sábado, março 29, 2014

"What is Relativity?" or "How Modern Physics showed that Black Holes Don't Suck" by Jeffrey Bennett

What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein's Ideas, and Why They Matter - Jeffrey Bennett
It’s confirmed. Black holes don’t suck…

I always say that TV is the devil's and god's work at the same time.  On the plus-side, the TV has probably provided the biggest push toward making science books more appealing, at least to the eye. It has created a graphic-oriented society, and the persons of today have never known any other kind.  All books deserve good graphics, but science books perhaps have the greatest need to make a good first impression, to say, "Look at me". Unfortunately illustrations can do only so much. Books are for reading, and not only to look at pictures.  On the other hand and on the negative-side, TV takes time away from us (namely to read...). I think I’m reading less and less, so I have to choose my books carefully. As one gets older, the amount of books to read seems to increase, ie, I’m on a race with myself to read the most possible books before being taken toBook Heaven (I hope…). And then this book came along that just gave me a feeling of time well-spent. It avoided the common pitfalls, namely dumbing down the subject, which is always something that ruins a science book as far as I’m concerned. This fact alone just won my heart.

When I was in college I studied physics, the Special and General Theories of Relativity in particular. It was always one of my main interests physics-wise.
In this book you’ll find plenty of mind-boggling concepts: wormholes, warp drives, black holes, etc. Take your pick.

What is the universe made of? All the countless myriads of things, living and non-living, large and small, here and in the farthest galaxies, can’t really be countless myriads. Will faster-than-light travel (FTL) be possible? I have a tendency to say “no!”, but it’s unwise to be too categorical in such things. In any case, back in 1928Edwards Elmer “Doc” Smith wrote the first story of interstellar travel using FTL speeds, “The Skylark of Space”. He invented the inertialess drive, which is probably impossible, and which in any case would only achieve light-speed, nothing more, but the principle remains. If FTL speeds are devised, they will be far behind Science Fiction. It’s unlikely that science and technology, in their great sweeps, will ever outstrip science fiction, but in many small and unexpected ways there were and will undoubtedly continue to be surprises that no science fiction writer (or scientist, either) has thought of.

What makes a science book an appealing one? I've read many science books, and I've always wondered about the main ingredients that make a science book appealing to a general audience, and not only to science-minded persons. An appealing science book is a contradiction in terms, for science tends to have a vegetable-like reputation… Everyone says it’s good for you, but few people want to read science books.

I'm not the usual reader of science books. The typical readers of science books are unlikely to feel the hair rise in the back of their necks. These readers have to work hard to understand the content. Because of that science is often viewed as being somewhat unpleasant. It doesn't have to be this way. This book proves that's possible to write rigorous texts, without making concessions to the reader.

This book is not exactly “literature” (aka “mainstream literature”), but as a science book it’s pretty good. Its no-nonsense approach to relativity works marvelously.

Recommended reading for everyone (expert or not) who wants to have a firm grasp on one of the most fundamental concepts of the universe. On a personal note, I only wished that some of the concepts would have been explained in more detail, but that would eventually alienate some readers.
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

sexta-feira, março 21, 2014

"Not for Nothing" by Stephen Graham Jones

Not for Nothing - Stephen Graham Jones
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

This was my first Stephen Graham Jones novel and it won’t be my last.

I’ve always had a pet peeve against the second-person narrative.  Using the second person the writer is constantly confronting the reader assuming that he/she’ll react positively, thinking that he/she’ll be drawn into the story, but requiring increased suspension of disbelief for him/her to actually enjoy the story. For me “suspension of disbelief” has to be avoided at all costs. In this case the approach worked almost pitch perfect.

Also in some places, because of the second-person narrative, the usual barrier set between the writer and the reader was quite obvious.  The "you" was the killer here. It did not allow full-rounded characterization. The "you" was not supported by an identifiable and recognizable narrator. I usually found myself becoming dependent mostly on narrative description since internalization, action, and dialogue were connected to the fuzzy (and hazy) “you”:

Because you were still a hero, and because he’d probably done all twelve grades in one classroom and never had a Mrs. Rankin to test him on the quadratic formula,you’d asked him where algebra fit in? In answer he’d rubbed his nose in the shameless way of old men, shrugged, and said that that kind of fancy arithmetic was what you might call a murder investigation  - the kind of problem where you already have the answer, a dead person, then all this evidence bunched up on the other side of the equals-sign. Your job as a detective, then, is to arrange the evidence in such a way that only one variable will work with them to produce a dead body. And that variable, that x, that’s your killer.”
(NB: This not first-person narrative voice; it’s second-person in full splendour)

Writing second-person novels is not for roller-coaster readers. As a reader I don’t like roller-coasters. That said, this book was really up my alley.

