All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety / Nathanael Johnson
I live in a skeptical household. It's hard not to, with a scientist and a doula-librarian under one roof, and we're lucky enough to be cautious enough with new information in all relevant fields that we manage, most of the time, to make evidence-based decisions about all kinds of things. Sometimes, we fall on the side of science, the medical model, and technology. Other times, we decidedly do not.
This surprises some people, who can't imagine that a scientist might doubt science, or a choices-in-childbirth advocate might opt to go along with a medical choice. What those people don't realize about scientists is that most of them are skeptical about science--skepticism about discoveries and existing knowledge is the only way science gets done. There's as much deconstruction in science as there is building on old foundations, and the sprawling house of science is constantly being remodeled. The problem is that by the time science reaches the public, it's often presented as dogmatic and complete, neither of which are very often true on the working end. As for the doula thing, well, as much as I believe most people are capable of birthing and feeding their babies most of the time, and as appalled as I often am by stories of families who had their choices ignored by dogmatic medical professionals, I also know that sometimes, things don't work the way they should, and sometimes, medical intervention is necessary to keep people alive and healthy. I do very strongly believe that people live better, heal better, and stay healthier if they're cared for in ways that the medical model rarely offers, but if your appendix is about to burst, no amount of compassionate touch and meditation is going to do what a surgeon can do to save you. It's true that the species survived for many centuries without technological medical care, but it's also true that individuals died because of things we can now prevent. Lots of them. The human body is incredible, and we are often capable of things we can't imagine to be possible, but it's also breakable. The balance is what matters.
All this is a bit of background on why I picked up All Natural in the first place--I read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people that are dogmatic about natural birth and herbal remedies and holistic medicine. I also read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people that are fairly dogmatic about avoiding "all that garbage." It's surprisingly rare to find someone who seems to feel how we feel about things--that is, that there really should be more balance between the two sides, between "Nature" (or, similarly, "Faith") and "Science." What Johnson explores is that fuzzy and permeable area between them that's all too often depicted as a solid, bold line. Where does science end and nature begin?
Johnson starts by discussing natural birth, which obviously drew me in (and I found it a very balanced discussion of the evidence and options), but goes on to talk about food, agriculture, environmentalism, medicine, and conservation with a journalistic style and the eye of someone who's skeptical of both dogmatic sides of most of the arguments.
I really enjoyed this book, both for its balance and for the fact that every chapter--though they all began with discouraging facts and stories of people who tried to change the world from their respective hilltops and failed--ends with something hopeful. Yes, things are messy, and yes, they will probably continue to be, and yes, only small pockets of people are working hard to come up with solutions instead of just digging in their heels in resistance. But those pockets of people are working hard, and they are coming up with ideas that might just work.
Johnson is the kind of skeptic who might easily have turned cynical, but he doesn't seem to have done so, which makes his book refreshing. If you're hanging out with my family in the hazy area between pure technological science and pure cru
Silhouette of a Sparrow / Molly Beth Griffin
This book was recommended to me by a friend who stumbled upon it, and I hadn't otherwise heard about it, despite it fitting in quite nicely with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which a lot of the blogs I read had absolutely raved about. Its timing, coming onto the scene in the springtime when people tend to be busier with other things, might have had something to do with it, but after reading it (and enjoying it immensely) I was surprised to have to do some digging to find reviews.
This isn't a particularly long book, and took me no more than a couple of long baths to finish, but it was absolutely lovely, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a little bit mature in tone for much of the popular YA market, although that's also true of Cameron Post and certainly didn't detract from its impact once it found its niche. I wouldn't overlook it, though--for all that it's quiet and polite in many ways, it packs a punch in the girl-coming-of-age subset of realistic fiction that is, in my opinion, seriously underpopulated.
Reading Level: YA; the text isn't particularly complex, but the plot isn't especially fast-paced and requires some attention.
