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review 2017-10-10 08:54
The Last Alchemist in Paris & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry
The Last Alchemist in Paris: & Other Curious Tales from Chemistry - Lars Ohrstrom

I'm being generous in my rating of this book because I genuinely enjoyed it.  It gets off to a rough start in terms of readability in the first couple of chapters, but it rights itself and becomes a wonderfully interesting wander through some of the elements in the periodic table.  Yes, the science is hard (there are a lot of chemical equations and illustrations of molecules), but the author ties it all to historical anecdotes and uses a very conversational style of writing, so even if some of the science feels impenetrable, it's easy to come away from each chapter getting at least the gist of what he's saying.

 

The extra 1/2 star is a bonus because he's a very well read (or as least a widely reading) chemist:  he frequently refers to not only Christie and Sayers' works, but Stieg Larsson, Clive Cussler, and Ian McEwan and Astrid Lindgren amongst others.

 

I'm grateful to Tannat for making me aware this book exists.

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review 2017-09-14 05:39
Gulp.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach

Where to start?  

 

This was the book chosen (by popular vote) as The Flat Book Society's first official read.  Opinions seem to be firmly split down the middle, and while possibly an inauspicious start to our fledgling club, it definitely generated a lot of discussion.  

 

My personal feelings about the book started off complicated:  this is not the book I signed up for.  I was hoping for an accessible but scientific look at the human digestive process from start to finish, looking at each step of the process in relative detail.  I think a lot of us thought that was the book we were getting.

 

Gulp is not that book.

 

At first this was disappointing - it still is in the sense of the curiosity unfulfilled - but as I continued reading, and adjusted my expectations once it became obvious I was not going to get the book I expected, I ended up enjoying it a lot.

 

Anyone who has ever read Judith Stone's columns in Discover magazine (a very long time ago) will know what to expect from Gulp (some of them were published in a book called Light Elements: Essays in Science from Gravity to Levity).  Mary Roach is Judith Stone's successor, writing about the science that either seems trivial to most people, or the science no one wants to talk about.  Obviously, Gulp is the latter.

 

This is an overview of digestion in general; not just human, although that is the primary focus.  Roach looks at it from both an anthropological view, discussing the effects our social views and taboos about digestion have on everything from the food we eat, to the medical care we receive, as well as the scientific as she interviews scientists, looks at case histories and discuses current research.  

 

Think of Gulp as an introduction; an audit (in the US English sense of the word), of the vast science of gastroenterology, written with a whole lot of humor. Roach never shies away from a joke, a double entendre, or a bit of lighthearted but vulgar fun.  She never stoops to locker room level humour and she never does it at the expense of accuracy, but you can tell she's had a good time writing this book.  She'd definitely be someone I'd enjoy meeting, although probably not at any social event including food.

 

If that's the kind of book that appeals to you, definitely check this out; it will be informative and entertaining.  If you're hoping for a more focused look at the intricacies of eating and digestion, pass this one on by; it will definitely disappoint.

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review 2017-08-25 07:46
The Informed Gardener
The Informed Gardener - Linda Chalker-Scott

This book is a collection of columns that were originally written from 2000 for Washington State nursery and landscape professionals.  It's aim to to bust the myths gardeners have been swearing by for decades using hard peer-reviewed science.

 

It's a good, easy, quick read and it pretty much makes the average gardener writing this review shake her head over the sheer number of things I've beein doing wrong, thereby proving the miracle that is life.  Because after reading this it is truly a wonder anything lives in my garden.

 

Each column is immediately followed with citations; all of which are peer reviewed scientific resources.  The columns are short and each has a "bottom line" summarising the take away points and a couple of times there are step by step instructions for certain tasks.

 

The only reason I didn't got the full five stars is that I took exception to her attitude about what is commonly called organic gardening.  Her facts are dead on - I don't question those - but in her effort to 'straighten out' those misconceptions about organic vs. synthetic, she completely fails to address other benefits of avoiding synthetic chemicals; benefits that also have an army of peer reviewed research behind them.  She leaves the impression that anyone eschewing RoundUp and MiracleGro are ignorant and foolish.  The information is solid, it's just the attitude I found distasteful.

 

But everything else... well, I'll be changing most everything about how I transfer plants and care for them from now on.

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review 2017-08-11 12:59
The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science
The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science - Sandra Hempel

Overall, this was good.  Hempel frames the rudimentary beginnings of forensic science - specifically toxicology - within the narrative of a famous poisoning case of the time, that of the Bodle family, which resulted in the death of George Bodle, the rather wealthy patriarch.  

 

She sets up a rather thrilling beginning; I was at once riveted to the story as we're walked through the morning of the poisoning.  I very much wanted to know what was going to happen next. 

 

And this is where Hempel falters.  Because just when you're on the edge of your seat, she launches into the science, the scientists and the research of the time, which leads her into side avenues of other contemporary cases. These are also interesting, but she throws so many names and events at the reader in these side alleys to her narrative, that by the time she wends her way back to the Bodles, I've lost track of who everybody was.  

 

This becomes slightly less of a problem in the second half of the book, as things become too exciting for Hempel to get sidetracked, but it's still a regular occurrence.  And the thing is, these deviations are the part where all the interesting science-y bits are; about all the attempts at trying to detect arsenic definitively; how Marsh was inspired to create his game-changing test, and how it wasn't *quite* the game-changer so many pinned their hopes on.  And it's all good stuff.  But Hempel is a victim of her own success at spinning a gripping narrative; I started out wanting the science-y bits but ended up just wanting to know who killed George Bodle.

 

Worth reading, definitely.  But it's not necessarily an easy read for unexpected reasons.

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review 2017-08-01 10:24
The History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects - sort of a DNF
A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects - Dominic Mitchell,David Callahan

I'm stopping midway through; it's not bad, but it's definitely a case of a trendy bandwagon that's suffering from over-crowding.  Nobody is ever going to convince me that Microsoft's PowerPoint changed the world of Birdwatching forever.

 

I'll likely pick it up again at some point in the future, but right now I'm just too impatient with their stretching of the envelope.  Non-fiction should not require me to suspend disbelief (unless it's string theory).  If you ask me, they might have been better off sticking with 50 objects.

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