Let’s talk books! The good, the pedantic, and Stephenie Meyer’s already-made-into-a-movie foray into science fiction.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Three stars, because this book can only be described as uneven. On the one hand, I was absolutely fascinated by the Kingsolver family’s adventures in producing most of their own food for an entire year. Probably because I already had my own fantasies about moving to a farm and subsisting on my own heirloom vegetables and heritage farm animals. I loved the recipes and seasonal menus, as well as the practical information on homesteading, including hilarious accounts of things like mushroom hunting, using a year’s bounty of zucchini, and breeding turkeys. And of course I related to the trip to Italy.
On the other hand, judgmental much? Really, who is she to talk if my daily vice happens to be bananas rather than coffee? The constant preaching (even if with me it was largely preaching to the choir) kind of ruined what could have been a really good book. The Kingsolver family (the book is co-authored by her husband and daughter) come across as supercilious, fanatical, and completely out of touch with the reality of most people’s lives. And sorry, but they are way too eccentric and uneven in their application of moral principles to really be taking the kind of moral high ground that they do. The effect was probably heightened by the fact that I listened to the audiobook of this one, so I heard the litany falling from the very lips of the authors.
In sum, there’s lots of wonderful information here, much of it very engagingly presented, but only if you can get past the egregious tone.
The Host by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the point of view of the body snatchers. You’ve got to admit it’s a novel plotline. Like something you’d come up with to entertain yourself on a mind-numbingly boring drive through the wastelands of Arizona. Which, yes, is exactly how Stephenie Meyer says she originated this story.
And it really isn’t all that bad. It’s true that there is still some of the unbelievably sappy romantic dialogue you have a right to expect from the author of Twilight. But the novel does explore some interesting themes related to the relationship between the body and the soul, individual identity, and the problematic aspects of absolute morality.
Even more than with Twilight, I recognized some fundamentally Mormon ideas and attitudes, like the transcendent importance of experiencing life in a physical body, or the excessive self-abnegation exhibited by the main character (related in some ways to Bella Swan’s chronic lack of self-esteem and passivity in all matters other than dramatic self-sacrifice). Again, we see the cult of the all-sacrificing mother in Meyer’s work.
However, as before, what Meyer lacks in depth and finesse she makes up for in sheer originality and teenage romantic appeal. As an easy, fairly entertaining escapist novel that’s slightly sci-fi without any technological blather, The Host was a perfect distraction on a long plane flight.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is a perfect mix of the personal and the historical. Albright’s father was a key figure in the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile during World War II. She revisits the period through a combination of his personal papers, auxiliary historical research, and her own childhood memories. The Czechoslovakian experience of WWII is an aspect of which I knew relatively little before reading the book, and it was interesting but heartbreaking to read the story of a small, proud country that played a pivotal but relatively helpless role in the continent-wide, and then worldwide conflict.
Albright is a perfect narrator of these events, not only because as a little girl she was surrounded by them, but also because like her father she grew up to be a keen analyst of international relations and events and an important actor in those events. When she writes about difficult decisions undertaken by world leaders in the midst of harrowing circumstances, she is speaking from a position of experience and understanding, and it shows.
This is a thoroughly worthwhile and pleasurable read; well-written, passionate, and insightful.
The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oh my goodness, I loved this book so much. In what is the culmination of a lifelong study and love affair, Richard Paul Roe posits that because of the intimate knowledge of Italian culture, geography, and history demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays, he must have been a cultured, erudite upper-class Englishman who spent significant time traveling in Italy, and not the traditional, untraveled Bard of Avon. As a caveat, I am a scholar neither of Shakespeare nor of 16th century Italy (I just happen to adore both), so I can’t really speak to the real plausibility of Roe’s thesis. But I finished this book utterly convinced.
Roe explains why Shakespeare give harbors to inland Italian cities (they were on well-traveled rivers connected by intricate systems of canals). He finds actual inns, houses, and churches referenced in the plays and long languishing in obscurity (and yes, this goes well beyond Juliet’s celebrated and embellished balcony in Verona–did you know that there in actually no mention of a balcony in the stage directions or text of the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet?) Perhaps most intriguingly, Roe locates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an Italian city–Sabbioneta, Lombardy, the so-called “Piccola Atena.”
For lovers of Shakespeare and lovers of Italy alike, this is a captivating and compelling book that will make you want to take a trip to Italy and re-read the plays where Richard Paul Roe says they were conceived, and even possibly written.
The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really enjoyed reading Sykes’ account of how he used the mitochondrial DNA that is passed down unchanged from mother to daughter to trace our evolutionary roots as humans. After using the minute mutations that occasionally occur in mitochondrial DNA to track the route of colonization of the original inhabitants of the Polynesian islands, Sykes manages to extract DNA from Ice Man, an early man who perished in Italy’s alpine snow 5000 years ago. Even more remarkably, he went on to identify an ordinary British woman as the genetic descendant of Ice Man. After that, he expands the project into an exploration of the genetic heritage of Europe, tracing modern Europeans back to seven individual women.
The science in this book is very engaging by itself, and Sykes really should have left it at that. Instead, he concludes with several schmaltzy chapters in which he imagines a completely fictitious history for each of these “seven daughters of Eve,” and then launches into an incurably sentimental attempt to emotionally connect his readers with their distant ancestors.
Read the first half, and if you can’t skip the last chapters, skim like I did.
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