Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year in Books

I planned on having more time to write this blog, a couple hours at least, but I ran out. Seems like there's a pattern to that, at least in my life. There is never enough time.

That goes for reading too. Halfway through 2007 I came up with a list of books I wanted to read for the remainder of the year and promised myself that if I made good, I'd buy myself a pizza. I didn't make it through my list (though I feel like I made a pretty decent dent in it), I'm still going to get that pizza, from Joe Peeps, and I'm going to eat it like there's no tomorrow.

There just isn't enough time in the day to read everything I'd like to. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming it can be frustrating. And then I catch myself in the mirror and laugh, because there's no point in getting frustrated. That's just the way it is. I should go into bookstores more often just to remind myself that I'll never read even a quarter of what's in there. What matters is that I make what I read count. And though there's some luck in that, because reading a book is an investment of time, it's about what I take from it that matters. Everything has something to give, no matter how crappy or how good.

Words have such power, and, as the years go by, I fall more and more in their trance. I love all forms of storytelling, but books are my favorite. I wish films were, but there's just not enough great films, and usually (here's a cliche) the book's far better. Still, I have a passion for story, and no matter where it comes from, when it's good that's what counts, whether it's a book or a film or Lost.

This year my favorites were The Road by Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion the greatest writer alive, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (of course!) by J.K. Rowling, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince (I was late to the game).

Now that the year's come to a close, I must ask myself: What to do? Do I scrap my reading list from this year and start over with a new one? Nah. I'm going to keep the books I didn't read on my to-read list but I'm not going to burden myself with a list, not a strict one. I got so many books as gifts this year that I'm excited about reading that I just can't put them at the end of the pile, because I want to read them NOW!!! So I'll continue to add to my to-read list that I carry with me, but gone is the must-read-before-year-end list that became more of a burden than an inspiration. I free myself from my own shackles and say, read what you want, when you want! Deviate from your boundaries, pick up new things, try new books, and come back to the old ones.

This year, I'm looking forward to reading The Wild Trees (I'd like it to be a non-fiction-themed year), The Kite Runner, Ham On Rye, Bowl of Cherries, The Bible According to Mark Twain, The Fourth Bear, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Know It All, The Alchemyst, and whatever else pops up in addition to the books I've been looking forward to reading for quite some time. I feel lucky and excited because I'm already engrossed in No Country For Old Men, dazzled by Journeys to Unforgettable Places (Pico Iyers account of Ethiopia, especially Abyssinia, is wondrous), and laughing my butt off at I Am America and So Can You. So 2008 should be good, if the first three are any indication, and I have a feeling they are.

Happy New Year! And Happy Reading!

It's Kinda Like the Eight Ball
"Understanding The I-Ching"
by Hellmut and Richard Wilhelm

In keeping with my curiosity about Eastern philosophy, the I Ching, or Book of Changes, seemed a logical read. I read another book on the I Ching that I'll not blog, because this one give more of an encompassing view of the I Ching.

The I Ching, or "Book of Changes", is an ancient text that is consulted by tossing yarrow stalks (now coins, using heads or tails to count) that gives advice on life and situations that arise. The responses can be as varied and ambiguous as "Lends grace to the beard on his chin" to "Graceful and moist, constant perseverance brings good fortune." Sounds like fortune cookies, and the responses could even mimic that of the general horoscope, but the I Ching is supposed to go deeper than that.

So deep that some people, like Richard Wilhelm, spend their entire life studying the I Ching and it's responses. Luckily some of his lectures were collected and edited by his son so that people like me, who are just curious, can check it out without the commitment of reading the source text.

While I'm not that into tossing coins in a random fashion and following the advice that corresponds to their numbers, the philosophy and the background of the I Ching is much more my style. I like the messages, I like that there are 64 hexagrams, and that combined they encompass any and every change in the chaotic world. Essentially, the I Ching takes the chaos of the universe and orders it into 64 interrelated categories. It's a fascinating thing to see, and just another extension of the worldview that everything is connected, to which I would very much like to believe.

I've heard Taoism is a major precursor to the I Ching, and I think I'll be looking into that much more in the coming months. It's a fun journey, I highly recommend it. Write me when you get there.

Some Peace and Quiet
"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"
by Shunryu Suzuki

I've been trying to expand my horizons, philosophically speaking. This year I took a short class on meditation that I really enjoyed, and I've been reading into existentialism and other philosophies and religions. It should come as no surprise to those who know me that Zen would enter at some point.

George Lucas used Zen as the basis for much of the Force in the Star Wars films, so I knew it would agree with me.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a series of talks transcribed by students of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki on Zen practice, meditation, and mindfulness. It's a fascinating book that offers insights and advice on leading a zen life. No matter what your belief system, if you subscribe to a religion, even the tenets of Zen stand to add a little more to your spirituality. Zen is an outlook more than it is a religion. It is a practice and, more than anything, a philosophy of the world.

Everything is connected, everything affects everything else, and the point of all this is to rise above the everyday tasks and get your head above the clouds, so to speak, so that you can have a clear view of life. Even if Zen isn't for you, it's hard not to find the words here insightful and provocative:
You know how to rest physically. You do not know how to rest mentally. Even though you lie in your bed your mind is still busy; even if you sleep you mind is busy dreaming. Your mind is always in intense activity. This is not so good. We should know how to give up our thinking mind, our busy mind.
It's easy to find those words comforting, because it's the truth. I've heard many great things about meditation, about leading a Zen life, and the class I took on meditation was in the middle of this book, and while the teacher was not teaching Zen, many of the points he made coincided with what I was reading. The benefits are worth it, I think, and this book is a true classic. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to enhance their personal and/or spiritual growth.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bad Cop, Bad!
"The Night Gardener"
by George Pelecanos

I forget where I was read about this book, but a thousand times I wish I did, because I'm never taking that advice again. Maybe if I had done some research, I would have found that this book was not up my alley.

Look, I like mysteries, I enjoy cop dramas and the theme that cops and criminals are similar but for a legality and rules. None of that's here.

The writing's worse than pulpy bestseller drama, and there is barely any suspense to drive the story. It drags. I only finished it because I felt obligated, and honestly I kept reading because I couldn't let go of the hope that something more interesting would happen. It had to.

Nope. Alright, then, fine, I give up. Novels like this make me question satisfaction. Will I ever make it through my neverending list of books I want to read? A book is an investment, which makes it so thoroughly depressing when a book isn't at least fun.

The story's simple, not that you're interested if I've tainted you correctly. Three children whose first names are spelled the same backwards as forwards (i.e. "Asa") have been murdered. Fifteen years later, with the case still unsolved, another kid has been killed whose name is a palindrome, and the cops that worked the unsolved case are brought together with mixed emotions and old tensions. And...

