Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
In the beginning there was Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. And the readers and the reviewers looked upon it and saw that it was good. And in its wake there came a steady tide of books whose titles were single nouns. So Salt begat Coal, and Ice, and The Potato, and Spice, and Banana, and Thames, and Rust, and divers others. I expect that right now someone, somewhere is toiling away at Zinc Oxide: A Global Biography.
And now there's Rain. It's not bad. The actual writing achieves a pleasingly lyrical flow, suitable to its subject. Nonetheless, Rain suffers from a not-uncommon affliction of this genre: a compulsion to flit about from one thing to another, including short squibs on every damn thing the author can somehow relate to to the title.
So Rain goes trippingly from Mars to umbrellas to weather forecasting to rain gods to floods to the shape of raindrops to (of course) global warming to Japanese traditional umbrellas to Indian perfume, seldom bothering to tie any two chapters together. Barnett likes fine-sounding phrases, but she doesn't like to substantiate them. Thus, for example, we are at various times informed that "some scientists predict" X, or "many historians believe" Y, or such-like generalizations. Well, who are these "some scientists"? How many of them are there? Is this a mainstream opinion, a minority opinion, a speculation, or a bunch of flakes?
The pity of it is that there's one section that really does hold together. When Barnett stops globe-trotting and settles down for four chapters in the U.S., she produces a really knockout short narrative of Americans' stormy (har!) relationship with rain. From Thomas Jefferson (who was obsessed with the stuff), through the sodbusters who lived and died by it, and on into the eccentricities of weather control, this is good stuff.
Sadly, it doesn't last. The next section goes off into ... I don't remember where. Some lyrical but ultimately disjointed tangent, I suppose.
Don't get me wrong. I like these books. Why else would I have read so many of them? So I sort of liked Rain. But it could have been better.
Salt truly is excellent, as is Rust. I also really liked Hannah Holmes's The Secret Life of Dust, even though it has more than one word in the title.