FreeLook BookStore

Home

Our Picks Classics Club E•Zine About Us

COVER  • Contents  • < PREV Page  • NEXT Page >

Professor Bookman's Reviews!

Amazing that there are so many great things to read! Amazing that there are also so many not-so-greats! Some of these greats & notsos are here at the Freelook Bookstore. Some not.

Bookman@freelookbookstore.com

Book Reviews

Maigret and the Yellow Dog
Georges Simenon, Translated from French by Linda Asher,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1987, 135 pages. Rated ***

The small French town of Concarneau is a summer resort. In winter, it becomes the deserted, rainswept scene for a series of murder attempts that attract the interest of a Paris Superintendent Maigret. While his assistant Leroy uses "science" and "deductions" to trace the murderer, Maigret's instincts unerringly guide him to the real killer past a labyrinth of fascinating characters: a paranoid failed medical doctor turned real-estate shark; a passive, working class waitress whose heart secretly burns a torch of passion; an aristocratic politician who pressures Maigret to "make some arrests"; and a snarling stray dog that knows the murderer's real identity. Simenon took only a few days to write this story, but you will devour it within one night. -- JD

Simenon, A Biography
Pierre Assouline, Translated from French by Jon Rothschild,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, 447 pages. Rated ****

Every once and a while, a treasure awaits among the dusty remaindered volumes that sit neglected outside bookstores. Who could imagine that $2.99 could yield so many hours of pleasure? This excellent book follows the remarkable life of one the 20th century's most prodigious writers, Georges Simenon -- author of almost 400 novels. His office was a "factory" -- where he would often produce a novel within two weeks. One day for thinking and taking notes. Then he would obsessively sharpen a series of pencils, fill up a series of pipes (so as to waste no time) and sit down each day and write one chapter -- spending one final day for corrections and proofreading. But what is most remarkable about Simenon was a jewel-like qualities of each book, filled with brooding atmosphere, perfect characterizations, and authentic dialogues that were impossible to imitate. Simenon is often remembered for his detective stories featuring Inspector Jules Maigret, but his many other excellent books show a scope of range and topic that made the Belgian writer one of the most widely translated authors of the French language. Even more interesting than his books was Simenon himself -- a tireless self-promoter who once signed a contract (never executed) to write a two-week novel in a glass box on the Champs Elysees -- each page handed to a messenger so that it could be instantly translated into newsprint for his hungry audience. He almost married the legendary black dancer from America, Josephine Baker -- was close friends with Henry Miller, Coulette and Charlie Chaplain -- and boasted that he had made love to thousands of women. He traveled widely but his neighbors were often horrified to find their own private lives incorporated into the novels that churned out of this relentless writer. It was inevitable that he would suffer personal torment to generate such a vast body of work, but no matter -- it was worth it. If you have any doubts, take a few hours to read what was arguably his finest book -- "The Little Saint." -- JD

Shadows on the Wall is one of the newer novels here at the bookstore. If you've ever been in love with love, this warm-hearted (and sometimes slightly steamy) romance will leave you smiling and sighing. Read our Free-Look, see for yourself.

The Vanished Library, A Wonder of the Ancient World
Luciano Canfora, University of California Press,
1990, 205 pages. Rated ****

Three hundred years before Christ, the Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt used their enormous wealth and power to undertake a breathtaking enterprise: the creation of a great library to contain all the world's knowledge. An immense "museum" was constructed in Alexandria, stuffed with millions of scrolls -- the vast wealth of human literature of every type. Scholars translated the scrolls into Greek, and then later into Latin -- religious texts from Judaism, Zoroastrianism, plays, poetry, histories, epics, speeches, philosophy -- humanity's greatest achievements, archived deep within the Rameses II sarcophagus, next to the famous statue of Ozymandius. In the year 48 AD Alexandria was sacked by Julius Caesar. The fire from burning ships in the harbor spread to the town and burned the great library -- incinerating the great treasure of human writings. Luciano Canfora teases threads from the many accounts of the almost mythical story to arrive at a strange conclusion -- the most valuable papyrus scrolls remained within the dilapidated tomb for another six centuries -- until the final 54,000 surviving books were burned at the order of Muslim conquers -- to heat the town's baths. Today, we have only a few scraps -- copied from the few moth-eaten and almost unreadable scrolls that escaped destruction. Canfora's beautiful story blends fictional re-enactment with careful research to create a compelling and magical account of what may be civilization's greatest catastrophe. If you enjoy the smell of ashes, you might want to return to one of my personal favorites, Kenneth Clark's Civilization.

