A tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this oneA tense, house-of-cards moment occurred during Voyager 1’s flyby of the planet Saturn in November of 1980. There were many tense moments, but this one had broad implications reaching decades ahead to the present day. Voyager 1’s top priority was to image the moon Titan close up. Titan boasted an atmosphere and potentially liquid on the surface. The close flyby meant sacrificing any chance for Voyager 1 to travel on to Pluto (which ended up waiting until 2015 for its first visit). But here’s the part that made me catch my breath. If Voyager 1’s flyby of Titan had failed, there was a plan to have Voyager 2 make a second attempt. If Voyager 2 had been routed to fly by Titan, there would have been no visits to Uranus or Neptune. Such are the ultimatums given by orbital mechanics and the ever changing positions of planets.
The above dilemma plays out in a chapter titled “Drama Within the Rings.” The Voyager missions, like all space missions, generated a great deal of drama. Jim Bell captures it well in The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission. Readers will learn how close we came to missing out on the famed, almost religiously revered, Pale Blue Dot image. Much of the drama comes from the flyby nature of the mission. Every time Voyagers 1 and 2 arrived at a new planet, the science teams back on Earth knew they had only one opportunity to capture images and data. A recurring theme, and word, in this book is “pressure.” No U-turns and few if any second chances.
To a lesser extent, The Interstellar Age is about a budding young scientist: the author. Bell ferreted his way into the mission control center, willing to fetch pizza and coffee for a chance to be near the action. Voyager’s mission has spanned his life heretofore. His book captures both heart-stopping moments and poignant changing of the guards. As scientists and engineers who designed the mission moved on to other missions or retired, younger researchers came onboard.
Bell exhibits a keen awareness, but also an evangelical fondness, for the subject material. Late in the book he unabashedly refers to himself and others as disciples of the late Carl Sagan. I must include myself in that group. Bell’s decision to embark on a career in science holds as a primary inspiration watching Dr. Sagan’s Cosmos series. Of his approach to communicating science, Bell suggests Sagan “was probably the first scientist I had ever encountered who spoke English.
“I mean common English, more like what you’d hear around the dinner table than the jargon and shorthand codes that most scientists typically use when talking about their work. But that plain talk was also laced with metaphor and analogy and evocatively grand cadences, often accompanied by the soaring and romantic electronic music of Vangelis.”
Like Sagan, Bell strives to make his writing conversational and accessible. This is a great read for people wanting to take a grand tour of the Voyager mission. As readers glide through the final pages, the Voyager probes glide toward the edge of the solar system. The primary mission long since completed, Voyager’s greater journey into the galaxy has only just begun....more
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconcept
“In retrospect, the story seems preordained, as if the people around the mountain on May 18 were playing out designated roles.
“But that’s a misconception…”
The infamous lateral blast of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 tears apart Steve Olson’s narrative the way it tore apart the countryside north of the mountain. The book’s heretofore studious exploration of the cultural, economic, scientific, and political background ceases for a time. It is replaced by abrupt, somewhat speculative, macabre mini-chapters about those who lost their lives during the eruption.
As the pyroclastic flow overcomes person after person, the book takes on an uncomfortably personal, borderline exploitative feel—verging on disaster film melodrama, almost in spite of the academic writing which makes up most of the book. This choice works, however. It sets up a highly thoughtful aftermath, including the above quote.
For all its objective journalistic ambitions, Eruption endears itself to the individuals who died. Olson makes a point to speak to the oft maligned motivations of the people who verged too close to the mountain on the day it blew. It is often assumed they were foolhardy thrill seekers. Olson’s “Untold Story” presents a more nuanced and sympathetic depiction of the victims.
Yet Olson cannot resist, and I do not fault, his willingness to at times render them as characters in a geological opera. In particular, he finds a hero in scientist Dave Johnston. As a coda to Johnston’s ill-fated visit to the mountain, Olson includes a quote from Teddy Roosevelt of which the scientist was fond. It begins as follows:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”
Within our solar system, volcanoes are among the most coveted of geologic phenomenon, second only perhaps to the presence of water. Olson’s account of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption demonstrates how humanity, science, and literature can interweave to produce an appropriate sense of awe and respect, both for the volcanoes and those who venture close to them....more
There is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disThere is a point just over halfway through In Harm's Way where author Doug Stanton struggles with the semantics of describing a World War II naval disaster. The USS Indianapolis was sunk 40 hours earlier. The survivors have been treading water, suffering from toxic doses of sun rays and ocean water, along with relentless shark attacks. Yet, for legitimate reasons, the book is only half over and things will get worse. Stanton writes, "By late afternoon, things had mutated from horrific to unbearable."
