On the Internal Sea

I’m not usually a webcomic reader, but since I was introduced to Mare Internum, it has held my attention. It is deeply satisfying to read an astrobiology-related story that is told so beautifully.

On its surface, Mare Internum is the story of two scientists who suffer a catastrophic accident while investigating a martian cave. Michael Fisher is a pioneering geologist who recently suffered a mysterious breakdown and is being sent back to Earth. Bex, his replacement, is an entomologist who seems to have come to Mars to escape Earth. Little by little, their lives are revealed as interludes in the main story. And the main story… well, mare internum is Latin for “internal sea.”

The story is vividly illustrated. The characters, though not always comprehensible, are likeable. The only rough patch for me has been Chapter 2. I had trouble deciphering some of the art, and the story moved slowly. However, I was reading each page as it was released—since then, I’ve gone back and read the whole chapter, and it flows better. And I’ll grant that an extraterrestrial environment is inherently difficult to decipher.

I can’t speak for all astrobiologists (and I’m not technically an astrobiologist, ha), but this is a treat. Great art and action are paired with references to brines, botryoids, chemoclines, and a host of other ideas we hold dear. One of my favorite pages features a lovely rendering of Mars and opens the conversation up to panspermia—the concept that microbial life can travel from one planet to “seed” another. (Note that if you click the panspermia link, spoilers will happen!)

I very much want to see where this comic goes. If you like it, you might also want to read the author’s longer-running webcomic The Meek.

Speaking of the author, if you’re at the Emerald City Comicon this weekend, you can meet Der-shing Helmer in person. Lucky!

Larry McMurtry and My West

I spent my first handful of years in a town in Central Washington. Ever since then I’ve had an affinity for things rural, which puzzles me because, really, I am a child of the suburbs. Yet those early memories of wide spaces, wheat fields, combine harvesters, and 4-H fairs made their impression on me. Well. I’m not the first one to be drawn into the romance of farm life. And I’m not the first to sail on a sea of nostalgia.

Still, I have always–and legitimately so–considered myself a Westerner. When my family and I would pile into the car and drive to visit some relative, we measured our journey in hours: two, three, four, five hours to see family. And we spent those hours traversing plains and hills dry and rocky and, well, kind of glorious. When I finally came to learn of places like New York, Boston, and Atlanta, I knew they had nothing like this.

Later in my youth, my years in suburban Chicago enforced my Western identity. Just to move to Illinois we had to cover entire states of open space; Montana I particularly remember. And, as every kid does, I clung to what made me special. Washington and the West were exactly that.

If as a reader you are looking for someone indisputably Western, Larry McMurtry is a clear choice. Though I’d never before pictured myself reading his books, I was recently recommended Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. And to me the shining stars of this book are his descriptions of the West, of wild spaces, of pioneers and the pains of rural life. My favorite passage (p 201):

The Western land is mostly not kind–it has always favored strength over beauty. The strength of the land has to be matched by a strength within people, or the people don’t survive. The milder, more responsive environments–Virginia, say–might please the eye but seem, in the end, insipid compared to the West.

I lived on the harder, drier side of Washington–not the postcard-pretty Olympic Peninsula or sophisticated Seattle. Drive a ways out of town, and there were rattlesnakes. Drive farther, and the Columbia River moved like a shock through sharp hills, hardly resembling its presence farther down in the Scenic Gorge along Oregon. Most of all, I remember when Mount Saint Helens erupted. Yes, the West, where a mountain can explode and collapse. Probably that’s not what McMurtry had in mind when he wrote the passage above, but it’s the most potent expression of strength I have ever witnessed or am likely to witness.

Aside from the volcano, and given his family’s experiences in Texas, perhaps McMurtry would consider my Washington hometown gentle as a dove. Nonetheless, in my own way I learned that nature is big and rough. And though it is a big, rough, even cruel thing, I love how McMurtry writes about it. I recommend Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, for the reasons above and for the reasons that follow, though at times I have my complaints as well.

The humor. Throughout the book, he includes wonderful bits of humor. Jesse Brewer the old cowhand was my favorite. I also enjoyed the Archer County centennial doings. And I loved McMurtry’s frank admission of his terror of poultry.

The humanity. He tells a startling story about his parents and an incident that shaped their lives. This and other passages give a penetrating look into humanity, which, like nature, can be beautiful or terrible. McMurtry writes with insight.

The heart. McMurtry tells the tale of his open-heart surgery “for what help the record might give to those who have this surgery and find that they no longer feel quite themselves” (p 150). I think he really does readers a service. A compassion settled on me as I read of his experience. I recommend this part of the book to anyone (especially readers) recovering from serious illness. And, really, to those like me who haven’t suffered so much but who need to be made aware.

The readers. You can rope readers into two groups: (1) those who enjoy reading about other readers; (2) those who don’t, or are at least ambivalent. I am ambivalent. I’m glad to hear that other people read, I always want people to enjoy reading, I myself cherish the act of reading. But I know what I cherish about reading, and I have an idea of what others cherish about it. That’s enough. So McMurtry’s passages about it were dull to me. At times they sounded like name-dropping, as he rattled off this and that author. However, I can see that to other readers (including the one who recommended this book to me) the names of these authors open up new, fertile fields of literature.

The books. What did engage me was his long description of life as a book scout. I appreciated this for its view of the book as an object, valuable for its form as well as its content. He writes of books as solid, substantial individuals that dwell on bookshelves in bookstores. This is the aspect of books that I don’t mind reading about. Perhaps that’s why I chose to study publishing instead of writing. I love the physical presence of books and appreciate McMurtry’s elaboration on his pursuit of them.

