The Book

by Julius Freedman
Old Stone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both over and secret.”

It’s been a decade since an art book has taken the grand prize for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, but this beauty kept rising to the top of our judges’ scoring cards. Have you ever seen a book after it becomes wet and dries? It screams, with a puffed chest of curling pages like the arms of a roiling sea monster. Julius Freedman shows us this and more, as he takes on the book as both physical and symbolic object. In a sequence of building images, The Book begins with a book as art in its purest form—its complex leather bindings, the embedded tabs of a dictionary, the pages of sophisticated rag or weave. Then books begin to take flight, with pages misshapen, eventually cracking and splitting from their spines, the print itself escaping, until we enter the realm of collage, yet always tethered to the concept of a book itself.

Is a book a mere extension of our memories, or does it go deeper than its byproduct overlap with our brains? If Gabriel Garcia Marquez created a book to fit his prose, it might result in one of Freedman’s constructions. The organization, as well as thoughtful commentary by Pico Iyer and Jill Gage, strike the right balance with the art presentation. Unique, whimsy, thought-provoking, this beautiful coffee table edition is worthy of any collection. but it is so much more. It envelopes the very concept of the book itself. Bravo.

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How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

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Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.

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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

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Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
Henry Holt

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“But some men don’t move—they can’t. Dead or mortally wounded, their bodies lie still, soaking the sand with blood.”

History is shaped by time and memory, allowing some facts to take prominence and others to fade away. As a result, Nazi Germany is remembered as the worst offender during World War II, while the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb is given, by some factions, the moral equivalence of a brutal war crime. Typically, these misconceptions arise through ignorance, although sometimes it’s a deliberate rewriting of history for a political agenda. Regardless of the reason, news commentator Bill O’Reilly and coauthor Martin Dugard refresh the record in their latest installment of the “Killing” series.

To be clear, the atrocities of the Holocaust were a horrific stain on humanity, but at the same time, Imperial Japan conquered Asia in a brutal campaign that had no rival. Prisoners as well as civilians were tortured and killed without conscience. Women were pressed into prostitution. Nations were starved into submission. And yes, the Japanese conducted lethal human medical experiments within their infamous Unit 731.

The striking distinction about Japan was a core belief that they were superior to all others on the planet and that it would be ultimately shameful to surrender to the American “barbarians.” The indoctrination of this belief extended from the hubris of Japan’s 124th Emperor, Shōwa, commonly known as Hirohito. For Imperial Japan, negotiation of peace was not an option, and its people believed this wholeheartedly. Their soldiers proudly fought to the death. On the home front, every man, woman, and child was prepared to fight to the end in order to protect their emperor from shame.

Killing the Rising Sun is more than a discourse about the atomic bomb. It reveals its necessity by plotting the course of history during the Pacific campaign. Years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. retreat from the Philippines—not to mention a hard fought victory against Germany in Europe—the Americans under General MacArthur’s command were slowly regaining ground on the western front and creeping toward the ultimate showdown with Japan. As each island was recaptured, casualties were high. On both sides of the campaign, tens of thousands of soldiers died in what was becoming a regular repeat of the Normandy Invasion in blood and loss. Even though MacArthur longed for the dignity of combat and surrender, it became obvious that as many as a million or more soldiers and civilians were going to die before Japan would even consider ending their aggression. The extinguishing of Japan itself might even be necessary. The atomic bomb, as destructive as it was intended, became a viable solution for sparing lives in the long run.

Some historians theorize that Japan was only days from surrender when the first a-bomb was dropped, but this is wishful thinking. As O’Reilly and Dugard reveal in detail, Japan was dug in, and its people were willing to sacrifice to the last soul. They looked to Hirohito, high above Tokyo in the Imperial Palace, to harden their resolve. Even after the first atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, vaporizing thousands and debilitating even more citizens, the emperor refused to surrender. It’s important to remember that an American retreat would leave Asia under brutal control of Imperial Japan, much like eastern Europe was during Stalin’s reign. Therefore, a second, larger a-bomb descended upon the crucial industrial port of Nagasaki. Even off-target, it struck a devastating blow, which finally awakened Hirohito and his close advisors within their bunker beneath the palace. They soon surrendered, and the war was over. Again, make no mistake about it; the second atomic bomb was necessary. The emperor and his people by extension were that transfixed on war.