Doctor on Everest, Emergency Medicine at the Top Of The World,
A Personal Account Including the 1996 Disaster

Kenneth Kamler, M.D.
the Lyons Press, 2000, 305 pages. Rated ****

It takes a big ego to climb Mount Everest -- and Kenneth Kamler definitely qualifies. He's not ashamed to admit he's a topnotch New York microsurgeon with a beautiful wife and delightful children. He speaks many languages, has a huge practice, is adored by his nurses and hospital associates, magnanimously offers his services to the occasional pauper -- and yet still finds time to spend a few months every summer trying to climb Mount Everest. Well, he's never actually made it to the top -- or even to camp IV below the summit. And his role in the 1996 disaster was mostly to listen on the radio with everybody else, and administer first-aid afterwards. The flip side of being a compulsive egotist is also to confess to the myriad ills and weaknesses that make him human after all -- maybe in more detail than you really want. Having said all that, it's nevertheless fair to say that his story is well-written and gives a thrilling vision of life on the top of the world, where determined men and women see if they have enough grit and stamina to make it through the most grueling ordeal of climbing the world's highest peak. By the time you've finished reading the book, you might just decide that Dr. Kamler would be an interesting person to know after all. But if you really want to know what it looks like from the top of Everest, read the classic story of the 1996 disaster written by Jon Krakauer -- Into Thin Air-- JD

The Two-Mile Time Machine, Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and our Future
Richard B Alley,
Princeton University Press, 2000, 229 pages. Rated ***

Is global climate change a threat to humanity? Our best evidence comes from an uninterrupted 2-mile ice core taken from the Greenland ice pack. A pristine record of climate events over the last 110,000 years is displayed as delicate annual ice layers containing trapped atmospheric glasses, volcanic ash, pollen, lead levels, and isotope ratios. Dr. Alley's personal involvement in the project gives insight into the hardships and technical hurdles faced by scientists collecting this remarkable ice core. He does a good job of describing the intricate science that leads to a startling forecast: Our peaceful-appearing world is actually subject to wildly gyrating climate changes that can swing 40 degrees within a few years. During the last few millennia, have we have enjoyed a period of anomalous warm stability almost unprecedented in the 110,000 record of the ice core -- a happy condition that could suddenly end due to greenhouse warming from human industrialization. Within the space of a few years, high temperatures could melt the antarctic, flood our shorelines, and stall the gulf stream that brings warm tropical water to the British Isles. By the last half of the century, England might be buried under glaciers, and the distribution of our world's deserts and rain forests could be reshaped by chaotic, planet-wrecking storms. Science fiction? Not according to Dr. Alley -- whose ice cores show many similar events throughout history. The last half of Dr. Alley's book seems less interesting than the first -- perhaps because of his scientific hesitation at predicting what will really happen. The vast cost, the loss of biodiversity, and the potential threat to human lives -- or even our civilization -- is left mostly to the reader's imagination. Nevertheless one fact is clear -- we are riding a climate roller coaster that may soon start to take some sickening dips -- and the key to our survival may be locked within quiet, blue layers buried deep within the Greenland ice mass. -- JD

Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria? Torrid Diseases in a Temperate World
Robert S. Desowitz,
W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, 256 pages. Rated ****

Human parasites have been our close companions throughout evolutionary journey. Their complex life cycles are enough to make anybody squeamish. Hookworm larvae, for example, burrow though the skin of bare feet, and chew their way into a blood vessel. They wash through the heart, and lodge inside the delicate capillaries of the lung. The hookworms then crawl up the airways until they are coughed up and swallowed into the digestive tract, forming a blood-sucking worm burden that lays eggs to complete the life cycle through infected human feces. Hard to believe that in areas of the American South up to 12 % of the inhabitants (particularly children) were infected with hookworm less than a hundred years ago. Such subjects become fascinating in the hands of Dr. Desowitz, who never fails to lighten his dark topic with a bit of wry humor. Reading this book is like sitting in on a great medical school lecture that you'll want to remember all your life -- but watch out! You may never want to leave home again! -- JD

Soldier of the Mist
T. Kenneth Fowler,
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
250 pages. Rated **

My first encounter with nuclear fusion was when I witnessed a test of the University of Texas at Austin tokomak reactor during 1975. Sparks the size of my fist jumped as the huge relays closed, sending thousands of amps of current surging the huge electromagnets that would squeeze the tenuous torus of hydrogen gas into an inferno hotter than the sun -- crushing hydrogen nuclei together to produce energy. Nuclear fusion held the shining promise of limitless cheap energy, with virtually no radioactive waste or accident risk. Since that time I have watched incredulously as national fusion effort foundered helplessly, while our nation squandered its resources on foreign petroleum, and burned into greenhouse gases. After reading this book, I have a better understanding of why we failed. The problem is not money -- Fowler recounts the millions spent of muscular hardware. The real problem is the inability of our nation to harvest our best minds to work on the promise of limitless energy, and the failure of nerve by our country's leaders to make fusion a goal. It will take more than this book to revitalize the fusion effort -- it reads like a dull college lecture, complete with tests at the end. Nevertheless, fusion students will appreciate a chance to acquaint themselves with the specialized terminology and details of this specialized field of physics. Real fusion enthusiasts might be curious enough to look at a less successful attempt at fusion -- Cold Fusion,. (June 15, 2000)

