Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is this the first Tolkien book that wasn't really worth it for me? Probably. It was intended as a children's story after The Hobbit was so successful. But, honestly, my bedtime stories for my kids are better than this. The hand-drawn pictures are interesting to me, and it does make you laugh. But as a purchase or a re-read? Nope.

Book Review: The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley

I saw this book in an Oxford bookstore and looked for it when I returned to the states. The premise is intriguing: become Sherlock Holmes as you're out on a walk, interpreting the clues around you to see things others cannot. In that, the book delivers in spades, especially for the intended audience of British walkers. Don't expect to be able to solve deep mysteries after reading this, but do expect to be able to tell direction, age, nearness of civilization, etc. Gooley stops the list of facts at appropriate intervals to describe walks that act as a review of what was just taught, and he also has a very interesting walk through Borneo at the end. I'm envious of the Brits after reading this book: not only do they have a walking culture, but they have authors like Gooley to explain it to them. Maybe someone can do the same for the Pacific Northwest someday?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

My first thought when Lila came out was, how is Robinson going to get something new out of a story she's told twice before? I repent from that thought in sackcloth and ashes. Lila may be the best book of the Gilead trilogy, in fact. Robinson perfectly adopts the voice of a woman who grew up on the streets in the early 20th century, and delves into many of the mysteries from that character's place in Gilead. Why would a woman walk in off the street and settle in Gilead, even asking to be baptized? What was it like for her to get married to a much older preacher, and to become a mother? My favorite parts may be when Lila reads the Bible and interprets it, bringing new treasures out without even realizing it. What a picture of grace, love, and gentle transformation. When I describe this book it sounds like one of those "Christian Amish romance" novels -- but everything that is true from those novels is here and magnified, made natural and real. There's a reason why this book is high on the year-end lists. It is grounded and authentic yet profound. The one thing I would have liked is more at the end, because I have so many questions about what happens to these young characters. But maybe a fourth book will do that.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

This book looked like it would be right in my wheelhouse: scientists and gods, fate and free will and true love, a universe in which Toledo is a major astronomical (and astrological?!) center ... It also started promisingly by describing the life of a scientist, both teaching and researching, reasonably accurately. I was thinking maybe this would be like Helprin + Gaiman + science writing. But the key is how the elements come together, and they just don't, at least not until the last tenth of the book. The gods seen by one scientist effectively disappear for the whole middle third of the book, for example, and there are too many scenes about the bodily physics of love and way too few about the internal psychology of love. Faith, too, is reduced to intuition until a late plot twist changes all that, but for me, unconvincingly. Very little rang true in the middle third of the book for me, where the two scientists meet and fall in love. I was hoping for a scientific American Gods but the resonances that kept occurring to me were with Twilight. That's probably more indicative of my high expectations than anything else. I do hope this author keeps writing, because there's a lot of promise here. I think a tighter plot and a different schedule of revelations and supporting characters who are better-drawn and resonant, all that could add up to a book like I was hoping for. The fanciful details aren't fanciful enough and the internal logic of the fantasy isn't robust enough. This book proves to me that a certain realism is as important to fantastic writing as it is to novels set in the present day real world. And that realism isn't quite honed yet. Caveat discipulus.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Shape and Structure, From Engineering to Nature by Adrian Bejan

This is the first engineering book that kept me up late in suspense. It actually did. I couldn't wait to see what new phenomenon Adrian Bejan would tie into his constructal theory. What we have here is a book that starts off telling about how to build a system coolant that will most effectively cool a hot computer chip. It turns out that the best way to cool an area is to build something that looks an awful lot like a tree. And then how to build a system that will best drain a basin. That system looks like a tree. In three dimensions, Bejan discusses the best shape for a cross-section, which looks like the cross-section of a tree branch, or an artery. Then the best way to transfer heat intermittently is to have a regular rhythm that matches the rate of breathing or heartbeat. And the best way to arrange a city around a central facility. Yep, it's a tree.

This may sound like those mathematicians who see fractals everywhere, but it's different in a few crucial ways. For one thing, fractals are built top-down and continue to infinite detail. That doesn't fit the real world -- after all, atoms are not fractal. It has to stop somewhere. Rather, constructal theory starts with the smallest element that can move heat or matter, and then it builds and array of those elements, then an array of the arrays, and on up. The patterns look fractal but they are built very differently. And the most important thing is that (for all those phenomena listed above) they are predictive.

Only a few times does Bejan stretch his theory too far. A short passage on life and death, and some of the social applications, seem to not account for all the variables. But that means the theory covers only 98 different phenomena rather than 100. It's not that big a deal.

This is a truly unifying theory that explains how chemical things, biological things, and human-engineered things best distribute their flows. Bejan even gets a few philosophical implications in there (though I think there are many more to develop upon reflection). It's something to keep you up at night in a good way. This is what science is for.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: In the Deep Midwinter by Robert Clark

This book is elegiac and exquisitely described, as it reaches rare depths of reflection on being human, making mistakes and needing forgiveness, all the elements at the base of existence. The book was written in the 90's in Seattle but is set in the 40's in St. Paul with absolute authenticity. Clark traces the changes in a family surviving several blows, the first of which is the death of a brother in a winter hunting accident. Several stories interweave, with painfully accurate descriptions of family dynamics, reactions to loss and love, and the world of medicine half a century ago. This describes how people work and react so accurately that it reached down into my own thoughts and changed the way I think even though my family situation is very different from the one described. It's that universal. The closest comparison I can make in tone and style is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is a near-classic, so I suppose this must be a near-classic, too. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: A Kingdom Far and Clear by Mark Helprin

I have no idea why this children's book trilogy is so hard to find. At its heart, it is a fairy tale (I seem to read a lot of those come to think of it) about chivalry, honor, and hope. Helprin writes in his typical fanciful style, which is somehow opinionated, dense, and fun at the same time, with countless parallels to Winter's Tale. Illustrations are by the same artist who drew Jumanji and The Polar Express.

The three books collected in A Kingdom Far and Clear are different in tone and narrative viewpoint but also tell a single story effectively, with more ups and downs than the typical fairy tale. The second one is my favorite because of a moment when science and faith come together absurdly and beautifully like the sun and the moon in an eclipse. Let's just say it has to do with a blatant violation of the laws of thermodynamics, and the fact that I'm even mentioning this about a children's book shows you what a brilliant book it is. All I know is, because nobody seems to know about this book, I have a ready-made gift for children whose parents will read to them, because this book is an incredible find.