09 August, 2008

My How We Laughed

Stephen Hawking's Black Holes and Baby Universes (and other essays) is an interesting read, although prone to repeating itself, as each chapter derives from a lecure Hawking has actually given, hence background information tends to recur. To a relative layman, however, it relates some extremely fascinating and novel information - I had no idea that Einstein had rejected quantum theory, nor that Black Holes actually emit certain particles/energy.

Maybe more surprisingly, it's extremely well written, if brief. It is a warm, accessible book that includes physics (a few chapters are actually more like an autobiography). Indeed, at the end you may find yourself thirsting for more detail, more of a challenge. Far from seeming stuffy, Hawking displays an easy wit throughout. One neat aside reads:

"What all this means is that going through a black hole is unlikely to prove a popular and reliable method of space travel. First of all, you would have to get there by travelling in imaginary time and not care that your history in real time came to a sticky end. Second, you couldn't choose your destination. It would be like travelling on some airlines I could name. "

Far from being unique, these gentle quips appear throughout his writing. They're welcome, even if I find the idea of them being read out in Hawking's famous synthesized voice a bit disconcerting.

More famous for his writing ability and humour is Bill Bryson. If a book makes you laugh out loud once, it's surely worth reading. If a book draws worried enquiries from relatives in other buildings, well, maybe its worth blogging about? The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid is one such book.

Bryson cuts loose completely here. It seems in previous books he's felt an obligation to his subject matter. As The Thunderbolt Kid, however, he is his subject matter, and takes his talent for constructing a funny story or clever observation to absolute heights. Riffing on the subject of his childhood he seems to be having, literally, the time of his life.

On the way he takes a sideswipe at prevailing ideas in the 50s US. McCarthyism, nuclear testing, portrayals of teenagers and sex in film, and casual attitudes to health and safety. He's not serious though - in fact the whole thing reads more like an obituary for innocence, and the real goodwill he feels seems to radiate from every page. Combined with childlike flights of fantasy, it's a heady mix.

Far from the most challenging thing I'll read all summer, I'm devouring this. Enough to transform Bryson from a favourite in my eyes, into a literary hero.

Nay, a superhero. The Thunderbolt Kid.

03 August, 2008

Sad Days

It's being reported that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died. I've only read "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" (I was going to read "August 14" shortly), but I thought it was worth noting the passing of "Russia's soul." Reading it a year ago, I was taken aback by the wealth and matter-of-factness of his descriptions, and I've since read impressive tales of the effect he had in Russia.

I just felt it was worth noting the death of a man who so staunchly stood against forces of tyranny.