General Sherman employed a “scorched earth” or “total war” strategy in his army’s decisive march from Atlanta, through South Carolina, and into North...moreGeneral Sherman employed a “scorched earth” or “total war” strategy in his army’s decisive march from Atlanta, through South Carolina, and into North Carolina, where Sherman accepted the surrender of General Joseph Johnson. The March, however, is only indirectly a story about a military campaign; rather, it is the story of the lives of several different people as the chaos of war engulfs and engages them. We follow, in disjointed fashion, a white negroe freed slave girl, a Union surgeon, a Reb deserter, a reporter, two Union generals, and a photographer’s assistant, among others. The events as experienced by these distinct individuals, are alternately tragic, humorous, horrific, and deeply human. Above all the chaos and brutality of war define the events and the people. The generals, in particular, seem infused by war and diminished by its end, a truly painful statement about human nature and warfare: “And why is Grant so solemn today upon our great achievement, except he knows this unmeaning inhuman plant will need our warring imprint to give it value, and that our civil war, the devastating manufacture of the bones of our sons, is but a war after a war, a war before a war.”(less)
On the one hand, Night Film is a detective/mystery type novel, complete with a hard-charging, unfailingly brave and true det...moreNight Film – Marisha Pessl
On the one hand, Night Film is a detective/mystery type novel, complete with a hard-charging, unfailingly brave and true detective, Scot McGrath, as the central character. On the other hand, the subject of McGrath’s investigation – the impossibly beautiful, unbelievably talented, mysterious young woman, Ashley Cordova, daughter of the reclusive producer of impossibly horrifying horror films, Stanlislas Cordova ¬– brings the book to explore the boundaries of magic and reality. The book is exceedingly well written, although ultimately disappointing.
Pessl warns us throughout the book that she will not resolve the central question driving McGrath’s inquiry, but when it ends in a beach house far from anything, that “ending” is ambiguous and unsatisfying; it’s a cop-out. I felt the same way when I finished Infinite Jest, even though David Foster Wallace left many more themes unfinished than Marisha Pessl did. Realizing that Pessl is extremely intelligent and talented, I tried to dig deeper: What did she want us to believe? I think she wanted us to believe in the possibility of magic, even though she herself can’t bring herself to believe – not really. She believes in movie sets and actors and directors – in the props and scenes that make reality shimmer in unworldly ways – but her attempt to open the world to magic is unconvincing, even to herself. (less)
Full disclosure: I skimmed the last several chapters, as the book simply did not hold my interest. The author met several interesting people as he dro...moreFull disclosure: I skimmed the last several chapters, as the book simply did not hold my interest. The author met several interesting people as he drove around the Great Lakes. But the few worthwhile tidbits were cemented within more mundane accounts of the ordinary.(less)
The main story line follows the journey of the author on a ferro-cement hulled tall ship from Traverse City, MI to Bar Harbor, ME. Throughout the narr...moreThe main story line follows the journey of the author on a ferro-cement hulled tall ship from Traverse City, MI to Bar Harbor, ME. Throughout the narrative, the author punctuates the events of the journey with stories, history, and environmental concerns of the Great Lakes. The trip proceeds north from Traverse City, through the Straights of Mackinac (pronounced "Mack-in-awe", not the way it is spelled), through Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Lake Erie, along the Niagara River and through the locks around Niagara Falls, and through Lake Ontario. From there, they followed canals (the Oswego Canal and the Erie Canal) and the Hudson River to New York City; through Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean up the coast to Maine. The story of the journey, with its hardships, dangers, close calls, and joys, is interesting on its own. But the accounts of the bits of history of the Lakes is the most compelling aspect of the book and the most revealing about the character of the Great Lakes.(less)
One of the things I liked most about this book was it's account of the progress of science. Unlike textbooks, which tend to recount what is known with...moreOne of the things I liked most about this book was it's account of the progress of science. Unlike textbooks, which tend to recount what is known with some degree of confidence, Richard Fortey details the genesis of ideas, including many failed and discarded theories. This approach gives not only a clearer picture of how science proceeds, but it gives the reader a firmer grasp of the ideas and theories that have prevailed. On the down side, the resulting narrative is long and, in several places, tedious.
