Sunday, August 18, 2019

Book review: Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand

Nonfiction
When the moon hits your eye

Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand:
Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe
214 pp. Diversion Books
By Marcus Chown

Reviewed by Bob Sanchez
Originally published in the Internet Review of Books

The very fact of the universe’s existence poses a profound puzzle. Answers used to be as simple as Genesis, where God placed mankind at the center of everything, and the daily sunrises and sunsets made Earth’s centrality in the heavens self-evident.

Then telescopes opened our eyes, and now we know we are a minuscule blue dot in a Universe of endless complexity and wonder. At least two trillion galaxies originated in one unimaginably small space, and now they race away at increasing speeds. Dark matter and dark energy envelop everything we see and hold it all – us all – together. That includes atoms, the building blocks of everything. Atoms are mostly empty space, with relatively vast distances between their nuclei and the electrons whizzing around them.

Author and radio astronomer Marcus Chown brings these facts to our attention with clarity and a light touch. For example, he states that the moon “is perpetually plummeting towards the earth,” and that “pound for pound … Jupiter’s pizza-like moon, Io,” generates more heat than the sun. He also points out in his chapter Please Squeeze Me that if you could squeeze all the empty space from our atoms, the entire human race could fit in the space of one very heavy sugar cube. “We are all ghosts,” he writes, 99.9999999999999 percent empty space. (He also writes that we are one-third mushroom, so which are we, Mr. Chown, ghosts or fungi?)

When he gives public talks, he shows off his pet mosquito named Terry, which he keeps in a jam jar. He says that if he could magically remove all the bug’s electrons, leaving only the positively charged nuclei, the resulting explosion would cause a global mass extinction. (And to think we’ve all been fretting about global warming!)

As the subtitle suggests, this book describes fifty wondrous phenomena of the Universe. Topics range from the indivisibly small to the unknowably vast. No chapter exceeds a half-dozen pages, and readers will never feel bogged down in convoluted or technical language. Chapter titles alone give away the flavor of the book: Hex Appeal, Pocket Universe, Credit Card Cosmos, and Loopy Liquid are a few of them.

Make no mistake, though. No amount of clear, enjoyable writing will simplify quantum physics enough for some of us – okay, for me. The same particle can exist in two places at once? The concept makes my brain feel like empty space.

This popular-science overview of the Universe is perfect for lay readers with inquiring minds.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Book review: Bloodlands

Nonfiction 

Fourteen million times one 

BLOODLANDS: 
Europe between Hitler and Stalin 
By Timothy Snyder 
524 pp. Basic Books

Reviewed by Bob Sanchez
Originally published by the Internet Review of Books, 2011

There may have been no worse place on earth. Trapped between two hostile giants, about fourteen million innocents were murdered in the area that Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder labels the bloodlands: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and part of western Russia. To the west lay Nazi Germany, with its policy of eastward expansion and depopulation. To the east lay the Soviet Union, with its policy of starving and killing masses of people, in particular its own peasants.

The bloodlands were not a specific, defined region, Snyder writes, but simply the lands where the two regimes did “their most murderous work...where most of Europe's Jews lived and where Hitler and Stalin's imperial plans overlapped.”

In page after page of Bloodlands, Snyder documents the mind-numbing atrocities committed by both sides. Sometimes the numbers of gassed, shot, or starved are estimates, and sometimes they are precise because the killers kept records. Either way, those numbers blur together throughout this painful, important book.

As early as 1933, Stalin had begun a killing binge that reached its nadir with his Great Terror of 1937-1938. The Bolsheviks learned from their experience with the famines of the early 1920s that “food was a weapon.” Between 1933 and 1945, more than half of the civilians who died in the region had been deliberately starved to death. Yet news of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 overshadowed the famine in the Ukraine.

