Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe by H.L. Mencken

The 2016 presidential election campaign has already begun, so let’s take a look at a book about elections of the past, shall we?  H.L. Mencken (1880-1948) was a newspaperman, most famously on the Baltimore, Maryland Sun.  For a number of years, he had a weekly opinion column published on Mondays.  These 69 essays are focused primarily on presidential politics between 1920 and 1936.

a Carnival of Buncombe

That covers Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and the first two elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Mr. Mencken skewers them all, as well as other politicians and public figures of the time.  He was famous for his barbs, and is eminently quotable.  For example “…going into politics is as fatal to a gentleman as going into a bordello is fatal to a virgin.”

It’s interesting to see what has changed about politics since the first half of the Twentieth Century, and what has remained the same.  It’s still amusing to watch a party’s primary candidates tear each other to shreds, then have to work together as best buddies once the party has an official nominee.  On the other hand, the Republican and Democratic parties of the time are barely recognizable as the organizations they are now.  (One can see the beginnings of the policy flips that lost the Dems the KKK vote.)

Mr. Mencken has a wide vocabulary and many useful words that may come in handy for your own writing.  But be warned that he also uses some ethnic slurs that were common at the time.  His views are progressive on some subjects, but highly reactionary on others, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  Mr. Mencken is particularly hard on Methodists and Baptists, who he feels bullied the country into Prohibition (which Mencken was against.)

H.L. Mencken did support some politicians on an individual basis, but was quick to edit his own memory of their performance when they disappointed him.  One also has to remember that he had a reputation as a curmudgeon to uphold.

To cover the major players, Warren G. Harding was a compromise candidate chosen for not having particularly strong views on anything; Calvin Coolidge was even less impressive (unless one takes the Jeffersonian dictum that “the government is best that governs least” in which case he is one of the greatest presidents.)  Herbert Hoover was sold to America as exactly the kind of person who could fix a financial crisis should one pop up–he wasn’t.  And FDR would have been better suited to the job of king.

Interesting historical perspective:  Mr. Mencken writes several times about the perception that Hoover was too close to the British, something that didn’t get any play in the little I heard about him in school.

This collection was put together in the 1950s with the aid of political history scholar Malcolm Moos; it already needed an extensive “glossary” of names mentioned in the columns to remind people of who they’d been.  Even with the glossary and index, some knowledge of early 20th Century American politics is vital to the reader getting anything but a few chuckles out of the text.  My copy is in bad shape, as you can see, but the book has been reprinted a few times, so check your library or used book store.

Recommended to students of American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: USA Noir

Book Review: USA Noir edited by Johnny Temple

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This was an Advanced Reading Copy, and small changes may be made in the final product.

USA Noir

“Noir”, here, is short for noir fiction, a form of hard-boiled crime fiction by analogy with the cinematic film noir.  Noir fiction tends to focus on the seedier side of life, filled with petty criminals, people driven to extremes by circumstance, and bittersweet at best resolutions.  Akashic Books has been putting out anthologies of noir short stories grouped by location since 2004, and this is a “best of” collection.

The stories are grouped by themes such as “True Grit” and “Under the Influence”, and range across the continental United States.  (Yes, that includes the Twin Cities.)  Most are contemporary (one has Google Maps as a plot point) but there are a couple of period pieces set in the 1940s and Fifties.

Some standout stories include: “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane (a man finds an abandoned puppy, and decides to keep it),  “Run Kiss Daddy” by Joyce Carol Oates (a man does not want to upset his new family), “Mastermind” by Reed Farrell Coleman (a dumb crook comes up with the perfect crime), “Loot” by Julie Smith (various people try to cash in on Hurricane Katrina), “Helper” by Joseph Bruchac (revenge comes looking for Indian Charlie, but he’s no pushover) and “Feeding Frenzy” by Tim Broderick (in comic book format, a Wall Street firm has lost a big contract, and the employees search for someone to blame.)

Thirty-seven stories in total, 500+ pages of entertainment.   There’s also a list of the other stories in the volumes these were reprinted from, and a list of awards the series has garnered.

If the genre is not warning enough, I should mention that sordid violence is common in these stories, and some may be triggery.

Overall, the stories are of good quality, and represent an excellent cross-section of today’s noir writers.    It’s good value for money.

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer by Pat Toth-Smith

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wild Among Us

This is a coffee-table book of wildlife photographs, with chapters for each kind of animal and the stories of how the photographer got the pictures.    There are indeed some lovely photographs in here.

The stories will be familiar to anyone interested in wildlife photography.  The elaborate preparations,  the missed chances, the miserable conditions and the brilliant moments when that one perfect shot is available.   Ms. Toth-Smith has several terrifying encounters with wildlife, but usually comes out okay, except for that one time with the mosquito.  (There are no mosquito photographs in this volume.)

Depressingly, the photographer details how she needs to take extra precautions from human threats because she is a woman who often travels alone.  Lucky so far, but a few terrifying moments.

The book is kind of expensive at $45 suggested retail price; consider it as a gift for people who love wildlife photography or animals in general.

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