Posts By: Louise

The Invention of Science
by David Wootton

November 6, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wootton_InventionofScience

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750 by David Wootton | December 2015 | Harper | Hardcover $35.00

We live in a world transformed by scientific discovery. Yet today, science and its practitioners have come under political attack. In this fascinating history spanning continents and centuries, historian David Wootton offers a lively defense of science, revealing why the Scientific Revolution was truly the greatest event in our history.

The Invention of Science goes back five hundred years in time to chronicle this crucial transformation, exploring the factors that led to its birth and the people who made it happen. Wootton argues that the Scientific Revolution was actually five separate yet concurrent events that developed independently, but came to intersect and create a new worldview. Here are the brilliant iconoclasts — Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Newton, and many more curious minds from across Europe — whose studies of the natural world challenged centuries of religious orthodoxy and ingrained superstition.

Note the first: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through Edelweiss.
Note the second: Uh, this review is unreasonably long. I got a bit carried away. You have been warned.

In the beginning

The book begins with a quick overview of the Scientific Revolution and its numerous effects on the modern world. It goes on to describe the historical and philosophical arguments for the very idea of a Scientific Revolution, including some rejections or redefinitions of the idea from modern scholars. The author makes the point that, unlike the American or French Revolutions, “which were called revolutions as they happened,” the Scientific Revolution is a comparatively recent idea, described by post-atom-bomb scientists/historians who saw in their own time an echo or reflection of the major advancements or upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (-ish) in Europe.

The redefinition of “science” over the years was quite interesting. Once upon a time, things like theology and philosophy were considered sciences. Science was essentially any theoretical system, generally accompanied by some practical skill — its associated art. Astronomy was a science; astrology was the equally valid art based on it. Politics and law were the “arts” that developed when the concepts of the “science” of moral philosophy were applied in practical scenarios; medicine was the “art” associated with the “science” of natural philosophy (here used to refer to observations of the natural world rather than ruminations on the nature of existence… you can see how this can all get rather confusing for the modern interpreter).  Furthermore, there was a hierarchy of these sciences, with theology naturally being the most valued and dominant. Which brings me to one of the most interesting passages in the book:

A basic description of the Scientific Revolution is to say that it represented a successful rebellion by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers, and of both against the authority of the theologians.

I had a little chuckle to myself about the early arguments against the term “scientist” for one who practices the natural sciences. It is, as the author puts it, “an illegitimate hybrid of Latin and Greek” which most of the earliest scientists generally rejected. The English language is now so full of these anachronisms that nobody notices or cares about them anymore.

– – –

Philosophies

I think that some of the concepts and occurrences discussed in this book have helped me understand why so many people, even in this day and age, have a difficult time accepting the idea of authoritative science (and the big “issues” that go along with that — evolution by means of natural selection, for example). If the greatest philosophers and scholars of the ages have continually argued over what science even is, much less the specific value of certain scientific advancements, how can your Average Joe hope to understand or be expected to accept unfamiliar, sometimes complicated or nuanced concepts? Especially given the sorry state of science education in many of our most disadvantaged public schools?

A part of the book briefly touches on philosophical relativism as it applies to the very idea of science, which gave me terrible flashbacks to a Philosophy of Science class that I attempted (and dropped) as an undergrad. It’s a pretty significant part of the focus of modern historians, but I just could not get into it. Relativism sort of short-circuits my brain. Maybe someone with a more open mind can make sense of this.

One particular philosophical viewpoint (the “strong programme”) is that our ideas of how the universe works are necessarily limited by our language; if we have no way to describe something, we cannot fully understand it. Further, basically every description or idea is a mere language game, no more inherently valid than any other. But Wootton makes his case thus:

A revolution of ideas requires a revolution in language. It is thus simple to test the claim that there was a Scientific Revolution in the 17th century by looking for the revolution in language that must have accompanied it. The revolution in language is indeed the best evidence that there really was a revolution in science.

