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guest review: The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt, from Pops

This review bears on some recent discussions: scientific fiction and scientific nonfiction.

Thanks to Kirk Smith at his blog, Fiction About Science, for both passing on a copy of this book to my Pops, and for publishing his review there. I am reposting it here, as originally published by Kirk Smith.

falling sky

The Falling Sky is about a “realistic scientist doing realistic science.” That is the hook that brought me to this special first novel written by a PhD astronomer, now a recognized writer in Edinburgh, Scotland. But it is so much more than that.

One could say this is the insightful story of a young woman finding her way from adolescence into a life of her own; or her personal contemporary tale of sexual awakening and relationships with other women; or a striking and remarkable exploration of how a scientist’s unique perspective can literally saturate the way she perceives and interacts with everything around her; or an emotionally wrenching journey with a family trying to make sense of a pointless and tragic death. It is really all of that.

That may seem to be quite a burden to place on an easy-reading first novel of only 264 pages; but Goldschmidt succeeds gracefully and does not overreach. Her story of Jeanette comfortably weaves modest measures of these elements together – and tempts the reader to fold closed the pages, finger inserted, while looking off into space to savor the author’s words and Jeanette’s thoughts. In that sense, this is not a “quick read.”

There is fuel here for artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists alike. Those familiar with Edinburgh are teased with pleasing glimpses.

But for one so inclined to the feast, it is possible to see the scientific perspective virtually everywhere in this story; in its language, metaphors, analogies, repetition of certain words and its oblique references to black holes, cosmology, time scales, anti-matter, entropy. Some may see excess or stridency in this; for those it should be accepted as essential immersion in Jeanette’s world, as setting and mood, and not as cause for anxiety or fear of missing something. There is more to savor.

Storytelling here is not linear, but not distracting: chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then” as the 3rd person narrative traces Jeanette’s young life as an astronomer while we gradually learn more of her adolescent past. She is smart & ambitious, yet confused. She is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lens often fails her in navigating the human world of relationships. She is an emotional creature like all of us, and it wrenches her life. The reader is drawn in as she searches.

For my money, this is a beautifully composed review, as well as describing what sounds like a quite attractive read. The book is in my hands now, so eventually you can expect me to weigh in. Thanks, Pops.

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle (audio)

wind in the doorThe second book in L’Engle’s Time Quintet series stars the same quirky, likeable Murry family members: chiefly Meg, along with her brother Charles Wallace; and to a lesser extent, their mother and twin brothers. (Their father is again away in this story. I wonder if he’ll come to play a stronger role in later books.) Calvin, friend of the family and Meg’s tentative romantic interest, plays a lead role alongside Meg. Where their task in A Wrinkle in Time was to save the Murry father, this time it’s Charles Wallace himself who’s in danger: there’s something wrong with his mitochondria, and the farandolae who dwell therein.

As A Wrinkle in Time used outside supernatural influences – Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which – to direct Meg and Charles’s actions, A Wind in the Door features a Teacher named Blajeny and a cherubim named Proginoskes (Progo for short). Yes, cherubim is generally considered to be plural, but Proginoskes is “practically plural” – he is at first mistaken for a drive of dragons by Charles Wallace.

To save Charles Wallace from the rebellion of his farandolae (and you can look it up: while farandolae are fictional, mitochondria are as real as the tesseract that starred in A Wrinkle in Time), Meg and Calvin, along with Blajeny and Progo, must become very very very small and get to know one of Charles Wallace’s farandolae intimately, going inside Charles Wallace to fix him up.

I enjoy the characters that L’Engle creates. I will say that her young people don’t always sound like young people – which is explained in Charles Wallace’s case because he is nothing like a normal young person (this book opens with him being constantly beat up at school for talking about mitochondria and the like); but I think Meg is supposed to represent a more approachable, normal-ish girl, and along with Calvin, Sandy and Dennis, she can be a little odd. But somehow, even as I note this, it doesn’t bother me. Realism is not a central dogma of this series; it is fantasy after all.

