I'm not the biggest fan of warm weather. In fact, I would say that I actively dislike the summer. I prefer snow over sunshine. But I do appreciate the fact that during the spring and summer I can read outside without freezing. Summer in New York City has its perks, such as free concerts and film screenings in parks, and entrancing public basketball games at the West 4th Street Courts. So in honor of the positive aspects of summer here are some amateur reviews of the books I've read lately.
Great Stories By Chekhov (1959)
Edited by David H. Greene
The stories are — at the most superficial level — heartbreaking and powerful. I would delve deeper into these stories, my favorite being Ward No. 6, but I want to discuss the origin of this book. This book is remarkable, and I'm not simply referring to the contents. I purchased this book for one dollar at a used bookstore in Vermont; I believe it was Crow Bookshop. As an object, the book is stunning. It's falling apart, it has "50¢" written on the top right hand corner, and it has the best 'old book smell' I've ever encountered. It was published by Dell Publishing Co. as a part of its Laurel Edition, mass-market paperback series. David H. Greene, a legendary scholar of Irish literature who died in 2008, edited it. Greene edited this volume in 1959 when he was a professor of English at NYU. This book was part of a series called The Sunrise Semester Library, which published major literary works in conjunction with an education television course at NYU called Sunrise Semester — an American series that aired on CBS from 1957 through 1982. I feel very lucky to have found this book.
Favorite quote: "And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovich an unintelligible, aimless jest....And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how Fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he recalled his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meager, poverty-stricken, and drab...." — From 'The Kiss'
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2009)
By Neil Shubin
Shubin, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, exploded onto the popular science scene with Your Inner Fish. Tracing the ancient origins of the evolution of the human body, notably through the discovery of a "fish with hands," Shubin demonstrates that all of the animals typically found in a zoo share more anatomical similarities than differences. He accessibly lays out fascinating concepts and ideas with a contagious enthusiasm. Focusing (if you could call it that) his analysis primarily on the 500 million years since the first bodies appeared, he explains the role of DNA and genetic mutation in the development of humans out of fish. A particularly interesting part of the book is when he studies our facial nerves and compares them to the cables and pipes in the walls of an old science building: they don't seem to make any sense, and they don't have any discernable rhyme or reason. That is because human heads have a long history of imperfect evolutionary change. Our facial nerves are just one of many examples of how our bodies are far from perfectly designed.
Favorite quote: "What do billions of years of history mean for our lives today? Answers to fundamental questions we face — about the inner workings of our organs and our place in nature — will come from understanding how our bodies and minds have emerged from parts common to other living creatures."
The Interestings: A Novel (2013)
By Meg Wolitzer
This is the first book I've read from the increasingly popular writer, Meg Wolitzer. The structure of The Interestings was compared by Jeffrey Eugenides to The Waves, so I began reading this book with high expectations, which were promptly exceeded. The book follows the lives of six characters from their early teenage years in the 1970s to their lives as adults in the late 2000s. Strong themes permeate throughout, including the contention between young, natural talent and the fate of the vast majority of people who eventually give up their talents and passions in pursuit of more sensible careers. While The Interestings is a fantastic story of growing up and growing apart from the people you knew when you were younger, the book also provides a chronological history of the city in which the novel is primarily based: New York. The characters change along with the city, and New York becomes an indispensable character in itself. This book has emotional depth, and I would consider it one of the best contemporary works of fiction I've read in years — although I should note that I don't read a lot of new fiction!
Favorite quote: "New York in the mid-1980s was an impossible, unlivable, unleavable city. The homeless sometimes lay directly in your path on the sidewalk, and it was hard not to become inured to them. You had to train your mind to remember: human being lying here at my feet, not someone to feel contempt toward. Otherwise you could turn sour and inward-looking, propelled only by disgust and self-defense as you made your way out into the grid each morning."
Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)
By Christopher Hitchens
Like many on the Left, I am critical of the politics of the late Christopher Hitchens, particularly after 9/11. I believe many of these criticisms are legitimate. While one may not agree with many of his views, particularly during the latter years of his life, one cannot deny that Hitchens was an intellectual force. I still get inspired and motivated when watching some of his old lectures online in which he encouraged critical thinking, reason, and public engagement. I picked up this book for inspiration. While the format of the book is strange and a bit egotistical, the topics discussed and the points of view he conveys are very interesting, such as his views on the positive aspects of travel or his take on the word "wit." Scattered throughout the text, one can find some of the old, lefty Hitchens breaking through: "People know when they are being lied to, they know when their rulers are absurd, they know they do not love their chains."