Since we didn’t have to move this summer as we'd had to the previous two summers (once because of black mold, once because our landlady was batguano crazy), I had a chance to do something this summer I've not done much lately: to read for pleasure. I was amazed at how much I'd missed it, how fun it is to see the world through the written words of others. I made the most of the opportunity. Now, as the summer comes to an end and autumn falls, here is a brief (?) inventory of what I’ve read since May 1st:
Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe by Walter Koenig
First and foremost, this is not a Star Trek book. It just happens to be written by, and consequently features several experiences of, one of the Star Trek main cast. Pretty entertaining; it’s an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood if you're a typecast actor who also wants to be a writer (and director and/or producer). A fun, quick read, with several interesting photos.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
I love this book! It talks about many chemical discoveries and the huge (or sometimes merely trivial) impacts they had on society and history. It also had a lot of fun chemistry (and historical) trivia. It is occasionally technical, but never more than absolutely necessary. I learned a lot from this book—and chemistry is what I do for a living.
Made for Heaven: And Why on Earth It Matters by C. S. Lewis
I was given this small book as a gift a couple of years ago after serving as a teacher in the Ward we were living in. I recently found it again in a box, and decided to read it. It contains excerpts from two of Lewis’ books and one of his sermons (“The Weight of Glory”). It reminded me how much I enjoy (and am occasionally challenged by) Lewis’ writings. A quick read, it inspired me to read two of his other books that I’d never read before (see below).
Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring by Henry J. Eyring
Written by one of his grandsons, this book is an interesting and rather unconventional biography of Dr. Henry Eyring (the scientist, not the one in the LDS First Presidency—that’s his son). Born in Colonia Juárez, Mexico, Dr. Eyring grew up on ranches in Mexico and Arizona, eventually going to college, earning a PhD., becoming a researcher in Germany and at Princeton University (whose faculty included Albert Einstein), and eventually moving to Salt Lake City to become the Dean of the University of Utah’s graduate program. He won every significant award in chemistry except for the Nobel Prize (some members of the committee later admitted that they hadn’t understood his paper). But this book focuses as much on his family and his faith as on his scientific achievements. It’s as much a look at the man as at the scientist, perhaps more so. It’s not the best-written biography I’ve ever read, but it was very interesting.
The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
Imagine being a recent arrival in Hell, and being invited to board a bus for a day trip to Heaven. Having seen Heaven, would you want to go back? In this extended allegory, almost every passenger, for a wide variety of reasons, eventually decides to get back on the bus and return to Hell. It’s an interesting look at the cost of Heaven. Primarily, the cost is a willingness to give up everything that would keep us out.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I made it through adolescence without ever reading this book. I decided it was time to change that. I enjoyed the book, and was pleasantly surprised that, being a Newbery Award winner, it didn’t have a downer ending. I haven’t read any of the others in the series yet, but I’ll get to them at length, I expect. Maybe Sophia and I will read them together.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I don’t know how it happened, but somehow I made it through my high school and college literature classes without ever reading this book. With Bradbury’s death earlier this year, I decided to give it a read. I’m often not a big fan of the books English teachers require their students to read (Flowers for Algernon, Lord of the Flies, etc.), but this one is good. It’s relevant. Although we don’t live in constant terror of nuclear war as we did when the book was written, the future the book presents is eerily prescient: People surround themselves with a constant stream of information, all of it trivial, all of it bland and calculatedly inoffensive, all of it designed to distract them from their own lives. There are big screen TVs on every wall, made-to-order fiction you can watch and listen to 24/7, vicarious social interactions that require no actual contact with other human beings. Sound familiar?
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
This was a haunting book, taken from Lewis’ journals kept immediately after his wife’s death. He opens his soul to his readers, allowing us to follow him in his journey through grief, despair, and doubt to acceptance and reaffirmation of faith. It’s a courageous book to have written and to have shared.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
I’ve read this one before, more than once; I checked it out and re-read it primarily to find a quote to use in my AP class. The book is either a classic bit of military science fiction or an extended author tract, depending on who you ask. Maybe both. I enjoy the book for both reasons (and in some respects, despite them). It is interesting to examine the question of what a civilization would be like if elected officials—and the citizens who elected them—had to prove, perhaps at the peril of their own lives, that they could place the welfare of their society ahead of their own ambitions. Oh, and there’s powered battle armor, too.
Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
This was the most surprising book of the summer for me. I’d seen the more cinematic portrayals of Frankenstein’s Creature: grotesque, slow and trudging, barely verbal. The literary Creature is quite different: grotesque, true, but also quick and athletic, intelligent, and extremely articulate. (I would say ‘loquacious’, but everyone in the book is loquacious. It’s the nature of books written in that period.) While I’ve most often heard the book described as a treatise on the risk of hubris in science, I got something entirely different out of it. To me, the moral of the story lies in how the Creature became the Monster: Because of the treatment it received from its creator and others. Had the creature been treated kindly despite its deformities, it could have been (and even expressed a desire to be) a great asset to society instead of a killer. What is our treatment of the people around us making of them?
Dr. Joe & What You Didn't Know: 177 Fascinating Questions About the Chemistry of Everyday Life by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
This is exactly what it says on the tin: Questions (and answers, thankfully) about how chemistry (and science in general) shows up in daily life. Dr. Joe has several books like this. They make for a good read, explaining things in scientific and historical detail without being too technical for non-scientists. I highly recommend the whole series.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
This was probably the most challenging read of the summer for me. The story is told as a first person narrative, and the protagonist (who has the same name as the author) is a time machine repairman. His story is, therefore, nonlinear. With numerous references to physics and language, he discusses the difficulties of living outside of time. He frequently mentions two companions: TAMMY, the melancholy computer operating system who runs his time machine, and a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog named Ed. He writes about receiving a book (which has the same name as the novel) from his future self, whom he then shoots, trapping himself in a time loop. Confusing? Yes, more than a bit so. Mostly, though, the book as about his efforts to find and connect with his family, especially his father, something he never managed to do in the past.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery by Alan Bradley
My friend Wendy recommended this book, and I’m glad she did. It’s the story of Flavia, a precocious eleven-year-old who unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation in 1950s England. Armed only with her sharp wits, an exemplary knowledge of chemistry, her faithful bicycle Gladys, and the final word of a dying man, Flavia seeks to discover the identity of the man who died in her family’s cucumber patch and to exonerate her reclusive father, who’s been accused of the murder. It’s a good read, and as a pleasant surprise, the chemistry is solid.
There were a few other things, too: several graphic novels (X-Men, Avengers, and Justice League titles, mostly), short stories (like Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains"), and aftermarket analyses of the symbolism of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. And of course I had to redesign my Honors classes for the coming year thanks to a new curriculum map the district gave us last fall, so I spent a lot of time with my textbook. But the books listed above were the highlights.
And if you're curious, here's what on my reading list for the next few weeks:
The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Society, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History by Dan Karlan, Allan Lazar and Jeremy Salter
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
What have you been reading lately?