Review of “Girl in the Blue Coat” by Monica Hesse

This book set in Amsterdam in 1943 has a focus on the non-Jews of the city and how the Nazi occupation affected them.

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Hanneke Bakker, 18, rides her bicycle around the city trading goods in the black market. Mostly she is asked to find items like sausage and cigarettes, until, as this story begins, one of her clients, Mrs. Janssen, asks her to help find a girl. Mrs. Janssen had been hiding 15-year-old Mirjam Roodveldt in a hidden area behind her pantry, and now Mirjam is missing. Mrs. Janssen begs Hanneke to find Mirjam before the Nazis do.

At first, Hanneke is reluctant. She works hard to protect herself and her family. As she muses, “Finding a missing girl does nothing for me at all.” She is like many of the Dutch, including her mother, who insists, “It’s not our business; there’s nothing we can do.” Hanneke gets pulled in, however, not out of altruism, but because she is intrigued by the mystery of how Mirjam could have gotten out, and where a Jewish girl could have gone.

After Hanneke takes some half-hearted steps to find out where Mirjam went, she is upbraided by Ollie Van de Kamp, the older brother of Hanneke’s dead boyfriend Bas (Sebastiaan). Bas joined the military and got killed during the initial Nazi invasion. Ollie comes to see Hanneke because he is part of the resistance, and Hanneke’s meddling is endangering their operations.

Most of the work of the resistance centers around the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a former theater being used as a deportation center for Amsterdam’s Jews. At the time of this book, some Jews who had not yet been rounded up had access to the theater as part of their association with the Jewish Council, the Nazis’ liaison to communicate their demands to the Jews.

Hanneke, who basically has kept her eyes and heart closed, thinks the Jews were just being sent to “work camps.” She learns the truth about what happens both inside the Holladsche Schouwburg and afterward from Ollie and his friends, as well as about the other crimes the Nazis are seeking to perpetrate. And of course, she learns the truth about Mirjam.

Evaluation: The depth of the author’s research adds a great deal to this “coming of age” story. While Hanneke isn’t a perfect person, she seems quite realistic, and indeed lends credence to the argument that, as the author explains in the afterword, any one of us can be both a hero and a villain at different times, depending on our decisions and the circumstances that drive them. In this way, she helps to shed light on how the non-Jewish Dutch responded to what happened during the Nazi occupation. Book clubs would find much to discuss.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2016

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Review of “Mapping The Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos” by Priyamvada Natarajan

There have been a number of books lately on the history of science, but most of them are very detailed – perhaps too much so for the average lay reader. This book includes just enough information to highlight the major players and their main contributions, and most interestingly, perhaps, to explain why the history of science has changed drastically in the past thirty years.

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Specifically, the author points out that we are now in an era of “big science” – i.e., one dependent on large teams in more than one country, rather than lone scientists working in isolation. This is not to say there is no longer competition, but now it tends to be between teams rather than individuals. Dr. Natarajan adds that the advances in equipment, particularly from computerization, have also provided a huge boost in the capacity of scientists to explore the universe. And of course, there is the Internet, allowing for peer communication, peer review, and instant promulgation of ideas. Big science, she proposes, has the potential of accelerating the rate of discovery, although she allows that the vast amounts of data being collected have caused bottlenecks in analysis.

The author begins with the ancient Greeks. She goes through the contributions of the most prominent thinkers since then, focusing on those who contributed to major shifts in our understanding of where we are in the universe, and how central (or not) we are to the universe. Her first big shout-out is to Copernicus in 1543, who identified the earth as going around the sun instead of the reverse, creating a new reference system by reordering of the heavens. More recently, she cites Edwin Hubble who, as she says poetically, “set the entire universe adrift.”

This colorful engraving made by Nicholas Copernicus is from the 17th century and it shows the sun as the center of the universe, not the Earth.

This colorful engraving made by Nicholas Copernicus is from the 17th century and it shows the sun as the center of the universe, not the Earth.

Natarajan would agree with Wootton, in his recent book The Invention of Science, that while Copernicus’s insights were brilliant, they were not driven by data. Thus Wootton dates the beginning of the so-called “scientific revolution” with Tycho Brahe, who carefully compiled extensive data from observations. Natarajan concurs that “[t]he new primacy of empirical data marked an important turn in the history of science….” But she locates the points for major changes in science with changes in perceptual frameworks.

Nevertheless, she concedes, for ideas really to make headway, they must, as she writes, “marry observation, technology, and understanding.”

Quite a bit of Natarajan’s history focuses on questions about the origins of our universe, and the controversy among different proponents of theories, from the ancient model of “turtles all the way down” to the steady state theory, the big bang, and now, the multiverse. She explains each one as well as the data supporting or controverting the theories.

