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Question

“Why do we never get an answer, when we’re knocking at the door?”   Question, The Moody Blues

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing Company, $27.95, 309 pages)

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (Plume Reprint, $17.00, 448 pages)

“Could it be… that the world exists precisely because it is, on the whole, better than nothing?”

Reading Tim Holt’s extended treatise on life and the universe is the equivalent of listening to a classic philosophical album by The Moody Blues – one hears numerous questions about being and existence but receives no answers.   All in all, Why Does the Earth Exist? is an entertaining read but it’s far too clever by half; one gets the impression that Holt is trying to dazzle the reader with his brilliance – supposed or real – as he all too often gets off track.   Holt never answers the question raised in the book’s title, and much time is wasted on diversions such as mathematical formulas and the rules of formal logic.

The writer seems to be at his most engaging while pondering deep thoughts after nights of imbibing far too much alcohol at the world’s glamorous hotspots.   As such, he comes off as a tamer, more intellectual version of the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary); one whose entertainment value (unlike the late Thompson’s) runs thin very, very quickly.   Another flaw with Why concerns Holt’s unwillingness to acknowledge that much of the interest in time, and the birth and death of our 13.7 billion year old universe, relates to our personal fears of death and non-existence.   Occasionally, he grudgingly concedes the point:  “Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being…  might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning.”   “The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

“…philosophy is a terribly difficult subject, and sorting out the hardest questions in the finite time of a human life is asking a lot.”   (Emphasis in the original)

This book’s recommended only for those few selected – if perhaps strange – individuals who felt they didn’t take enough tough philosophy classes in college.   And if you want to cover the majority of the same ground – from Einstein to modern physics, time travel and more – and get even deeper into the weeds of existence, existentialism and science – a better choice would be From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (2010).   Carroll offers less entertainment value, and fewer side trips than Holt but he delivers more content that actually helps us understand “how we came to exist” and where our existence (our world and our universe) is headed.

From Eternity to Here is well recommended, although it has the feel of a very serious college textbook.   The universe itself is a terribly difficult subject, one not for the timid, weak or lazy.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of Why Does the World Exist? was provided by the publisher.   From Eternity to Here was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:  Tim Holt was raised as a Catholic.   Undoubtedly, some will find that he spends far too much energy on religion in this work, while others will decide that he’s not said enough about God.   What cannot be denied is that he gives full space to the arguments (and views) of all of the great modern and ancient existentialist philosophers – a matter that some will find pleasing, and others extremely painful.

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Over the Rainbow

The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 320 pages)

A slew of awards and seven best sellers later, writer Louise Penny caught my attention.   As a prominent Canadian mystery writer, she has the credits to sell books easily.   Too bad this one took some getting used to before the charm of her tale took hold.   The rocky start was due in great part to the confusing character names, relationships and eerie references to a past horror experienced by the folks who inhabit a tiny village named Three Pines.   Yes, this is a village-set mystery in the style of Agatha Christie.   Moreover, there are multiple nationalities represented by the characters that make it quite interesting.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the French Canadian officer who is called in to determine whether the person who died during a séance in a spooky abandoned house was the victim of a murder or merely a weak heart.   To make matters complicated, the house was the scene of a previous death that was investigated by – you guessed it, Inspector Gamache.   Gamache has divided loyalties as this is the place where he feels most at peace, despite having traveled far and wide.   His internal struggles with the politics within the police force where he is high in the chain of command provide an engaging counterpoint to the main story line.

Penny’s writing style is lush and layered with quips that reference casual, current day commercial aspects of life such as, “he appeared closer than he looked.”   This comment was made by one of the characters who spied his reflection in an automobile side mirror.   There are also smart segues linked by subject matter as various characters are interviewed separately by two policemen.   In one instance sandwiches are being served in a small cottage and the handoff comes as sandwiches are being served at the town bistro.   These may be small matters but they serve to keep the reader involved through the use of everyday occurrences.   The other-worldly portions of the story and the location provide the escape element that readers of mysteries often seek.

Personal reactions by both police investigators and village folk to the events that transpire after the murder add a human touch and a sense of grounding.   Specifically, the notions of beliefs (Wiccan or Catholic) and relationships (gay/straight and human attachments to pets/animals) are intertwined with the wonder that comes from being in the presence of true artistic talent.   The village of Three Pines is home to Canada’s most prominent poet and one of its best-known painters.