Being an English Major, I balked at this word choice. The gist seems to be things are extremely bad, but somehow they are becoming even worse. To me the words "horrific" and "unbearable" are sufficiently complementary--if not synonymous--that they lack the proper sense of escalation the author seems to intend. Am I nitpicking? Most certainly. But the issue still stands.
The story of the USS Indianapolis is so very horrific, even a good author like Stanton risks running out of macabre word choices while the story is only at its midpoint. He does succeed. Personally, I find his writing at its best as he journalistically rehearses the facts and provides the relevant eyewitness perspective. Wisely, he almost never uses the disaster as a springboard into semantical indulgence. The author dutifully recounts the events, as best as they were remembered and documented by the participants. Where accounts differ, he provides footnotes rather than ostentatiously claim--like any given cable TV documentary might--that he alone has uncovered the real story.
For many of us, our knowledge of the USS Indianapolis is limited primarily to a single monologue in the fictional movie Jaws. I regard that monologue as one of the greatest in Hollywood history. Yet it does not completely capture, as even Stanton struggles to in a full-length book, the sheer horror of this naval disaster.
Stanton also, without belaboring the point, succinctly juxtaposes the violence and loss of one Navy ship with the destruction it assisted in bringing upon Japan by delivering the Hiroshima Bomb to its staging area in the Pacific. The facts, and the price paid in lives on both sides, need no embellishment. As such, I highly recommend In Harm's Way, for its sobering and revealing look at this key moment in World War II....more
This is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author ChrisThis is definitely a good read for Star Wars fans who want to look back and take stock of the journey we have been on since the late 70s. Author Chris Taylor has done a great deal of homework, reaching out to key players, including within the fan community. Still, perhaps as a side effect of the comprehensive nature, the delivery feels either overwhelming or impersonal. Lots of name dropping for instance. I did not have much of an emotional reaction to the material. Was I hoping for blissful nostalgia?
In one of the keenest insights, Taylor discusses how true fans tend to hate on Star Wars the hardest. We've seen the movies so many times and no one can nitpick like we can. Taylor's book makes perhaps its greatest contribution by weaving together the various galaxies of content in the Star Wars universe. How do the novels relate to the movies to the comics to the fan clubs and so on.
One thing I will criticize is the editing. I don't normally harp on punctuation. Typos happen, especially in long form writing. But the number and frequency of typos was noticeable and distracting at times in this hardcover edition, including I am pretty sure some lines or deeds attributed to the wrong characters. Ultimately forgivable. Absolutely NOT a reason to avoid reading the book. But, for example, the famous sound effect heard in multiple films is the "Wilhelm scream" not "screen." Meh. Are you a Star Wars fan? Check this book out....more
Like many of us, my introduction to Reza Aslan's book Zealot came through the hubbub. First with an NPR interview, and later through trending YouTubeLike many of us, my introduction to Reza Aslan's book Zealot came through the hubbub. First with an NPR interview, and later through trending YouTube clips of a Fox News anchor attempting to corner an Islamic man who--yes it's true--wrote this carefully researched book--in part--to discredit the notion of Jesus as God made flesh. As an often cynical agnostic, I watched with a mixture of frustration and amusement. How dare a scholar attempt a historically accurate accounting of Jesus!
Finally, courtesy a Thanksgiving road trip, I made it through Zealot via the unabridged audio production read by the author. This was a highly engaging audio production. Reading the book himself ensures Aslan can pace and accent the text in a manner that underscores his pursuasive agenda. Aslan is able to make his case audibly, like a TED talk, where a for-hire audio book reader might have voiced the text less emphatically.
