Friday, August 18, 2017

The lobsterbacks hold Boston Harbor

Although it lacks the toe-tapping appeal of the hit musical about the same man, the graphic novel Alexander Hamilton by Jonathan Hennessey and Justin Greenwood will help to bring to life one of the most interesting figures in American history.

The non-fiction book begins with a prologue that leads up to why Hamilton became such a well-known individual, including some historical writings citing Biblical evidence for the rights of kings to rule over people (and how free and lucky those subjects should feel!). In order to explain the times that Hamilton was born into, there is also some historical information on the sugar trade, established in the West Indies where the climate was favorable.  This new trade allowed British businessmen the ability to use their new found wealth to buy their way into Parliament, while British interests in the new American colonies were not so well represented abroad.  This led to the hated "stamp act" which punished the Americans for buying non-British goods.  The sugar industry also gave rise to the brutal slave trade in this part of the world.

The book goes on to detail Hamilton's difficult family circumstances: his mother had fled an abusive marriage and wasn't married to the man who became Hamilton's father.  The family split up and his mother died when he was young.  This left Hamilton, with no family to fall back on, with extremely limited prospects.  He was lucky to find a mentor in the Rev. Hugh Knox, who eventually helped the young man to publish a piece of writing that led to prominent citizens to help him travel from St. Croix to America for an education.  Once arrived, Hamilton became one of the most outspoken critics of British rule, delivering speeches and publishing pamphlets in an attempt to rally support for the cause of independence.

Hamilton's colorful career and path to the famous duel with Aaron Burr make up the majority of the book.  It is interesting to see events and people from (usually) dry history books come to life in the graphic novel format.  Hamilton is certainly an interesting figure and by showing his difficult upbringing and the motivation behind his beliefs, we can learn more about this major historical figure.  The occasionally convoluted language might be off-putting to younger readers, but those who want a glimpse into Hamilton's background will enjoy this effort.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Alexander Hamilton from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Getting started with a pencil

Some people are gifted artists and are effortlessly able to create artistic masterpieces.  For the rest of us, Foundations of Drawing gives not only a history of art, but useful information on the tools and techniques necessary to bring out your creative genius.

Lavishly illustrated with many examples, the author begins with the encouraging reassurance that "anyone can learn to draw."  The book then traces the history of drawing, from its supposedly romantic beginnings when young woman traced the outline of her war-bound boyfriend, to the more likely origins of cave paintings from over 700,000 years ago.  The author notes how Picasso and other artists were influenced by these early cave drawings and made "conscious decisions to adopt alternative methods of drawing."  That's always been my explanation, too . . .

After tracing the development of drawing through the centuries and various artistic movements,  there is a discussion of the various materials that can be used for creating your masterpiece.  In addition to giving a description of each type of material, the author also offers advice on how to use each one.  The majority of the book is devoted to Essential Drawing Skills and Demonstrations, including techniques such as blending, texture and working with light and shade.  Step-by-step instructions show how to begin and progress through such projects as drawing still lifes, animals and the human figure.  After your work is done, there is information on using fixatives and storing your work.

Whether you've always wanted to learn to draw, or are merely interested in art and art history, this book offers a great deal of in-depth information on the subject.  Even if you don't plan to start drawing yourself, seeing how artists go about their work is fascinating.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Foundations of Drawing from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, July 24, 2017

Your thermodynamic toaster

Many of us go through the day using devices without giving much thought to how they function (until they stop working!).  The Physics of Everyday Things takes the reader through a typical day and breaks down the science of how things we interact with actually work.

The book is divided into chapters such as "You Begin Your Day" (covering devices you will encounter at home), "You Drive into the City" (which discusses how your car engine works as well as how you find your way using GPS), "You Check into a Hotel" (motion detectors and key cards), etc.  The scenarios cover how you might come to encounter something like a refrigerator, wi-fi or a microphone in daily life and then goes on to describe the various mechanisms involved.

