Friday, November 23, 2018

Review: The Sea, the Sea

The Sea, the Sea The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a miraculous book. I have only just now finished it, and I already know that I will begin the re-reading of it tonight. I cannot wait. Without a doubt, it is on that shelf of one of the very best.

You are wondering what it is about? Heavy sigh. It is about everything, of course, as the greatest books are. But, Murdoch focuses with frightening clarity on marriages, relationships, lost love, delusions, the darkness we hide from, and the darkness we hide away.

It is a stormy, psychological journey into the hearts of many different characters whose paths are all intertwined. It begins with a famous actor/director (Charles Arrowby) retiring to a little run-down house by the sea where he swims, cooks wonderful meals, collects rocks, thinks, and writes about his life. Lord, it sounded like heaven to me. Of course, it was not.

There are tiny little shadows cast upon the reader from the start, and we slowly grow uneasy with the knowledge that so much is hooded, masked, and cloaked in falseness and danger, but we cannot quite put our finger on what it is. The zig-zagging trajectory of the tangled lives cannot be forecasted by the reader.  Although we long for a predictable outcome to so many of the extraordinary events, this is not what we get. Murdoch is a realist. She puts a little dash of beast in everyone and the effect is a gentle bludgeoning which (sickeningly) we do understand, and from which (appallingly) we cannot tear our eyes away.

I felt slightly shackled to this story. Even when I took a break from the reading, her words followed me. Everywhere. It is haunting. It is very powerful. Murdoch was an amazing talent.  How many authors can conjure the perfect words to describe "eyes that are determined to lose hope"? She does this and other breathtaking word-feats.   Aren't you curious? 

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Review: How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics by Eugenia Cheng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a real charmer for the mathanxious among us. How to Bake Pi is a one-of-a-kind book about the mathematics of mathematics in which each chapter begins with a familiar recipe. The author, Eugenia Cheng, is a (math) category theorist, among other things. Her goal in this book is to first illustrate some of the useful tools of math but, then,  to ultimately have the reader understand the common thread of relationships, languages, shapes, and ideas to which math can play host. The recipes featured help her reveal the general principle in each chapter. Mercifully and skillfully, she refers back to components of the recipe to make sure she hasn’t lost her reader as she marches forward with her brave analogies.

Here's how I like to think about category theory. It's the Magna Mater Franchisor. From it spring multiple different franchises, different shapes and sizes and products, but with recognizable components and packaging. It works for me but I can't promise its accuracy, coming from me, a mathanxious one.

My favorite thing about this book? The word axiomatization - I can’t wait to use it. It is the reduction of some complex system to a simpler set of rules. Who cares, you say? I do and you should too. Think about any huge problem you have in your life – something complicated with dozens of ramifications. Make a short list of the good and the bad. Axioms will materialize from this – themes which will both illuminate and provide direction.

I am more curious than ever about category theory and also about Eugenia Cheng. She has authored two additional books since How to Bake Pi and I have ordered them both. Stay tuned for more reviews of Eugenia Cheng’s work!

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D'Urbervilles Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Suffering. Heartbreak. Injustice. Good grief. Never have I been so glad to enter this world in the 20th Century (and not sooner)! But, poor, poor Tess D’Urberville. Her extremes of mortification and deprivation, which rake at her relentlessly and which spring from those villainous Victorian affectations – well, it bordered on the oppressive, it truly did. Has anyone ever been as unlucky as Tess D’Urberville?

Only the majestic parade of elaborate, spotless sentences kept me reading. Thomas Hardy did not just write. He ennobled his reader with word monuments - chapter after celestial chapter, lines and lines of magnificently turned-out sentences.

Throughout the story, dread is ever-present, lurking in every small turn of events, and we know, we just know, as we read on, that there will be, there must be, a limit to Tess’s forbearance. Hardy seems to luxuriate in the misery and inequity. Readers are made uncomfortable by Tess’s torments. Of course, this is no accident. His message on the abuses of the era is loud and clear.

My mind has been steeped in such bounty of lovely language, that I can’t resent Hardy for dispatching so many hours of doom and gloom. It is a very BIG story and a great one, too, although you might need to medicate with some chocolate when done.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Review: The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book on the periodic table is a highly improbable selection – for me, at least. But, truly it has colored and brightened the topic so pleasantly that I cannot recommend The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean too much. After designing a chemistry curriculum for my fourth and final home educated kiddo, I thought this book would serve as a nice compliment to the more tedious tasks of balancing chemical equations and fiddling with bunsen burners. We read it together.

We were so entertained by some of the sidekick info offered by Mr. Kean, that even though it was sometimes hard to parse the content, we looked forward it cheerfully. Never did I think that acquiring literacy in the fundamentals of chemistry would be something to put a spring in my step. The 15 year old found my wonderment, as Kean worked his magic with artful anecdotes, a little….inconvenient, shall we say? (Generational divergences, I guess.)

This book is great. For example, did you know that every amino acid in every protein in your body has a left-handed twist to it? We have Pasteur to thank for this piece of knowledge, which is expanded upon to reveal how some compounds twist light and how life as we know it has a strong bias for only one “handedness” and how if we find microbes on another planet to be right-handed, we know it is from an alien. How cool is that?

