Book Review: Rain, Cynthia Barnett

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When I was a child, my father always told me that I would begin enjoying nonfiction books when I grew up. I never imagined I would begin to prefer nonfiction over fiction, but today, I am writing a review about a book on the natural and cultural history of rain, so I guess I am officially grown up. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain mainly caught my eye because Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice sentence about the book that was printed on the front cover: “A lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book.” I have a lot of respect for Kolbert, so while I won’t call her a liar, after I finished the book, I noticed she didn’t actually tell me the book was worth reading.

Rain: a Natural and Cultural History is an ambitious book that tries to cover a little bit of everything, such as explaining the rain cycle, the invention of waterproof raincoats, and whether rainy cities like Seattle spark creative genius. The book is half thought provoking and half fun trivia. It kept my interest, and I learned a slew of new facts that I used to impress my sister, the resident water-expert, such as the fact that Mobile, Alabama is the rainiest metro area in the country. However, the book was all over the place, jumping around in time, location, and themes. The book is broken into five seemingly arbitrary sections (for example Elemental Rain, Mercurial Rain, and American Rain.) Barnett tries to thread it all together by bringing up the same scientists every few pages throughout the book, but instead of creating a cohesive thesis, it makes the book seem disorganized and all over the place. While Barnett’s passion for her subject is palpable, I wish she would have spent more time editing and organizing the book. Some of the writing is confusing and unclear. Halfway through the book, Barnett starts writing in the first person to tell us about her travels chasing rain in Meghalaya, which both threw me off and annoyed me – where were you earlier?

I also have a bone to pick with nonfiction literature in general these days. Maybe it’s the law school rubbing off on me, but where are your footnotes and sources? I am a big fact checker and was disappointed at the glibness with which Barnett treats sources and studies. In the Introduction, for example, she tells us that rain had a huge impact on the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. According to Barnett, if it hadn’t rained, Gore would have won the election, but I didn’t see a study cited for this in the endnotes, and she didn’t expand further on this bold statement. I expected further elaboration on either rain’s impact on the election or on people’s decision making behaviors later in the book, but alas, much like Barnett’s search for rain in Meghalaya, the explanations never came.

Cynthia Barnett seems like someone I would love to have on my trivia team or to grab a cup of coffee with one day, but I think I’ll have to respectfully decline reading her next book. While I did learn a few new things and discovered an interest in understanding how urban planning can disrupt the rain cycle, I think there must be better book out there on these subjects. I don’t regret reading this book, but I don’t think I’d really suggest it to anyone else.

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I’d only recommend this book to people who spend hours perusing Wikipedia for fun or who are looking to brush up on their rain trivia for a geography bee.

Additional Reading:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • If you’re interested in urban planning and rain, I’d recommend starting with Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on The Siege of Miami.
  • In case you’re curious about rain’s impact on the 2000 election, the National Constitution Center writes about it.
  • In case you want to read this book and argue with me about whether it is actually the best science writing ever, you can find Rain on Amazon. Or if you ask me nicely, I may mail you my copy.

The Pulitzer Project: Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926)

Ah, Sinclair Lewis, the only person to date to have declined the much wanted Pulitzer Prize. Although he declined, the Pulitzer Board still lists him as the 1926 winner, so of course I read it anyway. I was looking forward to finally read something by Lewis after seeing his name appear so many times in the Jury’s decision notes.

A Brief Summary*:  Arrowsmith tells the story of bright and scientifically minded Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from a small town in the Midwest to the upper echelons of the scientific community. Along the way he experiences medical school, private practice as the only doctor in a small town, various stints as regional health official, and the lure of high-paying hospital jobs. The book contains considerable social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s. Dr. Arrowsmith is a progressive, even something of a rebel, and often challenges the existing state of things when he finds it wanting.

winniemac

A Map of Winnemac, courtesy of GoodReads

Fun Fact: Martin Arrowsmith is born in Elk Mills, Winnemac, which is Sinclair’s Yoknapatawpha County. (Bonus fact, Aerosmith the band adamantly denies naming their band after this book.)

Setting: The book starts in Lewis’ fictional county of Winnemac, but Arrowsmith moves all over from North Dakota, New York, and even goes for a brief stint in the West Indies. 

Time Period: 1900s – 1920s, with the bulk of the story set in the Prohibition era!

