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review 2018-01-17 18:00
Everything you've ever wanted to know about your toaster (and your afternoon cup of tea) but so far never even thought to ask.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

My high school physics teacher was a very nice gentleman who clearly loved his subject -- but who equally clearly lived in a very different world from that of us rowdy teenagers, and to whom it never even seemed to occur that his way of thinking might just be a tad too alien and abstract for most of us (or if it did occur to him, he didn't have the slightest clue how to bridge the gap).  It certainly also didn't help that he was teaching in what was to him a foreign language -- and that he had no clue how to police cheating: whatever method he came up with, we were always at least a step or two ahead of him.  (Which, back in the day, was virtually my only saving grace when it came to tests, though in the long run it of course didn't help at all.)  In short, he'd probably have made a stellar physics professor at university -- as a school teacher, however, he was entirely miscast.

 

Now, far be it from me to blame my own deficiencies on the deficiencies of my high school education: Though I've always loved biology (and been fascinated by the scientific / theoretical aspects of medicine), it's unlikely I would ever have chosen science as a career.  However, with the exception of optics, I've always struggled more to get a grip on physical concepts than on biological or chemical ones.  Even maths presented decidedly less of a challenge: I didn't particularly care for it, but it was never a subject apt to seriously endanger my grade point average.  That dubious honour always went to physics alone.  As a result, for the longest time and until I somewhat grudgingly decided to remedy that fact much later in life, my understanding of physics -- other than optics -- was essentially a "reflected" understanding, to the extent that the laws of physics were relevant to other subjects, such as biology and chemistry (e.g., in the composition and behaviour of cells and atoms).

 

Part of this, undoubtedly, was due to the fact that other areas (history, languages, music and literature) were far more of a focus of my early upbringing: Helen Czerski's afterword to Storm in a Teacup, where she recounts how both her family background and growing up in industrial Manchester helped shape and foster her interest in science and technology, spoke to me just because I can relate to precisely the opposite; notwithstanding the fact that both my grandmother and her twin sister studied medicine (they were among the earliest women to enroll in that field in Germany) and several of my aunts -- cousins of my mother -- are doctors as well.

 

But I also would wish my high school teacher had taken a similar approach as Czerski in Storm in a Teacup, because the first of several things she achieves (and the importance of which my teacher missed entirely) is to make her readers understand why physics matters to each of us and what it has to do with our daily lives, above and beyond the puny truisms that we've all heard of.  ("Yeah, I know that there's such a thing as gravity, but what does it really mean and why does it matter to me except for -- literally -- keeping my feet on the ground and making things fall down if they're not securely resting on something else?")  That doesn't mean, of course, that from suddenly gaining a basic understanding how your toaster works -- or why popcorn pops, why buttered toast almost always lands on the floor with the buttered side down, why ketchup initially stays in the bottle (and how to get it out of there without spilling half the contents all over your plate, the table, and your clothes), or from devining the secrets behind the innumerable mysteries associated with a cup of tea (with or without milk in it) -- it's only a small step towards a full understanding of astrophysics, nuclear physics, or even just "ordinary" university level physics.  But as Czerski doesn't tire to point out, the laws of physics apply to our daily life in the same way as they apply to the universe at large; and I'm pretty sure if my teacher way back when had understood how to get us to make a connection with our everyday world, and understand how physics matters to each of us in a million different ways every single day of our lives, many of us would have found it fascinating -- instead of writing it off as unbearably dull, unattainably abstract, and / or totally irrelevant to our lives and even our potential career paths.  As Czerski puts it:

"There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets.  It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but of no real use to adults.  An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic.  But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere.  At toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself.  Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the ktichen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.  The advantage of looking at the toaster first is that even if you never get to worry about the temperature of the universe, you still know why your toast is hot.  But once you're familiar with the pattern, you will recognize it in many other places, and some of those other places will be the most impressive achievements of human society.  Learning the science of the everyday is a direct route to the background knowledge about the world that every citizen needs in order to participate fully in society."

