The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey

Dry Storeroom No. 1

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of museums, biology, collections
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2


Fortey had me hooked with the idea of the behind-the-scenes maze at the British Museum. There’s something about that that appeals to me; not only knowing the stories, but the physicality of the space. In my first few years working at the hospital, I used to delight in knowing the back stairwells and unused corridors one could take to get from one decade of the building to another. How could a building like this not be filled with hidden mysteries?

Tucked away, mostly out of view, there is a warren of corridors, obsolete galleries, offices, libraries and above all, collections. This is the natural habitat of the curator.

It is a historical tour of the museum, staff and taxonomy by a knowledgeable, urbane, humorous guide. Fortey was hired as a Junior Researcher (specializing in trilobites, as one does) in 1970 and has been there ever since–even past his retirement in 2006. He is clearly a wit, apparent most often in the early chapters. In one anecdote, he shares his reaction to timekeeping requirements:

The diary was a hangover from the early days of the Museum, being a little book into which the employee was supposed to write his activities, morning and afternoon, and which was collected every month and signed off by the head of the department… I took to writing “study trilobites” on the first day of the month and ditto marks for the rest of it.

I devoured the first part of this book. I meant to read just a chapter before bed, a way of lulling my brain into imaginative sleepiness without catching me up into murders and anti-heroes, but Fortey’s enthusiasm engaged me. He clearly loves taxonomy and biology, and has a deep respect for the research process. Although he is generally apolitical, he does occasionally allow himself commentary on problematic aspects of the history of museums, the history of science and politics influencing research. He shares minor scandals about researchers, stories of discoveries, and anecdotes about the space inside the museum. In many ways, much of it is about the history of science and of taxonomy as much as a museum.

“Science is often like this: an idea has been around for a while before new evidence suddenly pushes it forwards. And then researchers start to think: maybe this example is not so surprising after all.”

I confess, like a number of enthusiasts who’ve illegally  sampled collections, I felt a little bit of atavistic greed when he talked about the Herbarium. I probably shouldn’t be allowed in there.

I stumbled at the section on bugs. I just could not read it before bed, no matter how engaging the story, particularly when he mentions their connection to forensics. Sill, I regained my footing as he continued with typical humor.  The mineralogy section is perhaps the least engaging for both of us, though he does his best to liven it up with stories about gems and meteorites. There’s a nod to modern equipment and the machines in this section, which was the only place I skimmed–about 3 pages in total–because of the specificity and complexity of material. For the rest of it, Fortey deftly explains in a way that anyone can understand.

There’s something supremely eerie about the idea we can catalog life by reducing it to it’s essential, whether through description of DNA or through the “type” specimens, the first and ideal type of a thing described. I remember the first time I opened a drawer at my college’s biology department and saw specimen upon specimen of dead bird.

To be fair, I think Fortey understands life can’t be conceptualized down to its representation:

“Modern methods of characterizing species employ molecular sequencing to identify a characteristic part of the DNA… But this process leaves out everything else. Every species has its own tale, a story about how it earns its living , meets its mate or warns off its enemies: the interesting stuff. You don’t understand London just by reading the names in the telephone directory.

The summary looks back at some of the influencers, for better or for worse, and includes a mention of significant female researchers while noting the sexism of the system. He finalizes with a bit of a lament about the requirements of funding and its effect on ‘pure’ research. However, there’s a note of hope–the very fact that so much information is available by way of the internet and through collaborations, we might once again see the rise of the amateur enthusiast contributing to the knowledge base. Overall, a fascinating and entertaining look through the corridors and boxes in one man’s memories in the British Natural History Museum, as well as the future of taxonomy.

“I could not suppress the thought that the storeroom was like the inside of my head, presenting a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber room of memory… This book opens a few cupboards, sifts through a few drawers. A life accumulates a collection: of people, work and perplexities. We are all our own curators.”

Trilobite from The Fossil Museum


Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Zombie, Ohio by Scott Kenemore

Zombie, Ohio

 May 2015
Recommended for fans of untraditional zombie books
 ★    ★    1/2       

An interesting take on the traditional zombie. No, really. It is sort of the zombie equivalent of “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Fuck About You,” a treatise on getting off your butt and living your best type-A life. Because even zombies can achieve greatness, right?

