Review of “Stuff Matters” by Mark Miodownik

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The author is a material scientist who holds the position of professor of “materials and society” at University College London. His somewhat quirky title gives a hint about the contents and organization of the book: it deals not only with the incredible and unexpected properties of various man-made materials, but also with the way that humans relate and react to those materials. Ten materials are explored in all, each with a separate chapter.

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I must admit that I found the explanations of the make-up of the materials – especially the ways in which they are not at all the “solids” they appear to be – more interesting than the author’s musings on the way these items shaped society. As the author repeatedly demonstrates:

The central idea behind materials science is that changes at … invisibly small scales impact a material’s behavior at the human scale. It is this process that our ancestors stumbled upon to make new materials such as bronze and steel, even though they did not have the microscopes to see what they were doing – an amazing achievement.”

He shares many fascinating observations about the property of “stuff”: for example, he describes silica aerogel, a material that is 99.8% air, which may be the least dense solid in the universe, but which is being successfully used by NASA to harvest space dust from comets. He explains why diamonds have such unique and remarkable properties, why paperclips bend, and why elastic stretches. And he tells how the use of glass for serving beer changed the whole nature of the brewing industry. Likewise, his observations on how more prosaic materials like paper, steel, ceramics, and concrete were developed and how they shaped the modern world are worth reading.

On the other hand, I wasn’t so much taken with his inclusion into the narrative mix of “psychophysics,” the study of how humans react sensually to materials.

Nevertheless, the author is engaging, and there are plenty of photos and diagrams throughout the book to elucidate that which he wants to convey.

Evaluation: This is a short, easy read with lots of interesting factoids.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

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Kid Lit Review of “A Fine Dessert” by Emily Jenkins

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Some things never change, such as the love of a fine dessert. In this meticulously researched book, four families in four different centuries are shown preparing and enjoying Blackberry Fool, a simple but delicious dessert made from blackberries, cream, and sugar.

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With each reiteration of the dessert making and eating process, children can see which elements have varied, and which have stayed the same (the most prominent one being licking the bowl at the end!). But much is different, from how the ingredients were procured and kept cold, to how the cream was made, to whether recipe books were used, to how families would gather around the table.

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The families preparing the dessert include a mother and daughter in Lyme, England in 1710, a slave mother and daughter near Charleston, South Carolina in 1810, a girl and her mother in Boston in 1910, and a dad and his son in San Diego in 2010. There are many changes in culture and technology, family dynamics, and social mores in each era, not only apparent in the text, but cleverly added to the illustrations by the incomparable Sophie Blackall. Kids will enjoy trying to identify them all. Perhaps they will even be able to follow the developments in gender roles and racial relations throughout the story.

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Sophie Blackall not only employed ink and watercolor in her paintings, but even used blackberry juice; the endpapers – a beautiful black-mottled purple, are totally from “squished blackberries.”

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Evaluation: This charming book is full of subtle history lessons for kids, and might even inspire all readers to go out and get the ingredients and document their own process (perhaps using the video function on their smart phones) of making and eating this fine dessert!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” by Eric Foner

Once again the eminent historian Eric Foner has written a fascinating and important history that helps set the record straight about the period in America before, during, and after the Civil War. While this book focuses on the escape of runaway slaves and especially the support and/or obstacles they encountered in New York City, he places his study within the wider context of American politics at the time.

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New York was an important and active center of underground railroad activity. When William Seward was governor, the state enacted several “personal liberty” measures that, inter alia, decreed that any slave entering the state except a fugitive automatically became free. In addition, New York was the home of the largest free black community at that time, making it attractive for fugitives who would need help if they got as far as that state. It also had a sizable liberal white community of abolitionists.

Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward In office from January 1, 1839 to December 31, 1842

Gubernatorial portrait of William H. Seward In office from January 1, 1839 to December 31, 1842

But there were undeniably many New Yorkers who made fortunes from the slave trade, either directly or indirectly through the cotton industry, and who therefore objected to any acts to alienate the southern states. New York’s “Journal of Commerce” (still in print today), called for repeal of the personal liberty laws of New York and for abandonment of the clearly (to them) absurd idea “that to rob our neighbor of his slave … is a Christian duty.” These businessmen even wanted to allow slavery to spread to the West, all to appease the planters who made them so wealthy.

