Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

BUILT

Here is a recent (2018) and wonderfully interesting book about structural engineering.  Yes, that topic is interesting – HIGHLY interesting when it come to skyscrapers!  The author, a structural engineer involved with notable projects including London’s towering new skyscraper, the Shard, shares her wonder at bricks and concrete, spider webbing and wind loading, bridges, and  the sorts of calculation that are crucial to the structures of civilization.  She takes the reader around the world to see notable buildings from ancient to modern times. And she looks into the American past to salute Emily Warren Roebling, the defacto chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Recommended!

Lenten Sacrifice

 

Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. … I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

A quarter century ago Peter Menzel published his remarkable book, Material World.  Subtitled A Global Family Portrait, it portrayed statistically average families representing thirty nations.  The most memorable feature of the book was a series of photographs of each family’s worldly goods:  they’d emptied their homes for the photographers and deposited all of their material possessions in front of the homes so that these fascinating collections, meager or extensive, could be photographed.

Think of all of the objects you have in your home.  Almost  every one of those items arrived with the promise that it would in some way make your life richer, fuller, better.

And almost without exception, every one of these items ended up with you taking care of it:  you have to wash it, wax it, renew its registration, dust it, change its oil or its batteries, update its software, or otherwise service it in some way.  Possessions we acquired to make our lives better now possess us instead.

It is the season of Lent when many liturgical Christians give something up.  I once worked with a woman who faithfully gave up chocolate for Lent every year.  A friend of mine – a Lutheran minister – gives up Facebook  for Lent.  Imagine that – more time to interact with flesh and blood friends and family in person!  (Wasn’t Facebook’s original premise that it would help us stay connected?)

It occurs to me that giving up whatever promised to make our lives better, but doesn’t serves us as intended, is worth doing. For example:  fear’s original purpose was to help us human beings survive in a dangerous world.  But some fears we may own now are, like snowmobiles and salad shooters, far more trouble than they’re worth. What if we gave up some of our fears for Lent?

Suppose we gave up our fear of being found out for who we really are?  The fear of being different,  unlovable, hopelessly inadequate, or too strange for anyone to like us? Jesus emphatically said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meaning we are worth being loved by ourselves. And what if we gave up our fear of our neighbor? You know, the one whose skin color, foreign origins, socio-economic class, politics, or sexuality prompts useless, burdensome fear.

We might find that once Lent is over we don’t need to resume these fears. Or at least that they wouldn’t stick to us quite as stubbornly after Easter Sunday.

Today, April 11, is the twelfth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.

THE WHOLE STORY OF CLIMATE

 

This is a remarkable book with lucid, approachable geological science. It’s written in a way that shows the author’s passion for geology and for teaching. She also folds in memorable vignettes about the lives of figures whose discoveries paved the way to what we know now about climate science. This is a very, very good read, and equally thought-provoking.   It methodically builds a case that the Earth’s climate is more unstable than we knew:  it can – and has, in historical eras  – drastically changed in less than a lifetime.  

Highly recommended.

SHAPESHIFTERS

Following the example of a professor who always finds really interesting nonfiction books in the Rice University library, and who checked this book back in, I just read Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis, MD. I’m glad I did. This book is an expertly guided tour of how the human body is fundamentally changeable through both natural development and different diseases. Dr. Francis tells these medical tales with fascination, compassion, and strong, clear, evocative writing. This is highly recommended reading for writers of science fiction, fantasy and mystery – there’s so much good material here!

The Card Catalog

Knowing I’d be on a panel about Libraries of the Future at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas this Spring, I read up on libraries of the PAST, and found this book.  Yes, it tells about the evolution of the Card Catalog through history.  The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of cards from the Library of Congress catalog, which  they have NOT done away with.  Hand-written on the old cards are scraps of bibliographic information that never made it into on-line cataloging. Recommended!

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. ” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher, writer, and professor (b. 28 Mar 1942), quoted in A Word A Day.

THE TIDE

This excellent book adroitly weaves together  the scientific understanding of tides, the role of tides in history and literature, and the author’s own encounters with tides. And Aldersey-Williams writes so well that his meticulous account of spending a solid day on bit of shoreline near his home in England, watching the tide go and come, is page-turningly interesting!