Technically Graham Jones had some trouble avoiding the dreaded ‘You’ with every sentence, but on the whole I think he quite succeeded.

Another thing that impressed me a lot was the fact that Graham Jones’ second-person narrative didn’t strike me as a mere device. This story had to be told this way. It allowed playing with POV in order to transform the story.

  1. I was completely drawn into the action. Using the “you” and describing action as it happened, it propelled the story and me, the reader, forward;
  2. Using the second-person, because it’s not often successfully done, it’s always refreshing. It allows me to have a different perspective about the story being told.
Jones is not a prose stylist, but boy, he sure knows how to tell a story. At times he is quite brilliant. He can write his ass off.

It suffices to say that second-person narrative is not everyone’s cup of tea.

domingo, março 16, 2014

"German Poetry for Beginners" by Emma Sophia Buchheim

German Poetry For Beginners: A Graduated Collection Of Easy Poems For Repetition From Modern German Poets -
German lyric poetry has entered the mainstream of the world's cultural mindset.

This is primarily due to the fortunate circumstance that the German lyric reached its greatest pinnacle at roughly the same time as did German Classical music. This rare outcome between word and tone was the Lieder of such 19th century composers as Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Schubert, Mahler.

Unfortunately there are countless German poems which have not travelled on the wings of song. The greatest German poets succeeded in evoking by their words an almost magical Stimmung.  

Contrary to popular belief, the German language is not harsh, clumsy or difficult. In the lyric poetry contained in these collection of German poetry, the German language proved to be as pliable as any other language.

Many of the selections in this collection prove the wonderful elegance and melody of the German language.

Much to my chagrin there are no brief introductions to each poem (or poet), to help the reader understand each poet and discover in what ways each one differs from the others.

NB: The poems are all in Gothic Script. I've selected three poems to "translate" into a common typeface: “Zur Nacht” (Karl Theodor Körner), “Vergissmeinicht” (Hoffmann von Fallersleben) and “Fünf Dinge” (Goethe)

sábado, março 15, 2014

"A Man: Klaus Klump" by Gonçalo M. Tavares, Rhett McNeil (translation)

A Man: Klaus Klump - Gonocalo M Tavares
Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

The book is due to be published on June 5, 2014 (Dalkey Archive Press).

It’s always with some trepidation that I start reading Tavares’s work. I might discover that what I fear the most is learning about myself... This time there was no danger of that happening. I knew beforehand the dangers that awaited me.

"A Man: Klaus Klump" by Gonçalo M. Tavares is not a kind book. It's bitter and full of violence, namely of sexual nature. It's a novel loaded with meaning, truth and reason. What more can one ask of a novel?

This is my 4th review of a novel By Gonçalo M. Tavares. I've read this particular novel in the original (in Portuguese) a long time ago. At the time I didn't know what would happen to Gonçalo in the literary world.

This novel, along with Jerusalem (see review here:
http://antao.booklikes.com/post/606388/jerusalem-o-reino-3-), are both very different from his other work, namely his novels belonging to the "The Neighborhood's" ("O Bairro" in the original) collection (see review here:

In my mind his masterpiece so far is still "Learning to Pray in the Age of Technology" ("Aprender a Rezar na Era da Técnica" in the original: see review here

"A Man: Klaus Klump" belongs to the "O Reino" (“The Kingdom”, formerly “Black Books”) collection. This novel is quite different from everything I've ever read from him. It uses a very fragmented style, where we move from one POV to another even in the same chapter (quite similar to what happens in "Jerusalem"). Here the fragmentation is even more pronounced. I had to play close attention to where the text was taking me. But these fragmented changes are what make the novel so appealing, inviting reflection. Language-wise is where the novel shines. Tavares' typical narrative technique is on full display here. He describes everything in a way only he is able to: ironic, different and perceptive.

I'll just mention three examples.

In the first example notice how Gonçalo describes the simple act of putting the main character's hands in his pockets:


"Klaus's Hands are in his pockets. What a strange gesture, to hide his hands in his pockets. Hands and eyes are the foundation of war: without hands it's impossible to hate; you hate through your fingertips, as if your fingers were the sole, habitual conduit for a certain evil chemical substance. Putting your hands in your pockets is a process by which you tame your hatred, a slow process when compared to that much more powerful method that is amputation of your arms. But only by putting their hands in their pockets do men grow calm."