I love the science (even though it’s science fiction, and I suppose might confuse the young readers – and the not-so-young – as to what’s real; that’s a concern), and I love that L’Engle makes science interesting and relevant in a series starring a girl. That’s no small thing even today, but these books were published in the 1960′s, 70′s, and 80′s, and I think this deserves note and applause. That said, Meg is on the one hand a mathematical genius, and on the other a little whiny and reliant upon big strong Calvin. Perhaps that’s where the realism comes in.

With a few quibbles, I definitely did, again, enjoy this listen. It’s read by the author in a somewhat gravelly voice, and she does voices for her characters. I recommend the books, for readers of all ages (I am not much of a YA [young adult] reader, myself), and I recommend the audio. I’ll be continuing with the series: next up is Many Waters.

Rating: 6 snakes.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (audio)

wrinkleWhat fun to dig back into this children’s classic. I only vaguely remembered enjoying this as a kid, and I got to rediscover it via this audiobook, read by the author. My memory didn’t provide much: I think I was most familiar with the opening scene, in which Meg Murry is awake and frightened in her attic room alone by a storm outside. She is grumpy, frustrated with her family: her father for being away for so long; her baby brother Charles Wallace for not feeling her pain and coming to her as he usually does.

Next, of course, Meg and Charles Wallace meet the not-quite-mortal Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and an unusual boy from Meg’s school named Calvin. This unlikely team will adventure together via the “tesseract” – a wrinkle in time and space as well, if you will – to try and find Mr. Murry, and save him, and save the world (and all the worlds) from the Black Thing.

This is a children’s chapter book. Madeline L’Engle notes in an introductory section that publishers thought it would be too hard for children; but her own kids loved it, and as it turns out, so does the world. It’s won several awards including a Newberry, and remains popular today. (Originally published in 1962 and still in print.) I can see how it would be “hard” for children, particularly the physics bits; but then, we don’t have to understand it fully to enjoy it, do we? And lots of adults are puzzled by physics too! This book has appeal for adults – perhaps obviously, here I am, and I don’t read a whole lot of children’s books. It still rings like a kids’ book, but I found the characters and the plot both engaging. I have a slight criticism that Meg occasionally sounds a little adult for her age; she does whine appropriately, but sometimes her observations are startlingly astute. It’s a common complaint with young characters in books. But only slightly, here.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are all likeable but human; their parents are similarly well-rounded, sympathetic characters. The Mrs’s are charming, and the world-building – in the world of Aunt Beast, for example – is well done. I like that Meg grows some in the course of the story; and L’Engle certainly leaves us open for a sequel, what with the possibility of a burgeoning romance, and the happily-ever-after-at-least-for-now ending (with the Black Thing still looming). Mostly I was just disappointed that it was over so quickly! (Another feature of children’s books.)

I was a little surprised to find religious references within; I didn’t remember those. Not many, but a few mentions of having God on one’s side, or being the chosen ones, fighting for good. It got me thinking. I’m not particularly good at spotting religious allusions, not having been raised in church or on the bible. They mostly pass me by. But spelling out G-O-D will catch my eye every time! It’s not a technique that appeals to me but it wasn’t a central enough theme here that it threw me off much, either. A theme that is central is a good-versus-evil dichotomy, which of course could be interpreted as being religious; but the book-banners have protested certain aspects of this story, too – including the grouping of Jesus with mortal fighters-for-good such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Pasteur, Einstein, Gandhi, Beethoven, Copernicus and a lone woman, M. Curie. So there you are: all matters of interpretation.

In a nutshell, I found this book a delightful, too-brief romp in another world. I am tempted to pursue further work by L’Engle; four books follow this in a quintet, and others of her oeuvre reference the same characters. Realistically, I don’t know if I’ll get to them. But this was an enjoyable read, and not just for children.

Rating: 7 pairs of spectacles.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (audio)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an alternative history with fantasy/paranormal elements thrown in. It reexamines Abraham Lincoln’s life, his presidency, and the American Civil War, with a twist: the US is overrun with vampires, mostly unknown to the public, who are secretly pulling the strings that shape Abe’s life, the institution of slavery, and war. The book opens with a charming sequence in which a would-be novelist in a small town on the Hudson Valley meets a new resident and gets a book idea from him. The foreboding sense in the idyllic setting reminded me of Stephen King, which is a compliment.

