Archive for the 'Biography' Category

Rocket Boys: a Memoir, by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

SEL Books: TL789.85.H53 A3 1998

This is easily the most accessible book in the SEL collection that I’ve read so far. My 13-year-old nephew read parts of it for science class.

I particularly recommend this book for young people. I suspect that it could spark interest in the sciences for young people who previously believed themselves uninterested, in the same way that Sputnik captured the imagination of the young Homer “Sonny” Hickam.

But it isn’t a didactic work. Its purpose is to capture a time and space—a West-Virginia mining town in the late 1950’s. And it succeeds. Hickam looks with unblinking eye at the town that nurtured him, but that he longed to escape. Sonny’s struggle is personified in the figure of his father, who struggles with his own iron-fisted desire to mold his son into his own ideal.

More than anything, this book is about hope—how it motivates and transforms those whose circumstances are not conducive to realizing their dreams. One must have hope to transcend the mundane and reach (sometimes literally) for the stars.

(Originally published in Connections, April 2006)

Persepolis / Persepolis 2, by Marjane Satrapi

Central Books: PN6747.S245 P4713 2003 / PN6747.S245 P4913 2004

Maybe you think you’re not interested in graphic novels. So did I. These two books by Iranian writer/artist Marjane Satrapi have convinced me to take a closer look at this increasingly respected genre.

Persepolis focuses on Satrapi’s early years, up until she was 15 years old, when her parents sent her to Austria to escape government oppression. Persepolis 2 picks up there, follows her adventures in Austria, her return to Iran, and ends with her leaving Iran again for an expatriate life in France.

Satrapi’s droll sense of humor had captured me by the first book’s second frame. The first frame of the author (as a child) in her scarf, followed by a second frame filled with a row of identical little girl in headscarves (with the author barely in frame), deftly illustrates—with a kind of heartbreaking humor—the loss of identity many girls felt when Iran began mandating the covering of women after the revolution.

The narrator’s voice changes as her protagonist matures. The child’s voice dominates in Persepolis—boisterous and belligerent, naïve and innocent. Marjane the child roars through life, determined to experience everything, and all but ignores the oppressive nature of the world around her. It is this very lust for life that her parents wish to encourage but fear will endanger her. She is sent away.

In Persepolis 2, Marjane’s voice matures. As she tries to find her way in a foreign country whose language she does not speak, her innocence slowly dies away. It is that loss we mourn, as she becomes emotionally, then monetarily, then physically destitute.

This description makes these books sound dark and morose, and yet there is always that sparkle, that twinkle in the eye that appreciates the absurd amid the saddest situation. Marjane’s story shakes its fist at life, defying it to tear down a strong and joyous spirit.

(Originally published in Connections, March 2006)

Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer

SEL Books: QC16 .E5 J36 1999

This is the first time I’m recommending a book in this column that I haven’t yet finished. Since it isn’t a novel, a plot twist at the end will certainly not drastically change my opinion of the work.

For those interested in Einstein the man, and even Einstein the scientist, I believe this book is an important part of that study. His spiritual views were inextricably entwined with his scientific endeavors. Indeed, in an oft-quoted remark, Einstein maintained that his physics work was an attempt to read the mind of God.

It needs to be said that this book is not a religious work. Its intention is not to further any religious philosophy—it neither agrees nor disagrees with Einstein’s views. Its purpose is merely to illuminate the man and his work in relation to religion.

The book is divided into three chapters. “Einstein’s Religiosity and the Role of Religion in His Private Life” looks at his attitudes towards and experiences with religion from his early years until his death. “Einstein’s Philosophy of Religion” describes his views on religion from a philosophical (not a theological) standpoint. And “Einstein’s Physics and Theology,” the longest, and, for me, the most fascinating part of the book, looks at science’s influence on Einstein’s own religious philosophy and its implications for religious issues around the world.

Jammer was a pupil and colleague of Einstein’s, so his work provides special insight into the man. The work is scrupulous and scholarly, containing information from numerous writings by and about Einstein, and his theses are well developed.

This book should be an integral part of anyone’s study of Einstein’s life or work.

Other Max Jammer titles in UTA’s collection, none of which I have yet read, include Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (foreword by Albert Einstein, SEL Books: QC173.59.S65 J36 1993), Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (Central: QC174.12 .J35), and Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics: The Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics in Historical Perspective (Central: QC173.98 .J35).

(Originally published in Connections, August 2005)