Nothing happens! The mysteries fizzle out, the characters quickly become unbelievable and tiring, and the subplots are boring. Have I said enough? I feel bad badgering this book any further. I should, but I won't.

And the cover isn't all that great either, in retrospect.

Around the World
"Only Revolutions"
by Mark Z. Danielewski

Sam and Hailey and Hailey and Sam. Forever and never. Now and always.

Or so it goes from the looks of this clustered book full of wordplay and colors and just plain pizazz. Only Revolutions is the kind of book you read and say, "What the flip?", and then you flip it and read more.

Record scratch. Sam and Hailey, eternally sixteen, road-tripping from city to city in an ever-changing cast of cars and situations that seem to blend together so fast and easily that it's much closer to a dream than anything, are in love. And their love is spilled all over these pages in unique and creative ways, all contributing to Danielewski's title, only revolutions.

First, the book itself, you read eight pages (the vertical symbol of infinity) and then flip the book and read eight pages from the other side. Each half tells a story, the flips intersect at page 180 (the hardbound book is 360 pages, or one full revolution), and the end of the book could easily lead back into the beginning, culminating in a swirling hulk of experimental fiction that is literally quite dizzying. The first letter of each chapter, combined, spells out "Sam and Hailey and Sam and Hailey..." and so on. Another revolution.

The writing is fresh and invigorating, but it does become a little much and after a while, the journey starts to feel repetitive (coincidence? probably not). Only Revolutions is actually one long poem, and it seems to work better as spoken word than silent reading, because the words spoken aloud have a much different effect than when they ring by in your head. If you're into spoken word, then maybe the audio book, the reader handpicked by Danielewski, would be of interest.

Ultimately, I'm on the fence about what to say about this book. It's a fun read and the conception is more than interesting, but it starts to wind down at a certain point and the fun becomes in reaching some solid ground, which never happens. I'd recommend it, but I prefer his earlier House of Leaves, with the experimental fiction contributing to the feel and pace of the story, a tad bit more...

I say judge for yourself, the cover's cool anyway. And if you're into forums, this author has a huge cult following.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

At Least I Learned Some New Words
"Cloud Atlas"
by David Mitchell

I was really excited to read Cloud Atlas. A couple of blogs I read had recommended it and it was a Finalist for the Man Booker Prize, so it was a shoe-in. I guess I should know by now that there will be disappointment in life. Such is the case with Cloud Atlas.

In theory, the book is beautiful and intriguing. It is made up of six parts, each of which is interrupted halfway by the next and picked up later. It's explained better here, but the best way I can describe it is that it's like Lost without the interesting mythology. Each story is intricately connected to the next, by way of reincarnation, and the stories gravitate between metafiction and self-reflection to near Twilight Zone moments. Each character finds the subsequent story at some point in their own story, and they all have a comet shaped birthmark above their left shoulder.

In execution, though, this neatly packed story within a story within a story does not hold so well. I openly celebrate experimental fiction, but only the more so when it grabs me. A story is a story no matter how you tell it, but a story that's told well is insurpassable.

David Mitchell flourishes in some sections, his writing overtakes the story and it's hard to put down, but that is all overshadowed by a need to outdo himself. But instead of succeeding, it ends up looking like some three year old's stomping fit. "Look at me! Look at me!" I feel more comfortable putting him in time-out.

For what it is, Cloud Atlas is different, and I will read more David Mitchell, because his ideas are intriguing and I'd like to see them fleshed out in a less self-indulgent way. And I did learn several new words, so that's good right? It wasn't a total waste of time then. Reading never is.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
"Crime and Punishment"
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

First off, this book is thick, the pages are thin, and the words are small, which is daunting. I got gasps from people, gasps, when I mentioned I was reading this book, mostly I'm guessing because big books like this tend to be boring and filled with ideas but short on story, a monstrosity that's called "classic" because what else can you do.

But "No," I would answer the gasps, "the book is amazing, it's fascinating, and graphic and intense and funny, and it reads quickly," that was the most astonishing thing even I found. In essence, I can see why Crime and Punishment is considered a classic: because it's a really really great novel. Simple as that.

That's not to say there isn't anything to dissect, I think you could make a career out of picking this novel apart. Some people already have, which makes me happy, because then I don't have to read the novel countless times to weed through the endless themes in search of some higher meaning. If you're curious, even if you haven't read it, it is cool, so check it out (it's just wikipedia, anyways).

Crime and Punishment is a symmetrical story that follows the actions of Raskolnikov. There is too much that happens in the novel to give it a proper summary, and consequently I'm not going to try. Raskolnikov's endless struggle over his reaction to his crime and the cat and mouse game with the cunning detective Porfiry Petrovich are enough for a novel, but Dostoevsky, who apparently is a master of character, layers in so much more than that. As a reader you are greeted with so much literary treasure that it's hard to keep yourself satiated. You want more, more, more, so that even the bulk of the novel isn't enough. (I myself have to read his following novels now, there is absolutely no question, though I may wait because they are a commitment). Raskolnikov's sister Dunya, his mother Pulkheria, his friend Razumikhin, the old man Marmaledov, Raskolnikov's moral mirror Sonya, and the despicable Svidrigailov are all such satisfying characters in themselves that just by writing their names I want to read more about them. And to tell about them would take so long that instead of doing so I say: read this book!

I want to paste this section because it grabbed me. I felt that here Dostoevsky was writing in blood, or at least I feel a real communion with him in this section, and I'd like to think that one of the seeds for his book is here:
Siberia. On the bank of a wide, lonely river there is a town, one of Russia's administrative centries; in the town there is a fortress, in the fortress is a prison. In the prison there is a penal exile of the second category, Rodion Raskolnikov. Since the day he committed his crime almost one and a half years have passed.

Crime and Punishment is an absolute pleasure to read. It's philosophical, witty, and fresh (yes, fresh even if it is a classic, because I've not read anything like it). I'll never forget the end of the Part One, how I sat in bed, mouth agape in shock, and read with a ferocity I have not read with in quite a while. It wasn't the ferocity of "I've got to know what happens", but more "I can't believe what I am reading." The vignettes Dosoevsky creates are funny at times, sad at others, but altogether they are necessary, and that's what I love about his book. Multi-layered, full of meaning and ambiguity, and rich in all the right ways, Crime and Punishment made quite an impression on me, one that I hope I will not soon forget (and one I must come back to whenever I write something of my own one day).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"All He Ever Wanted"
by Anita Shreve

I suspected as soon as the first page that this wasn't my type of book. My suspicions mounted after the first 100 pages did little to pique my interest, and I was certain, absolutely certain, after the 101st page. And yet I read on.

Reader's guilt, I call it. It's when you start a book but find that you don't really like it but feel guilty not finishing it. The writing wasn't wretched, the story was intriguing in its own way, and it read fast. So I would feel guilty if I didn't finish it.

