Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Disappearing Spoon: a very short review

Here I am again, twelve years late to the party, but please allow me to tell you about Sam Kean's wonderful The Disappearing Spoon.

The Disappearing Spoon is a history of chemistry organized around the periodic table of the elements.

Whoa! Back up! That sounded really boring! Let's try again:

The Disappearing Spoon is a collection of fascinating vignettes about the chemists, physicists, and other scientists who developed and refined our understanding of modern chemistry, grouped roughly into thematic categories of related tales, inter-sprinkled with just enough basic chemistry information to make you interested in something you (maybe) always thought was too boring for words.

That's better, but still doesn't do it.

The Disappearing Spoon is the sort of book where you start reading about Maria Goeppert, born in Germany in 1906, who was educated in Germany and met her husband, Joseph Mayer, then moved to Baltimore where he was a chemistry professor. You then learn that

her work touched on a mystery that was more difficult to grasp, a deceptively simple problem. The simplest element in the universe, hydrogen, is also the most abundant. The second-simplest element, helium, is the second most abundant. In an aesthetically tidy universe, the third element, lithium, would be the third most abundant, and so on. Our universe isn't tidy. The third most common element is oxygen, element 8. But why?

Now hooked on the question, so nicely-presented, you read on about Goeppert-Mayer's work on the nuclear shell model, and how it was able to explain the prevalence of oxygen in the universe, and how it led to being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. All well and good, the story then concludes:

Still, she never quite shook the stigma of being a dilettante. When the Swedish Academy announced in 1963 that she had won her profession's highest honor, the San Diego newspaper greeted her big day with the headline "S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize."

Many thanks to my great friend Roger, who raved about The Disappearing Spoon for years until I finally broke down and read it, wishing I had listened to him a decade ago.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

An alternate way to visit Yosemite

The nation's very best National Park is, of course, Yosemite National Park. But because of (a) it's the best park, and (b) it's therefore very popular, and (c) it's quite a distance up in the mountains, it can be quite a challenge to visit Yosemite.

The best of all possible ways to visit Yosemite is to arrange to take a backpacking trip into the wilderness; I've been lucky enough to do this multiple times in my life. But this is a big undertaking, and is really not for most people.

Another lovely way to visit Yosemite is to camp or stay in Yosemite valley. There are cabins and tent campsites available in the valley, as well as the Ahwahnee Lodge. These are all wonderful ways to visit Yosemite! But these campsites are very much over-subscribed, and you have to make reservations a year in advance. That's a lot of advance planning!

Many people arrange to stay outside the park, in places like Mariposa or Oakhurst or Sonora, all of which are very nice and have plenty of nice lodging. The downside is that it is at least a 90 minute drive to Yosemite valley from any of these places, possibly longer, which means you're spending a lot of your visiting day in a car. And none of them are actually in Yosemite National Park, so in the morning and at nighttime, you're not in the park, you're in a Gold Rush Town. Which is fun, but not the same thing.

Recently we went to visit Yosemite, and we found a spot in Wawona Village via Yosemite Scenic Wonders. I was a little uncertain about doing this at first, because I'd never done it before, but it turned out to be a wonderful visit. Scenic Wonders operates two areas of rental cabins that are actually inside the Yosemite National Park gates, one in Yosemite West and one in Wawona Village. Wawona Village is a beautiful, under-visited part of Yosemite, located in a small valley on the South Fork of the Merced River (Yosemite Valley is on the main Middle Fork of the Merced). It's quiet and beautiful, and is a lovely place to stay.

Wawona Village is not really close to Yosemite Valley, it's still a significant 45 minute drive, but that's much more feasible than a drive from Mariposa or Oakhurst, and more importantly at night-time you're in the wilderness, you're not in a city!

You get the real experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Moving Toyshop: a very short review

About eighty years ago, Bruce Montgomery, under the pen name of Edmund Crispin, wrote a series of detective novels featuring Gervase Fen of Oxford. Much has changed in the intervening years, yet Crispin's The Moving Toyshop is still quite enjoyable and entertaining.

