Thursday, June 28, 2012

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson

I've been hearing a lot about this guy Walter Isaacson over the past year. From what I heard he is the world's pre-eminent (or at least the world's most famous) biographer. Isaacson is noted for his in-depth biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissenger. He achieved runaway success with his most recent biography of Steve Jobs (which just happened to coincide with his death.... hmmmmm....). Which such a wide array of subjects (from such a wide breath of history) I figured I needed to get my hands on one of his biographies just to see what all the hullaballoo was all about.

I finally tracked down a copy of an earlier biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe and it's easy to see why Isaacson has garnered such a stellar reputation. Writing a comprehensive account of the life of one of the 20th century's brightest and most enigmatic scientific minds is no simple task and the sheer volume of primary sources (including all of Einsteins papers and correspondence as well as his wife, Else's) must have made the research for this tome Herculean in nature.

Furthermore, since Isaacson is dealing with a genius whose name is synonymous with being a genius, he is unable to hide behind his writing skills in an attempt to distract the reader from noticing that he, like virtually everyone else on the planet, doesn't particularly understand the intricacies of general relativity and unified field theory. No sir! Isaacson went out and figured this stuff out and wrote about it. Trouble is, Einstein's science as filtered through Isaacson remains as unintelligible to the average reader as it was when he scribbled his equations on the backs of old envelopes at the Patent Office in 1905.

I have read books that have presented Special and General Relativity in a far more engaging and entertaining fashion (after reading David Bodanis's book E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation I walked around for about five days explaining it to anyone who would listen.... then promptly forgot it). However, one can forgive Isaacson for his scientific opacity as it pertains to Einstein. After all it is Albert Einstein and after all again, you probably didn't pick up his biography to learn about relativity, photons, unified field theory or quantum physics. If you did, you're doing it wrong.

I imagine that you, like me, are more interested in reading about Albert Einstein the boy, the husband, the father and the unabashed pacifist as opposed to Albert Einstein the scientist. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated all the science (when I understood it) but I was more interested in reading about his relationships with his contemporaries, most notably his complicated relationship with Max Planck, his close kinship with Niels Bohr and his lifelong rivalry with the anti-Semitic (and later Nazi party member) Philipp Lenard. These are names that are familiar to most of us from high school (or university) science class but rarely get discussed as human beings.

Isaacson is an objective observer of Einstein's aloof and often chilly demeanor in reference to his own family. I was completely unaware of his (and his first wife, Mileva Maric's ) first child, Lieserl, who was taken to Maric's home country of Serbia and raised by family members. Her memory is so completely erased from Einstein's personal records that her fate is still unknown. Einstein also maintained tumultuous relationships with his two sons Hans Albert and Eduard of which Isaacson presents Albert as an ofttimes cold and uncaring father (though one may argue that it was just his way). And yet Einstein maintained a tender side that, which not often visible to his friends and family, existed for those close to him, most notably his second wife (and cousin) Else.

Isaacson also delves deep into Einstein's notion of pacifism and his flirtation with Chaim Weizmann's brand of Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s. Einstein's obsession with personal freedom and his abhorrence for political parties and the machinations of the establishment made him the perfect spokesperson for the burgeoning notion of militant pacifism that gained a certain credence during the 1920s. Though he retreated from this stance when Adolf Hitler attained power in Germany and even played a small part in the development of the atomic bomb (another fascinating portion of this book), Einstein remained astutely anti-war throughout his life and was an early proponent of a United Nations (though his vision was of a much more powerful UN with a standing army to settle international disputes. This militant pacifism, unsurprisingly, would later get him in a degree of trouble with J. Edgar Hoover during the Red Scare that followed World War II, though absolutely nothing came of that nonsense.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book (for me) was Einstein's relationship with God and religion. I was surprised to note that a young Einstein (not Yahoo Serious... the real young Einstein) dabbled in devout Judaism before abandoning the notion of organized religion and ascribing to a more Spinoza-esque notion of the divine. I was always under the impression that Einstein was either atheist or, at the very least, non-practising. But it turns out that he was quite the spiritual fellow and loved to wax intellectual on the nature of the divine with anyone who would listen.

There is so much more to this book. Isaacson presents a complex man and his world from literally millions of pages of reference. Isaacson discusses his relationship with Germany, Charlie Chaplin, his two wives, his parents, Robert Oppenheimer, his involvement with women, communists, socialists, Caltech, Princeton, Switzerland and Marie Curie. There is dimly no end of the layers in which Isaacson peels away.

