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Boarding school controversy fuels novel

Last modified: 3/9/2014 12:53:01 AM
Vermont author Thomas Christopher Greene’s new novel The Headmaster’s Wife hooked me from the first page and was so intriguing I read it in two days. Just about the time I thought I’d figured out what was happening, I realized I didn’t. What seems to be a deceptively simple story about the headmaster of a New England boarding school and his wife, facing late middle age and growing apart over a difference of opinion about their teenage son, morphed into a haunting, mysterious page-turner.

From the start, readers know something is amiss with Arthur Winthrop, because he’s wandering naked in Central Park. In winter. As he speaks with the police, we learn about his life, spent almost entirely at Lancaster, an elite New England boarding school, where his father was headmaster before him. He talks about his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, who enlisted after Sept. 11 and is in Iraq instead of following the family path to Yale.

Arthur also talks about a student, Betsy, who he is passionately attracted to, not just physically: “She is not like other students, you see. Her eyes are more open to the world, and perhaps this is why I am so taken with her. She has a sense of who she is that is usually earned over decades and decades of having your heart broken by the ceaseless beat of time.” That sentence stayed with me.

In the second half of the book, we hear the story from Elizabeth’s perspective – and this is where it gets very interesting. Greene manages to draw readers in without making the book’s many intrigues predictable; an accomplishment, since this isn’t the first book about a boarding school, marriage or the uncertain footing of middle age. The Headmaster’s Wife is all that and more: a meditation on longing in all of life’s stages, a literary mystery, and a novel with much for book clubs to untangle.

From fictional intrigue to intriguing nonfiction: for his new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, Belfast, Maine, author Murray Carpenter tracked the story of caffeine and how it has become the most socially acceptable, widespread drug in the world. He visited coffee plantations, Central American pozol stands, cacao farms, a Beijing teashop, a largely unregulated Chinese synthetic caffeine plant, the largest decaffeinated coffee factory in North America, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and the offices of energy product companies, scientists and regulators, trying to understand how much caffeine is too much and why we love it.

Carpenter traces the story of caffeinated beverages, legendary and true, from ancient cultures in Asia and the Americas to contemporary energy shots and gels. From the early 20th century trial that allowed American soft drink companies nearly unfettered freedom to caffeinate as they saw fit to contemporary examples of caffeine’s questionable place as an athletic supplement and a dangerous component of underage partying, he explores this substance’s physiological, social, historical, economic and psychological affect on human life.

If the book reminds you of long-form journalism, it should: Carpenter has written for newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Wired and National Geographic.

After reading about how much of the caffeine in American soda is made you may never want to quaff a Coke again. But even your beloved morning coffee or tea will seem different after you learn about the way our bodies metabolize caffeine.

Carpenter is good at providing both the pros and cons – there are optimal levels of caffeination that can actually enhance a person’s outlook and productivity, for example, but caffeine addiction is in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the perplexed he offers wise counsel: “We don’t need to be whipsawed by the findings, alternatively reassured and freaked out; we just need to understand that caffeine is a complicated drug that can affect us in strange ways.”

Caffeinated is a readable guide to this ubiquitous but misunderstood substance.


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