Thursday, December 12, 2002

Some book notes are due today.

:: The vagaries of the publishing world require that some classic works of fantasy fiction stay in print forever, as in the case of The Lord of the Rings. Others, however, are left to go out-of-print for long periods, after which they are reissued by another publisher, stay in print for a while, and then go out-of-print again. One example of this phenomenon is John Bellairs's wonderful first novel, The Face In the Frost. It's in print and available now, but despite this book's near classic status in the fantasy field, it's been vaccilating in and out of print ever since its initial publication in 1969.

The Face In the Frost is Bellairs's only work of adult fiction. After its publication, he turned his attentions to children's literature, producing a body of work much of which has never gone out of print. His specialty was gothic fiction, and he was very adept at creating suspense and unnerving moods through atmosphere and characterization rather than through graphic gore or shock value, and while all of his children's books entertained me greatly, a number of them actually caused me to leave the light on in the hallway all night, lest one of Bellairs's demonic creations enter my room get the picture. Bellairs is also able to accomplish this kind of scare in The Face In the Frost, and in re-reading it last week -- for the first time in nearly ten years, since I bought the book last time it was published -- I discovered anew this writer's gifts.

It's not all horror, though; Bellairs is one of those "chiaroscuro"-type writers who leavens his scary material with humor, some of which is immensely funny. This was true of all of his children's books, and it is true in The Face In the Frost, but the humor is based more on puns and literary in-jokes than on the follies of exaggerated personalities from his works for young readers. His language is also a joy. This is a book where characters utter lines like this: "Oh, good heavens! Great elephantine, cloudy, adamant heavens full of thunder stones!" It's a book where a wizard sits down before his magic mirror to plumb the depths of what his scrying device might reveal...only to have the mirror show him a game between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants.

The story is fairly straightforward: two wizards, Prospero ("and not the one you are thinking of, either") and Roger Bacon, are dear old friends who stumble onto the activities of a third wizard who is, as they say, "dabbling in the black arts". The book follows their adventures as they attempt to find this wizard, identify his aims, and finally balk them. The plot really isn't the thing, here; with Bellairs, the emphasis is on language, mood and character. The Face In the Frost is a joy, and any person claiming to be a lover of fantasy but has not read this book is, as Bellairs might say, "a pompous, posturing hornswoggler....guilty of mystagogic muckification and pointless prattle".

:: If I had been a scientist, my sciences of choice would have been, without question, astronomy and cosmology. I've always been keenly interested in the stars and the universe and the Big Bang and how it all fits together. It really is what Carl Sagan called "the grandest of mysteries", and there is nothing in my mind so beautiful as to look at a moonless night sky, filled with stars.

Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees is a brief precis of the state of cosmology today and of the problems facing cosmology right now. This brief book is fairly short on the history, instead giving a quick background on the nature of the stars and planets, of gravity, and of the shape of the universe before delving into the questions of origins. The book's central focus is on examining the possible answers to Einstein's famous query: "Could God have made the world differently?" I won't summarize Rees's answers to that question here (partly because I'm not entirely sure I understood them), but I will note that the book is compelling, written in a clear and concise style that, being as devoid as is possible of scientific jargon, makes it all about as clear as it's likely to get. Particularly fascinating is Rees's discussion of how the qualities of our observable universe, from the shapes of galaxies and the formation of stars to the rise of life itself, are dependent on a small group of "initial settings" -- numbers which, if their values are changed even minutely, would have led to a much different universe -- and very likely precluded life at all.

Readers looking for a history of cosmological thought would be better served by Carl Sagan's Cosmos (which really should be read by everybody, anyway) or Timothy Ferris's Coming of Age In the Milky Way, but readers wanting to know just where we stand right now as far as science's understanding of the universe could do far worse than to read Rees's book. Rees is, among other things, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain.

:: Those of you who tend to walk right by the "Bargain Books" section at Borders or Barnes&Noble, cut it out! You never know what treasures lurk on those haphazardly-stacked tables. The other day I was perusing the "Bargain Book" table at Media Play, and I found Roger Ebert's Book of Film for six bucks, in hardcover. I'm not the filmgoer that I used to be, but this is a terrific collection of film-related essays and writings.

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