Friday, October 2, 2009

Reading is sexy XXVI

[image: via Wit of the Staircase archive] Wow, I haven't posted one of these in a long time. The reading this year has really been disrupted. All that fieldwork, I guess. Optimistically, I've been riding my bike more, and even I know better than riding-while-reading. Now that we have entered the shockingly cold autumn and I have to take the streetcar again, I think I will have some more time to read.

22. Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt. This is the third book in a quartet, which began with The Virgin in the Garden, followed by Still Life. {As such, any reference to this novel's plot must contain a spoiler alert: I cannot talk about this one, without alluding to the end of the previous novel.} This novel proved much more readable than the last. Once again we follow the Potter family, in particular, red-headed intellectual Fredrica. The first book was interwoven with the history of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and mirroring that with Queen Elizabeth I. The second novel runs along the theme of Vincent Van Gogh. The third is not intertwined with real characters from history, or art, but with a novel within the novel (dystopian fairytale 'Babbletower' written by one of the novel's characters, Jude Mason, like a smelly, unkempt, Shakespearian-style Fool) and the issue of freedom of speech and pornography. Such a strange collection of things! Further, it depicts the changing role and rights of women. Fredrica responds to her grief at loosing her sister by making an unwise marriage to Nigel Reiver. She is no country lady or landed gentry - not in politics, thought or action. Fredrica needs an intellectual outlet. Her marriage violently dissolves. She finds herself in London, as a single-mother, trying to get a divorce, living creatively amongst her friends, who reappear here. She works a collection of part time jobs related to literature in teaching (like her father) and in publishing. The text of Babbletower gives Byatt the opportunity to try the play-within-a-play trick from Hamlet; show off her ability to write in a style other than her own while simultaneously mirroring her plot to some degree. It also gives Byatt the chance to say what she has to say about obscenity and freedom of expression. The novel alludes to the Lady Chatterly trial several times. A disruptive character, identical twin of a lover, has a habit of making 'skoobs' (books backwards: a pile of burning books). Ironically, this man is a rock musian and performance artist - not someone who one would think would be against the book. The theme is about control and people who need to suppress others. This is the swinging 60s in London; hence the lovers, and the changing attitudes - but they change more slowly than surface appearances suggest. Though this is also about Frederica taking control of her own life once again. She starts writing herself - a book called Laminations including cut-ups of the letters from her husband's lawyer. I found the text of the disputed novel-within-the novel a bit tiresome (and occasionally gruesome), but the ensuing discussion of freedom of expression fascinating and sympathetic. The exposition of the breakdown of her marriage is also very deep. She manages to convey the injustice done to Frederica and the paternalistic attitude of society towards women seeking divorce, while managing to keep Nigel's character full. He commits egregious acts of violence, and yet, is not inherently a 'bad person'; he loves his son (and even Frederica - though in a deeply unhealthy way). The book also manages to have a thorough discussion of how to teach English to children - Alexander being on an expert panel on the topic. (This was very interesting to me, as someone who has served on such a governmental panel. I learn from wikipedia, so has Byatt herself.) This she interweaves with the recurring theme of Blake's Songs of innocence and experience, something which fascinates me. Of course, Byatt also manages to work ecology and snail genetics into the plot. Frederica, always the square peg, (I suspect, much like the author) says, "In the future, no one will ever believe that anyone left a happening to relieve the babysitter."

You rather need to read the first two books to fully appreciate this one, but you should read them all. Not the easiest read, but worth the effort. Look at the absurd number of times I have used the word 'fascinating'.

23. Birthday Stories edited by Haruki Murakami. Amongst his other activities, Murakami translates English books into Japanese. He writes that he happened upon a couple of short stories about birthdays, which really spoke to him, in quick succession. So, he decided to gather an anthology of English language short stories about birthdays, and translate them into Japanese. He added one of his own stories about a birthday. The clever publisher then turned around and published the collection in the original, having only to translate his introductions to each story and his own story (which has already appeared in English, anyway). I enjoyed this idiosyncratic collection.

Dear Publishers,
Very sneaky. The way you repeatedly make readers think they are getting a new Murakami story in English, when really, you've just re-packaged one - it's getting tiresome.
minouette, a sincere fan

24. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson A very nice piece of history-of-science writing including such gems as Galileo using music to measure acceleration due to gravity, all the way to Milikan's literally beautiful oil drop experiment (like stars in the night sky) to measure the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron (one still performed by undergraduates here today). It also covers William Harvey (the heart and the circulation of blood), Newton (colour and light), Lavoisier (oxygen and redox reactions), Galvani (with Volta of course, animal electricity and how they were both wrong and yet vital to the invention of the battery), Michael Faraday (electricity and magnetism), Joule (quantification of heat), Michelson (speed of light, and though he never quite saw it, the non-existence of ether), and Pavlov (the dogs and psychology). The book is compelling and clear and I would recommend it to interested parties and armchair scientists.