Nonetheless, the book gives an integrated picture of the Earth and its history, with an accessible (for the persistent reader) account of plate tectonics and its impact on all aspects of our world. (less)
Alex Stone's account of his development as a magician covers many interesting topics. Stone's story is revealing not just about magic, with insights a...moreAlex Stone's account of his development as a magician covers many interesting topics. Stone's story is revealing not just about magic, with insights about how various tricks are done, but also about how perception and the mind work. "... as any neuroscientist will tell you, one can learn a lot about the brain by studying those bizarre moments wherein it succumbs to illusion. Magic lives in those moments."(less)
A poetic book, recounting the lives of three generations of family and neighbors in a high meadow in the Snowy Range, Wyoming. Nonlinear and without d...moreA poetic book, recounting the lives of three generations of family and neighbors in a high meadow in the Snowy Range, Wyoming. Nonlinear and without discernible plot, this book succeeds on the strength of the characters and the prose.(less)
A fascinating bit of nautical and scientific history. In addition to the marvel of the chronometers themselves and the dangers of sea travel without a...moreA fascinating bit of nautical and scientific history. In addition to the marvel of the chronometers themselves and the dangers of sea travel without a reliable method of determining longitude, the personal battle between John Harrison and Nevil Maskelyne (who comes off as much a villain as any fictional character) is a telling comment on the history of science.(less)
The story begins with a young boy, Johnnie, swinging on a gate with his mother and nurse looking on. Johnnie’s identify, and that of his mother, is sl...moreThe story begins with a young boy, Johnnie, swinging on a gate with his mother and nurse looking on. Johnnie’s identify, and that of his mother, is slowly revealed to be tied – in a complex web of genealogy, legal uncertainty, avarice, and betrayal – to five related families. The lives of Johnnie and his mother, Mary, are at grave risk from members of the other families who stand to inherit the Huffam estate if Mary and Johnnie die. They are cheated and defrauded at every turn, losing first their money and then their means of support, and so pass from wealth and comfort to increasing degrees of poverty.
Whereas Mary is not worldly – and trusts to a fault – John is exceedingly clever and learns to be wary and suspicious of the motives of others. As John learns about his family and its history in relation to the four other families, he manages to retain his hold on principles and his sense of moral obligation. At one point, he meets two men, both down on their luck, who carry on a lively and intelligent debate about the structure of society. Pentecost represents “Law,” precedent, market forces, and self interest in the face of necessity. His opposite, Silverlight, represents “Equity” (that is, law derived from principles rather than precedent), Justice, and a higher morality. This debate is never resolved, although through much of the book self-interest and a brutal version of social Darwinism rule the course of events. Later, Henrietta calls into question John’s belief that he is acting on principle rather than out of self-interest; he questions his own motives, founders on the distinction between Justice and Revenge, and removes himself – for a time – from the quest to claim his inheritance, as he fears the corrupting influence of wealth and power. (“I have no right to Justice. Society itself is unjust.” P 718)
In post-modern fashion, there is much ambiguity about the accuracy of our understanding of events. The same complex events are told differently from the perspective of different characters. John seems to hold true to his ideals and yet accepts an inheritance built by the basest motives and cruelest practices to be found in an avaricious London. He allows himself the “right” to steal and the power to cause others to die for his cause; but he also remembers and helps those to whom he owes debts and seems to pledge himself to promoting the general good of society. In the end the great distinctions between Law and Equity – between avarice and philanthropy – seem to be moot. Even the matter of John’s parentage – seemingly resolved in the eyes of the Law and Society – is not completely certain (at least in my mind), as the events on the day of his parents’ marriage left no opportunity to consummate the marriage; his mother (although under the influence of laudanum [tincture of opium] and gravely ill at the time) refers to her marriage as “My marriage that was no marriage.” P 437
This is a long, dense, complex novel, rich in period detail, and written in compelling style. (less)
Although familiar, as most are, with some of Galileo's major contributions, I found that putting these contributions and his life in context of his ti...moreAlthough familiar, as most are, with some of Galileo's major contributions, I found that putting these contributions and his life in context of his time – including his religious faith, the anger and defensiveness his ideas created, the necessity of deference in a complex social and religious society, the omnipotence of Inquisitors and their power over Galileo's work, and his personal life – makes them all that much more remarkable. The life of his intelligent, highly capable, and devoted daughter offers a stark contrast to Galileo's. She was a nun and lived her life within the walls of the convent, from a young age. As part of their life of devotion, the sisters were committed to poverty and depended on alms for survival. Of the many measures of the quality of her life in the convent, consider this one: as her teeth rotted, she pulled them herself, until she was toothless. She died at age 34 of dysentery, eight years before her father died, blind but still active at age 78.(less)
After finishing this book I read some reviews and learned that it had won an award for humor. How odd. I found it depressing rather than funny. The ce...moreAfter finishing this book I read some reviews and learned that it had won an award for humor. How odd. I found it depressing rather than funny. The central character is a physicist and winner of the Nobel prize, who has glided on that honor since it was awarded. He is shallow in every respect, with no emotional commitment to anyone, beyond his immediate sexual satisfaction. He is a glutton and an alcoholic, a prisoner of his appetites. He is no less shallow in pursuing his chance to contribute to a solution of the world's greatest problem, producing a clean source of energy and in so doing averting the pending climate disaster; his greatest concern is having his name attached to the solution, having stolen the idea from a former postdoctoral student. The prose, however, is brilliant and a great pleasure to read, as is the neatly constructed demise of the central character, in which all his shortcomings come to destroy him in a well-crafted synthesis of foibles.(less)