Wednesday, April 7, 2010

march reading

The Varieties of Scientific Experience
by: Carl Sagan

I wasn't entirely certain what to expect from this book. The subtitle, "A Personal View of the Search for God," and the introduction by Ann Druyan (who was his wife and collaborator) gave me the impression that it would somehow be a reconciliation of the idea of God with the rigor of scientific thought. Instead, it is a systematic dismantling of the traditional idea of God. It holds up various pieces of fuzzy logic and unexamined belief and sets out piles of clear, gently expressed, scientific fact alongside them. It's not at all a vicious book. Sagan offers such enthusiasm about the world as it is, such abundant pleasure in the discovery of knowledge, and such absolute faith in both our capacity to understand and the vastness of what we attempt to understand. He's in love with the scientific world, and it's infectious. I get the impression that this was his religion: science, the discovery of understanding, learning what the world is in order to know it better.

Beatrice and Virgil
by: Yann Martel

This book is very strange. It is so filled with disparate, pointedly bizarre elements that I kept thinking, "Oh, man! You really shouldn't work." It's a story within a story (told in the form of a play, with dialogue mostly shared between a donkey and a monkey) and it's about stories -- the ones we make our lives into, or tell about ourselves. Put something into a story and it's easier to judge, to gloss over, to adjust and fine tune until it's closer to the way we wish it were. This should all be too convoluted and meta. I fully expected to remain unmoved.

Admittedly, the book has some personal advantages:
1. taxidermy
2. Yann Martel also wrote Life of Pi. I have read this book once, and I loved it so intensely that I'm nervous of reading it again.
3. talking animals
4. beautiful writing. I don't just mean a wash of gorgeous prose. Martel is precise with his words and his metaphors. He picks the ones that are exactly right, ignoring the easy choices and offering the ones that slice you open and make you bleed recognition (see: the passage about the pear).
5. three sentences that made absolute sense: "Creative block is no laughing matter; or only to those sodden spirits who've never even tried to make their personal mark. It's not just a particular endeavour, a job, that is negated; it's your whole being. It's the dying of a small god within you, a part you thought might have immortality."

It also has one enormous disadvantage: the story it is trying to tell is partially about the Holocaust. I am leery about the Holocaust in fiction. I don't like the taste of the easy manipulation that comes with the bad examples, and the horror of the good ones can temporarily devastate my faith in humanity. Somehow, Martel manages to avoid both. He has a light enough touch that the horror is terrible, shocking, and real, but it doesn't blot out the world.

I still don't know how the book worked. There are formatting and structural tricks, omissions and an ending that would normally annoy me, but I still feel better for reading it.

When You Reach Me
by: Rebecca Stead

I read this for the YA bookclub that I run at the bookstore. The first few pages made me groan because I thought, there's no way that any of the boys are going to like this. Then I read a few more and thought, there's no way that anybody who hasn't read A Wrinkle in Time is going to like this. Then I read a few more and a few more, and got closer to the end (it's a very brief book), and it suddenly became one of those books that I have to finish in one go, or else the real world is just going to be an intrusion.
(As a side note: everybody, boys included, enjoyed it. The discussion was intense. The morality of time travel. How it feels to know ahead of time how you're going to die. The cattiness of relationships. What if crazy people all really have something that they're trying to remember? )

1 comment:

Emily Jiang said...

I'm glad you liked When You Reach Me. It was one of my favorite books that I read last year b/c it's such a fun puzzle.