Monday, January 14, 2013

The Violinist's Thumb

by Sam Kean
New York : Little, Brown and Co., 2012.

Sam Kean, the author of The Disappearing Spoon, a book about the periodic table of elements, now turns his attention to genetics and evolution. In The Violinist's Thumb, he takes a non-technical approach to recounting the history of genetic inquiry and the various information we can learn about ourselves through our DNA. Covering Mendel to Watson, viruses to hominids, and throwing in many a funny story to boot, Kean writes an entertaining look at many aspects of genetics.

Though at times I found his approach a little too basic and I wished greatly for footnotes. At times, Kean seemed to gloss over potentially complicated discussions, making me wonder if he was oversimplifying here and there in the interest of narrative clarity. More than once, he stepped on my religious toes whilst trying to be funny. But for the most part, this is an engaging account about a fascinating subject. Kean does a good job of taking what could potentially be a very difficult, dry, or technical topic and making it accessible. His real-life historical examples of crazy experiments or historic people with genetic disorders add vivacity and relevance to the various topics he covers.

Oh and by the way, there's an Easter egg in the text that I had incredible fun trying to figure out. Good luck!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dandelion Wine

by Ray Bradbury
New York : Avon Books, c1999 (orig. pub. 1957).

I didn't realize until I started my best of 2012 list that I'd forgotten to post a review at all. I read it back in August, but thought I'd shoot a little summer into the midst of my winter posts:

In the summer of 1928, Doug and Tom Spaulding experience all the full life that summertime brings, from making dandelion wine with their grandfather to new shoes to discovering that old people have amazing stories to tell.

I've never read another book that so perfectly captures the feeling of summer as a child, when school is out and there are no responsibilities, when you can have lazy days or full ones, and you make discoveries about yourself and others. Countless times I wanted to write down a passage, but didn't when I realized that, just like a summer's day, if you took the words out of the story, out of the context, and looked at a sentence or two alone, it just didn't have that same feeling or essence anymore. It was beautiful, but suddenly only a shadow and memory of itself. Green Town is a sleepy mid-western town based on the one in which Bradbury himself grew up, and we get to know many of its inhabitants. If I were to identify a main character, it would be twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, though the tone of the book is so nostalgic that I would not call it a children's or teen book. I will definitely be returning to Dandelion Wine when I need a dose of summer again.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene
W.W. Norton and Co., 2003.

Relativity and quantum mechanics both help us understand the universe, but in some cases the equations involved don't play nice and come up with nonsensical answers. Superstring theory (or string theory for short) is a "theory of everything" that attempts to better explain the universe. The gist of the theory is that instead of particles (electrons, quarks, etc.), the smallest units are, in fact, vibrating one-dimensional strings. In The Elegant Universe, Greene expands on the basics to explain in fairly non-mathematical language what the possible ramifications would be.

I admit, I probably would not have been able to finish this book if I hadn't had help from an engineer. I never took physics in school, though I'm fascinated by the subject and have read a handful of popular science books on the topic. In the first few chapters, Greene details what has gone on in physics before, from our changing understanding of gravity, to special and general relativity. In chapter 5, he switches gears and lays out the basics of string theory. Chapter 7 on gets more and more speculative as Greene explores supersymmetry, black holes, how 10 dimensions could exist, and more. He is a definite proponent of the theory, and is not always clear about what is a core part of string theory or what is a fun mathematical possibility within the theory. Still, it was entertaining to read and a mind-stretching experience. I will be very interested in seeing what the next decade brings to the search for a theory of everything.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

by Will Schwalbe
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Will Schwalbe's memoir is a unique tribute to his mother, Mary Anne, a strong woman who worked tirelessly to help others, and who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One day during her chemo treatment, Will asked, "What are you reading?" So the two-person book club was born, as Will and his mother discuss books they both read over the course of Mary Anne's treatments.

The books are just a starting point for larger discussions of life, courage, love, and so much more. Each chapter is the title of a book, whether the book they're discussing or one that thematically ties into the subject of the chapter. Will intersperses memories of the past with the treatments and his mother's decline, painting a picture of a really wonderful woman I feel I came to know - just a little bit - through her son's eyes. The book is sweet but not saccharine, sad but hopeful. I plan on sharing it with my own mother to discuss with her.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Look Back... And a Look Ahead

Every year, I like to reflect back on my reading year and start planning - just a little - for the year ahead.

In 2012, I read 109 books. Since I started keeping track of my reading, this is the smallest number I've had, but it's also the first year that I have worked a full-time job. I also spent much of the beginning of the year reading nonfiction for a state award, which cut drastically into my reading time from January through May. So all in all, I'm pleased with the number.

My favorite new-to-me books of the year are (in order read): The above list includes three nonfiction books and four children's/YA titles. I read two of them for my library book club.

Here are a few "just because" awards:

Added the most to my TBR list - Among Others by Jo Walton
Pure geeky fun - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My favorite authors still surprise me - Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
Must recommend to everyone, now - The End of Your Life Book Club by William Schwalbe

Finally, as promised, a look ahead. I don't like to plan out too much of my reading ahead of time, but I have two goals for the coming year:
  • Read more of my own books
  • Read at least 6 new-to-me Shakespeare plays
  • Read either War and Peace or Middlemarch

Let's see how I do in 2013!