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review 2017-03-15 22:36
The Book of God and Physics
The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery - Enrique Joven,Delores M. Koch

I loved every single thing about this book.  Except the writing.  Or maybe the translation.  Probably the translation.  Either way, what could have been a story to blow The DaVinci Code out of the water, was instead a worthy read for only those that are interested in the Voynich Manuscript, astronomy, and/or the intersection of faith and science.

 

I am incredibly fascinated with all of those things - except astronomy, of course - so I couldn't give up on the book.  For those unaware of the Voynich Manuscript, it is a real, illustrated manuscript believed to be about 500 years old.  It's full of beautiful ink and watercolour drawings that encompass chemistry/alchemy, botanicals, and astronomy, and it's written in a language that doesn't exist anywhere else.  It remains to this day undecipherable.  The manuscript currently resides at the Beinecke Library of Yale University and they have it online here.

 

Anything that has remained untranslatable for over 500 years becomes an unavoidable conspiracy theorist magnet, but the author of this book includes an introduction, where he makes it clear that other than the creation of the MC and his two friends, everything else in the book is historically accurate; all the other characters are real and their back-stories were kept intact without creative license.  Knowing this also kept me glued to the book when the prose would have sent me fleeing long before chapter 2.

 

The book is heavily centered in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).  (They owned the Voynich Manuscript until 1912 when Voynich secretly bought it from them.)  My gender aside, the Jesuits are my people.  I make no secret of my faith in God and my faith in science; a stance that neatly pisses off everyone in one go: atheists because I believe in God, and those calling themselves Christians because I'm a heretic for accepting the Big Bang (first hypothesised by a Belgian priest*, btw) and evolution. The Jesuits also find no contradiction between God and science and in fact, most of the major contributions to science - experimental physics, specifically - in the 17th century were made by Jesuits. They weren't slackers in the 18th century either.

 

So, a story about a real coded manuscript, in its historically accurate setting, involving science and theology, taking place in a Jesuit school in Castile.  And I haven't even mentioned the secret tunnels, hidden passages and coded messages, or the major supporting characters that include Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Dee, Kelly, Galileo and Cassini.

 

Unfortunately, as I've already said, the writing translation is the major sticking point. The narrative was choppy and there was a general abuse of pronouns, leaving the reader sometimes wondering who was being talked about at any given time.  Dialogue jumped around too so that there were a few leaps of logic I couldn't follow because I couldn't parse the writing.  The ultimate care the author takes to make sure the history and the science are explained carefully (and sometimes repetitively), inclines me to fault the translation.  The author's love and knowledge of the subject matter screams from the page, as does his concern that the reader understand as much of the hard stuff as is possible, so it doesn't make sense that the story itself was written with so little care.

 

If I were only rating the writing, this would be 1 star.  But the subject matter and the plot were 5 stars, so in the end I split the difference and went with 3.  Don't bother with this one if you're only looking for a thriller or adventure, but if you're fascinated by the other stuff, maybe see if your library has this one and give is a go.  It'll be work, but it'll be fascinating too.

 

(* Georges Lemaître was the first to formally propose his hypothesis of the primeval atom, which became known as the Big Bang Theory, first published in 1931 in Nature.  He was a Jesuit priest and professor of physics.  He was also the first to note the expansion of the universe, and the first to derive Hubble's law and made the first estimation of what is called Hubble's constant - all misattributed to Hubble, at least in name.)

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review 2017-01-13 07:07
The Greatest Science Stories Never Told
The Greatest Science Stories Never Told: 100 tales of invention and discovery to astonish, bewilder, and stupefy - Rick Beyer

Eh, not really.  I'd heard of a few of these before, specifically the one about the creator of Wonder Woman and the lie detector.

 

That doesn't stop this from being a good read though.  With each story taking up no more than one 2-page spread (including photos and illustrations), this is science at its most accessible.  Most of the stories revolve around inventions and patents, which might make it more interesting to those who prefer the innovation side of science as opposed to the purely theoretical.

 

I found the whole thing interesting and I especially liked the vignettes included about the women who helped change the shape of things.  Most importantly, I think, is that the author didn't make a big deal about these women being women; they're there because they deserve to be, because they were amongst the smartest, cleverest, stubbornest or just best placed to have the best perspective.

 

Highly recommended for anyone interested even a little bit about science and technology.

