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.