Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bourgeois Book Club

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

A renowned neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks comes from a prominent and sprawling clan (his mother was one of 18!) of extraordinarily accomplished British Jews, including scientists, politicians, mining magnates, and doctors. Youngest of the four sons of a OB-GYN mother and a general practitioner father, in a family such as his, in which there is no choice but to be smart and accomplished, becoming an amateur chemist with one's own laboratory seems perfectly natural. Part reflection on his childhood before, during, and after WWII in the midst of an extraordinary and accomplished family, part paean to chemistry, Uncle Tungsten is a fascinating, riveting, and unusual scientific memoir.

The Blitz, a traumatic boarding school experience, and a not-entirely-stable family drove Sacks to seek solace in the periodic table. Two uncles, the eponymous Uncle Tungsten, manufacturer of tungsten-wire light bulbs, and Uncle Abe, the physicist, foster and encourage his chemistry studies. Soon he has his very own home laboratory, and he wasn't just doing your typical chemistry set experiments in it, repeating the experiments he read about in books. It's amazing what you could acquire and play around with in those days, including uranium salts and highly reactive elements. Nowadays you'd be on a government watchlist if you even tried to get some of the stuff he did, and everyone's too afraid to make them available anyway. But his parents were indulgent and he was careful, so somehow he survived and didn't blow up his house, spending several happy years prying into Nature's medicine cabinet. Eventually, though, his overwhelming enthusiasm for chemistry waned. He'd gotten the comfort he needed out of it, and his parents pressed him towards his medical career.

The other part of the book, though, is an engaging work of popular science in which he ruminates and educates about the periodic table, the elements, and the way elements combine into compounds. Reading Uncle Tungsten just after The Disappearing Spoon, was a slight mistake I think, because I spent a little too much time trying to remember if the stories in the two books corroborated (in general, I think so). But they are different books, and Sacks focuses more on compounds and reactivity than the pure elements of the periodic table. Being a memoir, he also offers more personal and often amusing vignettes, like his experiments dropping rare earth alkalis (highly, if not explosively, reactive) like sodium and potassium off a bridge in a park and his failed attempt to preserve a basement full of cuttlefish. He covers some of the same famous chemists as Kean, as well, but the two books complement rather than contest. Sacks focuses on the work of the men that he actually read and studied rather than Kean's more comprehensive and up-to-date overview. These were his heroes, mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pioneers of the field, as well as the now little-known popularizers that captured his imagination with the secondhand books he bought or received.

On a frivolous note, you all know I love footnotes, and Sacks gives great footnote. More than one page of the book is more footnote than text, providing interesting details and tangential information.

A cracking good read anyone, no matter their scientific literacy level, should sit with.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

I really wish I knew not just how to describe, but how to feel, about this book. Is it an interesting, genre-bending meditation or digressive metafictional twaddle? Or somehow both? I just can't decide.

Even simple elementary school book report summary defies me. It's about a writer vainly struggling to write a "serious" novel after some very mild success as a genre novelist and a sideline reviewing science books. Flashbacks, tangents, and the possibility of magic abound as she tries to not only to write but to live in a British seaside resort. Incredibly unlucky in love, her boyfriend is an awful lump with an OCD-addled younger brother she once flirted with and a sweet father with a much-younger girlfriend, while her heart yearns for an older man trapped in his own loveless relationship. In fact, there are so many horrible relationships, it's downright depressing. Everyone's stuck.

Meanwhile, events from her past and her present, including a fairy, a ship in a bottle, and a Beast, add a not-entirely-natural air to the proceedings. But is it real or just in everyone's head; coincidence or magic? A mistaken review of a "scientific" New Age book about a Singularity at the end of time that's really Heaven and means the world is all a simulation finally cracks the terrible stasis she, and perhaps all those around her, are in, leaving a glimmer of hope, but no neat resolution, for the future. But along the way there's a lot of talk about the meaning of life, science, faith, skepticism, what it means to be a writer, what writing is, what love is, the afterlife, and definitely about narrative structure, what narrative is and how it fits into what it means to be human, Aristotle's definition of tragedy, and the "storyless story", as well as a hell of a lot of dogwalking.

I wish I could say it's a good book. I wish I could say what I feel about it. I intensely identify with the protagonist's struggle to write, to find the perfect story and actually write it but being unable to. I recognized more than I care to fully admit the depths of the cocoon of stasis and inertia she's constructed out of fear of change. I completely identify with her love of science and her interest in the magical. But for all that I felt almost all of the characters, including the narrator, were terrible people I really wouldn't want to spend a great deal of time with. But maybe that was intentional? I just don't know. And a lot of the talk about narrative and story structure just felt pretentious to me, like I was reading a transcript of a bunch of English grad students. Yet a lot of it was quite interesting and thought-provoking. So I don't know what to tell you, really. You'll just have to read it and make up your own mind. (Please do, so I can maybe find out what I really think about it!)

Her Royal Spyness Series by Rhys Bowen

It's not easy being a minor member of the British royal family in the midsts of the Depression, with no money, no education beyond flawless French and the ability to seat a bishop at dinner, and pressure to uphold the dignity of the Royal Family, even if it include that one should marry a fish-faced Romanian prince who prefers boys to blondes. But Lady Georgina of Glen Garry and Rannoch, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is a clever, resourceful girl with all the gumption and steel of both her royal ancestress and generations of hardy Scottish peers. Along with a sexy Irishman (who may also be a secret agent of His Majesty's Government), a scandalous mother, a Cockney grandfather, an amorous best friend, a Medusa of a sister-in-law, and a sweet but dopey brother, she finds herself involved with murder and chicanery far more often than perhaps a proper young lady should. But when it comes to crime, one must do one's duty, and one thing Georgie knows is her duty.

Light, breezy, and short, the Her Royal Spyness books are wonderful confections of romp and thrills in interwar Europe.


Matt G said...

There were some elements of OUR TRAGIC UNIVERSE that I thought were more successful than others, but I appreciated the fact that it was essentially a very playful (as opposed to pretentious) "novel of ideas." I thought the narrator seemed like a fun, likable person, although her boyfriend was a DRAG. Anyway, I enjoyed it a lot and LOLd many times. (I thought the ending was a bit thrown together, which is not surprising in this kind of book?)

Frank said...

It is funny, at least wryly, in places, and playful, but I'm not sure it isn't pretentious. But is Thomas BEING pretentious or poking fun at her characters being pretentious? As I said, part of the problem with the book is I just don't know how to answer the questions like that.

I don't know if I'd call the narrator "fun," really. Again, as I said, I identified with her, sometimes uncomfortably, but I'm not sure I'd really want to know her. Which explains why I have few friends myself.

slyder said...

I love Oliver Sacks and didn't know he had a new one out! Thank you! I will grab it at the library tomorrow!

I just finished the magnificent Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. It tells the story of several interwoven black and white families beginning in 1770 Haiti and ending in 1810 New Orleans. It is largely from the point of view of a slave woman who is freed by her master during the slave revolt. No punches are pulled, but the author does not preach. She lets this story unfold. One wonders how even greed could turn the paradise of Haiti into a living hell on earth. Who knew some Europeans boycotted sugar because of the human toll to produce it. New Orleans from the point of view of the French and Spanish Creoles, slaves, and freedmen is a revelation. One emerges from this haunting journey with a better understanding of why both Haiti and Louisiana are the way they are today.

Frank said...

Slyder: Uncle Tungsten isn't actually new. I think he's had a few since then.