August 16, 2012


I, Galileo. By Bonnie Christensen. Knopf. $17.99.

Dead Strange: The Bizarre Truths Behind 50 World-Famous Mysteries. By Matt Lamy. Zest Books. $12.99.

      Preteens with an interest in astronomy, biography or both will discover a captivating blend in Bonnie Christensen’s I, Galileo, which imagines the aged and blind astronomer, imprisoned in his home because his findings conflicted with Catholic Church teachings, looking back on his life and some of his many inventions and discoveries.  Christensen casts the book as a memoir, an autobiographical sketch filled with wistfulness: “I play the lute and listen for the nightingale’s song to tell me night has fallen.  Though I’m ending in darkness, I clearly recall the sun-filled hours of my early years.”  Christensen’s sensitive oil paintings of scenes from Galileo’s life beautifully complement her straightforward but not overly simple story of exploration and discovery.  In one picture, Galileo and his father, a musician and music theorist, test strings’ length, thickness and tension as part of a mathematical analysis of how musical notes are made.  In another, Galileo drops a heavier and lighter ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that they fall at the same speed – contradicting Aristotle’s claim that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and landing Galileo in trouble…not for the first time.  And then come the inventions: a compass, the first scientific telescope, the microscope.  The discoveries come, too, and here is where Galileo runs afoul of Church doctrine, discovering that indeed (as Copernicus had already said) the Sun does not revolve around the Earth – our planet circles the Sun.  Christensen reproduces some of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries, such as the moon’s surface as he saw it in December 1609.  Then comes the permission that Galileo receives to write – as theory – about the notion of a sun-centered system, and then the betrayal that leads to a papal edict against his book and a ban on all his works.  It took the Church nearly 400 years to admit it had been wrong about Galileo – the official admission did not come until 1992 – and Christensen presents this information matter-of-factly as an afterword to the story, although it could just as easily have been handled as a gigantic outrage and a demonstration of the incredibly oppressive power of organized religion.  Christensen, though, keeps her focus on Galileo the man and Galileo the scientist, ending the book with a chronology and list of Galileo’s experiments, inventions, improvements and astronomical findings.  It is only with her book’s dedication at the very end – to a friend she describes as “another independent and rebellious thinker” – that Christensen lets her empathy for Galileo flow clearly.  But it is there throughout I, Galileo, just beneath the surface, giving young readers a sense of a great scientist, the challenges he overcame in his work, and the ones he could not overcome in the social and political milieu of his time.

      Dead Strange is aimed at teens rather than preteens and ought, logically, to be held to an even higher standard of accuracy than I, Galileo, but Matt Lamy’s (+++) book never quite decides whether it is a work of science, pseudoscience, paranormal investigation or lighthearted mockery.  As a result, it does not really deliver on its promise to reveal a series of “bizarre truths,” much less 50 of them – there are some truths here, but they are scattered about and mixed with questions, uncertainties and a whole lot of evasions.  The subject matter is all over the place, from A (alchemy, alien abductions, Amityville and other matters) to Z (zombies).  The selected items include some that readers will likely have heard of already (King Arthur, the Loch Ness Monster, Jack the Ripper), some that contain mysteries but do not really sound mysterious (the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Big Bang, the Knights Templar, Noah’s Ark, the Dead Sea Scrolls), and some that are likely to be unfamiliar to the target readership (Kaspar Hauser, the Ogopogo, the Rosicrucians).  The discussions of the topics combine seriousness with levity in such a way as to make it hard to know how much is factual and how much is a put-on.  The legend of the Ark of the Covenant, for example, is accurately described, with comments on modern archeological findings and theories by scientists and others; but the illustration bears this caption: “A drawing of the Ark of the Covenant. (Also included here: the less famous Pitcher of the Covenant, and the Plant of the Covenant.)"  Similarly, in the discussion of Demonic Possession, the picture caption reads, “A medieval engraving of holy men casting out demons…and of (surprisingly adorable) demonic pigs taking a bath.”  Within the brief discussions of the various mysteries are boxes headlined “Did You Know” or giving further information, such as “Top 10 Natural Explanations” within the section on the Bermuda Triangle – including (#3) “Pirates: They’ve been known to sink ships” and (#6) “Hurricanes: They’re pretty destructive. Enough said.”  The thing about Dead Strange is that it is never quite sure when there is enough said, since so many of Lamy’s comments lead nowhere in particular.  And a lot of them don’t lead to truth – for example, he accepts Crop Circles as a legitimate phenomenon even though they, among all supposedly paranormal occurrences, have been most thoroughly debunked (he says only that “some are undoubtedly hoaxes”).  The book could also have used more-careful editing to avoid embarrassing typos such as “Bristish Columbia.”  But most of all, it could have used more consistent tone.  When Lamy comments on voodoo dolls, “They’re not just for revenge anymore,” or says of the Easter Island statues, “Get a life, stone heads,” he calls into question all the sober recitation of facts and information elsewhere in his book.  It’s as if Lamy himself is not sure whether or not to take Dead Strange seriously.

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