Monthly Archives: April 2012

Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

My grandfather was a chemist. He worked more with plastics and practicalities than with the specific, individual elements – certainly he worked more with the organic and elemental combinations than with the separation and discovery of new elements. But he helped instill in me an interest in what the world was made of. I loved chemistry in high school, and was good at it. (Physics was another matter – I am more interested in what things are made of then how they work, apparently.)

I am also interested in how things are organised and classified – what stories we tell about things to make sense of their place in the world. I love the periodic table, with its combination of organisation by size and by function. I am always amused by the different types of periodic tables that pop up – the periodic table of storytelling, or the periodic table of cupcakes.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this was kind of a perfect book for me. It combined storytelling and chemistry. It explained some of the classifications of the elements, and the discovery of the elements, and the functions of the elements.  It discussed the cultural significance of gold versus silver, chrome versus platinum or titanium, iron and zinc. I learned more than I realised I didn’t know about ores and mining and geology.

It didn’t cover all of the elements, which was a bit disappointing. There wasn’t much inclusion of carbon, for example, or some of the other light elements (boron, lithium, etc.) There was a lot about the “rare earths”, which I didn’t know anything about, at all. But what it did include was, overall, fantastic. I doubt I’ll have retained all of it (I didn’t take notes or anything) but I think I’ve retained enough to at least have some pub quiz/trivia night answers handy.

The other thing that it didn’t include, which was incredibly frustrating at times, was a copy of the periodic table itself. This would have been so useful, especially when he was talking about some of the lesser-known elements (Germanium, for example), just to get a sense of where they were on the chart. It even would have been nice with the better-known elements, just as a reminder of things like their chemical symbol. (Especially since he mentions the chemical symbol of silver, for example.)  I read this book in places where I didn’t have easy internet access – I couldn’t just go and look up the periodic table – and I only have it memorized through neon on a good day.

But that’s a relatively petty frustration when it comes to such an interesting topic. It ultimately doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a table on which to base myself when he was detailing the discovery and different light colours of sodium and neon and argon, or the discovery of various radioactive elements, or his search for samples of the elements that he could put in his own physical periodic table.

It may not have made me want to run out and become a chemist, but it definitely made me more aware of the presence and use of specific elements in our daily world – and that is no bad thing.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-Fiction (Science)

Pulitzer Prize thoughts

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, and the big news on all the book blogs and book news sites is that there was no prize for fiction awarded. This is seen as probably the worst thing to hit publishing since the establishment of the ebook as a viable format. There has been a lot written about how terrible it is  that no winner was chosen, that no book can be celebrated (and its sales increased) by the recognition that a Pulitzer gives.

One problem is the lack of transparency. The selection and voting process is closed, so there’s no way of knowing whether the lack of a winner means that the panel didn’t think any of the finalists were worthy of the prize, or whether it means they all were. The only word from the Committee was that they don’t discuss their voting – and with only winners’ information in the press releases, the implication is that no book was worthy.

Publishers and booksellers are missing out on a real marketing tool if they just stick to that. It’s something that the prizes in the UK have managed to do for years now – promote the finalists as much as they promote the winners.  The Pulitzer – and every book prize – should not be about celebrating only one book, about promoting and marketing only one book, but about promoting and marketing excellence in literature overall. The lack of a winner is troubling, but instead of bewailing the fact that one book wasn’t a winner, celebrate the fact that three books were finalists. Three very different books, I would like to point out, which makes it even better. It’s been a year, as many years are, where book awards have been criticised for not having enough variety or ignoring quality books because they’re too popular, of losing touch with regular readers and increasing the divide between popularity and quality.

If I were in charge of a bookstore right now, I would have a table up near the front, covered with Pulitzer stuff. I’d have the three finalists for Fiction, the winner and finalists for biography, history, poetry, non-fiction, and a selection of past winners if there’s enough room – but there might not be. Have some of the compilation books: Best News Reporting, Best Crime Reporting, etc. Show off ALL the books, not just the winners. Let people know that there’s more than one good book in a category every year. Show people that there’s a book – a high-quality book – out there for everyone, no matter what style, form, or genre they’re interested in.

This is an opportunity for book marketing, not a tragedy; I really wish people would stop treating it like one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

It’s been years since I read Good in Bed, but there are some things that stay with you. The shock of that one scene, the frantic scanning to find out whether the baby would be okay, and most of all, how much I liked Cannie.

Certain Girls is Joy’s book, though. Cannie is a point-of-view character, and stuff happens to Cannie, but the main point of the book is to detail the changing situation between mother and daughter, between teenager and the world. This is made absolutely clear in the first two chapters. The first chapter, Cannie’s, includes a list of all the things that they do together and all the ways that they are close. The second chapter, Joy’s, includes the same list but as a list of reasons why Joy can’t stand her mother.