Another rumor that persists through time is that President Roosevelt lacked the will to use the atomic bomb, but nothing is further from the truth. Like most people, Roosevelt was tired of the bloodshed, but he died before the Manhattan Project produced a workable device. Shortly after Truman assumed power, one of the most secret scientific research projects fell into his lap. He had no idea that an a-bomb was being attempted, but now the power of the atom had been unleashed. Truman’s practicality soon won over, and he quickly moved to deploy the a-bomb, thereby changing the world forever. With either president at the helm, the a-bomb would have fallen on the nation of the rising sun. It was Japan’s rigidity and arrogance, just as much as American ingenuity and valor, that made this action inevitable.

While the American apologists will never stop twisting history to suit their ideology, Killing the Rising Sun is an honest and sober reiteration of the facts. It makes the case for dropping the atomic bomb without politicizing or deviating from the truth. With engaging prose and a gripping narrative, the authors humanize the Pacific conflict on both sides of the ocean by introducing individual tales from generals to foot soldiers, from scientists to civilians, from legends to the defeated. There is no mythology here. Certainly giant egos and even larger heroes traipse through each chapter, but these are real men struggling through Homeric moments in time. You’ll find yourself unable to put down the book until the end, and you’ll conclude that the decision to employ the a-bomb was more black and white than it appears through the muddled lens of time.

The book is an easy read, yet still contains the requisite footnotes and index to make it a suitable reference. It ends with a sentimental eulogy for O’Reilly’s father who was a veteran of the Pacific campaign. In addition, each living U.S. President was asked if using the a-bomb was the correct decision, and except for the sitting president, their thoughtful responses are included—and their conclusion is unanimous. As a work on the Pacific campaign, this book would make a better reference than many classroom texts. At the very least, it’s a must-tell story for a new generation.

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House of Nails by Lenny Dykstra

by Lenny Dykstra
William Morrow

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“I was in my early thirties, put together like a Greek god, and could have millions of dollars sent wherever and whenever I wanted simply by making a phone call. My ego was just as big as my bank account.”

With the tenacity of Ty Cobb and the bodacious behavior of Babe Ruth, professional baseball player Lenny Dykstra embraced life both on and off the diamond. At only 160 lbs, he was a relatively under-sized athlete, but being acutely aware of his goals and possessing razor-sharp timing, he broke into the major leagues in the mid-1980s and cut a path toward becoming a dominant player.

Much of his life has unfolded in this fashion. On the field, he hit, caught, and ran with the best. He crashed into walls and tossed his body and fists with reckless abandon. Off the field, he put in the work and took the drugs he needed to maintain the grueling six-month schedule that drives pros to early retirement. Nothing seemed to exhaust his enthusiasm for baseball and all the fringe benefits—cars, parties, women. For twelve years, he was the guy you wanted on your team, and his contribution to two World Series is undeniable. However, this only scratches the surface of his candid memoir, which could easily be transposed in action and attitude to that of a Wild West cowboy drama.

After his baseball days, the Dykstra cattle drive continued. He demonstrated a nose for success that parlayed into a string of luxury car washes and a talent for picking stocks on the options market. He never goes small or halfway. Possessing more energy and grit than the average man, he made plans and then made them bigger. There’s duality of sincerity and relentlessness that weaves through his life. He was a married man with a family, but his lifestyle involved enough Gulfstream jet travel, women, and substance-driven enhancements to fill a California mansion. Oh yes, he owned a couple of those as well.

Because he had no concern with boundaries and his hangers-on and business associates had no interest in leaving any of his money on the table (and none of them did), he bottomed out in rehab and later during two stints in prison after a questionable application of the law. In this modern western, he rolled into the wrong town and got his butt kicked, and he admits that he rushed headlong into all of it. Broke and divorced, he fell from heights that many of us admire to the pits that all of us fear. Again, Dykstra doesn’t do life halfway.

