Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Libraries!

Dear Jenny,

This post is basically a distraction from the fact that I haven't written about my April book. Or kept up-to-date with my TBP list. It'll happen. Just... in a bit.

Instead, look at these lovely photos of libraries from around the world, as seen on the Instagram blog last month (warning: clicking that link will take you down a rabbit hole of clicking to see more photos of beautiful libraries!)

The libraries pictured above are:

  • Stuttgart City Library, Stuttgart, Germany 
  • Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland 
  • Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt 
  • Real Gabinete Portugu√™s de Leitura, Rio de Janiero, Brazil 
  • The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark 
  • George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 
  • Kanazawa Umimirai Library, Kanazawa City, Japan 
  • New York Public Library, New York City, NY
I have been using my own local library quite a bit recently (it's a nice walk from my house and it's got a really good selection) but I am remembering what I have had a problem with in the past with libraries: I end up getting out *too many* books when I go! I really have to remind myself to only get the books I can read in the next three weeks.

(Remember when we were kids and used to max out the library limit... I think it was 30! Ah... so much more free time for reading before we had bills to pay and chores to do...)

The other problem I have been having is that I have been trying out Overdrive by putting my name on waiting lists for books. But once my name comes up, I only have two weeks to read it! Which means that, when it's my turn, I need to suddenly re-arrange my reading queue to jam it in there. (Last week, I had two books come up, three days apart -- there's no way I was going to finish those, so I threw 'em back.)

So I've been having a bit of a "Lucy and the Chocolate Factory" time here with books recently (which may also explain my lack of writing on the blog! A-haaa!)

Oh... "Wah wah wah! Free books are haaaaard!" HA! It's not that! It's just been a bit of a learning curve to get back into the library swing of things. Basically, I don't read fast enough to polish off a book that comes in for me on Overdrive when I don't expect it, so I probably ought to just stay away from that service altogether (kind of a bummer, but not finishing books I've started is also a bummer!) *And* if I go to the library and see books I'm interested in, I just need to write them down for later. (So many books, so little time!)

One thing my library is particularly great for is craft books, cookbooks (I never even *thought* to get cookbooks at the library -- brilliant!), DIY books, and graphic novels. Basically, inspiration, reference, and/or quick-reading. This is the *best* library I've ever been to for these types of books (well, Berkeley had a great graphic novel section, but it was a little far for me -- I like an easily accessible library) so that's been great. As for novels... I just gotta remind myself not to bring home a big pile. (My back will thank me too...)

love,
kelly

PS -  I just watched that "I Love Lucy" video -- it's still funny and one thing I never noticed before was that the actor playing the supervisor is trying not to laugh when she comes back into the room to see how they're doing! Hilarious!



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Completed: Await Your Reply

Kelly,

I picked up this book after The Making of the Atomic Bomb thinking it would be a pretty fast read and would get me back on track for May. How gratifying to be right!

My old neighbor Laura let me borrow this book. This confession leaves me feeling slightly guilty because it's been *years* since we moved. On the other hand, at this point in my life, pretty much any book I lend to people I assume I won't get back. If it's a book I want to keep, I simply won't let anyone borrow it. Let's hope Laura is operating on the same idea!

This is one of those novels I pretty much read cold, so not a whole lot of expectations going in...just hoping for a good read. I've gotta tell you, this book starts off with a doozy of a scene: a young man named Ryan is in a car, traveling to the hospital at top speed. His father is driving. Ryan's severed hand is in the ice chest on the back seat. Ryan and his father have gotten tangled up with some gangsters and one of them has chopped off Ryan's hand. Ew.

However, the next chapter switches to a new character, a young girl named Lucy who has just graduated from high school. She and her teacher have run away together, agreeing that the townspeople would never understand their love. Double Ew.

The next chapter introduces yet another main character, this one a man in his 30s named Miles. Miles lives a pretty sad, lonely life in Cleveland. His identical twin brother, Hayden, has been missing for at least ten years. Miles thinks he's on the trail of his brother and takes off for Northern Canada. (Finally, a plot line that doesn't gross me out!)

The book continues to alternate chapters of the three main sets of characters, following them on their misadventures. And I've got to tell you, there are some rather fabulous and far-fetched adventures. The writing was sharp and the whole thing was tightly plotted. I wouldn't say the characters are totally believable. Lucy, for example, is a total nitwit. She was annoying. Miles was determined but dull. Sad to say, this book suffered a bit from the Paradise Lost problem: the thieves, hooligans, and bad guys were definitely the most compelling characters. But it moved along at a good clip and I definitely enjoyed reading it.

