Summer Reading 3

On this (day after the) unofficial last day of summer, I’m making a last-ditch effort to memorialize the final part of my summer reading effort. I’m already on the verge of forgetting everything I loved and despised about these books, because I just started my first semester of vet school. It’s only the beginning of my second week, but my routine–and frankly, my entire lifestyle–has been upset. I’m glad for it, because this is the kind of upset that’s going to change me for the better, but it does mean that my priorities have shifted. Oh, the time I once devoted to reading! Where has it gone?! In reality, it’s only been one week, but a week ago feels like a lifetime ago.

My first read from this bunch was Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. The synopsis on the back cover was so compelling that I actually bought the brand new hardcover edition. That never happens. The synopsis informed me that the main character observes the same people from the same commuter train each morning. One day, she observes something out of the ordinary, and later realizes that her testimony may be valuable to the police. The police, on the other hand, question her motives and the reliability of her statements. Intrigued, I immediately began to fill in the voids with a variety of imagined details. The problem came when I actually started reading. This book is a stereotypical summer read, a real page turner, but there isn’t enough dimension to satisfy my tastes. The story lines and relationships that make up the book are simplistic and predictable.

As I started reading, I quickly realized that I didn’t care about the characters. I was only interested in them in that same mildly sadistic way that I enjoy following characters in a terrible horror movie—to see who will be the first to meet a terrible end. An unreliable first person narrator does keep the reader guessing, but I found that the underlying truth is poorly concealed, and too easily guessed to achieve any real suspense. This isn’t a terrible book, but it’s certainly not my cup of tea either. Give it a read if you’re looking for something frivolous and superficial to occupy yourself for a few hours. Just don’t expect sharp, precise language or “round” characters motivated by complex points of view and experiences.

“All that anybody has in the way of a reputation anymore is an odor which, from birth to death, cannot be modified. People are who they are, and that is that. The Law of Natural Selection has made human beings absolutely honest in that regard. Everybody is exactly what he or she seems to be.”Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos

Galápagos was next, and it offered the perfect contrast to The Girl on the Train. As you can expect from anything written by Kurt Vonnegut, this book features witty satire and cutting criticism of humanity. The plot concerns a million year evolutionary trend resulting from natural selection acting upon a small portion of the human population that becomes stranded on the Galápagos Islands. While the fittest individuals do indeed survive, the traits that make them fit aren’t ones that the majority of us would be proud to possess. The plot demonstrates that survival as a species has nothing to do with brain size or social constructs, and everything to do with adapting to the environment and reproducing successfully.

As a biologist with a background in ecology, I have a deep appreciation for the elegant simplicity of evolutionary processes. This elegant simplicity makes a great framework for a novel, because it allows a web of complex, inter-related ideas to be broken down into a few simple concepts. When considering just one of these concepts–natural selection, for example–it becomes apparent that the things we value in ourselves as a species aren’t all that important or valuable to humanity’s existence as part of the larger natural world. As Vonnegut illustrates, when you see human beings for the animals that they are, subject to the same natural processes as other animals, the picture is startlingly simplistic. But, in the end, this picture can’t be ignored, because it’s nothing more than a refocused image of reality.

“Bring all that to a simmer on the stovetop–and do remember that the casserole has been in the oven and is hot as a motherfucker. I never do remember this, and as a result my forearms (and my belly, after unwisely choosing to cook in a baby-tee) are crisscrossed with shiny burn scars, like an X-Man’s special power symbol.”Julie Powell, Julie & Julia

At this point, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Julie & Julia project. In case you’re not, writer and amateur cook Julie Powell sets out to cook all 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. The project is the subject of the 2009 movie of the same name, and a popular blog that gave rise to this book. I had high hopes for this book, especially because I grew up watching Julia Child every weekend on PBS. The way that Julia Child approached French Cooking–reverently, without pretension and with a healthy sense of humor–was accessible, and encouraged me to try exciting, new things in the kitchen. Because Julie Powell admittedly idolizes Julia Child, I picked up this book with the expectation that Julie Powell’s character would embody the Julia Child approach to cooking (and living). But, this isn’t always the case.

There are moments–mostly when her menus and personal life come together perfectly–when Powell ties up an experience with a neat little bow, delivering a complete, well-reasoned gem of an anecdote to the reader. These passages are relatable, engaging and entertaining. When things don’t turn out so well, however, the tone becomes whiny, and Powell’s attitude, downright juvenile. In these anecdotes, there is no trace of humor or even a healthy perspective on the relatively insignificant troubles that overwhelm the character. Of course, life is rarely perfect, and things are bound to get messy in every sense of the word. For this reason, I value the uncommon characters who maintain their virtuousness and clarity under pressure. This failure is the root of the issue I have with Julie and Julia. I loved half of the book, and I was slightly annoyed by the other half. All in all, that’s not a bad outcome, so I still recommend this book to any reader who is passionate about food and cooking.

“Anil needed to comfort herself with old friends, sentences from books, voices she could trust. ‘This is the dead room,’ said Enjolras. Who was Enjolras? Someone in Les Misérables. A book so much a favorite, so thick with human nature she wished it to accompany her into the afterlife.”Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

With quite a variety of hits and misses behind me, I was ready for a book that would really blow me away. Determined to make that happen, I looked to Michael Ondaatje, and Anil’s Ghost didn’t disappoint. As with other Ondaatje novels, it becomes difficult to separate the author’s mastery of language from the main character’s desire to live a lyrical, eloquent life. An Ondaatje novel drags you under like a strong current and submerges you completely within its world. Each passage is so rich with sensory detail that it verges on the surreal. The effect is dazzling when you get the chance to read, uninterrupted, for a few quiet hours, and it’s equally dazzling when someone with melodious, precise diction–like Alan Cumming–reads to you. That’s why this audiobook edition is one of the best I’ve ever listened to. Performance aside, Anil’s Ghost is also one of my favorite books of all time.

“She remembers the almond knot. During autopsies, her secret habit of detour is to look for the amygdala, this nerve bundle which houses fear–so it governs everything. How we behave and make decisions, how we seek out safe marriages, how we build houses that we make secure.”Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

The main character, Anil, is a forensic anthropologist investigating suspected human rights violations in modern-day Sri Lanka. She is a physician with humanist inclinations, and values the stories that each individual’s body can tell. Throughout the novel, Anil’s methodical investigations allow her to deduce details about the life and death of one body she discovers. As she pieces these details together to form a bigger picture, the symbolism of the physical body is explored, giving rise to the most achingly poetic passages in the novel. All the while, Anil interacts with other characters, who warn her to stop. She begins to learn just how dangerous her work is, because the details she uncovers are being actively repressed by the government. The plot is something like an anthropological murder mystery, and makes for a wonderfully thrilling read. It’s so easy to get lost in Ondaatje’s prose, and that makes this book a great escape, too. The best part is that, instead of divorcing you from reality, this escape puts you deeper in touch with humanity.

Finally, you’ll be happy to hear that I’ve finished listening to the Phryne Fisher series in audiobook format. It’s a minor accomplishment, but one that’s been incredibly satisfying to work toward. You can browse various posts about my love for Phryne Fisher here, or you can simply enjoy the fact that I won’t be posting as much about Phryne in the near future. Everybody wins!

Goodreads claims that I’ve read 50 books in 2016, but I know that I’ve read the 19th Phryne Fisher book twice this year. That means I’ve really only read 49 books, but also that I’m one book away from completing my 2016 reading challenge! Check back soon to hear about the books that I’m enjoying at this pivotal point in the year.

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