Stalin treated the Ukrainian famine as sabotage by lazy peasants and disloyal local officials, though the Soviets shipped massive quantities Ukrainian grain to other parts of the USSR. Peasants were allowed next to nothing. Unauthorized collection of the smallest food scraps was considered theft and was punishable by death. Snyder writes:
A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.
And he quotes a communist party official as saying during Stalin's Great Terror that people belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.”

Meanwhile, Hitler had a grand vision of using the area to his east as Germany's breadbasket, enslaving the “subhumans” he chose not to immediately exterminate. The “Final Solution” to the Jewish “problem” underwent several versions ultimately deemed impractical, such as deporting the Jews to Madagascar as slaves. Then in late 1941, Hitler settled on killing them all during the war. Hitler believed that “human beings were containers of calories that should be emptied,” Snyder writes.

Bloodlands is far from a casual read, but it will deepen one's perception of the depravity to which humans can sink. “This is a history of political mass murder,” Snyder writes. None of those deaths resulted from Soviet-Nazi combat but from their separate killing policies. In a broad sense Nazi policy was political, while Soviet policy was economic. The victims, I suspect, cared nothing about the distinction.

Were the concentration camps the worst of the Nazi atrocities? No, Snyder argues. “The image of the German concentration camps as the worst element of National Socialism is an illusion, a dark mirage over an unknown desert.” The camps seem the worst because there were survivors to tell about them, while vast numbers of victims never spent time in a camp but were simply shot or gassed in specialized death facilities. “In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps.”

Both regimes had the ability to strip their victims of their humanity, he writes, yet “Each of the living bore a name. ...Each of the dead became a number.” By adding names and quoting from victims' letters, Snyder reminds us that each number still represented one real, unique human being. Fourteen million times one.

I had offered Bloodlands to a reviewer who, as it happened, had already read the book and hated it as a one-sided apologia that presents the Holocaust as less heinous than Stalin's crimes. So rather than write a scathing review, he declined the assignment. But Bloodlands left me with an altogether different impression: both Hitler and Stalin were bloodthirsty ogres. We can total up the victims and judge one dictator to be more evil than the other, but the exercise is pointless. Each was a scourge on humanity.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

About that southern border

We lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nine years, not far from the Mexican border. Go into many commercial establishments and you'll find people who speak both Spanish and English, sometimes switching back and forth between the languages in the same sentence. The kid at the McDonald's counter takes one look at you and knows to greet you in English, then greets the next customer in Spanish. Signs in storefronts read "Se habla español." Hungry folks who visit Delicias around noontime will find the restaurant packed with Spanish- and English-speaking workers sitting at brightly colored tables and chairs. A few years ago, a mariachi band occasionally came in and serenaded the customers. Perhaps they still do.

Many laborers make a daily round trip from Ciudad Juárez to do much of the work Americans want done but won't do themselves. A landscaping crew might have one man who speaks sufficient English to talk to the customer. They work in the hot sun, wearing long sleeves, jeans and boots, hats with a cloth in the back to cover their necks. Offer them agua, and they gratefully respond with sí, gracias and a smile. At least in the moment that's enough Spanish for a gringo to know. Of course, many Mexicans work here for a time before recrossing the border to home and family. Some live on this side of the border.

In El Paso, a woman told me she is from Mexico and is annoyed when her compatriots come to the U.S. and do not speak English when they're here. On that side of the border, you speak Spanish. On this side, English. I told her New Mexico has two official languages, English and Spanish. She didn't like that. Me, I don't mind at all.

The border, la frontera, is artificial anyway. A huge swath of the Southwest was occupied by nomadic Indian tribes, colonized by Spain, and became Mexico. Then the United States took a lot, bought some, and drew a line.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Revisiting Frankenstein

Not long ago, a TV ad for The Frankenstein Chronicles prompted me to download Mary Shelley's 1818 classic, Frankenstein, and read it on my iPad. We all know the story, or some version of it. Doctor Frankenstein builds a creature in his laboratory, and it turns out to be a monster that goes on killing rampages.

