The Air We Breathe [NOOK Book]

Overview

"An evocative panorama of America...on the cusp of enormous change" (Newsday) by the National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever.


In the fall of 1916, America prepares for war—but in the community of Tamarack Lake, the focus is on the sick. Wealthy tubercular patients live in private cure cottages; charity patients, mainly immigrants, fill the large public sanatorium. Prisoners of routine, they take solace in gossip, rumor, and—sometimes—secret attachments. But when the ...
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The Air We Breathe

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Overview

"An evocative panorama of America...on the cusp of enormous change" (Newsday) by the National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever.


In the fall of 1916, America prepares for war—but in the community of Tamarack Lake, the focus is on the sick. Wealthy tubercular patients live in private cure cottages; charity patients, mainly immigrants, fill the large public sanatorium. Prisoners of routine, they take solace in gossip, rumor, and—sometimes—secret attachments. But when the well-meaning efforts of one enterprising patient lead to a tragic accident and a terrible betrayal, the war comes home, bringing with it a surge of anti-immigrant prejudice and vigilante sentiment. Reading group guide included.
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Editorial Reviews

Maureen Corrigan
The Air We Breathe, reads like an elegant ghost story, narrated by a chorus of not-quite-innocent spectral bystanders…Barrett's severe attention to the smallest routines gives us a sense of what it would have been like to have hung suspended for months and even years in a regime of institutionalized inertia that was once the only cure for tuberculosis. The Air We Breathe is a muted tale of terror—terror that was relentlessly tamped down under cold air, milk and enforced rest. In the apprehensive silence that prevails throughout Tamarack Lake, a cough that's suddenly returned is as much cause for panic as an anarchist's bomb.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Picking up connected characters from her 1996 National Book Award-winning story collection Ship Fever, the latest from Barrett follows her Pulitzer Prize finalist Servants of the Map. In the fall of 1916, as the U.S. involvement in WWI looms, the Adirondack town of Tamarack Lake houses a public sanitarium and private "cure cottages" for TB patients. Gossip about roommate changes, nurse visits, cliques and romantic connections dominate relations among the sick-mostly poor European immigrants-when they're not on their porches taking their rest cure. Intrigue increases with the arrival of Leo Marburg, an attractive former chemist from Odessa who has spent his years in New York slaving away at a sugar refinery, and of Miles Fairchild, a pompous and wealthy cure cottage resident who decides to start a discussion group, despite his inability to understand many of his fellow patients. As in Joshua Ferris's recent Then We Came to the End, Barrett narrates with a collective "we," the voice of the crowd of convalescents. Details of New York tenements and of the sanitarium's regime are vivid and engrossing. The plot, which hinges on the coming of WWI, has a lock-step logic, but its transparency doesn't take away from the timeliness of its theme: how the tragedy, betrayal and heartbreak of war extend far beyond the battlefield. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In the early 1900s, patients at the Tamarack State Sanatorium for the Treatment for Tuberculosis are of two different sorts. The wealthy can live in some comfort by renting little chalets, while working-class patients must make do in the barracks-like dormitories. Then factory owner Miles Fairchild crosses the line by proposing a weekly discussion group, which he opens with some pompous lectures on paleontology. Soon the less fortunate patients are revealing a depth of knowledge and experience the condescending Fairchild could not have imagined. Meanwhile, emotional entanglements flare everywhere. Miles falls for Naomi, the wayward girl who drives him to the sanatorium; she's interested in a patient named Leo, trained as a chemist in Russia and now given access to the X-ray equipment by technician Irene. But Leo is forming a bond with Eudora, Naomi's best friend and herself an aspiring technician. It all leads to a very real explosion, with sabotage suspected as America's entry into World War I looms. Miles leads the charge in accusing Leo, and it's heartrending to see how his old friends turn on him. Though not as powerfully written as Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal, this is a deft and quietly wrenching tale of human misunderstanding. For most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/1/07.]
—Barbara Hoffert

Kirkus Reviews
Shadows revealed by X-ray machines and generated by the gathering momentum of World War I darken and enrich the texture of Barrett's demanding, rewarding sixth novel (Servants of the Map, 2002, etc.). Featuring descendants of characters in her earlier books, it's a crowded group portrait filled by the patients, staff and outside "help" brought together in 1916 at a tuberculosis sanatorium (Tamarack State) in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Narrated by the patients (identified only as "we"), it describes the facility and its operation, gradually narrowing focus to concentrate on recent Polish-German immigrant Leo Marburg (whose peregrinations have prevented him from completing an education in chemistry), his fellow patient and eventual antagonist, wealthy cement-plant owner Miles Fairchild (who resides in a comfortable "cure house" outside Tamarack State), as well as the three women who touch, and alter, both men's lives. This trio includes X-ray technician Irene (a victim of the new science she has mastered), who welcomes Leo as a promising kindred spirit; teenaged Naomi (who becomes Miles's driver, but not the sweetheart he yearns for); and "ward maid" Eudora, who arouses in Leo the passions Naomi (who loves him, and not Miles) cannot arouse. Mounting evidence that the United States will enter the European war (very skillfully layered in) heightens tensions, as do the presence of a tin box entrusted to Leo's care, a fire of suspicious origins and Miles's patriotic fervor, which turns weekly discussion groups he has organized into a proving ground for one's loyalty. This richly detailed, highly intelligent novel is too slowly paced to elicit reader interest early on, but it buildsand persuades most impressively, creating a compelling picture of how "together, without noticing exactly what was happening, we'd contributed to destroying our own world."A marvel of intelligent design, and a truly original cautionary tale, from one of the most interesting and unconventional of all contemporary American writers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393067286
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/17/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 336,791
  • File size: 435 KB