High Fidelity
Nick Hornby,
Berkley Publishing Corp, 1995. 323 pages. Rated ****

Have you ever been a guy sunk in depression over lost love? If so, you will instantly identify with Rob -- the English narrator of this first-person romance novel. Rob is about 36 years old, good-looking and good-hearted, but directionless -- stuck in a dead-end career as the unmotivated owner of a used record shop living with a longtime girlfriend who's a successful lawyer. When she finally leaves him, Rob struggles to reassess his life by reliving his past relationships. Hornby cooks up the perfect mix of bitterness and anger, his characterizations seem dead-on, and skilled writing makes this story fascinating to read. Perhaps this beautifully written book pushed my expectations too high -- I was slightly disappointed by the end. Anybody enjoying this book should try another classic of troubled modern love -- London Fields by Martin Amis. (May 23, 2000)

Four Books on Earnest Shackleton's polar exploits — hero of an heroic age

South -- The Endurance Expedition -- Ernest Shackleton.
Signet, 1999. 418 pages. Rated ***

My case of Shackleton Fever finally ended with this book -- the story of the doomed Antarctic expedition as seen through the eyes of Shackleton himself. He emerges from these pages as an intelligent man who is modest about his achievements -- but no so modest as to blunt the excitement of his story. This book also gives many additional details of his attempts to rescue his men, and the often-overlooked story of the not-so-lucky supply expedition that awaited him on the far side of the antarctic ice pack. Perhaps the only fault of the book is that its careful narrative strips some of the mystery away from Shackleton's almost superhuman story. After reading 4 books on the subject, I find I still prefer Lancing's original version (see review below). But true Shackleton buffs won't rest easy until they have seen the original silent movie of the same name, including remarkable cinematography by Frank Hurley -- now available on videotape as a mesmerizing 90 minute movie from the dawn of motion pictures. (May 23, 2000)

Endurance : An Epic of Polar Adventure
Frank Arthur Worsley,
A. F. Jellicoe. Rated ***

Worsley was captain of the Endurance during Shackleton's ill-fated 1914 expedition, and was a lifelong friend and confidant of the famous Antarctic Explorer. This book chronicles his adventures with Shackleton -- both in Antarctica and afterward, when Shackleton and Worsley joined the British effort during World War I. Although Worsley's interests sometimes veer away from those of his reader, he nevertheless offers an intimate portrait of the man he so much admired -- "a man who chose to do the most dangerous things in the most careful way possible". In many ways, it is a sometimes sad profile of a man who yearned for treasure and discovery, but was forever thwarted. Shackleton's adventure was eclipsed by the World War, and he spent the last part of his life as a living relic from the heroic age of British exploration, musing over past glories. In his final years, Shackleton tried again to journey to Antarctica, but his under financed "expedition" ended abruptly when he died of a heart attack. The book ends with Shackleton's remaining companions piling rocks on his grave in blizzard of snow on windswept South Georgia island, buried alongside the bones of Whaling ship captains. (April 25, 2000)

The Endurance, Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
Caroline Alexander
1998, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 212 pages. Rated ****

After reading Alfred Lancing's book of almost the same name (see the previous review), I had an irresistible desire to learn more about the heroic adventures of this Antarctic explorer. For anybody else suffering from Shackleton Fever -- this book is a good choice. Written in association with the American Museum of Natural History, this beautiful volume chronicles the whole expedition in glorious detail and contains dozens of magnificent reproductions of Hurley's original expedition photographs. To reach this book, the plates traveled a long and perilous journey, rescued from shipwreck, dragged across ice flows, through lifeboats, sometimes buried in the snow, or cached in special locations, carefully soldered together to keep out moisture. Frank Hurley was a talented photographer, and his detailed photos give a new dimension to an already engrossing story. Ms. Alexander's account is more detached than that of Lancing -- appropriate for a documentary work. The change in emphasis brings in new details that made the epic even more exciting the second time, and the professionalism of her writing made the book a pleasure to read. (April 25, 2000)