Professor Peter Mellor comes to consciousness after an apparent car crash. Strangely, he can barely remember anything, not even his name, but he slowly starts putting pieces together as he takes in his surroundings. Checking for a wallet gives him a name and address. The face he sees in the side-view mirror resembles the license, only older and heavier. A gun in the car door gives a sense of identity, someone who doesn’t normally use a gun but now needs to carry one. A wool cap feels familiar. The middle-age crisis convertible doesn’t look familiar, but it is possibly that it is his. He begins trudging  towards town and the address on his driver’s license. He discovers that his empty home is full of books–my first real moment of sympathy–and scotch. Catching CNN alerts him to a worldwide crisis in “moving cadavers” and the breakdown of the normal world. His best friend stops by and gives a helpful biography, and a summary of how the world changed three weeks ago.

Zombie, Ohio has an interesting twist on the traditional zombie. The Goodreads blurb contains a number of spoilers, including the twist, so if it matters to you, don’t read it. I, of course, did read it, and despite that, appreciated the surprises that took the story in unexpected directions. Though a little bit clunky with information in the beginning, plotting eventually moves well. Likewise, issues I had with language settled down and becomes quite readable. The ending makes me think Kenemore was going for something a little bit more philosophical. You know, I think he got there, even if I didn’t like it.

The bad:
Zombie, Ohio has an interesting twist on the traditional zombie. That perspective isn’t going to be altogether satisfying for those of us who like the zombie apocalypse straight. The writing in the first chapter has awkward moments, including semi-randomly italicized words that only serve to distract. More importantly, the first couple chapters could have benefited from heavier editing for world-building structure. There were also some odd word choices: “humorless administrative-looking buildings.” A pontificating bit near the end by a bad guy is eye-rollingly bad.

I’ll put more spoilery specifics (but not that specific) below, hoping to help if you are on the fence, or prefer more details.

Overall, for me it was about 2.5, in that I thought it was decently done. I’m not sure I precisely liked it, but it wasn’t stupid or infuriating, and it provided distraction on a day when I couldn’t take anything more substantial.
Continue reading

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You by Johnny B. Truant

The Universe Doesn't Give

May, 2015
Recommended for people with the game set to “easy”
 ★    1/2


April 13, 8 pm
Interesting title. It seems to be free, and I’m open to a new perspective. I’ll try it.

April 13 9 pm
Okay, I get it. He’s reading a bedtime story to his kid and realizes the great big universe doesn’t care what each of us as individuals do. We should see that as freeing, except the way he says it is kind of harsh.

April 13, 9:15 pm
Clarification: caustic, not harsh.

April 13, 9:30 pm
This has got to be a dude playing the game on the ‘easy’ setting. I’m a woman. It’s not like I need the reminder. Seriously, how many people need the reminder that the world–loosely couched as ‘the universe’–doesn’t give a fuck about them?  There’s evidence all around us, every day, of the multitude of ways that our lives don’t matter, from the neighbor down the street to the local government, to the corporations, to the U.N., to the universe. Isn’t that what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is about? Reminding people that they do matter, because they are used to not having anyone give a flying fuck about them?  The person who needs to read about the universe not caring is probably the least likely person to do it, because they aren’t going to be looking at a self-help blog.

April 13, 9:45 pm
That isn’t very charitable of me. I should find out more about the author. Maybe he struggles with anxiety or depression, and this is his way of trying to motivate himself into action.

April 15, 2:00 pm
Hm, shared blog seems to just have podcasts, but hasn’t been updated since January 2014. There’s a link to his new site.

April 15, 2:15
Okay, this seems interesting. I like the idea that our stories define us.

April 15, 2:45
Okay, I found the link to his personal, current site. I was right. Lowest setting. Had it all, real estate, investments, blah-blah, lost it, realized he could still have it all if he re-defined ‘all.’ Now not home-schooling his kid. Seems to be confirming all (misguided) assumptions that home-schooling means screwing around (as a parent).

April 15, 3 pm
Wow, he’s arrogant: He now “runs a community called ‘How to Be Legendary.'” Part of being legendary means cutting back on time wasters, like answering blog questions and not sleeping. It appears he he gets his health information from a Cracker Jack Box (eat once a day and sleep less than 6 hours). Link from his About:  How to do so many diverse and awesome things that people will want to punch you in the face.”   Well, yes. I already do and I only read part of your story.


Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged | 5 Comments

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. Thud!

Night Watch

May, 2015
Recommended for those familiar with the Guards Discworld series
 ★    ★    1/2

Thud! Thud!

