six things tagged “books”

Se7en by David Seidman and Ralph Tedesco A

'Se7en' by David Seidman and Ralph Tedesco

Came recommended by HU. I had to borrow them from PG1. A limited, 7-part comic book series based on one of my favorite movies. Told from the perspective of John Doe and provides his backstory which is about as sad and disturbing as you can imagine it would be. About as gory as the movie itself. Most parts have a different style. Plenty of out-of-context Bible quotes. Just really well-executed.

  1. These are hard to find and expensive: anywhere from $250 on eBay to $350 on Amazon. ↩︎

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo A

'The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius' by Graham Farmelo

I was lucky. I went to good schools, I had excellent teachers. I was in the right place at the right time.

Paul Dirac

Opportunity and luck bestow their benisons upon a once-in-a-generation genius, mathematical mystic, and one of the greatest theoretical physicists to have walked the planet.

You never hear of Dirac much1. I read this article about him being in love and decided to read more about his life and work. This award-winning book came highly recommended. I enjoyed its breadth and depth thoroughly. I am a slow reader and was surprised by the speed at which I got through its heft: 625 pages2! Farmelo expertly weaves world history, politics, religion, and humor into Dirac’s story. The epilogue spends some time conjecturing that he may have been autistic in a bid to explain his many eccentricities and severe taciturnity3. Lots of painful family tragedy that was rather difficult to read. Intuition and Mathematical beauty were paramount to him:

If you are receptive and humble, mathematics will lead you by the hand. Again and again, when I have been at a loss how to proceed, I have just had to wait until [this happened]. It has led me along an unexpected path, a path where new vistas open up, a path leading to new territory, where one can set up a base of operations, from which one can survey the surroundings and plan future progress.

Here’s an In Our Time episode with Farmelo and two other physicists if you want to get a taste of what this excellent and riveting biography is about. I thought this description of Dirac by a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who took Dirac’s Quantum Mechanics course at Cambridge four times in 1930 because it was “just like a piece of music you want to hear over and over again”) was rather funny:

“Dirac showed none of the confidence that might be expected of a young man at the top of his game. Chandrasekhar wrote home to his father that he was disappointed that Dirac did not show a bit more swagger: ‘[Dirac is a] lean, meek shy young “Fellow” (FRS) who goes slyly along the streets. He walks quite close to the walls (like a thief!), and is not at all healthy. A contrast to Mr Fowler […] Dirac is pale, thin, and looks terribly overworked.”

Update

Here’s a video of the author giving a presentation on Dirac and Mathematical Beauty

  1. And according to the author, not even in his native Bristol… ↩︎

  2. Well, a hundred or so are copious footnotes and references. ↩︎

  3. And I do mean laughably, alarmingly severe. His colleagues came up with a unit called a “Dirac” which is one word per hour. ↩︎

Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads by Evelyn Nagai-Berthrong and Anker Odum A+

'Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads' by Evelyn Nagai-Berthrong and Anker Odum

A friend used to loan me this lovely book when I was 12 or 13. I loved reading and re-reading it to the point where I remember asking him if he could just gift it to me for my birthday (he declined). And then Life happened and I grew up and I forgot all about it until around 3 years ago, when I suddenly went “wait a second” as I was casually reading some translation of Journey to the West. This book is a childrens’ adaptation of that classic Chinese tale! I then started looking for it, off-and-on, with very little luck.

Last year, LD told me about this absolutely lovely website called “Stump the Bookseller” run by LoganBerry Books in Cleveland. For a nominal fee, I submitted everything I could remember about the book hoping that someone would know it… only to find it myself that evening. My Google-fu had somehow improved after submitting that request. I bought it from AbeBooks posthaste.

