September 29, 2012

Book 34: Mathletics

Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sport
John D. Barrow

In a way, everything kind of boils down to mathematics. As someone who is normally sports-crazed, and even more so in an Olympic year, the intersection of physics and human physicality is one that has always fascinated me. When I saw Mathletics, therefore, I needed no second look to immediately yank it off of the shelf. Within, I found a group of loosely related, not-at-all organized tidbits about math and its effects on aspects of numerous sports, a marginally disappointing collection that nonetheless lived up to its billing, if a bit too literally. It's unclear who Barrow's intended audience is, and his general audience may be put off by the complex mathematical calculations and "trust me" attitude. Surely more of the math could be put in layman's terms? The frenetic pace of the book doesn’t help much, either. Though Barrow's inclination to organize the book as a series of vignettes is appreciated, readers are whipped back and forth between types of questions and types of sports, never able to gain a foothold on the subject at hand before the next approaches. And, most disappointingly, the book minimizes the magic of sports and fails to capture the intangibles that make sports so enjoyable and unpredictable. Sure, this is a book about the hard math behind human achievement, but in execution it sucks more of the life out of the subject than may have been necessary. Chapters on certain subjects, such as the real weight of individual events in sports such as the decathlon and modern pentathlon, are enlightening and intriguing, but most of the book passes by in a flurry of numbers and variables, without many conclusions actually sticking in the reader's mind. Mathletics lives up to its billing, but it's a billing that sells the subject matter short, and one that might alienate the most interested readers.

Grade: B-

September 17, 2012

Book 33: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century

The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
Edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg

Time travel is a tricky and multifaceted concept, and the idea of an anthology consisting solely of stories that consider the concept and (crucially) its potential ramifications was immediately alluring to me. I'm not qualified to determine whether these stories represent the best of the subgenre's many offerings, but I've encountered enough fiction to know that this collection represents a fine and varied representation of time travel stories. While there are the usual expected duds, as with any short story collection (Robert Silverberg's "Sailing to Byzantium" was absolutely inscrutable to me, despite the promise of a great premise lurking somewhere within), the proportion of mind-blowing greatness to said less spectacular fare was pleasantly high. Almost every story represented a fresh take on the core concept, and the book has a good balance of stories that alternately provide humor, emotional insight, fear, and/or sheer wonder. The best of the bunch, for me, was Connie Willis's "Fire Watch." Though it represents a fairly straightforward narrative, something about the story grabbed me immediately and still hasn't let go; it is a sterling example of the ways in which science fiction can, because of (not despite) its clever conceits, explore the depths of human emotion and the fundamental nature of humanity. Bradbury's classic "The Sound of Thunder" is present, but the omission of "All You Zombies" is a mystery to me. Regardless, The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century is a riveting collection of top-notch fiction that transcends genre while representing it admirably.

Grade: A

September 8, 2012

Book 32: Out of the Past

Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present
Neil Miller

Gay and lesbian history is still very much in flux in the contemporary United States, as evidenced by recent and foreseeable election results and court cases. Neil Miller's attempt to distill American and, to a lesser extent, western queer history is admirable in its scope, even if that scope is primarily limited to the period between 1870 and the mid-1990s. Though he focuses on the United States, Miller occasionally (but perhaps too-briefly) forays into Europe and, in one welcome instance, Japan, allowing the reader to glimpse other gay cultures and the influence they had on one another. One major problem in writing the history of a subculture, especially one as consistently castigated as various gay communities, is the temptation to retroactively define various individuals' sexualities. He admirably acknowledges the difficulties inherent in labeling those who never labeled themselves, and when focusing on particular individuals (as he often does), he presents contextual evidence for the assumptions he, alongside others, has made. His history is less of an effort to claim famous historical figures or events for homosexuality and more of an attempt to trace the development of homosexual community and societies' views thereof. Importantly, the book tracks different definitions of homosexuality, often in conjunction with greater contextual histories that capture the feel, gay and otherwise, of settings such as the Old West, interwar Europe, and San Francisco after World War II. Miller includes both grand histories of gay movements and intimate personal biographies of queer figures (suspected, admitted, or otherwise) that personalize his book, which avoids the dry, de-personalized, and sanitized feel of most sweeping histories. Equally accessible to history majors and more casual readers, Miller's book is peppered with literary excerpts and first-hand accounts that serve as useful suggestions for further reading and as miniature glimpses into the history that Miller recaptures throughout his book. Out of the Past presents a thorough and accessible overview of gay and lesbian history; though not without its flaws, it certainly is a more than adequate introduction to the topic for gays and straights alike.

Grade: A