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review 2017-04-25 07:42
The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures - Carla D. Hayden,Library of Congress

 This is probably the most pleasant, and by extension, interesting, history of something as mundane as a card catalog as I'm likely to ever run across.  From the first example of a book catalog, pressed into clay in cuneiform, to the modern day usage of MARC records, the text flows in a tight, succinct narrative that is neither chatty nor dry (and I'm sure nowhere near comprehensive).


Where the book truly shines is in its photographs and illustrations.  The author and publisher were generous with the photographs and they fill at least 1/3 of the pages.  Most of them are photos of the old cards and the books they belong to, but there are many old pictures of the Library of Congress and other related images.  The number of cards the Library of Congress had to deal with daily in the mid-50's is staggering.  I can't even imagine the logistics.


Did you know that the Library of Congress still has their old card catalog and it's still in use?   (Most of it.)  I think that's wonderful and the perfect example of how old and new methodologies can complement each other instead of competing.  


This isn't the kind of book that's going to have wide appeal, but for those that find the subject interesting, it's a beautiful book, thoughtfully put together.



Page count: 220
Dollars banked: $3.00

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review 2017-04-21 12:47
Fifty Days that Changed the World
Fifty Days That Changed The World - Hywell Williams

A beautiful book, with 50 well chosen, although as the editor freely admits, subjectively chosen, days that inarguably changed the world.


But the writing was dry, and overly focused on battlefield/military statistics for my personal tastes; I quickly lost track of who did what to whom, and when they did it - especially since the writer(s) often went back and forth in time in an attempt to flesh out events.


I was also surprised by the poor editing; call me naive but I expected better from a Folio Society publication.  Spaces missing between words and sentences that were incomplete or nonsensical did nothing to improve my opinion.  It's not a bad read; it's just not as good as I'd hoped.

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review 2017-04-06 05:10
Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties
Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties - Rachel Cooke

Just what it says on the wrapper, this book is an encapsulated look at the lives and careers of 10 British women at their professional peak during the 50's, a decade that, in my entirely biased opinion, was the beginning of the end in so many ways.


But not for women; they were just starting to gather momentum.  Rachel Cooke writes about these women in an extremely casual, laid-back style that is often funny and always easy to read and entertaining.  She manages, in just a few dozen pages at most, to give the reader a really good feel for these women, their lives, and the trails they blazed.  


For at least half of them, I have to say, that feeling is that no matter how successful they were, they were also a hot mess.  There is a long trail of deceit, neglect, and dishonesty behind some of these 'extraordinary' women; at least 3 of them should have had their children taken from them (although that's just my opinion of course).  By the third chapter, I was wondering why, as much as I was absolutely loving Cooke's writing, I was continuing to read about these women; they may have achieved great things professionally but they hadn't done it with any grace or integrity.


But perhaps Cooke wanted to get the brilliant, scandalous, and brilliantly scandalous out of the way at the outset, because the remaining 70% of the book highlights women who were able to achieve great things and make a name for themselves without neglecting their children or cheating on their partners.  Mostly.  Well, ok, they did it without neglecting or abandoning their kids.


The highlights for me were reading about Margery Fish and Rose Heilbron, gardener extraordinaire and the first female QC, respectively.  Margery's subversiveness towards her husband was hilarious and her ethos on gardening is exactly the same as my own; building and maintaining 2 acres of gardens by herself, however, is way out of my league.  I loved, though, that she didn't even begin what she would become so famous for until she was in her 40s.  


Rose Heilbron, however, was truly the most inspiring woman showcased in this book.  Not only were her achievements truly extraordinary by any standard, not just 'for a woman', but the manner in which she went about achieving them makes her truely worthy of admiration. The way Cooke writes it, she went through her life with such grace, integrity, intelligence and rationalism, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some huge scandal to be revealed, which is a sad commentary on what I've come to expect from 'achievers'.  Fortunately, no such scandal was revealed.  This woman should be the role model of every female (AND male) in the world; not for what she achieved, but for how she achieved it.  


As far as these books go, I think Her Brilliant Career would appeal to a broad audience.  Cooke manages to write about history without causing chronic drowsiness, and about feminism without beating the reader over the head with it.  Instead she allows these women's lives to tell the stories they need to tell and in the process both entertain and inform the casual reader.