Will you ever read this book? Can I spoil the hell out of it?

SPOILER ALERT

Something that becomes immediately pretty clear is the strong possibility, eventually a certainty that Miles is searching in the wrong place for Hayden, because obviously he's going by the name of George Orson and living in Nebraska with Lucy. I assumed for most of the book that Ryan's father Jay was simply an accomplice of George/Hayden. However, as the book ends, we understand that the three plots are not happening concurrently, and that Hayden was Jay first, and then took on the George persona. So, the whole thing definitely has a "what the fuck!" type of ending. I will admit that I didn't really see that coming; even after it was revealed, it took me a few minutes to put it all back together in my head and recognize the author's slights of hand.

I guess the thing that was sort of strange for me is that the novel's theme is clearly about the question of identity: is there any such thing? Can one slough off an old life at the drop of a hat? What kind of person leaves it all behind, and what kind of people are left behind after them? Honestly, it was sort of a head scratcher for me. I'm used to books about the theme of identity--I'm a middle school teacher! But this is about adult identity being as changeable as a pair of pants. I just kept finding myself thinking: do people really think like this? I mean, sure, I've had pleasant daydreams where I've imagined an alternate life. But to actually act it out? To just pick up and leave it all behind? I can sort of get the appeal for Ryan and Lucy, who are just starting out their lives. But it doesn't help to know, according to the narrative arc of his brother, that Hayden/George/Jay is a paranoid schizophrenic. Sure, you could up and leave your whole life behind and dedicate yourself to crime: IF YOU'RE CRAZY. It's sort of weird way to explore the notion of identity, and to be honest I'm not sure it works.

It was a good book. I liked it, But it just felt like one of those "in and out" reads. I'm not sure how much of this will stick with me.

Jenny

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Completed: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Kelly,

Terrifying photos of the Trinity test of the first nuclear bomb.
Whew. That was a big book. I'll try to organize myself, because otherwise it will be a totally random and scatter shot list of thoughts.

The Structure
The book is divided into three parts. The first part is all about the history of atomic science, going back all the way to the 1800s. One of the things I enjoyed about this first part was the personal histories of the many scientists involved in this story. This part of the book is like a who's who of physics. We learned all these names back in high school, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and this book explains who these dudes were and how they uncovered the mysteries of the atom. The second part tells the story of the massive endeavor of the Manhattan Project and the building of the first bombs. Again, lots of big personalities in both science and politics in this section. Also, it is shocking that the military was able to undertake a task of such magnitude in such a remarkably short period of time. This was the part of the book where it was interesting to read about the sheer scientific genius that was put to the making of the bomb. The last part describes the political atmosphere surrounding the use of the bomb and the impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously, this was nothing short of horrifying. As you read the first sections, it's easy to be swept up in the "science for the sake of science" narrative. But then, it all turns as the author displays the completely terrifying consequences of the bomb.

The Science
 I think the biggest obstacle for me in reading this book was the meticulously detailed description of the science behind nuclear physics. The fact of the matter is, I spent a lot of this book "reading" long descriptions of scientific experiments and discoveries, but I'd say 90% of it went right over my head. I was talking to the science teacher in my office, and he pointed out that it's pretty hard to take in material like that if you're not responsible for it. He may be on to something. It's not like there's a burning necessity for me to really know all this stuff. So it was pretty easy to just skim right through a lot of the pure science and not worry too much about it.

However, there were times I stopped because it was pretty interesting. For example, the first nuclear reactor (although it wasn't called that at the time) was called Chicago Pile #1. It was built a block away from my husband's office on campus. The description of this experiment, where Enrico Fermi was calculating what he thought would happen with a freaking slide rule was pretty awesome. I mean, had he been wrong, the entire city of Chicago would probably be some sort of Chernobyl like exclusion zone!

I would say the most mesmerizing description in the book, for me, was the description of the Trinity tests of the first bomb out in the New Mexico desert. Even though I knew, obviously, that the test was successful, it's still strangely terrifying to read about it. Basically, they made the bomb and were pretty sure it would work, but they had NO IDEA of it's actual payload or explosive capacity. At one point, Rhodes explains how Enrico Fermi (him again!) devised a simple test with blowing paper to give an instantaneous, rough estimate of the actual strength of the bomb. The Trinity tests were completed on July 16, 1945. It was only weeks later that they dropped the bomb in Japan. The entire description of the pressure was intense and had me on the edge of my seat. It's skillful writing. Like the scientists, I found myself wondering if it would work and hoping it would. Of course, as soon as the test is successful, they must face the fact that they were now the creators of the most destructive weapon known to mankind.