In one timeline, that’s the name of another Pratchett Discworld novel (the 34th, apparently).Thud

In another, that’s the sound of me marching to my own drum.

In yet another, that’s the sound the vegetables thrown by my book-loving friends make when they hit my hard head.

Because, honestly, this was in between the “okay” and ‘liked it” kind of read for me. Given my GR friend average rating of 4.52, I’m missing something. Most likely, it is books one through five in the Night Watch sub-series of Discworld. I did read at least two Vines books, Men at Arms, and possibly Feet of Clay. Or maybe it was that other timeline, because it was a really, really long time ago, and Vines was almost all I remembered (remember, I told you: “I often have only foggy details stored.”)

Night Watch: A Discworld novel in which guardsman Sam Vines learns that Time Travel is Confusing. Currently a Baron, with time occupied more by meetings than by feeling the city stones beneath his feet, Sam Vines is thrown back into history as he attempts to catch a serial killer. In an unusual twist, Vines will have to play mentor to young Sam. Certainly interesting, at times philosophical, it definitely has a feel-good aspect that helps it go down easily. The trouble is, much of the story has to do with the history of the city of Ankh-Morpork and the various politicking of the rulers and those propping them up, and the Night Watch’s own role in keeping the peace. Certainly a worthwhile topic, particularly at this time in American history (I can’t speak to other countries), but the message is incompletely rendered to those unfamiliar with Discworld’s intricacies.

The upshot?

Don’t listen to me, unless you haven’t read any of the Discworld books.


Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged | 3 Comments

Community/Public Health Nursing by Nies and McEwen. Or, SJW for nurses.

Community Public Health Nursing

January through May, 2015
Recommended for nursing students of all stripes
 ★    ★    ★    ★     ★   

Who knew? Community health nurses hail from a social justice warrior tradition. It seems timely to recall that, in a time when gaps between America’s rich and the poor have grown, even during our ostensible “recovery” (Wall Street Journal: Gap Between). It also seems a fitting time to reclaim the term in the book world, as some authors have been out to make it a term of derision. Community health nursing in America hails from 1893 when a couple of nurses, Lillian Wald and Mary Brewster created a district nursing service on the Lower East Side of New York City, a homeless and immigrant community (House on Henry Street). So nurses have a long tradition of advocating for the under-served in society. It’s news to me, because despite being at a unionized hospital, most nurses I know seem pretty content with the general economic order. It’s tough work to get them to unionize for their own rights, let alone campaign to improve the lives of others. And we frequently seem to fall prey to the common thinking error of “they brought this on themselves,” perhaps to enable us to stay in our comfort zones. 

At any rate, Community/Public Health Nursing does a fabulous job of taking the reader through what community health nursing is, theoretical models of improving health of the community and epidemiology, the study of health and disease in the human population.  One of the key concepts is that preventing problems (“thinking upstream”) is easier than fixing them. It goes on to suggest ways of assessing a community, planning projects and providing education. A sizeable chunk is devoted to influencing factors in health, including legislation, the health care system and economics. Another section is devoted to aggregate issues: special topics in children’s and senior health, men’s and women’s health. Vulnerable populations include people affected by disabilities, homeless, rural and migrant health and the mentally ill. Another section looks at general population issues, including violence, substance abuse, infectious disease, and disasters. The final chapters examine various roles the nurse can have in community health, whether forensic and correctional nursing, school, parish and occupational nursing.

Holy review of the public health system, Batman, but did it ever cover a lot of material. Strengths include a very current approach, relating it to national health goals called “Healthy People 2020.” Case studies at the end of the chapter show the ways the material can be taken from the individual scenario out to the community population. Weaknesses were few. I’d say the general population issues section was the lightest on material, particularly disasters and violence, and is my main reason for a final 1/2 star.

As I enter my final phase of classes, it’s interesting to reflect on what I’m learning versus what I’m seeing. The hospital/clinic medical system is very individual and problem-driven. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of community health. But what concerns me is that despite the efforts of Obamacare–which was attempting to hold the medical system accountable–our current Congress is doing its level best to dismantle the safety net we have in place. America is absolutely dismal when it comes to health care. We spend more per capita, roughly $9,000 than anyone but Switzerland and Norway (Health Expenditures, World Bank), and yet most people would agree many of our health statistics remain alarming. We’re 23rd in infant mortality among industrialized nations for instance, tied with Serbia and Bosnia for 6 deaths per 1000 infants born (Mortality Rate, World Bank). Something in how Americans are approaching and managing health care is clearly not working, but instead of complaining about the tiny amounts we pay for school health services and serving and managing vulnerable populations, we need to get serious.

