Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Review: The Mountains Belong to Me

The Mountains Belong to Me by Linda Dickert

The Mountains Belong to Me by Linda Dickert is a collection of nature based poetry. Dickert does not have much of a public profile. What I can gather is that she lives or lived in the Smokey Mountains and is a dog lover. Perhaps the most important piece of information is that all proceeds from this collection are being donated Spark Companions a non-profit organization that helps pay vet bills for those in need. Sparky, is the the name of her deceased pit bull.

The poems are in the same vein as Pope’s pastoral poems or Frost’s New England take on the outdoors. Dickert is the Smokey Mountain version of the pastoral. She looks at the seasons and natures reaction to the changes. She writes of the stars and dreams and the purity of nature:

Maybe this is why
the storm is so grand
to clear pollution and
force renewal of the
terrain as is this
magnificent mountain morning.

From the stars in the sky, to squirrels running in the forest, Dickert manages to capture the wildlife and sense of freedom in the rugged outdoors. She writes of balance in nature:

They take from the forest what is needed
And leave it as they found it.
To create Balance in nature that
Humans can only imagine.

Halfway through the book she introduces the reoccurring theme of dogs. Not just her dogs, Sparky and Fiona, but all dogs. She writes of all dogs from a hungry abandon puppy to pit bull rescues. There is much emotion written into her words. You can feel the look in the stray dog’s eyes.

The Mountains contains poems of imagery and feeling. It is easy to picture her words of an early sprouting of tulips and daffodils pushing up through the January snow. For those who live were there is a distinctive winter and spring, the words will give vivid imagery of an experience and it will remind those of us who used to live in cooler climates of childhood experiences.

I remember growing up where we all seemed a bit closer to nature, even the city dwellers. I may not have had the Smokey Mountains, but I did have a large, forested park with streams and wildlife. Today, I am lucky to have a “Greenstrip” – a strip of land undesirable for commercial use, planted with grass. It’s not a park. It’s not nature. It’s just a sanitized strip of grass calling out for a book like The Mountains to remind us of what we used to have.

A very nice collection of poetry and memories.

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August 18, 2013 · 11:16

Book Review: Cartwheel: A Novel

Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois

Cartwheel: A Novel by Jennifer Dubois is her second novel. Dubios has a BA in political science and philosophy from Tufts University. She has also earned her MFA in fiction from Iowa Writer’s Work shop. Her work has been published in several publications and her first novel was selected for Five Under Thirty-Five program from the National Book Foundation. Currently, Dubios teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Contemporary fiction is not usually my first choice to read, but this book came highly recommended. I have found a few winners in the past because, after all, thirty years from now this is where the new classic books will be selected from. Cartwheelhas all the makings of a great story: Murder in a foreign country. A dysfunctional family who tries to come together when a second tragedy strikes. A workaholic police investigator. A cocky, rich young man. An emotionally stunted protagonist. College students. A bar.

This book should be great, but it turns out to be rather ok. The writing will hold you into the story and the reader will or should be able to piece together the story. The informed reader, will however, come to the realization that with minor differences they have heard this story before. It would seem that this story should come with a “Based on a true story” or “Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.” What I am hinting at is the Amanda Knox story. The American student arrested for killing her roommate in Italy and trying to blame the crime on a bartender. I am not saying that Dubois had any intention of rewriting the Amanda Knox story, but I could not shake that feeling.

I liked the book and the story. The writing is great. The characters were all believable. All the characters were well developed. I just couldn’t help feeling I was reading a recycled news story. Despite that nagging feeling, it is a good read. For those unfamiliar with the Amanda Knox story is will be an very good read.

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Book Review: Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth

Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, by Jim Baggott is a criticism of modern theoretical physics. Baggot is currently a freelance science writer. A graduate of Manchester with a degree in chemistry and a PhD in physical chemistry from Oxford he was a lecturer at the University of Reading. He is the author of several books on quantum physics and reality.

There has been an explosion in Physics for the common man, or at least the lay person that chooses to follow. I was working on an electronics degree in the mid 1980s and I came across a copy of Taking the Quantum Leap by Fred Alan Wolf. I was amazed at book about quantum physics that I could follow. Earlier I picked up a book on String Theory and I was thoroughly discouraged as the book was entirely mathematical equations. Times changed for the better. Hawking’s A Brief History of Timemade physics popular again. But is popular good?

Since then the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel have kept the general public up to date and interested. It’s is actually surprising how many people actually knew something out the Higgs particle last year. Documentaries covering physics, reality, time, and quantum mechanics are all readily available and constantly updated. The concept of multiple universes even made its way to prime time television as the science fiction show “Sliders”.

