Book Review: Periodic Tales

periodic talesPeriodic Tales: a Cultural History of the Elements, From Arsenic to Zinc
by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Nonfiction / Scientific History
428 pages
Published 2011

I’ve always been more interested in people than science, so I like coming at science from the side, through the stories of scientists. It’s why I ADORED Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and giggled my way through Mary Roach’s Bonk. Periodic Tales was billed as a very similar book, but focused on the chemicals that make up the Period Table.

It does tell the stories of the elements and their discoveries. It is quite good. But it has neither the feeling of close friends gossiping that characterizes Mary Roach’s book, or the enthralling storytelling of Bill Bryson. It took me nearly a month to read, a few pages at a time while I ate my breakfast or lunch, whereas I could barely put down either of the other two.

The author tends to rhapsodize about the cultural significance of some of the elements to a rather boring degree, honestly. This was especially evident – and uncomfortable – in the section on calcium. Aldersey-Williams goes on quite the tangent about how calcium/lime is used to make things white, and white is the color of purity, and so calcium is linked with purity, and quotes Melville’s Moby Dick, saying “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls.” This goes on for two entire pages, and nowhere in this sermon on the purity and superiority of whiteness is race mentioned. Anywhere. On one hand, you could say since race is never mentioned, it’s not a screed on white superiority, on the other hand, it’s not denied, either. How did this get past an editor? None of the rest of the book implies racial discrimination, but that section had me side-eyeing the book hard.

It’s a good book for what it is, though a little long-winded. Between the weird section on calcium and the general boring-ness of the writing, I don’t think I can recommend it. Though it does have me thinking I should re-read A Short History of Nearly Everything.

From the cover of Periodic Tales:

Like the alphabet, the calendar, or the zodiac, the periodic table of the chemical elements has a permanent place in our imagination. But aside from the handful of common ones (iron, carbon, copper, gold), the elements themselves remain wrapped in mystery. We do not know what most of them look like, how they exist in nature, how they got their names, or of what use they are to us. Welcome to a dazzling tour through history and literature, science and art. In Periodic Tales, you’ll meet iron that rains from the heavens and neon as it lights its way to vice. You’ll learn how lead can tell your future and why zinc may one day line your coffin. You’ll discover what connects the bones in your body with the White House in Washington, the glow of a streetlight with the salt on your dinner table.

From ancient civilizations to contemporary couture, from the oxygen of publicity to the phosphorous in your pee, the elements are near and far and all around us. Unlocking their astonishing secrets and colorful pasts, Periodic Tales is a passionate journey through mines and artists’ studios, to factories and cathedrals, into the woods and to the sea to discover the true stories of these fascinating but mysterious building blocks of the universe.

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Book Review: Unmentionable

UnmentionableUnmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners
by Therese Oneill
Nonfiction / Comedy / History
305 pages
Published 2016

This is a hysterically funny guide to what to expect in the Victorian era, assuming you are a 21st century woman who has been time-traveled there by some unidentified means. The author disabuses us of any romantic, Austen-like notions of what that era was like, instead talking about the real issues, like the lack of tampons or pads (or privacy!) or the infrequency with which you’d be allowed to bathe. She explains why; water was hardly clean at the time, sanitation was not exactly a well understood science back then!

Oneill manages to convey the differences between that time and ours in a unique voice that made me laugh out loud at points, even if it was slightly horrified laughter. Why does one wear uncomfortable boots instead of house slippers when one walks outside? Because you WILL step in crap, darling, and it might not always be animal in origin, either! She covers a wide range of topics, from your dress (don’t expect your outerdress to EVER be laundered!) to diet (don’t be too thin or too fat, and diet pills often have cocaine in them) to manners (don’t be caught alone, or with only a man, or with only an unmarried lady unless you are married yourself, no, best to just stay home, really) to how to relieve yourself (there’s a reason your bloomers are crotchless). Every chapter comes complete with quotes pulled from writers of the time, and period-appropriate illustrations, whether they are ads from newspapers or woodprints, photos, and other sketches.

Oneill does assume you’ve been brought back to a well-off family; she briefly mentions that things would be much worse if you were of a number of lower classes, but even a high-class life is a lot to get used to coming from the 21st century.

If you’ve ever thought you were born in the wrong era, read this book and remember just how good our modern conveniences and cultural attitudes are. (And giggle your ass off doing it!) I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and definitely learned a lot of trivia that I did not know before.

From the cover of Unmentionable:

Finally, a scandalous, illustrated guide to The Secrets of Life as a Victorian Lady, giving you detailed advice on:

  • What to wear
  • Where to relieve yourself
  • How to conceal your loathsome addiction to menstruating
  • What to expect on your wedding night
  • How to be the perfect Victorian wife
  • Why masturbating will kill you
  • And more

 

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

So I usually publish a review on Saturdays, but as it’s St. Patrick’s Day today, I thought I’d do something a little different, and share the Irish books on my shelves! I have Irish and Scottish ancestry, so I’ve always been fascinated by Celtic things. It’s also a popular theme in the Renaissance Faire community, so I see a lot of it. So here are my Irish books, with a couple of more general Celtic books tossed in.

bloody irishBloody Irish – Celtic Vampire Legends by Bob Curran
A short book, only 186 pages, but centered on Irish Vampire stories. This book hails from the days I played Vampire: the Masquerade all the time! I didn’t find anything in here too creepy, but it gave me material to use in my games!

