If you did a "X meets Y" review for 'Marcelo In the Real World' it would probably be "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night meets an author wit...moreIf you did a "X meets Y" review for 'Marcelo In the Real World' it would probably be "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night meets an author with less of a sense of humour".
Sigh. That's mean. But 'Marcelo' doesn't have the spark of Haddon's book, and sometimes feels heavy-handed, with its pure-of-heart central character exposing the petty deceptions and manipulations of the real world.
For me, the most convincing part of the book was the religious aspect. Religion seem to be an unusual topic for YA fiction; the only examples I can think of are books about teenagers trying to break free of their families' religious practices, not seeking to understand them, or to develop their own.
Marcelo's 'special interests' - the phrase his school uses for the obsessive-seeming occupations of some children on the autism spectrum - are an inner music that he hears (the book opens with Marcelo going into a MRI scanner to investigate this inner music, a story line that is unfortunately dropped) and God. He is Catholic, but meets frequently with a female rabbi. Throughout the book he moves from a literal understanding of biblical texts to a more applied understanding - captured in particular by his initial bemusement over the story of Adam and Eve learning to feel shame in their nakedness, and his gradual understanding of different kinds of attraction and the ways they make people feel and behave. These passages had an originality that the legal 'thriller' or the awkward-boy-meets-spunky-hot-girl bits lacked.
When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall a few weeks ago, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.
Like me (and many, many f...moreWhen Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall a few weeks ago, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.
Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait til my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.
I thought of that reading 'The Lost Conspiracy' (titled 'Gullstruck Island in the UK). It is loooooong, and it is *relentlessly* inventive, and although I noticed both those things as an adult reader, as a kid I would have been head over heels in love.
When I read Elizabeth Knowx's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.
Reading The Lost Conspiracy is like swimming through a swelling sea of invention - breasting endless new takes on peoples, birds and beats, religion, ancestor worship, and a mythic and physical relationship between a people and a land.
It was also curious spotting a strangely familiar tale of two male mountains fighting over the attentions of a third, female mountain, with the loser fleeing and carving a deep gouge of anger out of the landscape. When I got to the end, it was one of those funny cultural cringe oh wow moments when Hardinge talked about the legend of Taranaki, Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe, and her research into the Tarawera eruption.
The book occasionally feels a little overladen with all this extraordinary detail. But have you ever heard a kid who loves reader complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? Highly recommended. (less)
'Charles and Emma' opens with Charles Darwin, in his late twenties, two years back from his voyage on the Beagle, working on a list of pros and cons o...more'Charles and Emma' opens with Charles Darwin, in his late twenties, two years back from his voyage on the Beagle, working on a list of pros and cons of marriage.
"Marry--Marry--Marry Q.E.D" Darwin concluded (he eventually settled on his cousin, Emma Wedgwood). Quod erat demonstrandum seems a fitting motto for Darwin's whole life; all his decisions, and all his writing, were based on the painstaking collection and analysis of evidence and expert opinion.
Deborah Heiligman has achieved something special with this book. By using primary resources - particularly diaries and correspondence - she paints a richly detailed picture of Charles and Emma's courtship and life together, with Charles's research and publications woven into domestic details; for example, his extended study of worms included tests with Emma and other friends to see if they would respond to tones played on musical instruments, with Emma playing the piano that her father gave them as a wedding present.
Although occasionally the writing is a little strained, with Heiligman sometimes driving home a point or analogy with a clunky staccato sentence, and their are far too many people who are described as "brilliant" (surely an adjective that should be sparingly used), overall the book is a joy to read.
As well as a story about Emma and Charles, this is of course a story about God and Christian belief. From the start, Charles was nervous about revealing his religious doubts to the more devout Emma; his father counselled against him. Although both were brought up in Unitarian and liberal households, and Emma was certainly no biblical literalist, Charles's work lead him further and further away from belief in God, and this scared Emma.
'Charles and Emma' is also a story about loss, and a reminder of how tenuous the grip on life was in the 1800s, even in a relatively well-off family. The loss of loved ones strikes at the heart of the religious differences between Charles and Emma, and her fear for the path his work lead him down. After losing her beloved sister Fanny in her early twenties, Emma's religious faith strengthened, as she took solace in the belief that she and Fanny would be united in afterlife. Charles could not believe in this, even after the extraordinarily painful death of their daughter Anne at age 10. Emma feared Charles would go to hell, and they - a close, loving, sympathetic couple - would never meet again.
It is hard, as a person who has never believed, to put yourself into a mindset where a question like this could trouble a couple throughout a marriage that lasted more than 40 years. And yet Heiligman conveys both sides of the marriage with empathy and without prejudice. As a bonus, in 239 pages you unconsciously absorb a significant amount of information about early evolutionary theory and Victorian culture, especially in the milieu the Darwins and Wedgwoods belonged to. (less)
I feel like I've let myself down. I wanted to love George Gamow's book. Gamow himself pops up in all this science histories I read, this madcap Russia...moreI feel like I've let myself down. I wanted to love George Gamow's book. Gamow himself pops up in all this science histories I read, this madcap Russian who drops into a scene, lets off an idea bomb, and then skips out again.
Sadly, 'Mr Tompkins Get Serious' was a bit too serious for me. Admittedly, he's drummed some basics into my thick head about electrons and their behaviours, but I didn't make it to th second half of the book.
I might still give the other (more fanciful) books in the series a go, but this one wasn't for me. (less)
Either my understanding of physics is getting better, or C.P. Snow was a gifted science communicator. I'm happy to think maybe my enjoyment of 'The Ph...moreEither my understanding of physics is getting better, or C.P. Snow was a gifted science communicator. I'm happy to think maybe my enjoyment of 'The Physicists' owes a little to both.
