“When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second,” Albert Einstein said, by way of explaining relativity. “When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour.” Such a notion resonates throughout Eva Hoffman’s slender reflection on the chronological conundrum, “Time.” Not because Hoffman deals much with Einstein (he merits only two references), but because at the heart of her book is the idea that time is what we make it, that it is not just fluid but impossible to pin down. “[O]ur existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” she notes, quoting Nabokov, yet all the same, she continues, “we live in time.” How we reconcile those two opposing visions — the abstract and the concrete, the cosmic and the quotidian — says a lot about who we are, not just as individuals, but as members of a species that has never fully come to grips with evanescence, with the discomforting reality that, in the flicker of an instant, each of us will be gone. If that sounds like a philosophical conversation, it is and it isn’t, which is one of the peculiar tensions of Hoffman’s book. By turns meditation and social commentary, essay and observation, “Time” is a work that, like its subject, is difficult to categorize. Hoffman begins by noting the ways time works differently in different societies, comparing the anxieties of the industrialized West to the “slower tempo” of life in Eastern Europe, where she grew up in, as poet Carmen Firan has written, “the opaque world of communism, where time had no value.”

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.