Monday, January 10, 2011

2010 Top 10: You Know When the Men Are Gone

Final in the series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

You Know When the Men Are Gone
by Siobhan Fallon
In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls. You learn your neighbors’ routines: when and if they gargle and brush their teeth; how often they go to the bathroom or shower; whether they snore or cry themselves to sleep. You learn too much. And you learn to move quietly through your own small domain.

You also know when the men are gone.
Those opening lines hooked me into this terrific collection of short stories that are linked through a shared setting of Fort Hood, Texas, its soldiers who are deployed to Iraq, and their spouses and families who stay behind. The first story sets up military domestic life and that too-closeness to neighbors and authority. The next follows a soldier serving outside Baghdad -- an investment banker who enlisted after 9/11. Others explore suspicions of adultery; wounded soldiers returning early; the difficulty of re-acclimating to home; the public honor and private grief of widowhood.

They’re personal stories, not political, and they're gentle and straightforward, to be re-read more for comfort than for a layered understanding. But they’re some of the most engaging reading I’ve encountered ... in fact their readability reminds me of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the first book published by Penguin’s Amy Einhorn imprint which is now publishing this book.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

Sunday, January 9, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Ninth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte

According to Edward Tufte, the purpose of graphics is, “Not the complication of the simple; rather [...] the revelation of the complex.” And his Visual Display of Quantitative Information, first self-published nearly 30 years ago, is now a bible -- a sort of The Elements of Style applied to information graphics.

Tufte reviews how information can be presented (e.g. a minimal amount via a sentence; a moderate amount via a table; a huge amount via a graphic) and then turns his attention to those graphics -- from their beginnings in cartography (no one who reads the book will forget Charles Minard’s graph of Napoleon’s march across Russia) to how to achieve graphic excellence today.

He urges a multi-disciplinary approach, cautioning that, “Allowing artist-illustrators to control the design and content of statistical graphics is almost like allowing typographers to control the content, style, and editing of prose.” He touches on psychology and cognition. He rails against using graphic design to deceive, and enlightens readers by pulling numerous examples of misrepresentation from prominent media. He devotes a large part of the book to improving the effectiveness of graphs by urging the elimination of “chart junk” (e.g. moirĂ©-effect cross-hatching) and numerous other sources of “non-data ink.” In fact, a chapter wherein he strips away seemingly necessary text, frames, hatch marks, etc. (leaving little more than an ether vapor but in the process simplifying and clarifying the meaning) is revelatory.

So many books I've read recently have referenced Tufte, and I'm thrilled to have finally read him directly.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Eighth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
by Walter Mosley
He only had one chair, and that had a book, a glass of water, and three stones he’d found that day at the park on it. They were blond stones, a color he’d never seen in rock and so he picked them up and brought them home, to be with them for a while.
That’s exactly why I read Walter Mosley -- to “be awhile” with his characters, whose situations and moral complexities I always think I haven’t seen, and whose unfamiliarity always softens into a fond recognition.

Here it’s 2006 and 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey lives alone in squalor in south-central LA. He has a small pension, he has a radio and a TV tuned 24/7 to a dueling background of classical music and cable news, and he has sporadic contact with extended family two and three generations down the line. But his home and mind have declined since his wife died decades ago, and now dementia keeps him obsessed about the ages-ago deaths of a childhood friend in a house fire and the lynching of a beloved mentor. So when another loved one dies in street violence, and a new young friend awakens Ptolemy's spirit, he embarks on a mission to protect his loved ones before his own time comes.

Mosley narrates almost completely in scenes here -- from Ptolemy’s perspective, a mix of confusion and distraction co-mingled with vestiges of philosopher and keen observer. A key plot point about experimental drugs approaches magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief ... or maybe it just required me to fully enter a world where the rules don’t resemble the ones I know, and to appreciate the point of this book: being awhile with this man in that world. I loved every page of it.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

Friday, January 7, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Imperfectionists

Seventh in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Rachman's debut novel is the story of an international English-language newspaper in Rome, told through alternating threads: a series of biographical vignettes tracking the newspaper from its founding in 1953 to the economy of today’s print media; and a series of linked short stories involving the newspaper’s employees (and one reader).

The stories are terrific! Set within the workplace and outside in personal life, they involve lots of characters yet each is effectively unpacked -- background characters just enough to make them memorable, main characters enough to make the reader care; many are developed further as they appear again in later stories. They’re fast stories, with lots of dialogue and strong forward momentum. And Rachman isn’t afraid of tension -- in one, I was so engaged in the hilarious interaction between a high-energy correspondent and a passive, fledgling wannabe that I thought I was going to have a stroke!