I knew I was in trouble when, in discussing the humble toaster, the author stated that in order to comprehend how a toaster actually works, you need "an understanding of thermodynamics, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics."  Oh dear . . .  The author does attempt to make the concepts accessible to non-scientific minds (such as mine) by using analogies we can all follow, such as comparing semiconductors to an auditorium with some empty and some filled seats.  The descriptions are still a bit hard to follow though, such as this randomly chosen sentence discussing digital photography: "The positive voltage that emptied the first capacitor at the end of the row will attract the electrons that are held in the second capacitor until all of the electrons that were on the second capacitor have swung over to the first capacitor and swung again, to the reference capacitor . . . ."    There are some drawings scattered throughout the chapters to make the concepts a bit clearer.

I'm sure that people who are interested in how things function will be fascinated by the explanations of how physics impacts our daily lives.  I'm choosing to remain blissfully ignorant, though, and will just continue to plug things in and trust that more scientific minds than mine have figured out how to make all this stuff work!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Physics of Everyday Things from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dust off those aprons


Finally!  Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show returns to PBS on Friday, June 16 at 9:00 pm (check local listings) with two back-to-back episodes. While I'm sure you've been busy since Season 3 recreating all the delicious treats in your own kitchen, it will be great to see the new contestants, flour-covered and stressed, attempting to follow the sometimes vague directives from Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are back as hosts, cheerleaders and (in a pinch) tasters.  

For a sneak peek, check out the PBS Great British Baking Show website. You can meet the new contestants and watch some videos to get some inspiration before the fresh season kicks off.  The series begins with two episodes:

Cake (9 pm - Check Local Listings) 
In the first episode, the 12 bakers test their baking skills as they tackle a back-to-basics British classic, a popular cake with a fatless sponge and tricky chocolate work. 

Biscuits (10 pm - Check Local Listings) 
The remaining bakers are asked to make 24 elaborately decorated biscuits; a biscuit that requires perfect piping; and a biscuit structure that demands precision baking. 

So get ready to settle in with a cuppa and choose your favorite contestant this week!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tears of a Clown

I have always enjoyed Paula Poundstone's comedy whenever I've had the opportunity to hear her, so I was thrilled to get a copy of her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The book details her attempts to try various projects to see which, if any, would increase her feelings of happiness.  Each chapter takes a look at one of the things she tried.  The book starts with the "Get Fit Experiment" where she signs up for taekwondo classes.  Other things she tries include getting organized, driving a sports car, giving to others (through plasma donation and volunteering at a nursing home) and mediation (among others).  Each experiment is written up in a manner to appear somewhat scientific with a Hypothesis, list of Equipment, the Procedure and various Qualitative Observations, Constants, Field Notes and some Analysis of the project's ability to increase happiness.

While I expected the book to be funny, and it certainly had lots of humorous observations, I was unprepared for the many sad, alarming and depressing details the author shared about her own life.  In addition to being somewhat dysfunctional herself (she claims to suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and alcoholism), she wrote quite a bit about how much she struggles financially, yet she has 16 cats (in the house!) several dogs, a rabbit, a lizard and a bunny.  She also adopted 3 children, only one of whom seems to treat her with anything but contempt.  Her son, she claims, has a "computer/video game" addiction, to the point that she sent him to an electronics-free school in Virginia, but she never really provided any proof of this other than to say he always wanted to use her computer.  She also states, time and time again, that her children "have never watched television" although they have a TV and watch movies.  So movies=good, but TV=bad  . . . not sure what the justification for that was, either.

So while I enjoyed the occasional humorous observation, I was mostly left dismayed about the holes in her shoes, her lazy, deceitful children, her ramshackle house covered in "cat pee and vomit" and the fact that she doesn't even have a bed but sleeps on a sheet on the floor that she folds up every morning when she gets up.   Instead of being a funny or inspiring book (which I was expecting), I read about a woman who was struggling to keep it together in the face of non-stop chaos (OK, some of it self-inflicted . . . I mean I'm a cat lover, but I stop at three).  I can't really say I enjoyed the book.  All of the blurbs on the front and back of the book are from various celebrities talking about how funny it was.  I'm not sure they read the finished copy.

