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Friday, November 21, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

This is an odd book, which was long listed for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award this year.  The basic premise is this.  Peter Els is a 70-year old composer who is working to better characterize music through an exploration of DNA.  As the book progresses we discover that Els has a long history of making music his highest priority, more important than his wife and daughter, and therefore the somewhat wacky idea that a do-it-yourself gene therapy set-up he has purchased to further his investigations is just an extension of his life work.  The book is strongest when it is describing music, although the technical aspects of those explanations may make the book less accessible to a broader audience.

The musical theme is woven into a larger commentary on society in the 21st century.  Els comes to the attention of the local authorities when he calls 911 when his dog has a sudden stroke.  They advise him to call animal control as he cannot dispose of the body himself, and when they return to follow up on that they discover his homemade biology lab and bring in the FBI.  Who go way overboard, which spooks Els, who then becomes a wanted fugitive on the run.  The public hysteria about his homegrown virus and its potential for lethality is very believable in the post-Ebola hysteria that was whipped up by a 24 hour news cycle and social media.  That is more or less what happens here, and Els decides in the end that he needs to use social media to fight back. He gets a Twitter account and starts his defense, 140 characters at a time.  It is an unusual but largely enjoyable novel very much set in our time.

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