Eliza McGraw

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Chance in the House of Fate, Jennifer Ackerman's fascinating new book, is natural both in mission and execution. Blending ruminations on heredity with scientific knowledge, Ackerman draws readers in with a series of questions and thoughts about genetics that surpass what we typically consider "nature writing."

By using personal anecdotes to illustrate her points, Ackerman, a former staff writer for the National Geographic Society and the author of Notes from the Shore, treats her readers like confidants as well as students. She writes of her fear that her unborn child will be retarded and of the ways in which she searches out family patterns in her own life. Her mother's cancer becomes a jumping-off point for emotional exploration and for a navigation of the mystery of why opiates help alleviate pain.

Ackerman also interviews various experts along the way, so that her discussions of topics like cell life are enriched by specialists' opinions and insights. Interviewing a researcher at the University of California in San Diego who studies the relations between proteins to see which are similar, Ackerman realizes that the age-old bonds between these amino acids help to demonstrate that we as humans are "sheathed in the shapes of the past, the skulls and shells and skeletons, the kringles and fingers, which make fate."

The book also demonstrates how intimately linked humankind is to the natural world. By delving into the myriad ways that scent marks and guides us, for instance, Ackerman shows how close we are to our animal relatives. She also discusses antibiotics and the ways in which they can mold our resistance. These infinitesimal protectors become personalized. As Ackerman writes, "In the mammalian gut, the chemical cross-talk is cacophonous, like the prattle and gab at a raucous cocktail party." Ackerman's prose is graceful, nearly lyrical at times an affirmation of the idea that science does not necessarily have to be treated with scientific detachment. The way in which she focuses on the beauty of scientific language enriches her expertise. With Chance in the House of Fate, she proves that inquisitiveness and awe have their place among scientific observers.

"It's what I love about biology, about evolution, too," Ackerman writes, "you can't narrow down the wonder."

Eliza McGraw lives in Cabin John, Maryland.

 

Chance in the House of Fate, Jennifer Ackerman's fascinating new book, is natural both in mission and execution. Blending ruminations on heredity with scientific knowledge, Ackerman draws readers in with a series of questions and thoughts about genetics that surpass what we typically consider "nature writing." By using personal anecdotes to illustrate her points, Ackerman, […]
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Italian Fever succeeds in joining together a mystery plot with a travel narrative, ruminations on art, and a ghost story. Italy makes the perfect setting for Valerie Martin's novel, which follows an author's assistant to Tuscany after her employer, DV, has been found dead. Lucy Stark, the novel's intrepid and likable protagonist, sets off to Italy to put DV's affairs in order. She becomes ill with the fever of the title, and then finds herself entangled in the very situations that led to DV's demise.

Martin's descriptions of Italy resound with familiarity, but also allow the reader to enjoy discovering the country along with Lucy. In Rome, Lucy wonders at the wild taxi ride from the station through the racket and beauty of the ancient city, how immense and yet livable it was, for there were no tall buildings to intimidate the pedestrian, and how magical and marvelous it appeared in the crisp autumn light. Italy itself becomes a character in the novel, appearing as both a gracious host and an enigmatic, sometimes threatening, environment. The other terrain Martin deals with concerns writers and their marketplace. As Lucy notes of DV's latest project, The book was awful. DV's books were always awful, but what made this one worse than the others was the introduction of a new element, which was bound to boost sales: There was a ghost in the villa. While Lucy's assessment of her employer criticizes the reading public for buying such tripe, Martin uses DV's work and the question of audience as an illuminating framework for larger discussions about art. When Lucy visits the Villa Borghese to see Bernini statues, or meets with an expatriate American artist connected with DV's death, the idea of art permeates and forms Martin's novel.

Italian Fever also contains some of the spooky elements Martin's readers may remember from Mary Reilly, one of her earlier books. As Lucy explores DV's rented Tuscan villa, "The whisper of the paper as she lifted the envelope out of the drawer made sudden intrusive explosions in the ponderous stillness of the house. She could feel it brooding over her like some heavy, muffling feathered creature settling down upon the smooth, hard shells of its own future." The eeriness of the novel provides a mythical quality to its mystery, and lends added import and intrigue to each element of this already densely packed narrative. 

Eliza McGraw is a graduate student in Nashville.

Italian Fever succeeds in joining together a mystery plot with a travel narrative, ruminations on art, and a ghost story. Italy makes the perfect setting for Valerie Martin's novel, which follows an author's assistant to Tuscany after her employer, DV, has been found dead. Lucy Stark, the novel's intrepid and likable protagonist, sets off to […]
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“Happy” earned his nickname. He was a fun-loving baseball player with a pretty girlfriend and hilarious buddies, the catcher on the Macalester College team who liked to joke with his worried mom. As Alex Lemon writes in this by turns harrowing and hopeful memoir, “I’ve always been an all-star.”

