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Novels, Novelties, Frauds and Fresh Ideas: 8 New Books Reviewed

Galileo’s Mistake: Archaeology of a Myth
by Wade Rowland
Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers
ISBN: 091902842X
Format: Hardcover

In Galileo’s Mistake, Wade Rowland sets out to rewrite the myth at the foundation of modern science: that science represents truth and religion, and something else. Traditionally Galileo has been seen as the first scientist to question the authority of religion in determining truth. The alternative, that Galileo proposed, was reason. But, as Rowland points out, reason doesn’t necessarily have the authority to determine truth either, at least not in any ultimate sense.

According to Rowland, Galileo’s mistake was that one unique explanation of natural phenomenon was possible and that this single explanation would render all others obsolete. But he lost sight of one important fact, that science was theory; practical theory, but theory none the less. It was a mistake that would have incredible political, religious, and philosophical ramifications for Galileo himself, for Western culture and for our own age.

It is a stunning point and Rowland makes it in wonderfully readable prose, that incorporates elements of the type of Platonic dialogue that Galileo himself employed. This is not only a book of ideas – about theology versus ideology – but a travel guide to the middle ages and a tour through the social and political landscape that shaped western approaches to the world.

by W.G. Sebald
Publisher: Knopf Canada
ISBN 0676974333
Format: Hardcover

Sebald’s Austerlitz follows an intermittent, thirty-year conversation between a man named Jacques Austerlitz and the novel’s nameless narrator. It is a conversation that takes place across the European continent and its subject is Austerlitz’s obscure history.

Adopted by a Welsh family in 1939, the young Austerlitz knew almost nothing of his true origins. But traces of this absence lead him to set out upon an odyssey to uncover his past and, by extension, the bleakest truths, of the twentieth century. Austerlitz is a breathtaking work in which Sebald manages to obliquely – employing his unique mix of everyday images and poignant lyricism – enunciate the unspeakable.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 0312282990
Format: Trade Paperback

Michael Chabon weaves themes of escape and escapism into one nifty little package in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel about comic book heroes and American art and opportunity. The escapee is Joe Kavalier, a Jewish sketcher and escape artist, who has managed to slip the bonds of Nazi-occupied Prague. His ultimate – and natural – destination is New York City. And it is here that he encounters his metaphysical counterpart – the escapist, his cousin Sammy Clay – who dreams of being many things, one of which is creating comic book heroes. Despite their wildly different origins, the two men become partners. Both are desperate to escape and the new art of comic books offers both men just that possibility.

by David Rakoff
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 0385658311
Format: Hardcover

Whether David Rakoff is attending Buddhist lectures by Steven Seagal, setting out in search of the man of the mountain or kibitzing in Israel one thing is certain: he’s faking it. He is neither the religious nor celebrity devotee, he is not the mountaineerer, nor the kibbutznic. Neither is he the slick and cynical New Yorker who speaks, upon these subjects, throughout the eclectic essays of his collection Fraud. It is all a thin chimera.

In actual fact, he is a highly sensitive observer and lyrical chronicler of cultural minutiae. And, as a regular contributor to Outside, the New York Times Magazine and PRI’s This American Life – as well as writing for Salon, GQ and Harper’s – he has had ample opportunity to sharpen his wit and select his minutiae, while major publications footed the bill.

Fraud might be both the funniest and most touching collection of essays ever published. It’s almost impossible not to love this man, who seems intent upon pretending to be everything which he is not – a flake, a dilettante and/or a bastard.

The Gryphon
by Nick Bantock
Publisher: Raincoast Books
Format: Hardcover

I wish you could see what I’m talking about. Artist and author, Nick Bantock offers the latest instalment in the epistolary adventures of Griffin and Sabine. Bantock has made a literary sensation with his trilogy of novels (Griffin and Sabine, Sabine’s Notebook and The Golden Mean) that trace the history of Griffin and Sabine through a collection of sumptuously painted postcards, letters and envelopes.