The laws controlling the spin of the Hubble Telescope's gyroscopes are the same that make a raw egg spin.  The laws that make popcorn explode and that help create focaccia bread are the same laws that control the Santa Ana winds in California, move a steam engine, propel rockets, and which any sea-bound mammal, such as a whale, needs to cope with when hunting hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean.  Bubble baths form according the the same laws that are at play in the formation of a layer of cream on top of milk (and that are now used to get rid of that layer of cream in the process of homogenization), that make sponges and towels absorbent, that are used by every tree, from those in your back garden (if you have one) to the giant redwood in order to pull water up to its very top, and which modern medicine uses in order to be able to perform tests on the basis of a single drop of blood where a whole vial used to be necessary before.  The flow (or not) of ketchup out of a bottle and the sloshing of tea in a mug is dictated by the same laws that are at play in a lock gate and at the Hoover Dam ... etc., etc.

 

Czerski assumes virtually no understanding of the laws of physics (or anything related, such as mathematics) on the part of her readers going into each individual topic, and while that occasionally results in some talking down to the reader ("One nanometre really is tiny -- there are a million of them in one millimetre" ... thank you, Ma'am, I knew that much at least already!), most of the time she meets her readers at eye level -- and I really have to hand it to her; I'd never have thought there could be so much suspense associated with the details of heating popcorn, baking focaccia bread, or making a cup of tea.  And I just love her sense of humour:

"In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias detected waves from the sky at microwave wavelengths that shouldn't have been there.  They spent a long time trying to work out which bit of the sky on their telescope was messing up the mesurement, sure that something was generating extra microwave light.  They also cleared out some nesting pigeons from the telescope, along with their droppings (euphemistically described as 'white dielectric material' in the paper they wrote).  The unwanted background light persisted.  It eventually turned out to be the signature of the Big Bang, some of the most ancient light in the universe.  There is something special about an experiment that has to be very careful to distinguish between the after-effects of pigeon poo and the after-effects of the formation of the universe."

There possibly won't be much in here that is news to a trained physicist, or an enthusiast of the subject matter, but I'll gladly take Elentarri's word that even a scientifically trained reader may find this book enjoyable.  For many of the rest of us (even those who were able benefit from a somewhat more enlightened physics instruction in school than me), this is in many respects eye-opening in the best of all ways, in addition to being an engaging and well-written read.

 

 

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text 2018-01-16 11:00
Teaser Tuesday: The Chosen
Black Magic (Women Writers of Urban Fantasy #1) - S.J. Davis,Rue Volley,Faith Marlow,Lily Luchesi,Sarah Hall,Nicole Thorn,Laurencia Hoffman,Elizabeth A. Lance,Elaine White

 

The Chosen

smarturl.it/BlackMagicWWS

Charity Anthology for Meals on Wheels

#MM #PNR #BlackMagic #lgbtq #indieauthor #supernatural

 

 

~

 

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review 2018-01-16 03:43
Light on romance, heavy on mystery
The Red Carnelian - Phyllis A. Whitney

I'm going to use this one for the "W" square in the Women Writer's Bingo Project. Originally published in 1969, this is a fairly early effort in Whitney's transition away from juvenile fiction into adult gothic style romance. It's set in a Chicago Department Store during the glory days of the window display industry. One of my favorite aspects of the book was this deep dive into the narrow historical moment during which window displays in department stores were a place for copywriters and artists to get paying work that got a lot of attention.

 

The main character, Linell, is a copywriter at Cunningham's, a Chicago Department Store. I pictured the old fashioned, multi-story department store, like Macy's, that took up a whole city block. Linell's former fiance, Michael Montgomery, who goes by Monty, is returning from a honeymoon with a different woman, after basically dumping Linell and running away. The book opens to the heroine trying to figure out how best to deal with the fact that the two of them, and his new wife, are all going to be working at Cunningham's.

 

It quickly becomes clear that there is trouble in paradise between Monty and his new bride, and by about page 35, someone has taken a golf club to Monty's head. I certainly can't say that he didn't deserve it, because he was clearly a total d-bag. 

 

This is really a closed circle mystery. It's well plotted, and there is a romantic sub-plot involving Linell and another young male employee at Cunningham's that isn't particularly convincing. There is one pretty solid suspenseful scene that occurs when Linnel is wandering around the mannequin storage area. 

 

At this point, I think that Open Road has reissued most, if not all, of her adult gothics. I found this one fairly enjoyable, but I think I'd like to dip my toe in one of her historicals next - I'm thinking Skye Cameron or Thunder Heights.

