Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Books I enjoyed in 2010

Every now and then I get into a reading slump, where I'll find myself without any good books to look forward to and no good ideas about what I should read next. But I've been lucky, in this past year, to have had a bounty of good book recommendations from other people whose tastes and writings I admire.

So I figure that it's time to return the favor. If you enjoy reading this blog, here are a few other printed materials that you might look for at your library or bookstore (if you click the links to buy them from Powell's website, you'll help finance my own book habit with a small commission).

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.

This has been described as a novel about an "alternate-reality" Manhattan, in which a giant tiger prowls the upper east side, stranded space station astronauts play out a survival drama on the nightly news, and a conceptual artist erases entire neighborhoods to build bottomless pits.

But the main characters spend the entire book struggling to determine what's real and what's fake about their city and their lives in it. And as they do, Lethem elegantly brings you to the inevitable conclusion: that on this island that's obsessed with real estate, terrorism, meaningless wealth, and celebrity diversions, "reality" of any kind, alternate or not, is a scarce commodity. The upside is that Manhattan's a rich source for a smart novelist like Lethem, since fiction is everything. I think this is the best novel about New York City since Don Delilo's Underworld, and it deserves to go down in history as the definitive chronicle of New York City in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau.

At a wedding in Texas this spring, an Italian translator whom I'd just met somehow intuited that I liked Italo Calvino, and then she recommended this book, which Calvino had himself translated from French into Italian in the mid-1960s.

This novel switches back and forth between two plot lines: one of a Duke who advances through time through the history of France from the middle ages towards the present day, and one of a 1965 French pensioner, each of whom is having dreams of the other's life. As soon as one of them falls asleep in one plot line, the story switches to the other. It's a very funny book, even though I got the sense that half of the puns were lost in translation.

It turned out to be the most serendipitous book recommendation of my year, and led me to read other works by Queneau, including Zazie on the Metro and Exercises in Style.

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

I decided to read Ballard after seeing repeated references to his fictional landscapes on BLDGBLOG and elsewhere. I actually started by reading Empire of the Sun, his semi-autobiographical chronicle of his experiences as a boy in China during World War II. That book, with its gloomy descriptions of sickened prisoners living in squalid conditions, deserted neighborhoods, and the machinery of war, gives a lot of insight into his later stories, where similar themes reappear in futuristic dystopias.

In a lot of these stories, the abandoned hotels and lost colonies of Ballard's imagined sci-fi future bear an uncanny resemblance to the foreclosure-ravaged suburbs of our present day - good reading for the Great Recession.

Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast
, by Peter del Tredici

This is a great field guide to the wild-growing weeds, shrubs, and other plants that proliferate in empty lots and broken sidewalks. It goes above and beyond basic identification techniques, and delves into each species' natural history and ecological function - which plants fix nitrogen, which plants thrive in high-traffic, compacted soil, and which plants can tolerate or even treat various kinds of urban pollution.

Thanks go to Mitch Rasor for recommending this one on his twitter feed.

The Baron in the Trees
, by Italo Calvino

It will be a great disappointment when I finish reading all of Italo Calvino's novels. This one is about an Italian aristocrat who takes to the trees to escape his family in an act of adolescent rebellion, and then spends the rest of his life up there, travelling from branch to branch, never touching the ground. It's enjoyable enough as a fable, but Calvino enriches the story by involving the adult Baron in the Enlightenment, in revolutionary politics, and in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as in a bittersweet romance.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald.

It occurs to me that this book bears some resemblance to Ballard's - it's a fictional travelogue of various sites on the coast of Britain, including a number of abandoned military installations and struggling blue-collar villages. For Sebald, these sites serve as pretexts for a sweeping digressions on world history: for instance, a visit to Norwich, a former center for British silk manufacture, leads to a discussion of silk's strategic importance to various empires of history, and of the brutal rule of the dowager empress Tzu Hsi.

The narrative returns, again and again, from these sweeping discussions of historical titans to the lonely and seemingly mundane landscapes of contemporary coastal England. The effect is jarring, simultaneously demonstrating us how the passing years obscure the great crimes of history, while also demanding that we not forget that history. Sebald's books have the rare quality of physically affecting my mood as I read them - the mark of a truly engrossing book.

Two other things worth reading, although not yet in books:

"Victory Lap" and "Escape from Spiderhead" by George Saunders (published in the New Yorker)

George Saunders is a national treasure.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some coastlines are more infinite than others

In October, the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot died in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His obituary in the Times reminded me of two things from the schools of S.A.D. 6: first, the mysterious and beautiful Mandelbrot Set, the famous fractal, and second, the erroneous trivia (repeated even to this day on the tourist office's website) that Maine has the longest coastline of any state save Alaska.

The reasoning behind the latter goes like this: California and Florida's coasts may look longer on a map, but look closely at Maine's coast and you'll find thousands of islands, peninsulae, and inlets - features that those other states don't have. But take this reasoning even further and see where it gets you: you'd need to count the waterline on every mangrove root in the Everglades, and the outline of every grain of sand on California's beaches.

Every coastline infinitely long. Not only that, but every state gains and loses an infinitely long length of coastline every time the tide goes out, or every time a wave washes ashore.

I thought of this problematic state trivia because Mandelbrot's first academic paper, "How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension," tried to tackle this paradox. It observed that how long a coastline looks depends on how much detail you care to look for - whether you're measuring on a classroom map of the contiguous states, or on individual grains of sand under a microscope. For instance, if we use a 50-mile yardstick, Maine's coast looks about 230 miles long:

But try using a 5-mile yardstick, and you'll find that there are at least 200 miles of coastline in Casco Bay alone:

And we're still missing so much detail! Who wants to try measuring Casco Bay with a mile-long ruler? Or an actual yardstick?*

If Maine's coastline were smooth, like Florida's, the 40-odd 5-mile rulers in the bottom map would have covered roughly as much territory as four 50-mile rulers.

Mandelbrot's insight was this: you could measure the "crookedness" of a coastline by calculating the relationship between how carefully you measure something (the scale of your ruler) and the total length you get.

This relationship is similar to the fractal dimension, a mathematical concept useful for calculating how some infinite sets are "more infinite" than others. It's also a way of describing things that are neither one-dimensional lines, nor two-dimensional planes, but fuzzy and in between - like the infinite coastlines that emerge and sink away under every one of the ocean's infinite ripples.

For what it's worth, these guys say that the coast of Maine's fractal dimension is 1.27 - slightly more infinite than the coast of Britain (at 1.25), but not nearly as infinite as the coast of Norway (1.52).

* Please don't.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The alien life in Mono Lake

NASA's astrobiologists have discovered a new form of life that uses arsenic, a toxic chemical, as a critical building block in its organic chemistry.

If you haven't read more about the discovery of arsenic-based life in California's Mono Lake, blog io9 has a great writeup of what it's all about, why it's such a big deal, and some of the implications - from the possibilities of new biofuels to the possibilities of life on Titan.

Alien life has been discovered right here on Earth. Nature is pretty incredible.

Mono Lake at sunrise, by John Muller.