Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.

Freckleface Strawberry by Julianne Moore

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Can too much curiosity spur accidental bullying?

Moore, Julianne. Freckleface Strawberry. Illustrations by LeUyen Pham. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: An exuberant little girl tries everything to hide her red hair and freckles. She quickly uncovers a difficult choice: either go through life alone and uncomfortable or accept her own oddities.

Critique: First off, Pham’s vigorous, lively illustrations bring the entire book to life. She crafts distinct postures rich with emotion and expression.

And if you are wondering whether the Julianne Moore who authored this book is the same Julianne Moore who played Maude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the answer is yes!

For me, the most interesting facet of Moore’s text is the way she uses excessive curiosity as a vehicle for unintended persecution. Unlike the hobgoblins I evidently grew up among, the children in this book are not outright mean. Rather than bully and tease the protagonist about the features that make her unique, they pepper her with questions.

Do freckles hurt? What do they smell like?

To be fair, they do nickname her Freckleface Strawberry and at least one kid makes a lame joke. But on the whole, Moore’s depiction of the child tribe is utterly civilized. Of course, all that may change when freckles and red hair combine with glasses, braces, boobs, and zits. Hang in there, Freckleface!

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

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Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.

 

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.