The Gryphon picks up where The Golden Mean left off. Griffin and Sabine seem to have dropped off the map until Mathew, an archaeologist working in Egypt, is inadvertently drawn into the enigmatic web of their correspondence. Soon Mathew’s girlfriend, Isabella de Reims, is also drawn in, both through Mathew and her own dreams.

In The Gryphon, as in Bantock’s other works, it is elaborate prints of handwritten letters that slip from vividly decorated envelopes – pasted to the page – which carry the narrative forward. Confronted by a parcel of Griffin and Sabine’s complete correspondence, Mathew laments: “I simply don’t know what to make of it – in a way, the whole correspondence, animal images and all, looks as if they were plucked from your dreams. I wish you could see what I’m talking about.”

Cyber Threat: Internet Security for Home and Business
by David McMahon
Publisher: Warwick Publishing
ISBN: 1894020839
Format: Trade Paperback

Cyber Threat is a basic, if somewhat impractical, guide to internet security for those that can’t muster the budget for expensive consultations. It is basic in the sense that McMahon begins by outlining, in language that is invitingly free of technical language, all of the possible threats the internet poses. And this is his book’s great strength, that it is as readable as it is practical.

Its only flaw – its impracticality – comes when McMahon strays from the simplicity and clarity of his approach. For example, in a chapter “New Threats from the Wired World” he presents the threat of “scanning” and suggests that individuals “scan” their own system without ever explaining exactly what “scanning” is. In instances like this the phrase “easier said than done” springs to mind – the book’s target audience, those who know next to nothing, might be left wondering not only what the threat is but what they should be doing to combat it.

Overall Cyber Threat’s virtues far outweigh any pitfalls. In an area as replete with jargon as internet discussion, McMahon, usually, does a marvelous job of keeping things simple and clear. His book is, however, better suited to those who know at least something about their system and server and know only next-to-nothing about security.

by Frank Feather
Publisher: Warwick Publishing
ISBN: 1894020677
Format: Hardcover

Given current trends, Frank Feather’s book future might strike some as wildly optimistic. There is still no crystal ball which will see into the future and discover what the trends will be but it is also quite easy to forget that the world wide web has already ushered in an unprecedented social and business revolution – or evolution – that is here to stay.

Feather terms this social and business phenomenon the “webolution” and looks, specifically, at the influence that the internet will have on consumer spending. And, I think it is safe to say, that these are trends that will continue regardless of current circumstances.

Feather offers the complete package, from analysis of the web-based culture and lifestyle that makes online consumerism possible – the who, what and why of online shopping – to stunning predictions about future trends; what he calls the move “From Mall to Mallennium.” It is a move away from traditional brick and mortar stores towards “click and order” enterprises. No surprise there but, according to Feather, the changes might be quicker and more dramatic than anyone anticipates.

They are still working on those crystal balls, but in the meantime Frank Feather has some useful suggestions.

Writing for the Web: Geeks’ Edition
by Crawford Kilian
Publisher: Self-Counsel Press
ISBN: 1551803038
Format: Trade Paperback

If it isn’t engaging and highly readable who would trust it? For writers that market “writing skills” the proof is in the proverbial pudding – if they can’t convince you to read their own book what kind of advice do they really have to offer?

Crawford Kilian, however, is up to the task. His Writing for the Web:Geeks’ Edition provides solid advice for specialists in fields other than writing (hence the Geeks’ Edition demarkation). This is not a book of recommendations for career writers, those who are looking to freelance on the web or to post their latest startling piece of fiction. Kilian provides practical advice for people who need to get things done.

For all of its bells and whistles – graphic, audio or otherwise – the web is still largely a text-based medium. If you don’t know how to use that medium, your message isn’t going to reach anyone. Kilian astutely points out, that you learn to use the medium by asking yourself fundamental questions about your audience, your message, and your motivations. Then you structure your content accordingly. His own message is simple and his reasoning is flawless. Anyone who aims to do serious business on the net requires a copy of this book.

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