(in the original in Portuguese: "As mãos no bolso de Klaus. Como era estranho seu gesto de esconder as mãos nos bolsos. As mãos e os olhos eram o fundamento da guerra: sem mãos é impossível odiar, odeias pela ponta dos dedos, como se estes fossem o canal habitual e único de uma certa substância química má. As mãos nos bolsos são um processo de educar o ódio, processo lento quando comparado com aquele bem mais forte que é a ambutação dos braços. Mas só com as mãos nos bolsos os homens já acalmam").


In the second example see how he's able to elevate the fragmentation effect:

"My mother had seven children. Five died. The other one is a teacher. He has an illness. He could never be a soldier. If I had an illness I wouldn't be a soldier either. We discussed everything together, my brother and I. We shared books with each other. Up until we were sixteen we read the exact same books, but ever since he was a child he had a cough.

We only parted ways because of the war. I joined the army and he stayed home, ill. Since the start of the war we began to read different books. I have no idea what kinds of books he reads now."

(in the original in Portuguese: "A minha mãe teve sete filhos. Morreram cinco. O outro é professor. É doente. Não podia ser soldado. Se eu fosse doente também não seria soldado. Sempre andámos juntos, eu e o mei irmão. Passámos livros um ao outro. Até aos dezasseis anos lemos exactamente os mesmos livros, mas ele desde criança que tossia.
Só nos separámos com a guerra. Fui para o exército e ele ficou em casa, doente. A partir do ínicio da guerra começámos a ler livros diferentes. Já não faço ideia dos livros que ele lê.")


In the third example, we see Tavares in full narrative splendour:

"With his hands in his pockets, a man understands that he is not God. He no longer reaches for things. If you touch the world with your head, you'll obtain, from this touch, secondary feelings, sensations of minimal intensity distanced from those to which your hands have accustomed you. Your hands make you more intense. How obscene-yes, that very thing-how obscene is the man who, during wartime, even during a pause in the action, provocatively puts his hands in his pockets. To admit that you are not God while a war's on is a courageous act and, as strange as it may seem, the only divine act. Only cowards pretend that they're God.

(in the original in Portuguese: "Com as mãos nos bolsos um homem percebe que não é Deus. Não se chega às coisas. Se tocares no mundo com a cabeça obterás desse toque sentimentos secundários; afastados de uma intensidade mínima a que a existência das mãos te habituou. As mãos tornam-te intenso. O obsceno - isso mesmo -, o obsceno que é o homem na guerra, mesmo que numa pausa, põe provocadoramente as mãos nos bolsos. Assumir que não se é Deus em momento de guerra é acto corajoso, e  por estranho que pareça, o único divino. Só os cobardes fingem que são Deus.)

This is a book about many things, but mainly about strength. 
The above-mentioned passages alone justify reading the novel, but just read the all thing. It's one hell of a ride.

Also worth mentioning is the excellent translation by Rhett McNeil. For me the first characteristic of an excellent translation is, quite obviously, its faithfulness to the source text, ie, faithfulness comes first and beauty comes second. In that regard the translation is quite magnificent. It was able to mimic some of the sentence structures from the Portuguese, which is not an easy thing to do.

sexta-feira, março 14, 2014

"Where the Devil Can’t Go" by Anya Lipska

Where the Devil Can't Go - Anya Lipska

I started reading this novel because of the title. Really...

I'm familiar with the quote by the German poet Ludwig Tieck. The quote in German goes something like this:

"Wo der Teufel nicht selbst hin will, schickt er ein Weib",

Which means "Where the Devil Can’t Go, he'll send a woman" (Kershaw in this particular case). After reading the novel, I came to conclude that there's also a polish version of the same proverb.  Despite the numerous tales and proverbs celebrating the wiseness of old people and promoting their well-being, the unwritten lore (stories and proverbs and riddles and songs) of a culture is replete with reflections of a basic distrustfulness of age. Several devil-incarnate personages, notably changelings and the devil himself, can be rendered powerless by tricking them into revealing their age. More to the point, in pre-industrial Europe superstitions abound that cast suspicion at old people, especially women. Proverbs and popular superstitions state this claim as the one that was used for the book title.

As well as the strong plot, what makes this book worth reading is its sound and authentic portray of the Polish community. Characters come to life (particularly Janusz), but also the minor characters are extremely well-portrayed. But it's the bigger picture that makes the book more than a simple Crime Fiction story. The values of the Poles versus the English, how English and Polish societies have changed over the last decades, and ultimately the shady past of those involved in regime change in Poland.

