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: Country Wisdom and Know-How

country wisdomCountry Wisdom and Know-How: A Practical Guide to Living Off the Land
by M. John Storey
Nonfiction / Homesteading
1055 pages
Published 2004

This is a heck of an encyclopedia on homesteading topics. It gathers up a bunch of bulletins previously published by the Storey company, collating them into one very large book. It’s divided into six main categories: Animals, Cooking, Crafts, Gardening, Health and Well-Being, and Home. Each of those categories is divided into 2-5 subcategories, then individual columns under those. For example “Home” is divided into “Inside the House” and “Fences, Orchards, Outbuildings and More.” Under the latter category we have topics ranging from “Making Maple Syrup” and “Cold Storage for Fruits & Vegetables” to “Building Stone Walls” and “Build a Pole Woodshed.”

There’s an entire line of these encyclopedias; this seems to be the most broad of them, as others have slightly narrowed focus, like Garden Wisdom & Know-How or Woodworking Wisdom & Know-How. They are absolutely not books you’d read cover to cover, but are also books I want on my shelf and in my Survival Library. I only have this one from the library currently, but I definitely want to own it, and the entire line.

Country Wisdom & Know-How is well put together, with LOTS of diagrams and instructions. It’s often hard to visualize how something goes together if you’ve never done it before, and the book solves that with the diagrams, very clearly. It’s a gigantic book, but it’s PACKED with information on a huge number of topics – 144 individual topics plus 8 appendices!

From the cover of Country Wisdom & Know-How:

(This is actually the description from Goodreads, as the back cover just has a list of topics)

Reminiscent in both spirit and design of the beloved Whole Earth Catalog, Country Wisdom & Know-How is an unprecedented collection of information on nearly 200 individual topics of country and self-sustained living. Compiled from the information in Storey Publishing’s landmark series of “Country Wisdom Bulletins,” this book is the most thorough and reliable volume of its kind. Organized by general topic including animals, cooking, crafts, gardening, health and well-being, and home, it is further broken down to cover dozens of specifics from “Building Chicken Coops” to “Making Cheese, Butter, and Yogurt” to “Improving Your Soil” to “Restoring Hardwood Floors.” Nearly 1,000 black-and-white illustrations and photographs run throughout and fascinating projects and trusted advice crowd every page.

Book Review: A Boy Named Shel

a boy named shelA Boy Named Shel
by Lisa Rogak
Biography
226 pages
Published 2007

Shel Silverstein’s birthday was yesterday, so I re-read my copy of Where The Sidewalk Ends on Tuesday, and I’ve been sharing my favorite poems over on Twitter. My library managed to send the biography of Shel Silverstein to me VERY quickly, so I raced through it yesterday to review it today!

I actually had no idea how much content Silverstein actually created. He wrote plays, songs, poems, short stories, cartoons, and collaborated on screenplays. He traveled extensively, had houses in multiple places, stayed in the Playboy Mansion A LOT, and generally seems to have kept up an incredibly frenetic pace of living. I really only knew about his children’s books, and now I need to hunt down the books he wrote for adults! I did find Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book which is 80 pages of “Thanks I Hate It.” Just – ridiculous, subversive, hilarious writing. I want to track down Different Dances and Take Ten, two more of his books for adults.

Lisa Rogak’s writing is incredibly easy to read, but one thing did annoy me. When talking about people she’ll switch between using their first names and their last names with no rhyme or reason. Which makes me think she’s talking about two different people, but she’s not. She needs to pick one and stick to it so I know who she’s talking about. Other than that, Rogak is an excellent biographer, and I might look up her back catalog to see who else she has written about!

A Boy Named Shel is an excellent, highly readable story of an absolute icon. Shel Silverstein was a powerhouse of creativity, and it’s actually a little sad that he’s best known for his children’s books, considering just how many other genres he had his hands in. Great book.

From the cover of A Boy Named Shel:

The first-ever biography of the one-of-a-kind author who created The Giving Tree, Where The Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic.

Few authors are as beloved as Shel Silverstein. His inimitable drawings and comic poems have become the bedtime staples of millions of children and their parents, but few readers know much about the man behind that wild-eyed, bearded face peering out from the back of the dust jacket.

In A Boy Named Shel, Lisa Rogak tells the full story of a life as antic and adventurous as any of his creations. A man with an incurable case of wanderlust, Shel kept homes on both coasts and many places in between – and enjoyed regular stays in the Playboy Mansion. Everywhere he went he charmed neighbors, made countless friends, and romanced almost as many women with his unstoppable energy and never-ending wit. 

His boundless creativity brought him fame and fortune – neither of which changed his down-to-earth way of life – and his children’s books sold millions of copies. But he was much more than “just” a children’s writer. He collaborated with anyone who crossed his path, and found success in a wider range of genres than most artists could ever hope to master. He penned hit songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Unicorn.” He drew cartoons for Stars and Stripes and got his big break with Playboy. He wrote experimental plays and collaborated on scripts with David Mamet. With a seemingly unending stream of fresh ideas, he worked compulsively and enthusiastically on a wide array of projects up until his death, in 1999.