My Thoughts: This book is a little hard to describe, but I would put it some sort of science/social commentary category. It’s the first medical book I’ve read, and it was able to make bacteria and test tubes all seem rather interesting and not too dry. We follow Martin Arrowsmith from his early childhood through mid-life as an idealistic truth-seeker who wrestles with the ideas that were hotly debated by the medical community in the 1920s. There’s the truth-seeking academic side who cares about only the science which is always being rushed or “exploited” by the profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies and research think tanks. (I put “exploited” in quotations because I will leave it up to you to decide which side’s arguments have more merits.) One thing I found striking is that despite being written almost a century ago, a lot of these topics are still relevant in the 21st century as we see moral debates over things like the business practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Arrowsmith experiences much of the debate first hand, and his career path meanders through both sides of the debate so that we get a pretty well-rounded picture of the medical industry.

I may be alone in this view, but I found the medical commentary much more interesting than the social aspects of the book. For one, I found most of the women characters written to be one-dimensional caricatures of wives, girlfriends, and nurses. Dear sweet Leora Arrowsmith is loyal, loving, and eager to learn from her husband – I have seen such a trend in these early Pulitzers of men looking to “educate” their naive, unsophisticated wives. She goes from living under her father and brother’s rules to living under Martin’s rules. She is the most likable character in the entire book, and I wish she had more of a presence beyond caretaker or jealous wife. The book is also a little repetitive at times – the same medical debates are being argued on different platforms again and again, but overall the writing is so smart and witty that I can forgive the repetition.

“I wish people wouldn’t keep showing me how much I don’t know!” said Martin.

Ultimately, I wanted Martin to grow and learn from his mistakes, but instead he packs up and moves to a new job in a new state every time he becomes disillusioned. He grows frustrated when he is unable to find a like-minded community and has to move every time his arguments make him unpopular with employers or colleagues, and yet he is always so sure that the problem is with everyone else and not himself. While I think the characters were a little under-developed and problematic, the ultimate focus of the book is the scientific community, and I was impressed with how well Sinclair Lewis was able to reconstruct this. I’m curious to see how people in the medical profession today would receive this book, so if you’re a doctor, pharmacist or nurse, please let me know your thoughts!

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I would recommend this book to people who are interested in science and social criticism, people who like books set in the roaring 20’s, and people who have and don’t mind listening to that one idealistic friend talk for way too long over a few beers.

Additional Resources:

  • Up next is Early Autumn: The Story of a Lady, by Louis Bromfeld. I must admit I’ve already finished reading this, but just haven’t had a chance to write about it yet!
  • Read along with me by sending me links to your reviews in the comments below, or follow along with our Pulitzer-Project tag.

Books I Read in November

Right on par with the rest of the year, I read six books in November: two nonfiction, one memoir, and three fiction books. In chronological order, the books I read in November were:

the new jim crow

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow – This book should be recommended reading for everyone in the United States. I bought the book after a friend mentioned that she was reading it for her book club. I put off reading it for a good half year because I was scared that it would be too depressing for me to read. While it was extremely disheartening and made me furious at times, I think I am a better citizen and human being having read the book. I have recommended it to everyone in my law school classes, and I would sincerely urge you to read this too.

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the magnificent ambersons

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons – I already wrote about this pretty extensively because it is one of the Pulitzer winners on my list. As I’ve started reading the next winner on the list (Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) I have noticed a similar obsession with automobiles and the changing urban social hierarchy. I’m really enjoying reading the Pulitzer winners in chronological order, because I think it’s helped me see similar trends and concerns during the 1920s. I’m interested to see if Booth Tarkington has new concerns in his next Pulitzer winner, Alice Adams.

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4:50 from Paddington

Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington – is part of her famous Miss Marple’s series. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster and amateur detective. In this book, Miss Marple’s friend witnesses a murder on a train that happens to pass the train that she is on. Miss Marple uses some deductive reasoning and tries to solve a crime based on very few facts. I was surprised to see that while she is the brains behind the operations, she isn’t really one of the main characters of the book. Is this how all Miss Marple books are? I may have to read another one to find out for myself!

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musicophilia

Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia – This is the book for our next book club meeting in December. While it’s not something that I may have picked to read myself, isn’t that the whole point of a book club? Oliver Sacks is a world renowned neurologist and in this book he examines how the brain and music are connected. The opening chapter is about a man who, after being struck by lightning, finds himself obsessed with Chopin and composing music, even though he had never showed an interest in or talent for music before his accident. Some chapters were absolutely brilliant, and I’ll be writing about them separately soon!

