Posts Categorized: Book Reviews

The Adventures & Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 15, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Doyle_SherlockHolmes

★ ★ ★

The Adventures & Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | 1892, original publication; 2004, this edition | Sterling Publishing | Hardcover $14.95

It’s elementary — there’s no more intriguing detective than Sherlock Holmes, with his unequalled powers of deduction, and no better mysteries than the tricky ones that only he can solve. Here are some of the finest Holmes stories, recounted by his trusty friend and assistant, Dr. Watson.

Only 3 stars for Sherlock Holmes! What are you, some kind of bonkers philistine with a puddle of cheese for brains? Your opinions are bad and you should feel bad.


That’s what you’re thinking right now, isn’t it?

Look, as it turns out, this whole Sherlock thing is not my thing. Holmes is not my homie.

It isn’t that these stories are bad! They’re not. A 3 star rating is nothing to sneeze at. I can still appreciate these stories for what they are — classic mysteries featuring unique, witty characters that have inspired a billion adaptations and reinterpretations.

I didn’t outright dislike this book. I was just kind of bored after the first couple of stories, TBH. Every story follows a formula: someone brings a case to Holmes, Holmes sees a bunch of details and clues that everyone else misses, some kind of small crisis or adventure happens, and Watson writes it all down from his own point of view. The end. Some of the mysteries were fairly interesting, but after a while they all started to blend together.

– – –

Beyond that, my main complaint is that Doyle relies on a lot of slight-of-hand storytelling devices. For example, take the overused “My dear Watson, didn’t you notice the X?” scenario where X is a thing that the reader, seeing things from Watson’s point of view, would also be unaware of until it was suddenly important. There’s also a lot of telling instead of showing, which I don’t think would fly if these books were written for modern mystery readers — somewhat ironically, as Doyle essentially popularized the genre single-handedly.

However, it isn’t entirely fair to judge the classics by my modern standards, is it? Especially since the mystery genre is not something I usually go for. Dunno why, I just am often bored with mystery books. Which further complicates my thoughts on rating this book, because how can I fairly rate a book if I rarely even read other comparable stories?

– – –

What I did like about this book, though, are the characters of Holmes and Watson themselves. It makes sense to me now why I enjoy most movies and TV shows based on these stories. Their personalities do shine through and develop over time despite the repetitiveness of the actual mysteries, and that’s what kept me reading until the end.So there it is, my dumb but honest opinion of this classic book. Please refrain from throwing all your rotten tomatoes at me….


Links:


Publication information: Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2004. Print.
Source: Owned, original source unknown.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Birth of the Pill
by Jonathan Eig

December 14, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Eig_BirthofthePill

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig | October 2014 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Paperback $16.95

Spanning the years from Margaret Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.

I absolutely devoured this book, but I’ve had a hard time writing a decent review for it. I’m having a hard time because I get pretty passionate about some of the issues discussed in this book, but this space is not — or shouldn’t be — a platform for my political views. IMHO, mixing hobby stuff and political stuff is probably not a great recipe for a blog. Hobbies and politics are not two great tastes that taste great together.

But. Every once in a while, these things do get mixed. It’s unavoidable, if you’re reading and enjoying a book about a contentious topic and you happen to keep a blog where you share your opinions on the books you’ve read. The topic of a book and one’s opinion of that book are necessarily entwined. So, fair warning: this review gets a little political.

– – –

The Birth of the Pill is about, well, just that: the development of the first pharmaceutically produced hormonal birth control method, and its impact on society.

Now, the Pill in and of itself might not seem like a particularly controversial thing to modern readers. After all, it and other forms of hormonal contraception have been in use since my grandmothers were my own age. Obviously the Catholic church has its objections, as do a handful of smaller groups (don’t even get me started on the Quiverfull movement), but overall the Pill has been a common fixture in household medicine cabinets for well over half a century.

The controversies are more apparent when we consider the events and people involved in the making of the Pill. Questionable treatment of experimental subjects? Potentially serious side effects brushed under the rug? A major backer involved with the eugenics movement? Ties to an organization that was (and still is) the most prominent abortion provider in the country? Check, check, check, and check.

