Chemistry appears to be the coldest, most sterile field of science, breaking down all the values that we as humans hold most dear. When we look close enough, these basic drives of ours, love, money, entertainment, courage, are just the combinations of different elements. Thanks chemistry, for sucking the fun out of the party.
But Sam Kean’s new book, The Disappearing Spoon, manages to take the history of the periodic table of elements, that impenetrable fortress from your high school chemistry class, and relate some of the most amazing, unbelievable, hilarious stories that have ever existed.
Almost episodic in nature, the crux of each story is often how a particular element was discovered, and then how humankind has chosen to put it to use. Sometimes it is for public welfare (copper is used on doorknobs and stair railings because most bacteria that land on it die with in a matter of hours), other times for warfare (high demand for the metals used to construct cell phones have contributed to five million deaths in war-torn central Africa since the mid-90’s).
How’s that for a title that gets your attention? No, this isn’t one of those glamorous, tell-all, rock star groupie memoirs. In fact, I cannot imagine any of the members of the punk rock pioneers, the Ramones, even using the word “glamorous” in a sentence…except perhaps to describe a pizza.
I Slept with Joey Ramone is the affectionate account of lead singer Joey Ramone’s complicated relationship with his kid brother Mickey, who also wrote and played music, but lived in Joey’s shadow.
The sections relating the brothers’ childhood in Queens were especially informative, and had the same sense of deep camaraderie that I loved in Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes, with just a couple of brothers looking out for each other in the big bad city. You learn about their fascination and burgeoning love of rock music, thanks to the Beatles and Phil Spector’s wall of sound.
Alternating from biography to science, Rebecca Skloot in writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks avoids sentimentality and making judgments.
Skloot, a science journalist, tells the story of Henrietta and her DNA. The subject was born Loretta Pleasant—nobody knows how her name became Henrietta—Lacks, in a family known to marry their first cousins in the now-razed town of slave cabins and tobacco farms named Clover near Roanoke, Virginia. She married her first cousin, David ‘Day’ Lacks, moved to Baltimore to work in a plant riddled with asbestos. Her husband's unfaithfulness gave her both neurosyphilis and gonorrhea. Her environment, poverty and lack of education made her the tragic heroine of a great scientific experiment. Henrietta Lack's deadly cervical cancer cells—taken without her consent—were the first to be grown and then thrive in a lab. HeLa cells, still growing today sixty years after her death, would weigh in total more than 50 metric tons.
Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson is about: "Isaac Cline was one of the era's new men, a scientist who believed he knew all there was to know about the motion of clouds and the behavior of storms. The idea that a hurricane could damage the city of Galveston, Texas, where he was based was to him preposterous. It is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets nature's last uncontrollable force, based on Cline's own letters, telegrams, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the hows and whys of great storms."
If you liked "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson, you may enjoy these books:
The Great Hurricane: 1938
by Cherie Burns
"On the night of September 21, 1938, news on the radio was full of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. There was no mention of severe weather. By the time oceanfront residents noticed an ominous yellow color in the sky, it was too late. In a matter of hours, a massive hurricane of unprecedented force ripped its way from Long Island to Providence, obliterating coastal communities, destroying whole commercial fishing fleets from Montauk to Narragansett Bay, and killing seven hundred people. Early that morning, old-salt fishermen heading out on calm seas noticed a sudden drop in the barometer, which made some turn back.
