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« January, 2012 »
Here’s Looking at Euclid

I read these sorts of hobby math books for fun. This was one of my favorite so far. Unlike other books about math that seem to get hung up on stuff like “Let’s talk about VOTING for 50 pages ...” this one is broken down into short chapters about people and things that are slightly more current and slightly more interesting. I found myself going to Wikipedia or other sources to read more about some of the topics that Bellos only touched on. I rarely found my eyes glazing over when his discussion became too abstruse and I think I really understand a few things that I wasn’t clear on before [what slide rules were for, the different sorts of infinities and the history of lottery and gambling gaming situations]. I feel like Bellos' enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and he was able to get complicated subjects across well without seeming too cutesy or jokey. He also went and did first person interviews with some of the famous mathematicians that he mentions and these provide a really humanizing look at some fairly esoteric subjects. If you can read one popular math treatise this year, make it this one.

Fart Powder: Bubble in the Bathtub

This book is the second in Nesbo’s Fart Powder series, a romp through time with two young kids Lisa and Nilly and their friend Doctor Proctor the scientist and some good and bad guys along the way. I started with this book but it’s still fully understandable without reading the first book. Along the way the kids encounter historical figures you might have heard of like Napoleon and Joan of Arc. While there’s a time travel aspect to the book [there is special soap you can mix up in the bathtub that allows you to move through time] it’s much less science fiction and much more of a wacky caper book and Amazon categorizes it under “Fairy Tales, Folk Tales & Myths > Norse” for whatever reason. The book is translated from the original Norwegian.

There are funny fart jokes and other goofiness along the lines of Captain Underpants. This is a thick book, over 400 pages, but the text is good sized, the chapters are short and there are lots of illustrations along the way. Ultimately, it’s a story about friendship and creative problem solving. The two young characters each have distinct and enjoyable personalities and I found myself eagerly flipping pages to see what would happen next.

BirdTalk: Conversations with Birds

I’ve listened to the birds in the same place Powers lives, but I’ve never thought to talk to them before. This book is a fun ramble through many different poetic and contemplative perspectives of birdsongs and communication generally. Powers has a way with words and the connections he makes will often make you see and hear things in a new light. I enjoyed his sharing of particularly apt poems or little historical snippets along with his (sometimes apologized for) jokey turns of phrase and other allusions. The book itself is lovely to behold, feels good in your hands and is tastefully designed with lovely illustrations by Powers' wife. A great gift for anyone who has read all the “standard” bird books and who could use encouragement to not just watch and listen but to speak back and dialogue.

Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World of Food: Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausage

Zimmern loves food and travel and he likes to go off the beaten path. This book is a collection of essays about his far-off and weird travel experiences and the food that he ate in various places. From catching bats and roasting them over an open fire to eating the still-beating heart of a frog, to going on a puffin hunt in a remote location in Iceland, Zimmern enthusiastically recounts not just the tastes but the culture and the stories of the people he meets. He makes a distinction between being a tourist and being a traveler, writing about hoe he prefers to share foods with the people who live in the locations he goes to. This isn’t always the easiest way to eat--and some of the foods he eats are downright gross, even to him--but it’s the most interesting. The whole book is also peppered with little bits of trivia about the places he goes, the words he is using and the history of some of the things he experiences.

The Colony

I started this book a few years ago and just picked up where I left off because I gave it away as a prize in a contest and realized I hadn’t gotten all the way through it. This book is terrific, a model of what all good non-fiction books on somewhat difficult topics should be like. The story of Hawaii’s transition from an island nation of its own to a US state is just the backdrop for this long and meticulously well-researched and well-annotated history of the Leper Colony on the island of Molokai. It would be really easy to stuff it with gory photos and stories and OMG LEPERS sorts of writing and probably create a book that sold just as well if not better, but Tayman has really gone for an approach where as much as possible he tells the stories using the words of the people caught up in the exiling, the incarceration, the activism and the machinations. The history of the leper colony is a long roller coaster of good news and bad news, sometimes occurring at the same time or for the same reasons. All this book made me want to do was learn and read more about the people and the places Tayman talks about.


Got this book as a gift over holidaystime. It’s a nice short book about mosses and liverworts which has a lot of beautiful photos and a lot of weirdly dull explanations of how mosses reproduce. Like, it’s a really short book and yet there’s a lot of super-detailed explication of how different types of mosses reproduce. I could see this being a smaller part of a larger book, but it seemed odd. That said, it was lovely to look at, and a quick read and now I know the word “calyptra” so that’s sort of neat.

Notes from No Man’s Land

This was a great collection of essays on race and culture by Eula Biss a young female not-white author who has a knack for research and telling a good story without seeming hidebound about her beliefs or the lens through which she views the world. I was particularly interested not just with the essays that she wrote but by the notes on the essays in the end where she explains how an essay that was going to be about telephone poles wound up being about the history of lynching in the US. I felt like I understood her process and appreciated her “we don’t have all the answers” approach to differing racial issues and inequalities. She manages to both discuss issues personally but also contextualize them in a larger cultural context. I really liked this book.

The Archivist: A Novel

One of those books that is more historical fiction than just fiction, this novel about a librarian and a student and his history and hers had some really captivating moments, many of them towards the end, but felt like a slog through a lot of it. It may just be that I’m not interested enough in literary history and/or the poetics of long doomed relationships but I found all the frosty characters that inhabited this book really tough to understand and get behind. The book is wonderfully written and probably better for someone who wasn’t me.