Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

This was an excellent read-aloud book, just taking a total of about two hours to get all the way through and telling the tale in vivid, elegant, simple language. The transformation of the characters in the story is also believable and hard-earned. The protagonist is a china rabbit doll who, unlike the toys in almost every other toy story, cannot move by himself. This is not just a good story but one that can change the reader as well, and I hope that it built some empathy and compassion in my boys as we read it together. I hope it did so for me too, come to think of it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Sun of Many Colors

This video combines the different colors we can see in the sun. One of them is yellow (surprise). Several of the others are colors that we can't see and sit beyond human eyesight, but reveal features like particular helium energy emissions and things like that. Each of these wavelengths was assigned a different color that we can see in the video. It's kind of mesmerizingly beautiful, like peeling layers off of the sun to see the dynamics inside.

For more information see this blog post at Discover.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Middle Earth Weather Report

A few years back there was a writer from Eastern Europe or Russia who wrote a version of the Lord of the Rings from Sauron's perspective, I think it was. That "Wicked"-esque stunt didn't attract my attention as much as that writer's claim that the geography of Middle Earth doesn't fit with its climate at all. I think that last comment would have rankled Tolkien (although he almost certainly didn't actually have climate in mind when drawing the maps, so he'd be right to concede the point!). It did sort of rankle me, because if you're going to make such claims you should back it up.

Yet here is a real climatologist analyzing the climate of Middle Earth and coming up with detailed weather maps of it. Lo and behold, it all fits together with Tolkien's description. The Shire's like some parts of England, and Mordor's like the Sahara and/or Los Angeles. Yeah, that works.

What initally caught my eye are two things: high CO2 levels from Mount Doom (which fits nicely with Tolkien's anti-industrial and even anti-auto bent) and how the global map of the planet looks suspiciously like our planet, if drawn by someone with the accuracy and perspective of the sea voyagers of the 16th century. Tolkien always claimed that Middle Earth was supposed to be part of our history, and that global similarity just confirms it to me.

So there you have it. Not only did Sauron cause the enslavement of peoples and the pseudo-eugenic experimental abominations of the Uruk-Hai (along with Saruman, yes, yes), he also caused global warming in Middle Earth. I knew it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: The Where, the Why, and the How

This idea behind this book is a simple one: for 75 questions that science has not answered (but possibly could), have a scientist write a few paragraphs on the left side of the page and have a graphic artist supply an illustration on the right side of the page. The result is a diverse book that probably bit off more than it can chew. Some of the illustrations are great (some, honestly, aren't) and a few, like the one asking how mind arises from brain, would be welcome all by themselves. But usually the promise isn't quite fulfilled and the art and the science don't quite meet. I think they got the right artists, but I'm not sure if they got the right scientists. I marked three pages (one illustration and two articles) as worth going back to in terms of ideas, but the rest was a nice exercise, signifying I'm not sure what. I wish this was better, but it too is less than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: War in Heaven by Charles Williams

I saw the grave of Charles Williams, in a little graveyard in the heart of Oxford, before I read his novels, but I always knew I would need to get around to reading them some day. So War in Heaven is the first I've read. I expected it to be rough around the edges, because it's his first novel. I'm not sure how much of the roughness is from first-book jitters, or from the general distance in reading novels 100 years old (not composed by masters of their craft), or from something unavoidable in his writing that explains why he may be the least popular of the Inklings (well, it's probably down to him and Barfield). Is it all three?

But as I got more used to Williams's idiosyncratic voice I found sentences, character traits, and whole scenes that shone with a light that speaks of very real things, things that are normally glimpsed through a mirror darkly. This particular story has to do with the Holy Grail and Prester John and dark rites. There's something very modern and Hollywood about the subject matter, and yet the way it develops is exactly the opposite of Hollywood tendencies (and I mean that as a sincere compliment). There are moments of disturbing darkness in this but also moments of clear, illuminating light. To call it a thriller would be to emphasize not the former moments, but the latter, and that's what I found most surprising about this story. The light is thrilling. That's a very special trait in a writer.

As for what this story seems like, it's most like CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength, although I must say that I liked War in Heaven more than Lewis's novel, which always felt over-the-top and unrealistically characterized to me. Williams writes "good" characters that are both more serene and more convincingly doubtful than Lewis's characters, and "bad" characters that seem both more evil but convincingly so to me. Granted, Lewis is clearly a better writer, I'll definitely give him that. But enough about Lewis. Williams's story is also strangely like a modern movie and even has elements of Alan Moore in its use of supernatural darkness and occultism.

My advice is to get past the rough parts and odd writing and to look for the lucid moments, which are worth it when they come. I'm looking forward to the rest of Williams's novels in the future, and he's definitely a worthy member of the Inkling crowd. In fact, for some kind of people (the type who read Alan Moore comic books, and I'm looking in the mirror when I say that), Williams offers a combination of themes and characters that I have not found anywhere else.