books....so many books

books….so many books

Book Review: The Pluto Files

I found this book sitting in my supervisor’s office. After flipping through it I though it’d be a fun light read (and I was right!), but it also added a few more dimensions to the very contentious Pluto ‘debate.’ The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet was written by the infamous Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

2013-04-09 08.50.57In short, this was a great summary of Pluto, tracing the little-object-that-could from its inferred existence, to discovery, to re-classification, and finally to the eventual fallout of the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) decision. We all know Dr. Tyson is an excellent science/astrophysics communicator so it may seem natural, on that clout alone, for him to write such a book. After all, what astronomical topic has so captivated the public other than ‘Pluto-gate?’ However, Dr. Tyson was in a particularly important position (or perhaps ‘central position’ is a better word) during the planetary status debate, which better illustrates why an account of Pluto’s ‘rise and fall’ should be written by him.

It was in the early days (circa 1999-2000) of planning the Astronomy exhibit at AMNH, that Dr. Tyson and his team realized that Pluto didn’t quite fit. If you were to group objects in the Solar System into like categories you’d find that Pluto didn’t fit in with Terrestrial Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), nor with Gas Giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). All of Pluto’s characteristics match more closely to Kuiper Belt objects: small icy/rocky bits in the outer solar system (past Neptune). In an effort to create a more time-less exhibit, Dr. Tyson and his team therefore presented Pluto as a member of this category, and avoided the term ‘Planet’ in their exhibit all together. Note this was done BEFORE the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially re-classified Pluto as a ‘dwarf’ planet in 2004.

I personally see this as a very pragmatic approach. Dr. Tyson presented the solar system by sorting the objects into like categories, and as a result, he 1) did not mislead the public, and 2) created an exhibit that does not require a face lift when scientific terminology changes. And most importantly, Dr. Tyson approached the problem in a scientific manner: he didn’t ask ‘what do we WANT to call Pluto?’ he asked ‘Where does Pluto FIT?’ As a result of the exhibit’s approach to Pluto, Dr. Tyson received a lot of backlash saying, among other things, that he was not presenting the collective agreement of the scientific community. I believe he handled it very well.

The question of what to call Pluto seems to have struck a chord. It has divided both the public and parts of the scientific community. Wherever you land on the issue, I think it very important you ask yourself WHY you’re opinion is that way. It is very un-scientific to say ‘Pluto was a planet when I went through school, so it’ll be a planet forever.’ Are you holding on to Pluto because of your romanticized notion of the 9 planets?

This was a very fun retelling, including comic strips and personal accounts, of everything you’d want to know about Pluto. I definitely recommend reading it. And keep in mind, it is very likely that the definition of what a planet is will change again as we learn more about the solar and exo-solar systems. Science is an ever-evolving freight train powered by the collective investigations of humanity. It will continue forward no matter how hard you fight it.


happy reading!

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

I picked this book up based on its recommendations. A friend at work had read and suggested it. The movie was big in theatres and, according to another friend, it was ‘weird but interesting.’ Also, my mom got it for christmas! With it so easily within my grasp, I figured it was worth checking out.

Cloud Atlas was authored by David Mitchell, who has written two novels (number9dream and Cloud Atlas) that were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Even though I picked up this book at the recommendation of others, I knew very little about it. For those that know me well, they know I absolutely dislike spoilers. I do not like to know what is going to happen in a book/movie/show before I read/see it. While I enjoy seeing ‘teasers’ for movies, I do not like trailers because trailers reveal FAR too much about the movie. When I go to the movies, I’ll go so far as to close my eyes and plug my ears during previews of movies that I really want to see. Crazy? Maybe. But I like to be surprised. It is such ‘the norm’ nowadays that you know most of it before you see it/read it. What happened to the days of not knowing? Of walking into a movie you’d never heard of? That pleasant surprise of a story line you weren’t expecting? That is what I seek my friends. And the main reason I jumped on Cloud Atlas was because it offered me that rare chance to read something I knew nothing about. All I knew was that it was ‘weird but interesting,’ and a ‘collection of short stories.’ Perfect.*

2013-03-30 18.12.03So before I move on, for those that are like me, there are some spoilers below. Fairly warned be ye, says I. Cloud Atlas is hard to nail down into one genre. But if I had to, I’d call it a fantasy novel. Let me explain.

