The Mindful Reader: A thriller and a tour of the universe’s inside story

Last modified: 1/13/2014 10:05:13 AM
Boston-area author Elisabeth Elo’s North of Boston kept me turning pages between tasks on my holiday to-do lists. I’m not a huge thriller fan, but I enjoyed this one because of Pirio Kasparov, the smart, loyal, strong main character with a penchant for cigars and Russian novels.

Pirio works for her family’s perfume company and tries to keep her oldest friend, Thomasina, out of trouble and to be a good godmother to Thomasina’s son, Noah. She’s helping Noah’s father, Ned, on his new lobster boat when it’s hit by a freighter. Pirio survives the frigid ocean, Ned doesn’t. Pirio’s physiological resilience lands her in a U.S. Navy study. Her fierce love for Noah and deeply ingrained sense of justice land her in trouble as she tries to discover who rammed the boat and whether it was an accident or murder.

While sleuthing, she meets Russell Alejandro Parnell, a writer who becomes her partner. After saving him from a bunch of bad guys, Pirio examines his bookcase for clues about whose side he’s on: “The environmental books are persuasive, but the book that makes the case for his non-evil character is The Elements of Style. What bad guy would give a s--- about the difference between which and that?” I admit, I swooned over this line (and lamented Elo’s occasional reliance on adverbs).

With a twisty story line, truly rotten villains, intriguing supporting characters and interesting subplots that shed light on Pirio’s character, North of Boston was a pleasure.

Toward the end of the book, Pirio’s father, Milosa, tells her, “It takes so little to satisfy you Americans. . . . You put a few facts together, and congratulate yourselves that you’ve uncovered the truth and told your story right up to the end. But the truth doesn’t have an end. It just keeps going, and if you don’t have the guts to follow it, you start to die.”

A good thriller or mystery leaves the reader with closure and also curiosity about where the truth might lead the hero next. Elo definitely accomplished that in her winning debut.

Learn something new

When she was 15, Amanda Gefter and her father discussed the origins of the universe over cashew chicken at their local Chinese restaurant, and whether “something and nothing aren’t really opposites, they’re just different patterns of the same thing.” They decided to find out, together. If your New Year’s resolutions include learning something new, I highly recommend Gefter’s science memoir, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which tells the story of her journey from a self-described underachiever who skipped high school physics to a highly respected science journalist, who, along with her father, took on one of the greatest mysteries of all: “Why existence?”

Gefter became an intellectual adventurer. She and her father taught themselves physics, amassing a library of books and papers as they worked together for years to prove that everything is nothing. Their quest influenced her life decisions: While working for a bridal magazine she got press passes to a conference at Princeton honoring physics legend John Wheeler, and from that day – when she and her father visited the street where Einstein lived and trespassed on the lawn – she decided to give up her day job to search for the answers they sought. That meant pitching a story to Scientific American in order to start a freelancing career that eventually led to an editor’s position at New Scientist. And contacting Nobel laureates and other top scientists to ask them about something and nothing.

Gefter moved to London to pursue her doctorate in the philosophy and history of science, and asked the agent who represents all the biggest names in physics to take on her book. Her story is as much about becoming somebody as it is about discovering “something.”

Gefter’s wit, audacity, intelligence and irreverence, her wonderful relationship with her father, and fan photos of the two of them with famous physicists give the book heart. What gives it heft is Gefter’s gift for reducing mind-blowing concepts (non-Boolean logic, strings and particles, M-theory, quantum mechanics, Hawking radiation, de Sitter space, Gödelian self-reference, etc.) into plain English. Don’t take my word for it. After Gefter sent Stephen Hawking and his research partner Thomas Hertog the draft of a piece she wrote about their work, Hawking emailed: “The article is remarkably good and clear.”

Gefter and her dad reached their goal. “We had found the universe’s secret: Physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world. . . . How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.” If that confuses you, or if you were an underachiever who skipped physics, try Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter will take you on an outsider’s tour of the universe’s inside story, and you’ll learn – and understand – more than you imagined you could.

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