I could go on for hours about how Walter Isaacson reclaimed, re-constructed and humanized a figure that long ago was co-opted by though who scarcely understand him or his work. It is a testament to Isaacson's well-deserved reputation as a biographer that he obliterates the lies and half-truths that we have come to accept about Albert Einstein (He never failed math in school, he did finish high school and although he spoke later than most children, he never exhibited serious developmental problems). From the rubble of such obliteration, a comprehensive (and I would add definitive) biography of science's greatest mind has been created. If you think you can stand the science, it's worth the read!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Son of Rage and Love

Son of Rage and Love
By Thomas Raymond

A couple of weeks back when I reviewed the Hunger Games I got a little nasty on the subject of Young Adult fiction. I didn't (and still won't) say that I dislike the genre, but it bores me to tears more often than not. A few days later I got an email from Thomas Raymond, the author of the YA novel The Son of Rage and Love. Raymond agreed with me on many of my points about the formulaic nature of YA novels and assured me that his novel was different.

Turns out he was right. (Well, he would know... he wrote it, after all).

The Son of Rage and Love is about Daniel the 12 year-old son of an irresponsible C-list celebrity named Maya. Due to her career (and drinking problems), Daniel and his sister are being raised by their over-bearing grandmother. Daniel has been diagnosed as ADHD and takes medication to maintain his mood though the pills he takes cause all sorts of side effects such as hallucinations and paranoia. A steady diet of television, video games and structured time-wasting organized by his materialistic grandmother keeps Daniel out of trouble. Daniel's sister has spent years in therapy in order to prepare her for the career in acting she does not want. Needless to say, the sedated calm (or fog, as Daniel refers to it) that envelopes the household is a virtual prison for Daniel and his sister. That is, until a publicity gaffe forces Maya to adopt a precocious 13 year-old Haitian orphan named Jean-Maurice in order to rescue her ailing career. That's when the house of cars comes tumbling down.

The Son of Rage and Love is a breath of fresh air in the YA fiction genre for a few reasons. First and foremost, there are no wizards or vampires and it doesn't take place in a dystopian future. The protagonist does not possess a superpower and the ending is not a neither a neat little ball nor the launching point for a sequel. In fact, The Son of Rage and Love has more in common with Ken Kesey's celebrated novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and anything published in the Young Adult genre over the past few years. That's a step in the right direction, if you ask me.

In the Grandmother, Raymond has created an antagonist for the ages. Part Nurse Ratched, part Joan Crawford a la Mommy Dearest, the Grandmother is so unlikeable that the reader would cheer for Voldemort himself to strike her down. I'm always on the lookout for strong, memorable characters and if this book had one it was Grandmother (though I must admit that I have strong affinities toward bad guys). Sometimes a novel needs an over-the-top antagonist to tie all the themes together in a nice little package. Daniel's grandmother is precisely that character.

But the real reason this book succeeds is the themes it addresses throughout, many of which affected me personally as many of them are precisely the reasons why I have decided to live overseas, away from North America. Raymond explores the issues of over-medication (and unnecessary medication) of children and adolescents, the slippery slope of child psychology, the perils of a sedentary lifestyle, the cult of celebrity, the pratfalls of the Nouveau rich, alcoholism, pornography, latent violence, loneliness and social isolation. By introducing a character from a third world nation Raymond makes the unique decision to magnify the problems in North America rather than focus on the problem of poverty in Haiti. Not that poverty in Haiti isn't a problem, but having Jean-Maurice juxtapose a life in poverty against the complex anxieties of modern living in America is a novel approach.

Without being heavy-handed, Raymond weaves these concepts into the narrative. There is no preaching. There is no editorializing. These problems just are, as they would be in Daniel's life. And since Daniel's existence is both limited and encompassed in a narcotic haze, one cannot expect him to have strong opinions about his life (or anyone else's for that matter). Daniel is smart enough to understand that these problems exist but like most normal 12 year-olds not named Harry Potter or Katniss, he feels (and ultimately is) powerless to do anything about them.

What I think this novel delivers is a dose of critical thinking to young readers. Raymond has forced his readers to look at their own lives and the lives of their friends and family. Are we over-medicating our youth? Are were over psycho-analyzing our youth? If so, for whose benefit? Our kids or ourselves? Do we focus too much on the cult of celebrity? Why do their personal lives matter so much to us? The list of questions Raymond attempts to raise is interesting and IO wonder whether this would be an interesting book to study with a class of 11 or 12 year old kids.

