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

Advertisements

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 Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

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.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

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.

Much regarding point of view (POV) is the artist’s decision. A good choice can add salient new insight to a familiar subject, as seen for example in Picasso’s cubism or Patti Smith’s Instagram account. In both, they don’t necessarily discuss themselves, but over the course of time, we learn about the artist and more importantly their subject matter. In literature, the POV is the person or thing guiding the narrative, and the subject is the consequence of their focus.

POV comes in a variety of shades and colors. Simply put, the story narrative will appear in either first person (I, we), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they). Everything else is a hybrid of these three basic modes. POV might vary within a given work, but each POV requires the reader to suspend disbelief differently in order to engage with the narrative. First person asks the reader to get inside the skin of the narrator, second person asks the reader to be the narrator, and third person provides distance from the narrator.

Second person is the trickiest, requiring the reader to relate to the narrator at least in a general sense. In contrast, most readers could wear the skin of a serial killer in first person, since the reader understands that he/she is secretly slipping inside the abhorrent mind of the narrator, but a second person narrative asks the reader to be the serial killer, which is hopefully a no-go area for most readers. Finally, third person can be described—and perhaps over-described by literature and writing teachers—as providing a variety of distances from the subject, ranging from a nearby viewer, who reveals what he/she sees, hears, or induces, to an omnipresent seer, who can relate everything from the minds of the players to that which has happened off-screen and any point on the timeline.

In all POVs, the narrator is further moderated by reliability. As with real people, the narrator is effected by his/her own past and thought patterns, and therefore interprets events through this lens. The narrator might also be self-deluded for a variety of reasons (i.e. fear, conceit, mental illness, etc.). When intervieweing people at a crime scene, investigators will hear vastly different accounts of the same event. A narrator who runs askew of the facts is referred to as an “unreliable narrator.” Everything from the events, and especially the reasons for them, cannot be trusted from an unreliable narrator, and the reader may only learn this over time. Lolita‘s self-deluded child predator, Humbert Humbert, is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Nabokov, helped by the fact that Lolita is no angel, manages dark irony through Humbolt’s ultimately pathetic voice.

Regardless of your choice of POV, two factors emerge to support the work: authenticity and saliency.

Authenticity is not necessarily reliability. Authentic narrators involve accuracy in the character’s portrayal. An obsessed narrator, as Lolita‘s Humbert, or a mentally ill narrator, as in Everything Burns’s pyromaniac Oscar Van Hise, form gripping reads. Neither of these narrators are reliable, but they are true to their deluded selves and draw razor sharp accuracy of events. Both characters form the archetype of a villain, which can be useful narration for the story. Therefore, their characters are authentic, holding the reader in place and heightening the drama. Deriving authenticity in the narrator is not only essential, but it requires deep understanding of the character. An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to commute the story, but an inauthentic character portrayal will ground the story to a halt.

On the other hand, saliency in the POV character involves that which stands head and shoulders above all else. This speaks directly to the choice of POV character. The modern world presents a great deal of navel gazing characters, and therefore the popular voice in literature today is predominantly a deep first person narrative, whether it be reliable or not. Here we follow the slipstream of consciousness—that ebb and flow of self-awareness—but is first person the best choice for the story? Sometimes it’s more effective to take a step away within a third person narration, allowing a wider view of events while avoiding unnecessary and uninteresting intimate details. In first person, the author tends to have to account for every moment in time, often moving forward by only breaking from the scene. Meanwhile, third person allows for the easy passage of time, skipping around the timeline, events, and details as needed.

Which choice of POV character is the best? This selection is not always clear. Changing the POV provides a different level of experience, maturity, and perspective. What is the story trying to accomplish? What is the story’s theme, tone, or genre? How much does the narrator need to know or get involved? Each of these questions must be answered before the narrator takes control. A story crashes when a POV character suddenly narrates out of character. She may know things she couldn’t. He may appear at a moment where he shouldn’t. He or she may do or feel as they would not. Forced POV is as obvious as an awkward metaphor.

