The Organs of Sense: A Novel by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

41940459.jpg

But he could not stop. He felt he had a “compulsion to look,” to look closer and closer, “a looking-closer-and-closer compulsion.” What (he wondered) would it take to stop looking, “to look this closely, and no closer? Through such and such a magnification, and no higher?”

Certainly the strangest book I’ve read this year, and in fact last year. We are told that G. W. Leibniz, who was throughout his life “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature” is on a mission. It seems fitting he would want to uncover the truth behind an astronomer’s peculiar prediction. The German philosopher, mathematician, and logician, is on a quest to reveal whether or not a blind astronomer could possibly be able to study the stars so accurately as to have predicted an eclipse at noon and on the last day of 1666, that will leave all of Europe in complete and total darkness. This man’s prediction is made more shocking by the fact that he has empty sockets where his eyes should be, can you get any blinder? Sure, he has been ‘rumored’ to have built the most power telescope of the times but powerful or not, one still needs eyes to peer into telescopes, no?

Leibniz intends to remain at the observatory long enough to test the man’s reason (sanity) and if the eclipse happens he is certainly an astronomer if it doesn’t it means nothing because astronomers can be wrong. So begins the stories the old shriveled man tells Leibniz, and he discusses how one must “truly see”, what could a man with empty eye sockets know about seeing? Well, with his trusty instrument (the telescope) he has seen a lot! A lot, I tell you! And he demands of Leibniz that he “prove that I cannot see what I claim to see”, we have a conundrum tangled in philosophy and history. How did the old man lose his eyes anyway? What is truth? How do you get into someone’s head to determine what they are experiencing, what their truth is? Words, can words reveal what is in another’s head? Mere words?

Can one go through life without the ‘belief in other people?’ The astronomer tells Leibniz that what he means will become clear, I think most readers will try to grasp at the silliness and science but clarity may not be easy! Maybe a lot of readers are more like the astronomer’s father who wasn’t interested in the sky, and cannot be tangled in knots because they just don’t care to ponder. The play on faith as what we devote our existence to is evident in the astronomer’s father’s inventions…a box is just a box is a box, no matter how we decorate it, it will not open the cosmos to us. Be you a surface dweller or a plunger of depths, does it matter where we put our faith? Does madness await us all either way, what is sanitized madness? How does an Emperor, art , or an automaton head lead to the astronomer losing his eyes so that he can truly see?

This was a dizzying book. It takes a ‘discerning mind’  if you’re going to be a thinker and one must lose the eyes that deceive us even if that’s a straight plunge into ‘philosophical torment.’ This is meant to be amusing, I think it’s more scientific/philosopher’s humor and it is easy to get lost. What do we really understand about our the world or each other, whether we’re filled with genius or disinterested in anything beyond the surface? It’s okay if you can’t engage with the witty humor and philosophy within, you can always gaze at the cool book cover with your actual eyes!

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Advertisements

Light from Other Stars: A Novel by Erika Swyler

40653148.jpg

She’d adapted to homesickness before and viewing the Earth from above didn’t move her. Her home wasn’t a distance; it was time and a sparrow.

When I was in elementary school, living on the Space Coast in Melbourne, we students were marched out single file vibrating with excitement to watch the space shuttle launch of the Challenger. In fact, my father worked as an Engineer with EG&G and other family members worked out on the cape too, so it was always a big deal for us. I was lucky enough to see the first space shuttle launch in 1981, close up and amazing. On January 28th, 1986  despite being a beautiful day with a clear blue sky, there wasn’t a reason for me to think anything could go wrong. We children witnessed in horror as the Challenger exploded. Naturally younger children didn’t fully grasp what occurred, but we older students listened via the intercom system in the cafeteria about the tragedy we had just watch unfold live, above our heads. In 1986, Nedda Papas yearns to be an astronaut, and is crushed that Judy Resnik, much admired by young Nedda as Resnik was a biomedical engineer, electrical engineer, software engineer, pilot and astronaut, dies aboard the Challenger. “We didn’t really see it. Maybe just like an echo of it.” Nedda’s scientific mind is on overdrive, following the tragedy, thinking about light years. Coping with the loss she spends time with her father Theo, obsessed with his work on The Crucible in the town of Easter after his layoff from NASA. The Crucible, we learn, is a machine that is meant to ‘speed and slow down entropy’, that can ‘arrange energy’, play with time.  Her mother Betheen may spend her time baking unique recipes, but she gave up her life as a chemist to be a mother. “Theo had left her the kitchen, Betheen had let him have the basement.” She knows what the real purpose of the machine is… to stop loss. When a horrible accident occurs after Nedda and her friend Denny enter the orange grove,  her father attempts to fix it, but it is her mother who she must turn to if there is any hope to make things right. The mother whose miscarriages in the past made bonding with Nedda hard in the first month of her life.  Though she resembles her mother, it is Theo Nedda has always connected with, unaware of how bright her mother truly is. She is stunned to learn of her mother’s academic life, this mother who bakes. Through her Water cake, Betheen is able to explain the state Denny and her father are now trapped in. The machine isn’t just about loss, but preserving life for Nedda, but there are things she never knew that are now being revealed, such as the existence of a brother named Michael.

