Have you ever gone across the sea to Ireland? I have not, but friends who have made the crossing many times insist that Pete McCarthy’s McCarthy’s Bar (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16, 335 pp.) is the best and funniest travel guide to Ireland ever written. McCarthy leaves his home in England to search out the Ireland of his boyhood summers, to see if he “belongs” there, and I was happy to go along for the ride. He is charming company indeed, and his book is full of historical and archeological tidbits served up with buckets of scorn for shag carpeting, English reserve, baseball caps, fast food, and other assaults on the life well-lived. Keeping to his belief that you should “never pass a bar that has your name on it,” McCarthy visits many pubs and enjoys many a hooley, which I guess is Irish for a really wild all-night party. He crisscrosses the land in an ancient Volvo affectionately dubbed “the Tank,” finds his grandmother’s grave, learns about famine pits, and visits Yeats’s grave in Sligo. At a religious retreat on Lough Derg (a place of “extreme and rigorous pilgrimage”), he completes rituals of devotion and deprivation that have not changed for centuries. Mostly, however, McCarthy listens and observes. He tells you not where to go, but how to “be” in Ireland. Before he takes the ferry back to England, he meets an old man who tries to persuade him to stay because, in Ireland, “people still have time for you.” It’s a wonderful, hilarious book, and I loved it.
I discovered what a perfect companion a well-wrought murder mystery can be relatively late in life when someone gave me Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. Reading rapidly through the “good” authors, I feared the well would run dry. Little did I know. My anxiety at finishing the last of Edmund Crispin’s delightfully nutty English mysteries turned to happiness when I discovered James Melville’s Japanese detective, Inspector Otani. After I read the last of Raymond Chandler’s macho bonbons, I fell under the spell of Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s urbane and soulful Venetian detective. But in the crowded ethno-landscape of crime writing there was a big empty slot for half-Czech, half-Norwegian amateur sleuths, which has now been filled. In Jack Fredrickson’s A Safe Place for Dying (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $25, 296 pp.), one Vlodek “Dek” Elstrom is hired to save the wealthy residents of a Chicago gated community from an apparent mad bomber, while trying also to resuscitate his failed business and shattered marriage. The characters are interesting, the dialogue is snappy, and your intelligence will not be insulted.
If you want an insider’s look at why the great newspapers are folding, read Black & White & Dead All Over (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 351 pp.), John Darnton’s witty whodunit. A paper identified as the New York Globe is losing readers and advertisers at an alarming rate, and the money men have the long knives out. When a feared senior editor, the merciless Theodore Ratnoff, is brutally murdered in the newsroom, feuding erupts between staffers committed to the “old” journalism and those with trendier ideas. The murderer strikes twice more and the Globe, in complete turmoil, shuts down. Meanwhile, Australian media mogul Lester Moloch greedily contemplates snatching the Globe from its hapless publisher, Elisha Hagenbuckle. It falls to Jude Hurley, a young reporter who is smart, ambitious, and decent, to figure it all out. Darnton’s forty years in journalism give this book a gritty authenticity, and although he is wickedly funny, he cannot disguise his fondness for his fellow humans.
In Mind’s Eye (Pantheon, $23, 278 pp.), Håkan Nesser, the award-winning Swedish writer, sets us down in Maardam, a vaguely defined northern European city that is the home of Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. VV, as he is known, is a relentless and intuitive detective whose singular quirk is to chew and spit out toothpicks by the dozen. He compensates for this vulgarity, and for his general ill humor, by being smarter than everyone else and by being indispensable to Commissioner Hiller. VV’s skill is challenged when a man, wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, is himself then viciously stabbed to death in a mental institution. It rains a lot in Maardam, the coffee is often wretched, VV’s estranged wife is threatening to move back in with him, and a clever killer is about to strike again. Cheer is sparse and on the sardonic side, but the writing is very good and the pacing is superb. It is perfect summer fare.