Read-alikes: Silhouette of a Sparrow is a story about a young girl's coming-of-age in a historical setting. You might find similar stories in books like The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. Girl-coming-of-age stories set in modern times but with culturally anachronistic settings may also have a similar feel. Consider books such as Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts or Chasing Redbird and Walk Two Moons, among others, by Sharon Creech.
Finnikin of the Rock (Lumatere Chronicles #1) / Melina Marchetta
My review notes for Finnikin, begun as I waited to depart on a drowsy flight home from Chicago, start with the line "not my thing, but I bet it's going to catch on and catch fire." By the time the plane landed in Toronto and I'd gotten a little bit further into the story, I crossed out that first line, and above it, in tiny letters, I just wrote, "I can't figure out why I love this so much."
And really, I still can't, not quite. It's a questing-destiny story, and questing-destiny stories aren't usually my thing. There's only one speaking female character throughout most of the book, which is another mark against it, and for a significant portion of it, she's also non-speaking, which is yet another.
The rest of this review contains only those plot elements that can be assumed based on published cover and descriptive synopses.
And yet, as the story fleshes itself out and begins to explore the characters and their backgrounds, I found most of that reluctance fading away. At many points, a story that appears on the surface to be about avenging deaths throws itself directly in the face of that trope and comes out kicking. Deeply flawed characters seek redemption, and some of them find it, and the story deals with some very complicated questions about family, nationality, and what it means for different sorts of people to return home (or attempt to rebuild home) after home is irreparably changed by the consequences of conquest. Nothing ends up being quite what it looks like at first, and yet none of the 'reveals' feel contrived.
Even in retrospect, though, and even as I work my way through the companion novels, I'm having a hard time pinning down just what makes this book One of Mine. It is, though, reason or no.
Reading level: Upper YA, both for complex narrative and moderate violent content.
Read-alike: Finnikin of the Rock is a fantasy story with a strong theme of seeking one's destiny. Books with similar stories and similar reading level include J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, and Malinda Lo's Huntress. Finnikin is also a story in which young people face dangerous situations, often without the help of or with minimal help from adults, as you might find in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games or later books in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. Another book with similar theme and tone is KD McEntire's Lightbringer, which may have a slightly more approachable reading level and a more relatable setting for some readers.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe / Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea.
This is how Aristotle ("Ari") begins the story of how he and Dante discovered the secret of the universe. It's a big claim to make, especially for a narrator who is fifteen when we meet him and seventeen by the end of the story. A tall order for two fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boys living in late 1980's El Paso, Texas. But in the end, the "secret of the universe" that they discover is one most of us discover at roughly that age: mostly, that all 17-year-olds are trying to find a world and a version of themselves that they can feel some sense of ownership toward.
Ari's story feels so intensely genuine. Though it could have felt dated, the few references to the year are among the only things that strongly place this book in any time at all. Ari is simultaneously younger than I remember being at fifteen and exactly as old as I thought I was.
This is so much more than a teenage-boys-as-best-friends book. I won't give away the ending, partly because it's moving and partly because I don't want to overemphasize it because, while I think it's important to tell this story in the way it was told, I don't think the final discovery is the most important one. The secret of the universe isn't in the conclusion, it's in the process. Ari (and, alongside him, Dante) go through the process of becoming themselves, and it feels unbelievably true.
In many ways, I got the same kind of feeling reading this book as I did reading Code Name Verity. It's not often that fictional characters explore friendship and identity so sincerely, making that exploration into a story that manages to avoid self-absorption.
Because this is a slower-paced story, be prepared to need big chunks of time to read it. I say this not because it's dull, but because you really need to get yourself nice and immersed in the narrative to appreciate the emotional depth of everything going on. Sometimes that ends up being a barrier for me, but in this case, it just made me very reluctant to step away and try to readjust to the real world, which is usually the marker of something stellar. I rarely give out five-star ratings, but this was definitely one of them.