If I had one complaint about the novel is that Raymond is long on the set up and a bit short on the follow-through. At 159 pages, The Son of Rage and Love could have been a little longer if it meant a bit more focus on the climax. I felt that the novel ended just a bit too abruptly and would have liked a little more in terms of elaboration. Still, I appreciate that this novel attempts to deal with adolescent adventure in a more realistic fashion and often reality isn't the storybook ending we expect after hundreds of hours of television, movies and video games. So, it's all good.

Anyway, if you are a fan of YA fiction (or even if you aren't) check this one out. Even if you aren't it has enough elements of classic adult fiction to keep you going. As I mentioned before there was so much about this book that reminded me of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and if that isn't endorsement enough, I don't know what is.

One word review: Refreshing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture
By Peggy Orenstein

This morning a student asked me: "What is the most frightening book you have ever read?"

I answered: "The one I am currently reading."

Of course I was being snarky, but only a little.

I have had Peggy Orenstein's book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, on my reading radar since before my wife got pregnant. When we learned that we were expecting, it jumped up a place or two in my reading line-up. When we learned a couple of weeks ago that we are expecting a daughter, it shot right to the top.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a disturbing exploration of princess culture, a marketing phenomenon spearheaded by Disney. In 1999 Disney hired a man named Andy Mooney to help declining merchandise sales. When he attended a production of Disney On Ice he noticed that a huge number of little girls attended the show wearing home-made princess dresses. Home-made, as in not purchased from Disney. This, of course, was lost revenue. Revenue that Disney intended to recoup.

Over the course of five years (from 2001 to 2006) Disney merchandise division rebounded from $300 million dollars in sales to over $3 billion, the majority of which was made off the sale of Disney Princess merchandise. Mooney and Disney were laughing all the way to the bank, but what sorts of effects did all these pink gowns and tiaras and pampering have on an already increasingly entitled generation of girls?

Orenstein's book delves deep into the social and psychological implications of princess culture from its impact on girl's self-esteem, body issues and the sexualization of girlhood. Some pretty heavy issues for children to deal with. Hell, those are some pretty heavy issues for parents to deal with. It all made me a little queasy about raising a daughter equipped to deal with the insidious manner in which companies market their products to children, and girls specifically.

Certainly everyone in the world is classified and exploited by marketing execs. That's hardly news. However, unlike adults who are (supposedly) consumer savvy, children are in an unfair position in that they are unaware of the rules of the marketing game, making them easy pickings for the likes of consumer divisions at Mattel, Fisher-Price, Disney etc... Children are sort of like animals who participate in the sport of hunting. Only one side of the game is aware of the game being played, and they are armed with the latest technology, while the other is entire oblivious to even the existence of the game. The odds have always been stacked against children.

But when exactly did things get so entirely out of hand? When did every single girl in the world become the incarnation of Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty or Snow White? Are these the role models we want for out girls? What exactly do these princesses do aside from wait around for Prince Charming to do all the heavy lifting? Do these princesses instill even a single positive value into our girls? While she has no love loss for any of the current Disney princesses, Orenstein hold a special place for Ariel (The Little Mermaid) who gives up her voice for a man (the metaphorical implications of that are astronomically abhorrent). Furthermore, as these girls grow up they tend to cast these princesses aside for a different sort of princess in the like of Hannah Montana or other non-animated Disney concoction of fabricated girlhood. And given the recent behavior of some of these former Disney protégés (Brittany Spear, Linsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus), we all know where that leads.

I imagine there are a number of parents who would tell me (who isn't even a parent yet and hardly in the position to say what is right and wrong in the world of parenting) and Ms. Orenstein (who is a parent of a girl -- Daisy) to lighten up. It can't be all that bad. Fantasizing is a natural, integral phase of any childhood. And certainly Orenstein oscillates between indignation and acceptance, resistance and resignation during the course of the book, often more than once. She stresses that modern girl culture’s emphasis on beauty decreases (or, at the very least confuses) a girls’ self-esteem which, in turn, can lead to the traditional parental nightmares: depression, eating disorders, distorted body images and risky sexual behavior. Furthermore, parents are being assured by marketing execs that it's all just normal. I'm not so sure.