– – –

I had to read this book chapter by chapter, breaking it up with other less rage-inducing books or activities. From the male doctors and researchers failing to take their patients’ concerns/needs/side effects seriously to the male, celibate priests of the Catholic church presuming to tell women how sex and babies should work, to the refusal of so many policymakers to allow even discussion of contraception much less development/distribution of it, to the lives damaged or lost to botched home-induced abortions and unwanted pregnancies resulting in dangerous, deadly births. . . there is no shortage of issues to rage about in this book.

Overall I think the author does a fine job of presenting the facts as they are, even when they might not be particularly palatable — and in this case, there are plenty of unpalatable facts to choose from regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. In the end, though, this story is a great reminder that history is not made by people who back down from controversy. Nor can the history of something that has had a profound impact on the world be tied up in a neat little bow without ignoring the knots and messiness that were part of its story as well.

– – –

I think this book is also a great reminder of how hard women had to fight — not that long ago! — for even basic forms of equality, and how important it is that women be allowed to control their own bodies in order for that equality to continue/grow.

It’s hard to imagine my doctor refusing to provide contraception because it isn’t curative medicine (and if you don’t want kids, too bad, you’re a married lady and have a duty to your husband — and if you’re not married, you’re a whore), or not being allowed to even discuss contraceptive options with me without breaking the law and possibly losing his/her (though let’s be real, it would have been his) license. And yet, these are things women — our own great-grandmothers! — were having to deal with less than a century ago. It’s just so hard to fathom and I’ve never been more grateful to be living in the 21st century than I was after finishing this book.

And yet, there are still people in this day and age who make women pawns in their political games, who make very real health needs collateral damage in their efforts to win votes — and even more frighteningly, there are still people who will go to any lengths to punish people who don’t step in line with their own beliefs about what women are allowed to do. The day after I finished reading this, a domestic terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing 3 people because he thought he was somehow saving babies.

This is why I couldn’t just write a cute little “Good book! 5 stars!” review for this title on Goodreads and leave it at that. If you’re a woman (or partner of a woman) who uses modern contraceptives, you need to read this book. You need to appreciate the small miracle that is the Pill.


Links:


Publication information: Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.
ource: Owned, self purchased.&
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Le Petit Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

November 20, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

saintex_petitprince

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry | April 1943 (this edition 2000) | Reynal & Hitchcock (this edition Harcourt) | Paperback $11

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

What perfect, terrible timing for this book.

By now, everyone has had their say about those terrorist attacks in Paris this last weekend. There’s probably nothing I can add to the discussion that won’t sound too frivolous or political. I’m just terribly sad for all the people there who have to fear for the safety of their beautiful city, of their home.

I read The Little Prince in French along with an English translation. It took me quite a bit longer than it should have. My French is rusty from disuse. It’s been a decade since I went to Paris for a study abroad program. I’m ashamed to say I found even this small, simple book a challenge to read. But I’m glad I read it.

Le Petit Prince is the story of a man who is stranded for several days in a desert with a boy who claims to have come from a tiny asteroid. The boy — the little prince — describes his journeys and the people (mostly asinine adults) he’s met along the way. This sounds simplistic, but every part of the boy’s story is designed to reveal some facet of the author’s experiences or human nature in general.

I vaguely remember seeing the 1974 film version of this story ages ago as a child, and I don’t think I entirely understood the implications of the prince’s “going home” at the end. Even though it is often considered a children’s story — whether that’s because it’s so short and poetic, or because of the illustrations, or because it is about a child — I think that this is a book that you really get more out of as an adult, with some awareness of subtext and some experience of the world.

I was going to see if I could get a hold of a DVD copy of the animated/stop-motion film based on this book that came out just this past summer. Hearing about it is what prompted me to put Le Petit Prince on my TBR Pile Challenge list for 2015, after all, and the trailers I’ve seen look lovely. But it looks like I’ll have to wait for March next year for the US release!


