Sunday, July 25, 2004

Jeremy Bernstein, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma.

I've been fascinated by Oppenheimer since I stumbled onto the mini-series about him--with Sam Waterston as Oppenheimer--one summer evening in high school.

After that, I spent some time reading about a guy who--despite being a brilliant physicist, and brighter leader--couldn't quite get it all together. He spent some time at the Institute for Advanced Study, another neat place, later in life--which is when the author met him. Most of the book, though is about Oppenheimer's life and studies before the Manhattan Project, followed by his tenure as the director there, and then the hearings which resulted in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance.

It's a well-written book, although it could stand to be better organized and planned, and Bernstein's interjections of personal anecdotes make Oppenheimer and some of the other characters come alive. One gets a feel for what it must have been like as the US became the place to do work in quantum mechanics, what the dynamics of Los Alamos were like, and who these physicists were. Rabi comes across as sagacious, Teller seems like a self-absorbed jerk, and the younger ones--Feynamn, et al.--are seen in all their youth and their promise.

Bernstein's book is worth picking up. If you're at all interested in physics, you'll enjoy this chracter sketch.
Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason, The Rule of Four, 2004.

yadda yadda two Princeton students trying to solve riddles yadda yadda in the middle of a poorly written murder mystery yadda.

This book was poor. It was poorly written, poorly plotted, and poorly conceived. The only thing to recommend this book at all--and what made me downright eager to pick it up--is that it's structured around the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The HP is an endlessly fascinating book, and The Rule of Four persuaded me to get my copy down from my shelves, and peruse it again.

Read the HP. Forget about The Rule of Four and its endless and trivial obsession with steganography. If you really want something fun to think about, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the way to go. You can see the original--in its wacky combination of languages--here. You can buy an English translation, like me, here.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Kyle Smith, Love Monkey.

Love Monkey is a wacky and entertaining story of an infatuation, a romance, a love-story, an unrequited sob-story. It's in the same vein as Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a story of a man hopeless in love, and throws in a good wallopping dash of Manchild (with the protagonist at 30ish instead of 50ish).

Tom Farrell is a low-grade almost-editor at a trashy New York tabloid who falls for Julia in what he calls "doses" of her. A man who's not quite sure what he wants, other than her, Farrell's misadventures along his path reveal the author's insights into the nuances of relationships. Moreover, Smith brings new punch to traditional stereotypes of how men and women behave in the big city.

A paean to New York, the book loses much of its energy when it begins to depict the events of September 11, 2001. The writing falls into clichés, the love stories fall away, and what made the book entertaining to that point starts to wane.

All in all, it's a fun divertissement, but nothing special. Just another book that's not bad--and I'll certainly keep my eye out for Smith's next novel--but I wish I could remember what prompted me to place a hold on it in the first place.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

J. Peder Zane, ed. Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading, 2004.

A collection of essays each entitled "The Most X Book I Read," where X ranges from Memorable to Maddest to Double-D-Daring to Smokin' to Technically Elegant to Unpleasant to...

It's always fun to me to see how others have reacted to books--especially ones I've read, but really any book--and so this was a diverting, if unexciting book. It's not worth shelling out for, but as a library book, not a waste of time.

I will quote a segment from "The Most Elegant Book I Read" by Howard Bahr, referring to William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee. It struck me as true and sad, especially after reading last week of the decline of reading in the USA; it's a sic transit gloria mundi et ubi sunt for reading. Pompous and pretentious, it's nevertheless honest, and I sympathize with Bahr:

In our culture, we no longer care to make distinctions, and we have exchanged even the pretense of Percy's "exterior" for the cheap illusion of honesty. To those who find this occasion for applause, I submit the following answer to a question on my final exam last spring:
There is also a reason for people to dislike literature. The reason literature class can be dull and difficult is because of poetry analization[sic!]. The common man dislikes poetry because he does not know the meaning of half the words being used.
Also, if one did understand the vocabulary of the author, it would still require deep thoughts from the reader to grasp the meaning of the poem.
I would probably enjoy literature [the lad goes one,] if there was no such thing as technology. Technology has made easier for people to be lazy and simply flip on the television rather sit down and read a book.

You may supply the missing words yourself, together with the larger implications of this remarkable admission. Let us be common. Let us find the great voices of humanity dull and difficult. Let us, above all, celebrate laziness, avoid deep thoughts, and blame it on technology rather than our own tragic indifference. Thus the marrow goes, and all our vitals, and at last our collective soul. (228-29)

Sunday, July 11, 2004

H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream, 1990.

Bissinger, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, took a year off to investigate the culture of high school football in the States. This book, focusing on the 1988 Permian Panthers of Odessa, TX, tries to get a handle on what makes football--and high school football, at that--the all-consuming passion that it is. I don't think he entirely succeeds.

In addition to chronicling the highs and lows of the team's season, introducing us to the players--and what consumes them, other than football--and telling us the story of the season, Bissinger also teaches us about the town of Odessa, and why it is so largely devoted to "Mojo"--their moniker/cheer for the Panthers. He starts the book proper with a cursory description of Odessa, which, for a time in the '80s, had the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita murder rate in the United States, but moves on. Bissinger explores in depth racial tensions--desegregation came to Odessa only in any real sense in '82--school districting that may have been gerrymandered to the advantage of Permian High over cross-town Odessa High. He describes the town's history and growth, contrasting it with that of neighbouring Midland.

Despite all of his investigations, each interesting and worthy of exploration, the book never really escapes the cheesiness epitomized in its subtitle. All Bissinger really tells us is that football is popular because it's what the people of Odessa, and similar towns throughout Texas and the Midwest and the whole USA, have chosen to care about. I've visited towns like these on band tours, and I've seen this phenomenon firsthand. I love football. But telling me that it's like this largely because it's almost always been like this just doesn't quite cut it. It's an interesting enough book, and a quick read, but it's far from earth-shattering. If you go rent Varsity Blues, you'll pick up the highlights of Friday Night Lights just as quickly.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Kelly Cooper, Eyehill.

I picked this one up after it was reviewed in the Globe & Mail's "First Fiction" column. This book may just be the best collection of short fiction I've ever read.

The writing feels like I imagine Saskatchewan: yes, I know that sounds trite, but the writing is simultaneously spare and evocative. These are stories that are well-crafted, but don't feel so polished as to be solely art pieces. Cooper uses a mimetic style that is far and away one of the more arresting descriptive styles I've seen in a long time.

These pieces are about relationships not fully understood: one character to another, one character to a town, people to places. All of these relationships have something to do with Eyehill, and with the morality that belongs to a farming community: you can't shoot another man's dog, it's hard to talk about the fact that you've had no kids, what it means to look out from the top of a grain elevator. I'd not describe this book the way that the jacket does, about the principal recurring characters, but rather I'd say that this book is one about connections.

Instead of quoting a bit from a couple of the stories, I'll link to a story of hers that's on the web here. The publisher doesn't have a great web site (it's mostly promises of more to come), so I'm not going to link to it. But get your hands on this book and read it; I'm glad I listened to the Globe's Jim Bartley with his review.