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Three Flames

A Novel

List Price: $25.00

September 3, 2019 | Hardcover | 5.5 x 8.25, 208 pages  | ISBN 9781640092280
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Three Flames is Alan Lightman’s best book since Einstein’s Dreams. It is unusual for a writer to plunge so deeply into perceived social injustice in another culture, but the depth and detailed accuracy of Three Flames shows us humans working through big and serious changes in traditional beliefs and practices. Today we need such knowledge.” —Annie Proulx

The stories of one Cambodian family are intricately braided together in Alan Lightman’s haunting Three Flames, his first work of fiction in seven years.

Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and a cruel and dictatorial father, set in a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values. A mother must fight against memories of her father’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and her powerful desire for revenge. A daughter is married off at sixteen to a wandering husband and his domineering aunt; another daughter is sent to the city to work in the factories to settle her father’s gambling debt. A son dreams of marrying the most beautiful girl in the village and escaping the life of a farmer. And the youngest daughter bravely challenges her father so she can stay in school and strive for a better future.

A vivid story of revenge and forgiveness, of a culture smothering the dreams of freedom, and of courage against tradition, Three Flames grows directly from Lightman’s work as the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia.

ALAN LIGHTMAN is the author of six novels, including the international bestseller Einstein’s Dreams, as well as The Diagnosis, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the author of a memoir, three collections of essays, and several books on science. His work has appeared in The AtlanticGrantaHarper’s MagazineThe New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksSalon, and Nature, among other publications. He has taught at Harvard and at MIT, where he was the first person to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities. In 2003, Lightman founded the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. He lives in the Boston area.


Praise for Alan Lightman

“Lightman’s intelligence, imagination, and clarity of style mark him as one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers.” —Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins

“Lightman is an artist who paints with the notion of time.” Los Angeles Times

Praise for Three Flames

Three Flames is Alan Lightman’s best book since Einstein’s Dreams. It is a piercing story of social dissolution in damaged Cambodia. The traditional patriarchal control of women here combines with the lingering hurts of the Vietnam War and the intrusion of the entrepreneurial world in a caustic mix that burns generations of a rice-farming family. But a note of hopeful change delights the reader, and Lightman’s personal commitment to that change makes this an important story of global women’s rights. It is unusual for a writer to plunge so deeply into perceived social injustice in another culture, but the depth and detailed accuracy of Three Flames shows us humans working through big and serious changes in traditional beliefs and practices. Today we need such knowledge.” —Annie Proulx

“Lyrical and poignant, Three Flames weaves the stories of three generations of a poor, Cambodian farming family as they struggle to survive and hold on to their humanity. Each family member, like a flickering flame, lights the hopes and dreams of the others, offering courage in the face of shattering heartbreaks and tragedies. Beautifully written and told with great compassion, Alan Lightman’s novel gives readers a family that is rich in stories, history, and heart, proving in the end that love shines even in the midst of great darkness.” —Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father

“It is rare for a writer who is not native to a place to speak with a voice so real, honest, and true. Lightman does not miss a detail, with every gesture, every word uttered, every word refrained reminding me of my homeland. He burrows into the complexity of the Cambodian way of life, with its intricate maze of memories, dreams, and ghosts and reveals an aching for love and acceptance that is universal.” —Kalyanee Mam, award-winning filmmaker of A River Changes Course

“The gentle pressure that individuality exerts against tradition is the concern of Alan Lightman’s Three Flames. This set of deft vignettes gathers up the strands of a rural Cambodian family’s life and shows them pulling in concert and in opposition. As always, Lightman stints neither in sympathy nor honesty, and this deceptively slim volume is a salute to that most cunning of human capacities: endurance.” —Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

Three Flames is a rich and poignant story of family, revenge, and redemption. Alan Lightman captures all the complexities of a rural Cambodian farming family living in a world hampered by customs and familial duties. Each carries the scars of their parents and ancestors, while courageously navigating through the tragedies and heartbreaks of modern life. With keen insight into the human heart, Lightman has written a deeply moving, multilayered story that resonates long after it’s over.”—Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Samurai’s Garden