Links:


Publication information: de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. Le Petit Prince. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Print.
Source: Owned, original source unknown.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

November 7, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 2

dumas_count

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas | 1844-1846, serialized (this edition May 2003) | Penguin Classics | Paperback $16.00

Thrown in prison for a crime he has not committed, Edmond Dantès is confined to the grim Chateau d’If. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. Dumas’ epic tale of suffering and retribution, inspired by a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment, was a huge popular success when it was first serialised in the 1840s.

I have to confess, I was terribly nervous about this one. I kept putting it off, even though several people told me it was worth reading, because let’s face it … 1,270 pages of translated French from the 19th century is intimidating.

So, yes, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is not at all a chore to get through, nor is it a challenge to read (which I have come to expect and worry about with these older classics). This can no doubt be attributed partially to the skills of this edition’s translator, Robin Buss.

I had to stop and tweet about it at one point:

This story is so well known that I don’t think it is necessary to offer a summary, but if you need one: hit up Goodreads. (But if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t read the reviews. Not even this one.)

– – –

Highlights

Here are a few of my favorite bits (SPOILERS, obv) ….

  1. The grand escape from the prison. Even though I knew the basic storyline before reading — in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen at least one movie, even if I don’t remember it/them at all — I was still surprised by the sheer thrill of Edmond’s daring escape plan and his unexpected plunge into the stormy ocean. (Although… didn’t the abbé tell Edmond to give him 12 drops of the potion after his 3rd seizure to attempt to revive him, yet the dumbass only gave him 10? Or was that a translation error in this edition? Because, uh, that’s not a minor detail.)
  2. One entire chapter was devoted just to a dude getting high on hashish and having some kind of epic wet dream.
  3. Albert just generally being a sweet summer child. He wants so badly to have a fling while travelling in Italy but can’t even manage it — until he falls head over heels for a notorious bandit’s lover and allows himself to be tricked into getting kidnapped. Then he somehow manages to fall asleep while being held for ransom with the promise of execution if it can’t be paid. All this after he declared that he didn’t even believe in bandits! And he loves his mamma so dang much. The precious boy will do anything to keep her happy, and in the end he has to sacrifice quite a lot in order to do so. Such a beautiful cinnamon roll.
  4. Everyone faints all the time. Every single named character faints or nearly faints at least once. Except for the butch lesbian.
  5. Speaking of the butch lesbian, yes, this novel involves lesbians. One of them dresses as a dude and somehow gets away with it… until she’s caught in bed with her lady lover/piano teacher… by her 2nd ex-fiancé, a con artist on the run from the law. Anyway, these ladies are 2 of only 6 characters to actually get a happy ending, if you don’t count the aforementioned slight embarrassment.
  6. Do I even need to tell you how satisfying the Count’s revenge was? Multiple counts of revenge, and happily guilty of every single one. Well, no, he wasn’t 100 % happy with certain events, and frankly this wishy-washy, “Does God approve of my avenging angel plans or nah???” nonsense got a bit tiresome. But for the most part the whole revenge thing was extremely satisfying.
  7. Don’t forget about all the funny little bits that make this more than just an overly long adventure novel. The book is a pleasure to read because Dumas makes the reader feel like you’re in on the plot and you know all the inside jokes. I don’t think he ever went so far as to have the characters flat-out break the fourth wall, but some passages are written in such a way that I could practically hear the author having a good chuckle about the whole thing.

– – –

Quotes

Just to give you a little of the flavor that I found so amusing ….

He did not perceive that his friend was in the slightest concerned. On the contrary, he was paying the meal the compliment that one would expect from a man who has been condemned for four or five months to suffer Italian cooking (which is among the worst in the world).

 

The Turks — so picturesque in the old days with their long, brightly coloured robes — are now hideous in their blue buttoned frock-coats and those Greek hats which make them look line wine bottles with red tops. Don’t you agree?

 

As the steward had said, the notary was waiting in the antechamber — a respectable-looking Parisian assistant solicitor elevated to the insurmountable dignity of a pettifogging suburban lawyer.

 

This was accepted in society, where it was attributed to the amount and gravity of the lawyer’s business — when it was, in reality, a deliberate arrogance, an extreme example of aristocratic contempt, in short, the application of the maxim: ‘Admire yourself and others will admire you’, a hundred times more useful in our days than the Greek one: ‘Know thyself’, which has now been replaced by the less demanding and more profitable art of knowing others.

