we come to care about, recognizing in her humanity our own selves.

I fell equally in love with a non-fiction book. Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors. His unique, curiosity-filled, and very funny take on life, travel and history never fail to grab me by the coat tails and whisk me along for a fascinating ride to new and odd destinations. His newest, which is on the best seller list, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is chock a block full of details which both fascinate and amuse--stretching from a time when the world was barren of life to present theories of quantum physics. Even those of you who are science phobic may find reason to rejoice in this book. Those of you who are not will be in hog heaven. I certainly was.

This book, as all Bryson's books are, for a more curious man I have yet to encounter, is literally jammed with odd facts and eccentric people. Even the most famous of our scientists in Bryson's hands turn out to be very odd and funny indeed. One wonders, as one reads, at the sheer scope of the amount of work and reading it must take to come up with the material we find in this, as well as his other books.--such as the fellow who discovered phosphorous. The recipe? Fill a basement's worth of 50 gallon containers with urine, and then, by various means condense this material as much as possible. When done move all the containers outside--where most likely they will, as they did for this gentleman, explode when exposed to the heat of the sun --drenching the entire neighborhood of his small town.

Then there was the chemist who had a long and distinguished career--alas he had one bad habit--he insisted on tasting (yes, tasting!) every chemical he worked with, and predictably one fine day was found, dead as a doornail at his workbench, with a look of mild surprise on his face.

It isn't all fun and games though. Take for example the story of how they began adding lead to gasoline--and everything else, including the solder that lined food cans. This tale is instructive in the usual "the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know" line of thought. For following along on its heels we now have tobacco and a dozen other toxic substances. Like the tobacco industry leaders, lead aficionados of the time lined up and with perfectly straight faces---going so far as to sniff the stuff, actually doing everything but drinking it with a twist of lime, declared it to be harmless, and in fact quite possibly GOOD for one. Following these sessions they would go home sick as a dog and stay as far away from the stuff as they possibly could, while workmen at the plants developed every symptom of lead poisoning under the sun.

Also instructive is the case of a leaky refrigerator at a hospital in the 20s--that killed 200 people, staff and patients alike. This last led to the "solution" of the discovery and use of CFCs--a trade off with the devil we are still paying for and will for generations to come. Their use, of course, has now been outlawed here but is still very much in evidence in third world countries. One pound of the stuff can hang around on average for a century--in fact a single molecule of CFC is about 10,000 times more efficient in producing green house gases and ozone depletion than is CO2. Sadly ironic is the fate of the inventor of this mess. In later life he developed polio and turned his mind to devising a machine that would assist him in sitting up and turning in bed by himself. It involved a set of motorized pulleys that one day when set into action malfunctioned, and Midgely, for such was his unfortunate name, became entangled and was strangled to death. Justice it seems can take many forms.

Did any of you, besides Bryson of course, know that when the theory of relativity first became known widely, the NY Times in its infinite wisdom sent Henry Crouch to interview Einstein? Crouch was as fine a sports writer as we have produced, specializing in golf--but was alas, way over his head with E=MC2, as are we all. The ensuing article, given the popularity of Crouch most likely sold a lot of newspapers but did little or nothing to clear up the questions on this subject for the reader's of the Times.

And then there is the fact that Venus transits the sun only very infrequently, and in 1761 the world went into high gear to record the event. France was particularity enthusiastic--not to mention unlucky, and sent several scientists trekking off to odd corners of the globe to record the event. A chap named Chappe was sent to Siberia and spent months traveling to his ideal observation site, only be stymied at the last minute by swollen rivers at flood stage and very angry natives who blamed him for the flooding as a result of all the instruments he was constantly pointing at the sky. He escaped with his life--barely.

Worst of all however was a poor man named Le Gentile who set off for India a year in advance to record the event. Ship travel being what it was at that time, he was still aboard ship at the crucial moment. Undaunted however he continued on to India to await the second transit in 1769. Having 8 years to prepare one would think all would go well. He built himself a first class viewing station, tested and re tested his instruments, and had all in readiness. He awoke on the day of transit to find sparkling clear weather--which continued until the very moment of the transit when a cloud passed over the sun just as Venus made its transition. Both cloud and transit lasted over three hours--after which splendid weather again descended with no observations having been made.

One wonders at the mood of Le Gentile at this point--9 years after setting forth he had nothing to show for it, and en route home, while still in India, he came down with dysentery and was laid up for a further year. Finally, making it aboard a ship bound for France, his ship foundered in a hurricane. Eleven and a half years after setting out, he finally returned to France--to find out he had been declared dead and had not a franc to his name as his estate had already been eagerly divided up, and spent, by his relatives

I will stop here as I am getting seriously carried away, but there are dozens of these stories in this book. Just thinking about Bryson's books, and I urge you to take a look at the many others he has written as well as this one, make me smile ear to ear--if not laugh aloud.

So there you have it-- two books that I have loved in the past few months: one a touching coming of middle age saga, and the other a history of the scientific world from A to Z-- including, thank heavens, those exploding barrels of urine. How can one resist the written word? I cant. Enjoy!


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