Aslan builds this entire book around one key point. Jesus was crucified. Rome reserved this form of punishment for convicted revolutionaries. Therefore Jesus should be understood first and foremost as a revolutionary. The balance of the book, with extensive referencing of early historical and scriptural texts, fleshes out this argument. In the process, Aslan follows the well-worn path of scholars who debunk the claim of Christians that the New Testament is itself historically accurate. Hence the controversy.
Yet, having made the case early on that the Gospels cannot serve as historical biography, Aslan repeatedly returns to them for snippits that do appear to strengthen his thesis. So while I appreciated the quality of his writing, especially the organization of the chapters and clarity of his assertions, I am left to take yet another scholar at his word on which parts of the New Testament should be trusted.
I found the final chapters most engrossing, as the author shows how the historical/political Jesus was supplanted by the evangelical deified Jesus. In particular, Aslan paints a picture of incredible tension between the apostles Paul and James, with James receding in prominence as the New Testament is compiled and the center of Christianity shifts to Rome. The relationships of the various apostles are rendered far more acrimonious than anything I encountered in Sunday School while growing up.
Since the broad strokes of Zealot were already familiar to me, I have to assume Aslan is not saying anything especially new. Still, he brings the scholarly argument into focus. I do recommend this book to people wanting to consider the historical Jesus. But you may find, as I did, given the lack of first-hand source material, the historical Jesus seems almost as speculative as the divine one....more
Three things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnThree things you never want to tell people how they're made: laws, sausages, and classic monster novels. That sums up my experience with Andrew McConnell Stott's book The Poet and the Vampyre. I suspect many of us interested in this topic like to imagine Lord Byron et al gathered in a gothic castle on the coast of Lake Geneva during a midnight storm. The snowy Alps tower over them. Bathed in candlelight the Romantics sit rapt as, if by revelation, the thrilling character of Frankenstein's Monster is born. Oh, and there is probably a crackling fireplace reflecting bloodlike off glasses of red wine. The images in my mind are all delightfully spooky and sexy.
Yet, as Stott's rigorously logistical account demonstrates, the summer of 1816 saw a group of talented yet chronically privileged and self-interested young adults make poor life choices and almost, or in some cases actually, ruin themselves. Frankly, with all of the personal melodrama, financial headaches, and illnesses enveloping the writers, it is a miracle that works like Frankenstein and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were ever written.
The genesis of Mary Shelley's monster novel is almost a footnote in The Poet and the Vampyre. Stott focuses a great deal on timeline and itinerary for Byron, Shelley, and two of their entourage who failed to achieve historical prominance. As such this book offers much reference value for Byron enthusiasts such as myself. Yet when it comes to pondering the emotional ramifications for the Romantic ensemble, this book generally maintains academic detachment. Top priority remains imparting the facts in a straightforward, even workaday, fashion.
Choices were made on such and such a date. Reputations were ruined during such and such a time period. Innocent children were dragged along at the expense of their health and well-being according to various documents. And yes, great literature was written and shipped back to England for publication. All of this is recounted carefully and clearly with dates and places cited. If it all feels impersonal, that is no accident. Stott dutifully recounts the areas and people of the Romantics' lives that were neglected or cast off outright while they focused on their creativity. The classic literature they created is not the focus here. This choice, while dry, is not without merit.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3, may be my favorite work of poetry ever. The Poet and the Vampyre gave me a much better understanding of the goings on in Byron's circle at the time he wrote it. I was left feeling more disenchanted with Byron the man, as well as Percy Shelley, and Mary for that matter. When one considers the cataclysmic effect their volatile lifestyles had on lesser known family and associates, all three seem dangerous to know. Their works, for me at least, become something to read with a bit more sobriety instead of unbridled adoration.
I recommend The Poet and the Vampyre to people who have already experienced the major works of Byron and the Shelleys. Rather than a handy introduction, this book becomes a means to delve into the minutia of their time together. If the resulting account feels less entrancing than the famed literature in question, that may be one of the great, if disillusioning, lessons of Romanticism....more
Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-cenAround the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.
At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?
As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.
To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”
The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.
Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration....more
At a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham YoAt a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Young used for the purpose of trying to drive Orson Pratt out of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My brow furrowed. I had never before heard that notion, nor for that matter was I aware that a serious conflict had occurred between the two men. I left the matter unexplored until I found Gary James Bergera's book Conflict in the Quorum.
Orson Pratt, one of the great theological voices of early Mormonism, had run-ins with both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. His rift with Joseph occurred over the practice of polygamy and claims that Joseph attempted to take Pratt's wife in plural marriage. His conflicts with Brigham Young covered a great deal of ground, including questions of authority--should Church rulings be made by a First Presidency or a majority of the Twelve--and issues of theology, such as the nature of the Godhead.
This work is a magnifying glass held up to two men who were fiercely devoted to Mormonism in excruciatingly different ways. Young was a manager. Pratt was a theologian. Bergera's book is not for the beginner. This book is not a primer. It is a close examination of original records. It moves fast and is laden with footnotes.
One of the great values of Conflict in the Quorum is in providing the reader extended excerpts taken from meeting transcripts. At times, the reader has the chance to picture being in a closed-door meeting of the Twelve. Bergera provides enough depth and breadth of material so that, whether one is partial to Young or Pratt, it is possible to appreciate the perspective each man had.
For me personally, I strongly valued the candid discussion of Brigham Young's Adam-God Doctrine--in which Young taught that Adam was a resurrected polygamist when he entered the Garden of Eden, and also the Father of our spirits. Pratt became an outspoken critic of this odd doctrine that did not stand the test of time. Pratt and Young also repeatedly butted heads over the question of how God's omniscience omnipresence should be understood in light of Mormon belief that God has a physical body. In these matters, Bergera lets Pratt and Young speak for themselves.
As Young and Pratt grapple with each other and deep doctrines, the reader has a chance to learn a lot about human nature and also 19th Century Mormonism. The goal of this book is not to disprove Mormonism, nor does it come down unequivocally in favor of Young or Pratt. I recommend it for people engaged in a serious study of Mormon history, and who are interested in examining source material not as often examined....more
I was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal dI was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal descriptions, I had to choose a book covered in construction paper, check it out, and take it home before seeing the cover. Even after learning which book I had chosen, I did not experience love at first sight.
This book details a serial killing spree in the recent history of Italy. While the material was unavoidably engrossing, it took me about half the book to truly connect with the players and the struggle. Part of the challenge, pointed out by coauthor Douglas Preston, is the issue of the killer never being revealed or caught. However, I also felt Part One of the book relied too much on impersonal fact recitation. The cumulative effect was a sense of detachment from the personal tragedy in deference to an exhaustive outline. The considerable upside is the comprehensive nature of the authors' research.
The Monster of Florence almost could be understood as two books. The first provides a straightforward rendering of the history. The second part deals with the emotional and professional fallout for the authors. If Part One is the chalk outline of the victim, Part Two is the victim's remains. Moving and spine tingling interviews occur in the second half which enabled me to develop a strong emotional connection. Perhaps the most mesmerizing passage occurs in Chapter 36, as coauthor Mario Spezi recounts a monk offering penetrating insights into mental illness and the nature of evil. Here is only a snippet:
"Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood."
Was my blind date with The Monster of Florence good enough to merit another date? Yes and no. It definitely rekindled my interest in the true crime genre. It also reminded me how this genre is a bay window view of our whole society. I may not return to the works of these two authors right away, but they have succeeded in strengthening my enthusiasm for excellent long-form journalism. This book is worth getting to know....more
This isn’t so much a biography as a book-length op-ed piece about the most reviled Titanic survivor. Author Frances Wilson editorializes with abandon,This isn’t so much a biography as a book-length op-ed piece about the most reviled Titanic survivor. Author Frances Wilson editorializes with abandon, sometimes ascribing collective motives for whole groups of people. She also fixates with panache on nationalistically driven hearings that took place in the United States and Great Britain. It is often fascinating discourse. Still, it’s important to recognize that the top priority is not academic, rigorously objective biography. Chapter after chapter, spin after spin of the conflicting historical record, Wilson's top priority is rendering J. Bruce Ismay as a literary figure worthy of a cerebral Conrad novel. History may be the means, but iconography is the end. As such, the strongest presence in the book is not Ismay but the author herself....more
By way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him asBy way of confession, I approached Robert Redford the biography in an attitude of hero worship. Since childhood, I have unquestionably regarded him as an iconic American actor. The first time I watched he and Paul Newman go into haunting freeze frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is etched in my mind. My parents used The Natural as a practical tool for schooling me in allegory. While a college student in Utah, I felt the Redford mystique grow during regular trips into Salt Lake City to watch indie films, including a Sundance Film Festival screening.