THE TIDE was published by Viking in 2016.

Among the interesting scientific angles is that Earth’s tides likely had much to do with the evolution of life on Earth, including stabilizing the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which limited evolved life’s exposure to climatic extremes. In looking for life on other worlds, we may need to focus on exoplanets with moons.  This idea played into my science fiction novel Hurricane Moon, in which a star colonization mission seeks (and at first fails to find) a world with a large moon.

THE TIDE starts with an epigram that quoted John Steinbeck in The Log of the Sea of Cortez:  “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

 

Bittersweet Season

Memoir is flourishing these days with aspiring writers who have a story of their own life to tell – and proficient writers inspired to turn their hand to this genre. Jane Gross is a New York Times reporter. She launched and still contributes to the Times blog called The New Old Age. Her mother’s final years of failing health, starting in assisted living and ending in a nursing home, are described in a memoir titled A Bittersweet Season. It was a time of nightmarish challenge, unwelcome revelation, and unexpected reconciliation. This is a blisteringly honest book. Elderly mother, dutiful daughter and not so dutiful (or rather, differently dutiful) son didn’t go into this with warm, close relationships. And Ms. Gross made understandable mistakes with disastrous results. Fortunately for all concerned, she found an excellent nursing home. This book has a great deal of candid and vital advice for anyone in the same boat the Gross family found itself in. Recommended, although not necessarily recommended at a time in your life when it hits too close to home. It’s hard to read if your own nerves are raw. I recently heard Jane Gross speak here in Houston.  That was a tremendously effective way for her advice to connect with people who needed to hear it.

A Bittersweet Season by Jane Gross, published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 2011.

Letters to Auntie Fori

Before Martin Gilbert trekked across the Indian Subcontinent as a young man, an Indian friend of his from Oxford University, Ashok, told Martin to look up his mother if he found himself in Delhi.  Martin turned up on her doorstep dreadfully sick with some kind of stomach bug.  Ashok’s mother welcomed him like another son and nursed him back to health.  She turned out to be a warm, energetic woman married to a cousin of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. They stayed in touch across several decades and many travels as her husband, known to Martin as Uncle Bijju, served as Governor of several Indian regions and chair of a UN committee.

Martin made a point of visiting Auntie Fori in India when she was 90 years old.  At one point in that visit, she asked if he knew of a history of the Jewish people she could read.  Why?  It turned out that she had met Uncle Biiju in their University days in England and thus became Indian by marriage and a passionate advocate of India;  but she was born Hungarian and Jewish. This book is the answer to Auntie Fori’s question.  Martin Gilbert is the author of numerous books on Jewish themes, and his mastery of the subject shows in his simple, approachable and assured treatment of an enormous topic.  Recommended!

Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5000-year History of the Jewish People and their Faith, by Martin Gilbert.  Schocken Books 2002.

Battle on Mercury

Here’s the first science fiction book I ever read, which I found in the YA section of the public library when I was eleven and which fascinated me.  It’s Battle on Mercury by Lester del Rey writing under the odd pseudonym Erik Van Lhin.  Curious to see if it holds up to reading as an adult, I got a copy through Interlibrary Loan (from Texas A & M – way to go A & M Science Fiction collection!)  Surprise – even though it was first published in 1953, and that shows, it’s still riveting in the darned-good-yarn sort of way. The plot is fast-moving with stakes rapidly ratcheting up.  Not only that:  there’s a sense of wonder, with molten metals and energy-based life forms called wispies on a Mercury that always holds one super-heated face to the sun.  Silicon-based life forms exist in the twilight zone at the edge of the hot face.  Far into the twilight, Mercury is so cold that oxygen is frozen solid.  Cool-!  Central to the plot is the relationship between a boy named Dick – the son of an engineer in a mining colony – and the wispie that Dick named Johnny Quicksilver.  Johnny evolves from trouble-making pet to friend to savior through the agency of an old robot that Dick repaired and that the wispie, it turns out, can operate – including operating the speech circuits.  Natural interplanetary wonders, technology and invention, and unexpected meeting of minds:  that’s good SFnal stuff.