Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: The Memory of Whiteness, by Kim Stanley Robinson

In The Memory of Whiteness, Kim Stanley Robinson tells the story of Johannes Wright, Ninth Master of Holywelkin's Orchestra (a complex and wonderful assemblage of musical instruments), and his Grand Concert Tour of the Solar System in the 33rd Century. Robbed of his conventional sight by a drug overdose, musician Wright gains a greater insight into the nature of the universe the more he learns about Arthur Holywelkin, the physicist/musician from centuries past who not only created the Orchestra but also articulated the theory of the ten-dimensional universe. These Ten Forms of Change led to the technology enabling the terraforming of most of the planets and moons in the solar system.

Wright is accompanied on this tour by a support staff, including increasingly needed security, and a music journalist who moves from skepticism to respect fairly quickly. They in turn are pursued from planet to planet, moon to moon on the Tour by both Ernst Ekern, Chairman of the Holywelkin Institute's Board and a key figure in a grand, shadowy "meta-drama," and the Greys, a mysterious cult scattered throughout the solar system. These tensions drive the narrative, and they create a satisfying mystery.

But of more interest to me are those moments when Robinson steps back to explore the ineffable nature of music and its relationship to the micro and macro workings of the universe. Indeed, even the history of space colonization is described in musical terms (Allegro; Ritard: moderato; Adagissimo; Intermezzo agitado; Accelerando). When discussing music, Robinson's prose sings (appropriately enough); but as you realize he uses the same style when discussing physics, you come to appreciate what an achievement this novel truly represents.

If I didn't know better, I might think that this was a novel written late in someone's career: It brims over with well-developed ideas and grand themes concerning the laws which govern the universe and how humanity might better understand its place in this grand scheme. This just goes to show why I am not a fiction writer, because The Memory of Whiteness is one of Robinson's earliest novels.

I've enjoyed everything by Kim Stanley Robinson that I've read, with The Mars Trilogy, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Shaman standing as my favorites. The Memory of Whiteness now joins that list.

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orb Books, 1996 (Tor Books, 1985)
ISBN-10: 0312861435
ISBN-13: 978-0312861438
352 pages, $19.99

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: My Pet Book, by Bob Staake

Where was My Pet Book when I was young? It's beautiful, it worships the power of books, and there's lots of fun little bits to discover in the backgrounds of the images, especially in the signs of this pet-obsessed town. "Breed Limit 35"! "Central Bark"! "Bowowery"! (There's even evidence of a voyage to "Funky Town"!)

Bob Staake has become a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to art (from newspaper illustration to posters to iconic New Yorker covers), but it's clear that he has a special affinity for children's books and the importance of reading. With its rhymed text and colorful, highly stylized (and stylish!) illustrations, My Pet Book will engage and charm you on every page. I can't wait to recommend this "frisky red hardcover" to all the young reading-lovers at my library.

Bonus! Be sure to check out this great, in-depth interview with Bob Staake at the Washington City Paper website, conducted by my good friend Mike "ComicsDC" Rhode

by Bob Staake
Random House, 2014
40 pages, $17.99
ISBN-10: 0385373120
ISBN-13: 978-0385373128

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: CDB! and CDC? by William Steig

One of my favorite books when I was a child was CDB! by William Steig. It was full of black and white drawings, each captioned by a series of letters which, when read aloud, would sound like a phrase or sentence: for example, "CDB!" translates into "See the bee!" Some were pretty straightforward, but some were trickier; the simple, narrative illustrations helped you to decode the captions.

I remember finding the book on a bottom shelf of my neighborhood library. I seem to recall feeling vaguely uneasy about checking it out, as if the book was for "littler kids" than I was (even though I was still very young, myself). After all, I was already reading full sentences, and here was a book that only used letters, not even real words! But I was still fascinated with it, and I've remembered it ever since.

Several months ago, I was amazed to discover that Steig also created a sequel, CDC? I hadn't known about it, but that is probably because it wasn't published until 1984, when I was a high school senior. I requested both books from the library, curious to see what they would be like now, four decades after I first read CDB!

My first shock came with the appearance of the pages. Steig added watercolor to CDB! in 2000, and to CDC? in 2003. So the stark, diagrammatic pictures in my memory here were a bit softer and more gentle. And some of the deciphering was probably just as challenging now as it was when I was a child. I didn't recall there being complex "words," but here they were, especially with names, such as "L-X-&-R." And letters can sometimes sound like different words: S can be either "is" or "yes," depending on context.

Both books are very similar, although CDC?, apart form being about 20 pages longer than its predecessor, contains more grown-up characters, situations, and vocabulary. In one instance, a middle-aged man with a pipe sits and looks at another man, bearded and wild-eyed, who holds bits of a broken chair in his hands. The caption? "M I B-N 2 V-M-N?"