Robert Redford the book provided big discoveries for me. Author Michael Feeney Callan spent years drumming up over 300 interviews in addition to many sessions with Redford. He also gained access to notebooks, journals and other original research. Initially the book was mesmerizing. Redford’s roots seamlessly interwove with 20th Century American history.
After about 100 pages, my reading slowed. The book became less fun--not less worthwhile--just less recreational. It turns out Redford isn’t much like what I assumed. His silver screen gravitas belies the reality of an often erratic and stubborn personality. In fact, I found the early Redford to be arrogant and annoying. Still, whether deflating or ingratiating, Callan’s study effectively peeled back the glossy Hollywood veneer. I came to see Redford and his colleagues as real people engaged in risky creative endeavors.
As a work of serious biography, Robert Redford has a couple of weak points. At times Callan’s narrative feels soupy and convoluted. Some passages combine a dizzying list of names and minutia with an 'Oh by the way' quality, leaving me unsure of their particular significance. On a related note, the passage of years is not always apparent. At times I felt disoriented as some major developments were mentioned off the cuff. The variable pace of Redford’s career was difficult to track.
In fairness, some of these criticisms probably boil down to the challenge of delivering a cohesive account of a disjunctive professional life. From the days of his “breakthrough” performance as the Sundance Kid, Redford’s acting career took on a Sugar Ray Leonard quality. He has seemed ever on the verge of retiring or staging a comeback.
Ultimately, I have great admiration for Callan’s stalwartness as a biographer. This is no slapdash expose. And if Robert Redford the book is sometimes a rough read, it is in large part because Redford the man is hard to read. About two-thirds of the way through I sent an e-mail to my Mom saying how much I was enjoying the book, even as it chopped Redford down to eye-level. I summed up my newly seasoned appreciation for him this way: "Oddly, I respect him just a bit less but identify with him a great deal more."
Viewing Recommendation: Obviously a reading of this biography benefits from having seen Redford’s major films. I strongly suggest watching both Jeremiah Johnson and Downhill Racer before or while reading this book. These films are often revisited by both Callan and Redford as major touchstones in “Bob’s” artistic development....more
“Voters have come to expect dirty politics and negative ads…” reads a line from the back of Professor Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirt“Voters have come to expect dirty politics and negative ads…” reads a line from the back of Professor Kerwin Swint’s Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time. I wonder if it would be more appropriate to say that voters have come to settle for negative campaigning. Such injurious behavior seems to constitute not the underbelly, but rather the bareback of American politics. At any rate, Dr. Swint provides a stimulating highlight reel of sorts with Mudslingers. Whatever spin you take, dirtiness and negativity have been status quo since the founding fathers started bitterly founding alongside each other.
As it turns out, our nation almost foundered while John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fought it out for the presidency. The vicious back and forth of their campaigns culminated in a disputed election. Ever since, the political process has played out in vitriolic fashion. For example, according to Swint the last explicitly racial campaign was just a few decades ago. And implicitly racial campaigning? Turn on your TV.
Mudslingers is not deep scholarship. Doing justice to 25 different campaigns in less than 300 pages takes a lot of summarizing. The upside of this approach is that it results in an accessible and informative work that political laypersons like me can sink our teeth into. Furthermore, the author does not limit himself to presidential campaigns. Campaigns for senate, governor and mayor are explored, including a chapter dedicated to a primary instead of a general election. This gives the reader a chance to peer inside political machines while also getting a palatable dose of American history.
