Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Harvard”

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#45: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Read it! One of my friends recommended this book to me and it was a NewYork Times best seller. The main character,  Alice Howland, is a distinguished professor of linguistics at Harvard. Language and its construction are her stock in trade. She has published extensively, lectured widely and earned a reputation as a star in her field. As she is about to turn 50, Alice realizes that she is forgetting things — not just where the keys are, but where her house is, the subject of her lecture, how to make the dessert that she learned from her mother and knew by heart. Recognizing that these are not the typical symptoms of menopause, she consults a neurologist and learns she has Early Onset Alzheimers Disease.

The novel follows Alice over the next two years as the disease altars not only her mind but her relationships with her family. Her husband John, a fellow Harvard professor studying cancer, initially denies that his wife has Alzheimers, then throws himself into the research on the disease, desperately trying to save Alice. As the disease progresses, it sometimes seems as if John is distancing himself from Alice and leaving her out of important decisions. Their son (a doctor) and older daughter (lawyer) also seem to be in denial at first and are very uncomfortable acknowledging their mother’s illness. The youngest child and black sheep Lydia, who has eschewed academia for a life in theater, has had an antagonistic relationship with Alice but is the one member of the family who saw the symptoms early on and demonstrates compassion and acceptance from the start. Alice, who forever hounded Lydia about going back to school, comes to appreciate the plays her daughter performs in and her daughter’s ability to communicate without words.

Genova does an amazing job getting inside Alice’s head and showing the disintegration of Alice’s memories. It is frightening for Alice and in the early days of her diagnosis, she tries various ways to fight the disease — diet, physical exercise, daily mind exercises and ultimately creating her “butterfly file.” The butterfly file would be a great topic of conversation for a book group. In the early days, Alice still has periods of “normal” functioning and can recognize when the Alzheimers is kicking in. She tries to prepare for her future and she realizes that she will be cast out — from Harvard, her field, all the places and endeavors that formed her identity. She wishes she had cancer instead, because people with cancer are seen as courageous and get community support. People with mental issues do not. In one particularly poignant passage, Alice sits at the beach and watches the waves, a metaphor for Alzheimers: “Alice watched the tide coming in, erasing footprints, demolishing an elaborate sand castle decorated with shells, filling in a hole dug earlier that day with plastic shovels, ridding the shore of its daily history. She envied the beautiful homes behind the seawalls.”

While for the reader, watching Alice atrophy is terribly sad, Genova shows that her life is still worthwhile, not something useless or to be wished away. Alice as she declines is no longer as aware of all that she has lost and can find pleasure and happiness in the world she inhabits — a world where she no longer remembers her children’s names or that they are her children, but recognizes that they are loving people who care for her and whom she likes to be with. I sort of dreaded reading this book knowing the subject matter, but I loved it and would recommend it for its compassionate and knowledgeable portrayal of Alzheimers and its complex, human, realistic characters.


Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #31: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

Pearl hits another one out of the gate, in my opinion, despite occasional and surprising moments of poor writing (hopefully due to an oppressive editorial deadline and not a reflection of something more serious and more permanent). I thrilled to Pearl’s usual mix of well-researched history, wrapped around a humdinger of a mystery, wrapped around several excellently-chosen social issues as relevant in the 1860s (when his story takes place) as they are today. Pearl chooses Harvard versus MIT as the symbols of two sides of the great “technology debate” in the period immediately following the Civil War and pits a Bostonian alliance of industrialists and scientists seeking technological innovation to both cheapen production costs and improve living standards against (1) unions desperate to hold onto labor’s advantage in the marketplace (2) academics wedded to fusty and outmoded ideas (3) media opposing the spread of science outside Establishment control and (4) the church. The battle for the rights of the common man—and woman—is also front and center in Pearl’s story, as defended by MIT’s far-sighted founder William Barton Rogers.

The plot is a complex one, and heroes and villains abound. Someone is using advanced science to sow chaos and destruction from Boston’s harbor to its financial center to its industry. The casualties are mounting, and the police investigation has been placed into the hands of the famed naturalist Professor Louis Agassiz, a died-in-the-wool Harvardian and violent opponent of the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indeed, MIT and its first class of 15 seniors—including working-class “charity scholars”—are facing charges of fomenting the disasters with their allegedly “atheistic” and “Darwinian” defense of “unrestricted science.” It falls to The Technologists, a secret club formed of three MIT seniors and the college’s one female student, to sleuth out the science behind the disasters, anticipate and prevent the next disaster, and uncover the culprit whom they have dubbed “The Experimenter.” As is often the case in his novels, Pearl leads his heroes—and the reader—to uncover one potential villain after another, only to discover in the end that the real “Experimenter” is the least expected character in the book.

