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To Explain the World, Girl in a Band and A Spool of Blue Thread

Scintillating science, Sonic Youth and a Pulitzer prize winner's latest

By Mark Diston, 14 Feb 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston looks at the latest from the literary world with a splendid overview of scientific discovery from Steven Weinberg. Musician Kim Gordon kisses and tells on her life in and outside the band Sonic Youth. And for a Valentine's flavour, we look at the latest from award-winning novelist Anne Tyler.

To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science

Steven Weinberg is a Nobel Prize winning physicist and the author of many popular books on science. He first came to my attention with The First Three Minutes, a simulation of the early moments of the universe written in a very clear and imaginative style. Weinberg has now turned his attention to a history of the discoveries of science.

The first thing to divulge about this book is its unusual format, as Weinberg spends a great deal of time with the Ancient, Arab and Renaissance scientists. This enables him to really demonstrate the old cliche of “standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Weinberg begins by calling the early pre-Socratic philosophers “poets”. He postulates that mathematics may be derived from music – both concepts very popular with the followers of Pythogoras. He observes than the Hellenistic era was a golden era of science and outlines the work of Euclid and Archimedes.

Aristotle is probably the most oft mentioned name in this book, as his influence on succeeding Arab and Renaissance scientists was phenomenal. His name was a byword for rigorous investigation and it was his ideas which most influenced “natural philosophers”.

“Whatever the scientific revolution was or was not, it began with Copernicus.” Weinberg points out that his original concept of a Heliocentric system was based on “No experimental evidence” though this was not long in coming.

Steven Weinberg, To Explain The World book cover

We move on to Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, whose observations and records proved Aristotle wrong and Copernicus correct. It is interesting to note that Kepler had to cast horoscopes as part of his job description.

Weinberg goes on to state that in his opinion, the two most underrated scientists in history are Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes and goes on to outline their refinement of scientific method: “Without Cartesian method… there would be no atom bomb.”

Onwards to the legendary Sir Isaac: “The difference between Einstein’s and Newton’s physics is far less than the difference between Newton’s and anything that had gone before.”

Steven then points out Isaac’s extensive writings on alchemy and religion and also his obsession about finding the date of embarkation of Jason and the Argonauts! Newton indeed seems to define the border between superstition and reason.

The scientific era post-Newton is almost an afterword in To Explain The World. Weinberg rushes at breakneck speed through the last three centuries and we are done. There are also a hundred pages of equations and diagrams for all the formula fetishists out there.

So, Steven Weinberg has written a back-to-front, upside-down history of science and I have to say it is a tremendous work. By concentrating the ideas of the distant past, he avoids the learning curves usually associated with these works. Ideas are introduced in a gradual manner and are much more easily absorbed than diving straight in to more complex recent discoveries.

Steven Weinberg has a fine gift for communicating ideas and uses an engaging layperson’s language. There are too many science books which brush over the pre-Newtonian era and end up disappearing up their own quantum dilemmas. To Explain the World is a much better method of introduction to the history of scientific thought and stands out in the ingenuity of its format and in the clarity and accessibility of Steven Weinberg’s prose.

Steven Weinberg, To Explain The World book coverAuthor Steven Weinberg
Title To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
Publisher Allen Lane
Price £20 (Hardback), £11.99 (eBook) on sale 17th February
More info Publication website

Girl in a Band, A Memoir

Kim Gordon, photo courtesy of Felipe Orrego

Youthful Gordon. Photo courtesy of Felipe Orrego

Kim Gordon was a founding member of legendary New York band Sonic Youth, where she was a singer and bassist for three decades. Girl In A Band is her autobiography.

The book opens describing the last Sonic Youth gig and the breakdown of Gordon’s relationship with fellow band member, Thurston Moore.

We are then taken back to the beginning of her story. Kim Gordon was born into a family of academic peripatetics in 1953, she describes growing up as a California girl in the 1960s with sojourns in Hawaii and Hong Kong.

Her brother, Keller, a brilliant if overbearing sibling, develops schizophrenic symptoms and she describes her parents attitude thereafter: “Kim can do anything she likes as long as she doesn’t go crazy.”

One of her boyfriends was Danny Elfman, these days known as that film score composer who wrote the The Simpsons theme. Gordon seems to come from that golden postwar generation who appeared to have it all.

Sonic Youth, photo courtesy of Tom van Gool

Sonic Youth in the 1980s: Bob Bert, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo
Photo courtesy of Tom van Gool

Yet there is also a dark underbelly; Gordon used to hitchhike the same routes as Charlie Manson and heard tales of the “strange little guy”, though she never met him.

Youtube Video

Gordon tells how she was always drawn to art and felt that, “Art and the practice of making art was the only space that was mine alone.” She studied dance and art in Toronto and California before ending up in New York, though “visually LA will always be my favourite place on Earth”.

Kim Gordon, Girl In A Band book cover

Kim’s arrival à la grande pomme de terre, is reminiscent of that of Patti Smith 13 years previously, described in her memoir Just Kids – the bookshop employment, the art world intros and so on.

But Patti Smith lived in more interesting times, has a better turn of phrase and had a harder struggle, Kim had an insurance payout which cushions her from poverty.

