"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mini Reviews December 2010

The Planets by Dava Sobel [link]

I've grown to love science for the same reasons I've always loved art and literature: because it has the capacity to grab you by the collar and shake you up and expose you to beauty and truth and make you seriously rethink your place in the universe. This is a very different sort of appreciation than the technological, practical, engineering kind--the idea that science is great because it gives us cool and useful stuff, because it gives us fMRI machines and toaster ovens. Don't get me wrong, I like pharmaceutical antibiotics as much as the next guy, but I'm much more enamored by The Symphony of Science than I am by nonstick frying pans.

The Planets is a book in which Sobel explores each planet of our solar system through a mix of poetry, science history, and bits of cocktail-party astronomy-trivia ("Did you know there's a gigantic hexagonal storm at the pole of Saturn!"). For example, the chapter on Venus, titled simple "Beauty," contains a line or two from a Great Writer every few pages and focuses thematically on the planet's aesthetic achievements. You would think that this book would be exactly my kind of thing. You would think that I would eat this up about a fast as I would kiss Carl Sagan on the mouth. But, for some reason... I thought it was throughly OK. It was just nothing special. Conceptually it was admirable, and Sobel is a very good writer. I don't know. Maybe it was just too meandering. It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm happy to have read it. But I think the chapters might have worked better on their own, generously trimmed, as essays in the New Yorker or something. As a book the thing just wasn't cohesive enough. Sorry Dava Sobel! Good try, though!

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell [link]

Now that I've read this, I've read every book by Gladwell. And he is great. I totes <3 him. It's weird that no one has ever heard of him or his books. (HA.) The aim of this particular book is to explore the science surrounding the Outliers of the social system, to answer the question "Why are some people successful far above and beyond all normal standards or expectations of achievement?" It's a book about people like Bill Gates, The Beatles, and Malcolm Gladwell. As I've understood it, the general thesis is this: Success comes from 1) lots and lots of hard work, 2) a threshold of natural ability or talent, 3) being born at an opportune place/time in history, and 4) having a good family.

Some problems with this. First, DUH. Everyone knows this! Only very dumb people seriously, consciously think that success is a function of talent or hard work only. Also, some of his implicit claims don't always seem to follow from (at least the presented) evidence. And also also, he explores each aspect of success one at a time, and it begins to feel weird to talk about, say, hard work for dozens of pages in a row, knowing that each example must have had innumerable lucky breaks in order to put that hard work to use.

Nevertheless, the stories and examples are all crazy fascinating. And while I said that only stupid people think that success is a function of only hard work or talent, a lot of people are stupid! That this book attempts to dispel the Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches myth is admirable. Good book!

Right Ho, Jeeves! by P. G. Wodehouse [link]

My first Wodehouse!

First, consider this: P. G. Wodehouse was a contemporary (that is he was publishing at the same time as) both Thomas Hardy and William S. Burroughs. Wow.

Anyway, I went into this whole thing with some baggage. First, know that I don't usually like funny novels. That's Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett (though he's a little gentler). The whole business just seems to me like sitting there while the author conspicuously winks at you over the course of a few hundred pages. Snore. ALSO know that my only knowledge of the Jeeves series was that Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had once played the principal characters on a TV show. And know that I have a particularly strong affection for a certain OTHER instance where Laurie took on the role of the hapless, foppish aristocrat with an unusually intelligent servant.

The book took some getting used to! Bertie is nothing like Prince George and Jeeves nothing like Blackadder.  I thought that I would be expected to "root" for Jeeves, but I found myself much more interested in and sympathetic to Bertie, though that may just be because I am silly and foppish and idle and drunk. And the book isn't really funny. It's... light, refreshing, genial. But not "funny." It's something to make you smile, but nothing to make you laugh. And once you settle down into the pace and the benign risks of Wodehouse's world, the whole thing is about as pleasant as a book can be.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy [link]

Do you remember the movie L.A. Confidential? A slick noir throwback with Kevin Spacey and Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe and Kim Bassinger? If you haven't seen that movie stop what you are doing and Netflix the shit out of it right now. It's one of my all-time favs, and it is the reason I read this book.

That movie, you see, is based on a novel that is part of a saga of hardboiled mysteries by James Ellroy, the first of which is The Black Dahlia. The book is good! I don't know what to say. I've typed too much already. This post is so long! Listen: if you like noir stuff, go read this book. Or better yet, go watch L.A. Confidential. That's mostly what reading the book made me want to do.

In fact, forget all the other stuff I said in this whole post. The movie L.A. Confidential is better than all of these books. What are you even doing? Go watch it!

1 comment:

  1. If I'd realized what an entertaining reviewer voice you have, I'd have read this sooner! Maybe.