 

Mlle Danglars was still the same: that is to say, beautiful, cold, and contemptuous. Not a single glance or sigh from Andrea escaped her, but they appeared to be deflected by the breastplate of Minerva, which philosophers sometimes say in fact covered the breast of Sappho.

 

Beauchamp was in an office which was dark and dusty, as newspaper offices are from the day they open for business.

 

‘Well, while we were sleeping, from twelve to one…’
‘Convicts taking a siesta! Poor creatures!’ said the abbé.
‘Dammit,’ said Caderousse. ‘No one can work all the time. We are not dogs.’
‘Fortunately for the dogs,’ said Monte Cristo.

 

‘All men are scoundrels and I am happy to be able to do more than hate them: now I despise them.’

 

Danglars thought for a moment. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘Possibly.’
‘Did the leader tell you to treat me this way?’
‘Yes.’
‘Why?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But my money will run out.’
‘Probably.’

And let’s not forget the most delightful chapter title:

How to Rescue a Gardener From Dormice Who Are Eating His Peaches

– – –

Uh, except for this bullshit

There was only one thing that I somewhat disliked about The Count of Monte Cristo, though I’m inclined to partially forgive it as a mere reflection of the values of the time the book was written in. I’m talking about the supposedly loving or merciful way that the Count treats 2 particular women, which is clearly meant to make him seem kind and fair and righteous, but which — for me — only highlighted an outdated double standard made possible by the sort of infantilization/objectification of adult women that was a normal part of European culture at the time.

Mercédès, Edmond’s fiancée prior to his imprisonment, assumed he was dead or lost forever and she ended up marrying one of his enemies, whom she thought was a friend. The poor woman

  • lost the man she loved,
  • married a presumed friend only because society expected it of her,
  • lived a dull life with this man for many years and provided for him a son/heir like any good wife should,
  • discovered far too late that the man she loved had survived and blamed her for infidelity,
  • watched this man help ruin her husband’s admittedly ill-got fortune and her stability along with it,
  • had to beg her long lost lover not to kill her son,
  • and was ultimately driven back to near poverty in the town where she grew up,
  • with her son running off joining the military to atone for his father’s sins,
  • where she survived only by the mercy of a small amount of money provided by the count that was originally meant to have been a gift to her on their ruined wedding day,
  • while she prays to God to forgive her for being unfaithful.

And this is all seen as her just desserts because she didn’t pine away and die of sorrow while Edmond was in prison. That ain’t right. I stopped feeling sorry for the Count well before the end of the book, but I never stopped feeling sorry for Mercédès.

The other woman that I think gets the short end of the stick in this story is Haydée, the Count’s slave girl. That’s right, he has a slave girl. Who used to be a princess! In fact, the Count bought her as a child and practically raised her like a daughter… except for the whole “slave” thing. But wait, it gets even grosser, because:

The count felt his breast swell and his heart fill. He opened his arms and Haydée threw herself into them with a cry. ‘Oh, yes! Oh, yes I love you!’ she said. ‘I love you as one loves a father, a brother, a husband! I love you as one loves life, and loves God, for you are to me the most beautiful, the best and greatest of created beings!’

That’s right, this girl that has up until now thought of her owner as a father figure or older brother is now supposed to see him as a lover. Um, how about NO. That is not how the human brain works. That is gross. That is not allowed. Je refuse.

– – –

TL;DR

Anyway, other than the weird slut shaming of a super not-slutty character and the yucky pseudo-incest… I really liked this book! So much ridiculous melodrama!

I don’t have any other Dumas on my Classics Club reading list, so I’m trying to decide whether I want to go ahead and read some other stuff by this author anyway or if I ought to wait a while and stick some other Dumas titles on my next Classics Club list (if I ever do another one).

Have you read The Count of Monte Cristo — and if you have, did you like it as much as I did? What about other works by Alexandre Dumas?


Links:


Publication information: Dumas, Alexandre. The Count of Monte Cristo. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Source: Owned, original source unknown.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


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.


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.


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

pollack_only

★ ★ ★

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.