The Moving Toyshop is, by turns, silly, exciting, intriguing, amusing, and sexy. At times it often felt like "what Wodehouse would write, if Wodehouse wrote amateur detective stories set in Oxford." Which is no bad thing!

When Crispin so desires, he can write a hard-boiled detective scene with the best of them:

Trapped in the pitch blackness of that musty-smelling passage, his self-control suddenly failed. He knew there was a soft, padding step coming towards him. He knew that he threw the empty torch blindly, and heard it strike the wall. And he sensed, rather than saw, the blazing beam of light which shone out from behind. Then there was a dull, enormous concussion, his head seemed to explode in a flare of blinding scarlet, and there was nothing but a high screaming like the wind in wires and a bright breen globe that fell twisting and diminishing, to annihilation in inky darkness.

And Crispin can be silly:

'Golly,' said Sally when he had finished, and added a little shyly: 'You do believe what I told you, don't you? I know it sounds fantastic, but - '

'My dear Sally, this is such a wild business I'd believe you if you said you were the Lady of Shalott.'

'You do talk funnily, don't you?' But the words were swept away in the rush of wind and the din of the engine.

'What?' said Cadogan.

Wilkes turned round in the front seat. He could hear better when there was a noise going on. 'She says you talk funnily.'

'Do I?' It had not previously occurred to Cadogan that he talked funnily, the thought disturbed him.

'I didn't mean to be rude,' Sally said. 'What do you do? What's your job, I mean?'

'I'm a poet.'

'Golly,' Sally was impressed. 'I've never met a poet before. You don't look like one.'

And Crispin can be sexy:

A girl had just emerged from an alley-way which ran behind one of the shops in the Cornmarket. She was about twenty-three, tall, with a finely-proportioned, loose-limbed body, naturally golden hair, big candid blue eyes, high cheek bones, and a firmly moulded chin. Her scarlet mouth broke into an impish smile as she called back to someone in the alley-way. She wore a shirt and tie, a dark brown coat and skirt, and brogue shoes, and walked with the insouciant swinging grace of perfect health.

A particularly fun part of reading The Moving Toyshop is the number of times I had to reach for my dictionary. Crispin deploys a broad vocabulary, and it was a nice change of pace to stop and look up some of the relatively unusual words I encountered: homiletic, steatopygic, budgerigars, atrabilious, fortalice, myrmidons, prepossession, perorated, rodomontade, groined, cheiromancer.

Along the way, our merry band of adventurers manage to track down and collar a group of scoundrels and deliver them to the local authorities, then retire to the local pub for their deserved, but mannered, celebratory feast.

Although The Moving Toyshop was published in 1946, Crispin is typically considered to be part of the great Golden Age of British detective writing, alongside other giants of the time such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, GK Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, Nicholas Blake, and more.

And, clocking in at a brisk 200 pages of rapid, easy reading, Crispin is a lovely way to explore that great period of writing, and I look forward to spending more time with his work in the future.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Oksi: a very short review

I don't read graphic novels very often (although I do like the genre).

I really don't read Finnish novels very often.

Mari Ahokoivu's Oksi is definitely the only Finnish graphic novel I have ever read.

I tend to read graphic novels too quickly, not paying enough attention to the artwork as I go, and Oksi is no exception. Worse, I read it quickly and yet over multiple sittings (it's quite a large book). So I tended to get immersed, and then break away, and then later I'd return to the book with a profound sense of dislocation, and struggle to re-capture whatever it was I was feeling the previous time.

Still, I felt that Oksi is deep, thought-provoking, disturbing, and complex. It's very effective, and I think this is a great example of why a graphic novel can be considered to be serious literature.

I found several online reviews where readers said that, having read it quickly (as I did), they now felt the urge to go back and re-read it slowly.

I think I'm different: I enjoyed the hours I spent with Oksi, but I'm going to pass it on to somebody else now.

But one last comment/question: how does this relate to Oski the Bear? I assume they're the same underlying character, although I've never heard anything about the mascot's name being related to Finnish mythology.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: a very short review

Wow, it's been a really long time since I wrote on the blog. Bad Bryan!