These stories are among the most enjoyable fiction I read last year, and it’s a mere quibble that I felt Rachman prepared me for a finish slightly more “Wow!” than I got. I recommend it highly and am beyond eager to read more by him.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Geometry of Pasta

Sixth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy

As the full title states, "The Perfect Shape + The Perfect Sauce = The Geometry of Pasta," so the talents of book designer Caz Hildebrand + London chef Jacob Kenedy = this terrific book.

Part history-of-pasta and part cookbook, it begins with an overview of pastas (southern Italian peasants’ plain semolina to wealthy northerners’ incorporation of eggs and different starches) and tomato sauces (also varying from light to rich), and the concept of matching the delicacy/sturdiness of a pasta to that of a sauce. And then comes that geometry -- the actual pairings of those shapes and sauces via a 270-page alphabetic encyclopedia of dozens and dozens of pasta shapes, including:

• A short history of each pasta (referencing climate, culture and politics/economics), for example the intricate shapes that were made “when housewives had to fill long winter evenings,” and the delicate and haughty pastas of the Renaissance, which “specialist nuns would make in their convents”;
• An arresting b/w graphic of its shape;
• In some cases, recipes for making that pasta at home;
• In all cases, recipes for sauces/fillings suited to that shape;
• Suggestions for other sauces (an Index makes it easy to locate sauce recipes).

I'd expected this book to be glossy and slightly oversized, so was surprised to find it the size and construction of a hardcover novel. While that doesn't sound like a book to be taken into the kitchen and later wiped down, you'll want to do so -- it's filled with easy-to-follow recipes for every level of cook, from quick sauces with a few common ingredients, to sauces involving a dozen ingredients and progressive steps that are mini-tutorials in cooking technique. They include olive oil and/or butter and a wide range of fish, fowl and meat. Most serve 2-4 people as a main course; some serve 6-8 and a few feed a crowd. But even if you're an armchair foodie with little intention of preparing the recipes, this book's design and interesting (even amusing) discussion make it a delightful read.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Elements

Fifth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Elements
by Theodore Gray
I started collecting elements in 2002 […and] by 2009, I had assembled nearly 2,300 objects representing every element, the possession of which is not forbidden by the laws of physics or the laws of man. […] Some elements can be experienced in large quantities, like the 135-pound iron ball I keep in my office for people to trip over. Others are best enjoyed in responsible moderation -- keep too much uranium in the office, and people start asking questions (keep over 15 pounds, and the Feds start asking questions).
The Elements is a lush and visually stunning coffee-table book that showcases those samples and provides a terrific individual "biography" of each element.

Gray opens with an overview of the Periodic Table and its organization of elements into groups according to their similar characteristics. But then he explores them, element by element, in order of their atomic number rather than by group -- an effective method because the repeated returns to the various groups reinforce the group characteristics while familiarizing readers (YA and adult) with the individual elements.

Each biography is a two-page spread -- the left a full-page photo of one of those samples from Gray’s collection, and the right an array of text and images that detail the element’s history, uses, and technical specs (atomic weight; density; crystal structure; orbital electron arrangement; melting and boiling points; emission spectrum). Though it's a reference work, I read this book straight through -- often thinking, “okay, just one more” but then unable to resist that each element’s text ends with a teaser for the next one, and that Gray is liberal with trivia, personal experience, and wit. He dubs Tellurium the most melodic name and discusses the politics involved in naming new elements, finishing: “And so it is that we come to the end of our journey through the periodic table not with a bang, but with a committee.”

He’s the Bill Bryson of the Periodic Table!

P.S. The book’s enhanced e-version seems reason enough to buy an iPad :) Take a look at the book and the app with author Theodore Gray here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010 Top 10: The Disappearing Spoon

Fourth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
I ended up with an honors degree in physics, but [...] my real education was in my professors’ stories. [...] I realized that there’s a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table.
Kean came to those professors already primed for their stories -- by having been fascinated to find mercury not only in the Periodic Table of science class but also in his childhood thermometers ... in literature’s mad hatter ... and in the mercury-laxative leftovers discovered in Lewis & Clark’s trail of latrines.

Though I didn’t keep strict track, I think Kean includes a tale for every single element in this terrific book. And while he did so, he opened my eyes to things I’d forgotten (or not ever known!!), for example:

• Chemistry is based on atoms’ electrons and physics on their nuclei;
• "Alchemy" is true: every element traces back to the fusion of solar hydrogen atoms into helium;
• The familiar Periodic Table is just one of many potential configurations of the elements, some of which are 3D;
• There are more than three states of matter;
• Our bodies don’t monitor whether we’re inhaling enough oxygen, only that we’re exhaling enough carbon dioxide;
• Midas was real as well as fictional;
• Why sci-fi life forms are based on silicon;
• Why Americans call it “aluminum” but it’s “aluminium” to everybody else.