Science fiction has been off my radar until very recently, but Seeds of Change (edited by John Joseph Adams, Prime Books, $20, 230 pp.), a collection of nine stories, is provocative, entertaining, and easy to take. The stories approach social and political issues—racism, artificial intelligence, cloning, dissent—and consider paths to resolution or change. In “N-Words,” by Ted Kosmatka, a revolution in Korea unleashes on the world thousands of test-tube Neanderthal children, created from secret DNA sources and called “ghosts” because of their pale skin, ice-blue eyes, and fair hair. In Blake Charlton’s “Endosymbiont,” a woman discovers that she is sixty-seven and not, as she believed, seventeen—her consciousness has been selectively deleted every few years. Her parents, brilliant scientists, had her mind illegally “uploaded” into a neuroprocessor as she was dying of cancer, hoping she would be the first morally sentient posthuman, progenitor of a new race. In “Drinking Problem,” by K. D. Wentworth, strict environmental laws force beer drinkers to bond with their beer bottles in what can only be described as a marriage of inconvenience. These stories and the six others are a good introduction for sci-fi beginners.
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is the title of one of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings. It’s also a concise description of cosmology, which is nothing less than the study of the origin, evolution, and ultimate destiny of the universe. What better subject for some light summer reading?
This summer, I’m bracketing the religious answers to these questions. I’ll confess, after a lifetime of reading mostly poetry and fiction for pleasure, theology and philosophy for edification, and humor for work (I’m a comedy writer), I find myself becoming ever more obsessed with science in general and cosmology in particular. I have mutated into a cosmology junkie, even a cosmology groupie. If Roger Penrose, Brian Greene, Paul Davies, or Stephen Hawking comes to town for a lecture, don’t be surprised if you find me dawdling backstage, trying to look sultry.
This late-blooming obsession is more than seasonal, and the reason is simple: I realize I may be living through the time when some of humanity’s deepest questions—like the ones in Gauguin’s painting—begin to receive definite answers. The prospect that science may be about to accomplish what even Monty Python could not (that is, discover “The Meaning of Life”) is positively dizzying.
To any similarly starstruck layperson, the latest book by Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Mariner, $15.95, 416 pp.), is invaluable on several counts. It is first of all a thoroughly engaging study of the current state of cosmology by one of its foremost practitioners. Anybody who can make this heady stuff not merely accessible but riveting to someone as calculus-challenged as I am is a national, nay, a global treasure. What’s more, though Smolin has several important axes to grind, he remains scrupulously fair and objective in his reporting. Thus his account of his chosen field also serves as a model for how science should be done.
As the subtitle hints, Smolin is convinced that cosmology has been led down the garden path by string theory—the idea that, at bottom, the universe consists of minute vibrating strings (or possibly points, or membranes) of matter-energy. Smolin accuses string theory of scientific treason: of failing to make a single unique prediction that can be verified or falsified by experiment. String theory has given us only tantalizingly unknowable possibilities, not demonstrable reality. What only a few decades ago looked like the surest route to a Theory of Everything has become a Theory of Anything and therefore a Theory of Nothing. String theory remains on an equal footing with philosophy and theology—it’s just a guess, folks! A very clever, mathematically complex guess, and one that may even turn out to be true, but so far just a guess.
Smolin comes to this conclusion reluctantly. After all, he has spent a good part of his own career pursuing this elusive theory. He and a handful of like-minded cosmology contrarians are now swimming against the string-theory tide in pursuit of more promising approaches (in his case, something called loop quantum gravity). That brings Smolin to the question of why, despite its almost complete lack of success by the normal standards of science, string theory has nonetheless maintained its virtual stranglehold on cosmology and most of the accompanying research funds and academic posts.
Like comedy, the answer is not pretty. Smolin defines the scientific community as an ethical community and an imaginative one, and according to him it has failed cosmology on both counts. Infatuation with the sexy suggestiveness of string theory has led many of his colleagues to abandon the most basic scientific ethic of proof. It has also seduced the academic world into a decades-long tunnel vision, unable to see and unwilling to back any other theories trying to answer these fundamental questions about the universe.
Smolin finds some hope in the theory about scientific progress espoused by Thomas S. Kuhn in his 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago, $13, 226 pp.). Kuhn proposed that major advances in science happen less through slow, steady, incremental progress than through sudden, extreme changes in worldview—changes for which he coined the term “paradigm shift.” Think of it as the difference between carefully extending the known versus leaping wildly into the unknown. Smolin calls the slow, steady scientific workers “craftspeople,” and the revolutionaries “seers.” He maintains that while we always need both, at the moment we are in desperate need of seers to shift the paradigm away from string theory. Kuhn was a seer in rethinking the history of science, and Smolin may well be the one to drag cosmology kicking and screaming away from string theory. Time will tell.
