Monthly Archives: March 2022

Her Hidden Genius, by Marie Benedict

We first meet Rosalind Franklin as she begins her work in a “labo” in Paris. Although the women in her affluent Jewish family were expected to be wives, mothers, and philanthropists, Rosalind is a scientist who works with x-ray crystallography to capture images of the parts of a cell that are far too small to see with a typical microscope. She enjoys the comradery and equality with her French co-workers, but when a romantic entanglement goes south, she returns to England, where she does her greatest work in a less appreciative atmosphere. One of the men in her group is so offended that he is expected to cooperate with a woman as an equal, rather than as her superior, that he becomes great friends with a different university research team, particularly two men named Francis Crick and James Watson.

Marie Benedict writes novels about real-life, forgotten women who accomplished great things but did not receive credit in their lifetimes. In this story, since readers know the ending before Rosalind does, they will watch with fury as Maurice Wilkins fed her research findings on DNA to Watson and Crick before she had a chance to publish them in her own name. Later, of course, the two men were the ones to receive a Nobel Prize, and Watson wrote scathingly about Franklin in his book The Double Helix, which was universally rejected, even by his own friends and colleagues.

Franklin went on to produce great scientific research into RNA and the nature of viruses. She loved to climb mountains and cook French meals for her friends, although her family never understood her work and she never had a successful romantic relationship. Eventually, inevitably, she fell victim to the long-term effects of daily radiation. She died surrounded by her family and friends from England, the United States, and Europe. Her great love was science.

Marie Benedict also wrote The Personal Librarian (reviewed here) and a long list of other biographical novels, many of which are in my to-be-read pile. The first chapter of this novel had quite a bit of scientific detail, and I worried that I would not be able to understand Rosalind Franklin’s work well enough. Benedict says in the author’s note at the end that she had to learn more about DNA for her research into this novel. Very quickly, though, the reader is brought up to speed on Franklin’s laboratory methods, and anyone who took high school biology would be able to follow the fascinating plot.

Important revelations about a science superstar, and a perfect read for Women’s History Month!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Alice Waters Cooks Up a Food Revolution, by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland

In the summertime, Alice’s New Jersey family had fresh food from the garden, and Alice thought each strawberry was the Best! Food! Ever! But when wintertime came, they had to eat the newly-invented TV dinners and other prepared meals. She loathed them. Later, when Alice studied in France, she grew used to shopping in the little markets in the street where farmers, cheesemakers, bakers, and others sold their very fresh goods every day.

Eventually, Alice moved back to the United States and settled in Berkley, California, where she asked some friends to start a restaurant with her that would serve up the Best! Food! Ever! to the local residents. They named it Chez Panisse, and people were so excited about it that they ran out of food the very first day. Alice realized that she needed more sources of high-quality ingredients, so she worked with local farmers to raise the kinds of food that she needed for her restaurant, and the farm-to-table movement was born. Chez Panisse became the touchstone of a huge return to nourishing, locally-sourced food that encompassed the entire process from thoughtful, sustainable agriculture to simple gourmet meals.

Diane Stanley has written countless excellent biographies for young readers, and she has previously collaborated with Jessie Hartland on a book about Ada Lovelace. Hartland’s joyful, childlike paintings are filled with little details. I particularly enjoyed her images of a freckle-faced young Alice and of the dancing friends who started Chez Panisse.

Pair this picture book biography with the beautiful Fanny in France (reviewed here) Alice Waters’ own book about her daughter and her discovery of French food while visiting old friends in France with her mother. A perfect study for foodie parents planting a spring vegetable garden, trekking to the farmer’s market, or just singing the praises of fresh produce: the Best! Food! Ever!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, although I own Fanny in France. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari

We can’t pay attention anymore. An appalling percentage of adults no longer read any books at all. A soaring number of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. We’re getting less and less sleep. You’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Social media.” But your parents’ attention span was also shorter than their parents’ attention span. It’s been going on for as long as we’ve been keeping records.

Johann Hari set out to find out why he couldn’t focus for long periods of time. He loved to read, and his to-be-read pile probably resembled mine, but he could only fondly remember getting lost in a book for hours. He observed his nephew’s inability to look away from his phone, so Johann took him where he had always longed to go: Graceland. Standing in Elvis’s famous mansion, he saw that his nephew and all of the tourists of every age were staring at pictures of Graceland on their phones, rather than looking up at the actual rooms. When he started yelling at another man in exasperation, he realized that he needed to take a break.