There’s chemistry here, and physics and biology. But there’s also astronomy, geology, history, politics, warfare, economics, gender studies, human ambition and inter-personal conflict. And there’s a whole lotta humor. There are also dozens of entertaining and informative endnotes, suggestions for further reading, and an index. The only way to make it even better is to pair it with Theodore Gray’s The Elements.

Get started by taking a look at the disappearing spoon of the title.

Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 Top 10: Pheromone

Third in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

Pheromone by Christopher Marley

Phenomenal er, I mean Pheromone, is a stunning photographic collection of Christopher Marley’s insect artwork.

I first heard of Marley on a CBS Sunday Morning segment. He grew into adulthood hating insects (their legs, especially), but when the colors, shapes and textures of particularly remote species caught his artist’s eye, his dread turned to fascination. His specimens are sustainably collected from around the world, supporting local tribes and their efforts to resist deforestation (and with it the loss of habitat that results in species endangerment).

He preserves, mounts and frames the insects, sometimes arranging mixed species (like the “mosaic” on the book’s cover, a sort of insect version of a wildflower garden), but more often composing groups of a single species (evocative of massed tulips) or even a striking lone insect. The nubby and hairy textures are practically tactile, the colors are fabulous, and every image is lively -- the circularity of a mandala of longhorn beetles; the waves of color washing across a page of massed scarabs; the page-full of 95%-identical moths that highlights their individuating differences. The book's Endnotes include the title of each work of art; the insect specimen’s common name, scientific name, geographic location and actual size; and sometimes Marley’s personal comments, which made me re-visit the images with new insight.

You can browse Marley’s gallery here, but I've given more than a passing thought to pulling out some of the book’s pages to frame.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010 Top 10: Packing for Mars

Second in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

It seems like a previous life: the mid-1980s and NASA’s program to send the first American “civilian” into space. I was interested, then sidelined when applications were restricted to teachers, then stunned by the Challenger launch disaster. But now I’m delighted to get a sort of ride-along with the clever and uber-curious Mary Roach in Packing for Mars.

She begins: “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with.” And then she dives in to explore that human machinery in space and how everything -- procedures, equipment and supplies -- is designed to best serve it.

Through examples from animal simulations and crash-test cadavers, the race-for-space/ shuttle/ space-station projects, and potential Mars-length missions, she examines astronaut selection; the effects of isolation, inactivity and cramped spaces; the spectrum from weightlessness to multiple g-forces; eating, eliminating, and hygiene; and … well, enough with the listmaking; it hints at dull and anyone who’s read Roach knows she doesn’t do dull. Instead, she mines excellent and surprising information about physics and biology -- and what most captures me is her practicality, for example this from a passage about religious observations aboard the space station:
Zero gravity and a ninety-minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that a [guideline] was drafted. Rather than require [them] to pray five times during each ninety-minute orbit of Earth, they were allowed to go by the twenty-four-hour cycle of the launch location.
How to stay oriented toward Mecca at such speed and prostrate oneself in weightlessness are also addressed.

I loved Roach's Stiff, but Spook -- not as much, so skipped Bonk (until now, maybe). She's a front-and-center kind of narrator, a participant even, and Spook seemed too much about her. Here, she’s back in terrific Stiff form -- (wo)manning the audio and video for us like a TV news crew, giving just an occasional glimpse of her metaphoric microphone to remind us she's there. Though she isn’t a slave to structure and linearity, there’s a satisfying organization of her material into chapters here. And all of her interesting-but-off-topic segues? -- they’re here too, in a hundred witty footnotes. She also references dozens of space-travel articles, histories, biographies and memoirs, and lists them in a bibliography.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Top 10: American Terroir

First in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2010, presented in alphabetical order.

American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen
[Terroir is] a partnership between person, plant and environment to bring something unique into the world. The soil and climate set the conditions; the plants, animals, and fungi respond to them; and then people determine how to bring out the goodness of those foods and drinks.
American Terroir* is Jacobsen’s exploration of that “taste of place” -- why certain locales grow certain plants and animals so well, and the attentive harvesting and processing that transform them into outstanding foods. Think artisanal not industrial; imagine a reversal of the past century’s flight from the farm and from all things "earthy."

Jacobsen organizes years of research and tasting into a dozen essays, each a primer on a food and an armchair trip to a locale: Vermont maple syrup, (hard) cider and cheese; Washington apples and oysters; California wine; locavore honeys and mead wine; Alaskan salmon; Prince Edward Island mussels; Quebec mushrooms and forest greens; Mexican avocados and chocolate; Panamanian coffee.

There’s history, biology, climatology, gastronomy, agriculture, production and business, and as close to a tasting as a book can get ... all packaged in Jacobsen’s engaging narration, which has hints of Michael Pollan and Mary Roach. And each essay concludes with a recipe or two plus a list of sources that made me dizzy with possibility (first up: an orange-blossom sparkling mead wine).

*pronounced like Renoir

Review based on a copy of the book provided by the publisher