My Family and Other Disasters

My Family and Other DisastersMy Family and Other Disasters
by Lucy Mangan
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780852651247
Publication Date: June 16, 2009
Pages: 260
Genre: Essays
Publisher: Guardian Publishing

'Hi Dad.'
'Who's calling, please?'
'It's Lucy ...Your daughter.'
'Ah, yes. Which one are you again? The one that reads or the one that shops?'

For Lucy Mangan family life has never exactly been a bed of roses. With parents so parsimonious that if they had soup for a meal they would decline an accompanying drink (soup is a drink), and a grandmother who refused to sit down for 82 years so that she wouldn't wear out the sofa, Lucy spent most of her childhood oscillating between extreme states of anxiety.

Fortunately, this hasn't affected her ability to write, and in this, her first collection of "Guardian" columns, she shares her hilarious take on everything from family relations to the credit crunch and why organized sport should be abolished.


I so thoroughly enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s writing in Bookworm that I wanted to try some of her other titles.  I ordered two of them, and this one was the first to arrive.

A collection of essays/columns written for The Guardian that covers a multitude of topics, My Family and Other Disasters easily met and exceeded my expectations.  I hoovered these down, laughing and often – very often – reading parts aloud to MT; her writing is so good he rarely even minded when I did.

This is a woman who does not hold back her inner misanthrope; she lets it rip and in the process tears a strip off anyone and anything she considers irrational or stupid.  I might have a tiny book crush on her, but only because I agree with her about most all of it, and she makes me laugh.

Mangan writes for the UK Guardian so there’s a highly British slant to most of her essays, but many of her topics cross the international barriers – especially the essays pertaining to television; I don’t watch TV, but the essays are old enough to refer to the shows that aired when I did.  Saying that, they were also the essays I enjoyed the least, although I whole-heartedly agree with her views on Seinfeld.

All up, a delightful collection.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany TodayDarwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany Today
by Ken Thompson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788160285
Publication Date: July 4, 2018
Pages: 255
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Profile Books

A rediscovery of Darwin the botanist and his theories on insectivorous and climbing plants

Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.


A well written homage to Darwin’s other ground-breaking works, each chapter covers one of Darwin’s papers or books concerning plants.  As the author points out, if Origin of Species never came out of the drawer, Darwin would still be a genius game-changer just in the subject of botany.

The book is easy enough to read with a basic background in botany and/or a tolerance for the technical names for the parts of a plant.  As usual after reading a book about plants, I have a new list of plants I want in my garden – all of them carnivorous.

A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm

A Farmer's DiaryA Farmer's Diary
by Sally Urwin
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788160698
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Pages: 248
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Sally Urwin and her husband Steve own High House Farm in Northumberland, which they share with two kids, Mavis the Sheepdog, one very Fat Pony, and many, many sheep. Set in a beautiful, wild landscape, and in use for generations, it's perfect for Sally's honest and charming account of farming life.

From stock sales to lambing sheds, out in the fields in driving snow and on hot summer days, A Farmer's Diary reveals the highs, lows and hard, hard work involved in making a living from the land. Filled with grit and humour, newborn lambs and local characters, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the fence.


It will come as no surprise to anyone, with the loony menagerie we have, that MT and I enjoy being surrounded by animals, and have both flirted with the idea of someday doing some small scale farming.  Extraordinarily small scale; a few acres with a variety of edible landscaping, a small garden, and a few more rescue animals that would seem sensible.

If we ever thought anything more than that would appeal, this book would have put paid to that fantasy.  Farming is hard, which isn’t a newsflash for most people, but more than that, it’s a form of voluntary indentured servitude that guarantees 365 sleepless nights a year, as Urwin’s diary attests.

From context, this seems to be the book form of one year of Sally Urwin’s blog entries.  They’re well-written, funny, heartbreaking and depressing all at once.  I mean, come on, one of their breeding rams is named Randy Jackhammer.  For someone like me, these memoirs of farm life are fascinating, and a potent reminder of why I’m still working in IT.  I enjoy living off the land, but as the author so brilliantly illustrates, depending on the land for your living is a horse (or a sheep) of en entirely different colour.

A fascinating read.

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History

The Madman's LibraryThe Madman's Library
by Edward Brooke-Hitching
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781471166914
Publication Date: October 7, 2020
Pages: 255
Genre: Books and Reading, History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

This is a madman’s library of eccentric and extraordinary volumes from around the world, many of which have been completely forgotten. Books written in blood and books that kill, books of the insane and books that hoaxed the globe, books invisible to the naked eye and books so long they could destroy the Universe, books worn into battle, books of code and cypher whose secrets remain undiscovered… and a few others that are just plain weird.

