One of the advantages to spending so much time in waiting rooms and on planes (all right, the only advantage) is that it gives me a chance to get caught up on my readin’ and watchin’. And now, bloggin’.
I’m baffled as to why this one is getting walloped in the reviews. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, but it does deliver exactly what it advertises: Jack Black doing his usual schtick, with a cheesy Mexican accent in a movie about luchadores by the guy who made Napoleon Dynamite. I thought the movie was fine — not brilliant, but pretty funny throughout — and I don’t even like Jack Black. It’s got his prancing around, and his poop jokes (but the fart jokes, I like), and it’s got Jared Hess’ poor-man’s-Wes-Anderson thing going on, but as far as lightweight forgettable comedies go, I don’t see what’s not to like about it.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
I’ve had this one for a year but was scared to read it what with its being so long and all. I ended up flying right through it; it’s a great book. I’ve seen reviews that describe it as “Harry Potter for adults,” but I suspect that insults both the authors as well as their audiences. They’re only comparable in that they’re British and they’re about magicians.
Jonathan Strange perfectly conveys the feel of a novel written in England at the beginning of the 1800s, without resorting to too many obvious cliches like mimicking Charles Dickens’ or Jane Austen’s style, or an overabundance of “M_____” names. All the characters are believable (if somewhat anachronistic), and even the villains are sympathetic. And as one of the back-cover reviews says, it really does leave you convinced that there’s a real history of magic in England that none of us knew about.
Even when I wasn’t reading the book, I was eager to get back to it and frequently dreamt about the characters. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how to adapt it into a screenplay. So it was definitely compelling. The book does peter out a little bit towards the end, but it is a satisfying ending even if it’s more anti-climactic than I would’ve liked.
I started reading this book and then stopped and then picked it up again and I finished it. I suspect I’m getting burnt out on Discworld, because this one didn’t do a whole lot for me. I didn’t dislike it, but it was kind of the paperback fantasy book equivalent of celery. I feel completely unchanged as a person after having read it.
A Short History of Nearly Everything
This one is frustrating. It’s very well written — the language is clear throughout, it flows naturally from one topic to the next, and you’re never feeling left behind. But it always stops frustratingly short of what you really want to know. In the introduction to the book, Bryson explains that he wrote the book because of two major failings of science textbooks: they’re cold, dry, and impersonal; and they never explain how scientists arrived at the discoveries they made. Bryson nails the first part; he goes into the scientists’ personal histories and puts a human face on every discovery. But he fails completely at the second; I still have no better idea how these ideas and principles work than I did when I started reading.
For example, he describes how Ernest Rutherford used the half-life of radioactive materials to calculate the age of a sample and from that, estimate the age of the earth: “By calculating backwards from how much radiation a material had now and how swiftly it was decaying, you could work out its age. He tested a piece of pitchblende and found it to be 700 million years old — very much older than the age most people were prepared to grant the Earth.” Okay, Bill, but how? How did he know the size of the original sample? I can’t shake the feeling that there’s some obvious insight I’m missing, which is definitely not how the reader should be left feeling from a lightweight, accessible overview-of-science book.
And he keeps doing that. We hear about Max Planck’s career and how he developed quantum mechanics, but we never learn what quantum mechanics is. We hear about Albert Einstein and get a little bit of an explanation of the theory of relativity (space is like a rubber mattress with balls on it) but then we’re told that nobody really understands it, so we’re left to assume there’s no point in trying to explain it.
Plus, I’m only just over 100 pages into the book, and he’s already described about a dozen people as the greatest genius who ever lived. I’m starting to get the impression that Bryson doesn’t understand the stuff himself, and he’s trying to cover everything up. It’s possible that I’m just not the target audience for the book, and it’s meant for more general audiences who just want an overview instead of a more detailed summation. But it just leaves me with the same feelings of frustration that Bryson describes in his introduction. I really wanted somebody to explain quantum mechanics and relativity and carbon dating and how they know the age of the earth to me so I could understand it, for once.
I admit I just started to read this one because of the references in “Lost.” I’m starting to remember that we had to read it in high school, and I couldn’t follow it then, either.
Hey – I just finished a really great book: “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson. Excellently written and well thought out and you’re constantly thinking “Where is this *goin…*” and then you get there and it’s awesome. Sorry I haven’t read you for a while, I’ve been kinda under-netted lately.
[…] When I was reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, I said that I was really impressed with Bryson’s writing but was frustrated with how he handled the material. While a historian and magazine columnist writing about science didn’t work well for me, a humorist writing travel memoirs works great. […]