The book is comprised of 6 different story lines, with 6 different main characters, spread across 6 different epochs of human history, beginning in the 1800’s and extending to the (possibly) far future. Each story line is interrupted by the other. Meaning, you read the first half of the first story, then the first half of the second story, then the third, etc. After you’ve read the first half of each, you then are given the last half of each in reverse order. As you read through the different stories, you find that the main characters are some how connected through time. Each sharing a similar birthmark and subtly playing out small roles in each other’s story lines. You find that the multiple characters in the book are actually one character reincarnated through time. Fantasy? Each of the individual story lines has their own genre. One is south pacific travel log, one is a corporate conspiracy, another deals with dystopian futures.
I really enjoyed the post-apocalyptic story line, as it reached out to my love of astronomy. That story takes place in Hawaii after some global catastrophe (human made, it appears) has reduced humanity to a more prehistoric reality. In this story, the characters make a trek to the top of Mauna Kea. In our time, this summit is home to some of the most advanced research telescopes in the world (one of which I have used for my PhD research). As an astronomer, I enjoyed following the characters to the summit; I enjoyed watching as they inspected the ruins of civilizations passed, and conjecture on what these buildings/domes were for. The role the summit of Mauna Kea played in this story line was very interesting as well, but I won’t spoil it. This actually reminded very much of the short story By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet. Check that out too, it’s a great read.

My feeling after reading Cloud Atlas is less that I was blown away by the rise and fall of each individual story, and more a sense of enjoyment from the structure of the book. The individual stories weren’t necessarily remarkable on their own, but the way they were interwoven is what satisfied by literary interests. I didn’t have the normal feeling of sadness when finishing this book (usually I get this when I really connect with the story or characters, or themes resonate strongly); this time I felt happy for having had my mind bent a little.

One last thing. The author also made many subtle, and not so subtle, references to his own writing throughout the book. I enjoyed this very much. It felt like not only were the characters reincarnated versions of each other connected through time, but that I was connected through the pages. As if the author and the reader are just more layers of interconnectedness. I almost wanted to check myself for birthmarks!
If you’ve made it this far, I fear I’ve ruined the book for you. I’m sorry. But I still think it worth your time. There is a lot more to discover in Cloud Atlas than what I am able to (poorly) articulate here.
I suppose I should go watch the movie now? It was produced by the Andy and Lana Wachowski! The brains behind The Matrix. Should be very good.

Happy Reading!
*Notable movies/books I knew nothing about before seeing/reading: Inception, The Matrix, Sandman, Fifth Business, and others

Book Review: Preludes & Nocturnes

After reading the epic novel The Brothers Karamazov, I was sad, and for two reasons: 1. After reading a book I really love, I’m always sad to see it end, to no longer be part of it, to see the characters stop, but also, 2. because I didn’t have any other booked lined up to read after it. Usually I have a stack of 2 to 5 books somewhere on my shelf that I’m dying to read, but haven’t gotten to yet. At the end of BK, I was not in the same position. This time, I was left wondering ‘what to read next?’ Sure, there are a couple books I haven’t read that are on my shelf, but I’m not dying to read them. One for instance is the follow up to the Mars Trilogy: The Martians by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is a collection of short stories. Or perhaps I could finally dive into Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I also have Flatterland, the differently authored follow up to the amazing Flatland by Edwin Abbott. But none of these were itching at me. All sitting on my shelf, but none were calling my name.

So this was my frame of mind, sitting at my book shelf, hopelessly looking for a new book to read, when I ran across The first instalment of the comic series The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I had gotten this graphic novel a few christmas’ ago (and I can’t remember which of my family members gave it to me), but I just put it on my shelf and forgot about it. As I was apparently in a world of literary lostness, I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least flip through it and see what it was like. After I got started, I really didn’t put it down!

