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Archangel

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A luminescent, long-awaited new collection from the National Book Award winner.

The first motorized bicycles, the first aeroplanes, the first amateur studies of genetics?twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd has his eyes opened to an unfolding world of scientific discovery in ?The Investigators.? In ?The Ether of Space,? ?The Island,? and ?The Particles,? young women and men passionate about the workings of the natural world experience the shock waves of Einstein?s, Darwin?s, and ...

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Archangel

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Overview

A luminescent, long-awaited new collection from the National Book Award winner.

The first motorized bicycles, the first aeroplanes, the first amateur studies of genetics—twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd has his eyes opened to an unfolding world of scientific discovery in “The Investigators.” In “The Ether of Space,” “The Island,” and “The Particles,” young women and men passionate about the workings of the natural world experience the shock waves of Einstein’s, Darwin’s, and Mendel’s work. And in “Archangel,” Constantine Boyd returns as a soldier on the desolate fringes of Russia in 1919, where even the newly discovered magic of X-ray technology fails to offer the insight that might protect humans from the stupidity of war.

In five radiant stories that explore both the wonder and the sense of loss that come with scientific progress, as well as the personal passions and impersonal politics that shape knowledge, Andrea Barrett has once again given us new ways to understand ourselves: curious, brilliant, and often blind investigators.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…elegantly contemplative…The best of the five stories in Archangel recall the power and mystery of Ms. Barrett's Ship Fever, another collection of exceptional delicacy and grace…Her stories work as both fiction and as philosophy of science. And she need do no grandstanding to advance her belief in unstoppable progress. But this book does offer a powerfully human sense of the struggle it takes for new ideas to dislodge old ones.
Publishers Weekly
Barrett, whose novel Ship Fever won the 1996 National Book Award, dwells on the intersections between science (her interests include genetics, astronomy, and zoology) and ethics (love, purpose, solace). Her training in biology and her meticulous research allow Barrett to speak of facts with authority, but in this powerful collection of five long stories, the facts come through the eyes of lost, lonely, elusive “investigators.” In “The Ether of Space,” set in 1920, astronomer Phoebe Wells struggles with the implications of Einstein’s theories; in “The Island,” set in 1873, young biologist Henrietta Atkins, initially worshipful of a creationist professor, succumbs to Darwinism. As is typical of Barrett’s work, characters overlap. A 12-year-old boy catching his first sight of “aeroplanes” in “The Investigators,” set in 1908, is encountered again as a WWI soldier in the excellent title story, where he sees planes bombing his camp. At times, Barrett’s exercises in defamiliarization falter, leaving us with a barrage of historic-scientific details; at others, her ruminative observers remain too elusive to be believed, with “loneliness” and “enigma” crossing into tropes. But these few missteps don’t counter the overall power of the book; there is indeed a sense of expansion as one travels onward in Barrett’s world, and pleasure in watching it fill out. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman. (Aug.)
Lloyd Sachs - Chicago Tribune
“Does anyone write with a calmer authority than Andrea Barrett? …Archangel… ranks right up there with her National Book Award-winning Ship Fever.”
Michael Lindgren - Washington Post
“An evocative, sepia-toned beauty…. Lovely, lambent prose, balanced and graceful.”
April Bernard - New York Review of Books
“Pulls us relentlessly away from false comforts, into the dazzling, often chaotic, world as it really is.”
Donna Seaman - Booklist
“Barrett’s consummate historical stories of family, ambition, science, and war are intellectually stimulating, lushly emotional, and altogether pleasurable.”
Karen Russell
“At last! It's finally here: the astonishing new collection from that genius-enchantress, Andrea Barrett. Who but Barrett can take on the inscrutable elegance of the cosmos and the messy complexity of the human heart in a single story? In her joy-to-read prose, with scientific precision and warm insight, Barrett translates the unknown into our world of reference. Her characters' thirst for discovery is contagious, and every story in Archangel is suffused with the most miraculous horizon light.”
