Thursday, August 24, 2006

Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, 2003.

My father loaned me this series of reflections by a postdoc student at Caltech about his time there, and in particular, his interactions with Richard Feynman. It was a decent read: Mlodinow writes about feeling inadequate and unworthy of the fellowship he held, and of his desperate search for a research topic that would interest him and let him play the academic game.

He describes the culture of the Caltech physics department, and the Gell-Mann and Feynman camps: the fiercely protective secretary, the other postdocs, the difference in habits of dress and of dining. It's more of a mise en scène piece than a story or a memoir.

I found the transcripts of conversations with Feynman interesting but unexciting. There's nothing startlingly new, and nothing I'd feel sorry had I not read. What the conversations reveal about Feynman is much of what the cult that thinks so highly of him (of which cult I am a member): a deep and grounded wisdom, a narrow focus on problems that excite him, and a desire to be challenged. The book does to a better job of not being hagiographical than do things like Gleick's biography and much of the other writing; the irascible side of Feynman feels integral, and not highlighted nor diminished.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm glad it was loaned to me rather than me having purchased it. I really would like to get better at this frugal reading thing.

Monday, August 21, 2006

David Schickler, Kissing in Manhattan, 2001.

M.K. recommended this odd collection of not-quite-linked short stories to me. Schickler varies between a writing style of almost-realism to a style of outright magic-realism; I'm not sure which I preferred. The characters are an odd bunch; the satire is peculiar, and often biting. It was an enjoyable read, and the building that is at least peripherally important to most of the stories would be an interesting one in which to live. I think I may need to re-read some of the stories before I return this book to the library. The one firm thought I have is that Schickler seems to have first come to attention in The New Yorker, and that his stories seem to me to fit perfectly into that slightly off-kilter ilk.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rhonda Wilcox, Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2005.

Rhonda Wilcox--co-editor of Slayage--has written a wonderful book. It's entertaining and funny, and remains a careful and intelligent examination of the seven seasons of Buffy as a text. The book is structured in two parts. The first part looks at broad themes across the series: light imagery, naming, use of language, globalization, etc. The second part is six chapters of close reading, one on each of six chosen Buffy episodes ("Surprise"/"Innocence", "The Zeppo", "Hush", "Restless", "The Body", "Once More, with Feeling").

I'm at a loss for further thoughts on the book: I'm still thinking about some of the ideas Wilcox presents, and want to re-watch a number of episodes (especially including those on which Wilcox offers such careful close readings). She has thought very carefully about the show, and her writing on specific topics does a better job of defending the idea of writing about television--and Buffy, in particular--in an academic setting than her explicit defence that introduces the book. In fact, the writing itself offers a strong argument that thinking carefully about television is indeed a thing well worth doing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong, 1993.

The problem with delaying writing an entry for this reading journal after finishing the book is that I'm forgetful. That truth, after all, is part of the reason why I write the journal in the first place. It has been a couple of weeks now since I finished Birdsong, and it's starting to slip out of my memory. I can't recall why I picked up the book.

It was a beautiful book. It moves slowly at the beginning: Stephen Wraysford's visits a French factory manager, and falls in love with and begins an affair with the wife of the manager. They run off together, and though she leaves him, he remains in France rather than returning to England. The first World War starts, and he joins the BEF.

Much of the story is the abject terror of life in and under the trenches (Stephen befriends and then works with those who are mining underneath no-man's land, and underneath enemy trenches). The imagery is gorgeous, and Faulks' pacing is perfect.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the second half of the book's alternating in sequence between the bits about Stephen--and his developing relationship with Jeanne--and the bits about his grand-daughter, Elizabeth, making sense of her life and her own desire to know more about her grand-father. Birdsong is a book about finding and constructing meaning in stories, in shades of half-memories, and in historical possibilities. It was an entrancing book.

Ordinarily I try to quote a representative passage, but I'm still stuck on a bit near to the end, when Stephen says "'s not the details of a live I've lost. It's the reality itself" (344). There's a stunning sense of loss of self depicted by Faulks in this story about what it means to be in the midst of war, and that idea is causing me to reflect upon my own thoughts about war, peace, and conflict.