So I read. I read like a child eats spinach, force-feeding myself the words like they were good for me, like I had to read them to expel some sort of virus. When really all I wanted was to finish, because the only thing more satisfying than finishing a book you love is finishing a book you hate. I'm done with it! Yes! Celebrations are in order, we must mark this occasion.

All He Ever Wanted was not a bad novel, and for anyone interested, the story is about love. But the kind of love it's about is not what you'd expect. A man of reason, Professor Nicolas Van Tassel, becomes infatuated with a woman, Etna Bliss, one night after helping her aunt out of a fire, and will not stop until he can have her. The lengths he goes to win her love, and then the lengths he goes to keep her from leaving (because she doesn't love him in return), are disturbing and though-provoking in their own way.

Shreve does a great job of weaving together elements of story with philosophy about love, fate, chance, and the sacrifices we make. Still, I couldn't get into it, and only indulged myself because I had no other choice. Well, I could feel guilty, but who wants that.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Dirka Dirka, Progressivityism "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
by Mohsin Hamid

I know novels about 9/11 are nothing new, and I suspect the events and issues surrounding that day will continue to be explored for quite some time. This is the first novel I've read that involves the events of September 11, and offers a different view than what I experienced in the aftermath.

Perspective is good.

A bearded Pakistani man sits at a cafe with an American in Lahore, India, and tells of his time in America. From his days at Princeton to his courtship with an American woman named Erika (whose name, I suspect, hints at the metaphoric representation of her country), to his subsequent departure from the U.S. after 9/11, the man, who goes by Changez (another phonetic name), recounts his story in painstaking detail.

The story is told in both second and first person. It is you, the reader of the novel, who is the American sitting with Changez at the cafe in Lahore. He talks to you, asks if you would like to order dinner, a drink, dessert. He makes assumptions about you and guesses your assumptions about him. It all has a very choose-your-own-adventure feel, and though Hamid's device works in theory, in practice the effect proves to be too jarring to be enjoyable. It's successful to a fault, it takes you out of the story enough to gain a fair distance from the story, and that fault is the reason I don't completely love this book.

There are some gems in the novel, and Hamid is a clever writer. The poetic passages that lace this novel kept me hoping that he would not stop the story and go into talking to me at the cafe. Changez's relationship with Erika, his longing for her, and her actions after 9/11, all seem too obvious in their attempt at allegory. Changez is like Pakistan, wanting to be allied with America, while Erika is like America, her sites set on something else, her mind in a whole different state. Erika is not grounded in the real world, she makes decisions based on imagination, and this adversely affects everyone.

It's perfect fodder for the state of the world right now. If it didn't necessarily succeed as a novel (it fell short, I must say), it's refueld my interest in current affairs, and at least motivated me to learn more about what kind of damage we are doing in the world that we have absolutely no idea about.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks a lot of great questions. We have turned backwards, fallen into illogical thinking, and are not looking clearly at what we are doing to the world. We move forward because we are America and we can, because we have the most powerful everything and no one can challenge us (though for how much longer, I wonder?). What The Reluctant Fundamentalist does is point out that people are hurt by us, Pakistan was hurt by America because they failed to help them (Pakistan, America's ally, was left in the cold after India threatened to invade, while America bombed the bejesus out of Afghanistan - the catalyst for this story), that racism is anything but over with, and that it's all too easy to be an American and think you are entitled, but it's the worst mistake you can make.

Making Waves
"Life of Pi"
by Yann Martel

Supposedly, this book will make you believe in God. At least, that's what the inside cover of the library edition claims, that "it may, as one character claims: make you believe in God."

What a letdown! I was expecting some major breakthrough, some tour de force, I was expecting to open the book and gold rays to come bursting out that would melt my face off like some sort of modern covenant. Didn't happen.

Life of Pi is, the inside cover also claims: about a boy, a tiger, and the Pacific Ocean. It is a fascinating story that won a prestigious award, but it didn't change my life. Maybe my expectations were too high, perhaps I wanted something more, some insight, some meaning I couldn't or haven't yet gleaned from life as I know it. Didn't happen.

Which made me wonder, am I not impressionable anymore? Am I past that phase? Is it a phase? Can I not be moved like I once was? I really can't bring myself to believe that I can't. I have my beliefs, my doubts and cynicisms, I have a pretty good idea on what the world will bring me and what to expect. I've formulated a philosophy for my life that works for me, but is it set in stone? Can it change? I'd like to think so, it should grow and change and adapt as I do. But that isn't impressionism, that's influence. It's change. Impressions have already been made on me. So nothing major, certainly not just a decent book, can make me change my life.

And, after a long discussion with my wife, one that is sure to continue, I must conclude that I am past that impressionable phase (as far as spirituality goes, not, perhaps, meaning). I've read books far worse yet been moved by them far more, I've found God and spirituality in so many other things that I cannot possibly find in Life of Pi, not a bad thing, just a letdown of expectations.

The lesson here is that a book should not stake that claim that it may make one believe in God. It inevitably dooms the book. It takes the 100 page setup of the book that has no insight at all, but rather just an exploration with a child into the various forms of religion (Hinduism, Muslim, and Christianity), and forces the rest of the book stand in its shadow.

The book is quite moving, it's a great read, and I found the story exceptional. One insight the main character, Pi Patel, had particularly moved me. Pi found himself at the mercy of opposites. He would often want one thing, get it, and then want another. When it would rain, he would wish for the sun to be out, to be dry and warm; when it was hot, he'd give anything for a bit of freshwater to cool off with. It's an extremely common thing, to want something, to get it, and to hope for the opposite. And it's the balance and the acceptance of these opposites as a way of life that I found so endearing when reading this novel.

Pi survives over half a year at sea in a boat with a 350 pound Bengal tiger. It's a story that you should read, not so that you will believe in God, but because it will move you, it will make your life more meaningful, shine light on things you take for granted, and inspire you. You might read this book and find that life is amazing even in the darkest, most solitary moments.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Long and Winding...
"The Road"
by Cormac McCarthy

The landscape is barren. Ash constantly falls from the gray sky. When it snows the snowflakes are gray, and when it rains the rain washes away nothing. There is no sustainable life. Only a handful of people survive on America's continent, and there is no knowledge of the outside world or if anything is across the ocean. Through it all twists a road, a road that leads to the coast. On it are a man and his little boy, and because they are alive there is hope.

This is the setting for Cormac McCarthy's haunting novel, The Road, about a man and his son's journey along a road in a searing apocalyptic world. The man has seen the world change, while his son has only known the barren, ashen world they live in. They are the past and the future. While electronics scatter the stores, the food shelves are empty, and everything they cross is some depressing relic of the past. The boy sees this and all he knows is this, his strong intuition makes him the realist of the two, and he often has to tell his father to do what's best for both of them. The man, on the other hand, exercises blind hope. He's seen what can be, he's known a better life, he wants that for his son. And so they struggle. The dynamic is astounding.

