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Book Review: A haunting tale and existential questions

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox Author: Maggie O'Farrell Genre: Fiction Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Release Date: 2006 Pages: 245

Dark Secrets. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, is a beautifully written and haunting tale rooted in hard to fathom English historical fact. That is, that up until about 1952, a man could have his wife or daughter institutionalized in a psychiatric unit as long a general practice physician — who did not even have to examine the woman — signed off on the order.

Thousands of women, it turns out, were thus put away for the slightest of aberrations. Taking long walks, not wanting to get married or growing hair too long. Horribly, long incarcerations often meant that questionable or trumped up diagnoses became self-fulfilling prophecies.

O’Farrell’s plot is a deftly woven page-turner that takes us back and forth through three generations. Things in the near present really come to bear when Iris, the unknowing granddaughter of the eponymous Esme, gets an out of the blue phone call notifying her that the institution where she has been held for the last sixty years is closing. This is the first that Iris has ever heard of Esme. As the layers of family history peel away, we are reminded that secrets and darkness can lurk in ways never imagined.

The Big Picture Author: Sean Carroll Genre: Science Publisher: Dutton Adult Release Date: May 10, 2016 Pages: 480

Thoughts on Life. The Guardian Books podcast is a go to source for in depth and skilled author interviews. Richard Lea’s discussion with Sean Carroll on his latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, is a perfect example of the edifying banter we can plug into and actually make our smartphones smart.

Carroll, research professor specializing in dark energy and general relativity at the California Institute of Technology, has done a fantastic job distilling hard-core science into language that make deep ideas accessible to most. For example, Carroll compares the difference between statements of scientific facts versus the values we like to peg our morals on. In the case of facts, you are either right or wrong – the universe is either expanding or it is not. We don’t have the same metric for our values. There are no criteria to judge the correctness of what we believe is meaningful or not.

Carroll explains that on average the human heart beats three billion times in a lifetime. That is a big number, but not that big he cautions. We feel our heart beating, slowly but surely toward an end. So short of some overarching transcendent axiom our personal choices to attach value, meaning and a purpose to our world are important. In fact they are all we have. “This is not a dress rehearsal,” he says, the implication being that we had better make good decisions. As if we needed more pressure.

Wondering why we are here and what it means is a good thing in Carroll’s mind. Of course, this requires going beyond the focus of how to survive and flourish in our material lives. Human life, says Carroll, is at its best when examining bigger, more profound existential questions. When we do that science comes into contact with art and literature and the other ways we have of making sense of the world. For those that need a primer on the big why, it seems that The Big Picture might be just what the shrink ordered.

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