With the sheer volume of media that bombards our children in this day in age (and certainly this generation of children are a hell of a lot more tech savvy than any generation in the history of mankind) our girls are being told that being cool is tantamount to popularity and the only way to achieve this is by being sexy or (in Taiwan) cute. While this is isn't a new phenomenon, it's one that is accelerating. As Orensteain notes in the book: "our daughters are getting older younger." Much like the quote, it's all enough to make your head spin.

I didn't agree with everything that Orenstein wrote (some of her conclusions were a tad heavy-handed and a few others are going to need a few weeks of digestion) she has given me and my wife a lot to think about in the months ahead. While my wife and I will be spared a lot of these worries due to our distance from the North American media monster (Taiwan's marketing execs are nowhere near as depraved as their North American counterparts and much of what Orenstein warns against will not be of any consequence to us due to the relative trickle of American culture that makes it's way to our corner of the world) it has made me a lot more mindful of the way products are marketed toward girls. I've never liked the color pink before, but I have an extreme aversion to it now. If you are the parent of a young girl or are planning to have children in the near future, I would jot this title down as required reading.

For anyone who wants so further reading, I recommend Peggy Orenstein's website which is an extension of the ideas expresses in her book and well worth the look.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Candy Machine

The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World
By Tom Feiling

The story of how I came into possession (heh... possession) of this gem of a book is perhaps as interesting as the book itself. But I have to be decidedly vague in retelling it due to the sensitive nature in which I may put the person I am speaking about, but it's a good story, so I'm going to change a few details to protect the innocent.

Last year a friend of mine visited from back home. His job is as a customs officer in a major international airport somewhere on the North American continent. While putting around to all the usual tourist spots along the east coast of Taiwan we were always deep in conversation, usually about his job.  My friend regaled my wife and I with stories of drug seizures and would-be smugglers coming in on flights from Jamaica and Honduras and... yes.... Colombia. By the end of his two week vacation he was probably sick and tired of rehashing the same tired stories of his mundane job in the airport. But to us, he was James Earl Jones with a story to tell. We'd scotch up close with our knees to our noses to get another of his entertaining stories of middle-aged women smuggling keys of coke into the country.

Fast forward a few months and I get a message via Facebook from said friend who tells me to expect a book in the mail. And lo and behold: The Candy Factory: How Cocaine Took Over the World. Given our undivided attention to all things coke during his visit (stories, not snorting), I was more than a little excited to break the spine on this one.

Before I get to the book... Full disclosure: I have never done cocaine.

It's true.

I do drink. At this point in my life, I wish I didn't, but I do. I'm not an alcoholic but i don't think I could quit if I tried, either. I smoked a lot of marijuana through my late teens and early 20s but haven't bothered with it for well over a decade (so much for that legend of pot being the gateway drug. It was the gateway to nothing for me). I've tried ecstasy exactly once but disliked the "come-down" so much that I never bothered again. That's my entire narcotic curriculum vitae. I know... I'm prudish by my generation's standards. What can I say? I've never been all that interested.

I've had more than my fair share of chances to try cocaine. It was prevalent at parties throughout my 20s when I was living in a major North American metropolis (read: Toronto) and it has been offered to me more times than I can count. But I never did bother. It didn't seem like something I wanted to try, so I didn't and according to The Candy Machine, I'm not alone. Despite what the media might say about the dangers of cocaine and crack and crack babies etc... a very small number of people actually use cocaine on a regular basis.

The Candy Machine is an extraordinarily detailed book that cuts through the acres of propaganda and misunderstandings about the coca leaf and its derivative, cocaine. Anyone who has succumbed to the wild and oft-times silly urban legends about the instantaneous addiction that follows your first hit of crack or wild eyed crack babies littering inner-city hospitals would be well served to check this book out. Tom Feiling has delivered a sane, rational expose on the world of cocaine and anyone with a vested interest from government officials on down should take heed.

The book is well organized and is divided into three parts: the past, present and future of cocaine and the other narcotics in america, Europe and the Third World.

The first part of the book chronicles the history of the plant from its origins as a stimulant among the indigenous populations of South America at the time of Pizarro's landing, its popularity during the latter part of the 19th century (when it was used by all sorts of European luminaries including Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes as a brain stimulant), its prohibition in America (along with virtually every other narcotic on the planet) in 1920, its role on the War on Drugs through the advent of crack cocaine. It was especially interesting to note that cocaine remained not only legal  but also widely available prior to prohibition and the cases of addiction remained consistently low throughout that period. It was only during prohibition that the mystique of cocaine grew and its use soared (at cocaine's height in popularity during the late 70s and early 80s, less than 15% of the population admitted to have tried it while over 60% had tried cannabis and over 90% had tried alcohol).

