Book Review: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

Book Review by Bud Gundy

For years, I’ve been a fan of the SETI project.  I produced several brief radio reports for their old Are We Alone?radio show and I’ve met the principal players – Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak and the legendary Frank Drake, creator of the famous Drake Equation.  I’m lucky to live in Northern California, where you can easily attend their public events in Mountain View – a drive of no more than 45 minutes from San Francisco.

So it was with eager anticipation that I picked up The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies, published in 2010.  In our age, three years since publication and thus three more years of what seems like exponential research and discovery can make any scientific report feel somewhat dated.

All the same, you can’t argue that there have been any changes to the major arguments he makes in the book.  If anything, the continued silence reinforces his points, and I’m sorry to say that he leans strongly against the existence of life, let alone intelligent life, anywhere in the universe at all.

His arguments are insightful and compelling, and the book is organized to build to his somewhat dispiriting denouement (at least if you are a SETI fan) in a comprehensive and skillfully argued way.  After an initial overview, he dives right into the likelihood of life (as distinct from intelligent life) existing in the cosmos, and offers some very exciting possibilities of finding quasi-alien life flourishing already here on earth (hint: it has to do with another evolutionary cycle distinct from our own.)

Then Davies takes us soaring into the universe with a series of skeptical, but always thrilling examinations about why aliens, if they exist, don’t seem very interested in communicating with us.  I have to say, every single one of his scenarios sounds plausible to me.

Davies often offers ideas for the sole purpose of shutting them down.  I, however, found much of this absorbing and riveting.  He can shoot them down if he likes (and he does) but nonetheless they are fascinating to contemplate, particularly the image of a lonely quantum computer drifting alone in space.

In the end, he didn’t convince me that intelligent life does not exist.  In fact, I lean heavily in the other direction, but I readily concede he is the one with the degrees.  However, just observation alone leads me to think it likely that we have many cosmic neighbors.  Like us, perhaps they see no real reason to broadcast their existence to the heavens, and even humans are scaling back radio and television signals in favor of more efficient modes of communication that don’t filter into space.

I think we’ll find intelligent life because it is easy to see that there is nothing extraordinary about where we live.  If it happened here, it happened elsewhere and probably has - many times. 

So even if you don’t agree with Davies, you’re bound to find this book interesting, even riveting at times.

Available online: Click here

Book Review: Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Book Review by Bud Gundy

This is the third biography of Queen Victoria that I’ve read, and it is easily the most engrossing and well written.  Kudos to the author Kate Williams for an engaging account, written with all the drama and suspense of a first-rate story.

What sets it apart from the other Victoria biographies is the focus on exactly how Victoria got to the throne, with a long look at the princess who was supposed to be queen in her stead.

The story of Princess Charlotte is not well known, but she was the daughter of King George IV, and she was the only legitimate heir to her grandfather George III, who was locked away at Windsor Castle, a raving madman for the last ten years of his reign.  Of an estimated 56 grandchildren, only Charlotte could inherit his throne because she was the only one born into a legal marriage.

Charlotte’s father acted as Regent for George III, assuming all the duties and rights of king while his own father was incapacitated.  When the old king died, George IV ascended to the throne for ten years while the country looked to Charlotte to deliver it from her wastrel father and the passel of drunken dukes, her uncles, who were widely hated for their self-indulgent tastes and lavish spending.

Charlotte was loved throughout England, attaining the reputation of a virtuous princess who would deliver the people from the debauched excesses of the sons of George III.  Her story is fascinating: her parents hated each other almost from the moment they met, and her weak father resented his daughter’s popularity.  The intrigue and subterfuge to keep the princess out of the public eye while George IV ruled is a tragic tale, involving plots and machinations that once sent Charlotte literally running from the palace to escape, if only for a night.

