June’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong

I did a lot of reading in June, but it wasn’t until June 23rd that I finally read something that I felt worthy of a recommendation.  Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong is about a young woman finding her path in life after a breakdown.

The narrator is a PhD candidate who works in a chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Eric.  He seems to live a charmed life — loving and doting parents, and straight trajectory through college in which he completed his PhD, graduated, and was offered a job in Oberlin, which necessitated a move.  Eric asks the narrator to marry him and move with I’m, but she wavers and cannot commit.

Her life is not so charmed.  She was raised by first-generation Chinese immigrant parents who were stern, demanding, unemotional, and who set high expectations.  Her father’s story was a classic immigrant success story — he became an engineer, and the narrator feels the stress of trying to match his achievements:  “But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”

And her work in the lab is not getting results.  “The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea,” she says.  And while she has always been a top student, “. . . what every scientist knows — you can’t just be proficient; you have to have insight.”  She cannot help but feel like a failure:  “Ninety percent of all experiments fail.  This is a fact.  Every scientist has proven it.  But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you.  It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think.”

She suffers a breakdown of sorts and leaves school and the lab on medical leave.  As she struggles with what to do next, she works through the legacy of her parents lives, her harsh upbringing, and her views on marriage.  She has to work through disappointing her parents and finding her own purpose.  Her parents’ marriage was fraught and tense — not a great example.  And now her best friend is dealing with a cheating husband and an imperfect reconciliation.  The narrator looks at the marriages of some women chemists from history — Clara Haber had to give up her chemistry career when she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber.  When he developed chlorine gas as a weapon of war, she shoots herself.  Marie Curie worked in partnership with her husband Pierre, and they shared their discoveries and the acclaim of Nobel prizes.

The narrator speaks in a rather flat, unemotional voice.  “[I]t is the Chinese way . . . to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”  But I was drawn to the character and her flawed family.  Who cannot love someone who makes a statement like: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”

 

May’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

One of my favorite reads from May celebrates the art of storytelling. The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle is a novel told through the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson while he was a struggling writer in San Francisco in 1879-80.  During that time Stevenson was waiting for his betrothed’s divorce to come through so that she would be free to marry him.   Stevenson lived in Mrs. Carson’s boardinghouse at 608 Bush Street. These real-life facts are the starting points for Doyle’s novel.

Doyle heard about a novel that Stevenson contemplated but apparently never wrote, which was to be entitled Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World:  “. . . ever since I read about this unwritten book of Stevenson’s, many years ago, I have dreamed about writing it for him.”

In Doyle’s novel,  Stevenson takes breaks from long days of writing by relaxing in the companionship of Mrs. Carson’s husband, John.  Stevenson says, “I with great pleasure and mounting amazement pry an endless series of stories from Mrs Carson’s husband John, who has been all over the world in various ships, and has had adventures of every conceivable sort, in dense jungles and remote islands and terrible battlefields, and, he says, in blazing deserts and dripping forests and under the sea . . .”

And Mr. Carson is a gifted storyteller who transports his listeners with his words alone — something quite inspiring to an aspiring writer like Stevenson.  “So it was that I began to marvel not just at Mr Carson’s tumultuous adventures, but at the man himself, and at the subtle currents of his heart; and I began to wonder if he was not very consciously and deliberately choosing particular chapters of his life to tell, in order to tell me other things, perhaps — about the nature and power of stories, about how decisions not only reflect but create character, about how stories actually shape our lives; could it be that the words we choose to have resident in our mouths act as a sort of mysterious food, and soak down into our blood and bones, and form that which we wish to be?”

This is an adventure story (Mr Carson’s tales) and an ode to the joys and power of telling stories.  “. . . I reveled . . . that a man could tell a tale so riveting that time and space fell away altogether, so that when the story paused or ended, the listener — or the reader! — would be snapped awake as if from the most delicious dream, and would have to shake himself or herself for a few minutes, as you shake away the bright fading threads of dreams.”

“There is a story in everything, and every being, and every moment, were we alert to catch it, were we ready with our tender nets; indeed there are a hundred, a thousand stories, uncountable stories, could they only be lured out and appreciated; and more and more now I realize that what I thought was a skill only for authors and pastors and doctors and dream-diviners is the greatest of all human skills, the one that allows us into the heart and soul and deepest layers of our companions on the brief sunlit road between great dark wildernesses.  We are here to witness, to apprehend, to see and hear, to plumb, with patience and humility, the shy stories of others; and in some cases, like mine, then shape and share them; so that they might sometimes, like inky arrows, sink into the depths of other men and women and children, and cause pleasure, or empathy, or a short of delicious pain, as you realize that someone somewhere else, even perhaps a long time ago, felt just as you did.”  The vice of Stevenson goes on to say, “Stories, among their many virtues, are messages from friends you did not know you had; and while you may well never meet the friend, you feel the better, with one more companion by your side, than you thought you knew.”

This book made me want to re-read Stevenson’s classics:  Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll and Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.

 

April’s Book Covers from Favorite Books

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller

Most of the reading I’ve done lately has been background and preparation for a two-week vacation to Texas, so aside from that, I have just one book to recommend from my April reading.

The Luster of Lost Things by Sophie Chen Keller is a novel about a 12-year-old boy, Walter Lavender, Jr. who knows about lost things.  His father, a pilot, went missing when his plane disappeared mid-flight shortly before Walter was born.  Walter is still waiting for his Dad to return home.

Walter’s life at school is lonely because he has a physical disorder that makes it difficult for him to talk.  But his home life compensates — his mother creates a warm and comforting community centered around her dessert shop, The Lavenders.  After she kindly invites a stranger to wait out a storm in the shop, she is gifted with a book  of several paintings from that stranger.  The book seems to suffuse the shop with magical reverberations of kindness and belonging.

Although Walter cannot communicate well, he has a special gift for helping people find lost things.  He says, “I keep finding because it is a way for me to be part of something bigger, even if it is only for a while.”  He learns a lot about humanity during his searches:  “. . . everyone loses things . . . In the things they look for, parts of people turn clear as glass and you can see into them and what they are made of and how they live.”  He says, “With just a few phrases, two or three questions, I will know enough to understand someone, because people only bother looking for things that matter.”

Walter knows his gift is tied to the disappearance of his father.  “. . .[T]he more you persist in searching, the more you are likely to stumble across something unexpected. In looking for someone else’s lost thing, I am also looking for mine — some sign that will lead me to Walter Lavender, Sr., and tell me what happened to him.”

When the shop’s landlord threatens to close the shop,  the security of Walter’s and his mother’s lives starts to dissolve.  And then the magical book goes missing.  Walter sets out to find the book and save his mother’s shop.  This search takes him across New York in a series of adventures and encounters from which Walter learns even more about himself and what matters in life.

In my public library, this book is catalogued as adult fiction, even though it is about a 12-year-old boy.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.