Library Journal
With books like Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett showed that she can write perceptively about science. With her National Book Award winner, Ship Fever, she showed that she has mastered the short form. With these short stories, focusing on science, she's set to prove herself on both counts. In "The Ether of Space," "The Island," and "The Particles," committed young scientists of both genders run up against the enormity of work by Einstein, Darwin, and Mendel, while "The Investigators" introduces 12-year-old Constantine Boyd, who delights in inventions like the aeroplane. Later, in the title story, we meet Constantine as a soldier in 1919 Russia as he discovers the possibilities—and limitations—of X-ray technology.
Kirkus Reviews
The award-winning author returns with another collection of stories distinguished by uncommon scope and depth. Having won the National Book Award with Ship Fever (1996), Barrett has continued to command fictional territory all her own. Her latest collection of five stories finds her fiction typically steeped in science, rich in ideas, set in the historical past, and filled with characters who share the excitement, and some of the fear, of discovery. Framing the collection are two stories featuring the same protagonist, Constantine Boyd, as a boy of 12 from Detroit in "The Investigators," set in 1908, and as a soldier amid the madness of war in the concluding title story, set in 1919 Russia. The first story is a masterwork of misdirection, as the boy investigates a world rife with discovery--of evolution, flight, family, identity, self (away from home, he flirts with calling himself "Stan")--while the reader discovers the underlying story of the protagonist's home life, the reasons why the boy spends summers with one uncle or another. Other stories delve deeply into the debates initially surrounding evolution, the popular but subsequently discarded notion of ether, and the darker implications of genetics (with the rise of Nazi Germany as a backdrop). Yet the characters are never secondary to (or mere mouthpieces for) the provocative ideas, as the stories explore relationships among mentors and students, scientific rivals, romantic attractions. She writes not only of someone "who still appreciates the poet's wonderment in these days at the marvels of science," but as someone who can recapture that wonderment decades after such marvels have been embraced or refuted. And she recognizes throughout the collection "how the theories seized on with such enthusiasm by one generation might be discarded scornfully by the next." Barrett's stories rank with the best.
Karen Russell
“At last! It's finally here: the astonishing new collection from that genius-enchantress, Andrea Barrett. Who but Barrett can take on the inscrutable elegance of the cosmos and the messy complexity of the human heart in a single story? In her joy-to-read prose, with scientific precision and warm insight, Barrett translates the unknown into our world of reference. Her characters' thirst for discovery is contagious, and every story in Archangel is suffused with the most miraculous horizon light.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Stories that shiver with an awe . . . realizations occur that can only be called sublime, everything preceding them consisting of the mundane stuff of the world transformed by the alchemy of story.”
New York Times
“Elegantly contemplative…. A book full of strong women. . . . Recall[s] the power and mystery of Ms. Barrett’s Ship Fever, another collection of exceptional delicacy and grace.”
Booklist
“Starred review. Barrett’s consummate historical stories of family, ambition, science, and war are intellectually stimulating, lushly emotional, and altogether pleasurable.”
John Freeman - Boston Globe
“An elegant new story collection… Barrett frequently telescopes out of human frailty to an almost cosmic realm.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Andrea Barrett has established her own little demesne in the world of fiction, one pervaded by science and metaphors drawn from its concepts. Here, she has cultivated a multigenerational, intertwined strain of characters, shoots of which have popped up from story to story since The Voyage of the Narwhal. Evolutionary biology has been an informing presence behind these narratives, and it is again in Archangel, a collection of five stories, all of which concern the tribulations of toilers and aspirants in the field of science.