Charlotte married (a convoluted tale in itself) and soon became pregnant, but in a shocking development she delivered a stillborn son and died the next day.  The mourning was immense, vastly eclipsing even the overwhelming reaction to the death of Princess Diana.  England quite literally closed for two weeks – all shops and offices were shut.  The mourning was so great that manufacturers of finery begged the royal family to shorten the official period of grief to restart business.

After Charlotte’s death, the remaining sons of George III busied themselves with dispensing with their mistresses and marrying to produce legitimate heirs.  The Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, moved back to England (he’d been living abroad with his mistress of 28 years) and married a royal German widow who gave birth to Victoria.  After her father died, and then another uncle, Victoria was suddenly next in line to the throne.

Victoria never seemed a sympathetic person to me, despite the book’s long and interesting exploration of her unhappy childhood, ruled by a hapless mother who in turn was influenced by one John Conroy – a manipulative advisor who saw Victoria’s claim as an entry for himself and his own family into the royal sphere.  It was a bleak life in the small, dark rooms of Kensington Palace’s first floor.  But, of course, it was not nearly as bleak as the lives of the common people, who suffered from one economic depression after the next, and saw industrialization take their jobs and change their lives for the worse, a fact that Williams thankfully does not overlook.

I’ve always disliked the depictions of Victoria’s imperious sense of victimhood, her ranting and raving and absolute devotion to her own comfort and desires.  I suppose she felt it her due and that she didn't know any better, but it still grates to read of her shrieking tantrums when she did not get her way.  She was prone to these even as a child, and the all adults around her realized she would almost certainly one day be the queen and they were loathe to correct this behavior - thus the self-pitying adult woman.  The book closes a few years into the start of her reign, after her marriage to Prince Albert, leaving the long years of her rule to other sources.  Wisely so, I thought.

Despite my dislike of Victoria, I found this book an invaluable help in understanding her, and the turbulent times when she took the throne.  She remains a fascinating, enigmatic figure, and probably nobody, even her adored husband, really understood the forces at work in her mind.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this period.

Available online: click here

Book Review: The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

Book Review by Bud Gundy

My friend Marion recommended this book, with the polite but unmistakable admonition to return it soon, and in good condition.  When someone like Marion (a remarkable woman) loves a book so much that she must have it by her side whether or not she’s opened it in years, it gets my attention.

I read the book in a single day, the first time since I was a teenager that I’d been so absorbed by a story I finished it within 8 hours.

I’d been meaning to read The Naked Civil Servant for years.  I had a vague idea who Quentin Crisp was, but only that he was some sort of early 20th century gay pioneer.  In the 1990’s he made a series of controversial statements about gay people, dismissing calls for equality and insisting that homosexuality was an illness.  Like many others, I put these comments aside as the remarks of an elderly man who didn’t understand the way new generations of gay people looked at the world.  Men like Crisp were dinosaurs, the lumbering pioneers who had carried ideas forward but had collapsed with exhaustion and were no longer useful.

I was right, but only partially.  There was much more to the story than that.

Crisp was born in 1908, and while he covers his early years with insight and wit (he declares that those who are thought witty are those who laugh and listen politely to others – an insight I’ll have to test) the story really takes flight when he moves to London.

By this time, Crisp has accepted that he is a homosexual and has decided to confront the world with his existence instead of shading himself in public, his head down.  He slathers his face with make-up, styles his hair in dramatic waves and wears flowing, feminine fashions.  He monitors every step, one foot precisely in front of the other (I experimented with this gait last night, and realized that it required a steady rocking of the hips).

Thus he sets out in 1930’s London, often drawing crowds of people who follow him hurling insults, catcalls and rocks.  He is often attacked, and relates in a dispassionate voice the techniques he used to get out of trouble, when possible.  Of course, it was often not possible.  Several times he is beaten, he often fears for his life and danger is ever-present.  His presence inside large buildings would often cause a tumult and shopping is an obstacle course of insults and rude clerks.

But still, he often finds work – in commercial art, publishing houses and even an engineering firm.  This is no mean feat – his description of arriving for job interviews is a delight to read, but I suspect it wasn’t nearly as amusing to live the experience.  Eventually he becomes a model for art students, a civil servant in his mind and thus the title.