Endurance
Alfred Lancing.
Rated ****

When the Endurance steamed south into the splitting ice pack of the Weddel Sea in the summer of 1914, she carried aboard the renowned British explorer Earnest Shackleton. The Endurance was specially designed and massively constructed by one of the world's finest shipyards, staffed with scientists and qualified volunteers and outfitted with meticulously tested equipment. Shackleton himself was an experienced polar veteran who had once come within a day's march of being the first to reach the south pole. But in spite of careful planning, the Endurance was doomed, and this expedition would be Shackleton's last Antarctic voyage. Unexpected cold weather froze the ship solidly into the ice, and 7 months later, the mounting pressure of millions of tons of ice crushed the three-foot wooden hull. The Endurance sank into the black water, and left the 30 exhausted men marooned on the treacherous melting ice flows of the storm-churned antarctic sea. For six months the poorly-equipped castaways would struggle under inconceivable hardship until the drifting ice broke up enough for Shackleton to lead his expedition in three open lifeboats through freezing open water to a lifeless bit of rock called Elephant Island. With 5 companions aboard the remaining battered lifeboat, Shackleton left his crew and stuck out across the open ocean in a desperate attempt to reach a remote whaling station to obtain help. His faithful men would remain behind to weather the winter storms sleeping under the upended wreckage of a lifeboat -- their lives dangling by the frail promise that he would someday return. Alfred Lancing is an experienced journalist whose detailed research combines with direct and perfectly-paced prose and a handful of the expedition's original photographs. It is a tale of leadership, unflagging courage, and determination in the face of impossible odds. But maybe the real definition of heroism is to be undaunted by the impossible. After sixteen days covering 900 miles of water in an amazing feat of open boat navigation, Shackleton struck land at South Georgia Island -- and after a three-day sleepless march over the 10,000 foot mountains in the huge island's interior, Shackleton and his remaining companions finally stumbled into a remote whaling outpost. And 450 days after being shipwrecked, after 5 attempts in three different ships, Shackleton managed to return to Elephant island to rescue his 22 remaining crew members in a tugboat borrowed from the Chilean government -- finally delivering all 29 of his men without the loss of a single life -- and making Endurance one of the most inspiring stories of human survival every written. (April 12, 2000)

At the Water's Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life
Carl Zimmer,
1998, The Free Press, 290 pages. Rated ****

The shimmering interface between water and air has been a stage for some of evolution's most amazing feats. In this expertly written book Zimmer examines how nature has coped with the challenge of evolving across this formidable barrier -- first as ancient fish evolved into tetrapods, and later when certain animals re-evolved to return to the sea. Along the route we get to meet the key fossils and paleontologists that have contributed to our understanding today. Zimmer includes plenty of details, including a lucid explanation of how changes in the hox gene complex allowed evolution of the limbs and hands of land animals, and a detailed recapitulation of the step-by-step evolution of a Mesonychid land animal into the majestic whales we know today. Unfortunately the book is stretched a bit thin to cover so many topics, and ends up feeling like a tasty appetizer for something more substantial. If you have a lazy afternoon at the library, try opening a copy of the peerless work by Colbert and Morales: Evolution of the Vertebrates. (3-26-2000)

Earth's First Steps: Tracking Life Before the Dinosaurs
Jerry MacDonald,
1994, Johnson Printing, Boulder, Colorado. 290 pages. Rated ****

Growing up in west Texas, I spent decades exploring the desert on long treks armed with a stick, a canteen and the fantasy of finding lost gold minds, Indian arrow heads or enigmatic fossils. Never once did I suspect that only a few miles away in the Robledo Hills of Las Cruces lay one the most magnificent undiscovered fossil sites on earth -- over forty layers of pristine Permian-era mudflat deposits containing trackways from over 1000 species -- a living snapshot of Earth's first land animals as they roamed over a wet beach 50 million years before the dawn of dinosaurs. Amazingly, many of these fossil footprints sites were quarried and built into taco stands, homes and fireplaces in Las Cruces without ever being recognized -- until they crossed the path of one man of amazing determination. Jerry MacDonald was a college dropout who spent 10 years working odd jobs. Unable to ignore his magnetic attraction to science, he was finally finishing a belated BS in geology at New Mexico State University in 1985 when he got his first glimpse of fossil tracks in a local museum. He would eventually spend over 10 years searching out, quarrying and cataloging fossil footprints in what has been called one of the biggest single-handed rock excavations ever made. But that task would be easy compared to the struggle of convincing skeptics the trackways were real, and finally gaining government protection for this precious porthole into the past. By the time he was finished, MacDonald would be credited with discovering and preserving the finest array of Permian era trackways on Earth. MacDonalds tells his life's story from a unique sociological perspective, explaining the progression from "prediscovery" to the final step of popularization. When I finished this book, there was no question in my mind that, except for MacDonald's herculean efforts, the world's finest and oldest footprints would still be crumbling undiscovered in the desert hills near Las Cruces. If this book whets your appetite for tracking extinct creatures, take a look at a comprehensive classic about some comparatively recent fossil footprints -- "Tracking Dinosaurs" by Martin Lockley. (3-32-2000)