McCarthy never lets on how the world got this way, only hints at it, but that becomes beside the point. What really matters is this man and his son, their survival, their constant struggle to reach the coast, their love for each other, their hope. What becomes of it is a multilayered allegory about love and hope in the most desperate times, about the human condition - its faults, and its strengths - and the power of the Earth.

I was completely enthralled with this novel, which isn't much of a compliment to McCarthy. It's something you expect when you read him. He is, in my opinion, the best American writer alive today. His writing is so powerful, so rich in meaning, and his characters as real as if you came upon them in the street (most of them would make you cringe, though, given how hardened and tough they have become due to the circumstances of their lives).

McCarthy writes like a poet. His words are perfect, each one plucked delicately out of the universe and put on the page as if no other word could live there. You read a McCarthy sentence or paragraph or section and you get a feeling, even if the words might make little sense. He is a master of creating tone, and a brilliant wordsmith.

So, what can I say, I highly recommend this novel, it's unbearably heartwrenching at times and full of life at others. You might weep a little, you might laugh, you'll definitely emote. It's McCarthy's most accessible novel, and also one of his best. One last recommendation: if you find a section that you really like, read it out loud, hear the words, and how their combination creates a feeling. Just like a good poem, listening to it sometimes completely changes it. And it's usually for the better.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Some Deathly Reading
"Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows"
by J.K. Rowling

Holy crap these books are good. J.K. Rowling's ability to grow with her audience, to darken the themes and write a great story that young adults and older young adults can both enjoy is uncanny. It was truly magical reading these books, and the wonderful journey came to an excellent close. Though it did meander a bit, it's all the same in the end. Rowling's themes of fear and power are so profound and timely, these books are classics and highly recommended.

I'd argue with anyone that says different.

In the Stomach
by Jean-Paul Sartre

Nausea has been sitting on my shelf for a good five years, and only after a minor existential crisis of my own was I propelled into a desire to read it. Existentially speaking, I'm looking for meaning in life, not that I'll find it in existentialism, but at least, I thought, I'd hear about the struggle.

Sartre is one of those really cool people that you secretly wish you were if you lived forever and could be five different people of your choice. He was a great philosopher who wrote some really hefty philosophical texts, of which his most famous is Being and Nothingness, and also a fantastic storyteller and wrote plays and novels, No Exit and Nausea being the most accessible. I won't go too much into his philosophy as it would be a moot point other than to say that he supports it well in the novel form.

I'm glad Nausea is a short book, because any more and I'd be sick. Told in the form of the diary of the main character, Antoine Roquentin, it follows his exploits in France as he tries to trace the nausea that crashes over him at random times. Roquentin is a lonely man, and it's his loneliness that follows him around and nearly condemns him to his nausea. It almost seems that Sartre is saying that meaning comes from relationships, that we seek out connection to distract ourselves from existence. In fact, what Roqeuntin comes to find is that the nausea he feels is existence itself, it is realizing that he is and is not at the same time, and when he realizes that, he observes others unintentionally distracting themselves from seeing the same.

I can see why this is one of Sartre's more popular novels. The surreal moments are astounding. Its most surreal moments are utterly graphic and somewhat disturbing (but I found that fun), and it's meandering plot does end up having a point, but it is a difficult book to get through because of its subject matter. There is no mystery to solve. Instead, there is one man and his random encounters with objects, former lovers, and other odd sorts of people. I must say that I did like it, though, and it has left quite an impression on me.

Oh, the existential crisis continues! If you've got time, read it, keep the crisis alive.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mad Scientists?
"The Jasons"
by Ann Finkbeiner

The front jacket of this book is enough to spark anyone's imagination. Every year since 1960 a group of elite scientists meets for six-weeks in top secret locations to solve highly classified defense problems. Hell yeah!

For me, I think of darkly lit rooms, scientists in white coats, high-tech gadgets, and the fate of the world in the balance. I imagine state-of-the-art technology, even stater-of-the-art ideas, and complete tyrannical chaos over each and every one of them. What I imagine is a fantasy.

The best part of this book is on the front cover. The rest, sadly, is boring, static, and unfulfilling. The book filled with useless information about countless scientist's backgrounds and little or no information regarding any of the top secret studies the group "Jason" has worked on.

With paragraph headings like "This next part is far from inspiring" or "After that it is far from interesting," it becomes hard to get excited. I began this book with boyish fantasies of secrets and science fiction, but was quickly tamed by the reality that most of the cool stuff that has been worked on in the last 60 years is still highly classified and thus not in any book, nor anywhere for that matter.

Finkbeiner conducted most of her interviews over the phone for this book, and I can't help but feel that may have lent a staleness to the story's progression as well. The books suffers from it's exhaustiveness. There is too much information given about things that aren't interesting. It makes the few interesting portions zoom by.

The subjects of this book are a group of very highly qualified academic physicists, a group even Finbeiner reminds us is arrogant and snobby. And while they may do some great things for this country behind the scenes (like studies on aging nuclear weapons, how to dismantle them safely, etc.), those arrogant snobs make for terrible bedside reading.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Work of the Ancients
"The Forge and The Crucible"
by Mircea Eliade

Alchemy is mysterious and wondrous and, I think, interesting. I happened across this book through conversation, found it a great starting point to learn about this ancient process that goes so far back in human history and is steeped in tradition, sacred initiation, secrets, and religion.

Eliade basically traces alchemy back to the most primitive religions, gives examples of smiths and metallurgists before alchemy was practiced, and lays the groundwork for alchemy's influence of chemistry (which consequently led to it's decline as a valid practice). Modern science has done away with much of the spiritual side of alchemy, reactions are strictly chemical now, transformation has an explanation (transmutation though is another animal entirely). Eliade, though, skillfully moves through the history of alchemy and enlightens us to a vastly different world, one where people interact with metals as if they are alive, because they believe we came from rocks, they believe in a cosmogony that is holistic and encompasses everything, not just man.

Personally, I find alchemy fascinating. The fact that Newton, the father of modern science, was deeply rooted in alchemy yet persisted on keeping it secret, published books based on alchemical models and did away with alchemy as a serious pursuit is something to be pondered. The symbolism alchemy provides, the inveterate research and prolific work of C.G. Jung on it, is both useful and helpful.

I understand very little about alchemy in and of itself, and I probably never will know much more than an inkling of surface knowledge, but I find it's explanation of the universe, the symbolism of the Philosopher's Stone and Elixir Vitae, the holistic nature, and the fact that it is such an old idea has some basis of validity for me, and I will not be satisfied until I know more.

