The lost book review

January 19, 2011

Since it’s been more than two weeks–and that’s about the life of a News-Journal link, I’ve just decided to post my mostly negative review of Enrique Joven’s “The Book of God and Physics” on my blog. I hope no one at work will mind since I’m not sure who is in charge of posting them now that online isn’t.

Teachers around the world tell students, “Show, don’t tell,” when learning to write. Too bad the author of “The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery” did not take this advice to heart.

Enrique Joven, its author, takes a fascinating mystery and puts us to sleep instead. It’s all the more infuriating because the mystery — an either 15th or 16th century manuscript painstakingly written in an unknown language and illustrated with what looks to be symbolic drawings — is real and stored at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The author of the Voynich manuscript is unknown, but it’s associated with the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II, who patronized a variety of artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, including Dane Tycho Brahe and German Johannes Kepler.

Those names should sound familiar because their work (and the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei) formed the basis of our understanding about astronomy and physics. In fact, it was the tumultuous relationship between Brahe and Kepler as well as Brahe’s strange and untimely death that should have been shown, not told to us in lecture after lecture.

The narrator of “The Book of God and Physics” is a likable Jesuit named Hector, who teaches at a Catholic prep school in Spain. He belongs to an online group dedicated to unlocking the secrets of the Voynich manuscript, which has never been translated. And many have tried, including American military cryptographers after World War II.

Then, Hector’s online world collides with reality, as two of his online friends — Juana, an heiress from Mexico, and John Carpenter, a physicist with the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge, United Kingdom — seek his help to unlock the secrets of the manuscript. Together they become enmeshed in a conspiracy possibly stemming from Rudolf II’s court to the present day.

Author Enrique Joven, who himself holds a doctorate in physics and works as a senior engineer in the Canary Islands, obviously loves and is enthusiastic about science. He puts forth all the theories surrounding the Voynich manuscript as well as discusses the speculation about Kepler’s possible role in Brahe’s death.

Though Joven wisely makes his narrator both a priest and teacher, who might be forgiven a little too much exposition, he unfortunately litters the book not only with long summaries of events but also clunky dialogue, such as this scene from page 282:

“That last one sounds good. Explain,” Juana asked.

“Aqua regia is a yellow, extremely corrosive solution, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid, highly concentrated. It got its name, royal water, because it could dissolve precious, or royal, metals like gold and platinum. Very few reactants could do that,” John explained.

Unless the reader is a very dedicated scientist or history buff, “The Book of God and Physics” won’t capture many people’s imagination, which is a shame because the Voynich manuscript — and all the people associated with it — resonates as a real-life mystery needing resolution.

This was a fun review to write, which sounds terrible since it was negative, but the disappointment I felt reading this book made it easy to offer criticism. Apparently, my passion was obvious.

“You should only write negative reviews,” my co-worker David said. “That was your best book review yet.”

Stay tuned then for my review of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome,” which isn’t all negative but isn’t all positive either.