From the 605-page Qur'an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein, through the gorgeously decorated 15th-century lawsuit filed by the Devil against Jesus, to the lost art of binding books with human skin, every strand of strangeness imaginable (and many inconceivable) has been unearthed and bound together for a unique and richly illustrated collection ideal for every book-lover.


I knew I wanted this book as soon as I saw it; gorgeously illustrated in full colour, and really well written, this is exactly what is purports to be.  Broken into categorical chapters that include “Books that aren’t Books”; “Books Made of Flesh and Blood”; “Literary Hoaxes”, etc., the book covers a comprehensive span of the beautiful, the frightful and the unusual.

I enjoyed Brooke-Hitching’s writing style, appreciating his small infusions of humour as well as the information he imparted about each category and specific books. It was easy to read, but not easy reading; I found reading a chapter at a time worked well for my comprehension and enjoyment – the one time I tried to read more in one sitting, I found my eyes glazing over.

All in all, an enjoyable book and one that I’m happy to have on my bookshelves.

Einstein’s War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of WWI

Einstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War IEinstein's War: How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I
by Matthew Stanley
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781524745417
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Pages: 391
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Dutton

Few recognize how the Great War, the industrialized slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein&;s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. He lost fifty pounds in three months, unable to communicate with his most important colleagues. Some of those colleagues fought against rabid nationalism; others were busy inventing chemical warfare&;being a scientist trapped you in the power plays of empire. Meanwhile, Einstein struggled to craft relativity and persuade the world that it was correct. This was, after all, the first complete revision of our conception of the universe since Isaac Newton, and its victory was far from sure.

Scientists seeking to confirm Einstein&;s ideas were arrested as spies. Technical journals were banned as enemy propaganda. Colleagues died in the trenches. Einstein was separated from his most crucial ally by barbed wire and U-boats. This ally was the Quaker astronomer and Cambridge don A. S. Eddington, who would go on to convince the world of the truth of relativity and the greatness of Einstein.

In May of 1919, when Europe was still in chaos from the war, Eddington led a globe-spanning expedition to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein&;s bold prediction that light has weight. It was the result of this expedition&;the proof of relativity, as many saw it&;that put Einstein on front pages around the world. Matthew Stanley&;s epic tale is a celebration of how bigotry and nationalism can be defeated and of what science can offer when they are.


As I mentioned in an earlier reading status post, I was both drawn to this book and apprehensive about reading it.  I wanted it for the bits about Einstein and relativity, but I’ve had it up to my eyeballs in the hypocrisy and vicious hate that’s the order of our days (unless I’m at the hydrotherapy pool, and then I’m all about the hate, because seriously, parents need to learn, and then teach their unruly monsters, some damn common courtesy – especially when they share the pool with frail, injured and/or elderly tax-payers.  But I digress.)

I decided to read the prologue and was immediately sucked in, and I figured I could skim the war bits if they started dragging me down.  The war bits did drag me down, but I didn’t skim, because this book was so much more than I expected it to be in a lot of unexpected ways.

This book is not only the story of how Einstein became Einstein, it’s the story about how his theory came into this world, bit by bit, painful mistake after painful fruitless searching, with duct-tape slapped on and removed, rationalisations made, and the whole thing scrapped and started over again.  I found this part enlightening because modern tellings tend to make people think the general theory of relativity just sprouted fully formed one day from Einstein’s pencil.  I also enjoyed his small attempts, with illustrations, to describe aspects of relativity, and that he included details about some of the thought experiments that Einstein used.

This book is also about A.S. Eddington, a brilliant British mathematician turned astronomer, a Quaker, and a conscientious objector during WWI.  It’s about how his faith informed every part of his life, and his refusal to divorce his religious beliefs from his work when the British government tried to demand it of him.  It’s about how his religion guided his efforts to repair the integrity of international science when it was thought to be irreconcilably broken, and how his choice for this international bridge building – proving a calculation that verified Einstein’s theory of relativity, via the 1919 solar eclipse – and how he went about doing it, was largely responsible for turning Einstein into science’s first and only genuine superstar.  It’s about one man’s efforts to quietly and modestly fight the vicious hate and anger that permeated every part of the UK at the time.

