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Don't Know Much About the Universe
Kenneth C. Davis
344 pp.


Kenneth C. Davis, the author of the easily digested, valuably informative Don't Know Much About series, writes in the introduction to the latest installment, Don't Know Much About the Universe, that while he grew up in the much-heralded Age of Space Exploration (think Sputnik, moon landings, etc.), his actual education in astronomy and the related sciences was woefully lacking.


This is a sad commentary on my schooling and education in general, because I am certain I am not alone. As with the other subjects I have covered in the Don't Know Much About series, the areas of space and astronomy hold considerable fascination for many people who have a basic curiosity about the universe. But, as a nation, we are "Astronomically Ignorant" in every sense of the expression. Textbooks, written by one set of professors and academics to be read by other professors and academics, left us miserable and muddled. Miseducation, media confusion, and Hollywood myth-making have all played significant roles in creating this knowledge gap. And this celestial shortcoming is all the more remarkable because the fascinating story of outer space and the universe is not just about physics and rockets and payloads. Basically, it's a human story.


Human, indeed. Davis's book is divided into five sections, and the first is driven by the personalities behind the history of cosmos-directed thought. From myth to religion to science, he charts the changing answers human have offered those perennial favorites: Why does the world exist? How did it begin? How does its structure lend meaning and order to our world?

Davis's methodology here--focusing on intriguing and even arresting biographical details (like the fact that Tycho Brahe, who worked with Kepler, wore a metal nose)--mirrors Carl Sagan's 1980 Cosmos series (to which Davis refers occasionally). But while it's not especially new in its approach or content, it's certainly highly readable, and Davis's organizational skills are put to good use. The text is presented as answers to a series of questions (like ""Did Aristotle start the crystal craze?" and "Who pierced Giordano Bruno's tongue?"), and he helpfully includes several chronologies that put religious / scientific notions into a larger social context.

The second section moves from the history of sky-oriented thought to an extended, fact-packed look at the solar system, complete with stats on each planet's diameter, distance from the Earth and sun, length of year and day, temperature, atmospheric and land composition and number of satellites (if any). Davis certainly keeps this section interesting and light enough for sustained reading, but the sheer number of facts makes it a good reference work that can be consulted briefly for a particular piece of trivia.

In the third section, Davis explores the world beyond our solar system ("Do all the galaxies look alike?" "Which galaxies are nearest the Milky Way?" and, most disturbingly, "Has anyone found a black hole?" among others.) The fourth section deals with (and defends) space exploration, and in the final section, he asks the big, profound questions: how did the universe begin, and how will it end?

It goes without saying, of course, that a book that takes on such a broad spectrum of complicated subjects will inevitably prove lacking in something or another by some readers. All things considered, though, Don't Know Much About the Universe is an appealingly lighthearted, informative installment in a strong series, and a general reader interested in astronomy should consider it a particularly useful starting point.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Gabriel's Gift
Hanif Kureishi
223 pp.


Gabriel, the young protagonist of Hanif Kureishi's Gabriel's Gift, is a surprisingly resilient character, which is a lucky quality for his beautifully drawn but (frankly) depressing family. They are not so much dysfunctional as simply desperate. Emotionally desperate, economically desperate and even, at least for Gabriel's washed-up musician father, artistically desperate. And as the novel opens, their situation is getting worse: Gabriel's mother has thrown his father out of their London apartment and taken a menial job waiting tables in a local bar.

Gabriel himself seems destined for a life of desperation as well. School doesn't interest him, and as young as he is, he's already experimented with drugs, alcohol and sex. He's got real artistic talent, though, and when his father lucks into a reunion meeting with an old band mate (a self-absorbed rock star modeled closely on David Bowie), a signed drawing from the rock star seems to offer Gabriel's family a way out of at least some of their problems, if Gabriel can only handle the drawing's diplomatic complications adroitly enough.

Gabriel's Gift is, perhaps surprisingly for the author of Intimacy (recently published with Midnight All Day in a single paperback edition), a gentle novel about moral lessons. It has a fairy tale quality, partly because the main character is a child trying to make sense (and good) of an often frightening adult world. It's also a novel about artistic drive and the creative process. Creativity, Kureishi suggests, is the best strategy for surviving adulthood. It may require a childlike self-absorption that seems to defy those noble goals of selfless maturation, but it allows your life and work to be the same thing, as Gabriel puts it.

It's a strong, if quiet, novel, and while Kureishi's skill at drawing complicated, likeable characters isn't the least of its accomplishments, it's certainly the main reason we care so much about his story, I think.

--Charlie Onion

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Susan Minot
Alfred A. Knopf
116 pp.



As Susan Minot's Rapture opens, Kay Bailey and Benjamin Young have renewed their three-year-old, on-again-off-again relationship with a rather intimate act of...oh, let's skip the euphemisms, shall we? Kay is performing fellatio on Benjamin, and Minot takes us, in the course of this remarkably short novel (at one hundred and sixteen pages, isn't it a novella?), inside the minds and backstories of each of the two as the surprisingly non-erotic action in the present unfolds.

The lack of erotic charge comes not from Minot's writing (which can be a bit clinical, it's true) but from the disparity between the two lovers' experiences. Kay considers her act a gesture of devotion and communion that reaches almost religious heights. "She thought," Minot writes, "This is what it must feel like to be a saint. Full-hearted and ecstatic." On the other hand, Benjamin finds himself curiously removed from the experience: "He looked with cool, lowered lids at her mouth pressed around him. As he watched he felt the pleasant sensation, but it was not making it up to his head. The good feeling remained relegated to what was going on down there. It stopped in the vicinity of his hips."