What an imagination Shelley had! Victor Frankenstein has an idyllic childhood in Switzerland--perfect parents, no misfortunes, and a lovely cousin and playmate named Elizabeth who is expected one day to be his perfect bride.

As an adult, the highly intelligent and happy scientist Doctor Frankenstein labors in his lab to create a man. But why, when he could marry Elizabeth and create fellow humans in the easy, traditional way? He wants to advance the well-being of the human race. Of course, he discovers too late that his handiwork is hideous. How it's possible for the good Doctor to be so clueless must simply be put down to literary license.

The misfortunes that follow aren't the monster's fault. He wants love and acceptance, yet his creator hates and rejects him, purely on his looks. At night he gathers firewood as a favor to the local cottage dwellers, hoping that they will appreciate him when he finally shows his face. But when the townsfolk see him, they run away in terror. The only person not to fear him is a blind man. Only after being roundly abused does the monster despair and begin his path of destruction and vengeance.

Shelley accomplishes a lot without describing the monster in detail, though we do know he is eight feet tall. The terror comes from people's reactions. Artists' renditions often depict him with a bolt through his neck, but that didn't come from the story.

The prose is florid, overblown and awash in emotion, but it's 18th-century fiction. I love how no matter where Dr. Frankenstein goes to find peace, his monster shows up.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

FATHERS IN WAITING

A real event with fictional details.

FATHERS IN WAITING

The man sat next to me in the maternity ward, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. He was burly, with calloused hands, oil-stained jeans, flannel shirt and a Patriots cap, and I pegged him for an auto mechanic interrupted in the middle of an oil change. After a while, he hailed a passing nurse.

He asked, “Why is my wife taking so long? She’s done this six times already.”

“The baby will be born when it’s ready, Mister Stanley. Please have a seat. We’ll let you know as soon as there’s news.”

“It’s gotta be a boy this time, right? I’m goddamn sick of her having girls.”

“Sir, please sit down and relax. She won’t be much longer.” The nurse walked away, and he returned to his chair.

I was nervous too. Yesterday I’d held my wife’s hand as she lay on a gurney and screamed bloody murder. She had been in labor for over 24 hours, going on forever.

“It’s our first,” I told the man. “We’ve waited eight years.”

“Our seventh,” he said. “Six girls! She goddamn well better give me a boy this time.”

“It’s the father who – ” I stopped myself.

He let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m surrounded by them at home! Everything’s dolls and pink ribbons. There’s nobody for me to play ball with, nobody to teach about being a man. God, I want a son. Don’t you want a son?”

“I just want a healthy baby.” I yawned and looked at my watch. “And for this to be over with.”

“I’ll name him Arthur Stanley, Junior.”

Time stretched out like taffy. An eon later, someone paged me on the loudspeaker. I hurried down the hallway, where a doctor handed me a clipboard and said something like “your wife can’t give a vaginal birth and she and the baby will die if she doesn’t have an immediate Caesarean section and it requires your approval and you have no choice so sign here NOW.”

So I did. And my exhausted brain fought my fears to make room for – for a family.

A nurse approached Arthur Stanley. “Your wife had a beautiful, healthy girl,” she said. Stanley flung his hat against the wall and stomped away.

A few minutes later, she beckoned me. “Your wife is resting and your son is beautiful,” she said. “Want to see him?”