This reviewer was struck by the depth of soul-searching and philosophizing that’s depicted in the book.   There is truly value added to the usual murder mystery in The Cruelest Month.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Many mystery buffs have credited Louise Penny with the revival of the traditional murder mystery made famous by Agatha Christie.”   Sarah Weinman

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Notre Dame Resurrected

Resurrection: The Miracle Season That Saved Notre Dame by Jim Dent

“Parseghian had taught them how to win.   All Notre Dame needed was someone to remind them of just how great they could be.”

Resurrection covers the 1964 “miracle season” for Notre Dame football, during which the new non-Catholic coach Ara Parseghian steered them to a share of the national championship.   This was also the year that the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural appeared on a building adjoining the football stadium.   It was the beginning of the Era of Ara.

Jim Dent provides us with what initially appears to be a fine overview of a team’s season in college football.   It’s more interesting than most such accounts, as he focuses on a handful of players who were unable to play for the Fighting Irish prior to ’64 due to suspensions, injuries or personality conflicts with the former head coach.   It gives the feeling of a real-life Bad News Bears aspect that’s entertaining.

This was a season in which the Irish lost only their final game, played at USC.   Dent seems to obsess about this “heartbreaking loss…” during which “Notre Dame was defeated by a far inferior team.”   He spends far too many pages claiming that the game was stolen by the referees, although Parseghian himself said: “I am not going to blame the officials.”

The ND-USC game in question occurred over 45 years ago.   Let it be.

Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 306 pages

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review

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Missing You: A Review of Losing Mum & Pup by Christopher Buckley

According to his only child, Christopher, William F. Buckley, Jr. often said, “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”   Accordingly, Christopher Buckley has written this memoir – literally a book of memories – about his parents’ final years as a way of dealing with his loss and sense of disorientation.

We all, of course, knew about his father, the late conservative icon often symbolized by the initials WFB.   WFB wrote 5,600 newspaper columns between the years 1962 and 2008; hosted Frontline for 33 years; and had completed 56 books as of the time of his death.   Patricia Taylor Buckley, WFB’s wife, is someone we knew little of, but she comes to life in her son’s telling as a regal and charming – if occasionally impatient – woman.Losing Mum and Pup mediumLosing Mum and Pup cover

What is very clear about the Buckleys is that they were, indeed, larger-than-life figures.   When Patricia one day received a call intended for WFB and was told the president was on the line she responded, “The president of what?”   Of a female politician she said, “That woman is so stupid she ought to be caged!”

While we may think we knew WFB, this book provides a few new views and perspectives.   It was clear that the author of God and Man at Yale was an intellectual (a man who could dictate using perfect punctuation), but not many of us suspected that he was a daring sailor and pilot whose near-death escapades make for lively reading.   As summed up by Chris, “Pup was the bravest man I knew.”

Well, but then politics is a dangerous sport.   Christopher, who supported Barack Obama, has the great sense to touch lightly on conservative versus liberal in this memoir.

Christopher does show us that WFB was both a prideful man and a man of fine humor.   When asked, back in 1965, what he would do first if elected mayor of New York City, WFB answered, “Demand a recount!”

WFB was to say that “Despair is a mortal sin”; and also that “I believe in neither permanent victories nor permanent defeats.”   Perhaps this is why his son crafted this book of memories so that it celebrates the lives of his parents – despite some personal faults that he clearly divulges – rather than the defeat he felt from their passings within a year of each other.

“Christo,” as he was known to WFB, was able to directly tell his father, “I love you very much.”   This despite the fact that WFB could be a harsh critic of his son’s work, including sending this e-mail message just after receiving his son’s latest book:  “This one doesn’t work for me sorry.   XXXB.”

There’s little cause to doubt that Losing Mum and Pup would have “worked” for both WFB and Patricia Taylor Buckley.   While, in the words of a traditional American folksong, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land…”, this is a life-affirming work.

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley, Twelve Books, Illustrated, 251 pages, $24.99.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Thanks to Karen at Hatchette Book Group USA for supplying the review copy; much appreciated!

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