Some staff member at my favorite local library must be a fan of Richard Dawkins because for weeks a copy of the esteemed scientist’s 2013 memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist had been prominently displayed in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section. One Saturday my curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to borrow it. Once the memoir was in my possession I slowly made my way through it, finishing mere days before it was due back at the library. Perhaps like most books, there as things about it I liked and things I didn’t.
This is the second book I’ve read by the renowned British evolutionary biologist, science writer and “New Atheist.” Over a decade ago I read his much talked about 2006 book The God Delusion. (Not long afterwards I followed it up with Alister McGrath and Joanna McGrath’s Christian response,The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.) Written as the first volume of a two volume set, the book covers the lives of his parents, his childhood and his early career as a scientist, ending with the publication of his first book The Selfish Gene.
Before reading Appetite for Wonder I would have assumed even though I wasn’t an expert on Dawkins I probably knew more about him than the average person. After reading this book I learned quite quickly how ignorant I really was. For instance, I had no idea he was born in Africa. (His father had been working as an agricultural civil servant in what is now Malawi when he was drafted into the military. A few years later, after his father was posted to nearby Kenya Dawkins was born.) Likewise, I had no idea one of the world’s most prominent atheists was a devout Anglican in his youth, albeit for a short period. I also wasn’t aware he spent time at UC Berkeley as an assistant professor of zoology during the tumultuous late 60s and took part in anti-war protests. Lastly, I had no idea he was a pioneer in the field of computer programing.
My least favorite passages of the book are the ones where Dawkins goes on and on about early computer programming. I also didn’t enjoy some of the science-related stuff, but his thoughts on evolution towards the end of the book were pretty good. Overall, it’s a decent book and it’s left me thinking I might read more of his stuff down the road.
Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. In my perennial quest to win the coveted “Jet Setter” award I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, each year I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.
2018 was a down year for me since I read and reviewed just 15 books. I’m happy to report this year I rebounded nicely with a final tally of 23. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Iceland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year I even read a book about Moldova.
- Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (Russia)
- A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939–1940 by William R. Trotter (Finland)
- Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Iceland)
- The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe (Belgium)
- Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein (Moldova)
- A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria)
- The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’ (Hungary)
- Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (The Netherlands)
- The Swede by Robert Karjel (Sweden)
- Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Denmark)
- The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey (Romania)
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (United Kingdom)
- The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White (Turkey)
- 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range (Germany)
- The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (France)
- Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes (Spain)
- The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather (Poland)
- Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Vatican City)
- The Italians by John Hooper (Italy)
- The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (Austria)
- A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin (Ukraine)
- Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr (Czech Republic)
- North of Ithaka: A Granddaughter Returns to Greece and Discovers Her Roots by Eleni N. Gage (Greece)
As you might guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
I remember years ago as a little kid watching TV images of a violent volcanic eruption in some strange faraway place with the exotic name of Iceland. As a young child it was hard to not be mesmerized as I watched an entire village get smothered in black volcanic ash and lava. Those televised images, as well the vivid photographs I saw in a subsequent issue of National Geographic must a made a lasting impression on me because I’ve always associated the Nordic island nation of Iceland with volcanoes. Needing something about Iceland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge maybe that’s why I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World. After all , who can resist a book about volcanos? I know I can’t.
One day in 1783 Iceland’s largest volcano Laki erupted with a vengeance and for eight months nonstop unleashed an unstoppable river of molten lava and towering plume of ash. So much volcanic material was shot into the upper atmosphere weather patterns in Europe, North America and as far away a Egypt were drastically impacted as temperatures plummeted, crops failed and livestock suffered and died. Countless people, especially across Europe were plagued by respiratory ailments caused by Laki’s eruption with many succumbing to it’s harmful effects. All this from a volcano on a small island in the remote North Atlantic.
Island on Fire isn’t just a book about Laki but volcanoes in general, especially those that erupt with such magnitude they change the course of human history by causing massive global climate change. (Scientists suspect based on the evidence one of these eruptions happened in Indonesia around 1256.) Even smaller eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull, another Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 grounded air flights all over Europe. Should another super-volcano blow its top, the damage to our supply chain-driven global economy would be catastrophic. Just another thing to keep us up late at night worrying.
When I heard the news science writer Thomas Hager would be at my public library promoting his latest book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine I couldn’t wait to attend. I’ve been a fan of Hagers for years, ever since I read his 2006 book The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug.
So a few weeks after hearing this good news, I showed up at my small town library, grabbed a seat and much to my surprise watched the room gradually fill with attendees. At the appointed time, or a few minutes past it, our guest of honor took the podium and treated us to a selection of short passages from his latest book. He concluded things with an obligatory bit of Q and A followed by an equally obligatory session of book signings, and I used this as an opportunity for him to autograph my paperback copy of The Demon Under the Microscope. I’m happy to say Hager is a cool guy and it was a please to meet him! Later, I was able to secure a copy of Ten Drugs from the library and eagerly went to work reading it.
