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book beginnings on Friday: The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

reef

A passionate history of explorers and climate change (and thus, one expects, necessarily of climate politics as well)? You have me sold, sir. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter 1:

James Cook did not know, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavor was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

I am going to pick these first sentences apart a little here; bear with me. The concept McCalman opens with is a compelling one, and one he’ll return to: Cook was ignorant of what he discovered, and history in hindsight often makes the mistake of giving to discoverers credit for intention that they never had. Also, I think it’s a powerful image, this captain’s ship entering a dangerous and unknown area, and not even realizing it. In other words, I think McCalman chose a good opening subject; but golly, look at that first sentence! All the clauses: “he didn’t know, on the day, in the place, which was such a place, where this happened… that he didn’t know.” I dare McCalman to diagram that sentence; it might lead him to reconsider. And please do note that this is a pre-publication galley copy; he may still change it (or his editor might), so give the published look a glance and see when it comes out in late May. I am recommending the book despite a clause-heavy opener. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart (audio)

drunken botanistI’m sure I don’t have to explain to you my interest in a book called The Drunken Botanist. I didn’t even look any further than the title; I requested it from my local library on that alone.

Amy Stewart opens with an anecdote: she was at a convention for “garden writers” when a colleague confessed he didn’t know what to do with a bottle of gin he’d received as a gift. She scolds him for being unaware that a botanist, of all people, should know all about booze: alcohol comes from plants to begin with, after all! I confess I hadn’t thought of it that way, of course, but I continued to be hooked.

The book is organized by: how we make alcohol (fermentation and distillation); what we make it from (alphabetically, agave through wheat); what we flavor it with (herb & spices, flowers, trees, fruit, nuts & seeds); and flavorings and garnishes (herbs, flowers, trees, berries & vines, fruits & vegetables). Throughout are dispersed cocktail recipes, instructions for syrups, infusions and garnishes, and gardening or growing tips. She stops short of homebrew advice, although the practice is alluded to many times. There are also several “bugs in booze” subsections: noble rot, yeast carriers, and the worm in the mezcal.

Stewart seems to have a fondness for hard alcohol: beer and wine get rather cursory treatment by comparison, at least to my eyes. Possibly that’s my bias showing through, and to be fair, beer or wine individually could fill its own book (or many of them – and they’re already out there). I find that she did a much finer job of sampling the wide world of distilled spirits than she did of sampling the wide world of beer or wine; but maybe if I knew more about the distilled spirits I wouldn’t feel that way. Certainly, as a beer lover first and foremost, I was sadly disappointed in her treatment of that category of booze. However, this didn’t badly hurt my feelings about the book as a whole, because there are plenty of good books on beer. That’s not what this book was all about.

I really enjoyed Stewart’s passion, and her drink recipes and tips are much appreciated. In fact, don’t tell him, but I’ve already ordered a print copy of this book for my main bartender, and he will receive this gift with my requests carefully marked within. I also enjoyed the broad education of all the things we make booze from, and some of the wild trivia I learned. I made several notes and/or paused to tell Husband: “did you know there’s a thing called pechuga mezcal? They hang a piece of raw chicken in the air above the still!” “There’s such a thing as a ‘burpless’ celery!” What fun. By no means comprehensive, of course, The Drunken Botanist is still an enjoyable, useful, entertaining introduction to “the plants that create the world’s great drinks” (and the less-than-great ones, too).

I heartily enjoyed Stewart’s book, with the exception of just a few frustrating moments when I wished she’d gone further into the beer bits. (Forgiven, as I said above. But noted: just a few frustrating moments.) However, I would advise against the audio version. For one thing, listening to recipes is not the right way to do it. With the kind of information being related, I think reading is far preferable to listening. And, I got a little lost within her organization of information, too. I think being able to see headings and subheadings would have helped a lot. Finally, while I liked reader Coleen Marlo’s voice and the personality she gave to the reading, I felt that she talked way too fast – quite possibly for any audiobook, but particularly for this one, again, considering its reference-style informational offerings and recipes.

The gardening tips were a little over my head, but your mileage may vary. I wouldn’t say that I have a black thumb, exactly, but the whole program baffles me. I appreciated the introduction I got from A Garden of Marvels, although that one, too, seemed to consider “basic” or “easy” some concepts that lost me. I definitely dig Stewart’s advice, just don’t know if I’ll be growing my own any time soon.

Verdict? Don’t miss this one if you love booze & plants! But get the print copy!


Rating: 8 garden cocktails.

book beginnings on Friday: The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

remedy

I have an awesome new book to tease you with today. I hope the title alone begins to interest; it did me. The first paragraph sets the stage:

In train after train, consumptives filled the passenger cars, their hacks and coughs competing with steam whistles and screaming brakes as the engines came to a halt in Potsdamer Platz. They came to Berlin without any sense of where to go or what to do once they arrived. And they kept coming, for days, weeks, and months. It must have struck Berliners as a sort of zombie pilgrimage: here were the walking dead of Europe, all suddenly flocking to their city in search of something – some fantastic substance that did not yet officially exist.

Not out til early April, so stay tuned for my review til then. But for now: I am quite impressed with the writing (my favorite: accessible, engaging, nonfiction science), and the fascinating story of the race towards a cure for tuberculosis, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s rather surprising role in it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart


drunken botanist

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I have only just begun this audiobook but have very high hopes that it will follow A Garden of Marvels beautifully. Booze & botany, where can we go wrong? The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks makes perfect sense to me. In her introductory pages, Amy Stewart writes:

If you’re a gardener, I hope this book inspires a cocktail party. If you’re a bartender, I hope you’re persuaded to put up a greenhouse, or at least plant a window box.

