Book 137: Rocket Dreams by Marina Benjamin

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Rocket Dreams by Marina Benjamin

Finished reading on April 30th, 2014

Rating: 7/10

This book deals with the space-age dreams that some of the optimists had mostly in the second half of the twentieth century in the USA. Among those are space colonies, the Roswell incident, going to Mars and further with manned missions, finding extraterrestrial life etc.

I very much liked the concept of the book – showing what were some of the most commonly held dreams beginning from around 1960. and what happened to them as reality hit.

It was certainly interesting to read about the Apollo astronauts and their preoccupation on the Lunar missions with the blue marble of the Earth and the homesickness, stumbling on Earth months later as they could keep their eyes away from the sky…

And then you can read about the dreams of colonies and habitats in space and dreams of further manned exploration in space that until today have not taken shape.

Definitely another dream is the one that is the goal for SETI – the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence – I found that part quite interesting, and Benjamin goes into quite a lot of detail in writing about SETI@home.

However there is an inherent sadness to all of it and you can find surprisingly parts about cyberspace in the book and the Roswell weather balloon incident etc…

Overall it was quite an interesting read, although I did get annoyed reading about Roswell, as well as reading about Alphaworld, the latter of which didn’t make any sense for pages – I kept thinking “what does that have to do with anything?”.

In case of Roswell – the author isn’t a “believer” (nor am I), but it seems a bit too far from the general flow of the book. Describing the incident, the people who “saw the aliens”… No thank you, I presume there are enough books that go into sufficient detail the same way talking with the locals etc. Is it really necessary to have it in this book as well? Maybe for the sake of increasing sales…

Ofcourse I’m preconditioned to tense up when I hear “Roswell” mentioned at work, as it’s a sign of trouble… (as are “horoscope” and any mention of a conspiracy ).

Book 136: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

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Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Finished reading on April 28, 2014

Rating: 9/10

This book tracks down some of the connections between the anatomy of the human body to some of the ancestors of mammals and other land-living animals. It contains snippets from paleontology, genetics and anatomy, with quite a lot of new words if you’re usually not reading books of this type, but everything is explained well enough to make concepts understandable and you’ll be able to get the main points with little knowledge of paleontology and anatomy, the genetics part might stay a bit blurry without any previous knowledge though.

It was a fascinating book for me as I found out a lot of things that I didn’t know before or hadn’t heard of.

For example you can read about the evolution of limbs – starting with fish and continuing with reptiles and mammals with the main focus on the link between fishes and reptiles and about a species that lived about 375 million years ago, called Tiktaalik – that has some reptilian characteristics but is essentially a fish.

This theme continues with one part of the human body or another – teeth, eyes, etc. Shubin shows some of our distant relatives, how they are different but also how they are similar to us.

There’s some history in the book and you can also read about how some of the fossils were discovered that are discussed in the book.

It is a rather short book and a quick read once you get started. Although there was a myriad of strange words in it (as I didn’t learn biology in English, but the words would be familiar to those who did) I found it enjoyable and interesting.

I loved it. Once in a while it’s good to step out of my astronomy and physics comfort zone and discover something new 🙂

Comic Book 1: Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls

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Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls , writer Scott Snyder, penciller Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion

Rating: 9/10

Finished reading on April 22, 2014 (in about two hours)

This was my first Batman comic book I’ve read. And overall second comic book ever. Hooray for starting with some nerdy education!

I liked the story – it was quite mysterious and made me suspect totally innocent people in the comic book (but, hey, if the Batman movies are any indication, you have to watch out and not trust just about anyone in Gotham city).

In this comic book, there is a man found, murdered with a secret message hidden on the wall “Bruce Wayne will die tomorrow”, which naturally doesn’t sit too well with Batman. And then there are different signs and places were the imagery of owls creep up, and Batman is about to try and find out whether there ever has been and maybe still exists such a thing as the Court of Owls. What it’s all about you can read yourself.

It was cool, and the end definitely makes me want to find out what happens next.