And don’t get me started on managing violence and guns. There’s a reason the U.S. has almost FOUR times the rate of Great Britain when it comes to “intentional injuries” related to violence (WHO Database; “all persons”).

So, great book. Very informative, very validating. Now time to get our health agendas in gear, nurses!

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

The Sword Edged Blonde

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy and noir
 ★    ★    ★    

Well, that was a surprise.

by Justin Sweet

(Cover) + (title) = Pass.  Except that too many book-world friends read and enjoyed it, so I thought it was worth a try. Still, I cringed: this is a cover made for the e-reader. You know, the picture you don’t want any of your friends to see, because then they’d ask the obvious, and you’d have to explain how the blonde woman with the large bosom and missing legs was witnessing three mysterious men with swords hover around her (obvious much?) were clearly debating which one of them was going to cut off their own legs so that the mad doctor could suture them to her knees instead.

That’s my interpretation, at least.

The cover might have put me in a bad place, because I think around chapter two, I wondered if I was even in the mood to finish. It turns out, the first three chapters are somewhat of a blind, a prelude to the character of Eddie and his cases. Thankfully, the real story takes off after Eddie completes the current commission.

A mix of noir and fantasy, I feel like Bledscoe is still finding his stride, a sort of Terry Pratchett style of noir. Initially, plot, characters, dialogue–all written straight noir trope, plopped down into a generic but well-described fantasy setting. Characters named “Eddie,” “Kenny,” “Rachel,” and “Mike Anders,” talking about military school, an architect girlfriend–it’s more than a bit disconcerting after coming from writers who craft fantasy worlds like travel guides. At least, I assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek style–until we start digging into Eddie’s emotional history. As Eddie tracks down the solution to a grisly murder, he winds through his own troubled past.

As an aside: must Bledscoe have named towns Neceda (real name: Necedah), Muscodia (real name: Muscoda) and Boscobel (real name: Boscobel)? These are real places in Wisconsin, and are infinitely distracting to the one twentieth of the U.S. population that lives there. The first two likely reflect corrupted Native American place names, so they don’t particularly set well with the Eddies and Mikes of the naming world. But hey–I guess I can admire the commitment to copying from the modern world.

What saved it for me was the emotional core of the story, the gooey center of self discovery and a sort of wistful romance.  There’s also an element of mythology which I rather enjoyed but is incompletely explained for those who like a lot of detail. Taking pains to not spoil, I’ll note that the mythology component explained a lot of me that made potentially problematic females characterization and action more acceptable. The villain was ominous and a decent foil.

When I picked this one up from the library, I thought I was reading a fantasy. It turned into a noir mystery, and then evolved into a hero’s quest for redemption and discovery. And not a legless woman in the bunch. Just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Mystery | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie.

After the Funeral

March 2015
Recommended for fans of Poirot, Christie
four stars, three-and-a-half stars, who can tell the third time around?

Goodness, but I’m a reading disaster when it comes to Christie books. At one point in After the Funeral, I felt I knew who the murderer was, and when I flipped to check if I was right (oh, the horror!)–yes, I did that—I was. But I got no pleasure out of my powers of deduction, as I’m almost positive I’ve read this at least once before. Possibly twice. So that’s a sad statement of my mental affairs that I’m almost pleased by solving the murderer of a book I’ve read twice before. Sigh–if it doesn’t pertain to biology, it likely doesn’t stick in my brain. So I find I’m unable to advise if it was a ‘fair’ or ‘solvable’ mystery, for those who look for that sort of thing. I rather think it wasn’t. But at any rate, murderer identified, I was able to settle down and concentrate on Christie’s fine storytelling. That Dame sure can tell a tale, because it remained no less suspenseful.