Meet the Author

Andrea Barrett
Andrea Barrett is the author of The Air We Breathe, Servants of the Map (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), The Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship Fever (winner of the National Book Award), and other books. She teaches at Williams College and lives in northwestern Massachusetts.

Biography

Andrea Barrett combines, as the critic Michiko Kakutani put it, "a naturalist's eye with a novelist's imagination." For the award-winning novelist and short-story writer, natural science, particularly nineteenth-century natural history, is a central preoccupation, and scientists and naturalists such as Linnaeus, Darwin, and Mendel frequently figure in her work. Barrett herself, however, gave up the study of science shortly after completing an undergraduate degree in biology. She entered a Ph.D. program in zoology but dropped out during the first semester.

Yet the way Barrett writes is, perhaps, her own brand of science; it involves long hours of research and the painstaking distillation of historical fact into historically accurate fiction. By her own admission, Barrett is an obsessive researcher: "Often for a story, I will do enough research to write a couple of novels, and for a novel I'll do enough research to have written an encyclopedia," she said in an interview in The Atlantic. But in the end, she adds, "fiction is about the characters, the image, the language, the poetry, the sound; it isn't about information. The information has to be distilled down to let us focus on what's really going on with the people."

Barrett didn't start writing fiction in earnest until her thirties, and she labored in comparative obscurity until 1996. Then, with four novels already behind her, she won the National Book Award for her first collection of short stories, Ship Fever. The collection explores the romantic and intellectual passions of a variety of historical and fictional characters, from an aging Linnaeus to a pair of contemporary marine biologists. In it, "science is transformed from hard and known fact into malleable, strange and thrilling fictional material," said the Boston Globe.

The book's success launched Barrett into the literary limelight, where her reputation continued to grow. Her next book, The Voyage of the Narwhal, tells the story of a doomed scientific voyage to the Arctic in 1855. The writer Thomas Mallon called it "a brilliant reversal of Heart of Darkness: the danger is not that the characters will 'go native,' but that a lust for scientific knowledge and intellectual distinction will drive them to cruelties they would have been incapable of before."

Recently, Barrett's work has begun to feature recurring characters, some of them related to one another. In another collection of stories, Servants of the Map, several characters from Ship Fever reappear, as does the ship cook from The Voyage of the Narwhal. As Barrett follows the trajectory of their lives and relationships, it is increasingly apparent how attuned she is to the emotional lives, as well as the intellectual lives, of her characters. As Barry Unsworth wrote in The New York Times Book Review, Barrett captures "that blend of precision and appropriateness that has always characterized the best prose, an attentiveness to the truth of human feeling that is in itself a supremely civilized value."

Good To Know

When she isn't writing, Barrett plays African percussion with a group of musicians in Rochester, N.Y. The group includes her husband, the biologist Barry Goldstein.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2012

    Meh

    Couldnt get through the sample

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  • Posted November 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    One of my favorite reads in long while

    The patients of the fictional state-funded Tamarack Sanatorium for TB victims narrate this book as one voice, the voice of "we," a collective first-person omniscient narrator. This tender, poignant voice recalls the years of WWI. Although none of the patients were firm enough to do active service in the war, their story is a touching portrait of how war affects everyone. Leo, the beautifully drawn central character, is only twenty-six when he is placed in the sanatorium. A Russian immigrant with a chemistry background, he has no family and has been unable to find work worthy of his talents and education in America. In the sanatorium the other patients and staff seem drawn to him, but he is shy and quiet. Why is he so secretive? I loved the characters and the historical context woven through the plot. I also enjoyed thoughtful antithesis of ideas--open discussion vs suspicious rumors, scientific progress for good (X-rays) vs scientific progress for evil (poisonous gas warfare), community identity vs individuality. This novel is great reading and would be wonderful for a book club.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2007

    A reviewer

    This is an excellent book. Learning about life in those times, at TB institutions, and the character development was extraordinary. It was very emotional at times and I could actually feel what the people were feeling as everything was described so eloquently. This book really held my interest and I've been so bored lately with most 'best sellers'.

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