From Books

Books 2018: #11 – #20


Here it is, a new installment of “10 Books,” overdue and uninspired. It is a Bachblog analogue to Monty Python’s “Contractual Obligation Album” but for the fact that I am under no obligation at all to post this. But, whatever. This installment will feature my “working without a net”[1] recollections of ten books read more than four months ago. As is de rigueur for this blog, stunningly-beautiful color-coded indicators of placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists add a certain panache to the otherwise pathetic exercise. Enjoy!
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  • Not a Star and Otherwise PandemoniumNick HornbyNot a Star and Otherwise Pandemonium (2008)
       Two short stories packaged together to form a very thin book. The good news is that if you choose to buy the paperback, it will take up very little space on your bookshelf. Someday it might serve as a shim under the short leg of a wobbly table. Just don’t bother to read either story. For Nick Hornby completists only. I should know: that’s pretty much why I have it.

  • The Man Who Loved Books Too MuchAllison Hoover BartlettThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much (2009)
       The author’s look at the world of antiquarian books and the sometimes fascinating people who inhabit it–sellers, collectors, and those who are both–is fun. The (one third?) of the book she devotes to the title character–an irritating con man and thief–is not as much. Still, fans of The Dictionary and the Madman may enjoy the read.

  • The Poetic SpeciesRobert Hass and Edward O. WilsonThe Poetic Species (2014)
       A conversation between the one-time poet laureate Hass and the great biologist Wilson. I am completely unfamiliar with the work of Hass, but I am an admirer of Wilson and had high hopes for this book. That the natural world is poetry of unsurpassed beauty is a cherished belief of mine. But the book disappointed and was not quite the lyrical celebration of nature I hoped it might be. Too abstruse for my prosaic mind, probably.

  • The Martian Chronicles 14   Ray BradburyThe Martian Chronicles (1950)
       A period piece, for sure. These stories were undoubtedly groundbreaking and must’ve been devoured eagerly by the nerdiest young males of their day, but they strike me as quaintly ridiculous now. A failure of my imagination, maybe, but nearly all SciFi is doomed to succumb to the inexorable advances of science fact. This collection of short stories written in the 1940s–somewhat thinly stitched into a novel–suffers more than most of what I’ve read. Visions of perfect reproductions of late-40s rural Midwestern American towns, complete with elm trees and porch swings, are difficult to entertain after enjoying spectacular photography of the actual un-Midwestern surface of Mars, and the plot of the cobbled-together novel is just not compelling enough for me to overcome that.

  • Stephen Hawking: His Life and WorkKitty FergusonStephen Hawking: His Life and Work (2011)
       I read this shortly after Hawking’s death. I’ve long been a fan (at least since the publication of A Brief History of Time), and of course my ALS has only increased my admiration for the man and what he was able to achieve.
     
    This is a good, but not a great biography. The author does an admirable job of weaving a reader-friendly overview of the physicist’s work with a Hawking-approved look at his personal life. I suspect that a new, more probing biography–perhaps written by Ferguson, who knew him well–is already in the works.


  • My Brief HistoryStephen HawkingMy Brief History (2013)
       Hawking was the main source for the personal details in Kitty Ferguson’s biography of him (above). In fact as far as I can tell, he was virtually her only source. Here in Hawking’s brief autobiography we can read what the physicist shared with her. This reads like a condensed version of Ferguson’s book with most of the theoretical physics removed.

  • The Golden Notebook 25   Doris LessingThe Golden Notebook (1962)
       This is a complex and convoluted novel. The semi-autobiographical narrator never garnered my sympathy. Probably she wasn’t meant to, but I didn’t find her as interesting (despite her unquestionably interesting CV) as tediously self-loathing and unreal. Not every novel, “great” ones included, is for every reader. Perhaps this one is just too far outside of my experience to be easily appreciated and I was unable or unwilling to put in the work it requires. For me, Lessing’s The Grass is Singing is her real golden notebook.

  • The Black Hole WarLeonard SusskindThe Black Hole War (2008)
       Speaking of books that require a bit of work, take Susskind’s memoir and glimpse into the fascinating world of “quantum cosmology” (I may have just coined that term, but I doubt it). In it he tells the story of his long-running dispute with Stephen Hawking over the question “Is information permanently lost when it falls into a black hole?” Hawking maintained it was: that the Hawking radiation emitted by a black hole does not preserve any information about the matter that entered the gravitational trap. The implications of Hawking’s interpretation–which was widely accepted at the time–was that the laws of physics broke down at the event horizon of a black hole. Susskind championed and refined Gerard ‘t Hooft’s “holographic principle” (which is astonishing, paradigm-changing, beautiful, and spooky–all at once–and which I will not attempt to describe further). Hawking eventually conceded, calling his opposition to it the “biggest blunder” of his career.
     
    A great read for anyone with an interest in the very big questions about reality. It is written for a general audience, and the author does a good job of explaining very difficult concepts at a “physics for poets” level.


  • A Thief of Time 13   Tony HillermanA Thief of Time (1988)
       Reading this novel was all pleasure and no work. If I had discovered Hillerman earlier, I might have read through his 15-20 “Leaphorn and Chee” novels and wished for more. As it is, with time and energy running out and so much left unread, I’ll have to be more selective. He places one more title, The Dance Hall of the Dead, on my 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels list. I’ll read that next and see if it strikes me as another novel worthy of comparison to favorites from such writers of the American West as Stegner, Proulx, and Kingsolver. If so, I just may have to steal some time of my own.

  • In Search of Philip K. DickAnne DickIn Search of Philip K. Dick (2010)
       I read Lawrence Sutin’s biography of PKD earlier this year. In it he thanks Anne Dick for access to her then unpublished manuscript, which was eventually published as In Search of Philip K. Dick. His appreciation was probably inadequate: it is evident he relied heavily on her work, which is more than just a memoir of the five years of the Dicks’ marriage. Anne Dick tracked down and talked with her late husband’s four other wives and to a host of the other important people in his life, and Sutin’s biography would be poorer without access to this material. Of course, her interpretation of the events of her life with PKD must be understood as anything but disinterested, and it is apparent she is determined to paint herself in a more positive light than others sometimes have. On the whole, though, she comes across as credible and astute, and she provides important depth to the still enigmatic portrait of a brilliant and troubled writer.

  • Notes

    1. I did not keep notes on my reading here, and I’ve procrastinated just a bit on this writeup. If I were you, I wouldn’t take my stale impressions seriously. [^]