Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book Review: Letters to a Young Scientist

Letters to a Young Scientist
Edward O. Wilson
Science, biography, essays

A love letter to science, framed as epistles to an imaginary recipient. Letters to a Young Scientists is beautifully if simply written and often quite touching. It really gives a wonderful feel for how much Wilson adores science--indeed, for the love that any good scientist feels--as well as giving some of Wilson's own biography. (Incidentally, there are also many fascinating facts about ants.)


If you're a scientist, or if you're interested in how scientists feel about what they do, this is the book for you. If you're not interested, you should maybe read it anyway; you may well be fascinated before you finish.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book Review: A is for Arsenic

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
Katherine Harkup
Medicine, literature

This book is aimed squarely at a particular demographic: fans of Agatha Christie who are also interested in forensics. Given that Christie has sold somewhere north of two billion books, that's not as narrow a target as you might think. Needless to say, I'm in it.


A is for Arsenic
 is more about the science than about the literary criticism. Every chapter picks a separate poison and discusses its chemical properties, how it works, its symptoms, antidotes (if any), how to detect it, real-life cases, and (finally) how Christie used it in fiction. It's an extraordinarily informative book--good enough for aspiring mystery authors to use as a reference. The tone might have benefited by being more sprightly and less stately; Harkup periodically reveals a sharp sardonic wit. The writing is very clear, though, and should be accessible even to non-scientists. A non-mystery-loving reader won't find much in A is for Arsenic, but for the right-thinking remainder of us it's a lot of fun. 


WARNING: Katherine Harkup does her best to avoid spoiling the books, but it's an impossible task. In some cases, just knowing that book X features poison Y--or any poison--is a spoiler. Read the books first. If you've already read them, read them again.

An excellent companion book is Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook.

Agatha Christie published something like eighty books over a 50-plus-year writing career. Naturally, not all of the books are of equal quality. My semi-subjective list of the absolute best would include (in no particular order):

  • And Then There Were None
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • The ABC Murders
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • Death on the Nile
  • Cards on the Table (warning: contains a spoiler for Murder on the Orient Express)
  • Evil Under the Sun
  • Sleeping Murder
  • A Murder is Announced
  • Thirteen at Dinner
  • Curtain
  • Five Little Pigs
  • The Patriotic Murders
  • The Moving Finger
If she'd written any one of these, it would certainly have been considered a classic, one of the absolute best books of the puzzle-mystery genre. To have written all of them, plus twenty or thirty others that are almost as good . . . well, it's just plain unfair.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Compass

Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation
Alan Gurney
Science, history, nautical

If you think the subject matter sounds interesting . . .

Actually, Compass is a bit better than the label would indicate. It's comprehensive, it's informative, it's detailed, and it's colloquially written. It might not appeal to readers with a low tolerance for minutiae, and it lapses once or twice into Nauticalese ("Lady Nelson . . . had lost dagger boards"). That aside, it's an agreeable read into an important and oft-overlooked piece of technology.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: Colonel Roosevelt

Colonel Roosevelt
Edmund Morris
Biography

Like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt is too large and varied a figure to be easily encompassed. This is the man who, while campaigning for President against his own chosen successor, was shot in the chest and then proceeded to give his scheduled speech anyway, with the bullet still in him. This is also the man whose collected published writings ran to twenty-four volumes; who explored an uncharted river through the Amazon rain forest; who won the Nobel Peace Prize; who made American conservationism a reality . . .


It's not surprising, then, that TR couldn't be captured in a single book. Colonel Roosevelt is the third and final volume of Edmund Morris's epic biography (the first two are The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex.) The adjectives it demands run towards "magisterial," "monumental," and "definitive." It's also vivid, multifaceted, and elegantly written in a sinuously literary register.

It's not an overblown newspaper report. Morris's aim is to be judicious, rather than impartial. As a writer with some evident pride in his own authorial chops, Morris feels free to critique Roosevelt's written output. Here a speech shows "Roosevelt's contempt for legalistic justice"; there another speech has "few passages of eloquence"; the book America and the World War has "some passages of real power," but "browsers glancing through its table of contents felt that they . . . would gain little by reading further." Outside of the literary, Morris's editorial specialty is the well-honed word or phrase, as when Woodrow Wilson "flee"s the White House, or is "professedly" bedridden.

It bears emphasizing that this linguistic scalpel is deployed carefully, and is not confined either to praising or to damning TR. The opinions of Roosevelt's foes, as well as his admirers, are given thoughtful weight, and in all cases the basis for their judgment is manifest. Thus, the naturalist John Burroughs can say
Roosevelt would be a really great man if he could be shorn of that lock of his hair in which that strong dash of the bully resides.
and we know exactly what he means, just as we can simultaneously appreciate the tributes of Teddy's unabashed partisans. All in all there's no reason to doubt a contemporary journalist: Roosevelt was "the most interesting American."

Ken Burns's recent documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a superb introduction to Rooseveltology, though of course it's much less detailed than Morris's three-volume, 2000+-page biography. For Roosevelt's adventures in South America, don't miss Candace Millard's The River of Doubt.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Ed Yong
Biology

Sometimes you get a book that demands adjectives. I'm talking "mind-blowing," "wondrous," "astounding" . . . you know, the usual tepid endorsements you've come to expect from this blog.


Part of the wondrousness of I Contain Multitude is simply a matter of content. For anyone with even a passing interest in biology, it would be hard to write a dull book given Yong's factual starting points. Did you know that . . .
  • There's a species of mite that contains no less than five bacterial symbionts, none of which can survive without the others (or the mite itself)?
  • Your personal biome influences how attractive you are to insects?
  • The desert woodrat can digest the toxic leaves of the creosote bush because of its gut microbes?
  • The microfauna on your left hand are probably quite unlike what's on your right hand?
  • It may be possible to prevent the spread of viruses using mosquitos' own bacteria?
And that's just the start.

