Friday, May 17, 2019

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking

A valiant attempt at a physics primer
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was originally published in 1988, but I am reviewing the 2017 ebook edition, which includes an updated afterword. This book, intended for an audience of general readers, provides an overview of physics from the astronomical to the subatomic level. In doing so, Hawking delves into such fundamental yet difficult to comprehend questions as the nature of space and time, what happens inside a black hole, and whether time travel will is possible. Through a mix of proven fact, contentious theory, and informed speculation, Hawking takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the arcane workings of the universe.

There is no doubt that Hawking was a genius and one of the most knowledgeable people in this field. Since this is a book aimed at the general public, however, the real judge of its success is how well Hawking can explain complex concepts to a lay reader. It turns out that although Hawking may very well have been the next Einstein, he was no Bill Nye the Science Guy. Though I am not a scientist, I consider myself pretty well-versed in fundamental scientific concepts, yet there were passages in this book that were quite difficult to decipher. Even after repeated readings, some of Hawking’s explanations suffer from excessive ambiguity and assumptions of prior knowledge on the part of the reader.

Hawking spells out the processes of classical physics with a methodical step-by-step precision, and he explains general relativity pretty well. When he gets to quantum mechanics, however, his explanations are far less clear, and he expects the reader to make a pretty considerable leap in understanding. His discussions of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and particle spin are particularly baffling, and he glosses over the standard model of particle physics pretty quickly. His brief description of string theory, on the other hand, may be the clearest I’ve ever read. Like any other “elementary” work on quantum physics, there is a limit to how far he will clarify, and the reader is expected to take some assertions on faith. Presumably this is because a more thorough explanation would either be too difficult for the layman to understand or would simply make the book too long and cumbersome.

Astronomical phenomena, such as the big bang, black holes, and the expanding universe, are easier for the reader to wrap his or her head around, and Hawking discusses them in a manner that is eye opening and intellectually thrilling. His explanation of time and speculations on time travel also make for entertaining and informative reading. Hawking even delves into philosophy a bit by questioning whether there’s a place for god in the universe and contemplating the validity of the anthropic principle. One of the most important points he makes is that philosophers stopped concerning themselves with cosmology once physics became too complicated for them to understand. Throughout the book, Hawking explains that the fundamental purpose of physics is to strive for a unified theory of everything that explains all the workings of the universe, one that rectifies relativity and quantum physics and unites gravity with the forces of electronuclear interaction. Once that theory is discovered, Hawking asserts, science will be easier for laymen to understand, and the average person will take a much deeper interest in the physical workings of the universe. Until then, even if some answers are yet to be discovered, and others weren’t elucidated entirely to my comprehension, this landmark book certainly did pique my interest on the subject and provided much fascinating food for thought.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

A barrage of interesting minutiae lacking coherence
Australian author Stuart Kells’s 2017 book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is not quite the history of libraries it promises to be. Though it contains a lot of historical information on some libraries of the author’s choosing, the definition of library is about as broad as it could possibly be. Arranged neither chronologically nor strictly thematically, The Library is a haphazard collection of anecdotes, data, and historical trivia on libraries, bookmaking, writers, readers, and just about anything else related in any way to books. Within this very broad range of subject matter, Kells throws in just about anything that strikes his fancy. If you are a lover of books and libraries, there is plenty of interesting content here, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

In the book’s preface, Kells reveals that he is a collector of rare books, which explains why this really is a book about book collecting more than it is a book about libraries. Most of the libraries Kells discusses in the book are private collections, not public institutions. He expresses his admiration for illustrious book collectors of the past and envies their shrewd purchases and acquisitive luck. Many of these great collectors of centuries gone by were clergymen, so there is quite a bit of coverage of monastic libraries as well. Most of Kells’s bibliographic interests seem to fall prior to 1800, though he does cover a few more recently founded institutions such as the Morgan Library and the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

Some chapters tell a single story in exhaustive detail while others are just a hodgepodge of loosely related bits and pieces. A chapter on library fires, for example, is just a string of one-paragraph summaries of different libraries that burned, without any discernible organization to their sequence. Some chapters drift farther afield, as when Kells makes the case that the traditional oral histories of Australian aborigines constitute a library. In another chapter he discusses fictional libraries in the works of Umberto Eco and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are some good chapters on papermaking, printing, and binding, but again, that’s more about bookmaking and collecting than about libraries. One gets the idea that Kells is far more interested in the physical packaging of books than the actual content of them. Books are objects to be owned, not knowledge to be used. Only one chapter really deals with issues of public or academic libraries today, and Kells uses it to assert the inferiorities of digitized texts when compared to the heft and smell of old tomes.