For those who prefer to speculate about what it all means through the medium of fiction, there is no writer quite like Robert Charles Wilson, who has done more than anyone else to tease out the imaginative implications of modern cosmological ideas. Two of his most intriguing books are Spin (Tor, $7.99, 464 pp.) and its sequel, Axis (Tor, $7.99, 368 pp.). The former concerns what happens when, for reasons unknown, a cosmic mechanical race nicknamed the Hypotheticals encase Earth in a membrane that slows time to a crawl, keeping the planet young as the universe rapidly ages outside. In the follow-up, Earth finally emerges from the time trap 4 billion years later with a startling addition: a transdimensional gateway leading from the Indian Ocean to a mysterious new planet called Equatoria. Wilson is reportedly working on yet another volume to turn this saga into a trilogy. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
I recently discovered Tim Gautreaux’s moving, funny stories about hardscrabble life in Louisiana, Welding with Children (Picador, $14, 224 pp.) and Same Place, Same Things (Picador, $14, 224 pp.). Gautreaux writes of reckless truck drivers and unemployed mechanics whose aspirations are small and usually disappointed. Good deeds are met with indifference, catastrophe is expected. But occasionally the characters realize they’ve gotten more out of life than they deserve. Although explicit references to faith are rare, Gautreaux’s stories are filled with hints of grace. They are also suffused with the author’s fondness for his characters.
Gautreaux’s world is captured in the words of a faithful priest in “Good for the Soul.” The priest observes that people in his parish “did not run their lives by reason much of the time, but by some inferior motion of the spirit, some pride, some desire that defied the simple beauty of doing the sensible thing.” But, like Gautreaux himself, the priest does not set himself apart from his world. In an effort to help a parishioner’s crazy scheme to be reconciled with a neighbor, he agrees to return a stolen car under the cover of night. In the end, a reconciliation of sorts does occur. But true to Gautreaux’s unsentimental vision, it proves costly, comic, and sad.
The poet Mary Karr is naturally irreverent, and her theological assertions are startlingly fresh. Her Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, $22.95, 93 pp.) contains some great poems on the Incarnation, but also a courageous essay on her journey from literary nihilism to the Catholic faith. That journey began with her simple morning prayer: “Keep me sober.” Later, Karr came to love the movements of the Mass and the physicality of the faith. “The church’s carnality, which seemed crude at the outset,” she writes, “worked its voodoo on me.”
Lucy Beckett’s In the Light of Christ (Ignatius Press, $21.95, 664 pp.) is a stunning survey of Western literature, from Dante and Shakespeare to Coleridge and Saul Bellow. Interpreting this vast swath of literature “in the light of Christ” could easily have turned into a wooden exercise, pulling out Christian themes or, worse, measuring writers against some confining version of orthodoxy. Beckett is certainly a traditional Catholic; her heroes are Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II. But she is also a close reader of both texts and lives. More important, she approaches literature with an expansive Augustinian conviction that truth, goodness, and beauty are not things humans create but aspects of God that humans partake of. Our search for them is possible only because God is already at work in the world, drawing us toward what is good, beautiful, and true. This leads Beckett to some surprising conclusions. Unlike many Christian critics, she prefers Wallace Steven’s extravagant imagination to T. S. Eliot’s defensive embrace of Christianity. Eliot may have turned to faith, but Beckett sees that faith as rooted in disgust for the world and self, rather than the result of a grateful, humble appreciation of God’s grace. Stevens, by contrast, was fed by an inexhaustible love for the earth and its beauty. He was always open to the possibility that the source of his own imagination was a transcendent presence. Beckett suggests that Stevens is the more Augustinian of the two.
Another book to reckon with is A. D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale University Press, $19, 448 pp.). Nuttall seems able to hold all of the Bard’s plays in mind at once, along with the voices of the major critics, yet his writing is anything but pedantic. The very notion of Shakespeare as “thinker” is not one that comes to mind initially, since we only know the playwright’s thought obliquely, through the words and actions of his characters. Yet clearly Shakespeare has thought long and deep about many things—dreams, politics, motivation, pride, mercy, justice—and his mind is “never still.” “Whatever you will think of, Shakespeare will have thought of first,” Nutall writes, whether it is Shakespeare’s sense that “pretence can convey truth” or that “language can actually impede communication.”
