book review

"Treehouse Living" and Experimental Fiction

Once in a while I decide to be daring and pick up a work of experimental fiction. You’ll know experimental fiction when you see it—it may use multiple fonts, eschew ordinary chapter structure, or perhaps take the form of something unusual for fiction, such as a dictionary. I’ve enjoyed experimental fiction by Italo Calvino, particularly If on a winter’s night a traveler and Invisible Cities. I’ve considered reading but have not yet summoned the courage to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but only because of its structure and length, not because it’s a work of horror.

Many years ago I read the “male” version of Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic. The fact that there are both “male” and “female” versions of this book is a dead giveaway that it is a work of experimental fiction—along with the fact that it is structured like a dictionary. The two versions of the book differ in only sixteen or seventeen different lines. I can no longer remember whether those lines are highlighted or the reader is expected to buy both versions of the book and compare them line-by-line to find what’s different. I see on Amazon there is also an “androgynous” edition of this book, but it’s not clear how it differs from the “gendered” versions.

Like Pavic’s Khazars, Elliot Reed’s A Key to Treehouse Living is arranged as a dictionary. The entries are written by the narrator, an orphaned boy who struggles to make sense of the world. This boy’s tidbits of “wisdom” give us insight into his life. The question with any book like this, of course, is, what is the plot? How do pieces that are not chronologically arranged function when structured in an interconnected alphabetical arrangement? The Kindle version makes it easy to follow hyperlinked cross-references, but the text is not nearly as hyperlinked as it could be.

I found A Key to Treehouse Living mildly interesting but frustrating to follow. One can’t help but finish reading a book like this and wonder what you have missed. Did the author explain everything needing explanation? Why did he cover this topic before this one? Which entries are important and which are whimsical digressions by the narrator? While the narrator’s nuggets of wisdom are arranged alphabetically by their defining concepts, early on the narrator explains to the reader that he couldn’t always adhere to strict alphabetical order.

Experimental fiction can be very hard to understand. We are used to following the course of a story in a linear, time-based fashion. But if the story is nonlinear, jumping between past and future and present, is it still a story? What was the author intending to do by making the reader encounter a story in this way? How does one follow a “character arc” when there is no chronological order? I would suggest experimental fiction to anyone wanting to experience something unique in their reading, but it is not likely to appeal to everyone.

Poul Anderson's "The Broken Sword"

Readers of my blog are aware of my respect for fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his tales of the albino anti-hero Elric. In his book Wizardry and Wild Romance, Moorcock points out a book that he holds in high regard: The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. Anderson is a well-known scifi/fantasy author, but The Broken Sword, published in 1954, is not so well known.

The Broken Sword, set in a supernatural and mythological Scandinavian past, tells the story of a man, living among elves, and the troll-born changeling with which he was exchanged at birth. Each man struggles to fit into the world in which he lives. Once their paths inevitably cross, these struggles only grow more fierce. The story overflows with sorcery, Vikings, epic battles, Norse gods, and sadness. The eponymous Sword, Moorcock admits, influenced his own creation of Elric’s sentient sword, Stormbringer.

As Moorcock points out, The Broken Sword is a true tragedy, something not often seen in modern fantasy. It echoes of Shakespeare, with its somewhat (intentional) archaic style. This style works well, even if it does make for slower reading. It is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy - particularly when a pair of lovers discover they are actually brother and sister.

Moorcock calls The Broken Sword “Anderson’s finest dramatic achievement.” After reading this high praise, I had to read the book. It was a great read; I highly recommend it.

"The Calculus of Friendship" by Steven Strogatz

In The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math, Cornell University math Professor Steven Strogatz shares some of the correspondence he shared over several decades with his high school calculus teacher, Don Joffray.