I loved this book.  I took half a star off because the author’s fast and loose, zig-zagging time lines during the war years drove me crazy.  I know it’s difficult to be linear about complex historical events that happened in tandem, but I’d be reading about events in 1918, thinking we were getting to the end of the war, and suddenly the author had me back in 1917 without the appropriate signage.  This happened a few times and left me lost on every occasion.

But putting that aside, I loved this book.  I wasn’t expecting the respect the author showed towards Eddington’s religious integrity.  I wasn’t expecting the author’s objectivity when acknowledging Einstein’s controversies, small though they might seem in the grand scheme of things.  (I’m completely icked out by the fact that he told Elsa and her daughter that it made no difference to him which one of them he married.)

I liked that Stanley addressed and discussed the question of how much Einstein’s ex-wife Mileva may have contributed to his work, and I really liked how the author included the female scientists throughout the years that touched on Einstein’s work or life.  I loved that when he did so, it was casually, in the same narrative tone and voice he used for everything else in the book, like women working in science wasn’t special, or unique.  He was honest about their chances of advancement, or of even getting paid, but he didn’t treat them like they were some rare exotic or token.

Where the author really earned my respect though, was at the end.  Up until that last chapter, I thought the book insightful, thoughtful, well-written and engaging, but the last chapter really brought home the author’s sense of balance.  I can do no better than to quote him.  Warning, this quote is long.

Everyone wants a simple explanation for why things turn out as
they do. Popper thought the expeditions were extraordinary and made
them exemplars of good science. Everitt thought the expeditions were
biased and made them exemplars of bad science. Collins and Pinch
thought the expeditions were shaped by politics and authority, and
made them exemplars of socially constructed science

Einstein’s War has been a story about how none of those are enough.
Einstein and relativity’s victory involved good science, bad science,
politics, and personal authority. Any episode in science does. None of
those mean relativity is wrong (it has been confirmed many, many
times since then) or that Eddington fudged the numbers (there were
good reasons to trust the 1919 results). Science is done by people. That
means it will be inherently complicated and often confusing. People
will make mistakes, equipment will break, poor decisions will be made
because of political or personal bias.

Note that you could replace “science” and “scientist” in this last paragraph with any profession in the world today and it would be just as apt, and just as relevant.

We do not have to be forced into extremes. The presence of human
scientists does not make science unreliable. We need to understand,
though, what science-done-by-people actually looks like and how it
works. That means leaving behind some comforting myths about the
dispassionate, purely rational, always-objective nature of science. The
deeply human, sometimes chaotic story of relativity is not an excep-
tion. It is an exemplar. Science is messy, it is also a powerful way to
learn about the real world around us.

By the end of this book I was wanting to yell “Preach it!”  Given that I’ve never uttered those two words, never-mind thought them, in the whole of my modestly repressed life, they’re probably the best summation for just how much this book resonated with me.  Overall, it as just a really excellent read.

One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America

One Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In AmericaOne Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In America
by Gene Weingarten
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780399166662
Publication Date: October 22, 2019
Pages: 375
Genre: History
Publisher: Blue Rider Press

Two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Gene Weingarten explores the events of a random day in U.S. history, offering a diorama of American life that illuminates all that has changed—and all that hasn’t—in the past three decades.

On New Year’s Day 2013, two-time Pulitzer Prize–winner Gene Weingarten asked three strangers to, literally, pluck a day, month, and year from a hat. That day—chosen completely at random—turned out to be Sunday, December 28, 1986, by any conventional measure a most ordinary day. Weingarten spent the next six years proving that there is no such thing.

That Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s turned out to be filled with comedy, tragedy, implausible irony, cosmic comeuppances, kindness, cruelty, heroism, cowardice, genius, idiocy, prejudice, selflessness, coincidence, and startling moments of human connection, along with evocative foreshadowing of momentous events yet to come. Lives were lost. Lives were saved. Lives were altered in overwhelming ways. Many of these events never made it into the news; they were private dramas in the lives of private people. They were utterly compelling.

One Day asks and answers the question of whether there is even such a thing as “ordinary” when we are talking about how we all lurch and stumble our way through the daily, daunting challenge of being human.


The subtitle of this book should have been The Extraordinary Stories of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America; it would have better encapsulated what this book is about, in a way.

A day was chosen at random – December 28, 1986 – and Weingarten digs into the stories and events that happened in that 24 hours, fleshing out their backstories and, in some cases, providing epilogues (I appreciated this; it always annoys me that news outlets rarely follow up on stories).  Some of them are beyond tragic; events that were catalysts for change both at home and around the world.  Some of the stories are terrible and shocking on a more personal level, and many are hopeful, a few inspiring, and a couple are downright cheerful.