The alchemist's ultimate goal was to speed nature up and transmute metals into gold, since it was believed that, given time, that is the endgame for all metals. Spiritually, they must abide by several things to keep on that path. It is that path, that symbolism, that ignites my imagination.

It also probably helps that I love mysteries and mysterious things. Check it out on wikipedia.

The Real Lost
"Island of the Blue Dolphins"
by Scott O'Dell

A few months ago Aubrey and I went to Catalina Island, one of a chain of islands off the Los Angeles coast, and on the way our conversation veered to the "Island of the Blue Dolphins". On an island neighboring Catalina, San Nicolas, in the late 1800s, a girl was found, alone, having survived the last twenty-some years on her own. She spoke no understandable language, and the rest of her people had long since passed. I was fascinated.

The book is a fictionalization of the girl's account. It's based on a few facts, but it really did happen. Karana, the girl, became a woman during her stay on the island, she overcame fears about hunting as a woman (forbidden in her tribe), fears of isolation, all while maintaining a consistent hope and goodness. Her story is one that should be heard, and one that should be followed, because at its core it is a story about how resourceful people can be, how instincts do help, and how living in harmony with the world around you is one of the most important things for sustainability.

I don't have much to say about the book other than that I enjoyed it immensely. Karana's relationships with the animals on the island, I found her domestication of a wild dog and birds and, briefly, a fox, heartwarming and sincere. Her struggle was dramatic and the book was fantastically told. It's a young adult book, but I really think that categories like "young adult" should be done away with. Anyone can read a young adult book, and anyone can enjoy it. Case in point: Harry Potter.

For some interactive fun on the Island, go here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Changed Man
"The Metamorphosis"
by Franz Kafka

I've never read Kafka, and until a week ago, I'd only heard of him.

After I started reading The Metamorphosis, I tried explaining the story to Aubrey. A man wakes up transformed into a dung beetle, no explanation is given, and he must face his boss and his family. His family (especially his father) are revolted and force him into his room, where his sister sneaks food to him while he longs to "get better" and have a normal life again while continuing to transform and becoming accustomed to, even liking, his new form. That was a third of the way through the book. Aubrey quoted a line from Annie Hall in which Shelley Duvall remarks that sex with Woody Allen's character is a "very Kafkaesque experience". The smile left her face and she said the book sounded depressing, to which I hesitated.

"It's not, it's a metaphor for isolation and loneliness," I retorted. But that didn't help, and after further reflection, it makes it sound even more depressing. It's not though, oddly enough.

Kafkaesque is a term for surreal, illogical situations. It can also be accompanied by a sense of impending danger. Gregor Samsa, the metamorphosized, ill-fated protagonist, accepts his fate, tries to live accordingly, and dies a lonely death totally ostracized from his family. But it's a lot more surreal, funny, and playful than that. Really. I think it's that the tone is upbeat. Gregor is hopeful, he still has dreams, and his situation is funny.

I really enjoyed this book. It's short but filled with colorful characters and situations, so if you've got a couple hours and want to read something that will really blow your mind, try this. Kafka is a great writer. Interesting, also, is the type of writer he was. He felt compelled to write, and once that was established, he said that it consumed him, transformed him, made him think of nothing else, much like Gregor Samsa (Samsa = Kafka) the longer he was a dung beetle. He liked to watch his characters die a spectacular but bittersweet death, much the way he envisioned he would go, mourned into oblivion. It's fascinating, really.

I'm a big fan of surrealism, and The Metamorphosis was definitely surreal. On that note then, I must recommend this book. But, if you don't have time, even though that's no excuse (because it's a scant 60 pages), there's an interesting interpretation here.

Yep, Snap Judgments
by Malcolm Gladwell

My desire to read The Tipping Point came from a few seconds I spent perusing Blink in a book store a few years ago. It was an amazing book, with fantastic insight and knowledge into fads, ideas, and their cause and effect on culture.

Just now getting to the book that ultimately inspired me to read The Tipping Point seems a little backwards, ironic but chronologically correct, I suppose, but it just happened that way. A snap judgment on a book about snap judgments. Hmmm, ponder that a moment.

Blink, besides those first impressions left on me in the book store some years ago (notably Gladwell's discussion of the impulses of improv groups and the idea that one of the most important rules of successful improv is that of accepting suggestions) did not bode well for the book as a whole. Rather, it left me a little disappointed, wanting and hoping for more. I shall explain, but quickly.

The idea of Blink is that, given expertise on a judgment, faith in ability, and thoughtful approach, trusting your snap judgments can prove to be a very powerful tool in decision making. Indeed, the power of the mind, the unconscious mind in particular, is fascinating. Intuition rarely leads us astray, and often when we abandon our first notion in lieu of a more thought-out approach, we get it wrong. Gladwell does a great job of presenting these and other ideas through several interesting stories, anecdotes, and psychological and sociological studies. What he fails to do is follow that up with any real insight of his own. The book ultimately turned out to be chapter after chapter of how people could make snap decisions, could tell so much from such a small sliver of time (what he calls "thin-slicing"), but did not follow that up with any insight as to how the every day person might do that.

And the reason he can't is because it's, well, common sense. I hesitate to say that he wrote a book that could have been an article, with it's conclusion and theme leaning towards "trust yourself" or "follow your instincts". But I must: an article would have been sufficient.

The fact that I read not just this book, but Gladwell's other book too, based on a judgment I made very quickly from only a few pages, attests to the power of instincts. Yet somehow I don't feel that I needed a book to tell me that and give me examples of it. I want enlightenment.

And I want it now.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Book To-Do List

I love lists, I've found. I love crossing things off, I love surrendering my memory to a piece of paper.

So, I'm going to put up a list of books I'd like to read. I think I'll do it by year, then I'll be able to assess it at the end of the year and see how close I actually came to getting through my list. Keeping a list of books I'd like to read also has other, less serious, implications. I get excited about what's coming up. My imagination reacts to what it doesn't know, and sometimes, I like thinking about what a book has to offer more than the actual book itself. In this way I believe I'll be able to look at my list and daydream for hours on end about the books I will read.

A few rules:
1. The books are in no particular order, so I can read whichever I feel like, whenever I feel like.
2. The list is a goal, however, and it is limited. There are so many books I'd like to read, these are just the ones I'd like to get through this year.
3. There is no penalty for not finishing all the books, but if I do, I think I'll buy myself a pizza, like the BookIt club used to.
4. This list is all about fun, if it becomes a burden, I'll delete it, or just abandon it and it will stay on the right of this web page.

That's it. This post is more for me than for anyone else. So I'm sorry you had to read this if you came across this blog or if you're subscribed to it on email. (I'm especially sorry to Aubs, who has to live with me and put up with this kind of thing full time.)