There are several aspects that distinguish the novel from the Crime Fiction Landscape. The main one, at least for me, was Lipska's treatment of immigration and multiculturalism tackled from the other side of the mirror, i.e., from the British POV, which was something I’ve certainly not seen in a mainstream British novel of late. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s also some Polish woven into the novel texture. Lipska fortunately includes plenty of English-language context so that I was still able to grasp the meaning of the polish words and phrases regarding what was meant.

Technically the novel has some problems, namely that fact Lipska is not really comfortable with the narrative point-of-view. It shows in several places in the novel.

Nevertheless worth reading.

domingo, março 09, 2014

"Greg Egan" by Karen Burnham

Greg Egan - Karen Burnham

Disclaimer: I received an advance reader's copy (ARC) of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.

The book is due to be published on April 30, 2014.

Last year I decided to re-(…)-re-read Egan’s most successful novel: “Permutation City” once again. It still resonates highly with me:

When I took notice that a book on Greg Egan, by none other than Karen Burnham herself (vide Locus Magazine Roundtable on Greg Egan: http://www.locusmag.com/Roundtable/2012/03/roundtable-on-greg-egan/ ), I just jumped at the chance to get an advance reader’s copy by NetGalley.

Burnham's book is divided into 5 chapters:
⦁ Writing Radical Hard SF
⦁ Ethical Standards
⦁ Identity and Consciousness
⦁ Scientific Analysis
⦁ Science and Society (includes an interview with Greg Egan)

The scope of Burnham’s book on Greg Egan is a rather extended analysis of the latter’s work. Greg Egan has been for more than 20 years one of my favourite authors (not specifically of SF).

I’ve been reading SF for more than 30 years, and in SF criticism and scholarship the accumulation of facts is still being done, as the stream of books and articles in the last decade testifies. Burnham is less concerned with surveying the bare facts of Egan’s body of work than with interpreting its significance. Burnham successfully attempted to establish the common proprieties of Egan’s writing, whether in the treatment of a theme or in the broader scope of the SF field. SF considered as a system belongs within much larger systems. Burnham is able to fully contextualize Egan’s work, in a way I’ve seldom seen done before in the SF field (eg, John Clute, Gary Wolfe, David Langford, Damien Broderick, and now Karen Burnham; They all set out to establish their own lexicon and understanding of SF – to criticize it in its own language, not the language of another art form). With the exception of the above-mentioned, I’ve always found that SF’s current modes of criticism are extremely lacking in creativity.

In the current SF environment, a writer like Egan must appear as mutant. What distinguishes him from other writers is, apart from his erudition and depth of knowledge, is his ear for the slightest nuances of language, and his abundance of imagination and ideas. His work is the product of a personality exerting the whole range of his intellectual faculties to the utmost. Not, as it’s quite common in SF, merely playing with worn-out ideas that have been used and recombined ad nauseam so often that all that remains for the writer to do is to invent some minor twist. Egan’s imagination never seems to tire, and he gets better, and his ideas become more daring, the older he gets (I’m still saving the two first books of the Orthogonal trilogy for later). SF nowadays is full of burn-out writers, bound to repeat themselves forever. What strikes as the most fundamental truth about Egan’s work is his ability to appeal to sophisticated readers, and not to those who are willing to accept the most silly explanations, if only they get an explanation at all. Egan is a man hungering for absolute truths, and yet only too painfully aware that there are none. That all our knowledge is conditional and temporary, and is ever likely to be superseded. Egan does not advocate any form of passivism, quite on the contrary, he urges responsible action, and the need to create ethical systems in a world devoid of higher meaning, lacking absolute values, a world that just is.

Burnham was able to shed light on the fact that much of the intellectual tension of Egan’s novels is derived from the contrast between the essence of things, and their outward appearance, and never more so than in his masterpiece “Permutation City”. Egan’s heroes yearn for the haven of absolutes, but they’re faced with the recognition that they don’t exist, that man is alone, and confronted with the task of creating his own, necessary relative standards of moral action. Egan is a moralist who does not believe in unchangeable moral laws, but who urges intelligent thought from this reader.

On page 13 of the introduction: Russell Letson when referring to Greg Egan states: "I'm willing to defend the preposition that the ruling passion of Egan's work-as-whole is curiosity [...]"and "'curiosity' is such a watery word for what I sense in Egan. [...] a passion not only for structural, functional, and operational understanding but for the implications and connections that make for value or meaning". This for me epitomizes what makes Egan different from other SF writers.

