Review of “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch

Who would have thought I would have already read, only halfway through the year, and by somewhat random selection, four novels employing themes of physics to structure the plot? And that all four of them were pretty clever? (They were The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church, Relativity by Antonia Hayes, Before the Wind by Jim Lynch, and this one.)

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Let’s see: imagine me in a locked library. I either pick or do not pick a novel with tropes from quantum mechanics. If you open the library doors to come observe me, what do you see? Me deeply interested in yet another such book? Or me deep in sleep from yet another such book? Or me reading a bodice ripper? (Ha ha! That one is too improbable!) This is my “Reader’s Restatement” of the classic Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox, the real paradox being central to Blake Couch’s story. According to the original thought experiment in physics as devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, a cat is put in a sealed box with a flask of poison. A mechanism is set up to poison the cat or not, depending upon what is going on at the moment of observation, i.e., when the box is opened. The act of observation collapses the wave function of activity on the quantum level from two outcomes to only one. Further, quantum mechanics suggests that until this observation is made, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead; there is quantum superimposition.

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In Crouch’s novel/science fiction thriller, Jason Dessen, a brilliant quantum physicist, has come up with a way to overcome the problem of reality splitting into two paths upon observation. He suggests a rather convoluted, but not inconceivable fix that involves, at the moment of decision, a split into a different universe. Thus, he posits an infinite number of universes, all reflecting different decisions that launched us onto different life trajectories.

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Continuing this thought experiment (or real life experiment, as in the novel), what do you think would happen if that were the case? There would be infinite numbers of us, leading infinitely different lives, based on minute options we took or passed up at each and every moment.

In the story, Dessen wins a big science prize for inventing a box that will hold people, rather than cats, and a way to to put people into this superimposed state. Once they enter the box, they embark down a labyrinthine maze of doors leading to endless universes. Pretty soon, we’ve got a bunch of Jason Dessens, but they don’t want separate lives in new places; they all want what only one of the Jasons has, and are willing to kill to switch places with him.

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Discussion: We have all thought about the big “what ifs” in our lives and in the lives of others. How many accounts of 9/11 did we read in which a survivor asked in wonder, “What if I hadn’t decided to stop for a bagel that morning?” How about people who switched plane reservations at the last moment and the plane crashed? Or more mundanely, what if we had majored in law instead of in English? Or married our high school sweetheart instead of a guy we met years later? It’s fun to think about, and Crouch shows it can scary, too.

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Evaluation: This was a little “out there” for me, but I appreciated the intellectual achievement.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Return” by Aaron Becker

This book completes the wordless trilogy that began with Journey and continued with Quest by award-winning author/illustrator Aaron Becker.

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As the saga began, a little girl escaped her lonely and boring home life through a magic door she colored onto her bedroom door. She met a new friend from her neighborhood, and he too began to escape his humdrum sepia-colored world for the fantastical realms discovered behind magic doors.

Scene from Quest

Scene from Quest

This third volume begins with the amusing premise that the dad of the little girl, ordinarily totally focused on his work, notices the girl’s kite by his desk, and goes looking for her. He finds the open magic door in her bedroom, so he too passes through the door. Immediately he finds himself in an enchanted world of architectural wonders and exotic landscapes. He soon locates her daughter along with the neighbor boy, and while it first seems as if the girl will refuse to go back with her dad, before long they have to combine forces when they are all in danger. Using their magic markers to fashion a dragon for escape, they become immersed in exciting and perilous adventures, requiring their imaginations to survive. The dad becomes as invested as the kids in vanquishing the bad guys, and they finally make their way home, back to the little door where they started. The girl hugs her dad, and he seems to have quite literarily “seen the light” about the importance of spending time with his daughter.

Scene from Quest

Scene from Quest

The landscapes are wondrous: intricately drawn in watercolor and pen and ink – somewhat medieval, somewhat steampunk, and somewhat reminiscent of the drawings of Chris Van Allsburg, the children’s book illustrator who inspired Becker.

Discussion: Some of my favorite books are wordless. They allow children to supply the dialogue through their imaginations, forcing them to think about what is being depicted and what it might mean, allowing for endless creative interpretations. The pictures in this book are not as simple to analyze as, for example, the wordless books by Tommi dePaola (which are in fact meant for much younger children), so it asks readers to concentrate and ponder. Younger readers can still enjoy this book on a purely visual level at the very least, and those not as adept at reading words will discover just how much they can glean from clues besides letters.

Evaluation: This is definitely a book for all ages to explore together.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2016

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Review of The Temeraire Series (First Four Books) by Naomi Novik

Temeraire is a set of nine fantasy novels in a series set during the English/French Napoleonic Wars, with each side in the war mustering aerial forces made up of dragons and their navigational teams. The saga in particular centers around the naval captain Will Laurence who unexpectedly becomes an aerial captain of a dragon. His ship captured a French vessel that happened to be carrying a rare dragon egg destined for the Emperor Napoleon. When the egg unexpectedly hatched, the young dragon gravitated toward Laurence. Laurence immediately understood that his previous life was basically over; the dragon had chosen him and thus the bond was inviolable. As a member of the air services, Laurence’s life from thenceforth would be one of devotion to his dragon, whom Laurence named Temeraire (pronounced, according to the author, as Tem-uh-rare).

