Saturday, April 30, 2011

Voyeurs All

It occurred to me, as I gazed upon photos of the newlywed royals and then flipped back to the NYT Hawk cam to see if Violet's eggs had hatched, that I have become a dedicated voyeur, spying on the lives of birds and celebrities, and even friends and family through my Facebook account.  No one likes to think that they are a voyeur, but surely that's what we all are.  The internet has made watching others' lives easier than ever before possible.

I think humans always had a tendency to want to watch others.  Paintings and photos, ancient and modern, show us people and places we might not ever see otherwise.  Videos and blogs often give us glimpses of the lives of people we will never meet.  Heck, even cavemen used to draw on stone walls, depicting events in their lives for all the tribe to see.  (I wonder, did all the women want to marry the best hunters as badly as some English women want to marry a prince?)

And in some ways, stories are no different.  Sure, they're entertaining, but they show us not only the lives of real or fictional people, but perhaps also give us insight into the lives of the authors who write them.  Autobiographies and biographies let us read about people we never knew, but might want to know; historical fiction gives us views of a particular time or culture, through the eyes of a fictional person; even science fiction is voyeuristic, allowing us to "spy" on a fictional event in a fictional life, that may be more interesting than our own lives, even if just for a moment.

Voyeurism is all around us.  I think I'll pull up the Hornby Island eagle cam and watch the hatchling have breakfast.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Physics is Fun!

When I was in college, I chose English Literature as my major.  I loved to read, and to write, so an English major felt natural.  Besides, it seemed to be the easiest way to get through college.

But as much as I loved my major, I have a confession to make: I have a secret passion for physics, especially particle physics.

I was out of law school before the idea of studying particle physics was a twinkle in my eye.  A friend and I had taken a community college astronomy class together, taking trips to see Discovery and Atlantis launch, and observing the night sky with a great telescope.  Not long after, on a bored Saturday afternoon, I was browsing books at the local Borders and drinking a soy vanilla latte when a book caught my eye: The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?, by Leon Lederman.  I still have no idea what compelled me to buy it, other than the class I had taken, and the cool title.

Just a few pages in, I was hooked.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not some kind of brilliant astrophysicist wannabe.  Even this book, supposedly written for "laymen", was a tough read.  It took long hours of real concentration to get through the book, and to understand most of it.  But now that I have, I read every article I can find about particle colliders and dark matter and the Higgs boson, like this recent BBC article on Fermilab's recent announcement that they may have discovered a new particle of matter.

It's fascinating, and it's my dirty little secret.  I think I'll try one of Stephen Hawking's books next.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Plot Matters: A "Confession"

I finally managed to finish John Grisham's new book The Confession.  I say "finally managed" because despite the fact that I have enjoyed previous Grisham books, this one really disappointed me.

Grisham's website advertises the book as the story of a guilty man trying to convince everyone -- the authorities, the DA, journalists -- that he is guilty and that an innocent man is sentenced to die for a crime the man didn't commit.  The plot had huge potential, and I pictured some hero (or heroine) in a race against time, trying to convince the right people not to put an innocent man to death.

In the end though...not so much.  The biggest disappointment was the story arc itself.  I won't spoil the plot here, but suffice it to say that the story peaked less than half way through, and the remainder of the book was anti-climatic.  I was reminded of Alan Rinzler's recent blog post, about authors trying to defy the traditional story arc, and what makes those attempts successful (or not).  Grisham's story arc here was confused, in a way that made me want to stop reading.  The only reason why I continued was that I kept thinking something else was going to happen, because that's what good novels do.

Unfortunately, nothing else really happened.  The last half of the novel was resolution, not action, like a really long epilogue.  I actually resented wasting my time.

Besides the main plot problem, I had some big issues with subplots that eventually went nowhere, and unrealistic characters who are no more than caricatures or stereotypes.  The DA who only cares about his conviction. The police officer who only cares about his confession.  The sensationalist reporter only looking for a story.  The priest who abandons his senses (literally) to make things right.  I felt some stirrings of Carl Hiaasen in what I hoped were tongue-in-cheek characterizations, but if that was what Grisham was going for, in my opinion it was not very successfully done.

Don't get me wrong: Grisham is doing something right, most of the time.  He's a successful author and popular read.  I can only dream of having his popularity and success in any genre, and I have enjoyed other books written by him.  Something about this book just didn't work for me, and left me wishing I hadn't spent the time reading it.