Forever Free
Joe Haldeman,
1999, Ace Books, New York. 277 pages. Rated ****

In "The Forever War," William Mandella tells the story of a 1960's flower child that grew up to find himself a soldier in an interstellar war waged by Earth against the mysterious Taurans. Because of the time-dilation effects of collapsar travel at near-light speed, Mandella returns repeatedly to an Earth that becomes stranger with each visit. His Earthbound friends and family grow old and die, and as the war stretches into a thousand years, it's his own fellow humans that become the aliens. Mandella's fellow veterans are a confusing mix of soldiers from many centuries -- some of them speaking in a language he can hardly understand. Mandella, with his roots in the 20th century, is one of the oldest of them all. At the time "Forever War" was published in 1974, the book's flat combat-laden narrative echoed Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" and reflected the alienation Haldeman must have felt when he returned from his own Vietnam experiences. This brilliant book won a Nebula award, and over the years I have read it many times, trying to understand how Haldeman's writing so effortlessly captured a purity of character and action. The book was followed by a Nebula award-winning sequel -- "Forever Peace." Twenty-five years after publishing "The Forever War," Haldeman has finally concluded the trilogy with the fascinating "Forever Free." Mandella is now in his 50's, retired with his wife and two nearly-grown children on a remote planet settlement where he and his fellow veterans from the 1000-year war can live out their remaining years. Both Taurans and "Man" have been united into a "Group Mind" where individuals exchange memories every day, and human individuality has become an anachronism. Mandella and his fellow veterans are being preserved as a kind of experiment by the group mind -- an experiment that backfires when Mandella and his wife Marygay organize their fellow veterans and abduct an ancient collapsar starship with the plan of escaping by jumping another 40,000 years into the future. The last half of the book takes a rather bizarre turn toward the metaphysical, but the action never stumbles, and it was 4:30 AM before I read the last page. Haldeman's vivid and thoughtful handing of his characters, emotion, and science concepts shows science fiction at its very best and puts him near the top rank of living science fiction writers. My recommendation -- don't read this book. Read the whole trilogy from scratch -- and don't miss another frequently overlooked Haldeman favorite of mine -- "Mind Bridge." (3-3-2000)

All Tomorrow's Parties
William Gibson,
published 1999 by the G. P. Putnam's Sons 277 pages. Rated ***

The unpoliced ghetto encrusting the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge is the surreal setting for ex-cop Rydell and his girl friend Chevette as they maneuver to regain control of the Idoru -- an artificially-generated Japanese media goddess of irresistible beauty and intelligence. Hidden away like a djinn inside a portable memory unit, the Idoru now lies at the cusp of a technological tsunami that will forever alter human civilization. Rydell is being directed by a tortured master computer-hacker Colin Laney, now dying of pneumonia and malnutrition in a cardboard box in the bottom of a Japanese subway -- one of the few humans with the rare gift -- or curse -- of being able to recognize the true patterns that exist behind the shimmering data flood from cyberspace. Gibson's tense writing is pressurized with ideas, phrases and images that make his novels unforgettable -- and sometimes barely comprehensible. A continuation of Gibson's last novel "Idoru," this action-packed book holds out the promise of more to come, and reinforces my conviction that Gibson is an extraordinarily powerful and visionary writer -- even though I never exactly figured out the plot. If you like this brain-twisting vision of technology's effect on civilization from the man who invented the word "cyberspace" don't miss another amazing book he co-authored with Bruce Sterling -- "The Difference Engine." (2-29-2000)

Imagined Worlds
Freeman Dyson,
published 1997 by the Harvard University Press 213 pages. Rated ***

Throughout his long career as a physicist, Freeman Dyson has always had a unique gift for elegantly summing things up. He was once a whisker away from winning the Nobel Prize for his brilliant reconciliation of Feynman's and Schwinger's theories of quantum electrodynamics (they gave it to Tomanaga instead) -- but today he is probably best known for his books of thoughtful and wide-ranging essays. In the tradition of his earlier works, this slim volume meditates upon the consequences of science and technology -- and sometimes reaches unexpected conclusions. Unfortunately, where he once discussed capturing the energy of stars within "Dyson Spheres" or details about interstellar travel -- he now restricts his speculation to rather banal warnings about the social consequences of technology and suggests that in the future children might design their own pets using a computer. I found many chapters --particularly the one concerning evolution -- to be elegant reading, but I still prefer his first book written over twenty years earlier -- "Disturbing the Universe." (2-1-2000)

Strange Beauty, Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics
George Johnson,
published 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf, 434 pages. Rated ***