The book is short, and a quick read if you don’t try to follow too closely the mathematics the two correspondents toss at each other. The two men reverse roles over time — originally Strogatz was the student, but in time he becomes the teacher. Along the way, Strogatz and “Joff” share the joy of being challenged by interesting math problems. But their interaction, while lively, is also frequently sporadic. Neither man (particularly Strogatz) seems comfortable in becoming a friend who shares more than just a love of math and the highlights of day-to-day life. It is only as the two men grow older that they bridge the gap and communicate their more personal feelings. Both men suffered the kinds of personal losses common to most of humankind, but they each failed to share their vulnerability and need for emotional support. One can appreciate the special bond between these two men, even as one can imagine what a deeper relationship might have brought them.

Yes, mathematics is key to this story. But the real theme is friendship, what brings us together, and what we may miss out on by not opening up on a deeper level.

"Elric: The Ruby Throne"

I don’t usually read graphic novels, but I made an exception for Elric: The Ruby Throne, by Julien Blondel et al. Years ago I enjoyed reading Michael Moorcock’s fantasy tales of the albino anti-hero Elric, so when I learned Moorcock himself praised the illustration and story-writing that went into The Ruby Throne, I decided to give it a try.

Because I have so little experience with graphic novels, I can’t judge Elric: The Ruby Throne against others. But I can say that it was interesting, dynamic, and very well conceived. (I must add that this story is really only for adult readers — in showing the decadence of Melnibone’, the kingdom Elric rules, the writers and illustrators present considerable nudity, violence, and horror, as well as dashes of cannibalism and sex.)

Reviews of this book and its sequel on Amazon.com are polarized. In many ways, the Elric portrayed in these books is very different from the one in the original novels by Moorcock. Because Moorcock praised the graphic novels, the evolution of the original Elric to one far more dark suggests Moorcock might have crafted Elric differently from the beginning, if allowed. Or, perhaps his own imagining of Elric has evolved over the fifty years or more since the first Elric story was published.

The fact that I plan on reading the next volume following this one say a lot regarding how well I enjoyed this one.

"Birth of a Theorem" by Cedric Villani

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a well-known cliche'. And it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to explain to someone who has no knowledge or experience to fall back on why something as abstract and abstruse as mathematics can be said to be beautiful. It would be interesting to conduct an informal survey to test the hypothesis that those who succeed in mathematical studies are those most likely to recognize the beauty of mathematics.

Frenchman Cedric Villani won the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 2010 for his work, with former student and colleague Clement Mouhot, on "nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation."

I have no idea what this is, except I do know who Ludwig Boltzmann was, and that this work addressed a problem in mathematical physics.

But I didn't need to understand what this was about in order to follow Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure, Villani's story of his work in this area. Yes, there are plenty of equations about as comprehensible as hieroglyphics. But the reader does not need to comprehend the math in order to grasp what life as a mathematician is like, as Villani describes it. Villani describes the joy of discovery, the fear of making a mistake that could negate all his work, the struggle in wrestling a problem to the ground. As many wunderkinds do, he spends long hours absorbed in his work, trying to make sense of a small part of the universe. When he succeeds, the reader breathes a huge sigh of relief with him.

I grasped just the tiniest bit of the mathematics he describes, but it reminded me of the pleasure of seeing something unfold in mathematics. I only understood part of the esoterica presented on these pages, but it left me wanting to dig into old math books to decode and more deeply appreciate the mathematics. As a graduate student taking courses in theoretical statistics. I had glimpsed one example of mathematical beauty when I learned about the close relationship between the concept of moment in mathematics and the concept of moment in physics.

You don't have to be a mathematician to appreciate this book, but I must concede the obvious: only someone with an interest in mathematics may appreciate it.

"The Math Myth" by Andrew Hacker

They say it is a good idea to read things that challenge one's cherished beliefs or values, both to expand one's mind and to test one's beliefs. But, more often than not, this is uncomfortable to do. (And that's why the normal tendency is to avoid doing it.) As in reading The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, by Andrew Hacker. Professor Hacker has a number of arguments against mathematics education in high school and college, not the least of which is that the requirement for taking algebra, let alone classes such as trigonometry or calculus, forces students who have no desire to enter technical fields to endure a painful winnowing as they pursue their education. The acronym "STEM" stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and is used in a number of education policy approaches aimed at improving what students know in these subjects, with the objective of improving the competitiveness of the U.S.