Drawing on wide-ranging interviews and in-depth research, Rogak gives fans a warm, enlightening portrait of an artist whose imaginative spirit created the poems, songs, and drawings that have touched the lives of so many children – and adults.

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

 

Book Review: The Home Edit

the home editThe Home Edit: A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals
by Clea Shearer & Joanna Teplin
Nonfiction / Homemaking
255 pages
Published March 2019

If you’ve been following the blog,  you know we recently bought a house. We haven’t finished unpacking yet; mostly the upstairs is what’s left, the spaces we don’t use multiple times a day. I’ve spoken about wanting to “Pinterest the hell out of this house” and absolutely wanting to reduce clutter. When we moved yearly in the military, we were pretty good at not having excess clutter. After living in the last house for four years, we’d definitely acquired a good bit. So the move actually helped a lot; we got rid of a lot of unnecessary items. But we won’t be moving again for a good long time, and I want to prevent that build up. So. Everything should have a place. I was hoping this book could help with some of my more problematic spaces. (I have a laundry closet with no room for ANY storage – the detergent and bleach live next door in the bathroom!) While the book did actually give me a possible solution for that SPECIFIC problem, I don’t feel that there was much in this book I couldn’t have gotten from Pinterest or watching more episodes of Marie Kondo on Netflix. (I love that show!)

The first chapter is spent on their philosophy; like Marie, they recommend you pull everything out of a space and look at it and keep only what you really like/need/use. Getting rid of excess stuff is always the first step. They stress getting containers to fit the space; they talk a lot about The Container Store. At the moment, that advice is a little useless, as I don’t have the surplus funds to just go buy a ton of containers!

After that chapter, the book is split up by rooms/spaces, with several photographs and explanations of different examples. So they start with the entryway, and have a few different entryways with tips for each. An entry that is really a mudroom, with benches and individual hooks/cubbies, then an entry that is just a table by the front door for mail and keys, then a coat closet. Same with laundry; a small laundry room, a laundry closet with a little bit of shelving, a large laundry room, and tips for each. I was disappointed they didn’t have my laundry setup; a closet with room for the stacked machines and NOTHING else. I feel like that’s common enough they should have included it! The solution I did find, somewhere in the book, was an over the door shelving unit. I -think- I can push the machines far enough back in the closet space that I’ll have the clearance for shallow shelves/cubbies on the back of the door for things like detergent, spot cleaner, bleach, tub cleaner, dryer balls, etc. I’ll have to stop buying my detergent at Costco, or decant it into a smaller bottle, but now that it’s just my husband and I, and no roommates, I don’t think I need the giant container of detergent anyway!

They don’t cover all the spaces in a house; it’s Entry, Laundry, Bathroom, Home Office, Play Spaces, Closets, Kitchens, and Pantries. No bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, or guest rooms. Just the problem areas, really, which makes sense.

It’s an alright book. It’s very pretty, and has some fantastically organized spaces, but I can find the same things on Pinterest, with the same how-tos and tips from Marie Kondo. So I’d give it a pass, really.

From the cover of The Home Edit:

Believe this: EVERY SINGLE SPACE IN YOUR HOUSE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO FUNCTION EFFICIENTLY AND LOOK GREAT.

The mishmash of summer and winter clothes in the closet? Yep. Even the dreaded junk drawer? Consider it done. And the best news: it’s not hard to do – in fact, it’s a lot of fun.

From Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin, the Instagram-famous home organizers who made their orderly eye candy the method that everyone swears by, comes a signature approach to decluttering. The Home Edit walks you through paring down your belongings in every room, arranging them in a stunning and easy-to-find way (hello, labels!), and maintaining the system so you don’t need another do-over in six months. When you’re done, you’ll not only know exactly where to find things, but you’ll also love the way it looks. 

A master class and lookbook in one, The Home Edit is filled with  bright photographs and detailed tips, from placing plastic dishware in a drawer where little hands can reach to categorizing pantry items by color (there’s nothing like a little ROYGBIV to soothe the soul). Above all, it’s like having your best friends at your side to help you turn the chaos into calm.

Book Review: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

risingRising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
by Elizabeth Rush
Nonfiction/Climate Change
300 pages
Published 2018

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

This is actually the second book on climate change I read. The first one, The Water Will Come, by Jeff Goodell, was quite good until halfway through the book when it abruptly was not. Because halfway through the book, we get this tiny little scene from the signing of the Paris Climate Accords:

Standing among them, I watched French president Francois Hollande stand at the podium in the front of the hall and slam the gavel down, marking formal acceptance of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Everyone cheered. Some cried. To my surprise, I hugged the person next to me, a young Asian woman I had never met or talked to. I felt her pull away, perhaps shocked that a stranger would grab her so suddenly, but then she hugged me back. I never learned her name or even what country she represented, but our shared expression of the power of the moment was genuine. (p. 165)

I stared at this paragraph in shock. He really just – just sexually assaulted a woman he’d never met, and just moved on to other things. He didn’t realize what he’d done, to the point that he put it in his book with absolutely no idea what effect that paragraph would have on any survivors reading his book. I skimmed through the rest of the chapter, and he never mentions this scene or woman again. He felt her pull away, he says, but assumes her hug back means she’s excited too, not that she’s decided hugging back is the best way to avoid further violence.