Though Kells often ventures off into irrelevant asides, many of the stories are fascinating, and the book is packed with interesting information. It’s all delivered with such a lack of structure and organization, however, that it is difficult to remember anything from this verbal quagmire. Kells seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects, but without any notes or bibliographical references there’s no way to gauge the truth or accuracy of any of the data. I don’t know about the print edition, but the ebook has zero illustrations, which is a shame. It is only natural that after reading about these wonderful libraries and beautiful bindings readers would want to see some photographs of them, but no such luck.

Perhaps I would have had a more positive opinion of this book if it had been titled more accurately. The Library is worth a read, but its constant barrage of tangentially related factoids is also a frustrating mess, somewhat like a book composed entirely of footnotes. Readers who really love libraries and old books will likely find it equal parts delightful and disappointing.
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Monday, May 13, 2019

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

The best Viking novel you’ll ever read
Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) was a poet, essayist, and biographer before writing his one and only novel, The Long Ships. The book was originally published in Sweden in two parts in 1941 and 1945 under the title of Röde Orm before being published in English translation in 1954. One of the most widely read books in Sweden, The Long Ships is an adventure novel set in the time of the Vikings, around 1000 AD. It chronicles the adventures of Orm Tostesson, also known as Red Orm, a Danish Viking who hails from Skania, a portion of present-day Sweden that was at that time under the rule of Denmark. When a young man, Orm is stolen from his home by maritime marauders who make him a willing member of their crew. His subsequent voyages take him from Moorish Spain to the British Isles to the Ukrainian steppe in search of treasure, love, and a peaceful home to call his own.

I am by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but The Long Ships is easily the best work of Viking fiction that I’ve ever read. It is much more lively and engaging than Poul Anderson’s historical novel The Golden Horn, for example. Pulp adventure writers who are known for this sort of thing, like Harold Lamb or Robert E. Howard, tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of armor and weapons in an attempt at historical authenticity. Bengtsson, on the other hand, doesn’t emphasize the visual trappings of the time period but instead really adopts the mindset of his Viking characters. He does a splendid job of thinking like a Viking, which enables him to come up with surprising details that delight the reader with their ingenuity. Though written around the time of World War II, Bengtsson’s prose has the gravitas of a 19th century masterwork but a clarity and timeless creativity that make it seem as if the book were published just last week. Some credit for this is due, no doubt, to Michael Meyer, who provides the English translation for the New York Review of Books edition. In the introduction to that edition, novelist Michael Chabon accurately describes the tone of the book by stating that it “feels at once ancient and postmodern.”

Bengtsson also has a great sense of humor, and the text is riddled with wry wit. The story takes place at a time when Scandinavia was somewhat reluctantly undergoing a process of Christianization. The topic of faith is treated irreverently throughout the book, as characters tend to adopt whatever beliefs—Christian, Muslim, or pagan—that will be advantageous to them, either in the acquisition of worldly goods or simply in the never-ending quest for good luck. Christian missionaries are sometimes depicted as selfless martyrs but also as schemers aiming to tally up the most baptisms, even if it means converting ignorant Vikings under false pretenses. The book also features a Jewish character who is portrayed in a positive light and accepted by the Vikings because of his ability to lead them to treasure. In addition to religion, Bengtsson finds humor in marital relations, courtship rituals, and gender roles. He humorously captures the chauvinism of 1000 AD without succumbing to the chauvinism of the 1940s. The female characters of the book are depicted as intelligent and strong-willed, with a resilient resolve towards the horrible hardships that women faced daily in the 10th and 11th centuries.

