hardly ever does The Globe and Mail books section every Saturday feature more than one, maybe two, books that I’m interested in. They’re pretty heavy on the Canlit side, with a heavy helping of the kind of public affairs books that don’t really do it for me. The mystery roundup feature is usually my best bet. Well this week there were three — count’em three — books that really piqued my interest. And a pretty diverse bunch too, one physics, one horror fiction and another environmental non-fiction featuring the kind of intersection between food, science and policy that I find so interesting.
Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin (reviewed by Dan Falk) (Amazon)
Considering the esoteric nature of some of the material being presented, Time Reborn is relatively jargon- and equation-free. There are some challenging concepts, but nothing to deter the lay reader. (Smolin has said that he’s also working on a more technical book on the same subject, to be co-written with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger.)
I hope this is the start of an exciting new chapter in theoretical physics. But I fear that Einstein was right, and that the ultimate explanation for time’s apparent flow might come from the realm of psychology or neuroscience rather than physics. Science, after all, has a track record of overturning our “common sense” beliefs about the world. Again and again, things that were “obvious” – that the sun revolves around the earth; that humans are fundamentally different from other animals – have been shown to be artifacts of an anthropocentric worldview. Maybe the “obvious” passage of time is another of these illusions.
Hill is the son of Stephen King and, with this new novel, he emerges as a literary inheritor of his father. (Hill’s brother, Owen King, also recently released a new novel, Double Feature.) NOS4A2 contains familiar elements for Stephen King fans, such as the twisting of something beloved (in this case, Christmas) into something pathologically scary, and a maliciously sentient car. But despite its roots in traditional horror, this is a book about the dangers of idealizing innocence and traditional values, a message with clear political implications.
One of the standout qualities of Hill’s work is his ear for the rhythms of language, the creative metaphors that surprise and satisfy. His sentences crackle with wit and understated craftsmanship – the kind so skillful it is only visible if you’re paying attention. It is through language that Hill weaves the subtly disturbing atmosphere that permeates NOS4A2 even in its least threatening moments, such as in a description of a diner: “[She] didn’t like looking at the flypaper, at the insects that had been caught in it, to struggle and die while people shoved hamburgers into their mouths directly below.” Not long before, Hill describes the laughter of a group of girls as being “like hearing glass shatter.”
But I don’t think Elton’s all about casting off the “other side” with tidy dualisms. Indeed, she anticipates, even concedes, some of her critics’ main arguments. She’s aware that “conventional” agriculture tends to out-yield organic; she’s heard about studies challenging the energy efficiency of local food.
Trouble is, so many studies supporting industrial agriculture simply don’t provide a full-cost accounting. Yield, for instance, is clearly important; but preponderant evidence suggests that the total energy inputs of modern agriculture are not returned to us in calories. Not even close.