Seth Grahame-Smith's quite bizarre Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter followed just a few years after his earlier (and better known?) sensation: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I didn't read).

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has several things going for it:

  • It's a quick read, with (unsurprisingly) lots of action!
  • The decision to suspend your disbelief is not complicated here: you either accept the basic premise or (and I'm sure this is common) you just don't bother with the book.
  • Grahame-Smith actually turns out to be much more interested in Abraham Lincoln than he is in Vampires
  • And, perhaps most importantly, the premise is actually quite an interesting metaphor.

It's that last point that is surely arguable, and I'll concede it is not to be taken too seriously. The two hundred and fifty years or so during which North America experienced the horrors of human slavery are surely among the most evil period of modern human history, and anything which deflects from that evilness can be criticized and rightly so.

On the other hand, it is all too easy for modern Americans in their easy chairs to look away from that time, close their eyes, and try to avoid thinking about it entirely. For how can we easily come to grips with the sheer monstrosity; it is so dreadful that we cannot even bear to contemplate it, and yet, undeniably, Abraham Lincoln did contemplate it, and did come to grips with it, and did do something about it, and did pay for that with his own life.

It's a story worth telling, and if Grahame-Smith's bizarre mash-up of history and horror novel manages to provoke even some people to stop and consider and imagine what it must have been like in those times, and how hard it must have been to completely re-shape the country into a totally different result, I'm willing to grant him considerable latitude in trying to take steps in that direction.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Death and Judgement: a very short review

Donna Leon's Death and Judgment is the fourth Guido Brunetti novel.

But rather than becoming formulaic and predictable, Leon's books are progressing nicely, becoming richer, more compelling, and more fascinating.

Indeed, at this point we can perhaps say that Leon has solidly found her footing, and Death and Judgment is perhaps the first complete work of the Guido Brunetti series.

What evidence can I present for this claim? Well, here's a sampling:

  • The plot is sharp. The criminals are despicable, and the villains are truly horrific. The three page segment late in the book in which Brunetti finally connects all the dots when he views a short video of one of the crimes is one of the most gripping sequences I've read in years. After I got through it, I had to put the book down and go for a long walk in the sunshine and look out over the ocean and try to recover: it was that vivid and terrifying.
  • The supporting characters become richer and more fascinating. Previously we've learned a lot about Brunetti's wife Paola; in Death and Judgment it is his daughter's turn. And this, too, adds depth, as Brunetti observes when he reflects on the consequences of bringing his work home with him:
    His mind flew up and away from the room. He tried to think noble thoughts, tried to think of something to say that would assure his child, convince her that, however wicked what she had seen, the world was a place where things like that were random, and humanity remained good by instinct and impulse.

Brunetti does not so attempt to convince his daughter. Rather, he is straight with her, in a quietly powerful conversation.

Everything is working for Leon: her pacing is excellent, her characters are believable, her evocation of Venice is engrossing, and her plots and tales are just as vivid and compelling now as when she wrote Death and Judgment twenty seven years ago.

Can't wait to read more of Comissario Brunetti's adventures!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Before the Fall: a very short review

Noah Hawley is perhaps best known for his work in television: first Bones, then the extremely well-received Fargo.

It turns out that he's also written a number of novels. I was looking for something simple to take along with me on a cross-country plane trip, and I ended up with his Before the Fall

Hawley developed his skills as a screenwriter and you can really feel it in his writing. Before the Fall opens with a BANG! and the first 50 pages fly by before you can catch your breath.

The rest of the book careens along like Mr Toad's Wild Ride, but Hawley has a natural sense of pace. Each time I felt my attention about to flag, he'd drop another shoe and hook me for another few chapters.

Overall, the book delivers on its promise: it's an enjoyable time-filler, keeping you just intrigued enough to see it through to its satisfying conclusion.

One detail, though: I think I mentioned I picked this up for a plane trip?

Uhm, perhaps not my most well-considered choice, as the entire book is about a plane crash.

Heh. Serves me right.