Brief Answers to the Big Questions

by Stephen Hawking
Bantam Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

Written at the end of his life, although formulated during and published posthumously, the once in a lifetime scientist Stephen Hawking lands serious scientific questions with a philosophical bent. He guides us by the hand through the creation of the universe, the mystery of black holes, and the possibilities of time travel, giving nods to the seminal pioneers of each discovery along the way. And like all the great thinkers, he’s unafraid to tackle the existence of God and the future of mankind on the planet.

The deft way in which Hawking nails down his points is one of his great gifts as a lecturer. For example, he explains why alien sightings are likely a ruse: its secretive nature. It’s a forgone conclusion that a visiting alien species would be superior in knowledge and ability, but the alleged well-meaning aliens are doing a very poor job helping us with future concerns. Conversely, a less than noble alien visitation would be painfully obvious to all. Anyway you position potential alien visits, it’s likely they’d be obvious by now.

When it comes to time travel, Hawking muses that it hasn’t happened. Perhaps Einstein’s limitation that nothing can move faster than light—the theorized condition for moving backward in time—is true, or perhaps man never achieved the ability in the future. Either way, Hawking makes plain, if man could travel back in time, we’d be bumping into time travelers from the future visiting us in present day. Furthermore, it’s human nature to meddle, as time travelers certainly would in our current day and age.

Superior at scientific explanation and pedestrian at philosophy and politics, the answers to the larger, cutting-edge questions of physics, and a few cultural musings, are delivered with aplomb. Hawking’s good heart and humanity shine through and charm the reader. Quantum physics is the central theme, although much of the verbiage if taken slowly will be accessible to the layman. It’s not important that you understand everything, only that you witness one of the century’s great minds at work.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Who Purchases Book Reviews?

The short answer is everyone does, although it might not be evident at first. National publishing trade magazines present the illusion that they are fair and balanced—a familiar phrase—in their review coverage, but given a closer look, these publications thrive on the sales of expensive advertising space, including their front and back covers. Other national trades don’t even hide the fact that they charge hundreds of dollars per review. You’ll notice that very few small publishers are mentioned in their pages. The presses that cannot afford ad space and review fees coincidentally go unmentioned, and all independent presses (i.e. micro presses and self-publishers) are typically barred from book review consideration.

Consider that advertising fees are built into the budgets of large press books, and when you purchase one, you are in effect paying for their media coverage somewhere along the line. There is simply no justification for highlighting or featuring the next chick-lit-murder-mystery redux novel in any of the media outlets, other than it is big business for the monolithic presses and they have the dollars to push their product. We are a capitalist society, and profit drives many editorial decisions. Any author who manages his/her own marketing has run into a media outlet (print, radio, etc.) that has promised increased coverage with the purchase of advertising space or time. While many local newspapers still hold an air of integrity, these venues are drying up faster than the rapidly fading printed news industry.

This state of affairs casts a long shadow over literature. One byproduct is that the large commercial presses, by virtue of supplying the economic lifeblood to the publishing media, control what reaches the reading public. Due to either politics or economics, certain genres and ideas are not desirable to large presses, and therefore, vital topics are kept from the public discourse, while excellent independent press authors go unnoticed. In the end, they turn to the Internet for help.

A survey of the web reveals hundreds of review outlets—some specialized, others general. Many of these reviewers write for free, and their coverage is professionally uneven. These are hobby sites. Meanwhile the Internet has killed the three-headed monster of publishing: paper, ink, and distribution. Through the years, paper and ink became increasingly expensive, and most recently rising gas prices (i.e. a distribution cost) was the death knell for most brick and mortar publications, but in the digital age, the Internet can more than fill the need while providing work for dedicated journalists.

The US Review of Books was created for two reasons: first, to provide inexpensive access to professional book reviewers for all authors and, second, to pay the writers a fair wage for their work. In less than a decade, the US Review has employed dozens of reviewers and written over twelve thousand reviews to mostly happy authors. They are mostly happy, because the USR’s reviewers are honest and thoughtful. If a book is hackneyed or wasn’t properly edited, perhaps for style and spelling, the review is going to mention these facts. Luckily that isn’t the norm, and the large presses are starting to notice and quietly submit their books for value media coverage as the USR climbs to the top of search engines. Seeing the future, publicity agents and author services companies are also integrating the US Review into their marketing plans. Good books deserve serious consideration and discussion, regardless of where and how the book is published.