The story flows between past and present. Nedda is all grown, now living and working aboard Chawla, the reality of her girlhood dream come to fruition, she carries the chaos of that one incident like a weight, knowing only that ‘they couldn’t predict the variety of outcomes’. Predicting outcomes is the same in the future as the past. A ship with gravity… that’s what would have been ideal! Everything is going wrong, and she is still haunted by the past. The crew has sacrificed their futures to help future generations, even if it means their own deaths, on an unfamiliar planet or on a ship… There will be vision loss, things they knew were high risk, scant communication with those back on earth. It’s all for the greater good though.

I actually enjoyed the journey into the past and the dramatic moments of the Crucible, everything that happened before and after. It’s a heartbreaking novel that is about more than science, space, it is about loved ones and the instability of time, place. Dislocation of the soul. I also fancied reading about the areas I’ve grown up in and have returned to. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

 

Family of Origin: A Novel by C.J. Hauser

43548920

Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything. 

They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. The were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.

Could it really be? Could evolution be going in reverse? A group of scientists, researchers and naturalists known as the Reversalists on the Gulf Coast believe it is so. Studying a rare species of duck, the Undowny Bufflehead, having discovered its feathers are not waterproof serves as a sign that evolution has reversed it’s course. Subsequent to their father’s death by drowning, the Grey siblings join one another at Watch Landing on Leap Island to make sense of it all. With the knowledge that their father Dr. Ian Grey retreated to the island under the umbrella of shame for entertaining such an outlandish theory based on a ‘ridiculous’ duck of all things, Elsa is filled with fury. Surely he didn’t believe such a crackpot theory, not a man as intelligent as her father!

There is no love lost between the siblings, in Elsa’s eyes Nolan is needy and weak, despite looking so much like their father and having spent years ‘sucking up their father’s time’ he certainly didn’t inherit the old man’s genius. When her father left he started his ‘new family’ with Nolan’s mother Keiko, a microbiome researcher. The real wound for Elsa was in all her father’s disappearances, the first costing her the joys of life at the farmhouse her mother Ingrid (a nurse), she and Dr. Grey lived at. Nolan, forever the usurper of her former life, of course as a child she hated him. Nolan’s feelings for Elsa are tangled up, having an effect on every relationship and choice in his life. Elsa, always ‘taking up more space than she deserved’ in his mind and heart. There is a fault line beneath them created by actions in their past, something Elsa does her utmost best to avoid.

Family of origin is often defined as the people who care for you, your siblings, people you grow up with and certainly a fitting title as Elsa and Nolan suffer the miseries created by their own. Mostly blame for their dysfunctional upbringing to be laid at their father’s feet, cold from his watery grave. Who swims in a storm? Was it an accident or something worse? Nolan and Elsa are equally shocked to know that Ian’s fellow islanders took his work seriously. The two certainly feel that coming here could have been just another escape from them, could the duck and their father’s belief in reversalism really just be about his own children, their lack of evolution as competent successful offspring?

Elsa struggles in her own day-to-day, teaching children, with a terrible lapse in judgement just before Nolan’s call about their father. Not dealing well with people in general, living life in a numbed state, just floating along. She longs for escape that would put a vast distance between her and others, much further than Dr. Ian and his little island could have hoped to be. Meeting Esther Stein who holds a PhD in ecology, her disdain for the youth is obvious, with all their ‘allergies’ and inability to venture into the very environment they live in. It’s hard to deny all the young adults and children are changing as much as the ducks. People are no longer adapting! Just look around, you’ll see it too! The Millennials are ruining the species, coddled, weak and if their dad believed that to be true as much as Esther, than he didn’t believe in his own children, right? That stupid duck is a representation of their own failure.

