Reader's Link - January 2014 Staff Picks Archive

Echt grit

In Times of Fading Light: the story of a family

Title: In Times of Fading Light: the story of a family
By: Eugen Ruge

An East-German family saga told in different characters’ voices and from different points in time. The telling revolves around the 90th birthday party of Wilhelm, the oldest family member. A committed Communist Party member since 1919, Wilhelm worked in Mexico City for a period before he and his wife Charlotte were sent back to the newly created East German state in 1952. The family includes a Siberian potato farmer grandmother, and a son who defects to the West.

This book is challenging; it is one in which none of the characters is entirely likeable, and one or two can be exasperatingly difficult. But that also makes for gritty and realistic fiction. The family members’ differing perspectives on society and each other are interesting, especially for Americans for whom East German life was a terra incognita for decades. The kaleidoscope of revolving characters provides a complex portrayal of each individual. The writing is minutely detailed, and Irina’s Christmas dinner for the family in 1976 is a masterpiece of slowly impending disaster.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on Jan. 10, 2014 at 8 a.m.


Equilateral: a novel

Title: Equilateral: a novel
By: Ken Kalfus

This quiet, geometrical tale is so realistic, one starts to wonder if it really happened, but everyone is so embarrassed it is never mentioned. Victorian explorers, intense scientists, exploited native workers, men of business, and dedicated but undervalued women all contribute to a gargantuan undertaking led by one scientist with a grand vision: a plausible method for communication across the huge distance between Earth and Mars, using technology available in the second half of the 19th century.

One also detects distance between the characters -- both emotional distance, and the distance imposed by lack of comprehension. The methodology Kalfus describes for this attempt to contact intelligent life on Mars is fabulous steampunk, but his ultimate aim may be to remind us how idealism can be subverted by the industrial machine.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on Jan. 6, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.

Color Mania

Mauve:  how one man invented a color that changed the world

Title: Mauve: how one man invented a color that changed the world
By: Simon Garfield

Has anyone heard of William Perkin and mauve? We have heard of tulipmania, but what of color mania? In 1858, Empress Eugenie, the single most influential woman in the world of fashion, decided that mauve was a color that matched her eyes.The extent of mauve mania was documented well in all the news of the day...."purple hands threaten each other from opposite sides of the street; purple-striped gowns cram barouches, jam up cabs, throng steamers, fill railway stations; all flying country ward, like so many migrating birds of purple paradise."

Perkin had created mauve, the first artificial aniline dye from coal, in 1856. At the time this was a worthy and much appreciated achievement, but his future scientific work with dyes was even more important to humankind. His efforts led to pioneering work in immunology and chemotherapy as well as groundbreaking advances in the relief of pain in cancer patients. It also led to nonflammable pajamas for children.

Perkin was very successful, touted and wealthy in his lifetime. Today, his grave lies in obscurity, but his work and the discoveries from his work have packed a wallop in our lives.

Garfield tells a lively story filled with facts and picturesque anecdotes. A worthy read along with his other writings about fonts, maps, and stamps.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction
Posted by libwolf on Jan. 2, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.



Title: Wave
By: Sonali Deraniyagala

Estragon: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir: That's what you think.
--Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book. I wasn't sure whether I'd review it. I didn't trust myself to "judge" it.

I was right to read it.

It deals with a tragedy so unthinkable that you want to duck, except that the author couldn't, and has written a book that allows you to glimpse what she's survived without your feeling the need to flee.

That's as much as most of us think we can take. Maybe, the author implicitly tells us, we're made of sterner stuff.

Not that there's anything that can "fix" a disaster of the magnitude she encountered. She went mad, went suicidal, became a thing barely human, after her entire family was obliterated by a tsunami. She doesn't pretend to be whole again. She's managed to write, and to sustain an a career as an economist.

But she's dead.

Or is she?

We're not asked to judge. But we are drawn, ineluctably as the tide, to observe. To listen. To go on.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction,biography
Posted by curious on Jan. 2, 2014 at 9:06 a.m.

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