Reader's Link - May 2014 Staff Picks Archive

Criminally clever


Title: Babayaga
By: Toby Barlow

Nice but clueless young American ad-man Will meets extremely exotic Eastern European emigre Zoya in Paris, 1959, and the fun begins. You can’t pin this novel down to a single genre; it’s part detective novel, part witch fantasy, part historical fiction, and entirely entertaining. These witches are criminally clever with their curses! A good read for a plane ride or a lazy afternoon, it made me laugh, and made me groan.

"Trailing down the stairs after Oliver, Will suddenly felt like a young, earnest Dr. Watson scrambling behind a distracted Sherlock Holmes. Will had loved those detective stories as a boy, but he realized there was one significant difference: Holmes’s cases always involved a single mystery that he plucked apart with logic, grace, and wit, whereas Oliver never solved anything, each riddle only perpetuating deeper ones, which he clumsily fumbled at until they all came down on both their heads like piles of hatboxes tumbling off some great armoire."

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Posted by April on May 25, 2014 at 7 a.m.


The best American science and nature writing 2013

Title: The best American science and nature writing 2013
By: Siddartha Mukherjee (ed.)

I have a lot of trouble reading articles in magazines even though there are so many good ones. Fortunately, Best American Science and Nature Writing is annually, and 2013 is an especially good year. Editor Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee (author of Emperor of All Maladies) prefaces the selections with a beautifully written essay on tenderness, which he characterizes as "the nourishment that must happen before investigation can begin." His model is the father of genetic study, Mendel, the monk who in tending his garden propounded the basis of one of the foremost fields of scientific endeavor today

This year’s articles come from such journals as Scientific American, The New Yorker, Orion, and Playboy. The essays speak with relevance to our modern day curiosities, our anxieties, and our fears. Subjects include T-cell research; the longevity of jellyfish (a subject to which a Japanese scientist devotes his working life when not singing karaoke); the Artificial Leaf’s ability to bring power to the millions of dirt poor in third world countries; Rick Bass’ love affair with the larch tree; ice breakers leading mammoth freight carriers through the Bering Strait; the wisdom of psychopaths; the loneliness of Facebook users; and modern deadly viruses. These are our world. And tenderness indeed is there, in some more obviously than in others.

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford, justifies continuing research into the world of science: "Far from rejecting science as dehumanizing, it is a force of creative regeneration. To tend the wounds of the human psyche—to restore what has been lost—we need more science, not less.”

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction
Posted by libwolf on May 21, 2014 at 12:38 p.m.

One another's superstitions

The Ghost Bride

Title: The Ghost Bride
By: Yangsze Choo

Intelligent, adventurous Li Lan, the only daughter of a scholarly but poor father, receives an unusual proposal of marriage from a wealthy Chinese Malaysian family in Malacca. Her father at first resists the notion of a “ghost marriage” between his daughter and the deceased son of the Lim family, but he is forced by impending poverty to accept an engagement that Li Lan cannot abide. Almost at once, her dreams are infiltrated by the frightening ghost of her would-be husband, and she tries increasingly desperate measures to escape his power. At the same time, a mutual attraction develops between Li Lan and the Lim family’s adopted son, Tian Bai.

Li Lan’s adventures in the ghost worlds are based on Chinese Buddhist, Taoist, and literary traditions of the afterlife. Like the spirit world, Chinese culture requires a native guide: in this case, Yangsze Choo. Her speculative reconciliation of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation with traditional Chinese practices of ancestor veneration almost seemed like an inversion of the Roman Catholic Purgatory...does that make Choo a Malaccan Chinese Virgil to the reader's Dante?

The author builds a marvelous, creative tale of Li Lan’s encounters with paper funeral offerings, demons, and helpful and mean spirits. “We Chinese did not like to give or receive certain gifts for superstitious reasons: knives, because they could sever a relationship; handkerchiefs, for they portended weeping; and clocks, as they were thought to measure out the days of your life.”

In a way, the Chinese populations of Malaysia and California share a common experience that the Chinese in China do not. The Malaysians and Californians exposed to overseas Chinese culture (whether directly, or through books such as this one) also have a unique experience. “It seemed to me that in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another's superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts,” says the narrator. But there's a simple remedy or "comfort" to the superstitious problem that arises if someone gives you a knife, watch or handkerchief as a gift: you give a token amount of money in return, thereby turning the inauspicious gift into a utilitarian purchase.

Ghost world by night, real world by day: is there any comfort to be found? Which world will Li Lan choose?

NB: This book was reviewed independently by 2 staff members who agreed to have their work combined here. Their individual reviews appear under the bylines Xenon (here in bold type) and April.

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Posted by counterpoint on May 18, 2014 at 12:27 p.m.

Telling Tales

The Universe, the Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths

Title: The Universe, the Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths
By: Jean-Pierre Vernant

Vernant, a Classics professor, used to tell his grandson Greek legends as bedtime stories—and he'd really tell them, not read them. He also told some of the same stories, in the same fashion, to friends who forced him to promise to write down what he'd told them. To Vernant, the oral roots of myth are one of the things that separate myth from written narrative, and he was reluctant to remove the little variations and nuances that made oral storytelling so enjoyable. But he kept his promise to his friends, and thus a wider audience can enjoy the stories in The Universe, the Gods, and Men.

The myths—ranging from the start of the universe to heroes such as Perseus—are retold faithfully in terms of essential plot, but Vernant's style and voice are unique. As he tells the myths, he gracefully explains his understanding of the ideas and worldviews behind them, giving the reader/would-be-listener an added layer of appreciation without detracting from the flow of the tale. Whether you've read multiple versions of the Greek myths before, or never read them at all, Vernant is both entertaining and insightful.

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Posted by Xenon on May 15, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.

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