Sunday, January 15, 2017

Year of Reading Scandi-lously


Hope Jahren's Lab Girl was a surprisingly apt follow-up read to Helen Russell's The Year of Living Danishly. Not only did I stick with the nonfiction female memoir trend, but the mood stayed Scandinavian (or 'Scandi' as Russell frequently abbreviates in what I'm not sure is magazine-speak, Brit-speak, or her own argot).

Jahren describes her Minnesota childhood and immediately evokes the type of winter that Russell observes, except without the cozy sense of hygge. As Jahren puts it, she traded the icy exterior for a different type of iciness when she entered her home. The writing in Jahren's memoir has a strong sense of place, grounded literally by her interpolated chapters on plant life. It reminds me of the best attributes of scientific writing--the ability to say a lot in a short space and to be precise where it matters. Jahren's goal also exemplifies the truest goal of scientific writing today, to inspire research, by way of grants.


As she states in her first chapter, "If you're reading this, and you wish to support us, please give me a call. It would be insane of me not to include that sentence. " Her book therefore has a compelling purpose--to raise funds. Although it's an inspiring and gripping and fascinating story, that purpose never wavers. Though the prose naturally focuses on herself as the titular character, the real intended stars of the book are the plants that she researches and her lab partner, Bill. Jahren believes that plants shape their environments (as opposed to vice versa) and that they have, in their own way, lives, memories, thoughts of their own. She wants to build on her research to support this overarching theory, and she wants Bill's wages to be paid. Lab Girl is her long love letter to those ends.

The partnership between Jahren and Bill has been described by many as the core of the book, and I think that's indisputable. However, since so many people have focused on that, I don't need to say much about it except that it's worth reading about. What I will address is what is and isn't in the book. First, I read a comment on Amazon that accused Jahren and Bill of hazing their graduate students as an example of a larger culture of that in the sciences. I can't speak to the larger culture, but the comment cites literally the only example of this in the book (they ask students to label beakers for a project, then throw them out in front of the student), and it's in a very specific context of a similar incident happening to them. Now, I don't necessarily think that's a great idea, but I don't think it's quite evidence of hazing, and more of their own idiosyncratic training methods. Jahren acknowledges that they can be mean gossips, but that reads like self-criticism, and she also mentions how she and Bill support students. Second, with a title like Lab Girl and the buzz the book was getting before it was published, one might expect it to focus more on Jahren's experience as a woman in a man's world. While that does come up, it feels like more of a "hook" she used to entice readers, effectively so.

Instead, Lab Girl is much more than its title would imply. This isn't another tired exploration of women's difficulties vis-a-vis the patriarchy in the sciences (and I'm not trying to downplay that, I just think we can transcend it), but a stunning tour-de-force of one woman's absolutely unique passion for plants. And as weird and quirky as that sounds, we need more of that if women's, and ahem, all scientists' work is going to be valued as it should.

So, I'm not sure if I'm going to continue reading "Scandi-lously" or not this year. Up on the docket next I've got Karen Armstrong's The Case for God and I just finished the audiobook I've been listening to since December, The Accidental Empress by Alison Pataki (my only fiction so far this year!). Also, I've been watching The Magicians, so I'm thinking about listening to that trilogy on audiobook next.

No comments: