Archive for August, 2013

The Universe Within

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

By Neil Shubin

The Short Take:

The subtitle alone tells you a lot: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. If you only read one book that addresses the whole of nature — from the beginnings of the universe to the causes behind changing weather patterns — this is the one to read. Shubin not only makes complex systems easy to understand and shows how everything is completely inter-related, he inspires a sense of wonder. And, he does all this in a mere 200 pages.

Why?

There’s something almost magical about this book, even though it is pure science. A large part of this is Shubin’s wonderful prose. He makes concepts like plate teutonics, organic chemistry, and planetary physics completely accessible to the non-scientist. Beyond that, he celebrates our connection with everything else in the universe. The very history of the cosmos is contained in our own bodies.

If you’ve ever picked up a popular book about science and promptly put it down again because it was just too complex (I never did get through Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), this is the one you’ve been waiting for. On the other hand, if you have a deep interest in one aspect of natural science — say geology or astronomy — Shubin will tie your special interest into the rest of creation. Either way, it’s a win for readers.

Best of all, this is not just an enlightening read, it is a joyful one.

A Little Plot:

Shubin starts with the building blocks of the universe — the elements that are found in stars as well as our own bodies. He explores rocks, planets, microscopic life, the formation of the continents, pretty much everything; and he brings it all right back to our own structure, bodily functions, and DNA. It’s a remarkable journey.

Granted, there’s not a lot of depth here, but what an enlightening and glorious experience! Hopefully, it will inspire at least some readers to seek more knowledge about our universe.

To visit Shubin’s website dedicated to his writings, click here. If you want to learn more about his academic pursuits, visit his University of Chicago page by clicking here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

This charming short novel is much gentler than Gaiman’s usual. It actually reminded me of Alice Hoffman’s work. It was pure magic — both literally and figuratively. It was also an interesting commentary on adults as children see them and as they see themselves.

Why?

If you shun magical tales, I guess you’ll miss this one. That’s too bad. It’s utterly entrancing and scattered throughout are observations about parents, children, and their relationships that will definitely give one pause.

As someone who spent much of my own childhood “hiding inside books” I could particularly relate to the first person narrator, a lonely young boy. Perhaps that made me like the book more. Regardless, I was enchanted by the writing style. It felt like it came from a seven-year-old’s mind, yet a seven-year-old with unusual insights. Perhaps that’s why Gaiman had his character observe that children don’t tell adults certain things because they would not be believed.

It’s a frightening tale, with a life-threatening presence disrupting the boy’s family and possibly taking his life. However, there are moments of great comfort, love, and protection as well.

This book is aimed at adults, though young adults and older children will certainly want to read it. Be aware that it could be quite frightening to some kids. Gaiman’s books can be disturbing. His Coraline was aimed at all audiences, but I suspect it inspired many, many nightmares.

A Little Plot:

The events of the book are remembered by the protagonist some 40 years after they ¬†occur, as he sits by the duckpond that is the “ocean” of the title.

He remembers the 11-year-old girl, Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother who helped him overcome a great evil in his life — an evil that occurred because he let go of Lettie’s hand at the wrong time and place.

He, his family, his community, and even this whole world are ultimately at risk. But Lettie and her family are determined to protect him.

You can learn more about Gaiman and his work by clicking here. He has written a number of books for children. If I were you, I would read them first. And I mean that two ways.

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