The beauty of this memoir is in its honest delivery, which forms its own kind of ethical code alternating between its depiction of excellence, indulgence, and disturbing realism. You want to hug Dykstra and smack him at the same time, if you dare because both clearly have their costs. He scales every mountain unafraid and is successful against the odds, and he pays all the tolls on the way down. However, you gather the sense that down is just another place he finds himself and not his state of mind. If there’s a photograph of him not smiling, it’d be difficult to find.

Dykstra’s detractors employ all forms of condescension to debase him, but they rank among the naive who understand themselves perhaps even less than the human condition. As the elites conjure countless tsunamis to destroy the middle class, likely because they have contempt for that everyday blue collar man, Dysktra stands up for the American Dream in a defiant and admittedly sometimes perverse way. It’s a truthful story without the moralist veils that keep many memoirs stuck in second gear. So, he’s got the nerve to keep it real, too.

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The Elements of Power

by David W. Abraham
Yale University Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“For most products, it is just not profitable to extract minor metals. Because of this, no plants in the United States, for example, recycle rare earth magnets.”

Natural resource strategist and consultant David S. Abraham unveils the state of the rare metals industry in this sweeping and fascinating narrative that says as much about the business and science of rare metals as it does about us, the people who consume them. To accomplish this task, Abraham spans the globe from South America through former soviet block nations and ultimately to Asia, giving us a feel for the industry from mine to market.

Abraham marks the dawn of the Rare Metal Age at the moment electronic circuitry took dominance in everyday life. This coincides with the rise of the millennials, who have not lived in a world without the need to recharge or replace batteries. Even the batteries themselves contain rare metals, but most people are ignorant of our rare metal dependency. For example, just a small amount niobium, makes a ton of steel many times stronger, and micro amounts of dysprosium, as well as other rare metals, help compose a cell phone’s vital parts. Rare metals aren’t just rare; they are irreplaceable. They are also pervasive, from energy-generating technologies, such as wind turbines and solar arrays, to personal electronics, such as televisions and computers. These valued elements have even found their way into the circuitry of simple items like electric toothbrushes and toasters. The importance of rare metals to modern military weaponry, from detection equipment to warplanes, is paramount to security and progress. We just can’t seem to get enough. For decades, blueprints in both technology companies and the Pentagon have awaited the discovery or extraction of rare metals in order to breathe life into their plans.

To make all of this possible, rare metals require challenging mining and extraction efforts. While mining has caused negative impact on certain regions, sometimes devastatingly so, extraction involves a series of sophisticated mechanical and chemical applications, which are often accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. Abraham speaks of metallurgists hunkered inside crude smelting facilities, applying acids like witch doctors and exposing themselves and the environment to toxic byproducts. In some nations, mining rare metal ores from the earth is a lucrative sideline for its people. Regulation and control of this fast-growing industry has been challenging and often impossible.

Even though rare metals are important, they are not typically measured in the tonnage, and, therefore, major commodity traders are not typically interested in the business. This opens the door to private dealers and ultimately smugglers. And we haven’t even mentioned the political implications of controlling certain elements. While rare metals know no borders, they run up against politics nonetheless. China, who is the largest and sometimes exclusive producer of certain rare earth metals, manipulates the supply chain to whatever end it feels necessary, both economically and geopolitically.

In his complete tour of rare earth metals, Abraham tells us everything we wanted to know, but didn’t even know we needed to ask. He shares stories of rare metal history and the characters who populate its bloodlines, taking us behind the scenes to reveal the mines, extraction facilities, and metals brokers and buyers—not to mention world’s appetite for rare metal end products. The book itself is well researched and referenced, but does not overwhelm the average reader with the science and methodology. He makes the subject matter highly accessible and engaging. The book concludes with a wake-up call to the modern world. We must accept the fact that rare metals are finite and environmentally challenging to recover, but have become an essential part of modern life and a path toward green liviing. Therefore, we need to better regulate the process and distribution, as well as discover ways to preserve and reclaim the tonnage of rare metals we dispose in landfills each year.

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