The afterword though, was irksome. I paraphrase, "Why these 10? Well it could have been another 10, but these are my 10. It was pointed out to me there are no women, sorry about that, but these are my 10. I could have included Marie Curie, but she was really just patient and precise rather than making a beautiful experiment. I could have included Mme. Wu, but, I didn't." This is just plain annoying. It is okay - the experiments are clever and important. Women have been excluded from or marginalized in science for so long, including women in a history of experimental science is challenging, and I do not mind his choices. He does include Mme. Lavoisier, along with her husband - but he could have written more about her influence on science in her own right. He includes some on Ada Lovelace, when writing about Faraday. But I found his pseudo mea culpa annoying. What's the point in writing "It's bad that I've excluded women but I did it anyway"? Either you think it's important, or you don't. After all, while any such list is subjective, Chien-Shiung Wu's experiment to demonstrate violation of parity is the most beautiful I can imagine! (They gave the Nobel to the theorists, Yang and Lee, and excluded her) Not to mention Lise Meitner (who explained nuclear fission - they gave the Nobel to her male colleagues who didn't happen to be Jews who had to flee Nazi Germany), or Rosalyn Franklin (whose incredible x-ray crystallography provided the first indication that DNA is a double helix - they gave the Nobel to the colleagues who helped themselves to her research and didn't happen to die) or Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who discovered pulsars - they gave the Nobel to her supervisor).... Some days, I want to write a history of science which only mentions women, as if this were unremarkable; of course it only mentions women.

26. In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of a small town slowly torn by anonymous lampoons found on doors every morning. They report the gossip the townspeople know but do not say aloud. In his autobiography, he writes that he actually experienced such a thing, once living in a town terrorized by such lampoons. The novel reveals the evil, just below the surface...

27. Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather by Marq De Villiers
This is a largely enjoyable non-fiction account of wind. De Villiers, who lives in Nova Scotia, writes from the point of view of one scared of the wind since childhood, when he was blown over and nearly off a cliff and out to sea in his native South Africa, and ties the book together with the story of Hurricane Ivan. He combines myth, history and science and covers a wide array of material. His discussion of the complexities of things like climate change is very good; unlike a lot of popular science he actually discusses contradictory evidence and acknowledges that the science is messy. However, he really needs a proper scientific editor. I found several errors. He describes tectonic plates colliding "deep within the mantle" - not bloody likely. The earth's plates - part of the crust - do interact with the mantle, and occasionally subduct into the mantle, but never deep within the mantle; deep within the mantle rocks, or the crust, would melt. In one place, low and high pressure are reversed. The following footnote (yes, I am now going to rant about a footnote - I know this is hopelessly nerdy) is idiotic ridiculous as written (Chapter Four, footnote 29),
"The energy within a single tornado has been calculated at between 104 and 107 kwh, not much less than the 20-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was 1013."

Let's look at all the errors in this single sentence. First, the most egregious: it appears to claim that 107 anything is 'almost' the same as 1013 anything. That is, of course, absurd, as the second is a million times larger than the first. How can he make such a mistake? Well with a little thought and research, one can find that the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is of the order 54 TJ, or 5.4 x 1013 J. So he has omitted a single letter, to disastrous effect. A true statement, that 54 TJ is approximately 107 kWh (note, the W does need to be capitalized) is lost. He meant to imply that the energy was 1013 JOULES, not KILOWATT-HOURS. Never omit units! Now, let's talk about that unit, shall we? A kilowatt-hour (more properly written kWh) is a rather silly unit in which to measure energy, unless you are buying gel cells or paying your hydro bill. It is quite literally power (W) multiplied by duration (h)- but since a Watt is a Joule per second you end up mixing two units of time (seconds and hours). You could argue that it is useful in that the layperson might not have a good feeling for a Joule (let alone a terajoule) so use something they might have seen, or can relate to their own homes. Fine, but let's not then turn around and compare apples (kWh) with oranges (J)? Isn't it messy enough to compare something which is extended in time and space, like a tornado, with a localized explosion? In my book, this sort of sloppiness undermines his credibility. I like that metric units (such as km/h) are included alongside the imperial (miles/h), though it is a shame this in not done consistently. Plus "vortexes" is just plain ugly; why write that when one could write vortices? Certainly, there is no excuse for writing both. Really, McClelland & Stewart, I expect better.

Oh dear... I've just vented about an Afterword and a footnote, am I becoming cantankerous? Or, is it important to try and keep 'em honest? Books are precious people! They should be neither suppressed, nor burnt, nor edited without sufficient care.

On a happier note, here's a story about wind and irrepressible curiosity and inventiveness.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI}

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