Hari booked a three-month stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He left his laptop and phone with a friend far away and gave only six people the number to a dumb phone that he had bought for emergency use. It was grueling, but by the end, his mind felt calm, and not only did he get through all of the books he had brought, he also found a lovely bookstore in town where he bought even more great books. He went to the local pubs and talked to real, live people, and he started to write again.

Unhappily, it didn’t last, and he was determined to find out why. Johann started traveling around the world, to almost every continent, not only speaking to experts in the expected fields of high tech and social media, but also to brain scientists, sleep experts, ADHD physicians, scientists in pollution and food research, and many others. The interviews were fascinating, and Hari spends a chapter discussing each topic, combining scientific studies with personal anecdotes. So many of the stories resonated with changes I had seen in my own life or in the people around me, but others were shocking and desperate.

Johann believes that, although we can all make individual changes to help ourselves, there are massive problems that can only be solved if we all work together to force power structures to change. He likens this grassroots effort to the feminist and gay rights movements. While he is hopeful for the future, he also reveals that, at this moment, the problem is much deeper and more far-reaching than we understand.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, which the author reads himself. Johann is from London and has a warm and charming voice, and since he is so personally invested in his subject, there isn’t a dry moment in the book, even in the nerdiest bits of scientific study. This book is so important. Even those of us who are older and use very little social media have noticed a change, and the inability to concentrate is a serious issue for our world today, when there are critical problems that require deep thought and united action. There’s something going on that’s beyond our control, and Hari does an excellent job of putting the puzzle pieces together. His conclusion may surprise you; it’s not just social media. Let’s start a movement.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Reading While Black, by Esau McCaulley

How does a Black Christian find identity and comfort in the Bible? Some people have accused Black Christians of adopting a white man’s religion, but Esau McCaulley, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, responds that God chose his children in Africa centuries before the gospel ever reached Europe.

McCaulley is also a New Testament professor, and he brings his erudition to bear on scriptural passages concerning slavery and oppression, showing that it is not God’s plan to leave anyone in slavery, but that the trajectory of the entire Bible is always in the direction of liberation and freedom. Furthermore, he uses these ancient texts to examine the most contemporary of issues, such as policing and Black rage, parsing in detail the Bible’s verses about submission to government authority and the honest reality of the desire for vengeance.

For the White reader, McCaulley opens a window to the exegesis of the traditional Black church. All the way back in Genesis, Jacob’s son, Joseph, was sold to slave traders and ended up in Egypt, where he became the second most powerful person in the country. Pharaoh gave Joseph the daughter an Egyptian priest as a wife, and he had two sons with her whom Jacob later adopted as two of the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. It had never really occurred to me before that two of the twelve tribes of Israel were half African. Four hundred years later, the entire narrative of the Exodus and deliverance from slavery holds a message of hope for the Black church and the assurance that our God is a liberator of the oppressed.

This short book is divided into seven major topics related to the Black experience, and the author pulls from both Old and New Testaments— from Genesis to Revelation— showing his love for scripture and his faith. He does not hesitate to confront challenging passages, particularly in the Psalms or in Paul’s writings, just as he also glories in the hope of Isaiah and the gospels.

The last chapter, entitled “Bonus Track,” fills in gaps and answers some questions that the reader may have formed in the previous pages. First, McCaulley separates himself from James Cone and Black liberation theology. He says that, while he believes that liberation is found in the gospels, it is not the gospel.  He believes that his view of the Black ecclesial tradition will be familiar to Black audiences, since it is the message that has been heard from the pulpit, rather than read in scholarly books.

He also takes the opportunity in this chapter to address misogynistic scriptures and womanist theology. “Womanist” is an intersectional term coined by Alice Walker to deal with issues that concern both feminism and race. I appreciated this discussion, because I had been surprised on several occasions by a breezy insouciance toward the mistreatment of women in a passage, with a concentration only on the problems that pertained to men. Sometimes this blindness was found in quotes by other scholars that he had chosen.

McCaulley ends with a generous bibliography of authors for further study and an index of Bible references.

Important and enlightening.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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