This story is about confronting the past, and the real mystery is between Nolan and Elsa more than their father’s death. Elsa can run off to another planet but isn’t going to erase what’s between them. There are secrets to uncover but does knowing change their personal history, the weight they have carried because of it? What happens when the object of your anger is gone, or the person you resented is more victim than the villain of the story you thought was set in stone? One thing is certain, Elsa and Nolan are far more curious a study than the rare species of duck! It doesn’t take a fictional story to nudge us in the direction that we humans often seem to be hopeless creatures, destroying our environment and much of the novel seems hopeless in that aspect. Worse, we tend not to evolve in our personal surroundings too, as evidenced by the Grey siblings. We carry the wrong stories, and poison our own well so to speak and of course we can blame our ‘family of origin’ for that, at least Elsa and Nolan can. How are we to understand the natural world when we live with so much subterfuge coming at us from all directions? Nolan and Elsa are forced to face their own hopelessness, and maybe change direction because it’s not really about the duck.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Doubleday Books

If, Then: A Novel by Kate Hope Day

41086039.jpg

Ginny closes her eyes. She doesn’t want her life to continue just as it is. Her life can’t stay the same, because she’s not the same. She’s full of wanting when she wasn’t before.

Visions of a parallel reality plays with the lives of four characters in Clearing, Oregon. When a surgeon named Ginny closes her eyes to check if her brain is the problem, Edith’s soft breathing enters her and doesn’t leave. Ginny’s husband Mark believes animal behavior is key to predicting natural disaster, of course his research of frogs on Broken Mountain isn’t impressing any of his colleagues, funding isn’t easy to come by, certainly not for junk science, there just isn’t enough data. He feels defeated. Soon his own visions are horrifying, serving as a warning he believes in, an obsession consumes him to protect his son and wife, to ‘shelter’ them from the future that is coming for them all. Their marriage is strained, if Mark feels like a failure in his field, than Ginny feels like a failure as a mother, consumed herself by her career.

Samara keeps seeing her deceased mother, maybe it’s grief? Why can’t she figure out what she wants to tell her? She is furious with Ginny, blames her for what happened to her mother, who was under her care. Her father is moving on and handling her death a little too well. It’s time for him to explain things. Samara can’t let go, she wants so badly to hold on to the past, physically and emotionally. Cass is a scholar, a ‘philosopher’ but then came her baby Leah, and her life as a graduate student came to a standstill. She is a loving mother, yes, but a part of her also still belongs in the world of academia. Can she ever go back, juggling motherhood, can she ever fulfill the expectations of her advisor Robbie who tells her she has so much promise? Why does she keep seeing herself pregnant again, is motherhood always going to be the obstacle keeping her from her dreams?

What will happen? “That’s the rub, isn’t it. The not knowing.” What if the visions are clues, or warnings and not just imagination or hallucinations caused by medical problems, like Ginny thinks? Choices are so often blindly made in life, that’s the gamble we all confront, even loaded with the best of advice or intuition, we can still take the wrong step but what if visions could guide us? That may well be what’s happening in If, Then. An interesting exploration on relationships and the choices that can make or break us. There are people who believe in us more than we do ourselves (as with Cass), and there are those nearest and dearest who think we are losing our grip on reality when we are true to our ‘visions’ or intuitions (Mark and Ginny). It also about the desires that tug, urging us to change and the secrets we keep from ourselves and each other.

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Random House

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw

35888286.jpg

Without understanding, we risk dehumanizing others, writing off human beings simply because we don’t comprehend them.

That is a loaded sentence and Evil is a strange beast, one we can’t ever contain because it’s slippery. The face of evil changes with time, what is evil today may be the norm tomorrow. One thing this book will do is make you squirm, because when discussing evil we remove ourselves from the equation until someone points out that ignorance is no excuse either. Oh yes, you and me too. Think about consumerism, all those things we just have to have on the backs of the broken. I have such a disgust for child abusers, but the truth is, Shaw raises solid arguments on why dehumanizing anyone actually hurts us all in the end. How can we learn and create a safe environment if we really don’t understand the why of it all? How can we understand the why of anything if we rush to label a person or thing evil? End of story, you’re nothing like me, you’re evil! Nothing else to see here, we’ve decided it’s just evil. I realize that is a huge mistake.

