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Summer Book Reviews

Aug 30 2016

The Stone Gods
Hamish Hamilton, 2007

A triptych taking place in the distant past, the recent past, and the near future, Winterson’s sci-fi novel reflects on anthropogenic climate catastrophe and the relationship between love, survival, and death in the post-apocalypse. Briskly paced, the prose generates a rich atmosphere while managing to avoid getting distracted by extraneous world-building details or losing itself in its self-referentiality. I enjoyed it for the balance it struck between concept and character, and for being a love story first, but one that happens to take place in times of environmental and social collapse.
– Henry Borrebach





What is Life?
Cambridge University Press, 1944

What is life? by the prominent 20th century physicist Erwin Schrödinger, is an exciting exercise in philosophy about some of the most fundamental questions that mankind has always tried to answer. The book is unique in that it features the Nobel Laureate and one of the fathers of quantum theory exploring, from his “naïve physicist’s approach” (to borrow his own words), puzzling questions in spheres ranging from genetics to biology to epistemology–all in a lay and clear language. The text is an invitation to experts in one field to dare thinking and opining on other disciplines outside their comfort zone–an appropriate and inspiring read for a very multidisciplinary environment like ours.
– Sergio Maldonado Villanueva





Gods and Beasts
Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2013

Denise Mina’s prose is exquisitely clear–three sentences into the novel, and I was completely immersed, seeing everything with her eyes, and never having a chance, or any interest, in fighting her narrative drive. This police procedural gives Mina a structure for writing about vivid characters in Glasgow. A Christmas-time post office queue is the site of a robbery and the mysterious shooting of a grandfather. Detective Morrow, recently returned from maternity leave for twins, pursues connections and dead ends, all raising questions about hidden payoffs and political deals in the city. Mina’s novel flies along, but the irresistible joy it gives come from the transient descriptions of moments and people, often peripheral to the main plot, who light up one’s imagination with the vividness of a high power flash bulb going off in the dark.
– Gail Kaiser




Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference
W.W. Norton & Co., 2010

Cordelia Fine approaches the hotbed topic of gender inequality with humor, wit, and meticulous scholarship. By synthesizing hundreds of studies from across the sciences, and their frequent over-interpretations, she effectively eviscerates pop science attempts (i.e. “The Female Brain,”) to explain differences in male and female achievement through neuroscience. She also recounts notorious gaffes such as the time when then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers asserted that genetic differences are what make women less suited to excel in high-level science careers than men. A litany of public intellectuals came forward to defend Summers, even though the evidence he cited was a story about his daughters cradling trucks. Quoting Cambridge professor Melissa Hines, Fine understatedly concludes “influences have been assumed to exist despite a lack of consistent data.”
– Stacey Solie



Strength in What Remains
Random House, 2009

I’m an incorrigible fiction-reader, particularly in the summer. But after I finished my binge of fiction laying around the beach house (Swamplandia! [read it!], The Burgess Boys [also good], and Fates and Furies [skip]), I was enticed by Tracy Kidder’s story about Deogratias, a young man from the countryside who escapes the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda only to find himself trying to survive the squalor and depravity of abandoned tenement houses in New York City before, literally against all odds, enrolling in Columbia and ultimately in medical school at Dartmouth. Kidder’s “Mountains beyond Mountains” was a life-changing tale of Dr. Paul Farmer, a superhero more amazing than anything Marvel could create, convincing me that I could forgo another novel and stomach a story about ethnic divides, unimaginable brutality, and extreme poverty. I’m so glad I did. It is a beautifully written story about one man’s incredible journey, his need to tell his story, his almost unbelievable hope, the generosity of strangers who become family, and ultimately the power of empathy.
– Anne Guerry



The Shepherd’s Life 

The Shepherd’s Life tells the story of a farming community who have been shepherding in the fells (mountain fields) and lowlands of the Lakes District in northern England  for hundreds of years. Woven into his own family’s story is the history of a working landscape, the daily and seasonal rhythm of raising animals and his own journey to balance a farming life and professional career. This is a wonderful book. Rebanks writes with such vivid love for the animals and the freedom of the landscape that even the most mundane details are moving and captivating. And as someone who moves deftly across modern and traditional worlds, he offers wonderful perspectives on the grand balance between maintaining the old and embracing the new.
– Jess Silver