In the second part, Feiling goes onto to discuss the politics of cocaine and the way in which America's schizophrenic obsession with its "war on drugs" has essentially forced narco-economies such as Jamaica and Colombia to ramp up production in order to remain competitive on a global scale (if one doesn't include cocaine, Peru's number one global export, according to the World Bank, is asparagus... it doesn't take a genius to see why a Peruvian farmer would turn to coca cultivation). Furthermore, Feiling provides an almost over-comprehensive account of how America's war on drugs has failed. From the streets of Baltimore (made famous in The Wire) to the fumigation of fields in Colombia (which, ironically, tends to devastate all crops except coca), Feiling interviews all sorts of frontline soldiers in the war who have seen its abject futility as well as its latent racism (although only 13% of hardcore drug users in America are black, over 60% of those imprisoned on drug-related crimes are African-American). The politics of cocaine are so muddled that America often supports presidents and dictators who are the very same people they are trying to put out of business in the drug trafficking world. It's a convoluted mess that would leave even the most ardent anti-drug crusader scratching their heads trying to decide their allegiances.

But it's the final part that really did it for me. In discussing the future of cocaine and the business of narcotics in South america and the world, Feiling presents a rational and well-researched discussion on the subject of legalization. I have been an advocate for universal, across the board legalization of all drugs for a long time now. From my perspective, it solves so many more problems than it creates. while I'm not going to go through all the reasons why legalization is the best option going forward (Feiling does a far better job of that than I) I did appreciate the way in which he discussed the definition of the word addiction, applied addiction to all sorts of non-psychoactive things such as the Internet, sports, shopping and gambling. How are these addictions socially acceptable but not a heroin or cocaine addiction?

Furthermore, Feiling, like me, believes that taking drugs off the streets and out of the hands of the criminal element would enable governments to not only provide addicts the help and support they need but also a revenue stream unparalleled since the the rise of oil. Nations such as the Netherlands and Switzerland are already moving in that direction with a great deal of success and neither nation has seen an increase in drug use. Certainly nobody is advocating an overnight legalization policy but rather something akin to the process of prohibition whereby governments first decriminalize drug use for medicinal purposes and slowly inch toward full legalization over a time frame similar to that of the original criminalization.

To be fair, Feiling gives ample time and space to the counter-arguments but seems to have very little trouble refuting the claims of the current American drug policy. At its current pace, America will only continue to lose the war on drugs which wouldn't be such a big deal if it didn't cost tax-payers a bill that escalates into the tens of billions of dollars each year... to absolutely zero effect.

For anyone that has an interest in the reality of the global drug market, how it works, what it's actual impact has been on our society and the way in which we, as a a society, have dealt with the growing problem, you'd be doing yourself a favor by picking up this book., It has literally every fact and statistic concerning the drug trade that anyone could possibly want, and more. If nothing else, The Candy Machine is an eye opening look at the reality of drugs... and it's worse than you thought, but not in the way that you thought.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to the very last blog post about the Hunger Games on the Internet! After over 100,000,000 reviews and blog posts since its publication in 2008, The Hunger Games has finally reached the most distant corner of the earth (where I am) and cyberspace (um... where I am). Message to Suzanne Collins: This is the end of the line, sister! It's all downhill from here. Once I've got my grubby hands on something you can be damned sure that you have reached saturation point.

I feel sort of funny about this blog post given that I am not going to cover any new ground concerning this epic dystopian best-seller and I'm not going to waste time summarizing the plot. If you are reading this I can infer that either A) you have read it and want to read what I have to say or B) have not read it, have no intention of reading it and stumbled upon this blog by some strange configuration of keywords involving zombies. Sorry Mr. B, there will be no zombies in this blog post.

I am also not going to spend a lot of time talking about how Collins has liberally collected her inspiration from other sources: most obviously Stephen King's short story The Running Man, the Greek myth of Theseus and insipid reality television. This is common enough knowledge and hardly ground-breaking territory. And while I'm not going to attempt to compare The Hunger Games to a Greek myth, Suzanne Collins did an admirable job of updating and improving King's premise for a younger audience. Nice work, Ms. Collins!