In the first, "The Investigators," we find a twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd in 1908, sent from Detroit to work for the summer on an uncle's farm in western New York State, where he develops a lasting interest in doctoring animals. Here he meets Henrietta Atkins, a high school teacher in her mid-fifties who, with his uncle, is conducting experiments with cave fish, the object of which is to determine how they lost their eyes in the course of their evolution. Excited by this research and the enthusiasm for scientific and technological investigation he finds in the community, Constantine would like to stay on, but that course is blocked. Indeed, stymied ambition and confounded development play a large part in these tales, reflecting (perhaps) the waste that is nature's own way of going about its business. We encounter Constantine again, eleven years later, in the last story, "Archangel" — where we also discover Eudora MacEachern from Barrett's preceding novel, The Air We Breathe — and find that his intention to become a vet has been thwarted by the Great War and the subsequent military campaign in Russia. We leave him up in the air — literally — but the student of Andrea Barrett's work will not be surprised to find him at large again.

Taken in order as they come to us in the book, the stories touch down hither and yon chronologically. And so, a couple of stories later, we find Henrietta thirty-five years earlier, in "The Island." She is now a young woman embarked on a summer's course in marine biology under the tutelage of a pseudonymous Louis Agassiz. Failing in health, the great natural historian is in his last year of life, still insisting, though now with an old man's poignant intransigence, that species are immutable, ideal emanations from God's mind, and that nature reflects divine design and purpose. Henrietta is handed a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by a fellow student; she reads it and is stunned, disenchanted, and eventually inspired. Darwin's vision of nature breaks on her as a form of epiphany as she sits in a rowboat surrounded by buckets of sea creatures, "lumps of protoplasm."

The appeal of these stories lies in their material detail, in the flicker of metaphor, and in their incidental links, the way characters, or their scions or progenitors, appear in another frame. There is in that last aspect something that is both random and orderly, just as it is in nature and, at another level, in a human life. In life, however, we look for what is necessarily absent in evolutionary biology: That is meaning, or, put another way, a reason for living. In most fiction, that comes down to love, power, freedom, or peace, but for the main characters in these stories, what gives purpose to their lives is an urgent desire to discover the workings of nature. Their characters and personal relations are subsidiary to this and as their predicaments echo scientific concepts, their lives seem, for the most part, theoretical and posited, rather than lived.

"The Particles" is the book's most fully realized story; it brings individual predicament and character together with a welter of metaphors drawn from evolutionary theory — the problem of biological variation, adaptation, natural selection, and developmental timing. It begins in September 1939, with Sam Cornelius (son of Phoebe, the central figure in an earlier story, "The Ether of Space") adrift in a foundering lifeboat, a survivor of the British ship Athenia, the first vessel to be torpedoed by German U-boats. He is a geneticist in his mid- thirties returning to the U.S. from a conference in Edinburgh, where, for the second time in his life, he has aired a theory of genetic change obnoxious to prevailing conventions.

Years earlier, he had committed the solecism of arguing, on the basis of a series of experiments, that acquired traits can be inherited. As it happened, his findings were shown by a rival- turned-nemesis to be the result of inadequately controlled experimental conditions. Though Sam did acknowledge his error, he quickly discovered that, in practice, scientific discourse is not in fact a matter of freely exchanged views and hypotheses among disinterested people whose primary goal is unlocking nature's secrets. Instead, he finds a world as red in tooth and claw as the natural one, an arena of power relationships and ad hominem arguments in which jobs and funding take priority over free inquiry.

Sam's second foray into heterodoxy — heresy, really — which he has just set before his fellow geneticists at the Edinburgh conference, is far more sophisticated than the last, but it gives rise to the same scandalized opprobrium. This theory stresses timing as the key element in change, and, in fact, reflects his own life's trajectory as shown with immense subtlety by Barrett as she traces his story from boyhood to survivor. Here, at last, Barrett truly does break out of the theoretical, transforming several linked metaphors into a complex rendering of character and plot.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393240009
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/19/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 784,242
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrea Barrett

Andrea Barrett has received a National Book Award and a MacArthur grant and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, and teaches at Williams College.

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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