Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Three Pound Enigma

Science books can be a crapshoot.  Sometimes, the prose is crisp and clear, and the author's complete grasp of the topic is even clearer.  Other times, the author is intimately familiar with the topic, but less so with sentence structure and pacing.  When I read the jacket to The Three Pound Enigma and discovered that Shannon Moffett was a medical student when her book was published, I was afraid I'd stumbled onto the latter.

I couldn't have been more wrong.  Dr. Moffett is a brilliant writer, and smart enough to start out her book with a profile of Dr. Roberta Glick, a professor of neurosurgery and nothing short of a force of nature.  She's one of the first women to make her name in neurosurgery and as an established expert in the field, mixes her technical skill and knowledge with a sense of spirituality and a fascinating personality.  This is the chapter in which Moffett lays the basic, physiological groundwork for her book and without Dr. Glick, she wouldn't have had the same hook.

Moffett explores both the "how" and the "what" of the brain - the mechanics of neuroimaging and what it tells us about how we thinks; the roots of multiple personalities and the effect on the patient; the mechanics and the ethics of neuromarketing.  Even the potentially dry chapters, like the one discussing the intersection of science and philosophy, were crisp and enjoyable.  The Three Pound Enigma belongs to the upper echelon of science books - equally enjoyable to the layman and the scientist.

The Chameleon's Shadow

The protagonist can't be the killer, can he?  The author can make it look like the protagonist is the killer, but when you get to the last page, it's someone else, right?  Especially with an author like Minette Walters who somehow manages to find a happy ending to particularly dark thrillers.

The Chameleon's Shadow opens with a tank driving over an IED in Iraq, killing two enlisted men and leaving their lieutenant, Charles Acland, clinging to life with severe burns and head injuries.  As Charles recovers, we suspect that his physical injuries are not the only cause of his psychological problems.  He exhibits remarkable self-control but rages at women - especially his mother and ex-fiancee - and his problems worsen after he is discharged from inpatient care.  Severe, frequent migraines and the loss of his left eye have left him unfit for military duty and he spends his days living ascetically and running as if training for an ultra-marathon.  While Charles is running through London with nothing but his rage to accompany him, the police are investigating a series of murders of gay and bisexual men.  With his blackouts and rage, Charles is a natural suspect, but is he the killer?

Walters leaves us guessing.  She relies on coincidence once - when Charles attracts the attention of the police by attacking a Pakistani man in a pub which happens to be owned by the partner of a doctor who acts as a locum for the neighborhood.  Jackson treats him during the migraine that occurs shortly after the fight, and he tells her more in 15 minutes than he told his assigned therapists in months.  A few days later, the two women take him in and he and Jackson edge towards the solution to the murders as the police approach the same conclusion from another angle.  Justice is served, and while The Chameleon's Shadow doesn't end with Walters' traditional happy ending, it's open-ended enough for the reader to believe that Lt. Acland will find some peace.

As I read The Chameleon's Shadow, I was struck by the contrast between Lt. Charles Acland and Capt. Nancy Smith, the heroine of Fox Evil.  Both are army officers from farming families, but Lt. Acland apparently entered the army to escape the failing farm while Capt. Smith looks forward to being the fourth generation to work the same successful concern.  Capt. Smith's mother used her experience as a gardener on a large estate to add a successful nursery to her husband's business; Lt. Acland's mother believes herself to be a 'lady of leisure.'  Capt. Smith is an engineer, and you get the feeling she entered the army as a way to do some good before joining her father in the family business; Lt. Acland seems to have joined the infantry to escape.  The two officers have very different military experiences, but I was fascinated by the contrast between the two characters' personalities.  Walters wrote the two books about five years apart (with three novels between them), and I wonder whether the contrast was intentional.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Beauty of the Beastly

I usually read and enjoy Natalie Angier's columns in the NY Times, and I think that may have affected my enjoyment of The Beauty of the Beastly.  It's a compilation of (mostly) re-worked newspaper columns and as a result, nothing felt fresh.  Angier has a crisp, readable prose style, and I enjoyed learning tidbits about snake venom and cheetahs, but as a whole, the book felt slightly disposable.  Perhaps it would be more enjoyable as a time filler - an 'emergency book' left in a car so that one could randomly pick an essay to read while waiting for someone or something - than as a cover-to-cover read.  Maybe the problem was in the editing.  Either way, a few weeks after finishing the book, I remember more about reading it (standing on the platform at Suburban Station waiting for a train that came 25 minutes late, carrying it into a movie theater in case I arrived before the friends I was meeting) than its actual contents.  I enjoyed it, but (unusually for me) retained almost nothing.