 

celtic myths legendsCeltic Myths and Legends by Eoin Neeson
This one actually belongs to one of my housemates. Unlike the rest of these, it only has seven stories, but they are preceded by a lengthy foreword on the place of myth in Celtic history, and what we know about ancient Celtic history. Each story is much longer than the stories in most of these other books, as well. And having the larger historical context is pretty interesting.

 

irish fairy folk peasantry talesFairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry edited by William Butler Yeats
This one focuses more on the Irish tales, rather than general Celtic ones, and most of them were collected in the 19th century by folklorists, so the language is rather old-fashioned. There are stories here that I haven’t seen anywhere else, though, like Bewitched Butter, and Rent-day, and The Pudding Bewitched.

 

great irish fantasy myth talesGreat Irish Tales of Fantasy and Myth edited by Peter Haining
Similar to Celtic Myths and Legends, this book includes context for its stories, but instead of a lengthy foreword, it contains a few paragraphs before each story about the legend it came from and the authors who recorded it. I like the bit of context and history it gives to each individual story.

celtic fairy talesCeltic Fairy Tales collected by Joseph Jacobs
Another general Celtic book. It overlaps a few stories with the Irish Peasantry book – The Horned Women and King O’Toole and his Goose, among others, but still a fun book of fairy tales. He has a second book (More Celtic Fairy Tales) that I don’t own.

 

 

 

irish tales fairies ghost worldIrish Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtin
Another book belonging to a housemate. A tiny book of only 124 pages, it still manages to cram in 30 stories told within a framework of a man and his houseguest trading stories.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

mausMaus
Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel
295 pages
Published 1996

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember the six million Jews that died in the genocide of World War 2. This is an especially important day given the things that have been taking place in America over the past year. I partially read Hitlerland a few months ago, about Americans living in Germany when the war broke out, and how they reacted to the events happening around them, and was horrified at how closely the early events mirrored what is happening now with Trump. I also read the Diary of Anne Frank in high school, as so many other students did.

What I read this year was the Complete Maus. Maus is a graphic novel about the author’s father’s experience in the concentration camps. In the novel Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, and Germans are cats. (Humans are dogs and French are frogs.) The art is stark, but it fits the subject matter. It’s almost entirely black and white, with the exception of a few cover pages. The time period jumps back and forth a little. Most of it is set during the war, with the father, Vladek, narrating what’s going on. The rest of it is in modern time, sometimes with the author interviewing his father, sometimes just the author dealing with his elderly father’s eccentricities. maus-swastika

While the graphic novel doesn’t shy away from the violence and sheer number of people dying, it’s not graphic about it. There’s no gore. I feel like this would be a good first book for learning about the Holocaust, though depending on age, kids might need help with the vocabulary.

It’s a fairly fast read for an adult. I think the animals were a really well done metaphor – Vladek, a mouse, often has a pig mask on as he masquerades as a Polish non-Jew. I get most of the animal metaphors – Germans as cats while the Jews are mice, French are frogs, and Americans are friendly dogs. I had to ask Google why Poles were pigs – apparently they were represented as pigs in Nazi propaganda. There’s also an element of Poles being non-kosher, and, also, a certain amount of racism. Whether that racism is Art’s or Vladek’s is unclear, but ultimately Art chose to represent them with pigs, so. That problematic factor aside, this was a really good piece of art.

From the cover of Maus:

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Book Review: On Tyranny

tyrannyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
Nonfiction
126 pages
Published 2017

On Tyranny is a short little book. I don’t think it needs to be longer – it’s easy to read, succinct, and is meant to serve as a warning. If anyone wants to learn more about any of the twenty lessons, there are plenty of resources for that. It’s simply “HEY. This happened before. And this happened before. And this happened before and YOU NEED TO SEE THESE SIMILARITIES.” It was a very quick read, but has left me with a lot to think about.

The format is simple: Twenty sections, each beginning with a lesson title and a short summary paragraph, then going into more detail in the next two to three pages. For example:

Do Not Obey In Advance.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

The next few pages talk about Austrian Nazis rounded up Jews and used them as forced labor, before the German government told them to. When Jewish businesses were marked as such, people immediately started avoiding them. Anticipatory obedience. (Relate this to the suddenly overt racism and Nazi marches we’re now facing in the US – where that used to be hidden.)

Another example:

Take Responsibility For The Face Of The World.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

The next pages talk about propaganda, and signs. If we tolerate swastikas, we imply that we accept them. That we support them. And if the oppressed groups that those swastikas are aimed at see everyone around them supporting them, who do they look to for help? All it takes is one person deciding to scrub off or paint over the swastika, for people around them to realize that’s a thing that can be done. This plays into another section, which talked about Standing Out. Do the thing that makes you stand out – whether that’s standing up for a minority, or scrubbing swastikas off walls, or attending a protest. If you don’t stand out, you’re too easily ignored as part of the problem.

This book had lots of holds at my local library – while I was sad to have to wait so long, I was pleased that so many people wanted to read it. I was 35th in line at one point! Just knowing that so many people want to read it is a little reassuring. The author has written several books on the Holocaust, WWII, and the rise of Hitler, so he knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in his writing.

On Tyranny is a quick read and does an amazing job of boiling a lot of complicated concepts down into very succinct little points. I definitely recommend it as a jumping off point. Just don’t let it be all you read.

From the cover of On Tyranny:

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

#junebookbugs – June 28 – Planet in the Title

This might be cheating a little – or at least taking the easy way out – but all the planets I could find in my collection were Earth, and the Moon! (Which isn’t technically a planet!) So here is a comedic book by one of my favorite people on the planet. It’s quite brilliant, but it’s Jon Stewart, so I’m not sure what else anyone would expect!

20170625_162000

You can find the #junebookbugs Index Post here.