Someone thinks you are evil too, be it for your religious beliefs or lack thereof, maybe even the country you live in, or your sexual preferences. Julia Shaw’s book can start some very interesting conversations and you can bet not everyone is going to agree. This is not for the light reader, the subject is very heavy. You are not meant to feel sorry for people who are attracted to children or animals, to most of us this is beyond vile, repulsive but it doesn’t change that such people exist and struggle with these ‘urges’. Do you see what I mean, this is a tough read! It’s hard to review, because these are subjects we find downright abhorrent and, admittedly, evil. Like a dead rotting thing, we do not want to acknowledge it’s there, bury it, let someone else deal with it. Tell me though, what about people who have evil thoughts but never act on them? Or their forbidden urges? How do we help them, prevent these thoughts from escalating into acts? Can we?  What a slippery slope!

This book will challenge your notions of bad and good, much in the same way age blurs that line. As children, we are reared on stories teaching us morality, many meant to keep us in line or safe, to make sure we become upstanding citizens. As we age, life kicks us, we struggle, we make mistakes because we are human and flawed. We all want to be understood, forgiven our mistakes, and yet if someone’s darkest deed is out in the open, it’s less easy to move on because it’s all we can see, an ever-present stain. Not everything should be forgiven, we have laws for a reason, but we must understand or we gain nothing. In all fairness though, often some criminals do prove that they shouldn’t be trusted and commit the same crimes over and over. What about that?

Regarding our impressions based on looks (someone looks evil, weird, creepy) it is true we are biased. Surely someone who is beautiful, well-kempt, and  eloquent gains the trust of many, and often to our detriment. Our visual perception is deeply flawed, just as much as we trust beauty we are put off by those with unusual deformities, unfairly so. I agree with the idea that people often feel someone must deserve their suffering, we see it every day. This made me wonder… if someone looks ‘creepy’ to everyone they meet, they would certainly be treated suspiciously,  it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to imagine it affects their interactions and sours them socially. Why not, I would certainly be sick and tired of people myself always having an adverse reaction to me based on looks I had no choice in. On the flip side, I thought the same is true for those with stunning looks who do have depth and maybe have a hard time knowing who genuinely likes them as a person, rather than wanting them based on their beauty alone. Between the two though, people often stumble over themselves to help attrractive people. I refuse to touch on mental illness and the disgusting lack of understanding the whole world over, it’s such a mess even in our ‘modern age’. People are downright terrified of mental illness, it’s no wonder with popular culture and films, the mentally ill, if you believe Hollywood, are all serial killers. People are downright uncomfortable the moment they hear whisper of ‘mental illness’, much of that is due to ignorance, poor education as a whole on the subject. See, this book leads to stray thoughts. Back to evil…

Mob mentality is a beast, it certainly seems that cruelty (evil)  is easier for human beings if others are chanting alongside you. We also can be downright disgusting if there is anonymity to hide behind. Is that not evil? I have a hard time reading about the differences in cultures. My beloved uncle was an anthropologist and there were many conversations about the places he traveled, the shocking (to my American sensibilities) social norms he witnessed, many I would and do consider evil and I am adamant in my refusal to change my mind even at the risk of hypocrisy. That’s okay, I am human but I will listen at least, to your side.

Back to looks again, I agree we are biased in our judgements based on looks but I also believe in gut instincts. Personally, when I’ve ignored mine, it was a mistake. I think we have these gut reactions for a reason more often than not. Then again, I have met just as many ‘beautiful people’ that gave me a bad feeling. So there. The fact is, I would be the first to define someone as evil if they victimized my loved ones. It’s a different conversation when you experience it firsthand, I know this book isn’t about the victims, but it’s my personal feeling. I understand what Shaw is saying, and why it’s important but I don’t have to like it.

This is a provocative book. I will say, much as Shaw does, thoughts are one thing acting on them another. I hope we do someday have a way to intervene and help those with ‘unnatural urges’ (please, don’t bombard me with messages about what defines unnatural, we will be here for eternity and I mean murdering people, abuse, molestation, anything that victimizes another). I realize we victimize each other in small ways, but somehow taking someone’s life isn’t as bad as say, snapping at your child. Let’s face it, call it evil or not there are extremes that have to be measured or else society falls apart. We do need to continue studying the nature of evil, because that nature is in us all. Thank God there are others invested in this science, because for me, it would be too hard. I leave it to the experts.

An uneasy read, but I think it will give you a lot to talk about. It was hard for me to review!

Publication Date: February 27, 2019

Abrams Press