Archive for Book reviews

Fraternité: A Vivid Snapshot of France’s Revolutionary History

A photo of the cover of the book, FraternitéSome books simply take you there. The minute you start reading, you’re not reading the story—you’re living it. And Fraternité, by Margaret Pritchard Houston, is exactly like that. Through several characters whose loves, griefs, and aspirations come alive before and within you, you are transported to Paris in 1848 and find yourself breathlessly experiencing the beginnings of the revolution that essentially brought to completion the earlier French Revolution of 1789-99 once and for all.

Sebastian Duval, the main character, doesn’t sense how momentous those beginnings are at first. While it’s true that he has been sent by the police to infiltrate the district of Saint-Antoine and report on any anti-government rumblings there, he gets more caught up in investigating the murder of a prostitute who has been one of his primary informants. But before long, his discoveries begin to alarm Allard, his superior officer, who recognizes their dangerous implications for the restored monarchy well before Sebastian does.

Sebastian, meanwhile, still struggling with the deep grief from losing his child two years ago, which has led to a partial estrangement from his wife Marie, finds that he must call upon the aid of an old friend and fellow undercover agent, Gilbert Montserrat, who was also deeply involved in that earlier loss. Soon these three—Sebastian, Marie, and Gilbert—gradually uncover the mystery behind the prostitute’s murder and her connection to secrets that could threaten the very future of France. And throughout his investigations, Sebastian finds himself emotionally torn: torn between duty and friendship, torn between guilt and desire, and torn between loves. As the final revolution gathers momentum and becomes inevitable, Sebastian works frantically to salvage and protect whoever he can and survive to fashion a new future with a deeper understanding of his own heart and the new world that his struggles have helped to create.

When it comes to this history, Ms. Pritchard Houston really knows her stuff. Between her knowledge of the underpinnings of the revolution and her extensive research into the layout of Paris and the living conditions of its downtrodden citizenry, she makes you feel as though you are right there in the midst of things as they happen. Yet it’s not just a matter of knowing the facts; those alone could be dry as dust. It takes great insight into the human character, a delicate and precise level of control and plotting, and, quite simply, terrific writing skills to bring characters and the events in their lives so vividly alive. Ms. Houston has all of that, in spades.

I really loved this book and read huge swaths without being able to put it down. I highly recommend it, both for the fascinating history it chronicles and for the poignantly real story of some of the people who lived that history.

One Way Trip: A Universal Story on any Planet

One Way TripImagine blasting off on a trip to Mars—one of the first two humans to set up a colony there, unable ever to return to Earth—and suddenly you realize that you actually yearn to go back home after all. In his short novel, One Way Trip, Stephen M. Braund follows Martin, a young astronaut, on exactly this journey, with all its implications. This bittersweet story of love and loss takes the reader back and forth between Martin’s childhood, where he meets Gwen, his true love and the one who inspired his love of the stars, and his adulthood, where he has lost Gwen forever and must aim for the stars without her. It’s hard for the reader to imagine that Martin can forge a new life successfully, yet Braund makes us care about him and root for him to succeed.

Neither of the two courageous men who will establish this Mars colony are emotionally whole, despite how level-headed and firm in their commitment they seem at first. It’s as though both Martin and his companion, Jomo, with tragedies and serious losses in their past, must lose even the very planet that shaped them before they can truly face up to and deal with the lives they lived there. Talk about needing to get perspective!

Braund carefully but convincingly reveals the details of both Martin’s and Gwen’s lives as we gradually come to understand what led both of them to the places they now occupy, one on Mars and one on Earth. And as more of the truth comes out, it’s disconcerting to discover that Martin is perhaps more to blame for this vast gap between them than he appeared at first; we don’t want to think that this isolation, loneliness, and loss might in any way be something he “deserves.”

But as the story moves through the years, where Martin and Jomo have gradually been joined by other scientists and have worked through the beginnings of a colony that slowly starts to thrive, we begin to sense that the griefs of the past may finally have settled into a sense of peace. And in the end, this very long journey of loss may result in unexpected fulfillment.

The only extra insight I would have wanted from this book would have involved some details about the colony itself—how it really worked and how the people created a viable place to live on another planet. But of course, that’s mainly because I love the stars and the thought of venturing out into them as much as Martin and Gwen do.

But Braund is primarily interested in the very human story and the motivations behind this launching into the astronomical unknown. He captures the depths of Martin’s and Gwen’s (and even Jomo’s) emotional work in a surprisingly deep and insightful way, considering that this is not a long book. He literally demonstrates that there is no place distant enough to allow anyone to flee the inner work they must do in order to heal; their past will always follow them, wherever they go.

This is a story that is as moving and insightful on Mars as it has ever been on Earth.

First Hardcopied Book: The Diary of Lady Murasaki

MurasakiI have already finished my first book for the Hardcopied July print reading challenge: The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Yay! Now, granted, it’s quite short, but it still counts.

