It made the girls themselves gleam

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book via work. It’s part of a current trend – one that I fully support – of identifying stories from history that are important but little known and giving them a boost. In this case, it’s the story of thousands of women who worked in the (mostly) early 20th century painting dials onto watch faces with radium-based paint, so that they glowed in the dark.

It sounds like a terrible idea and it was. But even though shortly after Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898 they and their colleagues realised it could cause harm to humans, it became famous for its ability to destroy or reduce cancerous tumours, and was therefore widely considered to be health-giving. So when Dr Sabin von Sochocky, founder of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), which mined and processed radium in New Jersey, figured out that it could be used to create a glow-in-the-dark paint, this seemed like a brilliant new commercial avenue for the company.

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Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

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Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

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Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?

lady-in-the-vanThe Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett

This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.

This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.

October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”

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Sunday Salon: Bathroom books

The Sunday SalonWe all have bathroom books, don’t we? I don’t mean books to read in the bath – for me, that’s all books except the three Bs: big, beautiful or borrowed books. No, I mean books for reading on the loo.

Perhaps you have a stack of magazines in the bathroom (we have those too, but they’re all months out of date). Or perhaps you just take your phone or tablet in these days. We have a collection of non-fiction titles ideal for dipping into, but today I spotted that it had been more than a year since their last update, and they were gathering dust, so I did a swap (and wiped off the dust from the outgoing titles).

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Recent reads: winter

Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will
by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo

atlas of remote islands

This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.

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We find ourselves through the process of escaping

reasons-to-stay-aliveReasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.

This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.

But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.

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A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts

The Reason I JumpThe Reason I Jump: One boy’s voice from the silence of autism
by Naoki Higashida
translated from Japanese by K A Yoshida and David Mitchell

This was one of those random finds that make a great bookshop great. Not that it’s the best book ever, but it’s genuinely interesting and different and, despite being fairly new and translated by one of my favourite authors (plus his wife), I hadn’t heard of it. But it was on display in the non-fiction shelves and Mitchell’s name jumped out at me.

This is somewhere between a memoir and a factual study of autism. Higashida is autistic and at the time of writing was just 13 years old. He struggled with vocal communication, behaviour problems and even written communication, but had worked with his mother and a teacher to create an alphabet-grid system whereby he pointed at words or letters to be understood. (He did also learn to type on a computer and started a blog, so this book isn’t entirely miraculous.) With this book he found a way to explain his experience of autism that was fresh and new to parents and other adults who have regular contact with autistic children. It’s written in the form of questions and answers, with a few very short stories dropped in. There’s some lovely sections about how important nature is to Higashida, partly because it places no demands on him.

“Why do people with autism often cup their ears? Is it when there’s a lot of noise?

…The problem here is that you don’t understand how these noises affect us. It’s not quite that the noises grate on our nerves. It’s more to do with a fear that if we keep listening, we’ll lose all sense of where we are. At times like these, it feels as if the ground is shaking and the landscape around us starts coming to get us, and it’s absolutely terrifying. So cupping our ears is a measure we take to protect ourselves, and get back our grip on where we are.”

For many readers, Higashida’s words were a true breakthrough in their understanding of their own autistic child, and the book was a minor hit in his native Japan. One of those readers was Yoshida, and she immediately started to translate the book so that she could share it, initially with her husband and friends in Ireland, and then, once Mitchell had done some polishing and written an introduction, they published it to reach a much wider audience. There has apparently been some controversy about how much Mitchell polished, with some readers saying this doesn’t sound like a child’s writing. I must say I wholly disagree. Higashida sounds if anything surprisingly typical for his age – presumptive, repetitive and a little self-obsessed, thinking he’s learned to see the wider world but not really anywhere close to that yet.

I don’t mean to sound unkind. This is a very interesting and readable book about a condition that is incredibly difficult to understand. While nothing Higashida has to say was totally revelatory for me and he presumes to speak for all children with autism as if his own experience is universal, I’m really glad I have read it and can definitely see how valuable it could be to anyone who deals with autism. But let’s face it, Mitchell’s introduction is the best bit.

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away. Explaining you’re hungry or tired is now as beyond your powers as a chat with a friend… Now imagine that after you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out without notice. The chances are that you never knew this mind-editor existed but, now that he or she has gone, you realize too late how they allowed your mind to function for all these years. A dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably.”

First published in Japanese in 2007.
This translation published 2013 by Sceptre.

Source: The Melton Bookshop.

Reality is always worth more than wishes

backroom boysBackroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin
by Francis Spufford

This was my final read for my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It’s been recommended to me by multiple people, including Tim, so I thought I would save this for last. It’s about British engineering projects, large and small, of the 20th century.

This is a sort of love letter to British engineering, but a deprecating one with notes of doubt. Spufford looks at projects from the Black Arrow space rocket to the computer game Elite to the Human Genome Project. Sometimes, like that last example, the Brits formed part of an international effort, but it is very much the Brits that Spufford is writing about.

Spufford is playing up the idea of the unsung hero, the small project dwarfed by international (especially US) comparison, which isn’t actually always as true as he implies (but obviously in the case of, say, the space programme, it really is). A book about technology, especially one including ongoing projects, does risk feeling dated quickly, and in the 11 years since this was first published, things have changed. In fact, the paperback edition includes an author’s note at the end with updates that had already happened in the first year since publication.

“It was beginning to dawn on the engineers that they were watching a virtually perfect performance…Wishes were turning into facts faster than seemed wholly lucky…The party was long and loud, because the attempt to orbit Prospero had been the last thing between the rocketmen and the end of the programme, and this, the celebration, was the last of the last. When the sun came up the next morning over the desert, the hangover would encompass the whole of British rocketry.”