I remember being drawn to this book by the striking cover, and thinking that I’d enjoyed Bill Bryson’s One Summer, so I grabbed it on impulse when it first came out.  It languished on my TBR for the last 3 years, give or take, until I finally grabbed it last weekend, and it grabbed me right back. Weingarten is a journalist, so the narrative voice is unapologetically journalistic, but he’s a 2 time Pulitzer winning journalist, so the writing is excellent.  I found myself deeply involved in each and every story – even the ones I’d really rather have been more detached from.  I was both reading parts out to MT, and telling him you really need to read this yourself.  The stories are American, but very few of them are uniquely American; they’re stories of the human experience and for the most part could be the experiences of anyone, anyplace.

Weingarten didn’t quite stick the landing; the wrap up was a tiny bit messy and might have been tighter, neater, had he ended it a page sooner, but it’s a negligible niggle and really didn’t detract from a fascinating read.

Conan Doyle for the Defence

Conan Doyle for the DefenceConan Doyle for the Defence
by Margalit Fox
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781781253564
Publication Date: July 25, 2018
Pages: 318
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Profile Books

Just before Christmas 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 82-year-old spinster, was found bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home. A valuable diamond brooch was missing, and police soon fastened on a suspect - Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant who was rumoured to have a disreputable character. Slater had an alibi, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment in the notorious Peterhead Prison.

Seventeen years later, a convict called William Gordon was released from Peterhead. Concealed in a false tooth was a message, addressed to the only man Slater thought could help him - Arthur Conan Doyle. Always a champion of the downtrodden, Conan Doyle turned his formidable talents to freeing Slater, deploying a forensic mind worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Drawing from original sources including Oscar Slater's prison letters, this is Margalit Fox's vivid and compelling account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history.


 

4 stars for the writing, but I bumped it up .5 star because I learned a lot I didn’t know before I started.

The title is something of a misnomer, as it implies that Conan Doyle was an active participant in the defence of Oscar Slater, and he wasn’t – he didn’t involve himself until several years after Slater’s conviction and incarceration.  Once he did, however, he did it to devastating effect, but to no avail; it wasn’t until he renewed his efforts some 15 years later, in partnership with an investigative journalist, William Park, that the gears of justice finally started to grind.

As much as this book is about the gross injustice served upon Oscar Slater (it was indeed Scotland’s Dreyfus affair), it’s also a revealing look into Scotland at the turn of the century, when science was just beginning to gain its capital “S” but society still stood firmly in the class and morality rigid past.  The level of anti-Semitism was profound, something I would never have associated with Scotland, such is my ignorance of history.

In my status update, I had gotten just to the point in the book where it looked like the author was going to make an argument for pre-meditation on behalf of the Glasgow police, in framing Slater for the crime, while at the same time detailing the force’s stupidity.  Her argument didn’t proceed quite along the lines it looked to be headed, but she did, in the end, paint the force as being results-oriented to the point of gross injustice.  It’s clear that the only concern was not only an arrest and conviction, but an arrest and conviction of somebody deemed undesirable; an effort to kill two birds with one stone.  That they were willing to forge documents and browbeat witnesses into perjury is clearly documented and the only greater injustice than the one done to Slater is that those most guilty were all dead before they could be held to account for their own crimes.

Because the story of just Conan Doyle’s participation in releasing Slater would have been more a pamphlet than a book, the text is liberally padded with small biographies of Slater, Conan Doyle, and Joseph Bell, as well as chapters detailing the types of reasoning used for investigation, and previous cases where Conan Doyle’s assistance prevailed in either convicting the right man, or releasing the one wrongly convicted.  A small detour towards the end is made into Conan Doyle’s foray into the paranormal, and the author tried to tie it into the book by speculating that it might have negated his influence with the Scottish authorities, a justification that I don’t think she really established.

I feel like this book is one packs enough into a seemingly straightforward narrative as to offer almost endless avenues for discussions covering a wide variety of topics.  As I said at the start, I learned a lot (granted I wasn’t starting from a very learned position); I found the narrative easy to read and much more engrossing than I originally expected and I came away with an even deeper respect for Conan Doyle than I started with.

