Thursday, May 31, 2007

God: the Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger

Another excellent entry in the spate of rationalist literature that has come out over the last couple of years. Stenger’s book is pure science, although he does dip into philosophy on occasion, especially with his chapter on “The Problem of Evil.” There he only has a nodding reference to empirical data. The last few chapters, which summarize the entire book, are excellent. Again, true believers will not be swayed, but rationalists will be affirmed in their non-belief. Four and a half stars, only because some of the esoteric science is not well-explained.
--Chiron, 5/31/07

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski

I once knew a young man who got hooked on speed long before it became the scourge of society and the ubiquitious subject of the nightly news that it is today. He wrote me notes – rambling, chaotic in shape, full of meaningless drivel. I could not help remembering that young man and his notes of nearly thirty years ago as I read this book.
Actually, I enjoyed Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves, which was experimental, but with the semblence of structure in the main text, and a reasonably recognizable structure in the footnotes. Very clever!
Mark, we got it from House. You are questioning the meaning of a text, the meaning and method of reading. But, I am afraid you have gone off the deep end. Your experimentation here seems to have grown into an affectation -- chaos for the sake of chaos.
If ever a book was meant to exemplify the benefits of the “Rule of 50,” this is it. Don’t waste your time or your money.
-Chiron, 5/29/07

Monday, May 28, 2007

Two by Jeanette Winterson

If you are not familiar with Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping is a great introduction. Her style is quirky and none of her narratives are linear, but she has a wonderful poetic way of describing even the most ordinary scenes. For example, one day the main character steps out into the sunshine of Athens, Greece. "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day."
The story is an allegory about love, life, and knowledge, and story telling, and dreams of past and present and future. I haven't read much Winterson since graduate school, but I am glad I came back to her.
The second title is Weight: the Myth of Atlas and Heracles. I have mixed feelings about this philosophical retelling of the Atlas and Heracles myth (I hesitate to call it a novel). It was clever, thought provoking, and well-written as usual for Winterson.
But something holds me back from unqualified and enthusiastic praise. I guess it relates to my distaste for modern versions of Mozart, Puccini, or Verdi operas (I once had the misfortune to see Cosi Fan Tutti set in a bowling alley).
I also LOVE the old myths. They have a beauty of their own closely connected with the culture that created them. When the stories are twisted and reshaped to fit our culture, something is gained, but, in my opinion, far more is lost. See also my recent posting of Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad.
-Chiron, 5/28/07

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Apple That Astonished Paris by Billy Collins

I am eating my hat here!
For years, I have railed against poetry, which I now trace to the nuns of my grammar school days who made us memorize a poem every Friday for recitation on Monday. Classics like “The Duel” by Eugene Field or “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear, still lurk in my mind.
Then I discovered a Billy Collins' poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” I loved the humor, the simple language, and the clever associations. I now own all his books and am awaiting delivery of a book not listed anywhere in any of the books I do have: “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” I am not sure what this is, but I hope to find out in the next couple of days.
This “Apple” collection contains a number of poems published outside his regularly listed books. Some are from his early days and reflect a strikingly different style. I can’t say I like all the poems here, but there are more than enough to make this volume from the University of Arkansas Press worthwhile. 4-1/2 stars.
--Chiron, 5/20/07

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

This warm and intimate biography of one of the great and iconic figures of the 20th century is a must read for anyone interested in science, creativity, or simply the lives of interesting people.
I read the great biography of Einstein by Ronald Clark in the early '70s, and I enjoyed that a lot, so I was, at first, a bit hesitant to take on this work. However, every time I saw Isaacson interviewed on TV, my interest went up a notch. Finally, I gave in and bought a copy -- I am glad I did!
The personal and (almost) secret information uncovered by a treasure trove of new documents recently released by Hebrew University in Israel about his mind, life, and experiences is awe-inspiring. Some of the inspirational things I learned about him include: an understanding of the quote "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Einstein's knowledge of math was limited and he frequently needed help, but his "thought experiments" formed the basis for most of his ground-breaking theories that almost single-handedly allowed him to invent the science of theoretical physics.
Another Einsteinian trait was his incredible power of concentration. He was able to juggle dense and complicated scientific concepts and simple tasks, such as occupying his infant child or walking alongside a friend and engaging in meaningless banter.
I first thought of this book as a candidate for my book club, but I am not so sure for a couple of reasons: it is long and might not appeal to those who do not enjoy reading about esoteric concepts of science. Although Isaacson's style make the latter accessible to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science, I can imagine it would be off-putting for many people.
I found several quotes particularly compelling. Repression of free thought was one of the social issues that engaged Einstein throughout his life. He wrote, "Any government is evil if it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into tyranny. The danger of such deterioration is more acute in a country in which the government has authority not only over the armed forces but also every channel of education and information as well as over the existence of every single citizen" (Isaacson 497).
Another: "...unrestrained capitalism produced great disparities of wealth, cycles of boom and depression, and festering levels of unemployment. The system encouraged selfishness instead of cooperation, and acquiring wealth rather than serving others. People were educated for careers rather than for a love of work and creativity. And political parties became corrupted by political contributions from owners of great capital" (Isaacson 504).
Finally, in a speech quoted by Isaacson, Einstein said, "If we want to resist the powers that threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom, we must be clear what is at stake. Without such freedom, there would be no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, no Lister" (423). As Isaacson says here, for Einstein, "Freedom was a foundation for creativity" (423)
5 stars!
--Chiron, 5/28/07