I set aside the book. I couldn’t read any further. Up until that point it had been quite good – lots of facts and investigation, interviews and adventures with climate scientists and geologists and other neat stuff. But I could not continue, and instead picked up Rising.

Halfway through the first book on climate change, I find a depiction of sexual assault perpetrated by the male author. Halfway through the second book on climate change, I find an entire chapter devoted to the sexual assault of the female author.

“Hold on,” he says, turning my body away from him. Then he reads aloud the E. E. Cummings quote I have tattooed on my back, the final line of which reads, “will never wholly kiss you.”

Suddenly I feel his damp lips pressing into my skin, into the letters inked there. My stomach slams into the roof of my mouth, locking my words in instead of out. And my body takes over. It wants to punch him but knows it shouldn’t. Instead it walks straight out into the ocean, into a flotilla of spawning jellyfish at the northernmost edge of the Gulf. It starts to swim.

What are the chances? Yes, it’s only an unwanted kiss. It could have been worse. (How often have we heard, or said, THAT statement?) The first part of this chapter, titled “Risk” had been devoted to the calculated risk taken by people living in flood plains, and her initial fear upon going to interview a man by herself who might have been a threat. It’s revealed, after this scene, that she wasn’t actually alone; the man in this scene, her colleague, was with her, as a kind of safety net. It turned out she’d misjudged who was a risk and who was not. The rest of the chapter weaves these ideas together, and extends to one of the author’s students, who was also sexually harassed in the field.

I was struck by the difference in the two books; the male author casually mentioning forcefully hugging a woman he didn’t know, and not appearing to realize he’d even done anything wrong, and spending a single paragraph on it, vs. the female author freezing up when the victim of a similar action, and spending an entire chapter on the topic. She turns down an advancement in her career because of this interlude; it was offered by the colleague who kissed her. She’d intended to take it until then. She eventually tells him why, and his reaction is telling.

Eventually I tell Samuel that I cannot continue our professional relationship and I tell him why. First he says, “Oh my god.” Then he says, “I had no idea.” Followed by, “I don’t remember.” And then, “I had no further intentions.” He says, “I love my family.” And, “Let me know when you get over it.” The words spill out of him fast like floodwater.

He can’t stop talking, so I invent a student knocking on my door and hang up. I don’t present at the National Academy of Sciences. I don’t take the senior fellowship. I don’t coauthor an article with him. When I put down my cell phone, I realize I have been shaking.

In the era of #metoo, how can men not understand the effect these things have?

*deep breath*

All of that unexpectedness aside, Rising is an insightful, evocative book. Elizabeth Rush spends time not only with climate scientists and biologists, but with the people that actually LIVE in the places most affected by sea level rise. It’s an intimate look at the real, human cost of sea level rise and climate change. Spaced throughout the book are letters from people she interviewed, writing to her weeks to months after she met them, telling her of changes in the areas she visited. When she first visited the Isle de Jean Charles, for example, the Native Americans there weren’t interested in leaving the island. Then she includes a letter from one of them, saying they were leaving together, selling their land to the state and being provided a new community, together, farther inland. She then goes back to visit.

While Goodell is taking helicopter rides over glaciers, Rush is slogging through rotting tidal marshes with teams of scientists and grad students, and that is really indicative of the difference between the two books. Rush is on the ground, getting her hands dirty, while Goodell interviews and gathers information about the big picture. And that would make the two books an excellent pair, were it not for the casual sexual assault in the middle of his book. That isn’t to say that Rush doesn’t talk about the big picture; she does, it’s just not her focus.

If you’re interested in climate change, you’ll probably enjoy Rising. The Water Will Come was also very enjoyable, at least the half that I read, but I don’t believe in giving a man like that more of my time. So you can make your own decision there.

From the cover of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore:

Harvey. Maria. Irma. Sandy. Katrina. We live in a time of unprecedented hurricanes and catastrophic weather events, a time when it is increasingly clear that climate change is neither imagined nor distant – and that rising seas are transforming the coastline of the United States in irrevocable ways.

In this highly original work of lyrical reportage, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through some of the places where this change has been most dramatic, from the Gulf Coast to Miami, and from New York City to the Bay Area. For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place. Weaving firsthand accounts from those facing this choice – a Staten Islander who lost her father during Sandy, the remaining holdouts of a Native American community on a drowning Isle de Jean Charles, a neighborhood in Pensacola settled by escaped slaves hundreds of years ago – with profiles of wildlife biologists, activists, and other members of the communities both currently at risk and already displaced, Rising privileges the voices of those usually kept at the margins. 

At once polyphonic and precise, Rising is a shimmering meditation on vulnerability and on vulnerable communities, both human and more than human, and on how to let go of the places we love.