Along the way, Pearl—himself a graduate of Harvard–fascinates us with real science and real history. Real-life experiments in chemistry, botany, physics, architecture, and mechanical engineering are scattered throughout the novel, and are skillfully made integral to the plot itself. MIT’s Rogers and Harvard’s Agassiz are not only characters in The Technologists but were prominent figures of their time. Pioneering female scientist and graduate of MIT’s first class Ellen Swallow, along with her husband Robert Hallowell Richards, play prominent and delightfully heroic roles in Pearl’s story. Pearl dips repeatedly into Civil War history to paint a backdrop for some of the developments in his novel, and captures to a tee the social bigotry that festered in the big urban centers of the United States at the time.

While the centerpiece of Pearl’s story—the race against time to stop “The Experimenter” before all of Boston is demolished—is pure melodrama, The Technologists is a fascinating exploration of many of the social issues of the time and brought to this reader’s mind, at least, the ongoing debate today within the scientific community, the media, politicians, and the public over whether our world should invest in space exploration, nuclear fusion, stem cell research, and similar leading-edge technologies, or retreat out of fear and prejudice.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#03: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

I have read three of Geraldine Brooks’ four novels and they have each been absolutely outstanding. Brooks is a journalist by trade, but she is an historian at heart. I am so blown away by her imagination, creative story lines and her dedication to getting her history right. [March is Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel imagining what happened to the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in the Civil War; People of the Book is a novel that traces the history of a religious tome back through various periods of history.]

Caleb’s Crossing made a number of 2011 “best book” lists and deserves its place there. Brooks’ inspiration for this novel came from a small scrap of information she discovered while visiting Nantucket — that a couple of Wampanoag youths from Nantucket actually graduated from Harvard in 1665. Caleb was one of those young men and is one of the main characters of this novel. The other main character and our narrator, Bethia, is fictional. Brooks did extensive research to be sure that her treatment of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (a rather oppressive place) and that her depiction of lives for women and Native Americans there are accurate. In her Afterward, she lays out what parts of her novel are fact (a few names, dates and places) and how much is fictionalized (the bulk). Just because it is fiction, however, does not make it implausible and Brooks does a fine job of arguing in her Afterward why some the situations she imagines might be closer to the truth than what historians have concluded.

Caleb’s Crossing is about the secret friendship between Bethia, an English colonist on Nantucket and daughter of a minister, and Cheeshahteaumauk (later known as Caleb), the son of the Wampanoag sonquem (public or social leader) and nephew of the pawaaw (spiritual leader). Their friendship is illicit, as neither culture would sanction a friendship between the two worlds, much less between a male and female. Initially, Caleb teaches Bethia about the natural world and the secrets of the island where they live. Bethia teaches Caleb the alphabet, English and how to read. Each character crosses into the world of the other to some extent. As they grow older, events unfold to tear them from one another and then reunite. Bethia’s father, whose ministry is devoted to the conversion of the “salvages,” takes on Caleb and another native youth, Joel, as students. He strives to prepare them alongside his son Makepeace for matriculation at Harvard. Bethia, who is much smarter and intellectual than Makepeace and has a great desire to learn, listens to the lessons as she does her chores and learns as much as the boys. Due to a series of tragic events, Bethia ends up an indentured servant in Cambridge while Caleb, Joel and Makepeace are studying there. As a result, our narrator can continue to tell us the story of the first Native American Harvard graduates, along with her own personal story as a woman of intelligence in an oppressive and restrictive society.

“Crossing” has several meanings in this novel. It can refer to the journey between the island and the mainland, a sometimes treacherous and deadly affair. It also refers to natives giving up their traditional ways for Christianity and the ways of the English. Crossing can also refer to death, and there is quite a bit of death in this story. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 and as anyone who remembers their history knows, the early years of the settlement were a time of struggle, privation, sickness and battles between colonists and natives. Another meaning for “crossing” is betrayal, and the English often took advantage of Natives’ misunderstanding of their ways to cheat them out of land and renege on promises. Caleb experiences several types of “crossing” in this novel, as do other characters. This really is an excellent novel and a pretty quick read. You will learn a lot while being drawn into a brilliantly crafted story.

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