As the millennials—sometimes called the Digital Generation—assumes authority, the Internet and all modes of digital transfer will take control. It makes sense; it’s convenient and mostly green technology. Outlets like the US Review of Books will continue to expand in order to fill authors’ marketing needs while providing employment opportunities to the writing/journalist force.

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout

by Lauren Redniss
It Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“We lived in preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.”

Before STEM Programs, before Title 9, before the Suffragettes, Marie “Madame” Curie blazed a path for science and women that marks history. Pioneering research in radioactivity—a word coined by her—Curie discovered two elements (Polonium, named for her beloved Poland, and Radium). In doing so, she established a new science and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the only person to win it twice for science. For a scientist, filling in even one square on the periodic table is a big deal, and she discovered two. Her research sprawls through chemistry, physics, and medicine to this day, including its long-lasting cultural implications. She ultimately sacrificed her life, dying from radiation exposure prior to a true understanding of the risk. Effectively she pioneered this research as well.

Curie is a progenitor of the Nuclear Age, and the book branches out tangentially in subject matter, never leaving the realm of radiation and its effect upon society. In addition to Curie and her beloved co-scientist Pierre, alternate voices speak throughout the narrative, such as friend and colleague Albert Einstein or the man who dug nuclear bomb test site tunnels in Nevada. Some of these witnesses to radiation knew Curie; others only benefited or saw their life redirected by her discoveries. Together they quilt a complete picture, not only of Curie’s life and work, but of the way we live now.

Few books form a lasting record. Insightful, gorgeous, a luxury of thought and sight, Redniss’ book delivers one such gift. It tantalizes both the scientist and the layman with gorgeous illustrations, accessible science, and personal reflections of the great scientist. It steps back to take a wider view, examining the course of history through radiation, and it’s bound together with an artist’s touch. It’s the kind of book that makes you think who should be awarded it as a gift.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Russian Hoax

by Gregg Jarrett
Broadside Books

book review by Christopher Klim

“…based on this record, no other conclusion is reasonably supportable.”

Thinking people remember where they were when former FBI Director James Comey gave his famous July 5, 2016 news conference absolving then-candidate Hillary Clinton of criminal behavior regarding her mishandling of secure government documents on an insecure server while Secretary of State and then covering up her error in judgment after it became evident. Let’s pause for a moment and think about that sentence: A U.S. Secretary of State placed an insecure server in her private residence, passing countless classified documents during a four-year period, and then attempted to hide the fact when it was exposed, and yet no clear crime was identified by the U.S. Justice Department, of which the FBI is an entity. How could this possibly not be a problem or a clear violation of the Espionage Act, if not obstruction of justice at the very least?

As the server story unraveled, along with the working machinations of the Clinton Foundation, more unprosecuted crimes emerged regarding their conduct. The Clintons, who have been given a pass for decades for questionable dealings with the simplistic excuse of merely toeing the line of the law, have evidently been caught way over the line in a number of areas. Classified documents were handled outside of all established protocol, exposing national secrets and safety to foreign entities. During this investigation, details of the Clinton Foundation’s quid pro quo dealings saw the light of day. While these facts were being uncovered, other U.S. citizens were being prosecuted for similar espionage violations and public officials were being jury-trialed for similar abuses of power for personal gain. The power of the office of the Secretary of State does not excuse or lessen these crimes; in many ways, it makes them worse.

Clinton’s e-mail server is the starting point for MSNBC and Fox News anchor and legal analyst Gregg Jarrett’s clear, insightful, and stunning exposé of the entire “Russian collusion” fraud, as prosecuted daily in the news media. Through heavily footnoted and supported facts, as opposed to the media opinion du jour, Jarrett reveals the major crimes of the Clintons, the cover-up, and then the Russian hoax designed to damage a political candidate and his ensuing presidency through an unverified, at times comical, document known as “the dossier.”

