"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, July 26, 2013

Becoming Acquainted with an Urban Astrophysicist

The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban AstrophysicistThe Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hopefully, likely, someday there will be a comprehensive biography of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. No rush though. With several published works, and many videos and audio recordings available for free online, the in-process life of Dr. Tyson is quite accessible. And for those of us who want the equivalent of an extended personal conversation, there is The Sky Is Not the Limit. Published in 2004, this book is far from comprehensive. Still, it is a wonderful survey of the life of the man People magazine hypothesized to be the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.

I was hoping for a memoir that focused mainly on relating life events. However, The Sky Is Not the Limit spends a great deal of ink engaging in scientific discussion. In such cases, a briefly recounted memory serves as a springboard to academic discourse. All the material is valuable, but the selling point of memoir is undercut somewhat as a result. A minor criticism, but this book wants for a greater abundance of revealing anecdotes.

At any rate, Dr. Tyson's exciting and candid voice comes through loud and clear. The anecdotes he does share run the gamut from triumph, to tragedy, with humor and surprise included. In terms of offering both vivid personal history and profound reflection, the sections on 9/11 and racism are absorbing. Tyson provides some of his most insightful and bittersweet assessments when recounting his memory of the Apollo 11 moonlanding.

For fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson, this book is of course a must read. For those shopping for a proper introduction to Tyson's scientific knowledge, and his entertaining and accessible style of sharing it, consider trying Death by Black Hole or the more recent Space Chronicles .

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Discovering 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane'

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh. She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."
--Chapter 8

The above gem of reflection by the protagonist in Neil Gaiman's new novel gets to the core of what I find most fascinating about The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Here is a novel about a child, told from a childlike viewpoint, but written for adults. As a former child and a current uncle, I take the above quote as something of an indictment. Though, I suspect it's not that adults always win, so much as children, lacking means to survive on their own, wisely relent. In any case, I thoroughly appreciated the engrossing depiction of child-adult tension explored over the course of the story.

This is my first reading of a Gaiman novel. I paid almost $60 to sit in the next to last row of orchestra seating in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor (that price included a hardcover copy of the book). For that price I got to hear Neil read two good-sized portions of his writing and answer several cherry picked questions from the audience. He did so with a perplexing mix of gratitude and pomposity. In still portraits he looks like a proverbial geek. In person, he exudes confidence, poise, and coolness. He's celebrity and he knows it.

Yet, Gaiman is also the real deal when it comes to talent and craft. Fueled by a deep and genuine love of storytelling, Gaiman delivers highly readable prose and a well-constructed plot. Suspense builds steadily. The story unfolds via mystery and revelation that begs new questions. The prose is elegant, poetic at times, with a keen sense of pacing. Each clause within each sentence, variable in length, feels like the next uncertain step of a child going deeper into the woods. I read some of the chapters aloud for the pure enjoyment of it.

I wasn't completely taken in by The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in part because of its fantasy elements. Many twists and turns in the plot are utterly convenient, like so much made-up technology in sci-fi or newly-discovered ability/weakness in superhero tales. The novel also vacillates between profound passages of reflection and action sequences that sometimes felt matter-of-fact and rather procedural. The sublime confidence exhibited by a few good-guy characters has a charm, but also saps the narrative of some of its excitement.

Nevertheless, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a wonderful tale. It engaged me at the outset and kept me involved throughout. It had a bedtime story quality, but with the intellectual depth I expect from adult fiction. I especially enjoyed how things tied together at the end, combining the best fantasy elements with the bittersweet quality of real world outcomes. Also worthy of praise in the hardcover edition is Adam Johnson's jacket design, a hypnotic mix of tranquil color and foreboding images. Gaiman's latest is a very good read.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Attending Neil Gaiman's Book Signing Event

Seen full-size on Twitter, I am visible in the below picture, located in the next to last row of orchestra seating about halfway between the right-center and far-right exit signs. Bit of background: Neil's plane was late due to the horrific crash of Asiana Flight 214 in
San Francisco.

Truth be told, I'm not a big Neil Gaiman fan...yet. (Simply haven't tried much of his stuff.) Last night brought me a step closer though. Neil is a great storyteller. Plus, a hardcover copy of his latest novel was included with the price of my ticket. Thank you to Michigan Theater and Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor for spearheading this Michigan signing event.

I thoroughly enjoyed Neil's reading and Q&A session. However, I gave up on the long wait-time for having my book signed. According to Neil, via Twitter, he finished signing autographs at 3AM. Best guess, based on seating layout and line placement, I would have scored my autograph around 1 AM. So a big fat "You're Welcome" to the few hundred people whose wait time shrank by about 15 seconds when I headed home to get a semi-decent night's sleep before work.

Two compliments for Neil (though he saunters about as one who clearly has received a surplus):
  1. In addition to being an excellent writer, Neil is a fantastic reader. Due to my English Major background, I've been to many readings. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun listening to an author read his prose. Excellent timing and expression without overdoing it describes Neil's style.
  2. If Neil should ever return to Michigan for another reading/signing, I would happily
    go again.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Salient Pessimism 1

I once passed by a church marquee that read as follows:

"Nails didn't hold Jesus to the cross. His love did."

After sampling the warm creamy sentiment, I pulled back and said to myself, "No...no, I'm pretty sure it was nails."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Romantic Currents in 'The Emerald Mile'

The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand CanyonThe Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Though the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engrossing and often quite intense. Author Kevin Fedarko captures the high stakes nature of this historic time in the Grand Canyon's history. He ably pulls together a wide variety of sources to accurately convey the story. The task is challenging given that many incidents happened amid chaos and tend to be scantily documented and skewed by legend loving.

My only gripe is the effusive nature of Fedarko's prose. Restatement gives way to overstatement, and his unmistakable love for the subject matter sometimes runs wild like the rapids in the canyon. His musings on the wooden boats preferred by elite river guides for example, or any of several aria-like passages of reflection. Such unbridled romanticism captures the sentiments of the players; however, it also sometimes gums up otherwise efficiently engineered reportage.

Here is one example from the Epilogue, not the most verbose, but certainly characteristic of the author getting carried away:
"As this new generation ran the river together, the ferocious clashes of the past--motors versus oars, rubber versus wood--fell away and were forgotten, and everyone became friends."
I could forgive every word up to and including "forgotten" as common positivism laced with hyperbole. But when Fedarko asserts universal friendship, he claims the unlikely existence of a utopia.

Nevertheless, one of the things which The Emerald Mile effectively relates is the tension between various groups who are inextricably tied to the Grand Canyon. In particular, the book recounts volatility between the free-spirited river culture and the bureaucratic--though similarly idealistic--society of Glen Canyon Dam. And it is in exploring these tensions that the novel achieves true depth from which every reader can draw meaning and appreciation.

Selling Point: The Emerald Mile comes with a great deal of bibliographic material sure to be helpful for readers who want to pursue further reading about the Grand Canyon.

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