Just like Good in Bed, it’s a tumultuous time in their lives. Joy is approaching thirteen, which is a difficult time for anyone, and she’s also secretly discovering the truth about her conception and birth – ultimately, about all her male ancestors (Cannie’s dad is included in her formerly idealised disappointments). She surreptitiously reads Cannie’s book (taking it as autobiographical),  overhears a devastating conversation between her father and his wife, and flies across the country to try to meet her grandfather. Pretty big stuff for a thirteen-year-old to deal with, on top of the normal stuff that a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl has to deal with – bat mitzvah planning, schoolwork, first crushes, peer pressure, and the need to be treated as both an adult and a child simultaneously.

Just like Good in Bed, though, there’s a stunning and devastating moment about two-thirds of the way through that sets the book and the characters on a completely different path.  But while that scene in Good in Bed feels natural and important and organic, here it feels jarring. And it’s the type of thing that is jarring in real life, but from a narrative perspective, it doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, she makes it work because she’s a good writer. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as the analogous scene in Good in Bed. It takes over the rest of the novel, and not necessarily in a good way. It doesn’t reshape what went before; it just overshadows everything else. And again, that’s what an event like that does in real life, but it feels forced here. “Oh, we need some kind of trauma and something to get Cannie writing again. I know!….”

Sidenote: why does suffering/trauma/difficult life situation always equate to prolific writing?  Is my problem just that I’ve been too relatively happy over my life? Please someone write a book about a writer that doesn’t imply that you need suffering in order to be successful….

I did like Certain Girls, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read Good in Bed. It’s not the best introduction to Weiner’s work, if only because most of the story and character development for both Cannie and Joy rely so heavily on the events of Good in Bed.  If you have read the first one, though, this is a great way to catch up with Cannie and Joy – despite the abrupt heartbreak that leads to the end.

Leave a comment

Filed under General Fiction

The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I knew I would read The Hunger Games (trilogy) before watching the films, and I pushed it higher up on my list after my sister spent Christmas reading it. On vacation. In San Diego. Where there are whales and pandas to watch. I been avoiding spoilers as much as I can (even when the articles on the film looked really interesting), so all I really knew was that the main character was named Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games were a reality-tv competition where the contestants had to literally kill each other, and there was a girl named Rue who was black.

It’s easy to read The Hunger Games – the first book, at least – as an indictment of reality TV and our collective enjoyment of watching people suffer, in whatever way, for our entertainment. But for me, the trilogy is much more an indictment of what we choose not to pay attention to, especially as people in the higher income strata of the world. Social awareness has come a long way since the days of Jane Addams, etc., but things like the Mike Daisey story (to keep with relatively current events) show how far we still have to go. So many times the real people involved in things are forgotten or ignored – or worse, like Haymitch, ignored except when they are useful. We get complacent about the things in our lives, and forget to recognize where they come from. We start thinking that our problems are the only problems, and the worst problems, and we forget that there are other people who also have problems, who have more fundamental problems, or who are willing to share the burden of our problems.

And that’s true of the people in the Capitol – the ones who paint their faces and throw food away while other people are starving, the ones who only think about the Districts during the Hunger Games, or when a supply chain breaks down. It’s true of us, in the “western” world, the affluent world, who don’t really think about where our products come from or the background to our entertainments.

But it’s also true of Katniss. She has such a hard time with unconditional love, both giving it and receiving it. She has grown accustomed to seeing people in terms of what they can do for her – which is completely valid given the circumstances of her life – and is well aware that she is seen by many others only in terms of what she can give them and what she symbolises for them. It takes ages for her to accept that Peeta, for example, loves her for herself, not for anything she can do for him – only to have him turned by the Capitol. Is it any wonder that she has no trust in other people’s motivations towards her? But that ends up hurting her in the long run: because she can’t trust other people to see her as anything other than a tool or a symbol, she misses out on quite a lot of allies.

Another thing that The Hunger Games presents, in several different ways, is how not to run a country. Fear and oppression publicly paraded is effective for a while, but it is fragile. All it takes is a spark of rebellion, and the awareness that the few cannot always oppress the many. Unfortunately it takes unity to rebel. If one participant, one district, rejects the rebellion, it fails. The Hunger Games themselves couldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t have lasted, if the champions had refused to kill each other – but only if all the champions had refused. Some of Katniss’s initial power as a symbol comes from her refusal to bow completely to the Capitol’s whims – but the rebellion would have been a lot easier if all the champions in the Quarter Quell had been with her, or if all the districts had joined together peacefully. And it nearly fails.

I really enjoyed these books – as much as you can enjoy dystopian worlds where people kill each other for the entertainment of others, where the main character is used and manipulated by everyone around her despite her best efforts to rise above it, where the allies can be just as evil as the enemies. The world is sadly realistic – it’s not our world, but it’s not too far off what our world could become. I definitely want to see the films, but even more I want to reread the books.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy, Uncategorized