 Time line of the universe via NASA/WMAP Science Team from earthsky.org

Time line of the universe via NASA/WMAP Science Team from earthsky.org

She also tackles black holes and their properties, doing a much better job than Stephen Hawking of explaining them for the non-scientist.

Other topics include standard candles – from Cepheids to Quasars, the electromagnetic spectrum, blackbodies, dark energy, dark matter, gravity, and the possibility of other forms of intelligence in the universe.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book, especially if you don’t want to delve too deeply into an equation-laden explanation of complex subjects. The author is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale, but in addition to having many academic awards, she also writes for the popular media. This was evident from her lucid prose and ease in explaining complicated subjects.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Yale University Press, 2016

Computer-simulated image of a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy.  Image credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI) from earthsky.org

Computer-simulated image of a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI) from earthsky.org

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Kid Lit Review of “Across the Alley” by Richard Michelson

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This is a story about two boys who live across the alley from one another. Willie is black and Abe is Jewish. Every night, when the lights go out, the two open their windows that face each other:

“During the day we don’t play together, but at night, when nobody’s watching, Willie and I are best friends.”

It turns out that Willie’s dad wants him to be a baseball player, and Abe’s grandpa wants him to play the violin. Neither one of them is on board with these plans, and in fact, each wants to do what the other is supposed to do. So at night, they teach each other; Abe hands Willie his violin and shows him how to play, and Willie helps Abe practice baseball.

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One night Grandpa hears the violin through Abe’s closed door, comes in, and sees it is Willie who is playing. Abe holds his breath, but then Grandpa says to Willie, “You’ll be the next Jascha Heifetz” and shows him the correct position of the bow. Then Grandpa invites Willie to play the violin at his synagogue.

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As the four of them walk down the street, Willie’s dad says:

“Let people stare. . . . Ignorance comes in as many colors as talent.”

After that, Willie’s dad helps Abe pitch, while Grandpa is on the sidelines with the other black parents, cheering away.

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Light, lovely watercolors by E. B. Lewis capture the emotions of the characters just right.

Evaluation: This winning story has lots of good messages and beautiful artwork.

Rating: 4/5

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2006

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Review of “Relativity” by Antonia Hayes

This is a cleverly plotted and well-written book. It explores the similarities between the laws of physics and the principles characterizing relationships, in telling a story about three people whose lives illustrate these correspondences.

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Twelve-year-old Ethan Forsythe is a gifted boy with a genius I.Q. being raised by Claire, a single mom who used to be a ballerina but gave up her dreams to raise Ethan. Ethan never knew his dad, but now that he is coming into puberty and his body is changing, he feels the loss of a male role model more acutely:

“Men had their own language – foreskins, beards, erections – but he knew his mum couldn’t be his translator. Masculinity was a foreign dialect Ethan still needed to learn.”

Moreover, he is getting bullied in school because of his being different. Will Fraser used to be Ethan’s best friend. Now, Will was embarrassed to be seen with him, and joined with the boys who bullied Ethan, calling Ethan “Stephen Hawking” (an intended insult that Ethan took as a compliment). But Ethan, fascinated with cosmology and physics and ordering his life by them, dealt with the situation accordingly:

“Everything will be okay, he told himself. It’s just school. Not the end of the universe. Sure, since it could be expanding indefinitely at an accelerated rate, the end of the universe was probably inevitable. But it wasn’t going to happen today.”

However, two things happen to upset Ethan’s equanimity. One is that his father Mark, now living on the other side of Australia, comes back to Sydney because his own father is dying, and wants to see Ethan before he dies.

Another is that the bullying in school intensifies, with critical consequences.

The momentum of these forces brings the characters back together again, but there are some principles that couldn’t be overcome, notably the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Arrow of Time. But what about gravity, and quantum entanglement? The story leaves you guessing until the end about how it will turn out, much like the situation with Schrödinger’s cat, the famous physics thought experiment.

Discussion: The prose is very impressive in many ways. The author writes well, and manages to tie concepts from science seamlessly into the story, making them understandable as well as germane.

For example, when Claire and Mark first met at a pub, Mark taught Claire how to play pool, explaining it to her by the concept of momentum. She later reflected on it:

“Claire never had a mind for theories and science, but she always remembered that when bodies collided momentum was exchanged. Despite everything that happened and no matter how hard she tried, Claire couldn’t forget their beautiful collision. . . . Claire loathed it. She hated that she was never allowed to forget. Perhaps Mark still felt it too. But as much as she willed it to go away, that was the problem. Momentum couldn’t be destroyed.”

Ethan also understands the world and himself using scientific knowledge. He knows that the constellations are pictures perceived out of groups of stars that only make sense when viewed from Earth, because the constituent stars are located in different places in time and space. Similarly, Ethan knows that his self – who he appears to be, is a picture made out of the sum of what happened to him at different times and places, that now tells a story. His story.