In other words, the expansion of language necessarily follows the expansion of understanding; just because we have no words for something doesn’t mean we can’t observe it, think about it, or eventually figure out how to name it. Furthermore, the author postulates that all “language games” are not equal, and that this view of evidence-based science as a philosophy that is just as limited as any other ignores its very insistence on impartiality and application across (or outside of, or in spite of) cultures.

As you can see, a great deal of this book is dedicated to the exploration of philosophical approaches to understanding the history of science rather than only on a just-the-facts timeline of events.

Likewise, a great deal of the author’s energy was spent on the etymology of the words we now use to express scientific and science-adjacent ideas, like evidence and discovery. This might sound a bit boring, as though the narrative is simply made up of OEM citations or something, but in reality the way that the author traces the usage of science-y language is rather fascinating.

Wootton_IoS_screengrab

Illustration from the book, with commentary by author

– – –

Consequences

The final part of the book (well, prior to the Conclusion, where the author takes 3 extra chapters to reiterate several previous points) addresses the consequences of the Scientific Revolution for the modern world, particularly in relation to the Industrial Revolution. Machines — both the “simple machines of mathematicians” (the pulley, the lever, and so on) and the later mechanical inventions that were made possible by a fundamental shift in our understanding of the way nature works — are the real focus of this section. The Industrial Revolution, and thus all of our modern Western culture, would not have been possible if not for the invention of the methodical, evidence-based approach the natural world that we now think of as science.

The rise of one particular machine, the printing press, happened nearly simultaneously with the Scientific Revolution. This is no coincidence. Just as the spark of curiosity set fire to humanity’s old ideas of the world, it produced a machine that could spread that fire further and faster than ever before.

This was the most fascinating section of the book to me, not just because of the discussion of the practical consequences of the invention of science, but because of the discussion of the theological consequences (the two being inherently tied together). The teleological argument from design (the “watchmaker argument”) is discussed at some length here because a machine-focused science naturally lead the assumption that anything “mechanic,” whether it be a human body or the motions of the stars, was assumed to necessarily have had a creator or guiding force. Of course, the Scientific Revolution also bolstered arguments to the contrary: that non-observable forces (much less a force with a personality, like the God of Christianity) could have not place in a universe made up of observable, quantifiable pieces. If a piece was being manipulated or made, it was due to a bigger or more complicated piece of the machinery of the world, not a divine influence.

Where once questions of the existence of gods and their nature were mere thought exercises of philosophers who assumed the existence of an eternal, unchanging universe, the Scientific Revolution opened the floor to arguments based on new (or heavily modified) scientific rationalizations. This “disenchantment of the world” (a lovely phrase!) included a decline in the belief in magic, haunting spirits, witchcraft, and so on. The founding of serious scientific societies and schools, with their sanctioned missions to defeat ignorance or uncover the secrets of the natural world, can be seen as both a cause and a reflection of this profound belief shift.

A side note: I thought it was very fitting that the author should spend some time on the work of his namesake, William Wotton, who in 1705 wrote the first analysis of the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. Talk about a family legacy!

– – –

Caveats

Here’s another little side note: I was a tiny bit disappointed that this book did not discuss in any depth any non-European scientific advances. Of course the concept of THE Scientific Revolution is a European one. But, for example, only passing mention was ever made of the famously advanced Arab medicine, a comparatively evidence-based practice that gave us important ideas and techniques still in use in the modern world. Anyway, I imagine that there are other books out there that include more information on the worldwide history of science, and now that my interest is piqued I’ll be looking for them!

Also, fair warning that this book is pretty dang dense, as befits a well-researched and well-argued collection of thoughts on a somewhat contentious topic. Besides the actual content, it includes a ton of notes and a very impressive list of sources. It’s certainly “readable” in my opinion, but this isn’t something I’d personally like to curl up with for a bit of light leisure reading. I read it bit by bit during my lunch breaks at work, and it was perfect for keeping boredom at bay during those quick little snippets of time.