I'm afraid I will be neurotically reading forever.

Pretty Gritty Things
"All The Pretty Horses"
by Cormac McCarthy

Two or three years ago, I walked into Dutton's, a bookstore on Magnolia in Burbank, CA, and was informed that all the books in the store, including used copies, were 50% off the marked price. They were closing and consolidating to a main shop a few miles away. Though I was sad to see such a great bookstore close, I went hog wild. I left with more books than I needed, and I found myself making lists of books I wanted and returning repeatedly over the next few weeks to check their library and satisfy my literary hunger for a lot cheaper than I was accustomed to.

Chief on my list were the novels of Ernest Hemingway, any classics, and books I'd always wanted to read but never had a chance. I picked up All The Pretty Horses on a whim. Maybe I liked the cover... I can't remember. But reading it these past couple of weeks has completely validated my $3.50 purchase. In hindsight, I'd pay full price.

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant writer. He nails his characters down to a T, and creates such stunning and rich portraits that you can feel the dust clog your nostrils as the riders in his stories cross the plains of Texas into the dry country of Mexico and beyond. You taste the dried blood. You feel their pain, their hunger, their longing, their out of placeness. With a Cormac McCarthy novel, you feel everything.

This novel follows a young Texas rancher named John Grady Cole. Cole's grandfather passed away and his ranch the only thing left of his possesions. His mother, heir to the ranch, is set on selling it. So he runs away to Mexico with his friend Rawlins. They happen upon an oasis, a sprawling ranch amid the arid landscape, and become ranch hands. Cole meets and falls in love with the ranch owner's daughter, Alejandra, and he and Rawlins begin to "break" wild horses. The scenes Cole speaks to horses are some of the most tender and amazing in the novel.

Cole and Rawlins end up in a dangerous Mexican jail for helping a kid named Jimmy Blevins get his horse back after a lightning storm, and both nearly die in knife fights. They are released from prison, and Cole tries to win back Alejandra but finds out that she made a promise to her grandmother that she would never see him again if she paid the jail to release Cole and his friend.

Heartbroken, alone, and desperate, Cole goes back to Texas, where nothing is left for him. He rounds up the horses he lost and takes them with him, leaving everywhere for nowhere, not sure where to call home, not sure if his heart is in anything at all.

Amid so many striking, poignant scenes in the novel is the setting. It's not the old west, it's the 1950's. Cole is the last in a long line of Texas ranchers, he's a dying breed, and when he and Rawlins run away, they do so on their horses, riding along roads and cars going much faster than them. These two worlds coexist subtextually, but the subtleness comes through, and adds a haunting dimension to the novel.

One last note, John Grady Cole is only 16, yet he's a strong character. He's a man. He knows right from wrong and he won't budge from his morals for anything or anyone, not even if he's facing death. I'd be friends with him. I admire him. I guess that's part of the power of this story. It's a time gone past and yet here still today. Today it's tough to meet a twenty-something that's an adult, much less a man. So I like John Grady Cole.

I highly recommend this novel, but beware, the prose is hypnotic and engrossing. The tale is as captivating as anything you'll read, but it might haunt you, just a little bit. The subtext of this novel lasts far longer, far more subconsciously, than should be rightly admitted.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Quite a Man Indeed
"Man Without a Country"
by Kurt Vonnegut

I started reading this book the day Kurt Vonnegut passed away. I didn't know yet, of course, and it's probably too soon to write that so abrasively, but I don't think he would mind. I was reading so I would be up to speed when I would see him live in a couple of months at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I was reading his latest, his last finished book, because I was interested in what he had to say.

A Man Without a Country is a fantastic essay about the everything from the sad state of the world to how to write well to how to just enjoy life (he uses the phrase, quite apropos, it probably stuck out at me because of the timing, "If I should die - God forbid -"). It's full of wit and wisdom and humor and the ultimate insight into comedy: it's not comedy, it's tragedy, but it's an escape from tragedy. I couldn't agree with him more. The funniest situations, the best comical stories, are the ones that teeter on the edge of disaster. They're also the most insightful.

That's what makes Kurt Vonnegut, and this book, so indispensable. It's so honest and witty that nearly every phrase bears repeating. Every idea he presents is solid. And, for the most part, I agree. I can see why he is a man without a country. It's his honesty, his plainness, that makes him so easy to read. You don't read his books, you are his books, you become his books, you interact with everything. It's like talking to the man himself. If he were to start a religion, I'd be hard-pressed not to ascribe. Oh wait, he did. Bokonon.

So it goes.

And so A Man Without a Country goes. It goes where many have been, where many will get to, but it goes there at its own pace, in its own way. Read it. That's all I can say. It's entertaining, it's honest, but most of all, it is the pleading of a man that can see the future. Or, maybe, as he says of Einstein and Shakespeare and the like, maybe he's just a huge plagiarist and writes down what the future tells him.

Mr. Vonnegut, you will be sorely missed.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

More Corn with your Corny Beef?
The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

If you eat food, you should read this book. It's as important as any book about food is these days.

Though it may be about food, it's not a diet book. Though it does offer tips on healthy eating and living, it's not a book about that specifically. The Omnivore's Dilemma is much more than that, it transcends to new heights about food, what we eat, and how we "think" about what we eat (i.e. why we cook meat). It's a fantastic journey, and Pollan, the author, is the ideal guide.

This is the first book I've read by Michael Pollan, it's safe to say it won't be my last. Pollan gets to the bottom of his subject. He immerses himself in all points of view, and ultimately lays out his conclusions with rational connections and telling insights.

Pollan dissects and breaks down four meals. A simple idea that provides a wealth of ground to cover. First, he dissects the industrial-agriculture complex, where corn is king, and eats a meal at McDonald's. Corn is in everything: most processed foods, it's fed to cows (not corn-eaters, grass-eaters), chickens (also not corn eaters by nature), farm-raised salmon, and most other animals strictly because of its plentitude. Corn is grown by American Farmers that are on the verge of bankruptcy. The crop is plentiful due to it's resilience and (i think, un)healthful symbiosis with humans. Corn is in a lot of stuff - notably soda - but it could be any crop. The harm is in the fact that corn is a monoculture, that it creates excess in so many areas of the environment, much unlike the way agriculture should be (which thrives as a polyculture, i.e. mini ecosystems). The reasons why it continues, though, are plentiful, but mainly because it provides a low-cost-high-producing way to feed the growing population of the earth, to which the traditional methods of farming can no longer support.

Pollan's other meals include a trip to his local Whole Foods for an organic meal (which resembles the non-organic supermarket equivalents more closely than you'd imagine), a trip and extended stay on a polyculture farm that provides the most ideal setting for growing and selling food, though it can only be done on a local scale, and a meal that he has hunted and foraged all on his own.