As I recall, I was taught the oft-maligned "New Math" in my elementary school. I had no trouble with it, so neither did my parents, because I didn't need to ask them for help with my homework. (Unlike the father in the movie, Incredibles 2, who struggles to help his son with his "new math" homework and exclaims, "I don't know that way! Why would they change Math? Math is Math! MATH IS MATH!")

By seventh grade I was being pulled aside to do more challenging math assignments than the rest of my class was doing. By the time of high school graduation I had taken two years of algebra,  as well as geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, with high scores on standardized tests. I pursued chemistry as a college undergraduate and took calculus and differential equations. I pursued biochemistry in graduate school before moving into a fledgling PhD program in biostatistics and computer modeling. There I continued with coursework in theoretical and applied statistics, operations research, signals and systems analysis, complex systems, and numerical analysis, among others. In my dissertation research I had to apply what I knew about differential equations and numerical analysis to hypotheses in the biochemistry of vision. My first job out of graduate school was in biostatistics for pharmaceutical research.

I have always valued my mathematics education. It was very much aligned to applied mathematics and not theoretical mathematics. I am matho-philic, not matho-phobic, so it is a real challenge for me to put myself in the shoes of those for whom math does not come as easy.

Then along comes Andrew Hacker, with The Math Myth. One by one, Hacker tackles the assumptions that guide everything surrounding math education. As I read this book, I often felt like the subject of Edvard Munch's "The Scream", because I resist his arguments even as I have to grudgingly admit he may be right. Allowing one's beliefs and values to be challenged by reading a book like this is no easy task, especially for someone for whom mathematics and science has dominated their education and career.

I won't attempt to summarize Hacker's arguments. (It would be interesting to read a counterpoint.) But I will touch on one argument, the question of taking coursework that will not likely have practical value for a student. I bristle at this, especially when someone I know tries to tell me that because a knowledge of history has no value in the workplace, history education is a waste. On the other hand, I have been known to argue with one of my friends that there is little or no value in taking classes in Latin. And I do not understand those who put the so-called "classical" education on a pedestal.

What should students be required to learn, and when? This is a really tough question. I could ask how physical education ("P.E." we used to call it) prepared me for supporting myself and my family when I finished school. I could easily grumble over my grades in P.E., grades that were not impressive because I didn't have the athletic "aptitude" that others did. But if I fall back on that argument, was it fair to my fellow students who didn't share my mathematics aptitude for them to be compared against me?

There are no easy answers to many questions in education policy. It may not be comfortable to admit that, but it is a good thing that people like Andrew Hacker challenge our thinking.

Review: The Confessions of Nat Turner

In the process of doing research for an essay touching on racism and Confederate memorials, I was reminded of the novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. I had heard of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but had never read it. I knew it was a fictional tale based on the life and death of a slave who had led a bloody revolt in 1830s Virginia.

Nat Turner was a religious fanatic whose faith led him to commit or facilitate many grisly murders in the name of freedom for the slaves. Styron's book makes clear the indignities and abuse suffered by slaves. The reader is led to believe some kind of action against the white populace is justified, but clearly not the rampage that Turner led. Turner gradually comes to see that a revolt is necessary, and that it is God's will that Turner lead it. I was reminded of how the religious fanaticism of John Brown led him to execute proponents of slavery, believing God was on his side, as well as how both the people of the Union and the Confederacy believing God was on their side in the Civil War.

Turner learned to read and write at an early age, but it is unlikely he was as eloquent as the first-person "confessions" in Styron's novel would suggest (and for which Styron has been criticized). Nevertheless, Styron tells a good story. While the narrative moved back and forth between the events leading up to the revolt and Turner's incarceration, I didn't get confused or lost. I don't always read a famous work and come away with a realization of why that work deserved the praise it received, but I did this book.