With the material in the present being taken up entirely by this single act of fellatio, Kay and Benjamin's backstories--and the answer(s) to the question Why are they back together again? drive the bulk of the story. Along the way, fundamental issues are explored--What is love? being principal among them, with other critical questions being How does a person fall in love? and How can a person help but fall in or out of love? These are people adrift, wondering where they're likely to end up and asking themselves if they can exercise any control over it. They struggle to understand the deeper questions love poses, and then, failing that, they lose themselves in sensations. "The little alarms of the mind," Kay tells herself, "are less likely to be detected when the body is taken over by pleasure." The wide chasm that lies between their isolated musings undermines their hopes that sex can provoke love, and the effect is ultimately a little depressing, to be honest. (Shades of Antonioni and Bertolucci here; it's no surprise that Minot wrote the screenplay for Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, and Antonioni's L'Avventura merits a reference in Rapture.)

The philosophical musings are strong enough, but Rapture's story structure is weak. The material set in the present isn't dramatically engaging, and as a result the flashbacks and backstories are made to carry more than they really should have to. (They're supposed to help us understand the characters' present circumstances and future actions, not carry the story dramatically, right?) Minot's previous efforts (particularly Evening) are certainly more significant artistically. But as a couple hours' respite (as well as another take on the Antonioni school of sex-as-philosophy), Rapture may fit the bill for many existentialist-tinged readers.

--Charlie Onion

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The Future of Life
Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf
369 pp.



We are living in the middle of a vast experiment whose outcome is far from certain and may be very grim indeed. No one knows when the "tipping point" may come, when reversing course may no longer be possible and our one and only Earth's intricate and delicately balanced biosphere will collapse like a cascade of dominoes. We will be the instruments of our own extinction, going the way of the dinosaurs and taking with us the better portion of the planet's flora and fauna, leaving nothing behind but the cockroaches, the tree of heaven and possibly Strom Thurmond.

The most unnerving thing is that no one is certain that it isn't already too late.

This is the message delivered by a spate of recent books by scientists, environmentalists, nature writers and others, and entomologist Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life is one of the newest additions to the growing collection.

The Future of Life jacket features a beautifully colorful illustration that seems to speak to the wonderful richness and diversity of the living world; when you open the book, however, you discover that the artwork is a graphic enumeration of sixty-one members of an unhappy confederation: the endangered and the extinct. Here is the Hawksbill sea turtle, the Guadalupe violet, the Santa Ana woolystar, the American burying beetle, the Contra Costa wallflower, the McFarlane's four-o'clock, and on, and on, and on.

According to Wilson, the current rate of species extinction is running at somewhere between one and ten thousand species per million per year--a frequency thousands of times higher than what you might call the "background rate" that existed before humans began making a significant mark upon the planet. To put it in more succinct terms, Wilson notes that it is estimated that "almost one in four of Earth's mammal species and one in eight of the bird species are at some degree of risk."

The culprits in this worldwide holocaust are, of course, that rapacious two-footed species homo sapiens, trashing the Earth, says Wilson, by means summed up in the acronym HIPPO: habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, and overharvesting. Among these, habitat destruction is the first-degree offense, compounded by the rest.

The evidence he marshals against the accused is significant, extensive, thoroughly depressing and, admittedly, by now too painfully familiar. The vanishing rainforests, the depleted fisheries, the melting polar ice caps, the spreading invasives, the ransacked natural resources. Every page practically stands up and bellows reproof at our shortsighted, self-absorbed ways.

Wilson doesn't mince words; his memorable turns of phrase include a description of humankind as "serial killer of the biosphere." One of the most chilling lines in his book states simply, "The damage already done cannot be repaired within any period of time that has meaning for the human mind." The biosphere is on the ropes.

But the complexities of saving the Earth, Wilson notes, are intricately tied to matters of population growth and wealth distribution. Many of the world's most important "hot spots" of biodiversity lie within some of the world's poorest developing nations, places sorely pressed by the demands of hunger and poverty. Considering that the well-off and well-fed United States is gobbling up open land at a frightening rate for strip malls and subdivisions, how much more difficult is it to discourage the advance of similar development in countries where millions struggle simply to feed and shelter themselves? We already have our DVDs and our SUVs and our KFCs, and who are we then to preach constraint to our neighbors when we cannot manage it ourselves? Yet "for the rest of the world to reach United States levels of consumption would require four more planet Earths," Wilson notes.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit here that I fully agree with every dire breath of Wilson's warnings, and with a four-year-old child whose well-being is dear to my heart, frankly our uncertain future scares the PCBs out of me.

And therein lies the problem. People like me read the book, and worry, and fret, and send our ten dollars to Greenpeace. But I'd lay money on the odds against The Future of Life ever finding its way to George Bush's night table. The believers believe and the non-believers don't, and ne'er, or so it seems, shall the twain meet. The well-reasoned solutions Wilson lays forth in the final chapter of his book are good and admirable and eminently advisable, and are almost certain to be roundly ignored by the people who brought us a nolle prosequi on the Kyoto Protocol.

To this end, Wilson pleads for a reconciliation and a recognition of common bonds--even the most ardent pro-business capitalist does not rise in the morning vowing to destroy the world, and even Julia Butterfly Hill used a cell phone. Somewhere between wanton disregard and wide-eyed idealism there must be a middle road of rational self-interest. Otherwise, as Tom Lehrer famously put it, "We will all go together when we go."

--Caroline Kettlewell

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