I hesitate to give away much more about the book because to do so would discount the wealth of information offered. There's just too much to summarize, too many points for everything, good and bad. I will say, though, that I've found a new appreciation for what I am eating, and how I think about what I am eating. Pollan's last meal, the one he hunted and foraged himself, gave me personal satisfaction, insight, and appreciation of hunting, gathering, cultivating, and foraging as well. Though hunting is that barbaric, uncivilized part of society, it's still there, it's as much a part of the cycle of life, and the food chain, as anything (including eating a burger in a fast food restaurant). The founder of PETA was a meat-eater (a little known fact that is not, guess why, highly publicized), and one of the leading animal rights activists, Peter Singer, tells the author he'd rather an animal be hunted humanely (meaning responsibly) than any animal killed the way they are when they are processed for the supermarket.

Pollan notes that we as an American culture lack a unified culture of food. It's nice to have the diversity, but most of us eat a burger without even a second thought as to where the whole meal came from. Most of it came from a cornfield in Iowa. The meat from a beef processing plant from a cow that didn't live exactly the way we'd like to think of.

My thoughts on this book are choppy and jumbled, I know. It's partially out of excitement to share the information while at the same time hold back so that there's something to enjoy. So read it, please, and start thinking about what you eat and eat responsibly. Plus, I'm getting hungry, and I need to figure out what I'm going to eat for dinner.

I've got my own ominivorous dilemma to tend to.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thumbs Sideways
by Rex Pickett


First of all. The movie's better. It's rare that happens, even rarer that I enjoy saying that. Still, it's true.

Now then, that that's out of the way - Sideways - a fortunately quick read told by a protagonist that really takes some getting used to (if you ever do get used to him) that wanders and meanders to who knows where and ends up just as lost.

I'm sorry, I'll really try to make some sense.

This novel follows two middle-aged men on a week-long wine binge before one of them gets married. Miles, a struggling/failed writer is at wit's end in his personal and professional lives, is supposed to clash comedically with Jack, the fun-loving, charismatic, mildly successful B-actor about to get married. They're best friends, if you didn't already guess that, and they're out for one last hurrah in Santa Ynez wine country. They both drink from morning to midnight, mostly wine, in what seems to be a fictional story set in a very non-fiction world. The restaurants are real, the wineries are real, the hotels are real.

Yet, none of this makes a shred of difference. The characters aren't real, and if they are, I don't care because they're crass and dispicable and unfunny and full of predictable lines. Sure, there are a few moments shining with insight, but they are as rare as the laughs. Jack's recurring injuries that mimic his inner struggle to kill his upcoming marriage was the one saving grace in a novel full poorly plotted and even more poorly executed. I'm just glad it was quick and that they made a movie out of the book that made wine-tasting seem more enjoyable than delinquent.

I can only hope that I don't sound as pretentious and snobby about wine when I do learn about it, because I am trying desperately to learn, and that I can enjoy it without turning my nose up at the next guy.

Wow! That was bad. It actually turned out a lot worse than I thought it would. I guess I really didn't like that book. Eeh!

Maybe I'll have some wine with my whining. Maybe some Merlot.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

"Where the Red Fern Grows"
by Wilson Rawls

I've been on a kick lately of reading books I never got the chance to read. When I told Aubrey I'd never read Where the Red Fern Grows she told me I had to read it, that it was the first book she read and reread zealously as a child. I was intrigued.

But I tread lightly. Aubrey likes books that are sad, her recommendations are books that make one want to cry their weeks away, to wallow in the sadness, to feel the deepest, saddest emotions the earth has afforded us.

And still, I had to read it. I'm glad I did.

Billy saves up money for two years to buy some hunting dogs so he can hunt coons in the foggy river bottoms of Ozark Country, which is quite a feat for any young boy. He finally gets his dogs and trains them with patience and care matching that of the most committed trainers, and breeds two of the best hunting dogs. Billy and his dogs go out night after night, and they form one of the strongest bonds ever illustrated in a book.

This book started slow, and though I was into the ideas of it, I had a hard time getting into it. I stayed patient, and it payed off. About halfway through I was hooked, and at the end I was so devastated yet hopeful that I could see why Aubrey loved this book, why she had read it again and again. This story not only evoked feelings within me I had long since forgotten, it transported me to a time and place I love to go. The south, the Ozarks, the woods, hunting with two loyal dogs in the woods, skirting disaster at every turn with the imagination and invincibility we all feel we have at such a young age.

Where the Red Fern Grows is a timeless classic, worth every page, worth the slow beginning, and definitely worth the miraculous end. I wish I had read this book when I was younger, but then again, I'm kindof glad I didn't. I'm kindof glad Aubrey recommended this book to me, glad she had me pinned that I would love this book. And I'm glad I listened.

Monday, February 05, 2007

He that troubleth his own house Shall
"Inherit the Wind
by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

In college, I took a "Law and Literature" class that assigned this book as one of the reading choices. We were assigned six books over the semester, and allowed to skip one of them. I chose The Brothers Karamazov over this one, and opted to weigh myself down with a dense and hard to finish novel over a simple play. I never finished that heavy novel (though I intend to one day re-attempt it, when I have the time), but I did recently plop myself on a chair for a couple hours and breeze through Inherit the Wind.

This play is quite famous, and its subject matter still topic for heated debate. Creation versus Evolution. What is right, what is wrong, and what is worth teaching in the classroom. Sadly enough, the main battle in this play, the debate over whether children should be taught evolution as well as creation, still plagues our classrooms today. Teachers cannot speak of God for fear of reprimand, yet they cannot fairly present Darwin or his ideas either. And who loses?

"He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind." That quote begins this play, and provides the thread along which events unfold. The back flap touts this play as the tense battle between two courtroom titans, drama for the ages. There are some great ideas in this play. Ignorance is exposed in its ugly glory, while the playwrights opt for a bittersweet victory in which no one really wins, and the battle, justifiably so, continues past the last page.

I enjoyed most the stance that creation and evolution can live in harmony, the idea of the creation story as a metaphor for evolution rather than literally, that science doesn't always have to disprove faith. And while I personally subscribe to evolution, I sure do enjoy fitting the beauty of seven days into a billion years, where one day holds the big bang, another the dinosaurs, and our lives just a sliver of a second in the time of the universe.

Bloody Awesome!
"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
by J.K. Rowling

I'm hoping I can say something new, something other than "I loved it" or "it was awesome" about this book, but I'm not sure I can. The Half-Blood Prince, Rowling's sixth installment in the series of seven about wizards and Hogwarts and, of course, Harry Potter, not only ups the ante, but does so with style, grace, and a whole heap of pitsweat and tears.