Each book contains, on its final page, an "answer key." I only really needed it once, for an instance in CDC?: what in the world could "D-P" stand for? Turns out it means "dippy." (The slangier the coinages, the more difficult they become to decipher.)

I had a lot of fun re-encountering a childhood friend and meeting its sibling after all this time. They weren't "beneath" me at all. S X-L-R-8-10!

by William Steig
Aladdin, 2003
ISBN-10: 0689857063
ISBN-13: 978-0689857065
48 pages, $7.99

by William Steig
Square Fish, 2008
ISBN-10: 0312380127
ISBN-13: 978-0312380120
64 pages, $8.99

Review: Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo

A very personal account of the successful attempt to map the genome of a Neanderthal, humanity's closest evolutionary link. Svante Pääbo, the project's lead researcher, necessarily mixes autobiography with procedural descriptions, with his history as a scientist and as a person informing and guiding his quest for what appears at first an impossible goal.

What the non-scientist reader (i.e., me) takes away from this book is a much clearer understanding of the ins and outs of the scientific method. Occasionally Pääbo comes upon a valuable insight through sudden inspiration, but much more often, insight arrives only through teamwork, and only after much trial and error (with a big emphasis on the error). Success in this massive and complex project came only after years of painstaking group effort, characterized by mysteries to solve, blind alleys to back out of, assumptions to re-consider, and techniques to continually refine or, sometimes, abandon.

While my eyes did glaze over at times when the science got extremely detailed, those occasions were few, and probably not Pääbo's fault - even the hard science here is presented carefully and clearly, and I found myself understanding a lot more of the specifics than I had assumed I might. (I soon learned not to bother checking the endnotes, as they consist almost entirely of journal article title references - essential for readers who wish to track the intricacies of each new research development, but they contain no real discursive content. The meat of the book is in the text itself.)

Pääbo does an admirable job of communicating both the substance and the struggle of science; politics and personalities mix with publishing and perseverance. In Neanderthal Man we learn about both an evolutionary cousin and what it takes to do successful science.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
by Svante Pääbo

Basic Books, 2014
288 pages, $27.99
ISBN-10: 0465020836
ISBN-13: 978-0465020836

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo,
with a Blueberry Hill Lager from Samuel Adams.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Great War, by Joe Sacco, with an essay by Adam Hochschild

With The Great War - July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, An Illustrated Panorama, comics journalist Joe Sacco has created a single, 24-foot-long gatefold image which re-creates the events of this day of battle across time and space. Surrounded by two hard covers, the gatefold image comes in a slipcase which also includes a booklet with an author's note and annotations by Sacco, as well as an essay ("July 1, 1916") by historian Adam Hochschild.

Technically, Sacco's image is a tour de force, utilizing shifting perspectives to create the illusion of a single image while also presenting a chronological narrative of the battle's stages. The amount of detail Sacco includes is staggering, including scores--no, hundreds!--of soldiers, and mazes of trenches that seem to go on for miles. Explosions, debris, and devastation abound, and the passage of time allows us to contrast the idyllic pre-battle landscape to the horrific aftermath.

I was intellectually impressed by Sacco's artistic achievement, but it is only Hochschild's essay that really devastates on an emotional level. I already knew that the First World War, that horribly mis-named "War to End All Wars," was a ridiculous waste of human life,;but Hochschild's essay covering the myriad details of this particular battle--the blindly hubristic plans, the utterly devastating results--really drives the point home in ways that not even Sacco's massively detailed panorama can achieve.

The artwork is stunning technically, but without Sacco's annotations and Hochschild's essay, I'm not sure how affecting the end result would be. Actually, I do, and the answer is that it would appeal a lot to my eyes and brain, but much less so to my heart. Sacco's image needed to be a part of this complete package; the panorama alone, impressive as it is, is not enough to drive home the point Sacco strives for. Which he himself acknowledges in his introduction:
Making this illustration wordless made it impossible for me to provide context or add explanations. I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths. ("On the Great War," Author's Note, p. 2)
Design-wise, The Great War is an impressive package, even if the panorama itself is an unwieldy read (but how could it not be, unless it were mounted along a wall?). One bravura touch it how the book begins and ends. The first image on what would normally be the front endpaper is a close-up drawing by Sacco of the famous Lord Kitchener WWI recruitment poster, followed by the title page; the rest of the book is the panorama itself, which extends all the way to what would normally be the back endpaper. In that final portion of the image, we see soldiers digging and filling graves. So the design leads us rhetorically from heavily romanticized recruitment to the devastating, utter finality of death. The end.

Make war no more!