I received a copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for this review


Friday, June 2, 2017

I didn't go to college but I have many of the insights

Can you ever really leave your past behind?  Even if you choose to totally re-invent yourself?  That seems to be the central question in the novel Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan. The novel starts out on a promising (for me, anyway) note when 8 people (mostly college students) decide to investigate an old abandoned prison.  What could possibly go wrong?  Things do go wrong, but for me the main wrong turn was away from what I hoped would be a spooky mystery into  . . . I'm not exactly sure what, but the early Gothic spookiness quickly evaporated and didn't return.

The book begins in 1980 when college friends Quentin, Casey, Tripper, Wailer, Maisie and Rachel, along with Maisie's brother Ben and Quentin's German professor Herr Krystal decide on a whim to visit the ruins of the abandoned prison.  They soon discover it has been taken over by feral cats, as well as a very creepy/haunted feeling atmosphere.  As young boys are wont to do (especially in novels), young Ben runs off after a cat, causing the group to splinter in an attempt to locate him.  Have these people never seen a horror movie?  Don't they know you never split up the group?  Apparently not.  By the time Ben is located, one member of the group has disappeared.

After this event, the story shifts to the present day, when the remaining college friends are in their late 50s and no longer in touch.  The main narrator of the book, one of the students, has left the past behind in a major way and is living with a spouse and stepchild in rural Maine.  Although this person has been married for 15 years, of course just now things in the marriage are becoming a little strained, and a big secret from the past is revealed.  At the same time, a skeleton has been discovered in the abandoned prison (which is being revitalized) and so the mystery of WHERE the missing student is has been answered. The police investigation begins to try to figure out what happened so long ago and the former friends will be reunited as secrets from the past are revealed.

I was intrigued by the description of this book, hoping it would be a creepy mystery, but sadly it's not.  A major problem is that each chapter jumps around both in terms of time period and character being discussed.  It was extremely confusing to try to figure out who was speaking each time a new chapter began.  Also, at the beginning and the end of the book, characters are forever spouting German, for no apparent reason.  There was a lot of description about the old abandoned prison, which also didn't really add anything to the story but served to add to the confusion.  Perhaps if I had known going in that it wasn't going to be an eerie ghost story or mystery I might have enjoyed the book more.  As it was, I was frustrated by all the shifts in characters and although there was a curve ball thrown in at the end, I was still disappointed.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Long Black Veil from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Come out of the proverbial cat closet

We've all heard of the "crazy cat lady" but what about the crazy cat men?  There must be some out there.  Author Sam Kalda takes a look at some famous men throughout history who loved their feline friends in Of Cats and Men.

Starting in the 10th century with Welsh King Hywel the Good (who recognized the value of cats as cheap vermin controllers and therefore protected them through law) on down the centuries to the present day, many influential men have been inspired, amused and comforted by cats.  This colorful book takes a page to describe the man in question, his history, and his connection to cats.  Each page also includes a drawing of the man and his inspirational cat.  There are many cat-admiring quotes sprinkled throughout the book as well.

Anyone who loves cats will be entertained by the many achievements of cats -- while their owners may take credit, it's really the cats who were responsible for inventing the cat flap (Sir Isaac Newton), alternating current (Nicola Tesla) Companion cats have also inspired poetry, musicals, art and even dance performances.  It was also somewhat surprising for me to learn that somewhat stereotypically "gruff" men, including Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain and Winston Churchill are among the famous cat lovers. You can even follow some of the more outgoing modern cats on social media.

This book is a charming look at how cats have been loving, loyal and amusing companions to some of history's greatest leaders, artists and scientists.  Those ancient Egyptians, who revered cats as gods, were certainly on to something!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Of Cats and Men from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review