Book Review: The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean


AuthorSam Kean
TitleThe disappearing spoon : and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements
Narrator: Sean Runnette
Publication Info: Tantor Media, 2010
Summary/Review:

This book is a history of science based on the periodic table.  Kean goes through the elements discussing their discovery, the stories of the scientists who discovered them, and the element’s place in human society.  A lot of the book is anecdotes about chemists, but they’re good stories.  There are also a lot of interesting connections, both among the elements and the people who work for them.  A nice, easy-to-read popular science and history work that enlivens the periodic table for even the most curmudgeonly humanities major.

Recommended books13 things that don’t make sense by Michael Brooks, Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science–From the Babylonians to the Maya by Dick Teresi, and Connections by James Burke.
Rating:

Book Review: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin


AuthorGeorge R.R. Martin
TitleA Clash of Kings
Narrator: Roy Dotrice
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Previously read by the same author: A Game of Thrones
Summary/Review:

The second installment of A Song of Ice and Fire was gripping to my ears as I plowed through the audiobook.  Despite the title, there is not much clashing for most of the novel, but there is a lot of moving of chess pieces around the board.  There’s also a grim portrait of the effect of war on the ordinary people in Westeros.  Having watched the television series, I notice that it diverges more from the source material than in A Game of Thrones, but not so much that I’d wonder why they make the changes.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Librarian (Book Two: Unhappily Ever After) by Eric Hobbs


AuthorEric Hobbs
TitleThe Librarian (Book Two: Unhappily Ever After)
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012
Summary/Review:

This sequel picks up from the cliffhanger ending of the previous book.  Having made changes within the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Wesley and Taylor discover that the real world has been changed as well.  They had back to the library to correct what they’ve done, and find themselves in the dystopian world of Oz under control of the Wicked Witch.  This novel is grimmer in tone than it’s predecessor with violence in Oz and tensions among the lead characters.  There’s also an interesting shift from Wesley to Taylor as the primary protagonist.  I thought this book improved upon Little Boy Lost and that Hobbs’ sometimes-pedestrian writing and shallow characterizations are picking up as well.  I look forward to the next installment which will be set in Alice’s Wonderland.

Recommended books: Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, Band of Demons by Rob Blackwell, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Librarian (Book One: Little Boy Lost) by Eric Hobbs


AuthorEric Hobbs
TitleThe Librarian (Book One: Little Boy Lost)
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2011
Summary/Review:

This is a book I picked up as a Kindle deal because I like stories set in libraries.  This is a pretty imaginative one.  Wesley is a bookish boy bullied by his peers with one true friend Taylor.  On a class trip to their town’s mysterious library, Wes and Tay discover that the library offers portals into books.  A Lost Boy from Peter Pan joins them as they hide from villains by entering The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It’s kind of young adult fiction take on Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, although with a less-engaging writing style.  Still, the book was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages.

Recommended books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, A Soul to Steal by Rob Blackwell, Alcatraz Versus The Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Rating: ***

Retropost: Let it Snow x 3


With another foot of snow falling on Boston today, I thought I’d dig up this old post from 2008 about winter songs.  Sometimes you need to sing to keep from crying.


 

You may not believe it, but I spend inordinate amounts of time surfing the web. One day idly paging through Wikipedia’s list of Number-one hits, I discovered that the song “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow” performed by Vaughn Monroe was the number one song in the USA for five weeks in 1946. This surprised me for two reasons. One, I never thought of this little ditty we sing at Christmas time as hit record material. Two, the song charted in the weeks from January 26 to February 23, well after the Christmas season was over.

Listen to Vaugh Monroe perform “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”

Of course, if you look at the lyrics for “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” as written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne you’ll realize that the song has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. It is merely a love song set in wintertime. I’ve long wondered why so many songs we sing at Christmas time have nothing to do with Christmas at all. “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Marshmallow World,” and perhaps the most ubiquitous “Christmas” carol of all “Jingle Bells.” It’s become a cliche to add the notes of the “Jingle Bells” chorus to the end of a recording of any Christmas song, but there’s nary a mention of Christmas in the lyrics. Couldn’t one enjoy a vigorous sleigh ride through the country in January, February, or even March?

That many popular Christmas songs of the 20th century were written by Jewish songwriters may play a part in the emphasis of winter imagery over baby Jesus and Santa Claus. But I think that at one time people liked to sing songs about the winter. If you think about it, the way these winter songs have been typecast as Christmas carols would be kind of like only playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the 4th of July with patriotic songs like “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”

So I’ve come up with an idea. Now that we are a week past Groundhog’s Day*, why don’t we have a national celebration of wintertime by singing and playing these old classics. It could be an annual tradition every year from February 9-15 to acknowledge that whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not that we can make the best of what remains of winter in a joyous carnival of singing.

Who’s with me?

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

* Note: I also have a great carol for Groundhog’s Day.

Book Review: The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp


Author: Ben Tripp
TitleThe Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, A Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides
Narrator: Steve West
Publication Info: [New York] :, Macmillan Audio,, 2014
Summary/Review:

Sometimes I think I should keep track of where I learned of a particular book, since I have no idea how this book made it to my reading list.  On the other hand, I liked going into this book with very little knowledge of what it is about as it is full of surprises (although the subtitle is full of hints).  Set in the 18th-century, this novel has the feel of a classic adventure.  Kit Bristol is a circus performer whose indenture is sold to a seemingly dissolute master, who suddenly learns that his master is a notorious highwayman.  Taking his master’s identity, Kit learns that he is entering not just a life a crime but a promise to help the fairy people.  What follows is a magical adventure and chase as Kit Bristol and his fairy companions seek to escape pursuers both human and magical.  It’s a delightful and entertaining diversion.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick


Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower
Summary/Review:

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****