It is a rather fascinating concept. I had my doubts at first – again, the whole vampires-in-pop-fiction trend gave me pause; it’s not a trend I have bought into in the past. But as soon as I began the book, I was drawn in. So full points for intriguing me early on. I loved the parts about Abe’s early life; the atmosphere, the mood of tension, of Abe’s efforts against long odds, his determination in the face of tragedy, are all well executed.

But I think the middle section of the book dragged on far too long; it’s a great concept that Grahame-Smith indulged in for too many pages. All of which is to say, it probably made a great movie! That may be the proper format.

Another concern: I had some misgivings about the use of vampires to explain some of the evils in our national history. Slavery, secession, civil war, all belong to vampires in this book (with a quick mention of WWII’s genocide apparently coming from the same source). While Grahame-Smith struck me as careful to always treat these heavy topics with due sobriety, it still makes me a little uneasy to play with them in this way. Slavery and civil war are unsettling, terrifying, gruesome, disturbing enough in fact; it rather feels like diminishing their somber import to make them the fictional playthings of entertainment in this way, no matter how carefully treated. And again, the tone of this book is serious and in always respectful. But I’m just not entirely sure. It gives me pause.

Late in the book, I really missed our narrator of the beginning section: the writer, that is, who is approached by the mysterious stranger and given the lost diaries of Abraham Lincoln. The quick sketch of small-town life and the birth of this novel was a definite strength, and I regret that we never returned to that early narrator at the end of the book. I was looking forward to revisiting him.

So I have my criticisms, as you can see; but I really did enjoy this audiobook, and never considered putting it down. I think Grahame-Smith could have executed his rather genius story concept in less space: my audio ran to 9 CDs, and he could have kept it under 6, in my opinion. But again, this only makes me more interested in the movie version. Apparently the screenplay is written by Grahame-Smith as well, which is a good sign; and hopefully that format will push for a little more condensed action, which the book could have used as well. Call this a rare case where I am excited for the movie after reading the book.

The audio narration by Scott Holst was good. He emphasizes mood as a narrator should; he varied the voices of his characters a little, was not overly theatrical, but lent atmosphere where it belonged.

As always when I read historical fiction, I found myself contemplating the line where fact meets fiction. In this case, I’m sad to say (and it’s far too often that I’m sad to say this!) I don’t know the subject well enough to judge for myself; but here are a few notes of interest. At the end of my audiobook is a short interview with the author, in which I learned: first, that he was in fact quite purposefully following the aforementioned trend of vampires in pop fiction; and secondly, that he had great respect for his subject and did a fair amount of research. Now, this is a subjective measure (and he’s judging himself, which makes the judgment even more subjective), but I still find it encouraging. Finally, he mentioned a particular source of nonfiction inspiration: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I have in my iPod just waiting my attentions. And that was the most encouraging detail of all. :)

Rating: 6 fangs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

I confess I thought this looked a little silly. Maybe it’s the whole vampires-in-pop-fiction trend? But I confess, I like it. And there’s a movie, you know… Here’s a teaser.

I shouted after him: “Why haven’t you killed me!” His answer came calmly from the next room. “Some people, Abraham, are just too interesting to kill.”

And maybe that’s how the book is striking me, too. Too interesting to kill. :)

What are you reading this week? Do share.

Critical Wit Podcast interview: Amy Sisson, science fiction fan

Here’s the latest installment! Check out my interview with Amy Sisson. Amy is a librarian, book reviewer, writer, science fiction fan, and personal friend. In this episode, we chat about sci fi books that appeal to a more general audience (specifically in most cases… me) and a few others to check out too. Don’t forget to check out her website here. And now the interview!



In a funny twist, Shelf Awareness alerted me to this list just after Amy & I did this interview. I guess we should have just picked apart that list. :) Maybe that’s a blog post to come…

did not finish: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (audio)

The War of the Worlds is a classic, and H.G. Wells is a respected name. I guess I’d only read his The Invisible Man, as a very young (I had assumed, too young) girl; it didn’t resonate much with me. I thought I’d give him a second chance with this sort of landmark work in early science fiction, and I selected the audio version because of the story attached to its original radio production that caused all that panic when people thought the Martians were *really* attacking. But this one was a fail for me. I quit about halfway through.