Life, in other words, is gloriously amazingly complicated. We humans tend to view it simplistically: it's a pyramid, we're at the top, and microbes are enemies to be eliminated. I Contain Multitudes effectively and enthusiastically demolishes that view. Along the way it treats the reader to an unending cornucopia of wonders, even as Ed Yong conscientiously documents the ways in which science is ever-changing and tentative and unsettled (especially in new fields such as this). Yong's writing is chatty, often sly, always clear, sometimes surprisingly eloquent. He has no choice, given the scope of his subject matter, to jump around somewhat--from researcher to researcher, from problem to problem, from organism to organism--but he's usually pretty good about reminding us where he's coming from.

I find it hard to imagine any reader who wouldn't enjoy this book, except possibly for the pathologically science-phobic. How much you take away from it, in terms of facts, is a separate question; there's just too much information for anyone to remember it all. Trust me: you won't care.

Though wildly different in tone and structure, Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies is similar in that it's a great read full of can't-miss content.  

An interview with the author is here.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
History, meteorology

I expected to really like this book. Erik Larson is a master of non-fiction with the pacing and drive of fiction. The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake in particular are great reads--histories that read like thrillers.


Isaac's Storm reads like fiction, too. In fact, it reads a little bit too much like fiction. Larson's reach exceeds his grasp. He's trying to achieve a kind of profundity; he wants to say something about hubris, about technology, about society, about the turn of the century, about nature. But in his eagerness to present these greater themes, Larson--at best--distorts and embellishes his facts.

A certain amount of license is permissible in a book like this. If you know that the eponymous Isaac Cline took a carriage ride, and you know that the roads were surfaced with oyster shells, it's OK to say that "The wheels of Isacc's sulky broadcast a reassuring crunch as they moved over the pavement of crushed oyster shells." It's a little less forgivable in my book to describe--poetically, and without attribution or citation--how things looked and felt and seemed to the people involved, but it's a venial sin. There's too much of it in Isaac's Storm, and it gets rather purple on occasion, but I could forgive it.

However, when part of your attempted theme involves blackening people's reputations, it's not acceptable to make up stuff about those people. For example:
There were dreams. Isaac fell asleep easily each night and dreamed of happy times, only to wake to gloom and grief. He dreamed that he had saved [his wife]. He dreamed of the lost baby.
Only if you happen to look in the end notes will you find this:
248. There were dreams: I base this observation on human nature. What survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different.
And, similarly, this:
232. Isaac checked: what Isaac Cline did in the days immediately after the storm is a mystery. I have based this paragraph and others that follow on my sense of Isaac's character . . .
And this:
258. Isaac kept the ring: Isaac nowhere states this. It is conjecture, purely, but I base it on a number of things, particularly: Isaac's essentially romantic character . . .
These all come near the end of a book in which Larson uses Isaac Cline (who was the resident Weather Bureau meteorologist) as a symbol and exemplar of Man's Hubris in the Face of Nature; casts doubt on his personal accounts of the event; downplays his role in warning the city of Galveston; plays up his rivalry with his brother Joseph; and dramatizes his mistaken decision to trust in the solidity of his house. He may well be in the right, but his technique is not kosher. It's one thing to ornament the documentation if you're not trying to make value judgments--if, let us say, you're presenting an allegedly-straight recitation of events. When you do make value judgments, and then support those value judgments with truthy factoids that you made up, the term for what you're doing is no longer "nonfiction"; it's "propaganda".

I really did want to like Isaac's Storm. Instead, it substantially lessened my confidence in Erik Larson as an author.

Isaac's Storm has a strong crossover with The Weather Experiment, which details 19th-century scientists' first attempts to understand and predict weather. Another hurricane history--and in my opinion a better book--is R. A. Scotti's Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi
Science fiction

This reads exactly like a political space opera written by John Scalzi. Which it is.


What, you wanted more in the way of a review? Fine. The Collapsing Empire combines John Scalzi's strengths and weaknesses as a writer with the strengths and weaknesses of the political-intrigue space opera as a genre. If you like these two things, you'll like the combination.

That's still not enough for you? Okay, here's the checklist. The Collapsing Empire has:
  • Funny, snarky dialogue.
  • A great opening scene, which is unfortunately a little bit disconnected from what follows.
  • Intrigue, politics, a scheming villain, several reasonably-appealing protagonists.
  • Adequate but shallow characterization.
  • Less idea content than in a typical Scalzi book. The best idea--build an interstellar empire that stays peaceful because no planet in it has the resources to survive without the others, due to legal monopolies--isn't really built out.
  • A bit of action.
  • A strong whiff of Dune--not in the setting or in the writing, but in the machinations. (Look what I found after having drafted that sentence.)
  • A 34th-century setting in which the characters are nonetheless recognizably people like us.
  • A lot of profanity.
  • Some non-explicit sex.
  • Infodumps.
  • Not much in the way of description. I have no clear idea of what the characters look like, for example.
  • Quick pacing.
  • A story with a beginning, middle, and end, but one which is nonetheless unmistakably setup for the main story.
I read half the book riding a train to work, and the other half riding a train home. I'll read the next one. The Collapsing Empire isn't the strongest of Scalzi's novels. On the other hand, it scratches the itch for Classic Style Science Fiction, and that's good enough for me.

For a somewhat different reaction, look here.