It’s just a fantastic adventure to get lost in. To understand the Myth of the Monkey a little deeper, I turned to this paper by Professor Whalen Lai1. There’s just too much to quote but here’s a highly condensed TL;DR of both the book and the story:

Our search for the original face of Monkey should not distract us from his final destiny. Genealogy is only half the story. In his second westward trip Monkey rises above his animal past, above even humanity, to become a Buddha. In his first trip he acquired only Taoist immortality, and discovered only his premoral, childlike, monkey nature. Still capable of grudges against Heaven, Monkey loses his good temper and is damned for his Titanic pride. Only on his second trip West does Monkey, guided by the compassionate Guanyin, find his true self, his Buddha-nature. Guanyin teaches Monkey an invaluable lesson: that it is more important to tame the demon – the “monkey mind” – within than subdue the demons without.

In that second journey to the West, Monkey learns the art of Buddhist self-discipline. Guanyin initially puts a headband, a “crown of thorns” as it were, on Monkey’s forehead. The headband gives Monkey insufferable headaches every time he harbors evil thoughts. Mindfulness of good and evil eventually allows Monkey to “Do good, avoid evil, and cleanse the mind.” By journey’s end, Monkey is his own master, a victor over the demons within. When he finally asks Guanyin to kindly remove the headband, Monkey is told that it is not necessary. The crown of thorns had long since magically disappeared. At last this protean Ape had grown, in his progress as a pilgrim, into a Buddhist saint.

Whalen Lai, "From Protean Ape to Handsome Saint: The Monkey King, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1994), pp. 29-65
  1. An Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at UC Davis. ↩︎

Together by Luke Adam Hawker A

'Together' by Luke Adam Hawker

“Fear can be a funny thing; it doesn’t always shine a flattering light. It can make us forget that others are scared too.”

The author tells a short and lovely story about the pandemic, isolation, hope, the value of community, nature, and so many other things for such a short book. It is told through the experience of his grandpa (and his grandpa’s doggy). It made me think of my own grandmother and how (a) we are not meant to be alone and (b) how loneliness is especially devastating for older people.

Really loved his drawing/art style as well. Lovely stuff 💗

Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes B+

'Ice Haven' by Daniel Clowes

Birthday gift from TK. Sharp, vibrant, funny, and dark. The characters’ philosophical ruminations are self-indulgent and sophomoric and tedious. Don’t know if that was the point.

Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books by Georges Perec B+

'Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One''s Books' by Georges Perec

I remember complaining about having too many books to read at The Mill (RIP) in Iowa City, and getting a weary “We know” to my “Did you know the Japanese have a word for this?”

I remember telling them I’d resolved to have no more than, say, a hundred books on my shelves at any given time, and them telling me about an essay (or at least I think it’s an essay) in this book.

I’ve never come by anything by him before. Reading him is like watching a bee bob and weave and float around and just be and have fun. Words1 and ideas, lists and taxonomies: It’s a lot of serious whimsy.

Even if Georges Perec had not written a novel without the letter “E”—“La disparition,” later rendered into “E”-less English as “A Void”—he would still be one of the most unusual writers of the twentieth century. Among his works are a treatise on the board game Go, a radio play about a machine that analyzes poetry, an autobiography cast in the form of a novel about a city of athletes, an approximately twelve-hundred-word palindrome, a crypto-Marxist anatomy of consumerist Paris, a scrupulously researched history of a wholly fictional painting, a deeply eccentric bucket list (“buy a number of domestic appliances” and “travel by submarine” are among the entries), a memoir composed of four hundred and eighty stand-alone sentences that all begin “I remember,” a novella in which the only vowel used is “E,” a lyric study of Ellis Island, and, from 1976 until his death from cancer, in 1982, a weekly crossword puzzle for the newspaper Le Point. It would be hard to disagree with Italo Calvino that Perec “bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone else,” or with Perec himself, who said, in an interview a few years before his death, that he had never written the same thing twice.

Paul Grimstad, The Absolute Originality of Georges Perec, The New Yorker
  1. Translated from French but still. ↩︎