I’m working on a theory that Christie was a master mystery writer. Oh, I know; the British Empire already figured that out in 1971. But really, the woman could write. I am so amazed, sometimes, how she created so much character in a handful of words. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s something that bears examining. Why is it that Rothfuss and Sanderson get heaps of accolades when they describe every single jewel someone is wearing, taking 700 pages to tell their story about a journey of a thousand steps? I think–and now that I spell this out, I think there’s something really quite valid to my instinct here–that I prefer the character of a story, the sense of it. I don’t need the high-def, cinematic version–I want the emotion of it, the presence of it. Max Gladstone recently wrote a fascinating post about action scenes (Fighting Words,”), and at the very bottom, in the comments section, Kameron Hurley comments: “Yup, this is how I think about it: it’s not my job to give the literal then this, then that, then this, but to infer enough of the scene through the emotion I convey for the reader to *fill in the gaps.*


Willem Claesz Heda; Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie

If I may move from the discussion of writing action to the concept of writing, period, Christie doesn’t (exhaustively) describe how each person walks, the sound of their voice, their dress, their mannerisms; she picks out the part that identifies them most, includes that description in an action, and lets the reader draw the conclusion. For me, to mix my metaphors again, it’s the difference between 17th century Dutch paintings and cubism, particularly Braque, one of my favorite painters (although not this one):

Georges Braque; Plate and Fruit Dish

I think that’s why Christie works for me. There’s a combination of specificity and ambiguity that gives an impression, with out the need to delineate every shadow. She allows my own interpretation, and yet every single time, I end up exactly where she wants me.  More or less.

In After the Funeral, everyone gathers at the estate for the funeral of Richard Abernethie, and imagine the surprise among the clan when dotty, arty Aunt Cora says, “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” Elderly solicitor Entwistle remains bothered, her remark nagging at him, and imagine his surprise when he receives a phone call the next day from the police. I won’t spoil any more, but Christie does trot in her favorites: the ancient family butler, the motherly wife, the gambler, the hypochondriac, the actress, the scatty matron, the stockbroker of questionable values. And, of course, the Monsieur himself:

‘Hercule Poirot–at your service.’
Poirot bowed.
There were no gasps of astonishment or of apprehension.

And such a snicker we all had at Poirot’s expense, did we not? And with virtually no set-up, we laughed. Now try this brief character appearance on for size:

”     Mr. Entwistle passed a very restless night. He felt so tired and so unwell in the morning that he did not get up.
      His sister who kept house for him brought up his breakfast on a tray and explained to him severely how wrong he had been to go gadding off to the North of England at his age and in his frail state of health.
      Mr. Entwistle contented himself with saying that Richard Abernethie had been a very old friend.
‘Funerals!’ said his sister with deep disapproval. ‘Funerals are absolutely fatal for a man your age!

In four very brief paragraphs, we have the entire sense of Mr. Entwistle’s sister, do we not? And their decades of interaction? And had another little snicker at his sister’s comment? Even more surprising: there were three more paragraphs to follow, all on a chapter heading page. Eat your heart out, Way of Kings!

This book? I recommend it, for fans of both Christie and Poirot. It feels a little routine for her at this point, but it is a well-polished routine, with a nice twist. Even more, I recommend Dame Christie. Period.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke. Probably “get out.”

What Einstein Told his Cook

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of David Sedaris’ writing who don’t know much about cooking
 ★    ★    1/2

Q: What book do you remember from your childhood as irritating?

When I was somewhere around seven years old, I was given Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and AnswersCharlie_Brown's_Super_Book_of_Questions_and_AnswersAlthough I’ve never been a question-and-answer type of reader (the questions asked never seemed to be the ones I wanted to know more about), I eventually came to enjoy the book for its information bites and colorful pictures of favorite comic friends. What Einstein Told His Cook follows the question and answer format, and once again, many of the questions aren’t ones I ask, in or out of the kitchen.

Q: What kinds of questions does the author answer?

Frequently, very basic ones (“What does the ‘prime’ really mean in ‘prime rib’?). Or very obscure ones (“Why does caviar have to be served with a special, fancy spoon?”). Sometimes even stupid ones (“I like my steaks and roast beef rare. But often there’ll be someone at the table who makes a nasty crack about my eating ‘bloody’ meat. What can I say in my defense?“). Buried in the last few chapters of the book are actually, rather interesting ones that no one else has ever explained to me (“why does my tea made from water boiled in the microwave leave more sediment?”)

Q: You mean the whole book is like ‘Dear Abby’ for people unfamiliar with cooking?

Yes. It really is all questions, with generally page-long answers. He throws in recipes that vaguely relate to the the questions for added interest. Chapters are divided into ‘Sweet Talk,’ ‘The Salt of the Earth,’ ‘The Fat of the Land,’ ‘Chemicals in the Kitchen,’ ‘Turf and Surf,’ ‘Fire and Ice,’ ‘Liquid Refreshment,’ ‘Those Mysterious Microwaves,’ and ‘Tools and Technology.’ You can tell by the titles that Wolke places more emphasis on attempting to be funny with his language over providing clear information. Unfortunately, the same thing happens with his answers.

