Jul 28, 2012

Glenn's Nominations for August

After a brief hiatus, we are back with an interesting set of selections for late August.  It may still feel like summer, but these titles will remind us that reading can be both pleasurable and provocative.  Herewith Glenn's suggestions (with commentary) for August.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman , by Feynman, Leighton, Hutchings (352 pages)

First Plagiarized Review: ‘Surely you must be joking…’ does not read like an ordinary book. It reads like Reader’s Digest – a bunch of anecdotes bundled together and presented to you, with Feynman as the common thread that runs throughout. While at a glance, the book might appear to be a light-hearted series of exchanges and incidents, the reader could not be more wrong. Venture a little deeper, and the book stands out as the testimony of a man who refused to stick to any kind of conformity. Amidst all the pranks, the lock-picking experiences, hypnotism or even topless bars, Feynman just reinforces the fact that varied and even ostensibly scandalous interests can be pursued at leisure away from work. After reading the book, there is little wonder about Feynman’s life. Instead, there is a genuine urge to follow one’s insanities and nurture them. This book is not an exhibition of a man’s engaging madness – which is the general perceived view. ‘Surely you must be joking…’ offers hope. It seems to indicate that rules that make no sense need not be accepted. To the vast millions who are trapped in mid-life crises and bewildered in the anonymous corporate world, this book is a testament – you can go crazy, follow your quirks and do what you think is right. It can be done. And that is definitely no joke.

Second Plagiarized Review:  A series of anecdotes shouldn't by rights add up to an autobiography, but that's just one of the many pieces of received wisdom that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) cheerfully ignores in his engagingly eccentric book, a bestseller ever since its initial publication in 1985. Fiercely independent (read the chapter entitled "Judging Books by Their Covers"), intolerant of stupidity even when it comes packaged as high intellectualism (check out "Is Electricity Fire?"), unafraid to offend (see "You Just Ask Them?"), Feynman informs by entertaining. It's possible to enjoy Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman simply as a bunch of hilarious yarns with the smart-alecky author as know-it-all hero. At some point, however, attentive readers realize that underneath all the merriment simmers a running commentary on what constitutes authentic knowledge: learning by understanding, not by rote; refusal to give up on seemingly insoluble problems; and total disrespect for fancy ideas that have no grounding in the real world. Feynman himself had all these qualities in spades, and they come through with vigor and verve in his no-bull prose. No wonder his students--and readers around the world--adored him. --Wendy Smith

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes (870 pages)

I've blown the doors off the page maximum with this one (870 pages).  However, this book chronicles the personalities (including Feynman) and the technical hurdles involved in the most challenging technical quest in human history.  Rhodes won the Pulitzer prize for his effort.  In two months, we could definitely finish it.

This book is a major work of historical synthesis that brings to life the men and machines that gave us the nuclear era. Rich in drama and suspense, ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb'' also has remarkable breadth and depth, revealing new connections, insights and surprises. The book bristles with detail and irony. There are raccoon coats and incendiary raids, heavy water and theatrical satires, patent fights and suntan lotion (worn in 1945 by physicists in the predawn darkness of the New Mexican desert to protect them from the flash of the first bomb). There was even a third ''gadget'' being readied to be dropped on Japan, even as Hiroshima and Nagasaki smoldered. ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb'' offers not only the best overview of the century's pivotal event, but a probing analysis of what it means for the future.

A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller (334 pages)

First Plagiarized Review:  Written at a time when the Fear of the Bomb was at full steam, the Hugo-winning A Canticle for Leibowitz stands head and shoulders above virtually every other post-apocalypse SF novel of its day, and it may be the most important SF novel ever written. It beggars the imagination to think that this was Miller's only novel; though in 1997, the year after Miller's death, a sequel titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was finished out by Terry Bisson and released. Contemplative, elegiac, and gut-wrenching in its best moments, the story allows Miller to view the human race through a glass darkly. Will our species ever learn from its mistakes and not repeat them? Miller hopes so, though he doesn't exactly appear to think so. This book is a lament for humanity. 

Plagiarized Review:  Walter M. Miller's acclaimed SF classic A Canticle for Leibowitz opens with the accidental excavation of a holy artifact: a creased, brittle memo scrawled by the hand of the blessed Saint Leibowitz, that reads: "Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma." To the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, this sacred shopping list penned by an obscure, 20th-century engineer is a symbol of hope from the distant past, from before the Simplification, the fiery atomic holocaust that plunged the earth into darkness and ignorance. As 1984 cautioned against Stalinism, so 1959's A Canticle for Leibowitz warns of the threat and implications of nuclear annihilation. Following a cloister of monks in their Utah abbey over some six or seven hundred years, the funny but bleak Canticle tackles the sociological and religious implications of the cyclical rise and fall of civilization, questioning whether humanity can hope for more than repeating its own history. Divided into three sections--Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done)--Canticle is steeped in Catholicism and Latin, exploring the fascinating, seemingly capricious process of how and why a person is canonized. --Paul Hughes