the pencil reads

posts on articles, books and movies

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Friday, May 20, 2005
Flipped through this tome of a book that tells the stories surrounding the emergence of all the main sciences -- astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. Bryson's style is easy to read and generous with anecdotes.

Like the anecdote of the French man Le Gentil who waited an extra 8 years to observe the transit of Venus as he could not take accurate readings the first time, being held up in his schedule and caught on a rocky boat. 8 years later, his patient attempt was foiled by cloud cover for the exact duration of the transit. And so he packed up his things and returned to France, only to find that he had been declared dead in his absence, his wife having re-married and his possessions re-distributed. Poor guy!

Or the story of the Swedish guy who believed that gold could be distilled from urine and kept bats and bats of urine in his basement. He discovered phosphorus instead when the urine would spontaneously combust in contact with air. Due to the attention Sweden gave to this new element, they are still one of the largest match making centres in the world today.

Or the story of the bed-ridden inventor who invented a system of pulleys to help him manoeuvre in his bed, but ended up strangling in the ropes; or the story of the two men who accidentally and ignorantly discovered the static the universe was emitting since the beginning of time and so won nobel prizes; or the story of the discovery and subsequent loss of the first dinosaur bone in Iowa, USA.

If I learnt anything at all, it is that our quest for knowledge has been riddled by many lucky breaks.

The Hotel New Hampshire

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
This is the seventh John Irving novel I've read since November 2004. That would be an average of 1 Irving novel a month, not counting the other books I've read in that period.

I know a friend who thinks I'm reading way too many of his novels, but when you've come so far, it is almost a matter obsession to finish all of them. I am a little tired of the depressing plot -- when in the middle of his long novels I think to myself that this will definitely be the last one I read -- but the stories end with such an oomph and a strong sense of hope that I think another one by Irving won't hurt. I now know the essential ingredients of a best-selling novel -- they are faith, hope and love, and that's all there is to it.

The Hotel New Hampshire is about a family who moves from hotel to hotel because of the father's big dreams for the future. There are four hotels altogether -- the Arbuthnot-by-the-sea where the parents fall in love, the Hotel New Hampshire they run in Dairy, the Hotel New Hampshire in Vienna where they spend seven years, and the fourth and last hotel, the hotel truly built on dreams, back at Arbuthnot-by-the-sea.

By the end of the novel, the family is ravaged by the father's need to dream. When Lily died, and Frank was blaming himself for her death, Win Berry said, "But who is the dreamer of the family? She just wasn't big enough to meet her own expectations, and she inherited that from me." Sorrow the dog was put to sleep for the plans of the very first hotel, and he returns to haunt the deaths of Iowa, Mother, and Egg -- all sacrifices on the altar of the father's dreams.

Despite the tragic effects of Win Berry's illusion, Irving in no way condemns this dreaming, but in fact endorses it with a kind of power to redeem. At the end of the novel, Win Berry becomes the best rape therapist on site, despite the fact that he is completely in his own world, blind to reality, subsisting on illusion. Irving seems to say that there is a power in dreaming, a power in stories from the past, and a power in fiction.

As Frank would say to John, "Keep passing the open windows." And somehow, things will work out.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Loved the book. Hope the movie is just as good. Read about it here.


Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Ravelstein was written by Saul Bellow in 2000. It was his last novel. He died in early April this year.

Ravelstein is dense, powerful, and seamless. I’ve never read a novel like it. The sinewy connections this novel has with real life are intriguing – in the novel, Chick is a old man writing a memoir as a promise to his friend Ravelstein; in real life, Bellow is writing his last novel in honour of the political philosopher Allan Bloom.

Like Ravelstein, Bloom wrote a best-selling book on Bellow’s recommendations titled The Closing of the America Mind. He too was a lecturer, a man of vast intellect and strong opinions; a man with awkward stutters and trembling hands; a man who loved his Cuban cigars, Armani suits and Mont Blanc pens.

Because of these tenuous links with reality, I cannot help but consider the morbid – How did Bellow die? Did the “pictures stop”, as aptly described by the Bellow-character Chick? Did he become more and more preoccupied with Jerusalem rather than Athens in his last days, squaring off with the cruelty of mankind, the “meat hooks”, and the essence of being fully man? Bellow was 89, married for the fifth time.

Even if there were no Allan Bloom, merely the descriptions of Ravelstein would be enough. I can see him – bald, melon-headed, pointing his students with sharp irreverent intellect towards the light in Plato’s cave, smoking Marlboro after Marlboro, himself a hodgepodge of oddities and contradiction. Merely the description of his rich textiles, the expensive bedding, the coffee stain on the $4,500 Lanvin jackets, together with his overarching historical ideas and frankness are enough to propel me into his world.

I was initially afraid that I would mix up the main character in Henderson the Rain King and in Ravelstein. Boy was I wrong.