This is an interesting, entertaining book that brings to life largely forgotten (or possibly never known to begin with) stories. Spufford doesn’t just explain the science and technology well, he bubbles with enthusiasm, pouring praise on the men and women (but as he admits himself, mostly men) who made these projects happen. I was actually a little saddened when later chapters concentrated more on the policy and politics of making projects happen, not because that’s not a valid part of the story, but because it meant there was less of that almost childlike enthusiasm and adulation.

There’s a definite lean towards Cambridge-based projects. Spufford lives in Cambridge and, while I would not say any of his choices of subjects to cover are undeserving, it does seem a little more than coincidental that half of them are or were in Cambridge, and makes me wonder what alternative options he might have covered with a net cast more widely. Also, I was not always convinced by his sweeping statements, though I’m pretty sure he’s right on the details.

For instance, Spufford writes about Elite as if it’s the one and only example of a decent British computer game, as if this effort by two Cambridge students was the country’s one stab at a games industry and, while successful, was a one-off. This is so very far from true. In the major success league, by 2003 there had been four Grand Theft Auto games (DMA Design/Rockstar North), five Tomb Raider games (Core Design), Goldeneye 007 (Rare), Lemmings (DMA Design), Burnout (Criterion Games), Worms (Team17) and dozens more that I don’t know. So while Elite was clearly a major step forward, hugely influential on gaming as a whole and an interesting human story to boot, it is by no means a lone wolf in British engineering history. That said, it’s a particularly well written chapter, plus it was a lot of fun reading it while sat next to Tim playing the recent sequel Elite: Dangerous, and hearing from him what a big deal the original Elite was.

“That’s how making goes. It would be dispiriting for the maker if it weren’t that reality is always worth more than wishes. A real, constructed thing (however dented) beats a wish (however shiny) hands down; so working through the inevitable compromises, losing some of what you first thought of, is still a process of gain, is still therefore deeply pleasurable to the maker.”

Overall, Spufford is very readable and I’m glad that we already have one of his other books on our shelves.

First published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Borrowed from Tim

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases

sedaris-me-talk-prettyMe Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris

I had come across Sedaris a few times in the New Yorker and found him invariably hilarious, so I’d been meaning to read this, his most famous book, for ages. Finally, on a day out in Oxford earlier this year with my friend H, we inevitably found ourselves in my favourite branch of Blackwells and I wandered around happily picking up and putting down books indecisively until I spotted this volume and knew it was the one.

This both is and isn’t an autobiography. It’s a collection of essays, previously published in various places including the New Yorker and Esquire, but they are all stories from Sedaris’s life and they are arranged in chronological order, so a sort of memoir emerges, a highly selective one.

“That’s one of Alisha’s most well-worn adjectives, sweet, and she uses it to describe just about everyone. Were you to kick her in the stomach, the most you could expect would be a demotion to ‘semi sweet’. I’ve never known someone so willing to withhold judgment and overlook what often strike me as major personality defects. Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”

The first half of the book deals with Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina, his failed attempts to be an academic, his move to New York and the varied jobs he took to survive there, including as a house mover and as PA to an eccentric publisher. I say “deals with” but each essay tells one memory, or set of linked memories, so this is by no means the full story of Sedaris’s life. However, his open engaging style makes it feel a lot like a memoir, so it can be a bit disconcerting to realise that information learned in one essay means that some pretty important information was withheld from a previous essay.

“It was my father’s dream that one day the people of the world would be connected to one another through a network of blocky, refrigerator-size computers…He envisioned families of the future gathered around their mammoth terminals, ordering groceries and paying their taxes from the comfort of their own homes…’I mean, my God,’ he’d say, ‘just think about it.’ My sisters and I preferred not to. I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Apparently Sedaris has attracted some controversy for the questionable veracity of his non-fiction, to the extent that some magazines that regularly publish him label the work as fiction. It’s fairly clear in some stories that there’s an element of exaggeration if nothing else, but this doesn’t bother me at all, as they’re so very well written.

Sedaris really is a great humorist, making me laugh out loud and save up so many great quotes that I ended up reading whole essays out to Tim for him to share the fun. Sedaris makes genuinely funny observations on an at first glance unremarkable life – he’s been a drug addict and lived in Paris and New York, so it’s hardly been a dull life, but he somehow paints it as painfully ordinary, while also making it wildly interesting.

“If you happen to live there, it’s always refreshing to view Manhattan from afar. Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases, but from a distance it inspires fantasies of wealth and power so profound that even our communists are temporarily rendered speechless.”

What I’ll admit I did find odd is that there is no reference to Sedaris becoming a writer, and a successful one at that. The second half of the book deals with his time in France with his partner Hugh, from shorter trips and language difficulties to moving there full-time and taking French lessons (from which the title of the book comes). These essays feel like a series, like they had been commissioned and were being written in the moment, as indeed they were. This was long after Sedaris had achieved some success telling his stories on NPR, but he continues to refer to taking odd jobs and helping Hugh do up his rural French cottage, while never talking about writing or being a writer. It’s almost as though he wants to maintain the character built up in the first half of the book, that of a lovable loser, a disappointment for not making the most of his comfortable middle-class start in life. Perhaps he wanted to save writing on writing for another time, or perhaps he thought it a dull subject. I’m more than happy to read more of his books to find out!

First published in 2000 by Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Blackwells, Oxford.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.