This book isn’t a veritable masterpiece of scholarship. The content is sometimes cursory and in at least one case outright underdeveloped. Swint asserts that the 1934 gubernatorial race for California actually brought the state to the brink of civil war. But his physical evidence for this nearly-martial crisis is lacking. However, by and large I found myself broadening my perspective via a great deal of compelling material. So I do recommend this book. And if you are in the market for well-informed political ruminations, consider looking up @KerwinSwint the next time you are on Twitter....more
As a space enthusiast, I sometimes encounter opponents who argue that my priorities are misplaced. They criticize my cosmic fixation by reminding me tAs a space enthusiast, I sometimes encounter opponents who argue that my priorities are misplaced. They criticize my cosmic fixation by reminding me that, without leaving the surface of the Earth, one can reach a vast and largely unexplored frontier: the ocean. Their argument has great merit. So, having read and enjoyed Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, I was very excited to see Atlantic show up on the new release shelf in my public library. Here was an irresistible chance for me to give the oceans their due.
To use Winchester’s word, this book is a romance, with the Atlantic being the object of adoration. But as he says elsewhere in the Preface, this is also a biography. And just as Melville was the right author to pen Moby Dick, having lived so much of it, Winchester proves the right person to pen this work. His life has literally spanned the Atlantic many times. I especially enjoyed the tale of his first passage in 1963, taken on the ocean liner Empress of Britain. I could picture this young man scraping together all his savings to purchase a rare ticket across the deep.
In this book, the Atlantic Ocean is the protagonist, which makes us humans something else: sometimes friend and sometimes foe. This perspective underscores Winchester’s thesis, a notion I’d never considered. He asserts with great persuasion that the Atlantic Ocean has played the same defining role in recent human history that the Mediterranean Sea played in ancient human history. It is the hinge, or even the entire wheel, on which our very existence has pivoted.
Atlantic presents the biggest possible picture of its subject. It is multidisciplinary and broad in scope. One gets to see how everything from geology to art weave together to relate the total story of this great ocean. I have a deep conviction that this is the type of book we should read much more than we do today. At a time when we are overwhelmed by huge tidal waves of information--most of it superficial--these panoramic yet accessible renderings of our planet are especially worthwhile.
I’ve seen the Atlantic from shore many times, but I’ve never crossed it or spent substantial time on it. So this book was a wonderful chance to do so by proxy. It was eye-opening, inspiring and haunting--just as the author must have intended. If you don’t love the Atlantic now, there is a good chance you will before finishing this very good read. ...more
“Soon I shall be meeting an old friend for the first time.”
So ends Arthur C. Clarke’s introduction to The Odyssey File, a compilation of primitive "el“Soon I shall be meeting an old friend for the first time.”
So ends Arthur C. Clarke’s introduction to The Odyssey File, a compilation of primitive "electronic correspondence" that passed between Clarke and filmmaker Peter Hyams beginning in late-1983. Hyams was in preproduction for the film adaptation of Clarke’s novel 2010. I bought this literary pastry on eBay to celebrate the non-fiction decadal 2010 (the year we didn’t make contact, again, and it continues not to be Clarke’s fault).
Here’s the essential background. Mr. Hyams adapted Mr. Clarke’s novel without ever meeting him in person. The endeavor was nevertheless highly collaborative, and the resulting screenplay and film received much direct input from Clarke. This was possible thanks to their extensive e-mail correspondence using analogue modems and landlines.
I believe this book is only of value to two groups: 1) Hardcore fans of Arthur C. Clarke; 2) Internet historians. Frankly, and with no disrespect intended, any other persons attempting to read this book would find themselves lost and uninitiated. In a nutshell, The Odyssey File is tailor-made for serious fans of the movie. But I stress again that it also has real value as a piece of early Internet history.
I was delighted with The Odyssey File. It took a single Sunday afternoon to read. And it was a joy, sometimes to the point of laughing out loud, to read as Hyams and Clarke bantered back and forth about the film, about life, about parents and friends. There is a lot of good-natured ribbing that goes back and forth.
I also learned how some of the key elements of one of my favorite movies came together. Among these, it was a treat to read a few anecdotes involving one of my favorite actors, the late Roy Scheider, who came to play the lead role of Heywood Floyd. This book also provides valuable glimpses into how Clarke collaborates. He’s quite hands off, but you can feel the weight of his authority when he gives input to the younger writer.
