Book Review: The F-word by Jesse Sheidlower

Author: Jesse Sheidlower
Title: The F-word
Publication Info: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
ISBN: 9780195393118
Summary/Review: Not the book I expected.  I thought it was going to be a cultural history of the word “fuck” through history and various usages.  That was just the introduction which was pretty good.  The main body of this work is 269 page lexicon of different usages and phrases of the f-word.  It perhaps make a useful reference book, but definitely not something I’m going to read end to end.

Rating: **

Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

How the States Got Their Shapes (2008) by Mark Stein is exactly what the title says it is: a state-by-state description of how the borders of the fifty states were laid out (even Hawaii, which is more complicated than it looks).  Some general observations show how the US government tried to create all states of equal size.  The east coast states don’t count because they were laid out by kings and English charters.  That the rest of the states are not of equal size is due to a variety of factors: topographical borders that make more sense, confliciting land claims, land awarded to states for land lost to other states (seemingly an endless cycle), and sometimes just plain bad surveying that held up.

Still the efforts of the government can be seen in the borders.  The parrallel at 36°30′, which originated in error as the border between Virginia and North Carolina spreads across many states as far west as the Texas panhandle because it become the barrier between slave & free states after the Missouri Compromise in 1820.  The government also created tiers of states with equal height (North & South Dakota, Nebraska, & Kansas) or equal width (Washington, Oregon, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, & Colorado) that create some shared qualities even if there’s not equality of square mileage.

Some of my favorite facts learned from this book:

  • New Hampshire gained land from Massachusetts because the king wanted to reward good Anglicans at the expense of the Puritans
  • There’s a little piece of Delaware across the Delaware Bay attached to New Jersey!
  • The easternmost counties of West Virginia actually wished to remain part of the Confederacy but they were occupied by Union troops and attached to the counties that seceded from Virginia
  • The corner cut-off from Utah is due to a mountain range that makes a right angle at that point and thus would have made the valley it surrounds inaccessible from the rest of Utah
  • The Great Lakes states had the borders modified and adjusted several times mostly to allow all the states to have a window on the lakes
  • There are islands in the Hawaiian chain that are not part of the state (including Midway) even though islands to their east & west are part of Hawaii

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit dry.  There are some good stories to be told about the colorful characters who influenced the creation of the state borders, but Stein sticks with just the facts. It also suffers from repetition and overuse of rhetorical questions (“So why does the northern border have a chunk missing?”).  Each chapter also ends with kind of morality lesson about what the particular state’s borders can tell us, and its pretty corny.  This book may work better as a reference book than as something to read cover to cover.  On the other hand, as a nerdy ten-year old I would have ate this up, so it may be good for kids too.

This book has inspired an idea though, based on my childhood home state Connecticut and its claims of land from sea-to-sea.  I think it would be great to travel across the United States only within the boundaries of land once claimed by Connecticut.  One could visit some interesting landmarks such as the New York oblong, the site of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve college in Ohio.  West of there I guess one would have to look for evidence of Nutmeggers in in westward expansion.

Author Stein, Mark, 1951-
Title How the states got their shapes / Mark Stein.
Publication Info. New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008.
Description xv, 332 p. : maps, 24 cm.

Book Review: A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles

A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America — One State Quarter at a Time (2008) by Jim Noles takes the State Quarter Program as a launching point for an engaging look at the 50 United States and the symbols chosen to represent them.  Often, Noles goes beyond simply telling the history of the image on the coins to delve deeper into the social and cultural history of the States.  For each quarter, Noles also discusses the other finalist for the quarter design, the process of approval, and circulation of each coin.  The only thing I could ask for is more illustrations of the people and things he discusses.

My favorites include:

  • revisiting my 4th grade social studies’ lesson of Connecticut’s Charter Oak (by far my favorite State Quarter).
  • the importance of the palmetto in fort construction in Revolutionary South Carolina
  • Rhode Island’s quarter inspires a history of yacht racing.
  • the “scandal” of Ohio depicting a living person by including an astronaut who must be John Glenn or Neil Armstrong.
  • Helen Keller’s Socialist ways make her an unlikely representative of Alabama as well as someone appearing on US currency.
  • Arkansas’s Crater of Diamonds, where you can keep the diamonds you find (I didn’t know it existed).
  • exciting stories of storms on the Great Lakes make up for Michigan having the most boring quarter.
  • the Kansas quarter leads to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American cavalrymen who fought in the Indian Wars of the West.
  • Colorado’s purple mountains majesty hid a CIA training camp for Tibetan subversives.
  • Wyoming’s pioneering history in Women’s Suffrage.

The quarters open a door to learning about the states, their great people, buildings and places, arts, and flora and fauna (and their conservation).  Like the State Quarters themselves, A Pocketful of History will have a broad appeal beyond numismatic buffs.  I think it especially will be a good tool for teachers and children.

Author Noles, James L.
Title A pocketful of history : four hundred years of America–one state quarter at a time / Jim Noles.
Publication Info. Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, c2008.
Description xxvi, 324 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

Book Review: Mets by the Numbers by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman

Want to know the history of the Mets by uniform number from 1962-2007? Mets by the Numbers (2008) is the book for you!  The book is a collaboration between Jon Springer, mastermind behind the Mets by the Numbers website that’s graced the internet for the past decade, and Matt Silverman who’s worked on several books about the Mets.

The book is an odyssey through Mets history uniform numbers, focusing on the best players to wear each uniform and many of the worst.  Sidebars rank the best performances in various statistical categories and the idiosyncrasies of how players chose there numbers and sometimes how the numbers chose them.  This is quick, easy and fun read and also a good reference that should be on the shelf in every public library in the Tri-State area.  In Boston, not so much (I had to special order my copy through Brookline Booksmith).

Book Review: Language Visible by David Sacks

Language visible : unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z (2003) by David Sacks is a lively history of each letter in our modern alphabet (called the “Roman alphabet” which is explained in the book). For each letter Sacks traces the history of its shape from the ancient Semitic carvings in the Egyptian desert to Phoenician and Hebrew letters to Greek, Etruscan, and Roman alphabets to Old English and medieval Romance languages to minuscule characters of monastic scriptoriums and the first printed letters and finally our alphabet today. Some changes in the alphabet are surprisingly recent. J, V, and W are all relatively young letters. Noah Webster had an inordinate influence in setting apart American letters from European.

For each letter, Sacks also traces the changes in the sound the letter represents. If there’s one thing you learn from this book it’s that while many languages share the same alphabet there’s absolutely no consistency in what sounds the letters stand for and sometimes they’re somewhat arbitrarily assigned. Sacks also writes about the social and cultural significance of each letter which is the most fun aspect of the book. For example, he relates one of my favorite stories about how George Bernard Shaw suggested spelling the word “fish” as ghoti, that is the “gh” of rough, the “o” of women, and the “ti” of station. Ghoti would make a great band name by the way and you wouldn’t even be able to be sued for copyright infringement by a Vermont jam band. Sacks also explains how the Anglo-Saxon letter thorn for the “th” sound was represented by the letter Y. This is why someone 200-years ago would write “Ye Olde Tavern” and pronounce “ye” as “the.”

This is a good read – both fun and educational.