Foner’s account of the efforts of slaves to get north to freedom emphasizes that, although there were many heroic whites who helped, even their efforts would hardly have been possible “without the courage and resourcefulness, in a hostile environment, of blacks,” ranging from those northern free blacks who served on abolition committees to “the ordinary men and women” who watched for fugitives and did what they could to house them, feed them, and direct them to safety. Because there was a great deal of prejudice against blacks even among abolitionists, black men and women were restricted to jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, working as maids, waiters, cooks, mariners, and dock workers. Ironically, those same jobs put them in a great position to learn about new fugitives and to help them.

An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, by having himself shipped  in a crate mailed to Philadelphia.

An illustration of Henry “Box” Brown who, in 1849, escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia with the assistance of friends and abolitionists, by having himself shipped in a crate mailed to Philadelphia.

This leads to Foner’s point that unlike the impression many Americans have, the phrase “underground railroad” was a metaphor to refer to “an interlocking series of local networks” using a variety of methods – both legal and illegal, to assist fugitives, helping them in many cases to make their way to Canada, where they would not be subject to detection and re-enslavement. Trains had little to do with the process, and moreover, many of the activities of underground railroad were not strictly “underground” at all, but widely publicized.

[The South had a different definition of “Underground Railroad” – one North Carolina newspaper called it “An Association of abolitionists whose first business is to steal, or cause to be stolen, educed or inveigled . . . slaves from southern plantations; . . . to steal him from an indulgent and provident master; to carry him to a cold, strange, and uncongenial country, and there leave him . . . to starve, freeze, and die, in glorious freedom.”]

Foner documents that most fugitives came from the Upper South, since it obviously presented a shorter distance for them to make their way successfully to the North. Nevertheless, and ironically, it was the Upper South that remained in the Union, and the Lower South that decried the “fanatical warfare [of the North] on the constitutional rights of property.”

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Foner also wants to make the point that the resolution of the slavery issue in America should not be seen only as a matter of the whites freeing the slaves; the slaves themselves played a large role in impacting the political dialogue about “liberty” and “freedom” and in taking advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to take up their rightful role as “people” instead of “property.”

The Lower South hated the fugitive situation not only for the obvious one of losing the monetary value of this “property.” A runaway slave gave lie to the notion, much promulgated by Southerners, that life was not difficult under slavery or that slaves were not “contented.” But in fact, many of their own advertisements for runaway slaves gave them away, for the notices included identifying marks of the slaves that were clear indications of abusive treatment, such as visible scars and mutilated body parts.

In another interesting twist, the fugitive slave situation made white Southerners vigorous proponents of federal action to override local laws in order to ensure the return of slaves to their “owners.” For all that Southerners claimed in later years that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” they were vigorously in favor of federal hegemony in the interest of perpetuating slavery.

Thus the actions of runaway slaves powerfully affected the national debate over slavery and union, especially because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ratcheted up the tension between North and South and became a key point of contention in the succession crisis that followed.

Much of the book tells the stories both of individual slaves who made the perilous journey north, and of those who helped them, and how they did so. But Foner’s constant intermixing of these stories with a meta-level analysis ensures that we never lose sight of what each and every brave and perilous action meant for the future of the country.

Discussion: There are so many interesting aspects of Foner’s book that should be a part of every student’s history lessons (as should his analyses in other books of the Reconstruction period, even more mired in myth than “the Underground Railroad”). You will even discover that the practice of holding gift bazarres around holiday time to encourage gift exchanges originated as a money-raising idea of abolitionists. For while some runaways needed just enough funds to get them to Canada, others needed to be purchased from their owners when that was the only way to save them from being taken back to the South. (The fate of these recaptured slaves is also very noteworthy. Their owners spent a great deal of time and money to get them back, but then of course they didn’t want them anymore, so they would sell them further South. This allowed owners to recoup their money, punish the slave, and buy someone more docile the next time around.)