The Invention of Science will be released in early December here in the US (it’s already out in the UK). I think it would make a great Christmas gift for any science-y type person in your life, so preorder it now to be sure that you’ll have it in time for the holidays.


Links:


Publication information: Wootton, David. The Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750. New York: Harper, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Fickle Attention Span

November 4, 2015 Just for Fun 0

Does anyone else out there go through hobby phases?

My “usual” hobby (if by that we mean that if you surprise me during my free time, there’s a 50% chance I’ll be doing this) is obviously reading. As evidenced by this blog being mostly bookish in nature.

But there’s lots of other stuff I like to spend my free time doing… and never enough hours in the day! In order to keep from going completely bonkers, my brain’s coping strategy seems to be phases of obsession on only 1 or 2 hobbies at a time.

If I were to sign up for some new social network and wanted to look as impressive/crazy as possible, I’d list all of the following as hobbies:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Painting
  • Knitting
  • Sewing
  • Cooking
  • Theology
  • Natural sciences
  • Makeup and beauty products
  • Genealogy
  • Video games

See what I mean? There are not enough hours in a day to pay attention to all of these things. There are not enough hours in an eternity for me to be able to pay attention to all of these things to my satisfaction. Alas! Such is life.

Instead, I tend to focus on just a couple of these things at a time over 2 – 3 months. It’s actually been over a year since I’ve done any knitting, but I still think of myself as a “knitter” for some reason. I haven’t even finished unpacking my sewing room in our new house yet, but you can pry my fabric stash from my cold, dead hands. (And I will come back from the dead to haunt you, you grave-thieving bastard.)

So if you see me go quite on this blog or in a particular hobby-focused webosphere for a while? I probably haven’t died yet (so stay away from my fabric stash)… I’m just going through another phase.


Blog Ahead Challenge 2015 Wrap-Up

November 1, 2015 Meta 0

Blog Ahead Challenge

Well, October is officially over. And so is this year’s Blog Ahead Challenge! How’d I do?

I “only” got 23 blog posts written and scheduled. Putting “only” in sarcasm quotes because that’s actually about 23 more posts than I actually would have written if I wasn’t trying to meet the challenge goal.

I wrote 1 book review, 6 challenge-related posts, 6 posts for discussion series, 5 posts for non-series discussions, and 5 family history essays.

You know, I’ll never be one of those bloggers who can churn out interesting daily posts (or even boring daily posts, or even just more than one post a week). But I’ve learned that if I can find the time to just sit down and brainstorm/write, I could probably publish here more often than I have been over the past few years.

Visit my Blog Ahead Challenge tracking page for more details.


Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
by Deborah Madison

October 24, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Edited to add: Right now we’re getting hit by the remnants of Hurricane Patricia. A tornado touched down just a few miles to the eat of us, and our neighborhood is right on the edge of a flood zone. Wish us luck….

Madison_VegCooking


★ ★ ★ ★

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison | November 1997 | Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday | Hardcover $40.00

hat Julia Child is to French cooking, Deborah Madison is to vegetarian cooking—a demystifier and definitive guide to the subject. After her many years as a teacher and writer, she realized that there was no comprehensive primer for vegetarian cooking, no single book that taught vegetarians basic cooking techniques, how to combine ingredients, and how to present vegetarian dishes with style. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone teaches readers how to build flavor into vegetable dishes, how to develop vegetable stocks, and how to choose, care for, and cook the many vegetables available to cooks today. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is in every way Deborah Madison’s magnum opus, featuring 1,400 recipes suitable for committed vegetarians, vegans (in most cases), and everyone else who loves good food.

I read this book for both my Foodies Read list and the TBR Pile Challenge.

No, this is not The New Vegeterian Cooking for Everyone, the updated version produced by the same author in 2014. It’s the original version, with all the quirks and “outdated” dishes that made this book so popular in the late 1990’s.