Long story short: I liked The Hunger Games. I didn't love it, but it was really good (I stayed up really late twice to finish it). I didn't much enjoy the love story. I would have preferred a more ruthless Katniss winning the games on her own but this is YA fiction and there really must be some remnants of humanity. I thought the love story really hampered the book, slowed it down to a crawl in a few places and compromised the ending enough that I'm not at all excited about reading the second book, but I digress. I'm not here to talk about The Hunger Games. We're all sick of that.

So let's stir up a little controversy, shall we?

I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to weigh in about Joel Stein's controversial editorial entitled "Adults Should Read Adult Books," that appeared in the New York Times a few months ago where he railed against adults who read Young Adult (YA) fiction. In his now infamous editorial, Stein writes that "the only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading The Hunger Games.” and goes on to note that he’ll "read The Hunger Games when {he} finishes the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults."

First, I like Joel Stein. I make a point of reading his column in Time. I like his sense of humor and his Jesse Ventura-esque attitude of calling 'em like he sees 'em. It's that attitude that has won him a lot of fans (like myself) and quite a few detractors, most notably after a column about immigration in which he lamented the influx of Indians into his hometown. Certainly Joel Stein is no stranger to controversy, but one has to admire his willingness to say things other might not have the gumption to say. Few writers in this day in age will do that, and that's a shame. A little controversy never hurt anyone.

Second, I must admit that I rarely read Young Adult fiction. I simply don't enjoy it. I remember when I was a young adult (back in the late 80s and early 90s), I made the jump from children's books to adult novels pretty quickly. I found that YA novels (at the time, possibly) were insulting to my intelligence and tended to gloss over issues I was interested in reading such as pain, loss, misery and other jovial subjects that 13 year old boys love to read about. I have always hated the happy ending (my mother calls me morbidly masochistic and I'm inclined to agree with her). It's hard to find a Beverly Cleary book where everyone dies at the end. I don't like YA fiction.

Still, I have read my share of it. I've read all the Harry Potter novels, the first Twilight (though you'd have to administer the Ludovico Technique to get me to read any more of that drivel), a bunch of Louis Sachar and a few others I can't recall at the moment and don't have the energy to go find. I've enjoyed a few of them as well. But they are what they are. Short books intended for a less-mature audience that tend to have formulaic narratives. If I read two or three of these in a row, I'd go bonkers. But I don't like romance novels or Tolkien-style fantasy either, so it's just a personal preference and not a declaration of war. Relax.

All that hat being said, Stein's editorial really enflamed the ire of readers, especially readers of YA fiction and especially the adult readers of YA fiction. There was a tempest in a teacup for a few days concerning Stein's comments and I simply couldn't understand why.

This is how I felt about Stein's editorial: I laughed. I laughed in the same way one laughs when someone says something funny about their nationality ("Canadians are the new Americans") or job ("those who can't do, teach"). I laughed in the same way when my sister calls me a nerd and tells me the only reason I have a blog is because I miss writing book reports in high school. I'm a grown man who likes zombie movies, cheesy 80s metal and stupid computer games, all of which, I must admit, are easy targets. In other words, lighten up people! It's only Joel Stein! The last time I looked, Joel Stein wields no more or less power over the media than anyone else, bloggers included. His opinion matters as much as mine or yours. No need to get the feathers ruffled. He's making fun of you, and you deserve it! Like Trekkies, Comicon attendees, evangelical Christians, and English teachers in Asia everyone is susceptible to a little ribbing. It's healthy. Because if we can't make fun of ourselves, what else is there?

For the record, I disagree with Stein on his point. I remember when I worked in publishing a few years back, the statistic that got bandied about was that 30% of the population (in Canada) buy 95% of all books. I'm bastardizing that statistic something fierce, but the point remains: Not enough people read. With television, Internet, video games and any number of other distractions competing for our leisure attention, books, which are a longer and more intellectually demanding form of recreation, are a huge investment over the instantaneous gratification that comes from other forms of entertainment. Books are a hard sell.

So I'm of the opinion that anything, ANYTHING that gets people to pick up a book and read is an improvement over no book at all. If that means the 43-year old father of three has his nose in Twilight on the subway rides to and from the office (while moving his mouth while he reads), so be it. He's reading! That's great! If a 60-year old librarian from Poughkeepie, New York is neck deep in the Percy Jackson series, am I going to laugh at her? No. I'm not like that. Is it OK for Joel Stein to laugh at her? Sure. Why not? I mean the man wrote for Martha Stewart for Pete's sake! There's no living that down.