Q: So why the ‘it was okay’ rating?

One problem I had is that Wolke pretends he is simplifying information by putting his ‘techspeak’ in parenthesis. However, he usually doesn’t elaborate or contextualize it, so it is actually more confusing. As a lifelong baker and someone with two years of college chemistry (including a year of organic, thank you very much), I don’t think I should have to furrow my brow at his ‘techspeak.’  An example of the lack of clarity: “The most common use for cream of tartar in the kitchen is for stabilizing beaten egg whites. It accomplishes this trick because it is somewhat acidic, even though it is a salt. (Techspeak: It lowers the pH of the mixture.)

You’ll note that in his original explanation, he didn’t state why an acid would stabilize the egg whites. All his ‘techspeak’ did was explain what an ‘acid’ was (after first confusing the reader about what a ‘salt’ is). And, as a petty aside, I’ll note it isn’t really ‘techspeak.’ It’s science-speak. Save the ‘techspeak’ for the section on microwaves.

Q: C’mon, it wasn’t that bad, was it?

At times it was funny. For instance, in answering the question “After I roast a chicken, there are all these ooky drippings in the pan. Can I use them for anything?” he begins his answer with: “No. If you have to ask, you don’t deserve them. Pour off the fat, scrape the rest of the ‘ook’ into a jar, and ship it to me by overnight express.

I’ll note he does do a good job with the physics part of cooking questions, particularly microwaves.

I did learn some things:

  1. The connection between sulfites and oxidation (sulfites are used in preserving foods–particularly ‘raw’ type foods like dried apples, bear, wine, baked goods, processed seafood, vinegar and so forth) and a reminder they can trigger asthma symptoms as well as headaches and allergic reactions. Thus sulfites require a FDA label.
  2. Pasteurization and ultra pasteurization (pasteurization is old-school heat and hold at 150 degrees, but fails to kill off Lactobacillus and Streptococcus, so you still need to refrigerate the milk. Ultra does a process of flash heating and then rapid chilling, and if aseptically packaged, could last up to a year—take note, doomsday preppers).
  3. Why some recipes will call for both baking soda and baking powder (baking soda is a single chemical that reacts with liquid acids to neutralize them, in the process releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide gas–I should have remembered this, given Suzanne’ and my experiences in basic chemistry–while baking powder is baking soda plus a salt that acts as a dry acid. Thus it uses a two step process to react and produce carbon dioxide)
  4. Why some recipes call for unsalted butter (different brands use different amounts of salt in their ‘salted butter;’ when chefs are making a recipe with a lot of butter, for taste reasons, it pays to be precise).
  5. And, for about five minutes, I understood all the differences between copper, iron, stainless steel, aluminum pans and all the variations thereof. Can’t remember it, except that copper is where its at for cooks, due to heating properties.

Q: Do you recommend it?

I’m upgrading my recommendation to a ‘sort of.’ He really is best when he sticks to the physics in the kitchen and avoids the politics of food. You definitely have to like the format, know a bit about cooking and want something you can pick up and put down without losing any momentum. Like Charlie Brown’s Super Book of Questions and Answers, this isn’t a format that engages me. Q&A lacks the details and context that elevates information from trivia to learning. And, much like Charlie Brown, Wolke prefers to avoid the politics of food, or even, on the occasions they intrude into questions, dismiss them. For instance, a question on why refined sugar is ‘bad, ‘ he gives an explanation of how sugar is refined, and then says, “when the molasses components are removed, will someone please explain to me how the remaining pure sucrose suddenly becomes evil and unhealthful?” Its the kind of answer that dismisses the question as it pretends to answer. Any dietitian can give you a dissertation on why refined sugar is bad (as opposed to fruit and dairy ‘sugars’). I really am all about context, which is why these Q&A formats don’t work for me. But if you enjoy it, he has a sequel out and waiting for you.

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, celebrity-gazing
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 “One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now. The era of light pollution had come to an end. The increasing brilliance meant the grid was falling, darkness pooling over the earth. I was here for the end of electricity.