Well, perhaps I should rephrase: It wasn’t the trendy stuff that made this book popular in the first place. It’s the comprehensive examination of the edible plantstuffs (and some non-meat animal products) that make up a vegetarian (or simply vegetarianish) diet. All kinds of ingredients and ways of cooking are explored in this book; the recipes, though varied and generally well-done, are not the real stand-out parts of this book.

Take as an example the “Grains” chapter. Of the 48 pages that make up this section, about 11 of them are made up of informative essays on types of rice, ways grains are harvested and prepared prior to hitting grocery store shelves, and even tips for making grain-based dishes attractive instead of just piles of mush. Recipes range from the simple, like polenta or even just plain white rice, to the more complex or exotic, like artichoke risotto or a curried quinoa dish that somehow involves orange juice and cashews.

– – –

I’ve used several very simple recipes from this book over the years. It includes instructions for everything from baking sweet potatoes to grilling corn and the book is so well-organized and carefully arranged that turning to it for reference is often quicker and more accurate than Googling and just hoping for the best.

Full disclosure: I am not a vegetarian. Part of the appeal of this book, to me, is that Madison doesn’t come across as preachy or judgmental in any way, whether you’re a full-on vegan or an unrepentant omnivore who just wants to try new stuff. She herself is really a locavore, eating meat and animal products as well as produce when in season and ethically farmed in her own area. I really admire this! Here’s a relevant quote:

When it comes to forming a philosophy or a political position about what to eat, I leave that to each of you to work out. But whether you place your vegetables at the center of your plate, reserve that place for meat, or find comfort somewhere in between, enjoy, eat well, and raise a glass to life!

Lest you think this is a re-read and shouldn’t count for either of my reading challenges, the sad truth is that until now I’d totally ignored all the lovely little extras. The introductory chapters — all about finding proper equipment, types of seasonings, etc. — and the other little educational bits got completely skipped over when all I really wanted to know was how long to steam the broccoli.

– – –

That said, I haven’t tried very many of the “real” recipes, y’know, the ones that involve more than 2 ingredients and multiple steps. I paid particular attention to the section on “Asian Noodles”, which covers cellophane, mein, rice, and soba types of pasta. My husband and I both enjoy Italian pasta dishes and Japanese- and Chinese-inspired stir-fry type dishes, so I think he would be open to trying some of these recipes. Well, modified versions of them. Neither of us eat tofu, and he would probably not be open to trying ingredients like hijiki or dulse (if I could even find them).

This is why I ultimately settled on 4 stars for this book. Not having tried many of the recipes yet, I obviously can’t judge them. However, a significant portion of them don’t appeal to me, or I know that if I tried them my husband wouldn’t even touch the results. Sometimes I just cook for myself, but given the cost/difficulty of finding of some of these “fancier” ingredients I’m hesitant to bother with them at all.


Links:

Tell me: If you have used this cookbook, do you have a favorite recipe? If you’ve read the newest edition, what did you think of the changes?


Publication information: Madison, Deborha. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. New York: Broadway Books, 1997. Print.
Source: Owned, unsure of original purchase location.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Blog Ahead 2015 Challenge

October 2, 2015 Meta 0

Blog Ahead Challenge
I’ve decided to join the “Blog Ahead Challenge” hosted by the Herding Cats & Burning Soup + Caffeinated Book Reviewer blogs. Hit that cute logo up there for the official event post.

The goal: 31 posts written and scheduled by October 31.

Why?

Well, you know how you come up with cool ideas or funny thoughts while driving to work, watching a movie, taking a shower, walking the dog, or whatever? And you scramble to write them down on a napkin or crumpled up receipt or, worse, think you can just try to remember it? And then you toss out the scrap or completely forget about your idea by the time you’re sitting down in front of your computer, completely out of ideas for your writing projects or blog?

Yeah, that happens to me a lot. Like A LOT a lot. So my hope is that doing this challenge will help me be more organized with my ideas and more prompt about actually getting them out in semi-coherent text form.