But that's not the point. The point is, we all need to lighten up. Unless you are involved in The Hunger Games in which case, keep your head on and for the love of God, don't light a fire!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Map of Time

The Map of Time
By Felix J. Palma

This book took forever to read! There were points when I honestly thought I wasn't going to finish this one. Not that it was a bad book, in the end it was extremely compelling and I would recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction, horror, fantasy or historical fiction but, Jeez Louise, did it take a while to get going. But more on that later. Let's get down to the nuts and bolts.

Set in Victorian London, The Map of Time is a loosely (but ingeniously) connected series of stories about time travel centered around a fictionalized H.G. Wells and a charlatan by the name of Gilliam Murray. The stories take place in the wake of the publication of Well's first novel, The Time Machine, and London's burgeoning obsession with the idea of time travel.

Murray has capitalized on this obsession by opening a clever time travel agency that allows travelers to visit the year 2000, via a hole in the fabric of time, where they will be treated to a surprisingly choreographed battle to decide the fate of humanity between humans and automatons. Naturally, the London of 1895 eats it up and Murray gets rich beyond his wildest dreams off his elaborate hoax. Much like the novel, Murray's calculated use of smoke and mirrors allow his patrons to believe what they see though, as Murray points out later in the novel, people are prepared to believe anything.

It's this smoke and mirrors that drew me into this novel more than anything else. Time and again throughout this novel, the narrator describes various methods of time travel and presents them as possible ways in which to travel through the fourth dimension only to deconstruct them craftily as the narrative progresses. As a reader, I began to feel as duped as the marks who paid Murray an exorbitant fee to see a musical theater version of the future. But since I had only paid the price of a used book (and since the ultimate payoff in this book is so enthralling) I didn't close the book with the same bad taste in my mouth that Murray's gullible patrons must have had when the discovered his hoax.

And what a payoff! While I will not even hint at the final 200 pages of the novel, I will admit that it was one of the most exciting endings to a novel I have read in a long time. It is here that Palma makes the leap into pure science fiction and never looks back. Palma bends and twists time in complicated folds reminiscent of The Time Traveler's Wife and left me re-reading passages twice (and even thrice) just to make sure I understand the intricacies. Palma's science fiction universe is positively engrossing and extraordinarily compelling. It is of the sort that will have you up late at night salivating over the "what ifs."

But never mind the science fiction. With a cast of characters that includes not only H.G. Wells but also Henry James, Bram Stoker, Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick and the Queen of England herself, The Map of Time is also an exquisitely realized piece of historical fiction. The compellingly believable hoax concocted by Murray to explain is version of time travel is a wonderful side step into the realm of fantasy and the chillingly sinister importance of Jack the Ripper to the story adds an element of horror to an already layered novel. For anyone who likes any (or ll) of these genres, The Map of Time is a real treat... once you get into it, that is.

Which gets me to my only complaint about this novel: The incessant backstory toward the beginning of the book. The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed but fully realized and entirely omnipotent narrator who seems extremely concerned with the reader's attention span but completely confident that the story he is telling is on for the ages. I was more than a little frustrated with this incessant reassurance. If it was such a great story why not simply get to the good story rather than dilly-dally through the Tom Jones of it all. Although it would seem that Palma, in this respect is his own worst critic. At one point Wells is speaking to Murray about Murray's manuscript:

In my opinion, not only have you started out with a rather naive premise, but you have developed it in a most unfortunate way, stifling its few possibilities. The structure of your narrative is inconsistent and muddled, the episodes are linked only tenuously, and in the end one has the impression that events occur higgledy-piggledy, without any inner cohesion, simply because it suits you.

This quote could have easily been a slander of Palma's first 200 pages. What really galled me was that by the end of the novel I discovered that a good chunk of the initial backstories were entirely unnecessary and did nothing to further the cohesiveness of the narrative. It all seemed like literary filler. For what? I'm still not sure.

But once through those first 200 pages, I must admit that Felix J. Palma has indeed written a science fiction novel for the ages and worth the investment in time. For anyone picking this tome up, I impress upon you the need for patience. I promise you that if you keep the faith, Palma will pay out. Oh yeah, and it has a really cool cover.