Three Flames is a beautifully observed portrait of a Cambodian family by a writer with great insight and humility. Never melodramatic or sentimental, Lightman writes about a mother grappling with a desire for revenge, a daughter sold to pay a debt, and a younger sister determined to continue her education. And, in each case, he portrays individuals––not merely the products of history or poverty.” ––Allegra Goodman, author of The Chalk Artist

“I loved reading Three Flames and feeling immediately transported to rural Cambodia. The individual and communal stories of this one family will break your heart. The struggles of the women in the family are especially traumatic, but the reader leaves with a feeling of light and hope as the youngest daughter just might make it out of her village and into the modern world.” —Jamie Rogers Southern, Bookmarks (Winston-Salem, NC)

Praise for Einstein’s Dreams

An International Bestseller
Short-listed for the PEN New England/Boston Globe Winship Award

“A magical, metaphysical realm . . . Captivating, enchanting, delightful.” —The New York Times

“Whimsical and meditative, playful and provocative, Einstein’s Dreams pulls the reader into a dream world like a powerful magnet. As in Calvino’s work, the fantastical elements of the stories are grounded in precise, crystalline prose.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Endlessly fascinating. A beguiling inquiry into the not-at-all theoretical, utterly time-tangled, tragic and sublime nature of human life.” —The Boston Globe

“Lightman is an artist who paints with the notion of time.” —The Los Angeles Times 

“Lightman’s book is an excellent collection of stories of ideas connected by moving imagery, some ironic situations, keen questioning about values and the presence of the Aare River. These aspects sufficiently connect the stories into a coherent whole that is well worth returning to.” —The Toronto Review of Books

“A remarkable story about the hypnagogic ruminations of the famous scientist as a young man. Lightman’s work is visually precise, steeped in lab work, yet filled with feeling.” —The Washington Post

“Mr. Lightman successfully has combined his talents to create an imaginative work that explores the motivations of a great scientist.” —Dallas Morning News

“Impressionistic . . . the writing, beautifully simple, conveys better than most texts the strangeness of Einstein’s ideas.” —TIME

“A brilliant novel of time in its marvelous flight . . . gorgeous in its writing, spellbinding and profound in its effects.” —Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Chicago Sun-Times

“A beautiful work of fiction that explores the nature of creativity . . . takes you as close as you’re likely to get to Einstein’s inner world . . . Lightman is a wonderful writer.” —Jim Dawson, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“As a whole, this tiny volume approaches the intellectual playfulness of Einstein, who is said to have worked more like an artist—by imagination and intuition—than a scientist.” —Village Voice Literary Supplement 

“It’s simplicity and thoughtfulness are reminiscent of Primo Levi . . . It passes some of the tests of classic work: it provokes immediate rereading and a description of it cannot replace the experience of reading it. It’s tantalizingly short but lives long in the memory.” —John Barrow, Nature

“It is at once intellectually provocative and touching and comic and so very beautifully written.” —Salman Rushdie, author of The Golden House

“Daring . . . realized with subtly and wit.” —Publisher’s Weekly

Praise for The Diagnosis

A finalist for the National Book Award in fiction
A Barnes and Noble national college bestseller

“Original and grimly unsentimental . . . A major accomplishment, written in austerely beautiful prose.” —The Washington Post Book World

“A funny, troubling story about our culture’s devotion to technology at the expense of humanity . . . Clever and wise, a rare combination.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Although the world around Bill ‘is diminished to the most feeble red light,’ the novel, at last, burns brightly.”—The New Yorker

“A searing vision of our helter-skelter and spiritually debilitating technocracy.”—The Chicago Tribune

“A manifesto, an interpretation of Socrates in the context of our modern world . . . a novel that forcefully captures the great confluence of our times: information overload, unimaginable prosperity and spiritual bankruptcy . . . [Lightman] has succeeded.” —The New York Times

“[A] dark, deadpan, and decidedly Kafkaesque novel . . . The Diagnosis offers a robust indictment of a time-crunched, information-glutted world.”—Megan Harlan, Entertainment Weekly

