Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

This book is quite different from Bryson's usual fare. Here Bryson steps out of his usual travel and language focus to write about science. The product is an interesting combination of the social history of science, biographies of famous scientists, and discussion of significant scientific discoveries in very accessible language. What science does Bryson cover, you might ask? This is where "everything" comes in to the picture. Bryson has chosen a wide range of scientific discoveries, from working out the theory of evolution to discovering the size and shape of the earth. Mostly, Bryson focuses on the largest and smallest things in the universe. He looks at galaxies and volcanoes, but also DNA and atoms. Truly, this book is expansive. For the lay reader, it becomes clear that there's a tremendous amount of knowledge tied up in this book, and it's amazing just how much Bryson had to learn to write it. For the non-scientist, this book manages to create a sense of awe, wonder, and fear, all at the same time. Bryson does an excellent job of highlighting just how surprising and contingent the fact of our existence is, and how complicated it was to get here. He creates amazement as the reader is forced to consider almost unfathomable dimensions, both gargantuan and tiny. Contingency is clearly the most significant theme that emerges from the work. Bryson also paints an interesting portrait of the practice of science, scientific culture, and a sense of just how difficult and tenuous some conclusions are. While it's amazing just how much scientists have discovered, it's even more daunting to consider how much remains inconclusive. Overall, this is an extremely accessible discussion of some difficult topics, infused with Bryson's humor and style. It's a long read, but well worth the effort.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Sound and the Fury

I'd not read any Faulkner prior to picking up The Sound and the Fury, and I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this book. But I was also looking forward to getting some Faulkner under my belt, and this was my book group's selection, so I had added incentive. The metanarrative of this book is the decline of an old southern family in a tale told by three brothers: one disabled, one suicidal, one horrible. All of the brothers are obsessed with their sister Caddy, and their three narratives explain their lives through their thoughts of and interactions with their sister. Caddy's own decline, in the form of an affair and resulting pregnancy, fundamentally shapes the life of all the family members. Each member of the Compson household is afflicted in one way or another, and these afflictions collectively bring the family into a downward tailspin. I enjoyed reading this book, though it's difficult for me to explain exactly what makes it a classic. It might be the beautiful prose, it might be the deep complexity of the story, it might be the investment the reader must make in getting through it. While I'm certainly aware of Faulkner's importance to the modernist movement and his place in the literary canon, it's something else that makes this classic literature for me. I did think that Faulkner's evocation of the New South was masterful, and for those who've not studied the history of the New South, this is an excellent snapshot. By the time I'd reached the final section of the book I wanted to devour it all in one sitting. I'll be exploring more of Faulkner's canon in the years to come.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Vintage, 1991) ISBN: 0679732241

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review: Any Given Doomsday

I often feel lucky that I've been blessed with broad reading interests. I'll read a little bit of pretty much anything: fiction, non-fiction, you name it. That does not, however, mean that I enjoy everything I read, and unfortunately today's book just didn't do it for me. I had much higher hopes for this book than what were met. I enjoy the odd paranormal thriller, mystery, etc., but this book simply did not deliver. The premise of this book is that Elizabeth Phoenix discovers upon the death of her foster mother that she is now responsible for leading the worldwide fight against evils of all sorts. Vampires, demons, berserkers, they're all here. Theoretically, these might be the elements of a good story, but those elements are never actually drawn together into a good story. There's very little plot, and almost no character development. We know little about Elizabeth except that she was abused and abandoned in her past, and there's no discussion of how this has shaped her thoughts and her life. All we really hear from Elizabeth is her distaste for the new responsibilities that have suddenly landed on her shoulders. The lack of character development is magnified by the fact that the book is narrated in the first person, but there's absolutely nothing to the character who is the narrator. And then we have the content issues. This book is replete with gratuitous sex scenes that read more like a bodice-ripping romance novel than anything else. The descriptions of the sex scenes go on for pages. I'm just not interested in all that pulsing and throbbing. If I was, I'd read a romance novel. It's not just the fact that the book is full of sex, though. If that was the only problem, a reader could easily skim the sex scenes. The problem for me is that the book is full of sexual violence. I'm not really sure what gratuitous sexual violence is meant to accomplish. And the violence really is gratuitous. Sexual violence can have its place in writing if it works to tell a story or contribute to a larger theme. But when its just there, for no reason, it really serves only to be disturbing. Ultimately, I see little value in this heroine. She's described as kick-butt and no-nonsense, but she's presented as a victim who is only capable of giving in to her sexual urges, and can only accomplish her goals if she sleeps with a variety of men she'd rather avoid. I'm thankful to Librarything's Early Reviewers program for awarding me this book, but I'm sorry I didn't enjoy it more.

Lori Handeland, Any Given Doomsday (St. Martins, 2008) ISBN: 0679732241