Murray Gell-Mann was a child prodigy from Manhattan who became one of the outstanding physicists of the 20th century -- the man who revealed the "Eightfold Way" of classifying subatomic particles, and coined the name "quark" for the most fundamental building block of matter. If you are looking for "crystallized mathematics" in this shell game of ever-evolving theories, this well-written book may leave you unenlightened -- the "standard model" of subatomic physics is never explained in much detail. However, if you are interested in psychology, you will be fascinated by Johnson's portrayal of a compulsive and sometimes tortured personality who never seemed able to live up to his own expectations. And how original were his achievements? The pattern of the Eightfold Way was first discovered by an Ne'enam -- an Israeli colonel who developed the theory in his spare time when he wasn't buying submarines for the Israeli army. The ideas behind quarks may have been inadvertently lifted from Zweig. Was there possibly a ironic undertone to Feynmans famous quote? -- "Our knowledge of fundamental physics contains not one fruitful idea that does not carry the name of Murray Gell-Mann." He was not above buying stolen goods -- Gell-Mann missed the funeral services for his arch rival Caltech colleague Richard Feynman when he was arrested in an FBI sting operation trying to purchase smuggled Peruvian artifacts. The multilingual Gell-Mann was able to deliver his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in perfect Swedish, but he was so paralyzed by writer's block that he stands alone as the only Nobel Prize winner who refused to submit an official lecture, and his solitary book "The Quark and the Jaguar" was renamed "The Jerk and the Quagmire" by frustrated publishers who could never get Gell-Mann to meet a deadline. Ultimately, Gell-Mann's difficult personality alienated him from his colleagues and even his biographers. Was this genius too disciplined -- or not disciplined enough? By the end of the book I found myself wondering if the key to Gell-Mann's legendary self-frustration was that something was lost in the search-light glare of his brilliant mind -- a muse. (1-26-2000)

Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam, a Life in Physics
John Archibald Wheeler with Kenneth Ford 1998,
W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 380 pages. Rated ***

Physicists often compare themselves to blind men feeling an elephant -- each guessing at the nature of the beast by describing the small part that they can touch. If true, then no man has come closer to feeling the Whole Elephant than John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler's energetic career touched virtually every significant modern physicist -- Bohr, Fermi, Einstein, Teller, Oppenheimer, Feynman and many others -- a dazzling list that includes the most luminous minds of the last century. Wheeler may have missed winning a Nobel prize only because he was willing to sacrifice the best slice of his career to secretly help develop the fission and later fusion bombs for America. After leaving what he calls the "everything is particles" phase of his career, Wheeler entered "everything is fields" -- inventing the term "black hole" and describing the properties of these amazing objects long before anybody else ever took them seriously. Some ideas such as "geons" -- self sustained loops of light held together by their own gravitational attraction -- may still await discovery. Finally, in "everything is information" he explores ways in which information theory may be the most underlying unifying principle of reality. Part biography, part history and part speculation, this rambling story portrays a uniquely American explorer on a voyage through the amazing landscape of 20th century physics. The book is packed with photographs and profiles of the world's smartest men, fascinating anecdotes and meticulous historical details -- and shows that even at the age of 87, John Wheeler can still get excited talking about the unsolved mysteries that pervade our universe. (1-18-2000)

Poodle Springs
Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker,
1989, G. P. Putnam&Sons. Rated ***

Raymond Chandler was 51 years old when he published his first book, and he would publish just 6 more detective novels before his death in 1959. Using the first four chapters of an unfinished Chandler manuscript, best-selling mystery author Robert B. Parker has written a seventh novel -- giving readers a final glimpse of the laconic Philip Marlowe who would become the foundation of an entire genre of detective fiction. The book opens with Marlowe transported far away from his seedy L.A. office -- to a posh, over-domesticated Hollywood suburb called Poodle Springs, where he has just married a millionaire heiress complete with Asian houseboy. His new wife wants him to live a life of pampered retirement, but Marlowe instead chooses to go on a gritty, underworld search for a missing man with two wives -- a compulsive gambler, a pornographer, blackmailer and -- a murderer? Marlowe is willing to stake everything -- including his marriage -- on a hunch the man is innocent. Chandler's writing style as been imitated so frequently it is almost a cliché, but Parker has seamlessly expanded the original material into a book that carries Chandler's authentic voice, and is worthy of comparison with his classic works. Or is it? Take a look at "The Lady in the Lake." (1-9-2000)