Some of the author’s writing, while still alluding to ideas from physics, is more notable for the other metaphorical pictures it evokes. For example, when Mark returns to Sydney on a plane flight from his home in Kalgoorlie:

“In Sydney, it felt like the city and sky both grew from the ground. Space wasn’t infinite there – it had a limit, a lid – but it was the opposite out west. Everything was open and endless; the wide land seemed to hang from the wider stars. There was nothing familiar in Kalgoorlie to anchor him. He lived a new life on a new planet.”

And there is this lovely image conveying a sense of a trip back home being like a trip in a time machine, an idea that recurs in the plot:

“Sydney’s lights quivered in the distance as he stared out the tiny window of this soaring machine, piloting him straight into his past.”

As for the characterization, I really had sympathy for Mark until the author inserted one passage into the story about what Mark did earlier in the day of Ethan’s injury that I thought was a gratuitous way to take that sympathy away. I didn’t like Claire much; I thought that in spite of her devotion to Ethan, she was too self-involved, selfish, and unobservant about the others in her life. Yet it was interesting that she was made out to be “the good person.” Both Mark and Claire were well-drawn though, neither being totally one-dimensional. I loved the kids, both Ethan as well as his friend Alison.

Evaluation: I liked this book a lot, but thought there was a bit of unevenness in the quality of it. I didn’t think Claire and Mark always acted in a consistent way, and I thought the last section could have been omitted, maybe should have been.

I wouldn’t mind at all seeing a sequel though; the story was so good in many ways, and I would love to know what happened next for the characters.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Gallery Books, 2016

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Review of “Before The Fall” by Noah Hawley

The author of this novel is the Emmy, PEN, Peabody, Critics’ Choice, and Golden Globe Award-winning creator of the TV show “Fargo.” This story is a thriller-ish mystery but also a very clever political and social commentary.

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The story begins with the crash of a private plane returning to New York City from Martha’s Vineyard. The plane was carrying eleven people, including a couple of very important figures. One was David Bateman, the founder of fictional ALC News (written to sound a lot like Fox News), the number one cable news network in the country. Another was Ben Kipling, who was about to be indicted by the SEC for laundering billions of dollars for countries that sponsored terrorism, such as North Korea and Yemen.

Miraculously, there are two survivors of the crash. Scott Burroughs, 47, a not-very-successful artist and a former member of his high school and college swim teams, swam for eight hours through the darkness in the Atlantic with a dislocated shoulder and with Bateman’s son, four-year-old JJ, on his back. Scott had been invited on the plane by Maggie Bateman, who got to know him at the local Farmer’s Market.

The story of the downed plane is reported by the ALC network’s Bill Cunningham, a Rush Limbaugh type of media figure who cares more for sensationalism than the facts, and who has decided that it is suspicious that this nobody, Scott, was on the plane, and moreover, survived the crash. He declares that “no one on earth can convince me there wasn’t some kind of foul play involved.” ALC ratings soar.

David’s network had become so successful because he realized that “. . . people didn’t want just information. They wanted to know what it meant. They wanted perspective. They needed something to react against.”

Cunningham was the perfect spokesman for this “club of the like-minded”:

“Cunningham was David’s gift to the world, the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world . . . who told us what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out in life was not that we were losers, but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours.

. . .

. . . [He appealed to] the people who had been searching their whole lives for someone to say out loud what they’d always felt in their hearts.”

Cunningham digs deeper into the life of Scott Burroughs, using a hacker to help him find Burroughs and monitor his activities, which Cunningham then announces to the world via his broadcasts.

Scott largely ignores the media mania; he is busy trying to process what happened to him and why he survived. He worries about the boy, JJ, whom he saved, and he struggles – along with the government officials who question him – to remember what happened on that plane before it went down. Scott insists he is not special, but understands that people need heroes and “to believe that magic is still possible.” Nevertheless, he has a hard time facing what his life has become.

As the chapters unfold from different points of view, we get ever closer to finding out what happened on that plane. Still, the ending is a stunner.

Discussion: The author turns his sharp wit to pillorying the media’s fixation with sensation; it’s tendency to make too much out of too little and sometimes ruin lives in the process; the willingness of some people to latch onto those who voice aloud what they don’t have the nerve to say because it would expose their prejudices and vindictiveness; and the ways that money and greed drive so much of what happens and what is valued in America.

But the author does all this without a bit of didactism. Rather, he has deftly fashioned a plot that explores simultaneously the farcical hold over Americans of a sensationalist media [its extension into the realm of politics comes to mind] and the impersonal cruelty of disasters, whether caused by Mother Nature or human nature, that can change or end one’s life in an instant.

Evaluation: This book held my attention the whole way through, and raised an incredible amount of issues that could similarly engage book clubs. It is deliciously wicked but with a surprising tenderness and compassion for the human condition. A great read!

Note: Sony Pictures has acquired the rights to the story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of the Hachette Book Group, 2016

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