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Tragically, as Foner conveys, some of the best “characters” in this story have so little written about them. I would love to know more, for example, about Louis Napoleon, a black porter who seemed to have been everywhere helping fugitives; when he died, he was credited with having helped over 3,000 escape!

The viciousness and inhumanity of Southern slave owners really doesn’t get enough attention in history books. While Foner doesn’t specifically attack them, by showing the human costs to slaves so clearly and compassionately, he gives both groups their “due.”

Evaluation: Nothing that can make a lover of excellent history more happy than a new book by Eric Foner. His findings are meticulously researched, and yet he invests his work with so much passion and imbues his words with such a strong sense of justice denied, that one never feels a moment of not being totally invested in learning what he has to share.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

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Review of “City of Savages” by Lee Kelly

This is a story about family, and about Sisters Doin It For Themselves. It is also about a post-apocalyptic dystopia, set in Manhattan following a devastating war in the near future apparently started by China after a year of worldwide droughts and tension over trade.

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In the summer, Sarah Miller and her daughters Sky (Skylar) 17, and Phee (Phoenix), 16, survive as they can, hunting the offspring of animals that were let loose from the zoo, or killing squirrels, or living off the small garden they have made on the roof of the abandoned building they inhabit. In the winter, all survivors in Manhattan (382 at the last census), officially prisoners of war, are required to come live in Central Park, where they all help work large farms and share food and lodging.

The “Warden” of these POWs is a woman called Rolladin, who rules with an iron hand, although she seems to have some sort of special relationship to Sarah and her children. Rolladin also has a guard called warlords (the girls call them “whorelords”) who help keep discipline, and who provide, it is believed, lovers to Rolladin.

The story begins on Phee’s sixteenth birthday, which is also the day of the mandatory annual census. Sarah wants the family to make a stop first to show them their old apartment where Sky was born, and while there, Sky finds a diary apparently written by her mom, and secretly takes it with her. Sarah will never talk about the past before the war, and the girls are desperate to know what happened.

Meanwhile, Rolladin, who is a firm believer of the time-tested bread and circuses method of rule, organizes yearly “games” in the park after the census. These games are actually brutal fights between warlords and would-be warlords. Because the Miller family is late for the census (Sarah sprained her ankle on the way back from the apartment), Rolladin punishes them by insisting one of them participate in the fights. Phee, the fiercest of the three, volunteers. To everyone’s surprise, she does well (even though she is saved from certain death at the end by Rolladin).

Phee considers what it would mean if she were to become a warlord, because her mother despises Rolladin. But she never has a chance to find out; several days later, some men are captured outside the park, bringing shocking secrets with them. The truth they bring changes everything, and the nature of survival changes radically for them.

Discussion: The story is told by alternating narration between Phee and Sky, and by excerpts from Sarah’s diary. The book has the pacing of a thriller, with plenty of twists (albeit with some – but not all – being fairly obvious). The author does a good job of making the two girls very dissimilar (Phee is mostly about emotion and Sky about reason) without stripping them of complexity. In addition, she nicely conveys the way in which the love and loyalty the members of the Miller family feel for one another transcend any differences.

And while the book employs plenty of “the usual” post-apocalyptic dystopia tropes and clichés, the author still manages to put a unique stamp on the story, first by the way in which she brings Manhattan to life as a prison, and secondly, by the way in which women dominate the action.

This book is marketed as adult science fiction, whereas I would put it in the YA/Adult post-apocalyptic category. I see no reason for it to be called “science fiction” and unfortunately, I think that will probably limit the audience.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2015

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Review of “Dry Bones” by Craig Johnson

Walt Longmire is the capable, humorous, and widowed sheriff of Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County. He is in a relationship with his hard-boiled undersheriff, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, a transplanted Philadelphia homicide detective, whose brother married Longmire’s daughter Cady. Cady and her husband have a five-month-old daughter Lola, and as the story begins, Cady and Lola are coming to Wyoming for a visit.

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Longmire won’t have the time for visiting he would like: a valuable T. rex skeleton has been discovered in the area, along with the dead body of the Cheyenne rancher, Danny Lone Elk, on whose land the bones were found. The remains of the dinosaur, called “Jen,” named for the paleontologist who found her, are worth a fortune. Walt has to figure out what happened to Danny, but the principal suspects have so many secrets, it isn’t easy for him to sort through the plethora of means, motives, and opportunities. He gets much-needed help from his longtime friend Henry Standing Bear, who is essential as a liaison with the local Native Americans.