This installment follows Harry as he delves into the past of Voldemort, an ex-student at Hogwarts then known as Tom Riddle. Harry comes into his own as a confident, sarcastic, and very brave young man who is getting a handle on the magical history he is a part of, as well as the responsibility it comes with. Also a treat in this book is the amount of time we get to spend with Dumbledore.

Most refreshing is the sense of growth in the characters (and, incidentally, the author's style) as Harry's years at Hogwarts pass. Not only are we witness to a contemporary coming-of-age story, but the solidity of confidence and absolute mastery of storytelling by Rowling.

And yet, Rowling knows when to pull up the reins. The story moves along swiftly, like a bird in full flight, towards that ultimate and inevitable dive back to Earth. The Harry Potter story is not finished, and although I foresee re-reading all seven novels in a few years I, for one, cannot wait for the seventh to hit the shelves.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Order of Greatness
"The Order of the Phoenix"
by Harry Potter

Wow. I mean whoa! I mean holy crap this book is good. When this book came out I was working at a bookstore, and I sat idly by as people stormed the shelves for this book. As I did, I hurumphed and thought to myself, "What's the big deal? Why all the hooplah? It's just a silly little story about for young adults, some toss aside read."

Boy, was I wrong. The Harry Potter series just keeps getting better. Book 5 is absolutely amazing, and what J.K. Rowling has managed to do with these characters is just stunning to watch. Many nights I found myself reading into the wee hours, totally engrossed, entranced, off in the faraway land of Hogwarts dreading the Dark Lord Voldemort's imminent return. I'd end a chapter and come to, relieved that it was only a book, but believing in so much more.

The Harry Potter series is very multi-layered. And, contrary to what I believed a few years ago, it's not just a story for young adults. So much more is going on in these novels. The characters are so real and so alive and everything that's happening, while heightened to a fantastic level, is truthful and insightful to an astonishing degree. The level of detail in these books is jaw-dropping. I am a fan for life. Nothing has been such a joy to read since The Lord of the Rings, and while I have many favorite stories, those that I can come back to time and time again and learn something new about myself and the world with each visit are the most worthwhile. Harry Potter is one of those stories, and I look forward to revisiting it in the very near future.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Beautiful Number
"The Golden Ratio"
by Mario Livio

It's been said to be featured in The Mona Lisa. The dimensions of the Great Pyramid supposedly hold this value. Great symphonies can be described by this one number.


1.61803... to infinity. The motherload of irrational numbers. More mysterious than Pi. And this book, The Golden Ratio, explains it all. Its history, how it was discovered, its supposed uses, and false claims to its use in several of the most wondrous monuments and works of art.

I love math. I love numbers. I love the interaction and how they interpret the world so wondrously, and so I love books that explain their presence.

The Golden Ratio was not what I expected it would be. It surpassed my expectations, but for many reasons which may not seem immediately clear. Livio deduces that pretty much all ancient structures and paintings supposedly constructed out of the mysterious Phi are false, that Phi was not discovered, that it's mainly due to the inherent construction that it's number comes up (what he calls number juggling, or making numbers work for you arbitrarily). He basically proves there is no mysterious connection of Da Vinci, the Great Pyramid, Ancient Greece, or most art and music to the Golden Ratio due to unsubstantial evidence. Either the artist or the designer had no access to the Golden Number, or the number's existence is there because of some fancy number juggling.

I respect that. It takes the mysteriousness out of the number. It makes it more believable. And, because it does show up all over nature (in mollusk shells, the space and rotation of tree branches, the shape of galaxies, anything explained by a Fibonnaci sequence, and any type of fractal) even more wondrous.

Livio breaks down myths about this numbers to support its fantastic capabilities. He also gets into some interesting philosophical discussions inspired by this number about whether math is the ultimate "language of the cosmos" or if it is simply an invention of man and so a mediocre tool that is only the tip of the iceberg of what is really going on. It's interesting reading, and really quite insightful.

Math buffs, history buffs, and knowledge mongrels will find this book fascinating. I suggest picking it up if you have a chance. And when you do, ask yourself, what's your favorite number?

Phi's mine.

Do Ants Have Souls?
"The Prophet"
by Kahlil Gibran

The Prophet is one of the ultimate self-help books. It's religion wrapped in philosophy wrapped in how to live and feel about your life. And it's pretty good, so, for the new year, try something different.

Read this.

I was highly skeptical when a friend let me borrow this book to read. I'd heard about this book before, that it's a staple of New Age feelings and a sort of "listen to the Earth" mentality. I imagine dancing in a circle covering myself interpretively with glue. I made a judgment and I was wrong. The book was very insightful.

As a matter of fact, if I had read this book earlier in life, I feel it would have made a much more profound impact on me, but, having passed a particularly impressionistic point in my life, it didn't have as much influence. Another book I read much earlier, The Alchemist, did in its stead. I've often come back to The Alchemist when I needed inspiration or direction or a path to an answer. The Prophet is equally as insightful.

This tiny book revolves around one man's leaving a town (the prophet of the story) where he has resided for some time. Before he leaves, all sorts of townspeople seek his advice on topics ranging from love to loss to work and so on. The Prophet's answers are short and succinct, even at times a little hippy-ish, but they represent just the type of outlook on the world I strive to have. Be happy with what you get, because you won't get anything else. It's important to dream, to strive for something, because that's what we live for.

Pick this book up when you've got a couple of hours. Your life may not change, but your hours certainly will.

A Whole New World
"His Dark Materials"
by Philip Pullman

Early on in The Golden Compass, the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, I became very afraid. It's not that the stories were scary, okay, they were a little, it's that I began to worry about getting obsessed with the ideas presented in the books. That it would consume me, that I would have to learn everything these books talked about, was not something I had time for.

I didn't become obsessed, but I did become a little bit of a geek for a split second. One split second.

His Dark Materials
is a fantasy trilogy filled with magic and wonder and suspence that succeeds because the ideas the books are based on are actual physical phenomena. But that's about the only reason they do succeed. I have to say I was fairly disappointed with the writing, the plot twists, and the storytelling in general. That said, there's a lot going in this trilogy that makes it worthwhile. Specifically, I like the way the stories deal with religion, and how Pullman turns a young adult trilogy of novels (although he refuses to market them as young adult books) into, at times, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of religion, morality, and how the two mesh.

Also interesting were the use of modern day physics to account for religious occurences. Pullman wondrously equates quantum physics with the presence of angels and souls as if they were one. The ideas are solid, it's only too bad the execution isn't as strong.

His Dark Materials is a healthy alternative to fantasy fans looking for something to bide their time before the next Harry Potter book hits the shelves this summer. It's not as magical as Harry Potter, it's not as intoxicating nor is it even as close to good, but it gets the job done. It's definitely worth the time if you're into science and religion and fantasy. If not, don't bother. You'll be wishing some other dark materials on the books.