The Haunting of America – DNF @ pg. 105

The Haunting of AmericaThe Haunting of America
by Joel Martin, William J. Birnes
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 400
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Forge

In the tradition of their Haunting of the Presidents, national bestselling authors Joel Martin and William J. Birnes write The Haunting of America: From The Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini, the only book to tell the story of how paranormal events influenced and sometimes even drove political events. In a narrative retelling of American history that begins with the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, Martin and Birnes unearth the roots of America's fascination with the ghosts, goblins, and demons that possess our imaginations and nightmares. The authors examine the political history of the United States through the lens of the paranormal and investigate the spiritual events that inspired public policy: channelers and meduims who have advised presidents, UFOs that frightened the nation's military into launching nuclear bomber squadrons toward the Soviet Union, out-of-body experiencers deployed to gather sensitive intelligence on other countries, and even spirits summoned to communicate with living politicians.

The Haunting of America is a thrilling exploration of the often unexpected influences of the paranormal on science, medicine, law, government, the military, psychology, theology, death and dying, spirituality, and pop culture.


 

How do you ruin a book with a name like that?  Wrap a textbook in it.

It might not actually be a bad book if one is looking for an anthropological view of superstition and paranormal belief and their effect on the American political system, but I was just looking for some fun and slightly spooky stories about haunting in America.  You know, what it says on the tin.

Ah well, another one off the TBR; progress is progress.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You?

How about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in CartoonsHow about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in Cartoons
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250062420
Publication Date: December 8, 2015
Pages: 288
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Picador

 

My life waiting for Halloween Book Bingo to begin has been frustrating.  I’m in the tail end of a weird book slump that feels like it’s lasted forever (over a year to be sure), and my recovery still feels precarious, like it could go either way.  Because of this, I’m not doing any pre-planning for Bingo, but I still know there are a few books I’m waiting to read that will fit, so I’m trying to hold off.

Last night, I was sooo bored with this plan that I almost scrapped HB all together and just started in on the small stack I’m trying to wait on, and in a last ditch effort to find something else on my TBR to hold my attention, I found How About Never? Is Never Good for You? on a very small outlier of my TBR pile.  I’d forgotten all about it, and honestly can’t remember where I bought it, only that I did so because I like most of the New Yorker’s cartoons, and I’d read Mary Norris’ Between You and Me which I thoroughly enjoyed, leaving me with a positive feeling about the staff’s extracurricular writing.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You? turned out to be a very engaging, and very fast read.  I knew nothing about Bob Mankoff before reading it and therefore had no expectations.  The subtitle is My Life in Cartoons which is a nice double play on words, as this memoir covers almost exclusively his career as a cartoonist and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, and the book is liberally sprinkled with cartoons, both his and others’ works, which is, along with the engaging writing, the reason the read goes so fast.

He discusses the rise of the periodical cartoon as an art form, the genesis of The New Yorker’s cartoons, the process by which the magazine chooses the cartoons each week, and the advent of, and the fiendish difficulty of, the “add a caption” contest and how not to win it.  And he does it all with a charming brevity that is just long enough to be interesting and just thorough enough that the reader gets something out of it.

All in all, it turned out to be a delightful way to kill 3 hours or so last night.

This is Improbable

This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF ResearchThis is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF Research
by Marc Abrahams
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781851689316
Publication Date: September 6, 2012
Pages: 299
Genre: Non-fiction, Reference, Science
Publisher: Oneworld

 

I had high hopes for this book, coming from the founder of the Ig Noble Prizes, but alas it wan’t quite the chatty, easy to read format I’d expected.  This is, in fact, a collection of his columns from The Guardian, slightly expanded upon and cited out the wazoo.  This makes it an excellent reference for those times when you’re specifically looking for bizarre, twisted or otherwise outlandish research, but rather less excellent if you’re looking for an enjoyable sit-down read.

Still, it’s a comprehensive (one would hope) collection of some of the most head-scratching research being done out there in the name of science, and if you’re willing to read through the dry reportage, a few amusing facts.  My two favourites were the patent issued in the USA in 1977 for the comb-over – yes, the one you’re thinking of, that oh-so-sexy and not-at-all-obvious disguise for male pattern baldness.  And an Australian patent in 2001 for a “Circular Transportation Facilitation Device”.  Which is, you guessed it, the wheel.

A more timely and relevant invention for us in these pandemic days is the US patent awarded in 2007 for a “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks”.  A/K/A a bra, that in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks.  It was awarded an Ig Noble prize in 2009 for Public Health, but one has to wonder just how Ig Noble the invention remains?