Always slightly obsessive in tone, Richard Powers‘ newest novel combines sublime musical compositions (and some not so sublime) with the “garage genomics” of Peter Els, a retired professor who attempts to embed DNA digitally into a musical composition. I don’t understand how that is possible, but no matter. What I do understand, is that Powers leads the reader through a literary symphony, diving into the multiple layers of idea, passion, creativity and human pathos that makes the music we love, touch us so deeply. When Peter Els is targeted as “Biohacker Bach,” and subsequently chased by Homeland security on a madcap road trip, we are privy to a retrospective of his life that is, at once disintegrating and rebuilding, as he attempts to restore relationships. Meanwhile, he discovers twitter and GPS. Nothing is taken for granted. Every thought has a nuance, another layer, a musical interlude. It is both dance and dervish, and a sort of requiem for an unrequited life that finally embraces a brave, new world.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Did I say obsessive? Elizabeth Gilbert‘s Alma Whittaker, protagonist extraordinaire, lives a life of privilege without emotion. She discovers the latter through books, nature and a small closeted room where she unleashes her passions, albeit in solitary pleasuring. Set in Philadelphia, wealthy Philadelphia during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Alma is a complex, intelligent woman who thrives on scholarly pursuit; she becomes an accomplished, published botanist specializing in mosses. She falls madly in love with a botanical illustrator only to discover, after their marriage, he does not play on her team, or any team, as it turns out. As heir to the family fortune, Alma banishes him to their plantation in Tahiti to oversee the pollination of vanilla orchids. From here, the story diverts from the parlor games of America to the humid, sensual world of Polynesia. Alma develops and writes an unpublished evolutionary theory that Mr. Darwin also puts forth. She returns to her horticultural roots in the Netherlands finding a home at the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. A marvelous, intricately woven tale of history, botany, and the inner life of a woman who sees the world clearly, and chooses to take it on her terms.
Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
This is a re-read; I must indulge every few years with this true masterpiece. A glorious story set in 14th century Norway, with another gritty female protagonist, the novel’s namesake, Kristen Lavransdattter is broad in scope. The story begins with a young girl and her adoring father. Kristen is betrothed to a kind man of her family’s standing, but as fate would have it, she falls in love with Erlend Nikulaussön, and her life changes forever. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for this book (actually three volumes) and was the first female recipient. Undset examines the fine points of faith and the small details in our lives and personalities that provide pivotal points in our personal trajectories. She brings to life a world bordering superstition and domination by the Catholic faith (which Undset would join in her forties), as well as the politics and familial clans that influence the daily lives of common folk. Rich in detail, and most absorbing in the psychological motives of good people who make foolish, sometimes stubborn, sometimes loving decisions that simply aren’t correct, this is a book I adore and think everyone should read.