I think that puts it very well and succinctly, and I’m on board.

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

A charmingly accessible history of botany, full of the strange and wondrous, for readers intimidated by science.

garden of marvels

Ruth Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) was frustrated by the kinds of mishaps with which many amateur gardeners are familiar: failures to thrive, unexplained deaths, mysterious midseason droopings. So she did what any reasonable science writer would do: research. How do plants really work? In hunting for a simple, layperson’s guide to botany, however, she came up short. Particularly in seeking “the story of the first discoverers of the basic facts of plant life”–that is, a history of botany–she could find only scholarly texts for which “Botany 101 is definitely a prerequisite.” From these frustrations was born the masterful, engaging A Garden of Marvels.

Kassinger’s greatest strength is unquestionably her quirky, conversational tone. She begins with a murder mystery (spoiler: the victim is a kumquat tree) and from these delightful opening lines, even the most science-averse reader will be hooked. While A Garden of Marvels does contain the odd gardening tip, it is more concerned with Kassinger’s travels: she visits farms, conservatories and laboratories around the nation, encountering diverse and eccentric characters she describes with humor and skill.

Her research into human history is likewise revealing: she points out that religious and societal philosophies caused our ignorance of and lack of interest in botany until very recently, and highlights those few pioneering minds whose experiments, observations and strange machineries caught us up. Darwin gets a chapter, and is accompanied by myriad little-known early scientists, all brought to life by Kassinger’s enthusiasm. A handful of relevant illustrations by Eva Ruhl assist along the way.

Kassinger is properly amazed at the science she discovers in nature, as well as the men (“and they were all men”) in history who broke ground with their scientific studies. For some readers, though, she may be a trifle overenthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic modifications of plant life and dismissive of concerns regarding these technologies–although the genetic possibilities in the simple garden petunia are positively mind-boggling.

Topics like plant sex, the history of scientific exploration and the fundamentals of genomics are all equally accessible in Kassinger’s capable hands. That she makes botany so approachable is a feat; that she makes it downright enthralling is almost as miraculous as an adorable photosynthesizing sea slug.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 different fruits on one tree.

guest review: The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt, from Pops

This review bears on some recent discussions: scientific fiction and scientific nonfiction.


Thanks to Kirk Smith at his blog, Fiction About Science, for both passing on a copy of this book to my Pops, and for publishing his review there. I am reposting it here, as originally published by Kirk Smith.

falling sky

The Falling Sky is about a “realistic scientist doing realistic science.” That is the hook that brought me to this special first novel written by a PhD astronomer, now a recognized writer in Edinburgh, Scotland. But it is so much more than that.

One could say this is the insightful story of a young woman finding her way from adolescence into a life of her own; or her personal contemporary tale of sexual awakening and relationships with other women; or a striking and remarkable exploration of how a scientist’s unique perspective can literally saturate the way she perceives and interacts with everything around her; or an emotionally wrenching journey with a family trying to make sense of a pointless and tragic death. It is really all of that.

That may seem to be quite a burden to place on an easy-reading first novel of only 264 pages; but Goldschmidt succeeds gracefully and does not overreach. Her story of Jeanette comfortably weaves modest measures of these elements together – and tempts the reader to fold closed the pages, finger inserted, while looking off into space to savor the author’s words and Jeanette’s thoughts. In that sense, this is not a “quick read.”

There is fuel here for artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists alike. Those familiar with Edinburgh are teased with pleasing glimpses.

But for one so inclined to the feast, it is possible to see the scientific perspective virtually everywhere in this story; in its language, metaphors, analogies, repetition of certain words and its oblique references to black holes, cosmology, time scales, anti-matter, entropy. Some may see excess or stridency in this; for those it should be accepted as essential immersion in Jeanette’s world, as setting and mood, and not as cause for anxiety or fear of missing something. There is more to savor.

Storytelling here is not linear, but not distracting: chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then” as the 3rd person narrative traces Jeanette’s young life as an astronomer while we gradually learn more of her adolescent past. She is smart & ambitious, yet confused. She is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lense often fails her in navigating the human world of relationships. She is an emotional creature like all of us, and it wrenches her life. The reader is drawn in as she searches.

For my money, this is a beautifully composed review, as well as describing what sounds like a quite attractive read. The book is in my hands now, so eventually you can expect me to weigh in. Thanks, Pops.

the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.


That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Ogallala Road by Julene Bair

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

ogallala

I found very thought-provoking Julene Bair’s memoir of returning with mixed feelings to the family farm. My full review will not be out until a little closer to its March publication date, but for now, a few lines that got me thinking:

Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct, telling us that a place can sustain us for generations to come. I’d always known this in my bones, but it wasn’t until many years after I left Kansas and discovered my passion for wilderness that the intuition became conscious. This creek was now ugly. That didn’t bode well for the underlying aquifer’s ability to support life in the future.

Part of me nods firmly at this, and part of me wonders if beauty is really the same thing as lifegiving. Perhaps it’s all in the eye of the beholder? Please weigh in, Pops.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

garden of marvels

You will recall the book beginning I recently posted for this book. I wanted to share another tidbit, equally delectable:

“Used to be some call for ‘em,” he said over the phone in a drawl that sounded like Southern Comfort cut with a generous squeeze of lime.

The man with the voice is, appropriately, a citrus farmer in Florida. How charming is this author??

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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