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Temeraire is of the Celestial breed, of which there are only eight others in the world. At eighteen tons, he is extremely intelligent, versed in several languages, fond of mathematics, sensitive, and very attached to Laurence.

As for Laurence, he has a deep respect for naval tradition, but as he gets to know Temeraire and the other dragons of the aerial corps, his loyalty changes.

The bond between Laurence and Temeraire is echoed by that between other captains and their dragons, and among the Corps – crew and dragons – by loyalty to the group as a whole.

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I read the first four of these books: His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, and Empire of Ivory. Throughout the story, the lives and concerns of the dragons take precedence, although we also become close to the human crews of the various dragons. It is a richly imagined world in which there are many different breeds of dragons, each having a particular skill much appreciated by the military, and each having a growing social and political awareness, thanks to the influence of the rather leftward-leaning Temeraire.

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Readers will learn a number of naval terms and some seafaring mechanics, particularly in the first book, as well as – more so in later books – the basics of the Napoleonic Wars. And while the historical period is different and the manners and mannerisms different than our own today, what is made eminently clear from these books is that the nature of one’s relationships, as well as one’s moral convictions and sense of integrity, are timeless elements that most define each person’s particular life.

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Evaluation: I thought the first book to be superior to the others, but it’s hard not to keep reading, because the characters are so likable.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Del Rey Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, 2006, 2006, 2006, 2007

One of several renditions of Temeraire on the wiki at http://naominovik.com/wiki/Temeraire

One of several renditions of Temeraire on the wiki at http://naominovik.com/wiki/Temeraire

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Review of “The Bones of Paradise” by Jonis Agee

This is a stunning book that I couldn’t stop reading, even though it included historical accounts of terrible evil and I didn’t like many of the protagonists, some of whom committed the most repugnant acts imaginable. But through alternating narrators, the author shows us the forces that drove these characters, and brings us to an understanding of the needs for either revenge or redemption that haunted them.

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It takes place in 1900 in the Nebraska Sandhills (measuring almost 20,000 miles, it is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere). The Sandhills then required constant management by cattle ranchers to ensure plants took root in the shifting sand to feed the herds. Starvation, disease, and death were all too common. (Today, three Sandhills counties are the top three beef cow counties in the U.S.)

Map of Nebraska Sand Hills

Map of Nebraska Sand Hills

The story begins with the murder of J.B. Bennett, owner of a large ranch near the South Dakota border, and of Star, a young Lakota woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation, their bodies found together by the remote windmill on J.B.’s property. Their deaths bring a number of people to the Bennett farm to find out who murdered them and what they were doing together. Foremost among them are Dulcinea, J.B.’s estranged wife; Rose, Star’s sister; Drum, J.B.’s father and owner of the adjacent farm; J.B. and Dulcinea’s sons, Cullen and Hayward; and Ryland Graver, shot by someone unknown when he went to investigate the bodies.

Their secrets unfold gradually, as the characters – both living and dead, circle each other and the truth. The writing is exceptional, as this example, when Dulcinea returns to the ranch and enters her old bedroom, and we get a hint of the relationship between J.B. and Dulcinea:

“‘My God, how we are destroyed,’ she whispered, a line from some forgotten drama, or maybe she had written it in her head as she entered the room where she had slept with J.B. all those years ago. She had carried on an internal dialogue with her husband for so long that his death did not alter the conversation. It merely expanded across time and space.”

Rose too communes with a ghost, in her case her dead sister,. Rose promises her she will find her killer and avenge her death, as well as the death of their mother, who was slaughtered in the Massacre at Wounded Knee ten years earlier.

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The Wounded Knee Massacre occurred near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Soldiers – a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, surrounded the peaceful encampment. The Lakota made the soldiers nervous by their performance of the “Ghost Dance,” a religious ceremony. In any event, the Seventh Cavalry wanted retribution for their defeat at Little Bighorn. As J.B. mused:

“And when the Indians were finally blotted out, the Black Hills and all the reservation lands would be open for white settlement. … There was money to be made here.”

On the morning of December 29, 1890, the young Lakota men once again began to dance. The elderly and sick were lying on the ground encouraging them, women were preparing food from meager provisions, and children were running and playing. The dancing gave the impoverished natives hope, but the soldiers thought it was a “scalp dance” and a provocation. The soldiers had spent the previous night drinking heavily, and that next morning, as a battery of four Hotchkiss mountain guns moved into position, the troops, some of whom were still drinking, attacked the Lakota encampment. More than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota were killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later). As the wounded fled, the soldiers pursued them to finish them off. Many of the women were raped before they were killed, and many of soldiers hacked off body parts to take as souvenirs. (At least twenty of the soldiers were later awarded the Medal of Honor.)