The Politics
I'd say this was the biggest success of the book for me. Looking back now, it feels like the decision to drop the bomb was the most epic and awful decision ever made. How on Earth did the US justify using such a bomb? But the author does an excellent job of describing the American mindset at the close of World War II. Basically, the war in Europe was over but Japan was showing no signs of surrender. The Americans were demanding total surrender and Japan would not consider it. Furthermore, the Japanese military seemed frightening to Americans: how could so many Japanese choose death over surrender? At that time, a full scale invasion of the Japanese homeland was predicted to cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. By using the bomb, Americans were hoping to force Japan to surrender without the human cost of a full-scale invasion. Let me rephrase: without Americans having to pay a human cost. The loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was catastrophic.

The Random Stuff
One of the things that I liked best about the book were the random digressions to explain background or backstory. I read quite a few Amazon reviews of the book where people mentioned their dislike of these tidbits. However, I found them pretty interesting. One of the most amazing stories in the book relates to a question that comes up in my class every year. We study the Holocaust & Anne Frank, and there's this one map that I show them that shows the number of Jewish victims by country. For example, three million of Jews killed in the Holocaust were from Poland. But on the map, the number for Denmark is *super low*, like 22 or something like that. And every year, they want to know why: why is the number so low? What happened? And I never knew the answer until reading this book! As it turns out, one of the most heroic figures in the entire narrative is the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Bohr was a Nobel Laureate and a well known figure in Denmark and he was able to use his considerable influence to protect many of the Jews in his country.

Another awesome tidbit: when the Nazis invaded Denmark, several Jewish scientists did not want their solid gold Nobel prize medals to fall into Nazi hands. Bohr came up with the idea of dissolving the medals in acid and storing the innocuous looking jars on a shelf. After the War was over, the Nobel Foundation recast the medals using the original gold.

pBook good, eBook bad!
I owned the pBook but once I was ready to read this, I realized an eBook was really the way to go. I mean, it's BIG, almost 800 pages of the narrative followed by 200 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and index. This morning, I read to the end of the book on my Kindle and thought that was that. However, I went to the pBook to look at the photographs in more detail, only to discover that the Kindle version of The Making of the Atomic Bomb does not contain the epilogue. Kelly, the epilogue is FORTY PAGES LONG! It's not just a throwaway. The book ends in August 1945 with the dropping of the two bombs on Japan and the immediate aftermath. The epilogue covers the reaction of the scientists, a brief overview of the politics behind the end of World War II, and a description of how nuclear weapons effected the Cold War. Now, the discrepency *could be* due to the fact that my pBook is a few years old, while the eBook is the new 25th anniversary edition. However, given the content in the epilogue, I have a hard time believing that it was completely omitted in the new version. This would be a real bummer for someone reading the book and having no way of knowing that the entire ending is missing. I emailed Amazon about it. I read the whole thing, so I don't want my money back, but you'd think they would want to know, right?


In Conclusion
Overall, this was a pretty amazing book. I can't say that I got it all, but I do remain amazed at the construction of the narrative. I would have loved to see the notes on this thing. I mean, how it is even possible to keep all the hundreds of characters, places, experiments, etc straight? What an amazing story!

I might need to read a couple of frothy, light things though to even it out. The new Sookie Stackhouse is on deck in the Reading Circle!

Jenny



Sunday, May 5, 2013

Overdrive, baby!

Kelly,

I just wanted you to know that I haven't entirely fallen off the reading wagon. In fact, I'm making pretty good progress with The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but since it's 800 pages...well. That's taking a while. I'm at about page 500, so I'm thinking I will get through it in the next few weeks.

I know we're both big readers, and I'm wondering if you have a library card? I don't use the Chicago Public Library much, which is an embarrassing thing to admit. However, I use my school library all the time. After all, they know me personally, they'll buy books for the library if I request them, I have unlimited borrowing privileges, and I don't have due dates. It's basically the best thing ever! Last week, they had a workshop about how to use Overdrive, a platform for their electronic library.

Kelly, I shit you not, it is the most amazing thing ever. You can CHECK KINDLE BOOKS OUT FROM THE LIBRARY.  Basically, you select them from the library homepage, and then it takes you straight to Amazon to download the books to your Kindle.

This week, I read Richard Ford's novel Canada. On my Kindle. For free! /fans self.

This is a dangerous and awesome new development in my life. Get thee to your local library and set yourself up!

Jenny