What is the dossier and how was it used? Jarrett summarizes the key points that no one denies. Here’s what we know: The dossier is a Clinton-funded collection of allegations against candidate Donald Trump, assembled from “raw” Russian intelligence through former British spy, Christopher Steele. The document claims that Trump associates Carter Page and Paul Manafort met with Russian agents to gather information against Hillary Clinton. It further asserts that Trump had been groomed for political office by Vladimir Putin. While all parties deny these charges, it is important to know that none of its claims have been verified to date, no one in both the FBI and CIA bothered to verify them, and when placed under oath in British court, Christopher Steele admitted that the dossier was essentially bogus.

Steele likely believed the dossier would only be used as a political campaign smear tactic, while he collected a multi-million dollar paycheck for his work. He couldn’t have possibly known that the unverifiable dossier, because it appears to be entirely false, would eventually become the centerpiece for obtaining a FISA warrant against a presidential candidate, and then the impetus for a special council run by Robert Muller and his band of avowed Clinton supporters. It’s important also to keep in mind that while charges have been leveled on Trump’s associates, not a single charge has been leveled regarding so-called Russian collusion. It’s also important to understand that Russian collusion in of itself is not a crime. So what are we doing here?

The entire Russian hoax has a secondary political function beyond an unconstitutional attempt to unseat a duly elected president. Through the use of a willing media, it serves as a distraction to the Clinton’s, the FBI’s, and the Justice Department’s clear violations of the law. It is unlawful to misrepresent facts or lie to a judge in order to obtain a warrant. It is unlawful to deny a citizen’s Constitutional rights. It is unlawful to use a government office for personal or political benefit. It is unlawful to mishandle and expose privileged and secure government documents. It is unlawful to obstruct justice. FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Intelligence Chief James Clapper, Bruce Ohr, and the notorious Peter Strzok and his girlfriend, Lisa Page, appear to have done much of this and more. The web of lies and people involved is bigger, and given its scope and the evidence uncovered to date, it’s become impossible to believe that President Obama and his inner circle, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, had no understanding of their actions.

Be angry about what these arrogant people have done. They’ve justified breaking the law in order to protect their ideals and way of life. This is what happens when diversity of opinion is actively rooted out and group think takes over. It’s fascism in its purest form. Government has been poisoned by group think. We see it in the news and all over the Internet. Group think always leads to pervasive ignorance, while purporting to be the wisest entity in the room.

While the country is saddled with a demoralizing special council which appears to have the sole purpose of unearthing any dirt whatsoever on President Trump—anyone remember Ken Starr—former FBI Director James Comey has since gone on a sycophantic book tour, maintaining his innocence with palpable doses of self-righteousness. On one hand, you can hardly blame him. It appears that he was influenced by Clinton-beholden and then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to support one political candidate by forgiving her of criminal behavior, and then launched an unfounded investigation against another to destroy him. He’s gone too far down the road to perdition to turn around, and his commitment to a life-defining, career-destroying, and eminently corrupt path is clear. However if justice still exists in the U.S., he and the aforementioned government officials will face a jury of peers for various charges.

Jarrett’s book is perhaps the most insightful and clearest description of what has happened and where we are right now within this unholy mess. The United States needs its justice department cleaned up. Our system of laws badly relies on it. Jarrett helps shine a light.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Unfocused Openings

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Whether you are a commercial mystery writer or a high-art literary prose specialist, very few people will stay with a book if the opening chapter does not deliver a clear message. With the growing availability of media venues, the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. Even with books, the most successful entertainment or information offerings seize our attention from the outset. Here are some factors to consider when planning, drafting, and revising your opening:

Engagement

As emerging writers, we are told to create action or drama at the opening of our stories. Nonfiction writers, especially biographers, often foreshadow a significant event in their subject’s life, while fiction writers do the same by cherry-picking a critical point on the timeline, but this is not always practical. In general, reader engagement arises by presenting an aspect of the story that generates keen interest. For example, it could be humor or tension that is exemplary of the entire book. The biggest mistake is presenting large amounts of backstory or introductory information at the start. Another version of this misstep is beginning too soon on the timeline. Both of these approaches throw water on the spark of the story. This set up information can be folded into the story at a later time or even removed altogether. In modern times, think about eliminating chapters that begin with the words Foreword, Introduction, Prologue, and Preface—or even Epilogue for that matter because they sap energy from the book. Many readers receive these appendages like homework and skip them to get to the meat of the book.