I’m going to concentrate mostly on book stuff, of course, but I might try posting about some other stuff… this blog isn’t only a book blog, after all. There’s plenty of space for food stuff, science stuff, library stuff, home stuff, etc.

Some of the posts I’ll be writing — probably about half, going by my current tentative plans — will be for the blog portion my private family history website. I’ll still keep track of them, but they won’t be posted publicly. But they still count!

See my official Blog Ahead Challenge page here!

 

 


New Home, New Jobs

October 1, 2015 Geekery, Home Sweet Home 0

These past couple of months have been just a tad overwhelming.

First, our new house ….

It took about a month and a half of waiting and a mountain of paperwork and several sleepless nights to get here, but we’re finally settled in and getting everything set up just right for us. There are lots of things we need to buy or fix or change, but this place is finally starting to feel like it’s really ours.

Here’s some more good news ….

Last month, while we were in the process of buying the aforementioned house, Gary was offered a better job at the museum. While he certainly enjoyed (and was very good at) his previous job, it was an hourly customer service position that required lots of energy and patience. His new position is salary, which is certainly nice, but more importantly he’s getting to work with the actual artifacts and other back-end type of museum stuff.

Here’s even more good news ….

I’ve started work at a new library. I’m now in the technical services department of a university library (a very nice one, though I’m not really comfortable going into too much detail about it). This is really kind of bittersweet, because I was truly sorry to leave my job at the public library. I enjoyed working there and I’ll miss my coworkers and even some of the patrons (though definitely not some others). But when a big opportunity like this falls in your lap, you can’t ignore it, can you? So I took that opportunity and now I’m settling in at the new place and learning lots of new stuff. It’s exciting but a little bit exhausting, not gonna lie.

To be quite honest, I’m really hoping for a period of stability now. This past year has been absolutely bonkers — a big car wreck followed by an unexpected promotion for me followed by a hoped-for promotion for my husband followed by a new house followed by another new job for me….

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for our recent good fortune, but I’m ready to sit back and enjoy life for a while!


The Road to Dr Pepper, Texas
by Karen Wright

September 27, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wright_DrPepperTX

★ ★ ★ ★

The Road to Dr Pepper, Texas: The Story of Dublin Dr Pepper by Karen Wright | January 2006 | State House Press | Paperback $16.95

The Road to Dr Pepper, Texas is the story of Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Co., a David-Goliath case study of the world’s first Dr Pepper bottling plant and the only one that has always used pure cane sugar in spite of compelling reasons to switch sweeteners. The book traces the story from the founder’s birth through the contemporary struggles of a tiny independent, family-owned franchise against industry giants.

I read this book for my Foodies Read 2015 challenge.

It’s a slim volume, clocking in at just about 175 pages, so it didn’t take long to get through. Which is a good thing, because I don’t think it would have held my interest any longer than the few hours it took to read it. Not that it is a boring book! Rather, it’s very interest-specific. If you don’t care anything about the Erath County, Texas area, or the families of the people profiled in this book, or the history of Dr Pepper in its home state, you can safely skip this particular title.

I do have some family ties to Erath County, and I think my interest in genealogy and associated obscure little local histories made this a good book for me to pass the time with. I’ve also been a long-time Dublin Dr Pepper fan, if one can be a “fan” of a now-defunct subspecies of a particular soft drink.

Unfortunately, Dublin Dr Pepper is no more. This book was released about 6 years before the industry giant Dr Pepper Snapple Group forced the bottling plant to cease production due to branding issues + distribution violations. The bottling plant still exists and still produces cane sugar soft drinks of various vintage flavors, but it ain’t the same stuff that I grew up with.

Some of my fondest memories involve Dublin Dr Pepper. There was one particular BBQ joint in my grandparent’s small town that made the best brisket and potato salad, perfectly accompanied by a little glass bottle of the good stuff.


Links:


Publication information: Wright, Karen. The Road to Dr Pepper, Texas: The Story of Dublin Dr Pepper. Buffalo Gap, Texas: State House Press, 2006. Print.
Source: Owned, unsure of original purchase location.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Elemental Trilogy
by Sherry Thomas

September 26, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Thomas_BurningSkyThomas_PerilousSeaThomas_ImmortalHeights

★ ★ ★ ★

The Burning Sky, The Perilous Sea, and The Immortal Heights by Sherry Thomas | Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins | 2013 -2015 | Hardcover $17.99

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s been told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the most powerful tyrant and mage the world has ever known. This would be a suicide task for anyone, let alone a reluctant sixteen-year-old girl with no training.

Guided by his mother’s visions and committed to avenging his family, Prince Titus has sworn to protect Iolanthe even as he prepares her for their battle with the Bane. But he makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the tyrant closing in, Titus must choose between his mission — and her life.

This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss …. 

I’m so happy to be able to share my thoughts about this series with you!

You see, last year I was lucky enough part of a library association book list group and we received many titles for consideration. Several of these books were just fantastic — but I couldn’t tell you about them! The rules of the committee included a prohibition against sharing any opinions of eligible books and details of deliberations online. Which is fine and normal for that sort of thing. But I did feel a little bit of regret about not being able to share some of the more awesome books with y’all.

Anyway, I’m no longer on that committee (my job changed, which disqualified me from further participation). Which means that gag order no longer applies… which means I can talk about this fantastic series!

– – –

First of all, I’m a sucker for fast-paced high fantasy featuring independent leading ladies with a quick wit. Throw in some fairy tale retellings and a Victorian era boys’ boarding school, and I am all over this like my dumb dog on a cat that clearly doesn’t want to be friends with him white on rice.

I’m also OK with a bit of romance, so long as it isn’t insta-love or abusive or pointlessly objectifying — and the romance in this series is just fine. But even though Sherry Thomas is known for her adult romance books, this series isn’t too heavy on the lovey-dovey stuff. It’s done well, but it isn’t obtrusive.

– – –

My main criticism is that there is way too much deus ex machina  going on here.

Need to get out of the city but all the normal magical transportation options are closed to you? Luckily your trusty sidekick just happened to set up a private exit that will work for you and all your friends! Need to make yet another a getaway and your only option is a boat? It’s so convenient that you spent all those years practicing sailing, even though you never bothered to mention it before now! And now your enemies have somehow figured out where you’re hiding again? Turns out your ancient artifact has a connected artifact that they can use to track you (which you apparently knew about but it didn’t matter until the third book)! (Although I guess that last one would be a diabolus ex machina instead.)

The thing is, there’s quite a lot of foreshadowing an set-up that went into this plot, too, so that I frequently had those , “Oh! I should have guessed that! Very clever!” feelings that I find so enjoyable when reading. So it’s just frustrating when something randomly comes up or a character just happens to know something out of the blue with no indication of its existence previously… well, maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine.

– – –

The final book in the trilogy, The Immortal Heights, is coming out in October (which is why I’m doing this review now). It’s kind of hard to talk about the final book of a series while avoiding spoilers for the first two, but I’ll try.

The first two books are all about setting the stage for the final great act of rebellion against Atlantis. In the final book, that’s what we get — the culmination of all the efforts of our heroes. All the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in this story so far have been leading up to this. And there will be more blood, etc. shed before it’s over.

Let me again emphasize the clever foreshadowing and the well-developed relationships, because those things become SUPER AWESOME in this last book. Like, Sherry Thomas was definitely not just phoning it in on this last installment.

– – –

The Elemental Trilogy is just a good, solid teen epic fantasy story. It could easily have tipped over into a boring mess of trope soup, but I think the author’s previous experience with adult romance novels ensured that it didn’t get too bogged down and the characters stayed interesting throughout the three books.

Highly recommended for fans of Tamora Pierce, Rae Carson, Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas, etc.