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right ho jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves – I will admit I was supposed to read this book in high school, but I never got around to it. If Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery cozies, then I’d argue that P.G. Wodehouse is the king of comedy cozies. The book is like a 230 page sitcom with witty banter and ridiculous situations and miscommunications. This was the first book by P.G. Wodehouse, and while I may not agree with Hugh Laurie that Wodehouse is the funniest writer in the world, I did enjoy the book and found it a lighthearted break in a month where I read some very serious things.

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h is for hawkHelen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen this book all over the news and Internet this year. The NYTimes recently named it one of the 100 Notable books in 2015. After Helen’s father unexpectedly dies, Helen turns to raising a goshawk as a coping mechanism. She also examines famed writer T. H. White and his experiences in raising a goshawk. Despite all the hype around the book, this is one of the few books I’ve read that absolutely exceeded all of the hype. Words can’t describe how incredible the books is – her writing is clear, lyrical, and an absolute kick in the teeth. I devoured the book and plan on rereading it in the near future.

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Of the books I read this month, I am begging you to read The New Jim Crow and H is for Hawk. These are books that will absolutely change your life.

I can’t believe it’s almost December – there are still so many books that I want to read! I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence, and I hope to get through I am Malala and Alice Adams. What about you? What did you read in November? What are the books you’re trying to read before the end of the year?

 

Books I Read in October

Is it just me or has this year flown by? October was a relatively quiet month for me – with the exception of my trip to California, I stayed in pajamas at home for the bulk of the month. I read six books this month, which is about average for me this year. I read a memoir, a nonfiction book, two books of fiction, and two books of poetry. In chronological order, here are the books I read in October.

yes pleaseAmy Poehler’s Yes Please – Before this book, I only had a vague idea of who Amy Poehler is. I knew her as a feminist, the best friend of Tina Fey, and one of the creators of Smart Girls. I chose to listen to Amy Poehler reading the book, because I’m a firm believer that anytime a comedian or actor writes a book, listening to them read it is 100x better. Since reading the book, I’ve become obsessed with Parks & Recreation, and I will probably read the book again in a year. I think this book is probably more enjoyable for true Poehler fans, because a lot of the book talks about the specifics of her career and journey. I enjoyed the book, but think I’ll enjoy it more in the future.

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the sound and the fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – This was probably the most difficult books I’ve read all year, but also one of the most beautiful and rewarding. I would highly recommend it to just about anyone. Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style is frustrating at first, but a friend recommended that I sit down and read a big chunk of it at a time, so that I can really get into the rhythm of the book. This was exactly what I needed to do, rather than reading 10 pages at a time on the bus, so that’s my advice to you as well!

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sixth extinctionElizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction has been on my to-read list ever since I watched a work-in-progress cut of Six (now Racing Extinction) two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. The book is cleverly organized into 13 chapters, each studying the extinction of a different species. The chapters build upon each other until we see the history of man’s understanding of and contribution to the concept of a mass extinction. I found the book enjoyable and fascinating, but also hopelessly depressing. I think Kolbert is an upbeat pessimist, who is able to write cheerily about things that she thinks will inevitably lead to our doom.

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telephone ringingAdrienne Rich’s Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is the second book of Adrienne Rich’s that I’ve read this year. I found the themes hauntingly similar to the first book I read, even though they were written forty years apart. I wrote a short review of the book last week, so for today, I thought I’d share another quote.

If the word gets out if the word
escapes if the word
flies if it dies
it has its way of coming back
The handwritings on the walls
are vast and coded

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magiciansLev Grossman’s The Magicians – Okay, I have a confession. I almost never reread books. I have only read the Harry Potter books once, even though I thought I was a Potterhead. (I’ve come to accept that I am not really one.) This is the first book I’ve reread in years, and you know what? It was even better than I remembered! Dark, smart, and hilarious – this is absolutely everything that I want in a fantasy novel. I’m currently rereading The Magician’s King now in preparation of reading the third book of the trilogy as well as the television adaptation. Have you seen the preview? I’m nervous and excited!

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the gold cellSharon Old’s The Gold Cell – This is one of the more deeply personal and insightful books of poetry that I’ve read this year. Olds dissects her own life for us in search of what it means to be a human, a mother, a daughter, a wife. After reading the book, I really felt a connection with her, like I knew more about her life and how she thinks and processes things than I know about even some of my closest friends. The book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, because parts of it can be quite explicit or uncomfortable, but I think it will actually make you a more compassionate person for having read it.

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I’m a lucky girl this month, because there wasn’t a single book that I didn’t like on this list. If you only read one of these books, I would have to say read Faulkner. Have you read any of these? What did you read in October? What should I read in November?