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review 2016-11-09 06:29
Hitler's Art Thief
Hitler's Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe's Treasures - Susan Ronald

I'm pretty sure my picking this up was a coincidence of timing, but it might have been Freudian - who knows?

 

Either way it was a massive disappointment.  The inside flap begins:

The sensational story of a cache of masterpieces that vanished during the Nazi terror—a bizarre tale of secret deals and the search for truth featured on the front page of the New York Times.

 

Well, the discovery of the cache was sensational, but the discovery of said cache was only the last two chapters of the book and the first half, the first 16 chapters all took place before WWII - in fact the book starts prior to WW1.  

 

I don't know why I didn't DNF the book; it was, in reality, not meant for the average reader with a fair-to-middling knowledge of history.  Ronald had to have meant this for the serious history buffs and true academics with a solid familiarisation of most, if not all, of the players.  She threw so many names at the reader, and wrote so ponderously, it was almost impossible to come away with anything resembling comprehension without a lot of effort.  Sentences that should have been clear were convoluted; Ronald would mention several names and then throw pronouns around willy-nilly so I never quite knew who she was talking about at any given moment.

 

While I didn't care at all about why Hildebrand and his son 'became' the men they did, (which made up all of the first half of the book and a chunk of the second), once the Nazi's took over Germany and Hildebrand's weakness of character and larcenous heart were allowed free reign, the book became gripping and almost un-put-downable.  Still ponderously written, but fascinating.  The second half saved this book.  The last two chapters were why I bought the book in the first place and I'm left irritated that the author wasted so much paper when she could have been using it to expand on Cornelius and what Germany is doing (and not doing) with all the great works found in his apartment.  

 

So while a true historian might find this to be a satisfying, well-researched read (and it is meticulously researched), I was left with the feeling that Susan Ronald embedded a magazine article into a monstrous pile of extraneous history in order to justify calling it a book.

 

 

 

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review 2016-10-18 01:46
Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries
Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies - Stephen Klimczuk,Gerald Warner

Not bad... a fairly interesting overview of those places that have existed or still exist that are hidden, or secret, or just very, very private.  Well researched and well organised, but ultimately failed to deliver; the information was good and interesting, but little of it made me think "wow!" or feel compelled to torture MT with "listen to this!" excepts read aloud when he was trying watch the soccer.

 

I was most disappointed by chapter 4, a chapter almost entirely given over to Wewelsburg Castle - Himmler's "Black Camelot".  I wasn't expecting, nor wanting, graphic details, but the authors hinted in the introduction that what happened here at this castle was what made it possible for all those people to commit themselves to the horrific atrocity that was the holocaust.  When I finally got to the chapter itself, there was no information at all about anything except a description of the castle itself and vague references to the Jehovah's Witnesses housed at a nearby camp that were forced to do all the labor on the castle renovations.  I'd have liked some kind of information, or even speculation, about how Himmler was able to turn these men into monsters.

 

Other chapters, though, I found chock full of new information (to me); I learned a lot about the Knights of Malta, one of the last remaining Chivalric Orders, and there are more than a few new places on my "someday I need to see this" list.

 

Overall, a good book if you like this sort of thing and you're able to find it used at a great price, but at full price it might be found to be lacking in some areas.

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review 2016-08-03 07:16
The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure
The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure - John Lloyd,John Mitchinson

I'm sure I don't have to say the title of this one is what grabbed my attention at the bookstore, and the pull quote from Stephen Fry on the cover made me think it was going to have a decidedly humorous tone.  I was wrong about that, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the read.

 

The Book of the Dead (or this one, anyway) is a collection of short biographies of both the people you've heard of (Da Vinci, H.G. Wells, Byron, Genghis Khan) and the people you might not have heard of, but probably should have (Daniel Lambert, Dr. John Dee, Ann Lee).  

 

Some of the information in the biographies is likely not news to most people, but the authors did something different:  they organised the biographies by rather original criteria, like chapter 1: There's Nothing Like a Bad Start in Life, or chapter 4: Let's Do It (yes, that's meant to be a double entendre), or chapter 7: The Monkey Keepers.  These entertaining groupings allow the authors to come at each biography from a slightly different angle and offer readers information that isn't your run-of-mill biographical data while still keeping things short.

 

I learned a lot from each of these 3-4 page biographies (including things about Casanova I'll never be able to unlearn) and the authors kept the narrative interesting and engaging; the writing is never dry, even if it is rarely outright funny.

 

A good read, perfect for people who like to keep their history lessons bite-sized.

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