Best New E-Books and E-Audiobooks: March 15, 2021

  • The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Biography): Thank goodness Jennifer Doudna didn’t listen to her high school guidance counselor, who told her that girls don’t do science. Instead, Doudna followed her passion and pursued biochemistry, inspired by her childhood explorations of beaches, meadows and lava flow caves in her hometown of Hilo, Hawaii. When Doudna read James Watson’s book The Double Helix as a sixth grader, she realized that “science can be very exciting, like being on a trail of a cool mystery and you’re getting a clue here and a clue there. And then you put the pieces together.” That’s exactly the feeling you’ll have while reading Walter Isaacson’s marvelous biography The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. It’s a hefty but inspiring book that chronicles Doudna’s and others’ development of the gene-editing tool CRISPR. With his dynamic and formidable style, Isaacson explains the long scientific journey that led to the tool’s discovery and the exciting developments that have followed, noting, “In the history of science, there are few real eureka moments, but this came pretty close.” Like Lab Girl on steroids, The Code Breaker paints a detailed picture of how scientists work. As Doudna interacts with a variety of talented colleagues over the years (color photos are included), she experiences excitement, uncertainty, rivalry, betrayal, and more. At one moment she’s joyfully stirring spaghetti while explaining CRISPR to her 9-year-old son; during another, she’s standing in her backyard in the middle of a rainy night, reeling from the realization that leaving her academic post at the University of California, Berkeley to work in the genetics industry was a huge mistake. The timing of Isaacson’s book could hardly be better. He was well into his research and writing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and while many of us were baking bread and worrying about toilet paper, Doudna headed to Berkeley to lead one of the teams developing diagnostic tests and messenger RNA (or mRNA) vaccines, catapulting CRISPR into the global spotlight as a lifesaving tool. The Code Breaker includes a lengthy section about these recent events, culminating in Doudna winning a Nobel Prize in October 2020. As the Moderna chairperson put it when he saw the promising clinical trial results of the company’s vaccine, “It was a bad day for viruses…We may never have a pandemic again.” In addition to being an accomplished historian of science and technology, Isaacson is a professor at Tulane University and former editor of Time magazine. His previous biography subjects include Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs–all united by their creative intellect and natural curiosity. As a biographer, Isaacson is truly an immersive tour guide, combining the energy of a TED Talk with the intimacy of a series of fireside chats. For this book, he tried his hand at gene editing and enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. He takes a big-picture approach to CRISPR’s significance and legacy as well, discussing its many uses for treating diseases such as sickle cell anemia, while also considering the myriad complicated moral issues surrounding CRISPR’s use. For readers seeking to understand the many twists, turns and nuances of the biotechnology revolution, there’s no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.
  • We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Young Adult Fiction): In We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, Joy McCullough portrays the inner workings of a young woman whose anger ignites like a gallon of gasoline touched by a lit match. Em Morales is the youngest sister in a close-knit family. As the book opens, she is preoccupied by her older sister’s court case. Nor, a college student, was sexually assaulted outside of a frat party and is pursuing justice through the legal system. The jury finds Nor’s attacker guilty, but a sympathetic judge sentences him to time served. Outside the courthouse, a furious Em goes viral for commenting that the sentence makes her want to learn to use a sword. In fact, violent revenge is the subject of the book’s parallel narrative, a series of poems written by Em about Marguerite de Bressieux, a 15th-century noblewoman who hunted rapists. We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire explores how one person’s traumatic experience can ripple through an entire family and depicts how trauma can affect every person differently. Nor wants to put the horror of the past behind her and rebuild her life, but Em is consumed by her anger. Though the book features many strong and unapologetically feminist characters, the extent to which Em’s own feelings are foregrounded is sometimes uncomfortable, given the other characters in the book who have personally experienced sexual violence. Nonetheless, We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire is an unusual novel that readers drawn to complex, imperfect protagonists will appreciate.
  • Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): Jo Ann Beard’s prose is never more intensely vibrant than when describing death. Her celebrated essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in The New Yorker in 1996, depicts the decline of a beloved dog and the end of a marriage before segueing into the horror of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa. Beard’s new collection of essays, Festival Days, shimmers with a similar emotional intensity, especially when evoking the flashes of memory that come to those pausing on the threshold between life and death. Beard is known as a nonfiction essayist, but her work often reads like suspenseful fiction. Her essay “Werner,” included in this volume, is about a man who jumps from a burning building in New York City. Beard’s narration so completely enters the subjective experience of Werner, clutching his cat under his arm as he contemplates the jump, it feels to the reader like a virtual reality experience. Similarly, Beard’s prose in the essay “Cheri” conforms intimately to the physical and mental experiences of a dying woman. Allowing her work to exist beyond the labels of fiction or nonfiction, Beard’s metaphorical patterns evince the imaginative truths that underlie her writing. Festival Days is woven from these repeating symbols: the elderly dog, the husband’s betrayal, the friend dying of cancer. In three different essays in this collection, someone falls through a thin sheet of ice into a winter lake. Twice they are rescued; once they are not. These resonances across the essays suggest a greater unity, a story unfolding over a lifetime. Beard’s literary powers are most evident in the long eponymous essay that concludes this collection. Here, Beard weaves metaphor and memory into a stunning portrait of lifelong friendship, of those relationships that hold us and ground us across the decades, that persist with love even to the final goodbye.
  • That Way Madness Lies by Dahlia Adler (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Young Adult Fiction): Since 2016, Hogarth Press has enlisted well-known writers, including Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson, to reinvent Shakespeare’s best-known plays for a modern readership. Editor Dahlia Adler undertakes a similar project in That Way Madness Lies, but the re-imagined versions here take the form of short stories, and the resulting anthology’s intended readership is teens. Adler notes in her introduction that “to say Shakespeare did not do marginalized people any favors is an understatement; many of us still live with the effects of his caricatures and common story lines today.” With this anthology, she intends to correct that imbalance. The bestselling and award-winning young adult authors gathered here “have deconstructed and reconstructed an inarguably brilliant but very white and very straight canon,” giving Shakespeare the same treatment Edgar Allan Poe received in Adler’s previous anthology, His Hideous Heart. Some stories include an accompanying note that illuminates the author’s approach. Patrice Caldwell explains that Hamlet‘s gothic overtones led her to recast Hamlet as female (and Hamlet’s uncle as a vampire), while Adler’s own story seeks to reclaim the figure of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice‘s anti-Semitism. Caldwell isn’t the only writer to give her story a bit of supernatural flair either; Lindsay Smith’s exploration of Julius Caesar incorporates witchcraft and dark sacrifices. The contributors take varying liberties with their source material. A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy’s “Some Other Metal” is set in a theater, but their version of Much Ado About Nothing applies a queer, science fiction approach to the romance at its center. Kiersten White’s “Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow” recounts the plot of Romeo and Juliet through text messages but remains (for the most part) faithful to the spirit of the original. On the other hand, some stories–such as Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka’s “Severe Weather Warning”–conceal their Shakespearean roots so deeply as to be almost unrecognizable without the aid of context and some winking allusions. (Their story contains a cat named Ariel.) The majority of the stories stand capably on their own merits but will be enriched by familiarity with–or better yet, reading alongside–Shakespeare’s original plays and sonnets. Budding writers may even be inspired to put their own spins on the Bard of Avon’s timeless tales.

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