Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Swedish Mess

Title: The Man From Beijing
Author: Henning Mankell
bookmark: a normal bookmark

This is the guy who wrote the Wallander novels (which I only know about because I saw trailers for the TV show when I watched the Sherlock series). Intro portion concluded.

Picture a lovely tiny forest village in Sweden. Very tiny. About a dozen homes, and through marriage, most of the residents are relatives. Nice, if a bit creepy, right? Oh, one more thing: one night in February, somebody with a big damn knife (or maybe a sword) slaughters almost everyone in the village. Even the dogs, cats, and a parrot (who was decapitated). The police find out about it when a photographer fleeing in terror has a coronary and drives into an oncoming truck. His dying word is the name of the village.

Judge Birgitta Roslin finds out about it in the papers a few days later, recognizes the name of the village, and discovers her mother's foster parents were among the victims. Then, like any good fictional character, she launches her own investigation. Unlike every other fictional character investigating outside normal police channels, the cops blow her off.

Roslin keeps digging, pursuing a completely different line of inquiry from the police, and travels to Beijing and London before she has all the answers. Sounds great, right? Except... I still haven't decided whether I like the book. I can't really say it wasn't compelling, because I've started other books, gotten bored with them, and set them aside permanently. I kept reading this one. I'm just not sure there was a good reason for it. I liked that there was an unlikely protagonist, a sort of late-middle-age Miss Marple without as many unlikely gimmicks (I never bought how Marple could easily imitate anyone's voice, nor how she used that trick to get people to confess to the murder of the voice's real owner), but I never really cared about her. At one point, she realizes that someone has given her suspect her home address and thinks the man an old fool, but she spends a great deal of time in the book making really stupid choices and trusting people she's only just met with far too much. The final resolution feels forced, and there's a lot of discussion about China, its politics, economy, and leadership which would be fascinating if I had any idea what opinion the author actually has--it's never clear how we're supposed to feel about things.

Originally, I thought I might wrap up this book, recommended and loaned to me by a co-worker's wife, then try some Wallander, because as anyone can tell, I love a good mystery. After reading it and letting it marinate in my brain a couple days... I think I prefer to dig up some old Hammett or Chandler.

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posted by reyn at 4:07 PM


Friday, October 07, 2011

Brief? Yes. Interminable? Also Yes.

Title: A Brief History of Time
Author: Stephen Hawking

There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are six “flavors,” which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. … Each flavor comes in three “colors,” red, green, and blue. … A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks, one of each color. A proton contains two up quarks and one down quark; a neutron contains two down and one up. We can create particles made up of the other quarks (strange, charmed, bottom, top), but these all have a much greater mass and decay very rapidly into protons and neutrons.

In brief: disappointing.

Even for those not mathematically inclined, the possibilities presented by cutting-edge theoretical physics can be fascinating. Scientific theory tells us that black holes can stretch time and worm holes enable FTL travel. Scientific observation tells us how our sun breathes and how stars die. I love reading about stuff like that and imagining all the amazing stories waiting for us in the universe. Personally, I rather believe that little green men probably are (or were, or will be) out there, because the universe is a big place, and there’s probably a corner of it somewhere for little green men. And another corner elsewhere for pink elephants on roller blades.

But reading Stephen Hawking can sure take the fun out of all this speculation.

I’ve enjoyed a few popular books on astronomy/physics, but A Brief History of Time was a real chore for me to slog through. Hawking may very well be a brilliant theorist, but his writing style leaves much to be desired. I found his words neither informative nor entertaining, just rather dry and droning. The above paragraph is a good example. Hawking presents the reader with this absolutely fascinating nugget of information that there are things called charmed quarks out there. Wow, cool! So, what makes a quark charmed? I have no idea. Not one. Hawking never explains. I found this incredibly frustrating.

I was able to glean a few nuggets of understanding from A Brief History, but mostly about things I already knew (or had known once and forgotten). His explanation of red shift is fairly decent, and he does do justice to the basics of black holes. But when he then launched into more advanced theory (how black holes emit radiation, for instance) … well, I simply fell off that FTL rocket ship and could not keep up.

Admittedly, I may just be dim. At the very least, I know I learn far better through stories than through mathematics or memorization. (I think Brian Greene’s “Icarus at the Edge of Time” is simply brilliant.) But I thought A Brief History was supposed to be written for people like me: dim, perhaps, but eager to learn nonetheless.

Despite my dissatisfaction with it, I’d still recommend A Brief History. It's shiny gold cover will look good sitting on your coffee table, and you’ll be able to impress others by casually mentioning that you read it. (Although perhaps you’d be able to impress them even more by saying you found it to be trite and uninspiring!) But if you really want to understand topics such as relativity, blacks holes, and quantum mechanics, you’d be far better off with something like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It may not be brief, but it sure goes down easier.

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posted by Elizabeth at 8:58 PM


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The [proper noun] [impressive-sounding noun(s)]

Title: The Gemini Contenders
Author: Robert Ludlum
Bookmark: a bookmark

Having read a lot of Ludlum's later stuff, I think I can safely say that if I had started with his earlier stuff, I wouldn't have bothered reading more. Or maybe, like my friend Spider's disappointment upon rediscovering Knight Rider, it's more that what I loved when I was much younger just isn't that good when viewed with an older eye.

Gemini Contenders seems to be about an Italian industrial magnate, Ludlum's most unlikely hero ever. His father helped a secretive sect of Greek monks to hide a vault somewhere in the mountains. We come to find out that the vault contains ancient scrolls and parchments that are some sort of Big Damn Deal which could shake apart modern religions and set countries against each other. Years later, in the dawn of the Second World War, Junior arrives to a family gathering late, but just in time to witness everyone get slaughtered by Nazi troops.

Then the Brits give him some military and tactical training so he can mess with the German war machine by covertly mismanaging every factory they control, and there's some weird subplot with orchestrating his marriage to control him somehow, but that's never adequately explained. the whole time he's trying to do his job and mess up the Nazi scourge, there are other parties, all convinced that he knows the location of the vault, trying to get the information from him. Oh, and he gets tortured almost to death once or twice.

The Geminis mentioned in the title? They don't even show up until the books about two-thirds over. And they don't contend over anything for several chapters. Junior has twin sons that end up both going after the vault for very different reasons.

The whole thing is preposterous, convoluted, and way the hell over-the-top. Even for Ludlum.

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posted by reyn at 1:43 PM