When the carnage was over, surviving Lakota were “allowed” either to join Buffalo Bill’s show, go to prison, or go to Oklahoma where the tribes hated them.

Almost all of the characters in this book were either involved in or impacted by what happened that day at Wounded Knee. But J.B., who was there and had been horrified, felt that serving as a witness would make no difference: “The true story was unthinkable, unheroic, so it was changed by the newspapers, the military, and the government.” Yet he knew what happened, and for the rest of his life it preyed upon him. His unexpected end, next to a Lakota girl who managed to hide during the attack only to be killed later, is only one of the network of tragedies and ironies of this book.

This network is constructed in part by some excellent characterization, with the author adding surprising shades to characters that I never would have expected, and yet these switches from cruelty to compassion, or puissance to pathos, were done in such a way as to seem totally convincing.

The breathtaking ending comes in a series of tragic waves that nevertheless eventually smooth out into a note of hope for the future.

Discussion: This novel takes us back to a shameful and profoundly sad historic moment and provides richly-drawn characters to provide details of what happened. That story of the removal and genocide of native peoples, and of the internecine conflicts of greed among the conquerers, is yet woven today into the social and political landscape of the country. And in this book, it plays out not only in the characters’ pasts, but in their present and futures as well.

Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that “There is in all men a demand for the superlative,” but this book reminds us of our equally important potential for cruelty toward one another.

Evaluation: I was unaware that this book would include details of the massacre at Wounded Knee because, chicken that I am, had I known I wouldn’t have read it. It hurts my heart to think about it, and it will hurt your heart to read this book. Nevertheless, this riveting and poignant story of settlement in the West by a gifted and award-winning author is well worth the journey. It would also make an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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August 16 – National Rum Day

It’s time for another wonderful fake holiday, so to speak: National Rum Day.

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As the website liquor.com explains about the origins of rum:

“Rum lovers around the world owe a great debt to a simple plant: sugar cane. Hundreds of years ago, there was a sugar craze in Europe, and colonies were established around the Caribbean to make the sweet commodity. But the production of sugar creates a lot of byproduct—namely, molasses. There wasn’t much use for the thick, sticky, sweet substance until it was discovered that molasses could be fermented and then distilled. The alcohol quickly became popular with pirates, sailors and America’s founders.”

Alas, there was a dark side to all this rum:

“Rum also became a key element in the infamous “slavery triangle.” The Brits shipped molasses to New England, where it was transformed into rum, proceeds from the sales of which purchased slaves in West Africa, who were subsequently taken to the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and South America.”

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Thankfully, we can now enjoy rum without that particular aspect of guilt. In fact, now rum is known as a “happy drink.” Many “happy” cocktails are based on rum, including daiquiris and mojitos.

Miscellaneous rum cocktails

Miscellaneous rum cocktails

Personally, however, I wouldn’t touch the stuff, except, as you might expect, with the addition of butter and sugar, i.e., in the form of rum cake. I make it on each holiday (i.e., actual holiday). I use an adaptation of the King Arthur Flour Caribbean Rum Cake recipe. I make rum cake from scratch rather than using the ubiquitous recipe for Bacardi Rum Cake, because we don’t like cakes made from box mixes. I also make it as a two-layer cake instead of a bundt cake because such a scheme offers more opportunity to apply the rum-soaked glaze in more places. Here is my recipe:

RUM CAKE

Ingredients:

2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 3.4-ounce package of instant vanilla pudding
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk
4 large eggs (or 3/4 cup liquid egg whites)
1/2 cup rum
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

RUM SYRUP

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

To make the cake:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour two round cake pans and sprinkle chopped nuts evenly over the bottoms.

In a medium bowl, whisk together, flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture and 3 TBS of the canola oil and mix on medium low speed for a minute or two; the mixture will resemble wet sand. Add the pudding mix and mix till combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, rum, remaining canola oil, and vanilla extract. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients and beat on medium speed until thoroughly combined – 2-3 minutes. The batter will be thin.

Pour cake batter into prepared pans and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (The bundt cake recipe calls for baking 50 minutes; I have tried to tailor this time to accommodate two pans, but it’s an imperfect approximation; you will need to keep watch after 30 minutes or so to see what works in your own circumstances.)

Place the cake on a cooling rack to cool for a few minutes while you prepare the syrup.

To make the rum soaking syrup:

In a medium sized pan, melt butter over medium heat. Once it is melted, add the sugar and water. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat, wait a few minutes for cooling, and add vanilla and rum. Stir.

As soon as the cake is cool enough to remove it, put the bottom layer on your cake plate. Use a long skewer or fork to poke holes all over the top and pour some of the syrup on to the cake, letting it soaks in. Repeat, saving at least half for when you add the next layer on top, and so you have enough to brush over the sides. And so you have enough to “test” for yourself of course.

Cover and allow it to sit overnight at room temperature. In fact, the longer you can let it sit, the more the glaze soaks in and the better it gets.

Another excellent-looking recipe for rum cake is at www.motherthyme.com

Another excellent-looking recipe for rum cake is at http://www.motherthyme.com

Happy National Rum Day!!

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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