If The Long Ships has a flaw, it would be its somewhat excessive length. For an adventure story, the pace can get a bit lethargic at times. Though each chapter is engaging, after finishing one I can’t say I felt compelled to immediately start another. Still, in the end this pleasant surprise proved itself worth the effort and a very enjoyable read.
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Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Kiss to the Leper by François Mauriac

A sacrifice for love
French author François Mauriac won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature and was a member of the Académie Française, France’s honorary society of literary “immortals.” His novel Le Baiser au lépreux was published in 1922 and the following year was translated into English as The Kiss to the Leper. The story takes place in the region of Les Landes, on the southwestern coast of France, near Mauriac’s hometown of Bordeaux. This area is rich in pine forests from which are harvested both timber and resin for the making of turpentine. In the novel, the wealthiest landowners in the region are the Péloueyre family, or at least what’s left of them. Jean Péloueyre is the only child of his widower father, Monsieur Jêrome Péloueyre, who is plagued by chronic illnesses.

The title of the novel is a biblical metaphor; no actual leper appears in the story. Jean, however, is cursed with a physical ugliness that renders him almost as repulsive as one afflicted with that disfiguring disease. Conscious of his own hideousness, he lives a mostly solitary life on his family estate, but his isolation does not spare him from indulging in romantic thoughts. He envies a young servant’s handsomeness and health, and he nurses a crush for a local girl of exceptional beauty, Noémi d’Artiailh. Though Jean may be viewed as a pitiful freak by his neighbors, his family’s estate nonetheless makes him an attractive catch. One day his father informs him that, with the help of the parish priest, a marriage has been arranged for Jean. This is a surprise to Jean, and his shock is amplified when he finds that his betrothed is none other than Noémi, the woman of his dreams.

Though Noémi’s father may have had financial motives for the match, she herself is no gold-digger. She wants to be a good wife to her new husband, but cannot overcome her physical repulsion to him. Though she masks her aversion as much as possible, Jean clearly senses it. He withdraws from his wife out of self-consciousness of his own ugly and stunted form and self-sacrifice to his beloved’s happiness. Though both parties are well-intentioned, their behavior results in an unhappy and unstable marriage that cannot continue for long in its present state before something must be done to either save or dissolve the union.

With its picturesque setting and archetypal characters, The Kiss to the Leper often has the feeling of a fairy-tale fable or—in keeping with Mauriac’s devout Catholicism—a religious parable. The plot events are clearly calculated to serve the moral lesson of the story, somewhat in the romantic style of a Victor Hugo novel. (One can’t help thinking of Quasimodo and Esmeralda from Notre-Dame de Paris.) The characters, however, are depicted with a touch of naturalism and a psychological authenticity that grounds the story in a bleak realism. The overall tone of the book is rather depressing, and Mauriac does not shy away from the unseemlier aspects of disease or lust, but ultimately the novel’s depictions of sacrifice and redemptive love are quite moving.

The inherent sadness of the story is also countered by its brevity. At 132 rather sparse pages, it makes for a brisk read. Despite the small package, Mauriac delivers a Nobel-quality work that quickly and deeply involves the reader in the characters’ lives in a profound and compelling way. This is the first work I’ve read by Mauriac, but it certainly won’t be the last.
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Friday, May 3, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 4 by Steve Englehart, et al.

Not a good run
Marvel Comics’ Essential Captain America, Volume 4 reprints numbers 157 to 186 of the Captain America and the Falcon comic book, issues which were originally published from January 1973 to June 1975. Almost every issue in this volume is written by Steve Englehart, who is a pretty prominent name in Marvel history. The direction he took with this title leaves a lot to be desired, however, and Volume 4 is a lot less enjoyable than Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

When Steve Rogers took the super soldier serum in World War II, he was endowed with the strength and agility of a superior Olympic athlete. Early in Volume 4, however, through an accidental and mysterious fluke of chemistry, Cap suddenly gains “super strength,” a condition which persists through the end of the volume. The extent of this strength is never clarified nor investigated and barely has any bearing on any of the stories. It only comes into play once in a while when Cap needs to rip through a steel door. The primary purpose for this plot device seems to be to make the Falcon jealous of Cap’s newfound power. In Volume 3 the Falcon was an equal partner to Cap, but here he spends much of his time whining as Englehart has relegated him to a sidekick role. While initially Marvel used the Falcon to explore racial, social, and urban issues, Englehart tosses that by the wayside in favor of weird stories and compulsive retconning.