On the poisoner’s dark arts, Kean notes: “Scarily, cadmium is not even the worst poison among the elements. It sits above mercury, a neurotoxin. And to the right of mercury sit the most horrific mug shots on the periodic table—thallium, lead, and polonium—the nucleus of poisoner’s corridor.”

On why and how lithium works in the brains of manic-depressives, Kean explains: “Lithium regulates the proteins that control the body’s inner clock. This clock runs, oddly, on DNA, inside special neurons deep in the brain. Special proteins attach to people’s DNA each morning, and after a fixed time they degrade and fall off. Sunlight resets the proteins over and over, so they hold on much longer. In fact, the proteins fall off only after darkness falls—at which point the brain should “notice” the bare DNA and stop producing stimulants. This process goes awry in manic-depressives because the proteins, despite the lack of sunlight, remain bound fast to their DNA. Their brains don’t realize they should stop revving.”

And some of the fun-to-know stuff Kean reveals: “Einstein came to distrust quantum mechanics. Its statistical and deeply probabilistic nature sounded too much like gambling to him, and it prompted him to object that ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’ He was wrong, and it’s too bad that most people have never heard the rejoinder by Niels Bohr: "Einstein! Stop telling God what to do.”

Visiting Kean’s website, I discovered that he has other books like this one and we will start The Violinist’s Thumb in a few weeks!

Kean takes topics that mere mortals (like me) find dull and dusty and somehow makes them bright and shiny. Oh, bless this man.

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Friday, November 2, 2018

Review: A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This strange tale was my first encounter with Ruth Ozeki. She’s good. The margins of this story are unusual; it demanded that I relax and cooperate with this gifted author. I tried. I got lost a few times - sort of folded up in the transmogrifications – but I never gave up on it.

The central character, Ruth (or is that Nao?), has lost her mother to Alzheimer’s and now fretfully faces her own frontiers of forgetting. Nao, a 16 year old, tortured, and impossibly sad girl, has lost her home, her security and her happiness. The two connect, most improbably, and through an undefined time and space. Simply put - Nao wrote her story and Ruth finds it and reads it. So, the tale unfolds.

Together they narrate, but this duo in discourse become an aimless tennis match. They lob the ball back and forth, but no one is keeping score and it is hard to imagine how and when it will wrap up.

The sprinklings of supernatural were just enough to keep me derelict in my full comprehension. Add to this the oddity of texting Buddhist nuns, disappearing words on pages, possessed crows and cats, kamikaze pilots, specious fears of gun violence in America, suicide-centricism, and then Oliver…dear, poor Oliver – what was his place in all of this? I think the context switching was more than I could handle, but I did marvel at Ozeki’s written word. Really impressive stuff.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: Running for My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games

Running for My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games Running for My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games by Lopez Lomong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a big change of pace from the reading I have done since midsummer. I picked this book to honor my mom, Myrtle, who passed away almost exactly one year ago today. How could a 90 year old woman, broken by dementia, have inspired me to read this book?

Well, until cognitive decline took away all of her senses, she used to watch sports. Lots of sports. I never understood why. I asked, often: "Why are you watching so many football games, basketball games, track and field events, Mom?" She'd reply in her pithy, Myrtle voice: "Honey, these athletes are the only people on TV who are actually doing something. They aren't fake. They're real. Look at that girl run! Look at that guy kick! Everything else you will watch today will be rehearsed and made up, but not this. This is real. They're real people doing real things."

So, to please Myrtle I decided to read a book about a real person who did a real thing. Ok, an amazing real thing.

This is a book about a six year old boy, Lopez Lomong, who was (quite literally) torn from his mother's arms during an outdoor church service in Sudan. He was kidnapped to be trained to be a soldier - a killer - in the civil war which ravaged his country. Half-starved, miraculously, he escaped and ended up in a refugee camp in Kenya. For 10 years .

Reading this man's story brings a whole new perspective on what it means to overcome adversity, and in light of today's bubbling cauldron of social justice issues, it should be required reading. Really.

It was so humbling. After all that he went through, one can hear in his words an abiding faith in God, an astounding gratitude, and his hope and belief in humanity. David Brooks, in his book The Road to Characterdescribed people who have acquired a strong foundation, a powerful backbone, a deep and steadfast character, as individuals "who are inclined in all ways to be useful to others and to the world" . This perfectly describes Lopepi. He never stopped striving to be useful to the world, to achieve good things, to do the right things, and to always try his very best in everything he set out to do. This book contained no words of remorse, anger, hostility, or resentment. He never talked about being forgotten, written-off, or diminished. (He was presumed dead, and he learned that his family and his village buried the few articles of clothing left behind a few years after he was taken.)

While in a refuge camp, he happened to see clips of Michael Johnson setting an Olympic record. He was already running 18 miles a day; this he did in order to be able to play soccer. Seeing Michael Johnson, a man who looked like him, win a gold medal for the USA, filled him with a joyful dream which he clung to with real happiness. He wanted to run in the Olympics.

The voice of Lopepi in the book is simple and earnest. It is a quick and easy read. The events are told as they unfolded, year-by-year. It is a book which can appeal to any age.

During the worst times of his life, his unconquerable spirit prevailed. I felt completely renewed by reading his amazing odyssey. How could it still be possible to feel put upon when the dishwasher won't drain properly or when my internet is slow? Myrtle, thank you for guiding me to reading this particular book. It is exactly what I needed. Maybe you, too, need this kind of inspiration?

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