Written in the present tense, Happy takes readers rushing along as its narrator realizes that his headaches and vision problems are not just the classic signs of over-indulgence in college partying, but an actual medical condition. Alex goes from being another student enjoying the rare spring sunshine to another patient in the hospital undergoing tests from MRIs to neurological exams. When told that he has undergone a stroke, Lemon and his family are predictably unbelieving at first, but then begin the journey to diagnosing and controlling his multiple health crises. His divorced parents and step-parents all weigh in and attempt to find their own ways to offer support, which range from an enforced rest in North Carolina to a prolonged visit from his mother.

A road trip, a priest and Hurricane Floyd all make appearances in this headlong and compelling memoir, along with alcohol and drug abuse. Yet even with its fascinating story of a young man battling outsized enemies, it is Happy’s language that truly sets it apart. Lemon is a poet, and every paragraph shows it, from a description of walls that “smell like melting gumballs and kerosene” to an unforgettable image of a son’s beloved mother: “Ma turns to me and smiles and my blood gathers and swells.”

Lemon shies from nothing, which can make for grueling (and graphic) reading, especially given the gravity of his subject matter. But he never uses his difficult topic for shock value; instead, thanks to his considerable poetic gifts, it becomes an avenue for exploring the human experience at its most dire. 

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

“Happy” earned his nickname. He was a fun-loving baseball player with a pretty girlfriend and hilarious buddies, the catcher on the Macalester College team who liked to joke with his worried mom. As Alex Lemon writes in this by turns harrowing and hopeful memoir, “I’ve always been an all-star.” Written in the present tense, Happy […]
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Reading through the material in Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why is grueling. And yet, Ripley examines each instance – stories of the 14th Street Bridge plane crash, hostage situations, murderous stampedes in Mecca, a wedding party trapped in a fire and 9/11 – not to marvel or mourn, but to learn from people’s reactions. Ripley wants to know how we respond to moments of extreme terror, and what those responses teach us. She shows how the way people tolerate and even use their fear response binds them together, but also demonstrates the highly individualized nature of disaster reaction.

Ripley, a Time magazine journalist, even puts herself under duress by undergoing both an MRI and a day of test-taking to investigate a theory suggesting that people who are subject to post-traumatic stress disorder have a smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain that helps us remember and learn). She wonders how much these biological factors matter: “Do we all walk into disasters with a probability attached to our names? Or do other things matter more – like our lifetimes of experience and the people fighting for survival right next to us?” Ripley’s under-the-microscope examination of how emotions and actions shift under extraordinary pressure shows that we all contain complex reaction potential in our everyday makeup.

Eliza McGraw writes from Washington, D.C.

Ripley's under-the-microscope examination of how emotions and actions shift under extraordinary pressure shows that we all contain complex reaction potential in our everyday makeup.
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The thing about The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is that it sounds like a very depressing book. Instead, however, it's an involving read, an unusual blend of science, culture and family history.

In his ninth book, David Shields uses sources from around the world and from his own life to consider what it means to be alive and human. This is a far-reaching quest: Lyndon Johnson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Shields' cat Zoomer, Wallace Shawn, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Neil Young are all here, offering momentary points of illumination for Shields' often obscure search. Shields frames his unruly investigation in terms of his relationship with his 97-year-old father, and frames his book in terms of the human life cycle. At 51 years old, the author is preoccupied with mortality and encroaching death, while his aged father, fascinated by survival, also typifies it.

The author begins, naturally enough, with a chapter about infancy, and the chapters march along chronologically with discussions of adolescence, middle age and old age. Within several sections, there are chapters called "Decline and Fall," an echoing reminder of how different stages of life prefigure or recall others. Just as a 40-year-old realizes that his 30s, his most creative years, are behind him, a 65-year-old has to grapple with the loss of one-tenth of his brain cells. Each stage of life comes complete with its own downfall.

This is not necessarily an uplifting book, simply because its author's questioning of and sadness at the relentless nature of aging are too prescient to allow anyone to feel entirely carefree while reading it. But the book is not without hope, and Shields' constant probing is no less a means of survival than his father's tenacity. "He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow," Shields writes of his father. What, really, could sound more alive?

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

The thing about The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is that it sounds like a very depressing book. Instead, however, it's an involving read, an unusual blend of science, culture and family history. In his ninth book, David Shields uses sources from around the world and from his own life […]

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