There are many ways to select a weak POV. Most recently, there’s been a preponderance of a child’s POV dominating adult novels. While this might work for the short form, often a better choice exists with an adult POV character. Even if events surrounding a child are dramatic, a child’s ability to interpret events is limited. Remember, readers must not only be compelled to engage the narrative, but the reader needs to be convinced to stay with it.

Study those who have gone before. The choice of Lolita as the predominant character in Lolita would have stifled the narrative and eliminated the irony. The story would have been different, pathetic even. Never revealing Oscar Van Hise’s motivations for arson would have reduced both the depth and urgency of Everything Burn‘s drama. Van Hise’s reclusive, secretive nature would have been impossible to capture, and he’d be a two-dimensional antagonist, found so popularly in television crime dramas. In each, the POV character was vital to what the author was trying to accomplish beyond the events of the story alone. The reader is left feeling and thinking in a particular way. The POV characters took them to those heights, or lows, in an authentic and natural way.

In the end, art is a dialogue between the artist and viewer. Otherwise the work derives little lasting meaning. In all art dialogues, the secrets of the artist are laid bare, but we are not typically focused on them. To paraphrase seminal playwright Arthur Miller: Our best work occurs where we are most naked. As the viewer of the work, we delve into the core of the narrative as dictated by the POV and subconsciously digest the author’s insights and bits of the author as well. In the best of art, wrought through a transporting POV, we leave with new insights of our own.

Next in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Previously in The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Stilted Writing

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.

The word stilted is defined as stiff, self-conscious, and/or unnatural. In a book, this concept is just as unwelcomed. For example…

It was a starry night. An owl flew low beneath the moon. Joe loved Jane so much that he thought his heart might burst. But nothing would stand in their way now. He swept her off her feet and carried her through the threshold of their lives together.

“Stop right there,” said the shadowy figure coming from behind the light post.

“No, not you!” Jane gasped.

“Have you forgotten about your husband?” the stranger barked.

“Sir, you must reconsider your approach,” Joe said.

The above passage forms a parade of clichés, passive verbs, hackneyed concepts, repetitions, invariable sentence structure, overly formal speech, and talking heads. Neither entertaining nor enlightening, these issues combine to stultify the reader. Let’s discuss a few of these problems.

Clichés, passive verbs, repetitions, overly formal speech, and even hackneyed concepts boil down to laziness on part of the writer. To complicate their existence, writers may become comfortable with these phrases and scenes during multiple readings to the point where a false sense of confidence in the prose arises. This is why cooling off periods—days or weeks if allowable between revisions—are vital to identifying problematic writing. Try to think of these issues as placeholders that will be replaced with stronger phrasing and construction. If the writer is not surprised or energized by his/her words, then no one else will be.

Talking head syndrome occurs when the characters provide information that either they should already know (i.e. “Hello, I’m Bob, your uncle.”) or barely relates to the conversation. This happens when the writer tries to relate narrative information through the character’s mouths. It is always obvious, and it saps momentum and authenticity from the work. In the example above, the entire dialogue should be replaced.

Invariable sentence structure, which is typically a repetition of subject-verb sentences without changes in presentation or structure, reveals the writer’s skill level or lack thereof. Fluctuations stimulate the reader’s mind. Changing sentence structure also is used in relation to the tone of the story. For example, short and quick sentences work for action scenes and humor, especially punch lines. Longer sentences can be found in romantic prose. Leading and trailing phrases form a variety of transitions. The list here is long and can be observed in any good literature and nonfiction narrative.

Many early writers are so eager to get their ideas on paper that they overlook the words themselves. On face value, that statement seems like a paradox, but it is only the normal course of a writer’s development. Skilled writers won’t accept stilted writing in their work, and during the revision process, they learn to identify their particular bad habits and eliminate them.

Here’s a cliché: All writing is rewriting. It also happens to be an axiom of the process.

Next in the The Book Killers series: Unfocused Openings

Previously in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice 

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.