The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

This chaotic and random collection of humor is hilarious. If you are a fan of the character in the PC vs Mac commercials and the “resident expert” of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” you will love this collection. No need to read all in one sitting. In fact, I have been dipping into it at random over the past couple of weeks at odd moments while readig more serious stuff. Highly recommended! 5 stars.
--Chiron, 5/20/07

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

I am ambivalent about Margaret Drabble. I know she is a respected writer with a wide variety of published works. Her stories are absorbing, and I have no trouble finishing anything of hers I start. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which she edits, is a treasured and trusted resource. But…
Something always stops me from being an enthusiastic fan. I recently got a copy of this novel published in 2004 (paperback in 2005) and have had it on my TBR pile for a couple of months. I started it the other day, and almost invoked my “rule of 50.”
However, something was drawing me in deeper, and I kept going. Maybe it was the spirit of Lady Hong hovering over my shoulder as she hovered over Drabble’s and her main character Barbara Halliwell.
Drabble's overly apologetic forward put me off a bit, and the (sometimes) clumsy and repetitious first section was annoying. I also saw a minor error or two. None of this mattered -- I couldn't stop.
The second section was a different story – it really hooked me and I am glad I stayed for the ride. The story is atmospheric and engaging, and even a bit haunting. You really have to read it to understand what I mean here.
Last night, I went to Amazon and bought the actual memoirs that gave birth to the novel, so we will see. I have to say this is the best Drabble novel I have read.

--Chiron, 5/10/07

Sunday, May 06, 2007


I have been so busy lately, and I have had problems with my desktop PC, so I have been writing these posts on a laptop. A great tool, but different from a desktop, so I am not entirely comfortable with it yet. Anyway, I was transferring my postings to a Word document, and I noticed quite a few typos. Hardly good advertising for an English teacher! I believe I have fixed them all, and I will be more careful in the future!
--Chiron, 5/6/07

Friday, May 04, 2007

Flaws in the Glass: A Self Portrait by Patrick White

If you have read my post below of The Aunt's Story, you know of my discovery of Patrick White. Before reading the rest of his novels, I decided to read his autobiography. I also have his letters which I will read during the reading frenzy I am starting today now that I am finished the Spring semester.
This episodic and charming autobiography reveals a lot about White's life, and loves, and relationships. I have a much better understanding of Aunt's Story.
White's novels are quirky, and so is this biography. He reveals a lot of extremely sensitive information about his family and especially his relationship with his parents. I imagine the letters will be equally revealing.
Stay tuned for more on this wonderful novelist.
--Chiron, 5/5/07

god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

First there was Sam Harris and The End of Faith and his argument that religion does more harm than good. The there appeared Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion arguing that belief in god is irrational and also has done far more harm than good. Now we have Christopher Hitchens weighing in with his book subtitled, "...How Religion Poisons Everything."
These three books, read together, form a solid foundation for a rational view of existence free of the scourge of religion in general and fundamentalism in particular. It is comforting and empowering to read that so many others have raised the same questions, and come to the same conclusions I have over the last 35 years or so.
Hitchens mentions getting himself in hot water by questioning a particularly silly statement in a religious school at a young age. I was punished for answering the rhetorical question, "How can you explain the amazing growth and continuity of the Roman Catholic Church?" with the simple answer: "Infant Baptism!"
If you have even the slightest lingering doubt about the efficacy of religion or your beliefs in the fantastic, I would strongly recommend these three books. The arguments can only be answered with: "I don't care; I believe." No longer good enough for me!
-Chiron, 5/4/07