The tragedy. Can you do justice to the West without writing about loss? McMurtry writes of the loss of his father’s profession, cattle ranching. More widespread and tragic, the loss of Native American lives and culture (which I felt should be more fully detailed in this book, but then it would be a different book). For my part, the hills around my Washington hometown are now blanketed with wind turbines, generating power for the valley. The wildness of the West is constantly being chopped up and commercialized. And on that topic Larry McMurtry expresses his feelings eloquently.

The flaws. This book, this collection of essays isn’t perfect. Because of its various topics, it’s bound to hit some wrong (or at least tedious) notes for readers. For me, the rambling passage about the disappearance of family time and the rise of the television and microwave was… well, those laments were old news by the 1980s. But slog through the parts that don’t appeal to you: the whole is worth it.

In conclusion, I want to say that although I’ve spent most of this review waxing eloquent about the West, I’d recommend this book to anyone. This is a book about place and the lives that come and go on this earth. What is more important than that?

. . .

McMurtry, Larry. (1999) Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-684-85496-1

Happy Holidays, Everyone

Happy holidays. I would like to post more often next year. We shall see.

Today I finished reading (again) one of my favorite books, The Hobbit. I hope you all are reading, too.

Nothing I do will ever be this awesome.

Over the holidays, I began reading Return of the King again. And I realized that, no matter what I do, I will never be as awesome as this guy.

Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. (pp 819–820)

He blew on a horn and it exploded! And he shouted out epic poetry in a voice more clear (clearer?) than anyone ever.

. . .
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1994) The Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. ISBN 0-618-00224-3

Logicomix

I don’t give book cover blurbs much credence, but Howard Zinn’s last sentence on the back of Logicomix sums up the novel’s worth well:

The book is a rare intellectual and artistic achievement, which will, I am sure, lead its readers to explore realms of knowledge they thought were forbidden to them.

This is true. Generally, I find mathematics, logic, philosophy, and computer science daunting—though I appreciate their value to the world and find the structure inherent in them compelling. Logicomix offers entry into a realm of complex ideas, making them accessible while at the same time driving home how intense these ideas can be (the “Notebook” in the back of the book provides a taste of some pretty heavy stuff). I loved learning about set theory and grasping Russell’s paradox. I enjoyed contemplating infinity and was surprised to discover what a bane it can be to mathematicians. I was impressed by the Incompleteness theorem. I glimpsed what it was like to conceive of the first computers.

Logicomix is a fascinating graphic novel, well written and illustrated. It jumps between the present and past and is narrated both by the novel’s creators and by Bertrand Russell, whose biography serves as a backdrop for the novel’s ideas. Though not all incidents in the story occurred as described (see “Logicomix and reality” in the back of the book), readers are taken on a journey through the study of logic. This journey encompasses both intellect and emotion, leaving readers to ponder how pure logic and real life intermingle.

The authors describe Logicomix as “an epic search for truth” and “the quest for the foundations of mathematics.” Why then, use comics to tell of this quest? Explains coauthor Apostolos, “The form is perfect for stories of heroes in search of great goals.”

The heroes of the “quest” are fascinating people. Passionate… tortured. In fact, true superheroes! (p 22)

So we readers learn about those in search of “certain, absolute knowledge”: Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel, John Von Neumann, and many more luminaries.

The passion, the human flame that ignites these scholars could lead to madness as well as clarity: the authors of Logicomix ponder the lives of David Hilbert, Gottlob Frege, Georg Cantor, and others who clutched so tightly their respective disciplines that they lost hold of compassion, humanity, or sanity. Thus the theme of “logic from madness” (or vice versa) is explored, the toll of passion and the ways in which even those most devoted to logic can become detached from it.

In addition, world events encroach on even the loftiest pursuits. Logicomix illustrates how two world wars formed or deformed intellectual pursuits, affecting for example Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, the Vienna Circle, and Bertrand Russell himself. Logicomix not only teaches the reader about important concepts, it also illustrates how our humanity is inseparable from our work and, for good or ill, accompanies all our efforts to attain truth.

. . .
Doxiadis, A., Papadimitriou, C.H., Papadatos, A., and Di Donna, A. (2009) Logicomix, Bloomsbury, New York.

Three Thoughts at a Time

What is it with threes? Is this a trend? If so, it must be an old trend by now, because these books came out several years ago. Still, when I arrived at a certain passage in When You Reach Me, it dawned on me that I’d encountered three books in which the protagonists made three discoveries. Wow. Me, I’m lucky if I can come up with one good idea every week or so.

The books in question are Twilight, Graceling, and When You Reach Me. For the sake of protecting anyone who hasn’t yet read When You Reach Me (see my previous post), I will share quotes after the jump. Note that there is also a minor spoiler for Graceling.
Read the rest of this entry »

Testosterone Pit: a novel

Fun fact: I copy edited a book called Testosterone Pit. And I had a blast. And now the e-book is available for the Kindle.*

You might be wondering what could possibly be the subject matter of such a book. Testosterone Pit is a novel about car salesmen and, broadly, about sales anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I recommend it to readers who have, even briefly, entered that profession. The burning need to make a sale, followed by the exhilaration and triumph of success—or the crushing blow of failure—it’s all in Testosterone Pit. Plus there are characters named Massacre, Meat Grinder, and Whacker Packer; there is a Tower replete with Milky Way wrappers and Cheetos bags; and there are crises over shoe sizes and contemplation areas.

The novel is witty and funny, but it also illustrates the particular toll that salesmanship takes on its practitioners. Testosterone Pit drew me in, and I felt the pressures of a dealership environment. It’s a rollercoaster of delirium and despondency, to be sure.

So I recommend this book. It will make you laugh; it will make you think.

*If you don’t own a Kindle, as I do not, you can download free Kindle apps and read on your computer or smart phone.