Links:

Publication information:
Thomas, Sherry. The Burning Sky. New York: Blazer + Bray, 2013. Print.
Thomas, Sherry. The Perilous Sea. New York: Blazer + Bray, 2014. Print.
Thomas, Sherry. The Immortal Heights. New York: Blazer + Bray, 2015. EPUB.


Source:
Publisher (The Burning Sky, print)
Public library (The Perilous Sea, print)
Publisher (The Immortal Heights, e-book via Edelweiss)


Disclaimer:
I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Walk on Earth a Stranger
by Rae Carson

September 8, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Carson_WalkonEarthaStranger

★ ★ ★ ★

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson | September 2015 | Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins | Hardcover $17.99

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more. She also has a secret. Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

This review is based on an e-galley provided by the publisher via Edelweiss. The book is due to be released September 22, 2015.

I was really super excited to get a chance to read this new title from the author of the Girl of Fire & Thorns series, which I liked very much.

The first part of the book reminded me strongly of Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, simply because of the setting and the “girl escapes scary old dude by dressing as a boy and running west with the help of an escaped slave” plot. In fact, if you liked Under a Painted Sky, I can guarantee you’d like Walk on Earth a Stranger too. But it’s not a copycat story – many elements are similar, but I didn’t feel any sense of “I’ve read this story before…” either.

Carson did a great job with the whole atmosphere. The places described, the mannerisms and actions of the characters, even the thought patterns of the narrator feel like they really do fit in with the pre-Civil War rural South/West setting, without being too jolting or confusing for the modern reader. This is something I’ve come to admire in the best historical fiction.

ManifestDestiny

American Progress, or Manifest Destiny, by George Crofutt, 1873
From the American Memory: American Women Collection of the Library of Congress

 

The magic element – Leah’s ability to sense gold – is important to the story but not the entire focus of it. She has this interesting ability that can help her find wealth, but it also puts her in danger from people who want to take advantage of her or people who think she’s some kind of witch. Other than that, though, she’s really just a very tough young woman who has to do the best she can to survive. She’s not a magical girl who can wave a wand and poof out of trouble; she has to face down that trouble as best she can, usually by herself with only her own wits and shooting skills to save her. I like that.

Leah is not perfect. She a teenager who is still learning about morality, still figuring out her feelings for other people and trying to decide how to act on them. I enjoyed reading about her adventures through her point of view precisely because she’s not perfect and her mistakes and flaws make her story interesting.

I was not particularly interested in the romance, at least at first. Was it really necessary to have Leah crushing on her best-friend-who-happens-to-be-a-guy? And was it really necessary to add a silly little love triangle on top of that? But in the end it didn’t really turn into the big ball o’ cliché that I feared. [Spoiler alert: I found the Reverend’s misguided marriage proposal scene terribly funny.]

From a genealogist’s point of view, this story was interesting because of its focus on the very real, very dramatic California Gold Rush. The long period of westward migrations in America in the 1800’s resulted in some pretty interesting little mysteries for many modern-day family historians. For example, I’m sure the fictional Joyners’ great-great-great-great-grandchildren would now be wondering what exactly happened to this branch of their family on their journey to the West Coast, with only census, land, and probate records to help them piece the story together.

I’m curious as to the nature of the planned sequels. The last chapter is open-ended enough that there could be one, but satisfyingly final enough that the book can stand on its own.


Links:


Publication information: Carson, Rae. Walk on Earth a Stranger. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Electronic format review copy provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Only Woman in the Room
by Eileen Pollack

September 3, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★

The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club by Eileen Pollack | September 2015 | Beacon Press | Hardcover $25.95

In 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, asked why so few women achieve tenured positions in the hard sciences, Eileen Pollack set out to find the answer. In the 1970s, Pollack had excelled as one of Yale’s first two women to earn a bachelor of science degree in physics. But, isolated, lacking in confidence, and starved for encouragement, she abandoned her lifelong dream of becoming a theoretical physicist. Years later, she thought back on her experiences and wondered what had changed in the intervening decades, and what challenges remained. Based on six years of interviewing dozens of teachers and students and reviewing studies on gender bias, The Only Woman in the Room is an illuminating exploration of the cultural, social, psychological, and institutional barriers confronting women in the STEM disciplines.