Preludes & Nocturnes is the first of 10 graphic novels in the Sandman series, each consisting of multiple mini episodes. This novel tells the story of Morpheus, the king of dreams, who is somehow summed by a human cult leader. This leader was actually hoping to summon Death itself, but ended up with Dream. Not sure of what to do, the cult leader imprisons Dream for decades, until Dream finally escapes. In order to regain his full strength he spends the course of the novel looking for the three objects stolen from him: his helmet, his ruby, and his bag of sand.

I actually found it very hard to switch genres from the epic Russian drama The Brothers Karamazov, to the graphic novel fantasy The Sandman. In reading graphic novels, most of the tone and story line is not told in the reading, but in studying the images given. If you only read the conversation bubbles, you’re missing everything! I had to force myself to slow down, and appreciate what I was seeing, and not just reading. My experience in graphic novels is limited only to The Watchmen, which I loved, but it has been a while since I read it.

I very much enjoyed making the switch, and have decided to purchase the rest of the series. Come on Amazon, ship faster! I have nothing to read while I wait! I recommend reading this series if you are at all into graphic novels/comics.

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is the final novel of the great russian. The only other work I’ve read by Dostoevsky is Crime and Punishment, a novel I greatly loved, but that would be the topic of another book review that I may never write!

The Brothers Karamazov (BK) has been in my possession now for far too long, and I’ve been putting off reading it. This was mostly driven by its enormity, and my want for something easy to read.

So after a quick attempt at BK, I jumped on the Jasper Fford band wagon along with many other books. But I resolved in December that I would finish this book! So here it is!

I must first say, as I often do at the beginning of a book review, there is far too much to dive into here. I’m not attempting to analyze the book from cover to cover and write an essay (oh how much work THAT would be). My book reviews are more selfish in their nature. I simply want to catalog the books I read, as I read them, and jot down my thoughts.

BK follows the family Karamazov in a small town in Russia in the mid 19th century. The father is Fyodor Pavlovich, with three sons: Dmitri Fyodorovich, Ivan Fyodorvich, and Alexei Fyodorvich. The first bore by one mother, the following two by another. The story is a courtroom drama, surrounding some very unfortunate events involving the characters above, along with a few other important people.

BK surprised me. As I mentioned above, I’ve attempted to read this book before, but quickly became disinterested. I felt there wasn’t much happening in terms of plot, and that Dostoevsky was writing at length regarding topics that didn’t seem relevant. But as this is a courtroom drama, you’d be surprised at how many details are relevant.

The book is more than its ultimate tragedy. There are some serious discussions regarding God, marriage, and family. There is a particular discussion between brothers Ivan and Alexei in a pub where Ivan explains how he does not believe in God to Alexei, a pseduo-monk. It’s a very great read. I learned a lot about the Russian way of life, and a little of the Russian language. A co-worker of mine helped me pronounce the names of the characters as well as other objects/places a little more accurately.

By the end of the book I didn’t want to put it down. Dostoevsky’s pace and style is a beautiful example of artwork on page. He so perfectly can capture what his characters are thinking, how they’re acting, and why. Not only is Dostoevsky an artist for his literary style, but he is clearly a student of humankind. His writing is filled with biblical, social, and political references.* I would liken him to J.R.R. Tolkien. I found when reading the great Lord of the Rings, I was captured by Tolkien’s descriptive style. Dostoevsky is the same way.

Compared against Crime and Punishment (CP), I find it tough to choose a favourite. CP was an examination of desperation and human guilt, while BK forces us to analyze our own families and how we understand those relationships.

Whatever the better novel, I highly recommend reading both. They are indeed mountainous, but worth every word.

Happy Reading!


* Dostoevsky, being russian, of course wrote in russian! This translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is apparently one of the best out there, capturing Dostoevsky’s style and poetry. It also came complete with endnotes, helping me understand the obvious and not-so-obvious references prevalent through the text.