Some of Ten Drugs, especially the chapter on the origins of bacteria-fighting sulfa drugs was a review for me since it was the inspiration for Hager’s much earlier book The Demon Under the Microscope. But the chapter on first antipsychotic drug was not, and I was amazed to learn the how this drug it came to be, and more importantly how it was such a game-changer when used to treat the mentally ill. I also enjoyed learning the origins of pain-killers and Viagra.
The Demon Under the Microscope is a great book and therefore a tough act to follow. As a result, I enjoyed Ten Drugs, but maybe not as much as The Demon Under the Microscope. But to say this feels unfair, because a book, just like any other created work should stand or fall on its own merits and not those of its predecessor. So go read Ten Drugs, and in doing so learn about all the drugs that have changed history.
Late last year when I reviewed Ken Silverstein’s 2008 book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship I mentioned in passing his 2008 book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor. Over the years I’d heard rumors a Boy Scout managed to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard and someone had written a book about it. Reading Turkmeniscam put me in the mood to read The Radioactive Boy Scout and luckily for me, I was able to borrow a Kindle edition through Overdrive. Like Turkmeniscam, it’s a short book around 240 pages. But unlike Turkmeniscam, which isn’t bad, The Radioactive Boy Scout doesn’t feel like a magazine article that’s been padded into a book. I found it succinctly well-written and difficult to put down.
One of the major reasons I enjoyed The Radioactive Boy Scout is it’s hard not to root for David Hawn, the young man whose adventures Silverstein chronicles in the book. Here’s a guy with a crappy home life, complete with a mother battling mental illness and alcoholism. He’s socially awkward, but in spite of himself still manages to have a steady girlfriend. Academically, his grades are terrible. Outside of school however he’s a scientific prodigy. Hunkered down in his series of makeshift laboratories he spends his waking hours concocting his own energy drinks, self-tanning lotions and homemade fireworks. Using a 1950s era intro to chemistry book as his guide he created his own ether and conducted a number of experiments, many of them totally unsafe for an unsupervised teen working in an impromptu home lab.
Eventually, David’s obsession turned to nuclear energy. His dream was to create his own breeder reactor, that is a reactor that creates more fuel than it consumes. In the pre-Internet age of the 1990s he scoured libraries, hospitals, colleges and government agencies for helpful open source material, sometimes posing as a college professor. In his quest to obtain fissionable material he bought stuff through the mail, did his own prospecting and even told a hospital he needed a sample of a medical grade isotope to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Without revealing too much let’s just say in the end his ambitious project would attract the attention of not just local law enforcement but also several government agencies.
The Radioactive Boy Scout is must reading for all you geeks and techies.
Back in 2012 I offered up my impressions of Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 best-selling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, a thoroughly enjoyable historical novel I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read until 10 years after it was published. Later, in 2013 I featured her 2003 follow-up The Lady and the Unicorn. While I didn’t enjoy Chevalier’s follow-up as much as its predecessor, it entertained me nevertheless. But more importantly it left me hungering for more of her fiction.
Luckily for me my local public library has a nice selection of her novels, one of which Remarkable Creatures, has intrigued me ever since I read reviews of it almost a decade ago. The story of two British women in mid-19th century England whose shared passion for ancient fossils puts them at odds with both the male-dominated scientific community and the local churches is too good a story for me to pass up forever. So, a few weeks ago during one of my weekend library visits I finally borrowed a copy of Remarkable Creatures and later that day went to work reading it. And just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, I kicked myself for waiting so many years to finally read it.
Roughly 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Mary and Elizabeth spend their days hunting for fossils along the beaches and hillsides of a small English coastal town. Mary, the younger of the two is a local and blessed with “the eye”, that is the uncanny ability to spot fossils that no others can. Elizabeth, a middle age “spinster” originally from London but shunted to the remote English coast by her family shares Mary’s love of fossil hunting but also serves as Mary’s mentor as well as go between, helping the lower class Mary navigate the confusing and intimidating world of the British upper class. Their passion, hard work and self-taught paleontological knowledge eventually reap significant rewards and led to budding notoriety. But alas, 1830s Britain is firmly a man’s world, and Mary and Elizabeth like all women in that age are not treated as intellectual equals no matter how talented they might be.
Reading this novel as a former evangelical Christian, it was the faith versus science aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most. As Mary and Elizabeth uncover more and more fossilized remains of strange and never before seen creatures they and other fossil aficionados begin questioning their religious beliefs. Why would God create a species of animal just to let it die out? If, on the other hand, the fossils are of animals that haven’t gone extinct, why is it no one has seen any of these animals alive anywhere in the world? Lastly, with the very existence of fossils indicating the earth is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old, could it be the world wasn’t created in six days and isn’t 4000 years old?
While I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures more than The Lady and the Unicorn I must say Girl With a Pearl Earring is still my favorite of the three. It’s left me wanting to read more of Chevalier’s fiction. Thanks to my public library there’s a good bet you’ll see more of her novels featured on my blog.
Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.
As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.
As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.