Along comes World War II, and he is called in for his physical.  I laughed out loud several times, the first being when a doctor told him with a hectoring voice meant to induce shame that he exhibited all the signs of sexual perversion.  Crisp happily agrees, telling him upfront that he is a homosexual.  This destroys the doctor’s authority, and he huddles with others to discuss what to do.  The whole scene is delivered with witheringly precise descriptions of one absurdity after another.

His conflict with masculinity and femininity are interesting, but maddening, delivered in a voice of authority that in the end he lacked.  I’d have to read the book at a slower pace to delve more deeply into what he meant by his somewhat contradictory approach to gender roles.  He idealizes the feminine side of himself, and indeed with all homosexuals, but at the same time, he is fervently in awe of masculinity, assigning it the treasured word of “normal”.  And he is by turns dismissive and protective of masculine gay men.

I admire his defiance of the world’s efforts to shame him, but years of being followed by screaming mobs and inspiring chaos wherever he went must have warped his mind.  No human is capable of withstanding that sort of abuse without acquiring scars, but Crisp writes of his deepest disappointment with other gay people who criticized his open defiance of convention.

Is this the root of his amorphous contempt for gay people who seek equality ?  For all of his courage, at heart he accepted that he was a lower form of life than straight people, so his defiance was based on acceptance of his status – the defiance of the scullery maid who resents the intrusion of a parlor maid.  He’d love that comparison, probably.  Or hate it.

In the end, Crisp walked with his head up, but didn’t dare look around, and while he was careful to place each foot just so, he was still watching every step.

Book Review: The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Book Review by Bud Gundy

I ripped through The House at Tyneford in a matter of days.  It was a beautiful read and I admire Solomons' powerful descriptive gift.  I thought the story was quite good in many ways, and the emotional pull was real.

I know many people who will love and cherish this novel, but it veered dangerously close to romance for me – in that improbable and unsatisfying way. 

Elise is a 19 year-old Jewish girl whose family is forced apart by the vicious anti-Semitism in Vienna just before World War II.  Her sister departs to America with her husband, while Elise heads to England to work as maid at a country manor.  Her gifted parents are left behind, waiting for visas that will allow them move to New York.

The set-up is irresistible: Elise must learn to adapt to her new life in greatly reduced circumstances.  While her parents were celebrated artists in Austria and she had grown used to a life of finery, she has become just another servant for a wealthy but untitled Englishman and his son in a great manor, complete with a Tudor wing. 

Here, the story soared into a life-affirming testament as Elise struggles with her reduced position, finding a very shaky but workable balance.

The son Kip eventually becomes a love interest, and the novel took a turn for the worse, at least for me.  While individual scenes were incredibly fun (especially a ball during which Elise and Kip scandalize the local gentry in the only scene where I was rooting for them) the overall arc of the story flattened until the inevitable war time conclusion to this doomed love affair arrived with a thud.

After this point, I lost nearly all interest in the story but kept reading because Solomons has an enormous, seemingly limitless power to bring scenery and people to life.  And I’m happy I finished the book, because the revelation of Elise's father’s secret (hidden in a viola) was a shocking and breath-taking metaphor that Solomons handles with incredible grace.

I feared this worthy book would become just another hackneyed romance, but all in all, The House at Tyneford was worth the read.  If nothing else, the compelling descriptions of life in the English countryside are worth your time.

Available online: click here

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Book Review by Bud Gundy

Anne Boleyn, like Marie Antionette, was innocent.  If anyone was guilty, it was King Henry VIII.  He was guilty of a childlike temper, immense vanity and a singular inability to see the world from anyone’s perspective but his own.

The Tudor court still fascinates after nearly 500 years.  In half a millennium, hardly any royal court has inspired more speculation and unease, if only because it is such a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the monarchy.