Hurling toward them at a record speed was a powerful hurricane--the big cat stalking the coast was ready to strike. It struck Long Island with the tide at an all-time high under a full, equinox moon. The sea rose out of its shores like a demon, with catastrophic waves surging over fifty feet. Winds whipped up to 186 miles per hour, trashing boats and smashing homes from Long Island to Connecticut and Rhode Island. Most victims never knew what hit them. Flowing through "The Great Hurricane: 1938 are personal stories of those like the Moore family who were sucked to sea clinging to a raft formerly their attic floor. Like "The Perfect Storm, Burns's masterful storytelling follows the storm's punishing path in a seamless and suspenseful narrative, preserving for posterity the legendary story of the Great Hurricane."--catalog summary
In the Land of White Death: an Epic Story of Survival in the Siberian Arctic by Valerian Albanov
"...this is "one helluva read" ("Newsweek") and a chilling first-person account of extreme survival in the Siberian Arctic, rediscovered by Jon Krakauer and David Roberts. "Vivid . . . [a work of] terrifying beauty."--"The Boston Globe.""--catalog summary
“This I Believe offers a simple, if difficult invitation: write a few hundred words expressing the core principles that guide your life - your personal credo. We issue that invitation to politicians, nurses, artists, construction workers, athletes, parents, students, the famous, and the unknown, everyone. All the essayists in this book accepted invitations.” –Jay Allison
From 1951-1955, The CBS Radio Network aired This I Believe, a five-minute program in which people from all walks of life, the famous and not-so-famous, read their responses to the question “What do you believe?”. From 2005-2009, NPR revived the idea with a similar broadcast, and subsequently published two volumes of "This I Believe" essays. In August of this year, my professor for English 307: The Writing Process gave us an assignment to write a This I Believe essay. We were given copies of the book’s Appendix B: “How to write your own This I Believe essay” and sample essays to read and give us an idea of the format, tone and length. It was a mind-opening assignment, let me tell you.
The subtitle of A Brave Vessel by Hobson Woodward says it all: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. The voyage of the Sea Venture, May to July, 1609, featured an encounter with a perfect storm that flung the little boat ashore on the island of Bermuda instead of its intended destination, the fledgling colony at Jamestown.
The author is a credible historian (the text is fleshed out with ample notes and an extensive bibliography) with a novelist's skill at telling a story enlived with fleshed out characters, dramatic tension, and pacing that make it a true page turner. One of the Sea Venture's passengers was William Strachey, a writer whose extensive chronicle of the castaways' experiences of the desert island was widely circulated on his successful return to England and clearly was familiar to Shakespeare who apparently wrote his play while the news was still fresh.
Who were these people? How did they survive? How did they hand build a boat capable of getting them up to Jamestown and what did they find when they arrived? What elements did Shakespeare incorporate into his play? Fascinating reading, with an amazing finish.
If you are thinking about being a dog owner, whether it's your first time or your first time considering a new breed, you'll want to check out The Dog Selector: How to Choose the Right Dog for You by David Alderton.
The Dog Selector provides an overview of 130 popular dog breeds with the goal of pairing a potential owner with the right type of dog for his or her lifestyle. Alderton provides a brief history of each breed as well as a "canine characteristics" chart which covers personality, exercise requirements, typical behavior at home and in public, grooming requirements, and common health issues. Of course, you'll see a picture of each dog and sometimes a puppy too!
Each chapter features ten breeds (which can vary widely in size and look) which share common characteristics that would make them good for beginners, or low-maintenance (and high-maintenance too, if you're brave and energetic), or good for people with allergies, or good for families, etc.
This title of this book, In The Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time intrigued me because I have very little contact with my neighbors and have often wondered if other neighborhoods are the same. Peter Lovenheim, the author, is prompted to better understand his neighbors and his neighborhood after one of his neighbors, Dr. Wills, murders his wife and then kills himself. Their two children, who were home at the time, ran to a neighbor’s house for assistance. Although they did not know their neighbors, the children’s mother had the foresight to tell the children if anything bad happened to run to the home across the street for help.
“The crime that inevitably intrigues me most is murder. It’s so final. At a fresh murder scene you can smell the blood and hear the screams; years later, they still echo in my mind. Unsolved murders are unfinished stories. The scenes of the crimes may change over the years; highways are built over them, buildings are torn down, houses are sold. I drive by and wonder if the new occupants, as they go about their daily lives, ever sense what happened there. Do they know, or am I the only one who still remembers?” – The Corpse Had a Familiar Face