What to Read Next (No. 268): Lab Work
Reviewing "Lessons in Chemistry" and "Breathless"
Happy Friday, readers!
In this week’s newsletter, we’re spending some time in the lab.
Lessons in Chemistry has been an unlikely, runaway bestseller for debut author Bonnie Garmus. It’s been all over the bookish internet and I finally gave it a shot. In Tuesday’s newsletter, I ranted a bit about the terrible cover, but the story inside was an absolute delight.
I’m also featuring David Quammen’s well-reviewed but not widely-read COVID-19 examination, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. Congressional hearings about the origin of the virus have just begun, which makes this book as relevant as ever.
Let’s jump in.
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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
“Courage is the root of change—and change is what we’re chemically designed to do.”
Let’s travel back to 1950s California. Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant chemist. We learn right away, though, that she’s been unexpectedly and unhappily saddled as a TV cooking show host. Supper at Six is among the most talked-about shows in the country.
A good chunk of the book tells the story of how she got from Point A to Point B. How did this confident, no-nonsense chemist end up teaching housewives how to cook — and then have the gall to be really good at it despite not particularly liking it?
Between those points, there’s love, heartbreak, friendship, ambition, exhaustion — all the complex stuff that makes up life itself. There are underappreciated women everywhere (it’s the 1950s, remember), a few good men who cut through the stereotypes (and plenty who don’t), philosophical musings on rowing, quirky neighbors, and so much more.
Though the story kept the pages turning, the real pleasure of Lessons in Chemistry comes from the well-constructed, complex characters and the deep insights into their psyches. I was reminded of Fredrick Backman and Laurie Frankel — Garmus gives us big-hearted and snappy prose, with wise little aphorisms sprinkled throughout.
Elizabeth Zott was one of the most compelling main characters I’ve come across in recent memory. She was instantly likable and easy to root for. Best of all, she brings out the best in the people who are lucky enough to find themselves in her orbit.
I’ll be thinking about Zott for a long time to come and can’t recommend this book highly enough to readers of all stripes!
Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus by David Quammen
“Nobody knows everything about this virus, and our efforts to comprehend it have only begun. . . . This virus is going to be with us forever.”
“The discernment of truth comes from listening to many voices. . . . We need to hear many voices, and we need to help one another understand.”
Given all the controversy about the origins of COVID-19, I was curious to get an in-depth, truly scientific view of the whole thing. Breathless was nominated for the National Book Award last year, so I figured it was as good a place as any to jump in.
Quammen has a well-deserved reputation as a cogent and insightful science writer, but this book went even further into the science than I expected. The science books that are put out by major publishers often skim the surface and keep things pretty manageable for the average reader. Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year is a good example — that one is more about the narrative than anything else.
Breathless, on the other hand, is first and foremost about the science. Quammen goes deep into virology, vaccines, RNA, and, in particular, the origins of COVID-19.
Because of that, I ended up skimming a number of passages and even whole pages that were just gibberish to my non-scientific eyes.
But there were also observations and explorations about the broader scope of pandemics, scientific research, and the politics of disease that were utterly brilliant. On the whole, Breathless was worth my time, though I can’t say I’m itching to visit Quammen’s other titles anytime soon.
Unless you have a keen interest in science — especially virology — I’d try to find a lighter-weight title when it comes to pandemic reading. Wright’s The Plague Year and Michael Lewis’s The Premonition are excellent starting points.
That’s all for me this week. Have a great weekend, and thanks so much for reading! I deeply appreciate the time and inbox space.