What We're Reading, Jan. 12 - 18This week, a novel asks, does God exist? David Malouf reimagines an episode from Homer's Iliad, and surgeon-writer Atul Gawande offers a simple solution for the complicated problem of healing patients. Also, a memoir of life and linguistics in an Amazon tribe.
This week, a novel asks, does God exist? David Malouf re-imagines an episode from Homer's Iliad, and surgeon-writer Atul Gawande offers a simple solution for the complicated problem of healing patients. Also, a memoir of life and linguistics amid an Amazon tribe.
Protagonist Cass Seltzer's surname suits both his disposition and the overall tone of this bubbly academic comedy. Cass is a religious-studies professor at an obscure university when the winds of academic fashion suddenly blow his way. His book hits the best-seller list and he becomes an overnight celebrity, "the atheist with a soul," as Time magazine dubs him. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's novel cuts back and forth between Cass' sunny present and his past as a struggling grad student in thrall to his mentor, the blow-hard genius and "Extreme Distinguished Professor" Jonas Elija Klapper ("The Klap," to Cass's then-girlfriend). Author Goldstein is a real-life philosopher and MacArthur "genius" who has written nonfiction works on the Jewish thinker and biblical scholar Spinoza as well as mathematician Kurt Godel. These passions — for philosophy, math, religion and Jewish studies — are all on display in 36 Arguments, along with Goldstein's sharp wit and talent for snappy dialog.
36 Arguments succeeds mostly on its considerable charm and good humor. The plot is slight. On the other hand, Goldstein enjoys putting the "academics" back in the academic comedy. Unlike the professors portrayed by the likes of David Lodge or Richard Russo, Goldstein's scholars are excited by (not to mention successful at) their studies — and the book doesn't shy away from their obsessions. (An appendix to the novel actually summarizes the eponymous "36 arguments" for God's existence, with a refutation of each.) That said, for a book whose climax is a formal debate on the proposition "God exists," this feels like a romp. The dialog is funny, the characters people you'd like to know, and the satire very, very gentle.-- Joe Matazzoni, senior supervising producer, Arts & Life, NPR.org
In Ransom the Australian novelist David Malouf (Remembering Babylon, An Imaginary Life) reimagines on one of the great sequences in Homer, and, many would say, in all of Western literature. This is one of the so-called Embassy sections of the Iliad, when Priam, king of the soon-to-be-defeated Trojans, crosses the battle lines in disguise to plead with warrior Achilles for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has just slaughtered in combat. The novel extends from Priam's first resolve to retrieve Hector's body to his meeting with Achilles in the latter's battle tent at dawn. Priam and the mule driver he has commanded to work for him haul a cartload of Troy's gold treasures he hopes to exchange for the corpse of the late Trojan warrior. You've seen the movie? Now read the novel made from one of the foundation poems of our culture.
From this ancient material, Malouf hauls in his own cartload of treasure, a stately rendering of a magnificent poetic sequence. Priam seems aptly aloof, even as he discovers the small pleasures of everyday life: a bath in a stream, a meal of buckwheat pancakes cooked by the cart driver's daughter-in-law. The landscape is starkly beautiful as the light changes from evening to night to dawn. Achilles' reception of the grieving king is also stark and memorable. But, you might ask, why do this? Didn't Homer do it for all time? Well, yes, but from this retelling you get a double pleasure — your memory of the original as well as this resonant homage.-- Alan Cheuse, NPR book reviewer
Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande's crusade seems utterly mundane at first: He wants surgeons to use checklists to help them avoid mistakes caused by fatigue, flagging attention and other factors. Using anecdotes from aviation, construction and medicine, Gawande sets out to demonstrate that routine works wonders, even though checklists require the putting aside of pride and of surgeons' mystique of infallibility. Ultimately, he even brings the book back to "Sully" Sullenberger's landing of a plane in the Hudson River, creating a compelling case for an idea so simple that the hardest task he may face is convincing people of its importance.
Atul Gawande digs into the eye-glazing debate over health care costs and makes it clear and sometimes riveting (although some of his critics grumble he makes it a bit too simple). The book can be summarized in a sentence: Really smart surgeons make fewer mistakes if they act like airline pilots preparing to take off, working through a checklist of best practices before they get started. Do you really need a whole book to convey this idea? Not on the surface, but the stakes are high. Doctors resist checklists, fearing it makes them look dumb; yet when some doctors finally adopted checklists in a study, medical mistakes went down drastically. The book comes most alive when Gawande dwells on the actual cases of patients affected by mistakes, like the man who was accidentally administered potassium at 100 times the intended concentration — a dose that would normally only be administered at an execution.-- Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition
Linguistics professor Daniel Everett touched off an academic firestorm in 2005 when he described a tribe of Amazonian Indians with a language unlike any other. Everett argued that the language of the Piraha Indians does not follow the rules of "universal grammar" laid out by linguists, including Noam Chomsky. But Don't Sleep, There are Snakes is far from a dry linguistics treatise. Everett was a missionary when he and his family arrived in the Amazon in the 1970s. He set out to convert the Piraha, a tribe of several hundred people in central Brazil who have no counting system, no personal property and a language that can be whistled as well as spoken. Over the next 30 years, Everett befriended the Piraha, became a prominent linguist, nearly lost two family members to malaria, battled giant anacondas and ultimately abandoned Christianity. Everett's book offers a highly personal account of how the Piraha changed him — and his assumptions about the nature of language.
Daniel Everett offers an unflinching description of a quest that ultimately cost him his faith, his family and nearly his life. The early chapters include some of the most compelling reading, as Everett describes his first encounters with these people, who had never met an outsider who could speak their language. Everett is an appealing, if imperfect, protagonist. He candidly confesses his own failings, including the time he nearly let his wife die of malaria because he was sure she had something else. But his passion to understand the Piraha, which sustains him even when they briefly consider killing him, permeates the book. And he makes a powerful scientific case that the Piraha language challenges academic assumptions. Nonlinguists may find the sections on linguistics a bit dry. But the story never slows down for long before another giant anaconda emerges from the water — or Everett has a new epiphany.-- Jon Hamilton, NPR science correspondent