Baggott writes a clear introduction with a list of items he would like the reader to think about and follow along with as they read the book. He traces science from the observable to the purely mathematical. Along the way he explains the corrections made to theories and scientific thought. The idea of what is reality comes into play and does science actually describe reality. Reality can be a matter of perspective. Plato’s cave allegory is an excellent example of reality. From the prisoners view, the shadowy images are reality yet for everyone else it is not. Einstein introduced the world to the idea that time and space were not constant, only the speed of light is constant. Numerous thought experiments were made, but still, empirical observation supported these predictions. Relativity was, and is, difficult but, all in all, not mind blowing. The Standard Model again is difficult, but has a beauty in it: symmetry of particles. Then came the discovery of more particles and the need to explain them, Super Symmetry, Sting Theory, additional dimensions, Multiverses. We have gone from elegant and empirical to seemingly impossibly complex and untestable. Just because mathematics can provide a solution, is it necessarily the right right solution; more importantly which of the several mathematical conclusions is right…if any?

There comes a point when science loses touch with empirical world. Baggott uses the term fairy tale. Opponents would counter, “Here is the mathematics to prove it.” Baggott uses the term metaphysical to describe where science is headed. I can see the direct relation to what he is say. Without empirical data or proof, what separates science from metaphysics or religion? Modern physics seems to have abandoned the scientific method and pursued unobservable, untestable, and unfalsifiable science: fairy tale. Perhaps it’s the popular science selling itself to the mass market, where popular is better selling than factual. Selling the idea on a holographic universe is more profitable than being right. Has sensationalism taken over modern science? Baggott gives his views in this book.

Farewell to Reality is doing for science what Zealot is doing for religion. It is setting up a challenge and creating controversy. Baggott’s book is a bit deeper than popular science books like A Brief History of Time. Rather than fame or fortune Baggot wants to save science. He presents a clear and well written book. The book is well cited and almost 40 pages of documentation are provided. Farewell to Reality is an excellent book for the science minded. It may be a bit difficult for those without a science or a physics background.

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Book Review: A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps by Chris West

A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris  West is a unique take on looking at history. West is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied economics and philosophy. He wrote his first book Journey into the Middle Kingdom after the traveling to China. His fiction includes theChina Quartet four crime novels based in the the People’s Republic of China. West’s other non-fiction include books on business and entrepreneurship.

Stamps are history. I remember having stamp albums as a child and going trough the pages studying the stamps from different countries. There was almost as much to learn from stamps as there was from books. I had nearly forgotten that old hobby until I saw West’s book.

West starts with the 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, and ends with the 2012 1st Class stamp featuring a young Queen Elizabeth. Most stamps feature the current monarch’s profile with the exception of 1996-2012 when a small silhouette of the queen was used and other subjects where the main art of the stamp. Through time most of the stamps in the book displayed current events or anniversaries. There is a shift in the art work too reflecting the times. All of the stamps used are British except for a single German stamp from the interwar period. A 200 Mark stamp over printed 2 Million Marks reflecting the hyperinflation in Germany.

West writes a clear and easy to follow history of Britain. Each chapter starts with a stamp and a story connecting the stamp to a piece of history. Whether it is a new king, a royal wedding, or marking the death of the former Princess of Wales there is a piece of contemporary history connected to the stamp. Some history is less obvious, like an odd looking Christmas stamp, or a misplaced “46th” on a stamp, or even a minority occupying the center spot on a stamp. It is not only the history of the stamps but the history the British Post Office. At one time mail was delivered twelve times a day in London. The price of a stamp was cheap enough so that, as the author says, people posted letters then like people text today. The Post Office was one place where everyone was equal. Post office brought a standard rate for all letters, provided decent jobs, and operated a bank. The bank, unlike others at the time, was for the common people. Also mentioned several times in the book is Britain’s most famous postal employee (and author) Anthony Trollope.

Thirty-Six Postage Stamps is a fun and rather light historical read. It is a history book for those who really don’t like getting bogged done in dates and such. A single stamps followed by a story makes makes for a nice and informative read. For those who like history or stamp collecting it is still an excellent read. From early in Victoria’s rule until the present the reader will get a taste of British culture and history. An excellent read.

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Book Review: Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize

Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll

Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize by Sean B. Carroll is an account of two Frenchmen in different fields and the friendship that will come as a result of their life events. Carroll earned his BA in biology at Washington University in St. Louis. His PhD is in Immunology from Tufts Medical School, and he conducted his postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He has written several books in his field, most dealing with evolution. His research has centered around genes that control animal body patterns and and their role in the evolution of animal diversity.

Brave Genius is a departure from evolutionary biology for Carroll; instead of biology he writes history. Most of the book centers around France and World War II. There is a great deal of history of the war particularly from the French perspective. Accounts of the French resistance fighters are recorded in “Combat” written in part by resistance member Albert Camus. Likewise a biologist, studying sugar preferences of bacteria, and musician found himself in the resistance movement. Writer Albert Camus and biologist Jacques Monod will both excel in their field and win Nobel Prizes.

Carroll gives a reader a personal look at World War II and its influence on particularly Camus. Camus’ The Plague will be an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. This was also the time Camus began work on The Myth of Sisyphus— a book on revolt and the will to live. Both Camus and communist Monod became disenchanted with Stalin’s version communism. Monod who write and editorial in “Combat”criticizing the Soviet Union’s Lysenko. Later Camus would write “The Blood of the Hungarians” in 1957. Camus would later go on to investigate two major questions. How to find meaning in existence and how could another war be prevented. Monod would reappear from the underground return to his family and continue his research. He would also become involve in Hungary by helping a colleague escape the totalitarian state.

Carroll combines World War II and Cold War history and their two forms of totalitarian governments against the want of the people to be free. Both men would also work inside France for freedom. Camus for a free Algeria and Monod with student unrest in 1968. What makes men great is their work beyond their vocations. Both risked their lives fighting Nazism. Both opposed Soviet communism. Camus lost a friend, Sartre, in that dispute. Monod saved a colleague.

Brave Genius is a very well written account of two of the greatest twentieth century Frenchmen. Carroll writes a compelling history and interlaces into it the work and lives of Camus and Monod. The historical events are written in detail and bring out the events that made the men and lead to their humanitarian actions. The book is very well documented and very well worth the read. Highly recommended for those interested in, or wanting to learn about Camus, Monod, and the world in their life time.

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Book Review: Beyond Birkie Fever

Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein

Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein is his personal experiences in marathon cross country skiing. He has written at least five novels in the fantasy genre, something people my age would call D&D type books, which I will need to look at. He was born and currently owns a bike and ski shop in Wisconsin. Rhein stumbled across my blog and asked if I was willing to review the book. I didn’t make the connection immediately until he said he owned a bike shop and that one of the legends of the Birkies was recently killed by a car while riding his bicycle. That knocked it up on my to read list.

The Birkie, the 41st annual Birkebeiner for 2014, is a marathon cross-country skiing race through rolling hills of Wisconsin. The race began in 1973, inspired from the Birkebeiner skiers who took the the king’s son to safety in the Norwegian civil war in 1206. Norway revived the tradition as a race in 1932, burdening the participants with a carrying a non-food item weight to symbolize the the prince. Apparently bonking and the temptation to eat the “prince” may have been too strong for many. Tony Wise started the tradition in the United States in 1973 with thirty five participants the event has grown to 13,000 participants, including the author.

Rhein’s story starts early in his life with a growing attachment to skiing and equipment and training. Skiing, I have learned, is much like cycling. There is the whole right equipment thing: right clothing, ski wax (tires), roller skiing (trainer or rollers), cross-training, and getting ready for “the season.” He captures the obsession with a clear, but you can feel the excitement, writing style. I was a bit skeptical when I first picked up the book. Skiing? It is 111 degrees in Dallas as I write this. The writing style is catchy and keeps the reader interested. Obsession is obsession and easy to relate to. From being flying to Australia, only to get sick, and race sick; to “hey why not run a marathon”. Misery sometimes makes the best memories.

Beyond Birkie Fever is definitely a fun read no matter what your opinion of skiing. There is a common ground for athletes of all sports and all levels and it can be found in this book. Highly recommended for all who ski, bike, run, swim, hike, climb mountains, or those who want to look into the the mind of those with a healthy obsession.

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Book Review: Her House and Other Poems

Her House and Other Poems by Donna Marie (Pitino) Merritt

Her House and Other Poems by Donna Marie Merritt is her fourth book of poetry. Merritt lives in Connecticut and is also the author of fifteen award winning children’s books.

Merritt has a knack for connecting her experiences in such a way that you can relate to them on the same level. I see her turtle in “Rescued by a turtle” sliding off his perch into the water in the pond on my ride to work. She captures the little things and simple things we all see and put away in the back of our minds until her words brings them back. The read will say, “Yes, exactly, I know that place.” or “I know that exact feeling.” and makes the reader wonder if he or she was there experiencing the event.

There are also the less pleasant things, like people knocking on your door soliciting their version of God or those annoying TV contestants who all have a perfectly happy well adjusted families and not “My spouse is lying, lazy loud jerk…” Or the times we need to pretend that everything is okay.

There are plenty of good times recorded in Her House. From a nice glass of wine, to making do in a power outage, and personal memories. Merritt has very unique ability to capture the ordinary and replay it back as extraordinary. Her previous two books that I have read, Job Loss and What’s Wrong with Ordinary are excellent, and here her newest is just as well done but with a wider variety poems, not limited by a theme.

Her House is a perfect book for a day at the park (even in the Texas summer heat) or a lazy Sunday afternoon. Merritt has become one of my favorite contemporary poets. Her observations and ability to retell her experiences are amazing. I am very much looking forward to her next collection.

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