You have to be in the right mood for this sort of book. This is not fiction, but a document written by a historical figure in Japan during the Heian period (late tenth/early eleventh centuries). It’s a translation (by Richard Bowring) of a document written by a lady-in-waiting of the Japanese empress, Shoshi, around the years 1008 to 1010 or so. (For context? Around fifty years before the Norman Conquest.) It provides a lot of insight into how court events were planned after the birth of the youngish Emperor Ichijo’s first son. We get to see how the ladies who surrounded the empress behaved and comported themselves, we read detailed descriptions of how they dressed, and we get a senior lady’s opinion of the goings on. We also see  just a bit of the machinations that the men are involved in.

This is apparently one of the earliest insights into how Japanese court etiquette operated, especially since this was in a time period when people’s court roles were not quite as rigid as they later became. Historians find this period really interesting because it was right when Japan was pulling away from Chinese influence and was developing its own distinctly Japanese culture–especially a written culture. It was the Japanese women in particular (who were shut out of the official and governmental writings, still heavily influenced by Chinese) who did the most to codify and spread the newer Japanese writing. So this account (along with two other women’s accounts from the same general period–The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and Izumi Shikibu’s diary–is very important in showing that new cultural development. One of the most important elements in this culture and in the court was the ability to create simultaneous lines of poetry, responding to moments as they happened and particularly responding to another person’s initiating of their own poetic lines.

What’s also interesting is how little actual power the emperor had and how much power the strongest families surrounding the court had instead. Yet the only way they could really get this power was to get as many family members as possible either married into the royal family or married into other powerful positions that surrounded the court. So the current (at that time) patriarch of the Fujiwara clan, Michinaga, was the one who got his daughter married to the emperor, and he is in control of a lot of the rituals that follow the birth of the baby prince. And it’s kind of amusing how, whenever the attending officials are named, you might get seventeen of them with the name “Fijiwara” and perhaps four of them with other names. Murasaki herself was from another less influential branch of the Fujiwaras.

The translator, Richard Bowring, wrote an excellent introduction explaining the historical and cultural context, and he also added Appendices that showed detailed floor plans of the rooms, apartments, and garden areas of the buildings in which the events took place. This added a lot of rich context.

So! Short but sweet. But as I say, you do need to be in the mood to delve into history in some detail. (And also, thanks to my friend, Tim, who originally sent me this book. 🙂 )

The Most Wanted particle, by Jon Butterworth: A Wild, Exciting Ride

Picture of cover of the book, "The Most Wanted Particle"If you want a fly-on-the-wall view of the project that finally discovered the Higgs boson, are you ever in for a ride! It just doesn’t get better than Jon Butterworth’s new book, “Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics” (or, as it is known more succinctly in the UK and elsewhere, “Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs”). Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London and, important for this book, a member of the ATLAS project team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). So when he talks about the “inside story,” believe me, he’s not kidding.

He describes the slow buildup to the big discovery so that, sometimes, you almost feel as though you were there yourself. You feel the dismay when, nine days after the LHC is turned on, there is an explosion, and it has to be shut down again till they find the problem and repair it. That takes 14 more months, and you understand why some people begin to wonder whether this gigantic experiment, already several years in the conceiving and building, will ever get off the ground—and whether it was worth the enormous cost. But on July 4, 2012, when the people from the various project teams are gathered together in an auditorium and the leaders understatedly begin to show the most recent data and everyone suddenly realizes what it means—that’s a wonderful day, and you want to leap up and cheer. And maybe cry, too.

Butterworth himself is heavily involved in the ATLAS project to research highly massive particles and particle physics at energies that will take us beyond what is called the Standard Model of physics. Interestingly, he himself began as somewhat sceptical of the Higgs boson and wasn’t sure it would be found. In a way, that adds a whole new layer of authenticity (as though he needed that), because it was the LHC data itself that convinced him. ATLAS and its “sister project,” called CMS, have particle detectors located across the LHC ring from each other. So the results were confirmed twice, independently, making the conclusions strong. Humanity has found the Higgs boson.

While this is a fascinating and exciting book, be prepared: you will need to gird your intellectual loins for this one, because even though it’s a “popular” book, there is a lot of physics detail. If you are not a close follower of these things, it will be easy to get lost in the various particles and what they do, what they decay into and from, whether they have mass or spin—all the quarks and leptons and gluons and Z bosons and photons and W bosons (and let’s not even get started on the antiparticles!)—not to mention charm, up, down, and strange particles. Sometimes, reading Butterworth’s descriptions of all these particles and how they behave and are detected, the best thing you can do is smile blankly and nod and keep reading. Because the basic story is very exciting, and you won’t want to miss a moment of this adventure in which one of the greatest scientific discoveries that have ever been made is brought to vivid life by one of the actual participants.

Most Wanted Particle: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs, the Heart of the Future Physics, by Jon Butterworth

2015, The Experiment

287 pages USD $33.53/CDN $33.49 (hardcover)

ISBN: 978-1615192458

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