A frequent villain in these issues is the Viper, a man in a snake suit with deadly venomous powers. Englehart, however, finds the most interesting aspect of the character is the fact that he used to work for an advertising agency, a detail that is repeatedly emphasized with his every appearance. Similarly, the most fascinating thing we learn about the Banshee (back when he was a villain) is that he’s a fan of American country music. Englehart resurrects the Yellow Claw, an Asian stereotype from the 1950s. Then there is the introduction of Nightshade, a teenager in a dominatrix outfit who declares herself “Queen of the Werewolves.” Cap’s status as America’s superhero is challenged by a contender who fights him for the hearts and minds of the American public, and that rather unimpressive challenger is . . . Moonstone? (The original male Moonstone). Other bad guys include Plantman, Porcupine, Solarr, Lucifer, and the Gamecock. It’s as if Englehart went out of his way to pick the oddest and least threatening villains he could think of. High points in this run are an appearance by Dr. Faustus and the early formation of the Serpent Squad. At the end of the book the Red Skull makes a triumphant return that is genuinely frightening, but Englehart uses it as an excuse to retcon the Falcon’s origin, making it even stranger than before. For good guys, there are guest appearances by the Black Panther and a few of the X-Men. This is also the period when Steve Rogers briefly gave up being Captain America and adopted the silly costume of Nomad.

For most of this book, the art is handled by Sal Buscema, who epitomizes the default Marvel style of this era. For four issues at the end of the book, the art duties are taken over by Frank Robbins, who has a very weird cartoony style that calls to mind Harvey Kurtzman’s work in EC Comics. His exaggeratedly misshapen figures are a refreshing change from Buscema’s standard fare. Either way, the art is a lot better than the stories, and the faults of this volume lie almost exclusively on the shoulders of Englehart. Thankfully, Jack Kirby returns as both artist and writer in Volume 5.
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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Delightful kid-lit classic
I recently read Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my nine-year-old son. Published in 1964, this kid-lit classic is still delightfully entertaining to children of today, even those who haven’t seen the movie. For adults, it is one of the more enjoyable chapter books you can read with elementary school kids. This is my son’s favorite book by Dahl, and I would have to agree with him.

Willy Wonka is the world’s greatest chocolate manufacturer and a reclusive genius who sequesters himself inside his giant factory. What goes on inside this secretive compound is a mystery until Wonka announces a contest in which five lucky winners will get to tour his factory and win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. After much anticipation, a poor young boy named Charlie Bucket scores a winning ticket. He and his grandfather get to meet Wonka and tour the factory, along with the four other winners and their parents. This is no ordinary factory, however, but a magical fantasy land and candy lover’s paradise.

While Charlie is the hero of the story and an exemplary behavioral model for children to follow, the other four children are various species of juvenile monster. One is a greedy glutton, one is addicted to bubble gum, another is a gun-toting TV junkie, and then there’s the little rich girl who demands her every whim be satisfied. Dahl doesn’t merely heap all his criticism on these problem children, but saves some of his censure for the parents who indulge them. Through these negative caricatures, the book imparts some good moral lessons to young readers in a very fun and non-preachy manner. Wonka’s workforce, a race of foreigners of unknown origin called the Oompa-Loompas, act as the Greek chorus of the production, reinforcing each lesson in silly poetic song.

As good as this book is, I actually do prefer the movie. That is, the 1971 musical starring Gene Wilder (I haven’t seen the Johnny Depp version). Director Mel Stuart and his team really did a wonderful job with the visuals on that film, going well above and beyond Dahl’s descriptions in the book. The screenwriters made some changes to the story, which Dahl hated, but I actually think are an improvement. For example, in the book Charlie is a relentlessly good boy surrounded by brats. In the film Charlie is not perfect, as few children are. He is tempted to make a mistake by breaking Wonka’s rules, but atones for it with a demonstration of his pureness of heart which sets him apart from the poorly behaved kids. Dahl also disagreed with the casting of Gene Wilder as Wonka, but Wilder’s take on the character is really far more interesting than the Wonka depicted in the book. Dahl primarily defines Wonka by the wonderland that surrounds him, while Wilder brought a manic quality and a scary side to the character that really doesn’t come across in the book.

Children’s literature is not a genre that I personally enjoy particularly, but if all kids’ books were as fun as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I might just be converted. For anyone with young kids, it is an essential addition to your youngster’s bookshelf.
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