Full of beautiful language and vivid imagery, Station Eleven is a Shakespeare play in novel form. Like a theater performance, it is a bit self-conscious, a bit dramatic; it comes complete with character soliloquies and a complicated chain of coincidences woven together at the end. Mind you, that isn’t a negative criticism: I trek out to American Players Theater for a Shakespeare play under the stars every summer. There’s just many moments where the story seems staged, a carefully selected tableau of character and action. I liked Station Eleven a great deal, finishing it in two sittings (that the time reading was weeks apart in no way reflects on the book. It was from my desire to give full attention to the story and an obligation to read fifteen chapters of Community/Public Health Nursing).

The story begins with a performance of King Lear. Lead actor Arthur collapses on stage and a member of the audience, Jeevan, fruitlessly attempts CPR while the cast looks on. The narrative begins to hint that things are about to change for everyone, commenting as the cast processes Arthur’s tragedy that in three weeks the majority of them will be dead.

The snow was falling faster now. He felt extravagantly, guiltily alive. The unfairness of it, his heart pumping faultlessly while somewhere Arthur lay cold and still.

Narration shifts from Arthur’s death scene to Jeevan walking home and then on to Arthur’s now-ex-wife Miranda. From there, it will leap forward to the future, twenty years after the ‘Georgia flu’ has decimated the world’s population. In the future, we largely follow Kirsten, a member of The Traveling Symphony, a theater and orchestra troupe. The story continues moving gently between Arthur’s past and Kirsten’s present, occasionally dipping into the moments around the influenza outbreak and the struggle afterwards. 

“…and this collection of petty jealousies, neuroses, undiagnosed PTSD cases, and simmering resentments lived together, traveled together, rehearsed together, performed together 365 days of the year, permanent company, permanent tour. But what made it bearable were the friendships, of course, the camaraderie and the music and the Shakespeare, the moments of transcendent beauty and joy

One of the motifs of the book is the grief survivors have over loss of industrialized society. There’s a curious parallel embedded within the story, through a graphic novel Miranda is creating, called “Station Eleven.”  Interestingly, although St. John Mandel is not planning a sequel to the book, she is writing the text for a Station Eleven comic (author Q&A).

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.

For me, the characters and plotting that rested on Arthur’s social network felt more than a bit constructed. Quite possibly, the elaborate links weren’t worth the payoff. Possibly, they were, again lending the story a Shakespeare-like feel. Hard to decide, but I revised my opinion of St. John Mandel’s writing upwards when I learned additional scenes surrounding Jeevan were included at the request of the editor/publisher (see Q&A link).

I’m also not sure how I feel about the mix of character viewpoints and how they move through time. In some cases the result was interesting; a series of beautifully written character studies. In other cases, I was conscious of feeling “this is going to lead to something” instead of an intrinsic interest in the scene.  To further compound the pacing issue, after a long, languorous build is a very rapid denouement and conclusion. The result feels a little less than satisfying.

Overall, though, it is a lovely book, filled with beautiful language, vivid scenes and insightful social commentary that feels more like literary fiction than science-fiction. And as a bonus for those who prefer not to dabble in the apocalypse genre, it presents a more hopeful version of a world post devastation.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, genre-bender, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism. Recommended.


Mostly read
Recommended for thoughtful cultural commentary
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

To be honest, I haven’t read this particular compilation. I’ve actually been a subscriber to Bitch Magazine (site) since I first learned about it in 2003, so I assume I’ve read most of these articles. I recommend this–but especially the magazine–to all my feminist friends who want to engage their brains in their cultural consumption.

What’s in it?

Cultural deconstruction. Interviews with interesting people who usually have contributed some kind of outsider voice to culture/art, ranging from young artists to ones who have been contributing in their field for decades. What kind of art? Film, fashion, music, visual, written, performance, video and all their sub-genres. (In other words, all the various ways people express themselves). Occasional rants. A profile of an activist and some of the organizations they recommend. Letters to the editor. A book, movie and music section that focuses on indies and has led me in directions I would not have found on my own (Little Jackie was an especially awesome find). A two page smorgasbord of cool stuff staff members want to bring to readers’ attention in every issue, which usually means woman-generated cultural projects. A full-page comic.

I love the way it celebrates as much as it deconstructs. I long ago dropped my Ms. subscription because it was more depressing than uplifting, loved its theory a bit too much and had trouble staying relevant. Bust was a bit too DIY and indie-band fangirl, a definitely lacked the analytical angle I wanted with my cultural commentary. Bitch manages to overcome the tendency of outsider commentary to overwhelm when acknowledging and discussing the multitudes of challenges we face. I highly recommend it.

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments