Last Week’s Reading: March 12 – 18

The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt: One on Graywolf’s “Art Of” series on writing techniques (and I’m curious to know your favorites if you’ve read any of the others), this little book is about syntax in poetry: its musicality, how it relates to the poetic line, how poets from Bishop to Kunitz deploy it. It’s on the technical side, understandably, with much discussion of rhythm and grammar, and I suspect therefore would be of most interest to poets/writers.

SPQR, by Mary Beard: I’ve been working on this book since January, and finally made a big push to finish it last week (hence the lack of fiction on this list). This much-acclaimed history of Ancient Rome considers a period of about a thousand years, tracing notions of democracy, empire, and citizenship. The parallels with our own historical moment are sometimes quite uncomfortable. Though this is, of necessity, history in broad strokes, I appreciated Ms. Beard’s keen eye for detail, her readings of architectural evidence and art, and her attempts to give shape to narratives that have often disappeared (those of enslaved people, children, and women). If you’re in the mood for history, I highly recommend SPQR.

Hagar Poems, by Mohja Kahf: I liked the concept of this collection, which plays with different aspects of the Hagar/Hajar story (with Abraham, Hagar conceived Ishmael, and then mother and son were exiled when Sarah gave birth to Isaac), but the execution was uneven. In these poems, Ms. Kahf plays with a multiplicity of voices and settings, and is most successful in tongue-in-cheek poems like “Hajar Writes a Letter to Sarah as a Cathartic Exercise Suggested by Her Therapist” and the moving “Little Mosque Poems” sequence.

Reality Is Not What It Seems, by Carlo Rovelli: You might think of this as a more in-depth companion to Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (which appeared in English first, though this book was first to be published in Italian). In Reality Is Not What It Seems, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli walks readers through the development of physics from Democritus up to quantum gravity, which is still being explored and theorized. The tenses get a little wonky (but time is relative, right?) and I can’t say that I now understand special relativity or the structure of a 3-sphere, but goodness, this stuff is absolutely fascinating. And Mr. Rovelli appreciates poets (he quotes Dante, Lucretius, and Shakespeare, among others), for which I continue to hold him in esteem. The further I got into this book, the more trippy and weird and beautiful the cosmos seemed. I wish I had a head for physics, but since I don’t, I’m glad there are books like this one to make me feel I understand the structure of reality a little better.

Advertisements

The Great Library Rundown, Part 4: Here Be Black Holes

Space Reads

It may surprise you to learn, Dear Readers, that as a kid I wanted to be not a writer or a historian, but an astrophysicist. My parents gave me a subscription to Astronomy and a telescope, entertained my wild theories about gravity, and  took me out to see Mir and the planets after dark, which I loved.

And then I realized that astronomy and physics are all about math. Valiantly as I might have tried, math never clicked for me, and thus here you find me, an editor and writer.

Still, I love dipping back into the world of spacetime, so to speak. Here are two science-related titles for your consideration.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

IMG_7035I absolutely loved this tiny (81 pages, not counting the index) book. In plain language, Carlo Rovelli discusses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ greatest discoveries and theories in physics, ranging from relativity to particle physics and back again. The section on heat and the nature of time completely fascinated me. Do note that one isn’t going to completely grasp these concepts after reading; this is more of a mind-opening book, the kind that encourages curiosity and further reading (take this: “The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics”).  I will definitely be buying a copy of this book for my shelf at home–it’s the kind of book I want to dip back into from time to time. Highly recommended.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Jana Levin

IMG_6798I requested this book after reading Maria Popova’s (of Brain Pickings) ringing endorsement, but I was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. The book is about the decades-long attempt to record gravitational waves (produced in the collision of black holes)—a worthy,  interesting, and timely topic: LIGO (the laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) detected gravitational waves in February, 100 years after Einstein’s prediction of their existence. Jana Levin focuses on the personalities of the original movers and shakers behind the push to build the massive LIGO machines, and while this might have been a good strategy, the execution is problematic. Long sections of interviews are reproduced without commentary, for example, leaving the reader in the dark about the author’s analysis of various points of contention. Throughout the book, crucial scientific terms that a layperson wouldn’t be expected to know aren’t explained, and I found multiple grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities (perhaps the book was rushed through production after the LIGO detection). This is, alas, a book that would have worked better as a long-form magazine story (like the story about earthquakes in the New Yorker that just won the Pulitzer).