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review 2017-03-29 10:07
The Phantom Atlas
The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps - Edward Brooke-Hitching

Everybody who isn't me knows an atlas is a reference, not something to be read cover-to-cover.  Me?  I had to read it cover to cover, which made this gorgeous, well-written, informative book feel more like a chore than it should have.  


This is an atlas of all the places on the maps throughout history that never existed.  Atlantis will be the first example that comes to many minds, but there are so many more.  You wouldn't think maps would be enduring evidence of the human ability to spin a yarn but our ability to make stuff up is timeless.


Each entry gets at least a spread and the old maps included (in color where applicable) are gorgeous; almost worth the price of the book on their own.  


If you love maps, or geography, this book is beautiful and worth a look; even though I'm glad to finally finish it, it's something I'll treasure and look at again and again. 

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review 2017-03-15 22:36
The Book of God and Physics
The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery - Enrique Joven,Delores M. Koch

I loved every single thing about this book.  Except the writing.  Or maybe the translation.  Probably the translation.  Either way, what could have been a story to blow The DaVinci Code out of the water, was instead a worthy read for only those that are interested in the Voynich Manuscript, astronomy, and/or the intersection of faith and science.


I am incredibly fascinated with all of those things - except astronomy, of course - so I couldn't give up on the book.  For those unaware of the Voynich Manuscript, it is a real, illustrated manuscript believed to be about 500 years old.  It's full of beautiful ink and watercolour drawings that encompass chemistry/alchemy, botanicals, and astronomy, and it's written in a language that doesn't exist anywhere else.  It remains to this day undecipherable.  The manuscript currently resides at the Beinecke Library of Yale University and they have it online here.


Anything that has remained untranslatable for over 500 years becomes an unavoidable conspiracy theorist magnet, but the author of this book includes an introduction, where he makes it clear that other than the creation of the MC and his two friends, everything else in the book is historically accurate; all the other characters are real and their back-stories were kept intact without creative license.  Knowing this also kept me glued to the book when the prose would have sent me fleeing long before chapter 2.


The book is heavily centered in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).  (They owned the Voynich Manuscript until 1912 when Voynich secretly bought it from them.)  My gender aside, the Jesuits are my people.  I make no secret of my faith in God and my faith in science; a stance that neatly pisses off everyone in one go: atheists because I believe in God, and those calling themselves Christians because I'm a heretic for accepting the Big Bang (first hypothesised by a Belgian priest*, btw) and evolution. The Jesuits also find no contradiction between God and science and in fact, most of the major contributions to science - experimental physics, specifically - in the 17th century were made by Jesuits. They weren't slackers in the 18th century either.


So, a story about a real coded manuscript, in its historically accurate setting, involving science and theology, taking place in a Jesuit school in Castile.  And I haven't even mentioned the secret tunnels, hidden passages and coded messages, or the major supporting characters that include Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Dee, Kelly, Galileo and Cassini.


Unfortunately, as I've already said, the writing translation is the major sticking point. The narrative was choppy and there was a general abuse of pronouns, leaving the reader sometimes wondering who was being talked about at any given time.  Dialogue jumped around too so that there were a few leaps of logic I couldn't follow because I couldn't parse the writing.  The ultimate care the author takes to make sure the history and the science are explained carefully (and sometimes repetitively), inclines me to fault the translation.  The author's love and knowledge of the subject matter screams from the page, as does his concern that the reader understand as much of the hard stuff as is possible, so it doesn't make sense that the story itself was written with so little care.


If I were only rating the writing, this would be 1 star.  But the subject matter and the plot were 5 stars, so in the end I split the difference and went with 3.  Don't bother with this one if you're only looking for a thriller or adventure, but if you're fascinated by the other stuff, maybe see if your library has this one and give is a go.  It'll be work, but it'll be fascinating too.


(* Georges Lemaître was the first to formally propose his hypothesis of the primeval atom, which became known as the Big Bang Theory, first published in 1931 in Nature.  He was a Jesuit priest and professor of physics.  He was also the first to note the expansion of the universe, and the first to derive Hubble's law and made the first estimation of what is called Hubble's constant - all misattributed to Hubble, at least in name.)

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