Discussion: Readers get a good feel for Wyoming, and even get to learn about the ways in which Wyoming has been such a goldmine for paleontologists – who knew! According to Wikipedia:

Wyoming is such a spectacular source of fossils that author Marian Murray noted in 1974 that “[e]ven today, it is the expected thing that any great museum will send its representatives to Wyoming as often as possible.” Murray has also written that nearly every major vertebrate paleontologist in United States history has collected fossils in Wyoming.”

Both Jim and I were reminded of Robert Parker by Johnson’s lean writing style and the ways in which he imbues his protagonist with a wry sense of humor and plenty of very funny one-liners. Jim thinks the books written by Parker are funnier, although we both appreciate the way Johnson adds a bit more emotional depth to his characters than Parker.

This book is the 13th in the mystery series featuring Sheriff Longmire. Neither Jim nor I have ever read any of the books before, and I at least (being more obsessed with series order than Jim) soon was sorry we started with number thirteen rather than number one. This is because, while this book can be read as a standalone, we liked it a lot, and want to read the rest. It will bother me to go backwards, but I will buck up and do it, because Johnson is a very entertaining writer, and his sense of humor is delightful.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

Note: These books have been made into a television series, the fourth season of which will be available to stream on Netflix in the fall of 2015.

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Kid Lit Review of “The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch” by Chris Barton

This story of John Roy Lynch, the first African-American speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, is a terrific book for several reasons. The most important is, the author actually gets the story of the Reconstruction Era correct. While many Americans know a lot about the Civil War, the great majority don’t know much about Reconstruction, and what they have learned is riddled with myth and inaccuracies. As historian Eric Foner points out, we are still dealing with many of the same issues today as we did during this time period, making it all the more critical that we are aware of what actually happened. Chris Barton does a great job not only in presenting the truth, but in doing so in a way that will be understandable to younger readers.

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Another reason this book stands out is because of John Roy Lynch himself, whose story is pretty amazing. Lynch, his mother, and brother were slaves, but were about to be bought and thereby liberated by his white father in 1849 when the father became sick and died. The father had entrusted a friend to complete the process, but the “friend” just sold the family to a new owner.

John Roy’s new job was to serve the owner’s wife by such chores as fanning her and shooing flies from her food. On Sundays, he and the other slaves listened to sermons about doing their master’s will. But John Roy spoke out of place one day, and was sent across the river in 1862 to work in the swampy cotton fields. But by then the Civil War had started, and when the Yankees came to Mississippi, John Roy experienced “true emancipation” when he sold a chicken for a dime and bought a boat ride to Natchez.

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After the war ended, Mississippi whites, like those in other parts of the South, began passing laws to incarcerate as many young black men as they could; in essence, re-enslaving them to use their manpower as before. The labor of prisoners was bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day. Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located. (You can read about this in the excellent 2008 book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name.)

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John Roy managed to escape “recapture” by becoming a messenger for a local portrait shop, and was soon running it himself. He went to night school to learn to read and write, and got involved in the Natchez Republican club.

In 1868 the new U.S. Government-appointed Governor of Mississippi named John Roy Justice of the Peace, and John Roy hastened to learn law. He then got elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, which chose John Roy as Speaker of the House. He was still only twenty-four years old. In 1872, voters sent him to the U.S. House of Representatives. His own success belied the fact that there was still plenty of resistance to black advancement in the South, and violence by whites steadily increased. John Roy, however, continued throughout his long life to believe in the power of law to bring peace and justice.

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John Roy Lynch’s story is followed by a timeline, an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s note, a list of references for further reading, and a map.

Illustrator Don Tate chose a “childlike, naive style of art,” as he explains in his note, in the hope that the more lighthearted style would help temper the harsh aspects of the story. I think he made a great decision. His watercolors are also framed in sepia, helping establish the historical nature of the story.