First, I’ll give you a partial plot synopsis: Our unnamed narrator-character (not to be confused with the narrator of the audiobook, who will be discussed shortly), a resident of the English countryside, describes what seemed to be falling stars but turn out to be giant cylinders fired from a rocket on Mars. These land, every 24 hours, around London and disgorge Martians, who turn out to be better-armed than the locals, technologically superior, and unfriendly. They operate giant tripod-machines that shoot fire and destroy land, crops, vegetation and people. The Brits try to fight back with their inferior weapons but are getting their butts kicked. And then I stopped listening.

The style of narration was dry. I was easily bored; my mind wandered. I think the audio-narrator, Bill Weideman, was part of my problem. For one thing, he has the odd habit of dropping the occasional leading consonant, like so: “we are ‘ill waiting” (for “still waiting”) and the like. I am perplexed at why you would choose someone with such a strange habit of speech to narrate an audiobook; I was frequently confused as to certain words he pronounced in this manner. Another oddity involved accents. This story is set in England, and when the narrator quotes other characters he gives them an English accent (which by the way seemed excessively nasal and frankly annoyed me), but in the voice of the main-character-narrator, no accent was used (meaning, he sounded American to me). I did not learn, in the half of the book I listened to before giving up, if the narrator was in fact American. But perhaps most generally, Weideman and Wells between them created a monotonous, even soporific effect on me. I couldn’t seem to focus on following the story, as the narrator (in both senses) felt emotionless to me. I can understand how the idea of “total warfare,” total destruction of acres upon acres of land and men and women and children were demolished wholesale in a single sweep of the Martians’ weapons, was shocking to this book’s original audience (1898) and that of the radio drama (1938). But in a world that has seen an atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, perhaps the impact is lessened.

Of course, as is always the case when I read a Great Classic and do not find myself moved, there is the question of whether there’s something wrong with me: what did I miss? I do not discourage you from trying out this well-known and well-respected book (although I might discourage you from trying Weideman’s audio narration). I hope you like it. I did not.

book beginnings on Friday: The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am listening to this classic on audiobook, read by Bill Weideman. It begins, somewhat philosophically:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.

I admit I’m finding it a tad slow, but here we go. Have you read this one? I was attracted by the audio format because of the stories of its original radio broadcast, in which people panicked, thinking it was a real-life news story! What an exciting time that must have been.

What are you reading this weekend?

The Hemingway Hoax by Joe Haldeman

This was a delightful short read. The Hemingway Hoax was loaned to me by my friend Amy, librarian (newly, my coworker librarian! yay!), science fiction enthusiast, and science fiction author to boot. (I wrote briefly about one of her short stories here.) After my recent raving about Hemingway’s Boat (my review to come at Shelf Awareness), she lent me her signed, personalized copy, ooooh. It’s an easy read at 150ish pages; I ran right through it at one sitting.

David Baird is a college professor and Hemingway scholar. He and his (much younger, former student) wife are summering in Key West, where they meet a con man with a scheme to “find” the manuscripts of Hemingway’s early short stories, and a partial novel, that H’s first wife Hadley lost on a train in their Paris days. Baird, with his expertise, should be able to successfully forge them. In so doing, however, he gets wrapped up… transported through times… to parallel universes… meets the Hemingways of various eras… or does he? I won’t ruin the whole surprise, but there is time travel and questions about What Is Real. Some bad things happen. Or do they?

I enjoyed the Hoax. It had suspense, interesting characters, intrigue. It had Hemingway! And the Hemingway parts were well done; Haldeman knows his Papa well enough to pull this off without offending the armchair Hemingway scholar. (I didn’t pick it apart or check references or anything but it held together.) And that would have been a deal-breaker for me, of course. Not for the first time, I say: this is sci fi? I thought I didn’t like sci fi! Well done, Amy. You may keep lending me books. Thank you!


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