Lastly, this book contains a well-worded summation of the key differences between the novel 2010 and the film adaptation. This is written by Steven Jongeward, who served as a joint-assistant to Clarke and Hyams as they communicated via their ancient Kaypro-II computers…and by ancient I mean now 27 years old). ...more
Not too long ago I was forced to hide in the basement of my local public library during a tornado warning. During the two hours the staff and severalNot too long ago I was forced to hide in the basement of my local public library during a tornado warning. During the two hours the staff and several of us patrons hid from the twister that never came, I snooped through the library’s stockpile of used books. This yard sale collection is rolled out every couple of months to provide much-needed funds for library operations. Anyhow, while snooping I discovered a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s hard-to-find opus The View from Serendip.
I asked a library volunteer if, in the event we survived the non-existent tornado, I could take this out-of-print book upstairs and buy it right away…Y’know, instead of waiting for the next book sale when someone else might grab it first. The library volunteer uttered a rather curt reply: “No. And don’t take books off these shelves. I’m trying to keep them organized.” Smarting from her rebuke, I put the book back and resolved to hide in a friendlier part of the library’s basement while no tornados touched down anywhere in the county.
A couple of months later there was a properly sanctioned library book sale. Brushing past several suspicious elderly women, I nabbed the book first. (I’m sure those grandmothers were headed towards it. I saw that “Sir Arthur C. Clarke is dreamy!” look in their eyes.) And that’s the story of how I scored a good-condition hardcover of The View of Serendip for a single dollar. Hooray for used book sales at public libraries!
I’ve shared the above story in lieu of a review that would inevitably wind up being a love fest for one of my favorite authors. But I’ll add this: The View From Serendip is one of those great books that reminds me of the worthy writings of the late Carl Sagan. In contrast to the stereotype of godless scientists performing insidious research, this book reveals the scientific mind I more commonly encounter: one which is ethical, hope-driven, and which has a passionate desire to see humanity grow, mature, and prosper. ...more
I have to confess I was nervous about reading Common Sense. I am a fan of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Frankly I was worried that Paine might dI have to confess I was nervous about reading Common Sense. I am a fan of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. Frankly I was worried that Paine might discredit my current political beliefs. Instead, I found that Paine’s Common Sense is more complex than right and wrong or left and right.
In 1776, Thomas Paine said, “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right…” Paine said this to argue against hereditary rule by kings, especially kings claiming divine approval. Government, as Paine describes it, is “a necessary evil”. Devotees of the Tea Party movement will likely feel vindication in that assertion from a leading voice of the American Revolution. So it is a good thing Thomas Paine’s argument proves more nuanced.
Granted, I found some of Paine’s arguments dismaying. In particular, he fosters Anglo-Saxon/Christian entitlement in his effort to popularize revolutionary fervor. Among other things, he says, “The reformation was preceded by the discovery of America, as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary…” Those who believe--in outright error--that we were founded as a Christian nation may take that statement for more than it is worth.
Thomas Paine also cites Christianity as an enabler of tyrannical government and civil war in Europe. "The Heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings, and the christian world hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones." Paine is also not a strict fiscal conservative. He speaks of national debt as acceptable and even useful. “The debt we may contract doth not deserve our regard if the work be but accomplished. No nation ought to be without a debt.”
Paine, like other Founding Fathers, proves more nuanced and fascinating than many people today give him credit for. Being non-denominational myself, I was turned off by how much he utilized Biblical/Christian references. It’s not that Paine should have abstained from appeals to Christian society. Doing so demonstrated political savvy. He gave Christian society—as opposed to the religion itself—due respect for the integral role it played in the richness of 18th Century culture. Still, I am worried contemporary readers may read such passages and mistakenly assume we were founded as a Christian nation. We weren’t. In any case, Paine’s approach is ultimately secular:
“Kings are not taken away by miracles, neither are changes in governments brought about by any other means than such as are common and human; and such as we are now using.”
Anyone who claims to love the principles and documents on which our nation was founded ought to read Thomas Paine. His arguments played a key role in prodding the colonies toward independence. Personally, he reminds me that Americans are at our best when we cultivate a self-reliant society while pragmatically utilizing government. I highly recommend Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. ...more