The Inimitable Jeeves
P. G. Wodehouse, 1923
Herbert Jenkins Ltd. Rated ****

Bertie Wooster, a well-heeled but "mentally negligible" London bachelor, is the enjoyable narrator of this comic novel from Edwardian era England. The book is really more of a collection of stories, pulled loosely together by the impulsive romances of Bingo Little, Bertie's old school chum and "friend for more than 15 years," who mooches meals and cigarettes and falls in and out of love with the most inappropriate people. Lack of intelligence is no affront to Bertie's self respect, since -- as a member of the "upper classes" -- he is "so sunk in callous self-indulgence" that he restricts his life primarily to drinking, eating, gambling and occasionally being terrorized by his aunts. However, when Bertie faces imminent matrimony with Honoraria Glossip, the Amazonian daughter of the "eminent loony-doctor" -- when Bertie is swindled into putting a deposit on stolen pearls -- when Bertie's life is disrupted by his two "excrescences, " nephews Claude and Eustace, who suffer from an excess of the "sporting spirit" -- when Bingo becomes a street-preaching socialist in order to win the woman of his heart -- -- when Bertie is persuaded to pose as the romance writer Rosie M Banks, in order to appeal to Bingo's father on his behalf . . . when Bertie, as he so frequently does, lands in the soup -- he always turns to literature's most famous valet, his perfect manservant Jeeves. With cool and intellectual precision, Jeeves invariably solves the problem with a few deft strokes, and sometimes a little Shakespeare thrown in. Although Bertie almost always ends up a the butt of the joke, his good humor and benign temperament ensure a happy ending with no hard feelings. Jeeves and Bertie are one of Wodehouse's most successful creations, and following them through their adventures is a pleasure that no reader should miss. (1-1-2000)

Mystery of Mysteries, is Evolution a Social Construction?
Michael Ruse,
1999, Harvard University Press, 296 pages. Rated *

The title phrase "mystery of mysteries" a comes from John Herschel's 1836 letter to Charles Lydell puzzling how some species replace others in the evolutionary record. A better name for this venomous book might be, "Vicious Attacks on Leading Evolutionary Theorists." Ruse, who has acted as a creationist advocate in the past is so eager to expose the faults of the great scientists of evolution that he seems willing to rip the emperor's clothes off by hand, and is not afraid to take some skin and hair along with them. Consider his description of Newton on page 6: "A sadist of the worst kind -- his persecution of forgers when he was Master of the Mint turns even hardened stomachs -- Newton's only redeeming feature seems to have been that he was a homosexual, although even here we find some pretty dicey relationships." Oomph -- and he's not even an evolutionist! So much for Principia. Nor does Ruse hesitate to plunge the bloody knife into his former coauthor the eminent Dr. Edward O. Wilson (on page 190): "Wilson never comes out and says that blacks are biologically inferior or anything like that. But to his critics, the ground is prepared, and it is dug again and fertilized in later books." To anybody who has read Wilson's books (mostly about ants), such outrageous remarks seem like pure spite. Ruse savages the work of a dozen major evolutionary theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhen, Julian Huxley, Richard Dawkins, Steven Jay Gould, Geoffrey Parker, and Jack Sepkoski, and condemns each on the scale of "epistemic values" -- defined in the glossary as "norms or rules that supposedly lead to objective knowledge." Dawkins (author of "The Selfish Gene") gets really bad grades for his purportedly anti-religion attitudes, while the rigorously mathematical Sepkoski, is given somewhat higher marks. Ruse's skillful and well-researched prose should offer useful ammunition for those who prefer to have evolutionary science branded as culturally tainted speculations from a bunch of unlikable misfits. In the end, the real "mystery of mysteries" for me was why Ruse (who calls himself a philosopher) chose to write the book in the first place -- was it a blatant attempt to gain fame among the ranks of creationists? If so, then he is not entirely innocent of the crime of "non-epistemological values" himself, and his book is a work of colossal hypocrisy. Whatever the reason, the book left me with one lasting effect -- I can't stop using the word "epistemic." If you want to try comparing Dr. Ruse's "metavalues" to somebody who has contributed real science, take a look at Edward O. Wilson's biographical work, "Naturalist." (12-27-1999).

Blue at the Mizzen
Patrick O'Brian,
1999, WW Norton & Co.262 pages. Rated **

Immerse yourself once again in the seafaring adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin as they roam the almost unexplored oceans of the early 17th century, and participate in the bittersweet "liberation" of Chile. The 85 year-old O'Brian's flawless dialogue and meticulous attention to detail makes this book -- like the rest of the series -- a historical tour de force. Unfortunately after 20 previous books, Aubrey and Maturin have few surprises left, and hundreds of pages filled with the impenetrable politics and minutia of daily naval life may be as stupefying as Dr. Maturin's regular doses of laudanum and hellebore for readers unaware that a great naval battle invariably lurks in the closing pages. O'Brian addicts will welcome another chance to visit their favorite characters, but people new to O'Brian should visit the earlier, fresher books of the series -- say "The Far Side Of The World." (12-18-99)

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
Brian Greene, 1999,
W.W. Norton & Company. 448 pages. Rated: ***