Mission

A book should have a clearly defined purpose, otherwise it’s just a long and wandering diatribe. A nonfiction book has a thesis, while a work of fiction has a story question. Don’t let any fine writing teacher talk you out of this essential element of a book. All art from poetry to painting has a point. When it’s focused—because its creator knows precisely what it is—the reader or viewer becomes involved with the piece. The writer who says “I write to discover what the story’s about” should be pushed down a flight of stairs. This statement is disingenuous and impractical. While writers discover aspects of and hone down a story during its development, there comes a time when the writer makes a firm commitment to the mission of the book and then goes about amplifying it. A smart writer makes it clear in the opening pages and sometimes even the title.

Presentation

Book openings are like a first date. The writer features what he does well and goes to it often during the course of his relationship with the reader. If the opening is phony, disorganized, or confusing, the reader will never get to the next chapter, and a match made in heaven has been squandered. Quickly establish as many of the following items as possible: the predominant point of view used, the main character(s), the typical setting, and the sequencing. While these aspects help authenticate the story, the latter involves the structure of the book. If the book darts back and forth through time, events, and/or characters, it’s critical to present a pattern from the start. As a result, your story organization will become a silent rhythm in the reader’s mind.

Tone

The tone of the story involves everything from word choice, to sentence structure, to the overall attitude of the narrative and characters. Most stories form a conundrum that ranges from solving a mystery to battling the internal complexities of the human spirit. This can be presented on a scale from terrifying to hilarious. Even if the story tone shifts for dramatic effect, the main tone should be delivered at the start. If the story is a romance, then it’s the longing of the heart. If it’s an intense mystery, then it’s a mangled corpse. If it’s an enduring quest, then the journey’s gauntlet must be cast down.

Epilogue

It’s a self-indulgent or inexperienced writer who does not recognize the trend to immediately engage the reader. In fact, it isn’t a trend, but a well-established precept of successful writing. If you are currently writing to figure out what the story is about or where the story begins, then stop! Park your pen and take a moment to do some sketching and outlining before you draft another word. Ask your characters why they’ve entered the room and what they want from the story. If they can’t tell you, then they either need to leave or you need to get to know them better before pushing them along their story line. Once you know their stories and what they want, find the first worst moment on their timeline and begin the story right there.

Next in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

Previously in The Book Killers series: Stilted Writing

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

by Laurence Gonzales
W.W.Norton

book review by Christopher Klim (with commentary from the Eric Hoffer Book Award)

“The design of the human condition makes it easy for us to conceal the obvious from ourselves, especially under strain and pressure.”

Accidents cover a wide spectrum of often life-threatening scenarios. On the surface, survival appears random or at the very least circumstantial, but the survivors or top performers when challenged are those that use logic in harmony with inbred animal instincts or emotions, and they never follow the rules, not even their own, yet keep in touch with all of their knowledge and resources, their very position on the planet.

Author and journalist Gonzales offers a comprehensive examination of the path through living and dying in crisis. The answers aren’t singular or predictable. Just the stories alone, as retold by Gonzales with passion and a journalist’s conciseness, are worth the read, and they are intermittently supported by science and research to complete the picture.

The book is divided into two parts—accident and aftermath—and it’s the latter, the stories of survival, that are even more compelling, as well as illustrative of the human experience and the way the mind operates. Unfazed by its promising title, this eloquently written and well researched investigation of survival through crisis entertains, informs, and incites. From the flawless landing of a military jet plane on a moving ship in the dead of night, to the miraculous drifting to safety through shark infested waters, one act of survival after another is described in minute detail.

The book makes an important contribution to the survival literature from both an academic and a practical standpoint, as it incorporates fact and humanity, science and soul. Not only valuable reading for individuals engaged in high risk activities, it’s for all who will face emotional, physical, or financial distress at some point in our lives. And how do you know when that will come? You don’t. One of the central messages is to be prepared b developing a core to fall back upon when it is most needed. The last thing you want to discover in crisis is that you don’t have a core or much of one to guide you. Then you’ll literally freeze up like a deer in the headlights, like a stuck machine, like most people.