In her latest book, the second in her Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, the loyal royal aide who helped dispatch Katharine of Aragon and set three subsequent queens on the English throne.

Born a fighter and a scraper, Cromwell found himself Secretary to the king, an amorphous position that we are left to conclude simply meant, “the guy who gets things done.”  And done he gets things.

As this story picks up from the last book, Henry and Anne’s marriage has been a disaster.  Although Henry shattered the religious foundations of Europe to get rid of Katherine and wed Anne (by forcibly breaking England from the Roman Catholic faith) the couple did not prosper.  Anne’s sole successful pregnancy resulted in Elizabeth, the unfortunate child who would go on to become one of the world’s most legendary and brilliant monarchs. 

But Henry’s purpose in shunting Katharine to the side was to have sons.  Anne, being young and vivacious, offered him every hope of feverish love and many sons.  Roughly halfway through this volume, Anne’s latest pregnancy holds England in suspense.  A boy will smooth the roughness of their marriage.  A boy will give Henry an heir, and everything will change, but not necessarily for the better for those who hold to Catholicism and despise Anne.  Everyone calculates at every turn and Cromwell is usually there to observe.

But Anne miscarries on the very day of Katherine’s burial, an ominous omen for everyone.  The old queen was loved and admired by the common man, whereas Anne was distrusted.  And though Mantel does not get specific, it seems this latest miscarriage (the fetus was male) turns Henry away for the final time.

Anne was no saint.  She was overbearing, imperious and reckless.  But aren’t these also the signs of desperate fear?  Don’t they underscore that Anne had begun to realize that the king was her sole source of power, that his displeasure could mean her ruin?  Perhaps she realized this too late, after nearly three years of an unhappy match, and thus three years of indulging her tantrums.  When the king was through with her, there was nobody else to offer support.

Cromwell glides through the story, always following one step behind the king’s motives, but also one step forward in the execution of his desires.  This requires some hopping about, but Cromwell turns what could be an awkward display into a nimble dance of diplomacy and threats.

As I said, I doubt that Anne was guilty of adultery and incest, treasonous crimes in a queen who could give birth to children who would inherit the throne.  Actions that are wholly innocent in one perspective are warped in another so that even an innocent Christmas party, shadowed by the nervous tension between the king and queen, becomes a traitorous debauch.  And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Anne and Marie Antionette were accused of incest (Anne with her brother, Marie with her son) so that the shock of the charge would stain their reputations beyond repair, for who would accuse a queen of such monstrous immorality without merit?

Henry, that’s who.  The idea did not originate with him, but one word from him would have silenced such slander.  The word never came.  Henry was a weak man, his passivity and despair masking his laziness.  The ease with which his subjects eagerly provided him with reasons for doing what he so clearly wanted does not absolve Henry of responsibility.  In fact, it is an indictment of his courage.

Cromwell, however, has his own motives for agreeing to pretend these ridiculous charges are true, and in a breathtaking sequence, we see him talk to Anne’s accused lovers while they await what they already know will be a guilty verdict and their executions.  It is a mark of Mantel’s skill as a writer that although all the men are clearly innocent, and Cromwell clearly knows it, you end feeling almost no pity for these men all while your admiration for Thomas grows.

There is much to admire about Thomas Cromwell.  Mantel brings him to life in a vivid, technicolor way.  Here he is counseling the king’s bastard son with a wise course of action to satisfy his lust, and there he is telling his own son how to improve his standing at the court.  Then you see Cromwell fighting for the dignity of the common man, and afterwards he is nimbly manipulating ambassadors by acts of kindness, which are apparently a rare thing in Tudor England.  You wonder how such a man can participate in such wanton cruelty and the scenes of Anne’s trial and execution are painful to read.  Why does Thomas Cromwell, a brilliant and humane man, agree to do these things?

And then the answer comes: he cannot choose his king.  In the court of Henry VIII, where favor alights in strange places and downfalls come swiftly, the only sensible thing to do is survive.