The Diagnosis is packed with dark power and awful humor. Lightman’s intelligence, imagination, and clarity of style mark him as one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers.” —Annie Proulx, author of Barkskin

“I know of no novel that captures the technological horror and pervasive spiritual poverty of our wildly prosperous land in so powerful a way as The Diagnosis. It is haunting.” —Norman Mailer, author of The Castle in the Forest 

“Recommended for literary collections.” —Library Journal

Praise for Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

“[Lightman] is the poet laureate of science writers. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is what we can call a grand unified intellectual narrative . . . a discussion of everything, a single coherent conversation that will unite the great insights of physics, philosophy, religion, biology, art, neurology and sociology.” ––Steven Gimbel, The Washington Post

“Each twig, ant hill or rounded stone—as well as the starry backdrop of the book’s title—serves as muse for Mr. Lightman’s speculations about the physical and metaphysical realms. The elegant and evocative prose draws in the reader, and I felt as if I were strolling alongside the author while he thought aloud. Indeed, it was a challenge to keep pace, as I repeatedly wandered off into reveries triggered by the narrative.” ––Alan Hirshfeld, The Wall Street Journal

“Science needs its poets, and Alan Lightman is the perfect amalgam of scientist (an astrophysicist) and humanist (a novelist who’s also a professor of the practice of humanities at M.I.T.), and his latest book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is an elegant and moving paean to our spiritual quest for meaning in an age of science. The book consists of 20 tightly composed essays on a variety of topics (stars, atoms, truth, transcendence, death, certainty, origins and so on) with a single narrative thread running through them: the search for something deeper in the materialist worldview of the scientist.” ––Michael Shermer, The New York Times Book Review

“Lightman is to be admired for his willingness to take off his scientist’s hat and plunge into preoccupations most of his peers would strenuously avoid, some for fear of ridicule. Once again, this deft wordsmith has effortlessly straddled the divide between the hardest of the hard sciences and the nebulous world of existential doubts and longings.” —Anil Ananthaswamy, Nature

“A lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world, from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and luminous.” —Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

“Deceptively brilliant, Lightman’s prose is so simple and graceful that it can be easy to miss the quiet, deep sophistication of his approach to the fraught topic of science and religion. Read this and expect to be invited to think through the nature and implications of our seemingly unavoidable desire for Absolutes.” –Professor Edward J. Hall, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Harvard University

“Lightman’s logical mind is ever active and fluent, but so is his appreciation of the material world underfoot on his tiny snatch of island. Contemplative, elegant and open-minded, his latest book is an engaging companion to understanding our longing for connection with the infinite.” —Charleston Post and Courier

“This is a volume meant for savoring, for readerly ruminations, for thinking about and exploring one essay at a time. Lightman’s illuminating language and crisp imagery aim to ignite a sense of wonder in any reader who’s ever pondered the universe, our world, and the nature of human consciousness.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“One of our most reliable interpreters of science offers a slender book of ruminations that venture wide and deep. Theoretical physicist Lightman rarely ponders a scientific principle or development without considering its significance in human terms, an approach that is very much in the tradition of Lewis Thomas. Lightman focuses on the logical and mathematical underpinnings of the material world as it relates to concepts of “reality” and to spirituality broadly defined. . . . From Newton and Galileo to Einstein and Aristotle, from St. Augustine and the Buddha to contemporary theological thought, Lightman presents a distilled but comprehensive survey of the search for meaning, or the lack thereof, in our longing to be part of the infinite.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Physicist-novelist Lightman strives to, if not reconcile, at least put religion and science on good speaking terms. These personal and historical essays on religion, science, and religion-and-science are assembled to draw the reader ever deeper in . . . An illuminating, deeply human book.” —Booklist

“[Lightman] weaves the writings of poets, scientists, and religious scholars as he explores the boundaries of the known (and unknown) world . . . Lightman’s artful and questioning narrative style easily conveys complex concepts from physics to philosophy. Recommended for serious but also curious nonfiction readers who enjoy the interplay of big ideas and theories. Both believers and nonbelievers will find much to ponder in this discussion of science and religion, which reads like a soothing meditation.” —Library Journal

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