'The Physicists' is the first draft, completed just before Snow's death in July 1980, of what was intended to be a much longer book on the history of nuclear physics. According to the introduction Snow wrote the book largely from memory: his editor, William Cooper, observes
"It's odd - memory, even a memory as comprehensive as his, has its selectiveness, its patches, its things that stand out for reasons of other than factual importance. When an artist calls upon memory, what he writes has a life and a moving quality which scarcely ever infuses the product of the filing cabinet which we now refer to as researched information."
Snow viewed the development of the study of nuclear physics - through theory and through experiment - as the defining intellectual achievement of the 20th century. His book begins with Faraday, Maxwell Clark, J.J.Thomson, Roentgen and the Curies, and then spends a long, pleasurable time with Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein, looking at how experimental and theoretical science spurred each other along.
Snow's thumbnail sketches of scientists of this period - many of whom he studied under, worked with or met during his time lecturing at Cambridge prior to WWII and his entry into the public service - are sympathetic and insightful. He captures the magic of this time, the collegiality, the courtesy, the extraordinary advances in knowledge.
So far in my reading about 20th century physics I've avoided the atomic bomb. Perhaps like some scientists of the era, I feel like this moment in our history somehow desecrated the beauty and the purity of the research - a betrayal of the intellect. Snow's chapters on the science and politics of the development of the nuclear (and later hydrogen bomb) are engrossing, but I find his final verdict - that a nuclear stand-off, where everyone has enough power to blow up bits of the world and therefore has reason not to exercise it - a little chilling. The end of the book seems to want to divert concern away from the threat of nuclear weapons towards hopes for clean nuclear energy (a potential, he thought, that would 'be realised within our children's life times').
Snow's interest in the moral questions of science make for interesting reading. This book was written the year after I was born, after 35 years of concern and fear around the bomb. Snow points to a new area of worry - the development of computers and microprocessors. The threat they posed was to to disrupt the labour force, and create widespread unemployment. "It is silly to be frightened of computers" he writes, but this latest development in applied physics may, "Like other gifts, ... be a tow-edged sword or have two faces".
Near the end of the book Snow touches on molecular biology. He comes to it via crystollography, a branch of physics examines the physical structure of atoms using radiography, a science that, although respectable, Rutherford would not allow into the Cavendish Lab, and ultimately, the science that provided Crick and Watson to put together the model of the double helix. Here I found Snow's observations particularly interesting:
"'Biotechnology' is becoming a major new industry. Philosophically, the ability to alter the basis of life at will may have even more effect. The meaning of this work hasn't sunk into popular consciousness, even among intellectual persons, with anything like the rapidity of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. In the long run it may do as much or more to alter men's view of themselves. That, though, will have to wait until the twenty-first century."
A far more accurate prediction than his hopes for fusion energy, it turns out. Overall, this short, swift book is a robust discussion of roughly a century of science, highly personalised but not in the least quirky or whimsical. Highly recommended.
Uglies is - fine. Well-plotted, solidly written, interesting premise (social inequality and competition is erased by operations at 16 that transform t...moreUglies is - fine. Well-plotted, solidly written, interesting premise (social inequality and competition is erased by operations at 16 that transform the teenage 'ugly' into a 'pretty' - a kind of bio-engineered Ugly Swan story - BUT OF COURSE THERE'S A TWIST).
Perhaps it's that the morals of the story are heavily handled, or that Tally - the central character - is slightly, indefinably, annoying. Overall, I was left feeling a little meh, and not encouraged to seek out the rest of the series. (less)
6th century Britain. The Romans have left, and the Norsemen are sweeping through the islands. The Britons are splintered into small factions, each war...more6th century Britain. The Romans have left, and the Norsemen are sweeping through the islands. The Britons are splintered into small factions, each wariing with the other. Seeking unity against the Norse threat, a bard named Myrddin choses Arthur, son of Uthr, and throws the power of his words behind him, weaving legends around a living man and making magic that men want to believe in.
Reeve's Arthur is vicious, careless, godless - no better or worse man than those around him. Arthur, although the catalyst for all that happens in the book, is not our narrator - instead we have Gwyna, a young girl who, trying to escape from Arthur's raiders as they destroy her village, falls into Myrddin's net and enlisted into one of his myth-making activities.
The story is told by Gwyna, who for safety's sake when Myrddin takes her in is refashioned into Gwyn, a boy who can knock about with all the other stable and shield boy. Later in the book, outgrowing her disguise, Gywna re-emerges again, and one of the delights of this book is listening to Gwyna's language and understanding develop, and her keen-eyed depictions of the lives of men and women.
'Here Lies Arthur' is a book about the power of stories - stories that will lead men into battle, that will drive fear and wonder into the hearts of those who hear them, stories that bring comfort on dark nights. Myrddin here is like an expert political campaign manager - speech writer, symbol stager, decision maker.
There's some terrific writing in the book.
This captures Gywna's fear and desolation when Myrddin finds her, exhausted and alone, and takes her to find shelter:"He led the horse right inside, and small, loose tiles slid and scraped beneath its hooves as if the place was floored with teeth, or knucklebones".
And this captures a gesture I've seen many people make when they're tired and distressed: "The chief magistrate closed his eyes and ran his hands over his face like he was counting all his wrinkles."
I like my Arthur noble and resigned - Mallory's Arthur, and T.H. White's and Roger Lancelyn-Green's. But Reeve's imagines the raw material, and the reasons why we want and need heroes, even if they're made for us. Great stuff.