Monday, August 25, 2003

Quammen, David, ed. The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 256pp.
Gleick, James, ed. The Best American Science Writing: 2000. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 258pp.

Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000 is the first volume in a great series. The idea was to gather together the best popular writing on science and nature from a given year. Since the operative word is popular, most of the essays come from venues such as The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. Both those magazines publish a lot of fine science writing that is both accurate and engaging, that stimulate and inform while entertaining. The best example is Oliver Sacks’s piece from the New Yorker, “Brilliant Light,” about his boyhood obsession with chemisty and how he was able to use science as a way of coping with many difficult and challenging family and personal problems. Sacks expanded this essay into his brilliant memoir Uncle Tungsten. A particularly topical essay on the smallpox virus talks very seriously about how unprepared we are for a major outbreak of a serious infectious disease and how shortsighted we’ve been in dealing with smallpox in particular. The other highlight has to be "Men, Women, Sex and Darwin" by Natalie Angier. It's her very interesting take on evolutionary psychology, which was included in her book Women: An Intimate Geography, a book I also highly recommend. The main tenet of evolutionary psychology is that men are by nature promiscuous and want to spread their seed and that women are by nature monogomous and want to trap men into taking care of them and their children. Well, Angier turns this upside down and asks, maybe it isn’t nature as much as we think, maybe a lot of it’s culture that we’ve just taken for granted for so long that we think it’s nature. And maybe things would be very different if the power relationships between men and women were different. Not too revolutionary an idea for us sf types, but an interesting presentation as science rather than fiction. Also of interest are a few fascinating essays on camel racing and African wild dogs, but really there is nothing weak here at all. Similar in both quality and content to Quammen’s book is HarperCollins’s The Best American Science Writing 2000. The book starts very strong with Atul Gawande’s “When Doctor’s Make Mistakes.” It is very simply about how doctors make lots of mistakes treating us every day and how we like to pretend that it shouldn’t happen, as if doctor’s weren’t just as fallible as the rest of us. Ending the book on a similar high note is a plea by Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg to cast off our superstitions and adopt a rational view of the universe – a science fictional topic if there ever was one. These series are currently up to the 2002 editions and I look forward to reading the 2003 editions when they come out. I also find it interesting that there exists two nearly identicle books featuring this kind of writing, both excellent, both aimed at the same audience, and yet they both only feature American writing. Surely one of these publishers could have broadened their scope to include essays published in Canada or the UK or Australia. Does the book have to say “American” to sell?


Sunday, August 24, 2003

Schaap, Dick, ed. The Best American Sports Writing: 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 309 pp.

This is a rather odd choice for me – although I love sports, especially football and baseball, I’ve never been a fan of sports books. In fact, I can hardly remember ever reading any sports books before. Recently, checking out one of those discount book stalls at a train station while waiting to take a long trip, I saw this book on sale for a few bucks. On a whim, looking for some light reading, I picked it up. And you know what? I can’t remember being so pleased with a similar impulse purchase. What made me so happy? Rather than dreary bios of Mark McGwire or Wayne Gretzky, the book is full of the unexpected. It . It leads off with a great essay on Australia’s 1999 Sydney-to-Hobart yaught race that got caught up in a huge storm. It’s an exciting and suspenseful tale of failure, death, destruction, heroic rescue, rich men with huge egos and, of course, the indifference of nature to human existence. In a weird way, the whole thing strikes me as being rather similar to a lot of the rescue-in-a-harsh-environment-against-impossible-odds space operas out there. Other notable essays are about cockfighting, high stakes poker, skateboarder Tony Hawk, machine gun shooting, the making of the film Any Given Sunday and, of course, Evel Knievel’s son, Robbie. Interestingly, this book has one item from a Canadian publication.

Lee, Christopher.Tall, Dark and Gruesome. London: Gollancz, 1997. 320pp.

I even enjoy the occasional actor's memoir, if it's by someone whose work really means something to me. When I was a kid, around 10 or 11, there were lots of those old Hammer horror flicks on tv and my parents, for some twisted reason, saw no problem in letting me watch them as much as I wanted. (My wife would probably say that this explains a lot) Needless to say, they scared the crap out of me and I’ve been a horror fan ever since. Also due to this early influence, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are two of my favourite actors. Lee is most famous for his portrayal of Dracula in a half dozen or so films but he was also quite a bit more versatile and has had quite a varied career. We get the highlights of that career here in his memoirs. These are pretty light and breezy, with none of the kiss and tell so famous in actor autobiographies. He really reveals very little of an intimate nature about himself or his family and friends, using a light and jokey tone throughout the book. Given that he seems to be an unusually perceptive actor with a great love of horror and the fantastic, I also would have appreciated more of his insights into the nature of horror and what attracts us to it. On the other hand, he’s had quite a colourful career, and has known many of the greats in the horror field and does tell a lot of amusing anecdotes. His most recent appearances are suitably creepy as Saruman in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and as Darth Tyrannus is the lastest Star Wars. By the way, Cushing’s two slim volumes of autobiography from 15 or 20 years ago have a much more intimate, personal feel and are well worth seeking out.

Wall, Mick. Paranoid: Black Days with Sabbath & Other Horror Stories. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1999. 222 pp.

For some reason, I've been reading about the music business a lot lately and this is one of the most interesting books I've read on any subject in a while. This is a rather strangely titled volume – from the title you would imagine that it was mostly about those mad men of metal, Black Sabbath. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, this knowledge would definately influence your purchase decision. Well, either way, this book really has very little to do with Black Sabbath – they only make a few cameo appearances – and more to do with Mick Wall’s career as a record reviewer and music industry publicist in Britain in the seventies. He spills the beans about how corrupt and dissouloute the times were and, at the same time, gives a feel for the excitement and craziness of working at the bleeding edge of pop culture. But even more, this is a memoir of Wall’s heroin addiction, about how he was sucked into it by the ambiance of sex, drugs and rock and roll, how heroin completely took over his life and, ultimately, how he was able to conquer his addiction and get his life back on track. For such a slim volume, this covers a lot of ground and gives a lot of insight. The only disapointment was that it was a bit lacking in outrageous stories about Ozzy Osbourne and other 70’s icons of rock & roll – the title certainly reeled me in with the implicit promise of dissolution well described.

Berners-Lee, Tim with Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. 209 pp.

This is the story of how the web was created at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland in the early 90s. It’s a pretty good story, made even more interesting by how close it seemed to never happening. Berners-Lee always seemed to be under pressure to spend more time on his real work instead of fiddling with this hypertext business. Also remarkable is Berners-Lee’s commitement to making the web as open and free as possible. If Berners-Lee hadn’t developed the web, what eventually would have come would have been very different, certainly more commercial than even today. A near miss, and an interesting idea for an alternate history story.