This review is based on an e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss. The book is due to be published September 15, 2015. 

This book is generally OK, but I’m not sure whether this is something I’d generally recommend. In my opinion, the way it is being marketed is ever-so-slightly deceptive. This is not really a book about why more men than women manage to have successful careers in science. It’s one person’s extra-long lament about their disappointing experiences in college – which, granted, were often due to being a woman studying science, but still… not quite what is being advertised.

There are some quite lovely bits of prose, like this one from the last chapter:

Which only goes to prove that if you want to become a physicist – or anything else – you need to do it for yourself. You need to do it for the little girl who couldn’t stop thinking about how everything that exists evolved from nothing, how the first human beings learned to speak inside their heads, whether time would exist if no observers existed to record it, how a ray of light sniffs out the fastest path to follow, how an electromagnetic wave might appear if it were traveling in two or four rather than three dimensions, how an infinite number of infinitesimally tiny slivers beneath a curve can be integrated to find its area, or how an infinite number of infinitely tiny fractions of human life can be combined to create a whole.

Unfortunately, this book seemed to focus primarily on the author’s own personal issues rather than any larger trends or cultural problems. Oh, sure, the story was well-written (as you’d expect from Creative Writing professor) and Pollack’s story is somewhat intriguing, but I’m afraid I just could not relate to either her experiences or her attitudes in many instances. Part of that is due to generational differences and subject focus (after all, a Jewish woman who studied physics at an Ivy in the 1970’s would have a different point of view than a WASP woman studying biology at a public college in the 2000’s), but part of it is her reactions to incidents in her life, which often struck me as unnecessarily anxious or defeatist.

I kind of hate that I feel that way, because the epilogue includes responses from readers who thought the author lacked courage or blamed other people for her failures too often. I don’t want to be grouped with the “male professors [who] wrote to express their impatience, even anger at women who exhibit ‘self-esteem’ issues” because I don’t think that reaction is productive.

Plus, Eileen is of my own mother’s generation — and my mother was earning her master’s in organic chemistry at roughly the same time as the author was going through university. My mother and I haven’t really ever talked in depth about her grad school experience, but this book has made me curious. Did she experience the same issues? I’ll have to ask next time we meet.

– – – – – –

I was also a bit irritated by her assertion, based primarily on her own experiences and anecdotal evidence from a few other people, that most women just need more encouragement than men in order to be successful in STEM academia. First of all, that hasn’t been my own experience at all – but again, we are products of different times and disciplines. But the more irritating thing about this assertion, to me, is that it wasn’t scientific … at least until well over 200 pages into the book, when Pollack finally mentions a major study on the subject and gets some evidence-based exposition from one of the women who published it. Here we are, diving into the topic of women in science, and one of the author’s primary assertions isn’t even backed up by scientifically gathered/considered evidence until the story is almost finished?

Where was the in-depth discussion of developments in science education? Where did the author give any serious page space to statistics, trends, or peer-reviewed papers? Where was the scientific investigation of “why science is still a boys’ club” in this book?

– – – – – –

I’m struggling to rate this one, because the book wasn’t outright bad. It was just… more of a memoir and a series of interviews than an examination of the STEM gender gap. To be fair, the very last part of the book did involve the findings of various studies/committees (with the focus on one in particular). But that wasn’t even close to the bulk of the focus of the book, and in the end it just wasn’t what I thought it would be.

BUT.

Don’t take my word for it. Lots of people have enjoyed this book and the conversations it sparks are super important. Check out the links below for some other perspectives.


Links:


Publication information: Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015. EPUB.
Source: Electronic format review copy provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.