I did.
~~~

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Six Million Stamps

Six Million Stamps

By Bob Sanchez

The stamp shows off its ochre engraving under the magnifying glass. Three black lines slash the Austrian prince: canceled, dead. In 1856, someone had paid a kreuzer for it—maybe for a wife’s letter to her husband, wishing him godspeed for safe return from war with the Prussians. Light sinks into the stamp’s surface, only a dull glory reflecting from it, harkening to dusty battalions of conscripts long since in their graves.

Did the woman ever see him again? I cry for her. A voice tells me that no one ever came to her village to express condolence, only to claim her sons of fighting age.

Portraits with perforated edges lie in a jumble on my desk: Tamerlane, Frederick, Ceausescu. Downstairs a door slams, and Thomas stomps up to the attic. He doesn’t bother to brush the snow from his scarf; he never stays. Heat rises from downstairs and passes through the rafters, barely enough to melt the frost in my son’s voice. But that truly does not matter, as a visit from Thomas means mail, and more friends.

Thomas drops the manila envelope on my desk and sends a flurry of stamps flying. A million-mark Hitler overprint lands face up in front of me. “You’re obsessed, Father,” he says, which merits no reply. He turns a chair around and straddles it, staring at me. “Well? Open it!” he says. Eagerly I pry open the clasp and dump out the contents.

Hitler is my favorite. It’s a crazy thought, but I wish I could have six million stamps with his picture. As it is, I’ve owned over five thousand of them, and he and I always have the same conversation. I hold the border of each stamp with a pair of tweezers. Under the magnifying glass, the whorls on my fingertips look like those of a giant. That is how I feel: the strongest man in the world, the acme of the human race. Even Hitler averts his eyes.

“There is nothing to fear,” I tell him. “A shower. A simple de-lousing.”

I dip der Führer into the solution in the glass dish. His face contorts in terror and pain. Over the rage of the wind outside, over the rage of my pounding heart, I hear his screams as droplet by droplet the ink lifts from the stamp.

Monday, November 14, 2016

I've been thinking

I've been thinking:

  • Donald Trump has not improved with experience, nor does he intend to.
  • Colin Kaepernick should kneel if he wants to.
  • Freedom to stand for the National Anthem also means freedom not to stand for it, or it's not freedom.
  • I've been told I'm useless, a liar, and a hypocrite only once this year.
  • We are so lucky to have missed Hurricane Irma's worst.
  • Jim Comey's statements hurt Hillary Clinton, but her private server hurt her more.
  • I recently submitted my 200th book review to a firm that does not want to be identified.
  • I am still happily married to my best friend after 52 years.
  • Black lives matter.
  • The Internet Review of Books will be 10 years old on October 1, the same day I turn 74.
  • New Mexico is far more beautiful than Florida, but Florida has the vibrant community we need.
  • This winter we may visit Belize, the country of my father's birth.
  • Trump will be re-elected if the Democrats aren't careful.
  • Trump, Putin and Kim all deserve each other.
  • A few of us post the American flag in 90 neighbors' yards three times a year, and they love it.
  • Never, ever send me jokes that belittle President Obama.
  • I am not religious, but if you wish me merry Christmas or a blessed day, I will thank you and wish you the same.
  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.



So Donald Trump won

So Donald Trump is President-elect. For all the usual reasons, that is an election outcome I fervently hoped would not come to pass. During the campaign I didn't even want to mention his name, but I can't keep that up for four years.

Now protesters are exercising their right of free speech and assembly, but if their gatherings are mere expressions of hatred and bursts of vandalism, they will become isolated. Democrats should resist President Trump where he is wrong and support him where he is right. For the sake of national sanity, we must look for common ground. Trump has taken a number of conservative stands, but he seems not to have an ideology. And he touts his deal-making skills, offering hope that that he will not give the right everything they want. Yes, he will probably make them happy with his next Supreme Court pick, but justices are independent--for example, President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren and later said it was the worst mistake he'd ever made. Whether a Trump appointee will one day overturn Roe v. Wade is a distinct possibility, and Democrats should fight hard to block such a person. But we shouldn't do what Mitch McConnell did, blocking any nominee no matter the qualifications.

By the way, my voting record hasn't been all that successful since my first vote for LBJ back in 1964: six wins and eight losses, which break down thus:

64 W     80 L     96 W     12 W
68 L      84 L     00 L       16 L
72 L      88 L     04 L
76 W     92 W   08 W