These recommendations all have some literary dimension. I add to them a book of practical theology with a literary-sounding title: M. Craig Barnes’s The Pastor as Minor Poet (Eerdmans, $18, 146 pp.). Barnes has no interest in pastors becoming writers. He wants church leaders to listen more closely to the “sacred subtext” of people’s lives and to find ways to express and address that reality. Beneath parishioners’ concerns about the youth program or their complaints about the music director (Barnes offers wonderful examples from the grind of ministry) lie deeper fears and griefs the gospel is meant to address. I can’t think of any book in recent years that is more in touch with parish life (at least in the Protestant world), or more insightful about the discouragements and possibilities of ministry.
When I was younger, I always had grand ambitions to read serious literature during the summer. These generally fizzled out by the Fourth of July. The summer I was seventeen, I meant to dive headlong into Anna Karenina but instead ended up wading through a pile of women’s magazines and bad young-adult fiction. Older and wiser, I now know to select books that will feed my literary appetite without requiring six hundred pages of focused study. The following books meet this standard, and I am glad to recommend them.
The blurb on the jacket of Never Let Me Go (Random House, $14, 304 pp.) by Kazuo Ishiguro was misleading, perhaps by design. The story is hard to describe without revealing its driving secret. I thought I would find a tale of adolescence and sexual awakening at an insular English boarding school. I didn’t expect to be thrust into a frightening parallel reality where science is given free rein with serious moral consequences. The main character, Kathy H., narrates the tale about her childhood at the secluded Halisham boarding school. It is clear at the beginning that Kathy and her classmates are not average children. Hidden from the rest of society, they enjoy a bizarrely idyllic existence. Halfway through the novel Ishiguro reveals that the children are clones created for the sole purpose of providing extra vital organs, which are to be harvested once the children reach middle age. Ishiguro’s pacing is wonderful, and the voices of his main characters convincingly express the pleasures and anxieties of childhood. Never Let Me Go poses serious questions about human nature: Is the desire to live deeply embedded in the human psyche? Or is it something that one’s environment and education can either crush or allow to flourish? A heavy topic for beach reading, but this gripping novel carries it lightly.
Intended as a follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, $15, 256 pp.), is a damning critique of nutritional food scientists and the Western diet, but it is also a practical guide to good eating. Pollan offers readers some simple rules for buying and preparing food, but this isn’t your average crusade against fat, carbs, and sugar. It is, among other things, a serious work of history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scientists drifted away from traditional ideas about nutrition and began to focus on the study of individual nutrients. This approach was exemplified in an influential 1982 report from the National Academy of Sciences. Pollan argues that the new reductionism has resulted in higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity. It has also encouraged an industrial food complex that has done serious harm to the environment and endangered our food supply. The book’s last section offers simple guidelines for making ethical, healthy, and socially conscious decisions about food—for example: avoid anything that great-grandma wouldn’t recognize as food. Pollan has great faith in our natural instincts and traditional wisdom about food, and almost none in the trendy theories of experts. He urges a return to a food culture that is in some ways more complex and in others blissfully simple. If you’re looking for motivation to frequent the farmer’s stand more often than the supermarket this summer, this book is a good place to find it.
Since my attention span is shorter than usual in summer, it’s an ideal time for me to indulge my love of short stories. Last summer I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Vintage, $15, 352 pp.). Lahiri’s stories held me completely captive. I wasn’t willing to budge until I knew the final words of her characters’ thirty-page lives. The book begins with a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Human nature will not flourish...if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.” All of her stories revolve around the experiences of Bengali and Indian immigrants in modern American culture. Her characters must often choose between taking risks in order to flourish in the new soil of America and remaining stuck in old-world ways. In all the stories, the bonds of family remain strong, sometimes too strong. In “Hell-Heaven,” a young woman reflects on her mother’s isolated life, unable to comprehend it fully until she grows into womanhood. The cultural differences between roommates in “Nobody’s Business” ultimately prove to be insurmountable barriers. Many of these stories are poignant, but Lahiri doesn’t manipulate her readers. When an ending should twist, it twists; when a story should end in predictable tragedy, it does. Through it all, the consistent beauty of her language offers her characters transcendence, a chance to exist in a true work of art that reaches beyond the dirt and pain and wrenching choices of their imagined lives. What reader could ask for more?