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text 2018-01-15 23:35
Women Writers Bingo / Project: Tracking Post

 

Read:

A - Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley, Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady, Police at the Funeral, Sweet Danger, Death of a Ghost, Flowers for the Judge, The Case of the Late Pig, Dancers in Mourning, The Fashion in Shrouds, Traitor's Purse, and The Tiger in the Smoke (all new)

B -

C - Agatha Christie: The Moving Finger (revisited on audio)

D -

E -

F -

G -

H -

I -

J -

K -

L -

M - Ngaio Marsh: Death in a White Tie (revisited on audio)

N -

O -

P -

Q -

R -

S -

T -

U -

V -

W - Ethel Lina White: The Lady Vanishes (aka The Spinning Wheel) and The Spiral Staircase (aka Some Must Watch) (new)

X -

Y -

Z -

 

Free / center square:

 

On the card, I am only tracking new reads, not rereads.

 

Read, to date in 2018:

Female authors: 16

- new: 14

- rereads: 2

 

Male authors: 2

- new: 2

- rereads:

 

F & M mixed teams / anthologies:

- new:

- rereads:

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review 2018-01-14 22:42
Well, I can see the appeal to movie directors ...
The Lady Vanishes & the Spiral Staircase (Wordsworth Classics) - Ethel Lina White,Keith Carabine
The Lady Vanishes - Ethel Lina White
Some Must Watch - Ethel Lina White

... but in written form, this isn't really my cup of tea.  Which isn't necessarily the fault of White's writing is such -- she has a fine eye (and ear) for characterization and language -- but rather, of her chosen topic.  I've never been much of a fan of "women in peril" stories; they tend to be replete with fevered agitation and hyperbole, and however understandable the protagonists' fear and excitement may be in a given situation, the situation as such is almost invariably so unrealistic as to be the literary equivalent of "B movie" material.

 

That being said, Hitchcock definitely milked The Lady Vanishes (which was originally published as The Wheel Spins) for all it was worth and then some -- in fact, this is one of the rare examples where I decidedly prefer the movie over the book: not only because Hitch gave the story a spin that isn't present in the literary original at all (even if that doesn't make the story one iota more realistic -- it's just plainly more fun), but chiefly, because Michael Redgrave's version of Iris's (the heroine's) knight in shining armour is decidedly more likeable than the character from the book, who -- even though he's meant to be likeable -- to me just comes across as one hugely condescending a$$hole, hardly any better than the professor in whose company he travels.  Similarly, Iris herself is more likeable as portrayed by Margaret Lockwood in the movie: whereas there, I am genuinely sympathetic to her strange plight, the book mostly elicited my rage at her fellow passengers' reactions -- however not on Iris's behalf specifically but on behalf of womanhood generally, against a society that automatically disbelieved and put down as hallucinations and figments of an overactive imagination any woman's assertions that weren't supported -- or that were even directly contradicted -- by other witnesses, especially men and / or figures of authority.  (In fact, if I hadn't read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, biographical background information included, I'd have dismissed the whole premise of The Lady Vanishes as wildly improbable.  Sadly, at the time of its writing, it wasn't.)

 

The Spiral Staircase (originally published as Some Must Watch) combines a remote country house setting on the Welsh border with a serial killer story; and if the isolation of the house and the prowling maniac weren't enough in and of themselves, the whole action takes place over the course of somewhat less than 12 hours, mostly after nightfall.  I haven't seen any of the several movie adaptations of this story, but I can see how a clever director would be able to ratchet up the tension quite skillfully here, what with the dwindling down of effective defenses against the maniac and a cast of fairly outlandish (and unlikeable) characters inside the house -- if you buy into the premonition that this house is where the serial killer is headed next, and that he is after the book's heroine, to begin with.

 

I liked The Spiral Staircase a bit better than The Lady Vanishes -- 3 1/2 vs. 2 1/2 stars, respectively, which averages out to 3 stars for both together.

 

The Spiral Staircase (under its original title Some Must Watch) is mentioned as an example of a country house mystery in Martin Edwards's The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, so I'll be counting that towards the corresponding square of my Detection Club bingo card, and both books, in addition, also towards the Women Writers Bingo.

 

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