Burnham’s book makes me want to read Egan again, but this time by using her book as support and basis for this rediscovery. This way I’ll be able to appreciate Egan more. As hard SF goes, Egan’s is harder than most. Usually, if an author wants an interstellar civilization, he or she must introduce wormholes, warp drives, or whatever to get the characters from one place to another. Not Greg Egan. For him there’s no easy way out (on page 30: "there can be no doubt, that Egan has staked his reputation on the notion that pure scientific enquiry is a worthy subject for fiction in its own right, and that it is entirely fair to challenge readers to stretch their understanding of physics and math as far it will go”). Not for Burnham as well. No better praise is needed.

On a side note I loved the conspiracy theory involving Ted Chiang and Greg Egan, instantiated through comparisons of some of the work from both authors.

Also worth mentioning in Egan's 2011 interview was his take on the purpose of SF, which was also a clever insight on Burnham's approach to the interview: "you can find critics who have spent their whole careers discussing the genre who don't think scientific discovery even counts as a form narrative. But understanding how the universe works is by far the most important story in human history; nothing has had more impact on our lives" (page 170 on my advance reader's copy). For me that's still the reason I keep reading SF nowadays. Although less and less so, but that's the nature of the beast (aka "The SF Market", especially the american one).

sábado, março 08, 2014

"Death of a Red Heroine" by Qiu Xiaolong

Death of a Red Heroine - Qiu Xiaolong

"Who says that the splendor of a grass blade returns
The Love of the spring that forever returns?"

With this ends "Death of a Red Heroine". Here the main protagonist wonders whether a son's return for his mother's love is always inadequate, as well as one's responsability to one's country.

When I tackled this book, I didn’t know what to expect.

Xiaolong’s main protagonist is not an ordinary Chinese policeman. He’s a poet and translator of T. S. Eliot. There is a tendency to quote Chinese classical poetry as a counterpoint and commentary on the action. As usual in Crime Fiction, this is a device, a somewhat contrived one in my view, but crime novel protagonists seem to need an approach, and this one is Chen’s. The genre requires certain mild suspension of disbelief. What saves this novel is the atmosphere. When reading P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, we also need sometimes to invoke suspension of disbelief, but not too much and the writing is superb (only in a P.D. James novel do characters speak in such perfectly shaped sentences, which is quite up my alley).

Also quite interesting for me was the China depicted in the novel. How much is true and how much is fantasy. The fact that it kept me guessing contributed to the book’s allure, along with the several instances of Chinese Poetry. What a bonus. Good poetry and a very decent portray of Chinese society (real or imagined). The strategy in making the novel’s central character a poet lends itself to ample inclusion of snippets of imagist poetry, some quite striking. Whether it's Xiaolong’s work or actually translated from dynasty work, who can say? And who cares. The mix between police work and poetry works quite well:

"The willow looming through the mist,
I find my hair disheveled, and the cicada-shaped pin fallen on the bed.
What care have I about my days afterward,
As long as you enjoy me to the full tonight?

(Wei Zhuang, translation by Qiu Xiaolong)

I’m always a sucker for Crime Fiction Novels, where a good mixture between police work and poetry is on display (I’m still eagerly anticipating the next P.D. James’ featuring Adam Dalgliesh after "The English Patient"…).

Writing-wise Xiaolong writes strange prose as if it has been translated. Whether this is deliberate or not isn’t clear, but it actually helps to create and maintain the mood; this is Shanghai and not London. Some clunkers abound: When I started reading, the text felt like a translation from a Chinese language original as I’ve said before. Then I went to the Amazon web site to look up the name of the translator, but I couldn’t find one. Then I started digging up some information about the author while still reading it, and it was stated that Qiu Xiaolong teaches literature at a US university (at the end of the novel I confirmed this through an "About the Author" section). The novel, I suppose, was written in English. Maybe that explains the above-mentioned clunkers: “And then she had came across Wu Xiaoming”. Misspelled word…? Apart from that, recommend reading for all the motives stated above.

It's only fitting to end this little review with the most important poem in the book (read the novel to understand why):

"The varying shapes of the clouds, /
The missing message of the stars, /
The silent journey across the Milky Way, /
In the golden autumn wind and the jade-like dew, their meeting eclipses /
The counteless meetings in the mundane world./
The feeling soft as water, /
The time insubstancial as a dream, /
How can one have the heart to go back on the bridge of magpies? /
If two hearts are united forever /
What matters the separation - day after day, night after night?"

Too bad I found myself sometimes gasping in ignorance while attempting to read the novel's poetry snippets. I was usually left behind by my lack of cultural knowledge of China. Qiu Xiaolong's poetry (and chinese poetry come to that) needs closer scrutiny.