And what type of life is it if you do not? As Eric Hoffer once said, “The remarkable thing is that it is the crowded life that is most easily remembered. A life full of turns, achievements, disappointments, surprises, and crises is a life full of landmarks.” A crowded life also brings danger, even crisis, and those who survive are not always obvious.

This updated edition is the Eric Hoffer Book Award Gran Prize Winner and has been appreciated by a wide array of people and careers. It just might change the way you think.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci

by Mike Lankford
Melville House

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Utterly odd and unique and stunningly beautiful—and not what they asked for at all. The monks hated it. Completely.”

In a time of enlightenment and brutal death, Leonardo da Vinci was truly brilliant. Artist, scientist, mathematician, inventor—he existed to solve problems great and small in the world, while envisioning a future that would not come to fruition until centuries after his death. He is a historical figure that cannot be completely known or spoken of enough. Perhaps the term “Renaissance man” was invented to describe him.

Anyone who has spent time with brilliant people knows three things: First, no matter how clever and successful we are, we are not brilliant. Second, the brilliant are not like us, instead given to bouts of introspection so deep that they seem disconnected from their very environment. Third, they are a mystery, so expansive that their depths cannot be plumbed by regular people. Brilliant people rarely give us what we ask for, but instead what we should have asked for. The natural result is to assume that they walk among the immortals. Leonardo da Vinci was one such man, and given his creative output, who could blame us for hoisting him above others?

In his latest biography, Lankford tackles the conundrum of a legendary man who died five hundred years ago. Employing historical records, as well as Leonardo’s creative works and notes, the author reconstructs the legend, breathing spirit into the person, his motivations, and the key moments of his life. He accomplishes this with charm, wit, and a deft hand at research, all the while warning us that no one could truly know da Vinci—not even in his time. The genius was constantly riddling problems, while stretching the boundaries of known technique and convention. Although his acclaim would eventually be wide, his circle of confidants was small, if he ever actually confided in anyone. Delving into Leonardo’s personality, one is left with the impression that he took each task very seriously, but appeared to harbor an inside joke never fully revealed to us. So how does one get inside da Vinci? Lankford’s approach is to imagine Leonardo by employing time, circumstance, and the know record.

An exemplary moment arrives during the creation of The Last Supper. It’s a masterpiece of perspective and art, employing untested technique, which frankly did not hold up well over time and was further insulted by near annihilation during World War II. Even the painting is now an imagined thing. Although it was last restored during the 19th century, it is better understood by its reproductions, than the crumbling original in a convent near Milan. But we have clues within a 16th century reproduction, and we know from the artist’s notes and materials that he was under pressure to perform against challenging conditions. The wall was damp and given to erosion, and Leonardo was no master of fresco, requiring him to think quickly rather than his preferred method of meditation and revision. He gambled with technique to counteract these issues, and so it’s easy to imagine the pressure placed on him by himself and others. Lankford realizes this event with requisite intrigue and light.

The honesty in which Lankford reimagines Leonardo da Vinci is refreshing. The author devotes space on the page to suppose alternative realities while drilling down toward the likeliest possibility. The truth is that da Vinci was still a man and his life wasn’t easy, especially during an age of short life expectancy and the oppressive demands of an economically unbalanced society. Leonardo was never wealthy, counted on the patronage of uninspired aristocracy, and skirted the various deaths of the time to live to an unusual sixty-seven years of age. Who knows how much of his vast brain power was spent just to survive? While no exact records of Leonardo’s struggles exist outside of notes in his own hand, there exists post facto reflections of contemporaries and a parade of admirers through the centuries. His legacy is one of an enduring artist, creator, and visionary, and clearly his passion for learning and understanding has transcended time. Lankford sets all of this in motion in this quirky and utterly enjoyable depiction of one of history’s greatest figures.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Note: Each year, the Eric Hoffer Book Award gives the da Vinci Eye to books with superior cover art.