If you are interested in Big Questions, you will find few bigger than the ones addressed in Dr. Greene's book. Initial chapters give a somewhat tiresome review Einstein's principals of general relativity, but the rest of the book soon launches into an exploration of the history of String Theory and the quantum foam that exists at smallest vestiges of existence -- the Planck scale -- where the three familiar dimensions are twisted together along with 6 additional dimensions into a knot called Calabi-Yau space. People who are comfortable manipulating 11 dimensional manifolds in their head will have no difficulty with this book, but less motivated readers may be tempted to drop out. Mr. Green's often makes statements like -- "after many years of very complex calculations, it was found . . ." etc. The result turns out be "3." (Invoking hilarious memories of Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide the to Galaxy" computer "Deep Thought" where the result was "42"!) However, Dr. Greene eschews mathematics, and intersperses his explanations with historical notes that trace the development of string theory from its beginnings in the 1970s -- the period where the theory lost momentum during the late 80's and early '90's -- and finally to its apparent unification under 11-dimensional M-Theory, where all objects, events and forces in our universe (including gravity) are explained as vibrating membranes and surfaces in space-time. Strings are stretched to the breaking point in attempts to explain the Origin of the Universe, but the pace of the book makes the last chapters the best part. (12-8-99)

Havana
Martin Cruz Smith. Rated: ***

Arkady Renko, our hard-bitten Russian Investigator makes his fourth appearance in this series that started with the amazing book Gorky Park, and its impressive sequel Polar Star. Havana is not quite up to these standards, but is still a highly readable book with plenty of action and snappy dialogue -- as is almost everything written by the very professional Martin Cruz Smith, who never fails to capture the exotic appeal of interesting people in remote places. However, readers interested in this genera might do better to skip to another Smith masterpiece -- Rose. (11-25-99)

NANO, The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology
Ed Regis, 1995. Rated: ***

I'm not sure how this book turned up in my reading list -- I believe I found it on the back shelf of a bookstore. I read it because I have been interested in Nano-stuff ever since reading a terrific science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem long ago, and more recently Kurtzweil's new book -- The Spiritual Machine. Ed Regis writes in a well-informed pop journalistic style. His smoothly written narrative weaves together the many stories, names and achievements of nano-experts -- most notably Eric Drexler, the high priest of nanotech, who predicts an age when all of life's need will be satisfied by tiny, human-engineered molecular engines. Although bacteria are frequently invokes as examples of nanotech machines, Drexler's tiny molecular contraptions are remarkable in that they do not require water and function at a level even smaller than the familiar biochemical landscape of the living cell. Unfortunately, although Drexler has designed simple molecules that will probably work as simple tools, many questions remain unanswered. How are these devices powered? How are they built? What will they do? Even Richard Feynman confessed that he didn't have any ideas about real-world applications. Although the book is filled with ideas of Nano-robots swarming through our veins, fixing damaged brain cells, etc. -- almost all the real plan required to these microscopic things is just vaporware. In the end, vision is not knowledge, the map is not the territory, and I predict that the future will be far different from the magical nirvana that is envisioned here. The book make me better informed, and left many ideas buzzing around my head like tiny . . . well, never mind. (11-2-99)

The Deep Hot Biosphere
Thomas Gold,
1999. Rated: ****

I was very impressed Dr. Gold's crisp and persuasive arguments for the deep and non-biological origin of petroleum. Dr. Gold pictures the greater part of the Earth's biosphere infiltrating the rocks of the upper crust, where autotrophic bacteria feed on virtually limitless upwelling hydrocarbons from the planet's interior -- a hypothesis that culminated in the fascinating "Siljan" experiment in 1987, in which tens of millions of dollars were invested drilling a 5-mile well into the granite of Switzerland in search of non-biological hydrocarbons. Dr. Gold states that crude oil and other hydrocarbons were recovered from rocks where conventional geology said they could not exist. Unfortunately, this may not meet Carl Sagan's threshold of "extraordinary evidence," since his work seems to have been largely ignored by modern geologists. Nevertheless, this tightly reasoned and polished book made a believer out of me. Among other fascinating statements, Dr. Gold believes the world's oil reserves are actually slowly "recharging," and that life originated within the Earth's crust. I certainly recommend this book to anybody with an interest in oil, geology or the origin of life. (10-28-99)

Stepping Stones
Stephen Drury ***

An interpretation of the development of our planet, its life and our species. The book seemed disappointing at first, especially when it stooped so low as to explain what a DNA molecule is. However, it became more sophisticated with its discussion of geology and chemistry and the effects of life throughout its evolution, and I found myself agreeing with the author's interpretation, and ultimately enjoying his idiosyncratic writing style. Unfortunately some occasional glaring errors (such as referring to the "Mumps bacteria") make some of its content questionable. Still worth rereading in the future. (10-18-99)

COVER  • Contents  • < PREV Page  • NEXT Page >


HOME  •  Search  •  Picks  •  Classic Club  •  Contact Us!  •  Top Of Page

Copyright © 2001 FreeLook BookStore.All rights reserved.Comments always welcome!