Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik

8c592166cd866c5597663746977434f414f4141This is a book about manufactured materials, framed around a picture of the author drinking tea on his patio in London, with a view of the Shard in the background. It’s a really great way to a frame a book – you get an incredible number of materials out of that picture, from concrete to porcelain to chocolate.

I think I liked the chocolate section the best. I would never have thought of it as an engineered substance, but when you step back a minute and think about it – it is. It’s been engineered over time to turn into hot chocolate in our mouths, and most of us could never conceive of it in a different way.


Maps and Legends – Michael Chabon

102ddfdbba1a81059734e646567434f414f4141This book is part memoir, part musing on books that straddle the divide between “regular” fiction, and genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, comics, etc). Chabon’s considered a “regular” fiction author (I guess getting a Pulitzer does that), though he’s written books that would definitely be considered genre if other people had written them. He’s also not one of those “regular” authors that gets all huffy if you dare suggest they might be slumming it by even touching that tainted pool of books not included in “real” fiction bucket. (Are my biases showing?)

Several chapters are meditations on other works – Sherlock Holmes, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material series, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I found those all interesting – especially the chapter on The Road. That’s the only McCarthy I’ve read, so it was nice to see Chabon’s views on how that fits in with McCarthy’s other work. (That book guaranteed I’d probably not read anything else of his.    It was lovely, but I do not need to be that depressed by a whole book.)

There are also some interesting chapters about how being Jewish has impacted the author’s work – I don’t share that faith (and frankly, culture – being Jewish is so much more than the faith), so that was interesting.

All in all, I’m not sure I’d recommond this book to anyone that hasn’t read any other works by this author – there’s enough personal material that that’s primary, but if you have read some of his books, you can see his motivations, and get some other musing on genre fiction.

Oak and Ash and Thorn – Peter Fiennes

ddf33e27289871259697a716f77434f414f4141Having recently read a book about the American view of wilderness, it was very interesting to get a contemporary British view – and it very much makes me appreciate what I have in my fairly well forested state.

This is an interesting book – if you’re looking for scientific details of Britain’s forest, you won’t find that. What you do get is a cultural landscape of the remnant forests of Britain, and a call to save them. It’s a scattered narrative – taking place over a year where the author seeks out pieces of forests that still survive, though in some cases, barely. His concern for the loss of these places is clear. This is a lovely portrait of something that should not be lost, but is close to being so.

Wilderness and the American Mind – Roderick Nash

0300029101-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Having done a concentration on the ecological side of biology in college (I like large scale communities. Microbiology bores me, though I do recognize its importance.), this was an interesting read. I think today, if you talked to a lot of urban dwellers (I’m firmly in that camp), and asked them their view on wilderness, they’d probably point to some wilderness preserve or national park, and talk about the importance of preserving nature so that everyone can escape there and enjoy it. I think it would surprise many members of that demographic that that was not always the case.

This book goes back to the roots of this country, and examines the way our views of wilderness have changed. Our ancestors (mine were Puritans in Massachusetts) came to this country with a dim view of wilderness – it was actually their sacred duty to subdue the wilderness and bring it under the influence of civilization. A Puritan from the late 1600s would probably look askance at our current movements to preserve wilderness. In fact, that’s a fairly recent development in this country, because the book also argues that a country must have a fairly settled existence to value wilderness. We value it now precisely because we’ve almost erased it.

I read the third edition, which was published in the 80s. (I got it for free from a book swap, so I was happy to get any edition.) I would be very interested to read the newest edition (the fifth – published in 2014), which brings in viewpoints on more current issues like climate change. Full disclosure – this is dense and scholarly, so I can’t stay I read through it quickly, but it was definitely a worthy, slow read.

A Curious History of Cats – Madeline Swan

1904435793-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_This is an interesting compendium of facts about cats through history- starting with their domestication, and on through the years to the present day. There are a number of famous people, both cat lovers and cat haters, mentioned. There are also a number of interesting illustrations (all black and white sadly) of various art work through the ages depicting cats.

It’s not a bad book, but the biggest thing I took away from it is that it seemed like each chapter was one gigantic run on sentence. I mean, they were grouped logically by time period, but there was no flow. I know this isn’t narrative fiction, and I believe I’m willing to cut some slack in that department for non fiction, but this book just seemed like it needed a better editor.

Cherries in Winter – Suzan Colon

030747593x-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_This is the story of how the author’s family used food to get through hard times, framed with her experiences being laid off from her magazine job during the Great Recession in 2008/2009. It’s a really nice story of family, and sticking together through hard times. I really just picked it up because it was next in line in the stack, but it turned out to be what I need this week.

I don’t write a lot about politics and the like in this blog, because I don’t feel like that defines my existence, but that’s not to say I don’t have strong opinions on it, and the election (and the season leading up to it) last week was definitely a low point in our modern political history. I don’t know what’s going to happen with soon to be president Cheeto – I’ll do my best to respect the office, but I cannot respect the man – but this book was exactly what I needed to counteract the general air of depression hanging over a lot of us right now. In that general spirit, I’m going to focus on positive things – like the 17th annual Mocksgiving last weekend, and all the friends that make that happen, as well as the soon to be niece or nephew who is now officially my niece M. Those are the kinds of things that are important.

Worlds Elsewhere – Andrew Dickson

I’d never given much thought to Shakespeare in translation – I mean, the thing about his work is his amazing use of the English language.     You find lists of words that he pioneered in his work that we’re still using today.     Heck, we’ve basically moved on from that particular form of the language, and yet, his work is still taught in schools today.

But, it turns out his work has moved around the globe, and in many cases been translated, and Shakespeare has been adopted into other cultures as a national poet/playwright.     Or, his work has come to be associated with some very fraught ideas of colonialism and national identity (see: South Africa), or even with the very nature of what is art for the masses vs. the intellectuals (see: China).

There are five sections: Germany, the US, India, South Africa, and China.     The author travels to each, so you get a really great flavor of the places involved.     It’s just a fascinating read.