Evaluation: “Black history” has been dominated for so long by a very few figures, that it is great to see authors bringing attention to new trailblazers and role models. And as mentioned above, it is always very gratifying when an author does his or her research, and is not reluctant to figure out ways to share essential aspects of American history with younger ears.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2015

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Review of “City of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett

This book is reminiscent in some ways of China Miéville’s The City and The City, also a fantasy/crime novel set in a city superimposed upon another city in fantastical ways. Bennett is perhaps more ambitious though, adding elements of a spy thriller, a political commentary, and an analysis of religion [especially with its anthropomorphism and (relatedly) emphasis on guilt and punishment] into the mix.

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The story is set in Bulikov, the capital city of the Continent, governed not, however, by Continentals but by their conquerers 75 years previously, the Saypuris.

As the story begins, a historian from Saypur, Dr. Efram Pangyui, has been murdered, and Saypur sends a “cultural diplomat” to Bulikov to investigate. Shara Thivani, a small, slight woman with thick glasses who guzzles tea and is given to expletives like “Oh, dear!” and “Oh boy!” isn’t who she purports to be however; she is the most experienced Saypuri spy, and she is also a descendent of the Kaj, the man who conquered the Continent by figuring out how to kill its Divinities. Upon the destruction of the six Divinities who protected The Continent, much of its civilization, which was built by them, was destroyed as well in devastation known thereafter as The Blink:

Whole countries disappeared. Streets turned to chasms. Temples turned to ash. Stars vanished. The sky clouded over, marking the permanent change to the Continent’s eliminate… Buildings of Divine nature imploded into a single stone, taking all their occupants with them to what one can only assume was a terrible fate. And Bulikov, being the holiest of cities … contracted inward by miles in one brutal moment, disrupting the very nature of the city ….”

Here one thinks of The Communist Manifesto, in which the authors write about the continual revolutions of the bourgeoisie:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

But there has been no revolution yet in Bulikov: Analogous to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, when people had everything done for them [in this case, by the Divines, prior to The Blink], they became vulnerable to, as Herbert wrote: …the terrible danger of a gliding, passionless mediocrity….” Now, with no more gods to do the creating, Bulikov is quite backward, mired in desperate poverty. The people blame their dire straits on the Saypuri, who they despise. Admittedly, the Saypuri have not helped the Continentals; prior to The Blink, the Saypuri were repressed by the Continentals; as the Sapuri see it, they are now just returning the favor.

In Bulikov, however, the Continentals have a secret weapon, and it is the urbanscape itself, which still holds leftover magic in areas of “reality static” in which the “before” and “after” cities still exist, if only one has the knowledge to access its connective tissue and unlock its mysteries. (An analogous ongoing theme is the way history, too, is still a part of the present, even if most people are unaware of it.)

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author's website

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author’s website

Thus, the gods may not still exist in corporeal form (although they certainly still do in the minds of the people), but their influence remains, to be used and abused by those who refuse to let go of the faith.

Shara and the female governor of Bulikov, Turin Mulaghesh, find themselves facing a possible revolution, and a religious recrudescence of intolerant orthodoxy. In addition, she has a time limit to identify who murdered Pangyui, or she will be recalled. A rather stunning dénouement brings all the forces to bear, both secular and divine, in a bittersweet resolution.

Discussion: There are many aspects of this story upon which I have not touched, including the power of a bureaucracy to inflict stagnation on a country; the perils of imperialism; racism; gender politics; a romance; the many varieties courage can take; and last but not least, Shara’s powerful “secretary” Sigrud. There are many layers indeed in this fantasy, and most of its kudos stem from the extensive and creative world-building. But perhaps the most stand-out aspect of it for me is the prominent roles – especially for a fantasy novel – given to women, who are moreover non-Caucasian women.

Evaluation: This is a well-written fantasy novel which should definitely appeal to fans of China Miéville as well as fans of “clockpunk” (which, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, is “a sub-genre of the speculative historical fiction genre called Steampunk characterized by modern technologies accomplished using clockwork mechanisms and generally excluding steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine”).

Note: This is a standalone novel, but perhaps because of its popularity, a sequel or perhaps companion novel is in the works.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, 2014

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author's website

City of Bulikov by John Petersen on the author’s website

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