The book goes on to describe her meeting with Thurston Moore which results in the birth of Sonic Youth – from the death throes of the No Wave scene – and their ensuing 30-year relationship. Kim does get a bit Spinal Tap now and then: “I always fantasised what it would be like… beneath two guys who have crossed their guitars together”, though what a woman photographed in a clinch with Iggy Pop and Nick Cave would see in a pair of planks is beyond me.

Kim Gordon and friends, photo courtesy of Pat Bashill

Kim Gordon and friends: Tex Perkins (The Cruel Sea), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), Kim Gordon, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave. Photo courtesy of Tony Mott

Gordon is an effective storyteller and evokes the past very well. If I have one main criticism of this work and her music, it is similar to that which she levels at Billy Corgan: “...Smashing Pumpkins take themselves way too seriously and were in no way punk rock”.

While the punk rock argument has been obsolete since the 1970s, there’s not a great deal of irony or humour to be found around Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth, at least not here. Curiously, there is a picture of her laughing towards the end of the book, which raises the question: what at?

Kim Gordon with Kurt Cobain, photo courtesy of Charles Peterson

Kim Gordon with Kurt Cobain. Photo courtesy of Charles Peterson

Like many who knew them, Kim loved Kurt and despises Courtney: “After Nirvana, mainstream music nosedived back to its perfect level of blandness.” Now in her early sixties, she remarks, “This is how I know I’ve become old. Because today I have a real intolerance for dilapidated toilets.”

Youtube Video

The “betrayal” and breakdown of her relationship with Thurston Moore is the ghost that haunts this book. There is an element of catharsis about Kim Gordon’s story that may put off some Sonic Youth fans who are more interested in the music, of which there is plenty, rather than their relationship. But hey, this is an autobiography so it goes with the territory. Yet overall, this is an engrossing read for any admirer of music in the post-alt-grunge-indie tradition.

 Kim Gordon, Girl In A Band book coverAuthor Kim Gordon
Title Girl In A Band, A Memoir
Publisher Faber & Faber
Price £14.99 (Paperback), £9.99 (eBook) on sale 24th February
More info Publication website

A Spool of Blue Thread

Anne Tyler is the author of 19 novels and winner of many US literary awards, including the Pulitzer prize for Breathing Lessons (1989), although many will know her work from the film of the book The Accidental Tourist, a romantic drama starring William Hurt, Geena Davis and Kathleen Turner.

Her latest work, A Spool of Blue Thread, is an old fashioned family melodrama which takes place between 1959 and the recent present. “The Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever,” she writes. Ms Tyler damns herself from the outset… then pray why write about them, Anne?

Leo Tolstoy’s legendary opening gambit goes something like: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina). And I think your reaction to this kind of book depends on personal experience. Readers who grew up in Tolstoy’s former category are much more likely to gain something from works like this, which kind of act like a surrogate family. One could almost unkindly call them widow porn. Whereas if your experience of family life is more of the latter kind, this kind of book is pointless voyeurism akin to watching paint dry.

Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread book cover

Winning the Pulitzer prize, in your correspondent's opinion, generally translates as: not short of a turn of phrase, but unimaginative in the subject matter department. Indeed, Anne Tyler would conform to this category. She does ditzy women well though, “Carla was pleasant, but distracted, as if she were wondering whether she’d left a burner on at home”.

A Spool of Blue Thread centres around the life of Abby, a matriarch who has begun to have dizzy spells. Red, her husband, has just had a heart attack and so the four siblings – the black sheep, the adopted one, the tomboy and the bitch – all convene at the homestead to care for their parents, help out and decide what to do. That is the first half.

Abby is a quite attractive character, but is wiped out mid-novel, there is a funny bit after the funeral when the family discuss the preacher:

“Where did he say she’d gone?” “To a universal consciousness” “Well that does sound like something your mother might do.”

There’s also a romantic message via a post mortem dream: “I want to learn every step of you and dance till the end of night” ...and then we are taken back in prequel stylee to 1959, when Abby and Red first met and things get all Peyton Place. “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow and green afternoon…”

What follows is a retrospective love/life story where family secrets are revealed...before a rather anticlimactic ending back in the present-ish. The trouble with this kind of novel is you can show it as well or better on screen, although most of the first half of the novel takes part in the 21st century, this is essentially like a Douglas Sirk 1950s melodrama without the interesting bits. A kind of, All That Heaven Purgatory Allows.

The dialogue suffers from too much filler of this ilk: “Red, isn’t the chicken delicious?
-I’ll say! I’ve had two pieces and I’m thinking about a third.
-You can’t, it’s full of cholesterol!”

There is too much idle chatter, the omniscient narrator tries to be everywhere at once and, with the exception of Abby, does not linger on any character long enough to create much impression.

To be frank, this book is designed to warm the souls of lonely mothers and daughters, of which I am neither. It could be a posh soap opera for your mum, but overall A Spool of Blue Thread moves too slowly and predictably to an overdue conclusion. ®

Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread book coverAuthor Anne Tyler
Title A Spool of Blue Thread
Publisher Chatto & Windus
Price £18.99 (Hardback), £10.99 (eBook)
More info Publication website

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