Faith, and Surviving the Apocalypse

It is with some chagrin that I admit I do judge many books by their covers. Or their titles. Had my daughter not passed along to me When the English Fall, by David Williams, I most likely would not have given it a second glance. But I read it, and I'm so glad I did.

The story is narrated in first person by a devout Amish farmer named Jacob. He and his family are living in a community in rural Pennsylvania when a massive solar storm gives rise to apocalyptic circumstances for the people on planet Earth. Because of their minimal reliance on technology, the lifestyle of Jacob's family and their Amish neighbors is nowhere near as impacted as that of the "English" -- their name for the non-Amish. But as time goes on, and social order breaks down, bringing the starving and the criminal onto their farms, the Amish are hard-pressed to adapt.

Using as he does the main character to narrate the story through a series of journal entries, author David Williams uses a simple style of storytelling that flows easily, mirroring the spirituality and lifestyle of Jacob, his family, and their neighbors. Jacob turns to prayer over and over again, and it is his faith that sustains him through all their troubles. The Amish willingly share with those in need and struggle with the use of violence to combat violence as gunfire comes closer and closer to their homes, week by week, day by day.

In the end, the Amish make a key decision to ensure their survival, a decision based on divine guidance and the ability of Jacob's daughter to share a vision of a different future. In both good times and bad, it is the faith of these people that sustains them.

 

J. G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"

I was about eleven years old when my parents signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club. I had outgrown the Weekly Reader Book Club years before. I had seen subscription postcards for SFBC inserted into many of the paperbacks I was reading, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series published by Ace Books. Yes, I thought, I want scifi! This is what I want to read!

One of the first books I received from SFBC was J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World. Recently I reread this book. I had vague memories of a mysterious space-time-defying crystallization of the jungle, and the dangers of becoming trapped within it. Finishing the book for the second time in over fifty years, the sense of wonder returned, and I quickly finished it.

I also recalled a certain sense of difficulty with reading it at eleven years old. Now, with rereading, I realize why. Ballard's style is much more literary than a lot of science fiction. And there are some adult themes of love and sex, of intimacy and perceived betrayal, that went right over my head when I was in the sixth grade.

I was also reminded of the power of mystery, as I recently described in one of my blog postings. I see now that at an early age I latched onto this power, even hungered for it, though I might have had a hard time explaining what it was I sought. Fortunately over the years I've found many other books to satisfy this need. I can only hope that I've succeeded in introducing mystery into my own writing.

Tanya Schofield's "Awaken: Melody's Song, Book 1."

Tanya Schofield's YA fantasy novel, Awaken: Melody's Song, Book 1, is a very enjoyable book which I believe a broad range of readers will appreciate. I received an Advance Reader's Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Melody, a young lady with powers she doesn't understand, is pursued by those who fear her and those who would use her. As she struggles to come to grips with who and what she is, she receives help from a number of people, some of whom develop close relationships with her. As readers, we learn as Melody learns, and we wonder, as she does, where the revelations of magic will carry her. The story starts off quickly and draws the reader in. From there it keeps up a good pace, flowing nicely from one scene to the next. As the story nears the end (of this first book of the series!), the pace picks up and the reader is treated to a heart-rending cliffhanger.

The author did a great job at worldbuilding. It is not easy to set up a new world, especially in a book of this length. Many fantasy novels are much longer. I found the length of the book just right - I wasn't discouraged by the prospect of working my way through a long book (and risking the discovery that, at the end of it, I wouldn't like it and was sorry for the time I invested in it).

While the novel may be classified as YA - and I am long past being in that target audience - I never felt that the story was exclusively a YA story. There is both sex and violence in the story, but not gratuitous sex and violence. They occur in the story in a natural sort of way; sexuality is handled deftly, and details of wounds and death do not go too far. I also appreciated that the author was able to develop characters of both sexes in a natural sort of way.

As a writer myself, I have to admit feeling jealous of this writer's talent.

I enjoyed Awaken quite a bit, and I'm anxious to read the next book in the series. I just hope it's not long before Book 2 comes out ... I hate when I can't remember the story from the previous book in a series!