I’ve never really given much thought to why I didn’t read comic books, probably because they never got in my way, and in general I tend to want the books I read (or at least buy) to have a lot of words and pictures aren’t really important.

The artwork in this one didn’t leave much of an impression on me except for being really bloody and Bruce Wayne not having any cheeks…

I liked the fancy technology though, and the quite imaginative (although not too realistic occasionally) science.

So in general I found it a pleasant reading experience, albeit a short one.

My favourite quote from this one:

“Tomorrow is just one dream away.”

Book 135: The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

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The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

Finished reading on April 21st, 2014

Rating: 9/10

How to make physics less threatening and more relevant for everyday life? You add superheroes!

Well maybe it won’t really be everyday physics and considering all of the villains mentioned in the book, it might make one even too scared to go outside in a comic-book world.

In Kakalios’ “The Physics of Superheroes”, as the name suggests, you find out about the physical laws behind some of the abilities that superheroes have – jumping up high buildings, walking through walls, flying, shrinking themselves, etc. The physics ranges from simple classical mechanics and thermodynamics to electricity, magnetism, relativity and quantum mechanics. the mathematics necessary for understanding are however kept at low level – you can succeed in understanding everything if you’ve passed high-school algebra.

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for almost a year, the sheer size of it is more than some of the other “Science of …” or “Physics of …” books, and also I didn’t feel like I knew superheroes well enough to read it just yet. Now, after having watched all of the Superman and Batman movies (though not the animations or series), X-Men and Avengers etc. I felt I probably knew some of them. Alas, there were still superheroes and villains I hadn’t heard of, but it didn’t make much difference in the end, as there are some of the comic strips of the important scenes, so you get  the story.

I liked how it is fun to read this book – it’s not just this superhero can do this – x is the equation or law governing his power – he can/ can’t do that really. Rather you get to read the side of the comic book writers and real science and there are only rare equations, when they’re really necessary.

It’s not a textbook, so not every physics law is presented, but the content is fun, so I’d really recommend reading it, although if you’re going to be using the physics knowledge gained from this book while watching a superhero movie with friends they might not be too happy unless they also like to point out scientific inaccuracies.

It’s a great book! (And it  might make you want to find out more about superheroes.) Also  I don’t think that knowing about the scientific possibilities or improbabilities would take anything away from watching a movie or reading a comic-book, if for you it does, then maybe this book is not for you…

It reminded me of a lot of scenes from The Big Bang Theory series. Like this one:

 

I also did a short video review of it:

 

Book 134: The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli

PIMG_0035.edit1The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm by James Napoli

Finished reading on April 16th, 2014

Rating: 6/10

I used to be really sarcastic as a teenager, it was at a time when there was no real need for me to interact with people. Nowadays (luckily) my function in social situations is rather to be a know-it-all, (not too funny) comedian or the most quiet person on Earth.

Which makes it maybe difficult to understand why would I go through all of the entries in this dictionary, some of which are funny, but most of which even I’d consider mean and hence sarcastic as well.

It wasn’t totally un-enjoyable though, like the following:

Book: An object that confers upon its owner a certain air of attractiveness and unbridled sexual dynamism. (This entry contractually required by author.)

Masochist: A person with a job.

Professor: Someone who has to deal with students in order to pay off a student loan.

Reading this 300+ page long dictionary from cover to cover did point out that maybe there really are some books that you should read right away when you buy them, because some years later you might not be a sarcastic know-it-all who has to comment on everything. i might have found this book inspirational and people would have had an even more difficult time dealing with me.

It would make for an excellent gift for that awfully sarcastic person (unless it’s you, in which case the totally delightfully funny person) you know.

I might have lost my sense of humour somewhere, maybe it’s in actuality funnier and more entertaining.

Book 133: The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

5439 The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Finished reading on April 14th, 2014

Rating: 9/10

The Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories by the Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri that was first published in 1999 and won the Pulitzer prize in 2000.

The stories are for most part about people who are living in a different country for the first generation, mostly Indians living in USA. Although the stories are short one gets a good sense of what the characters are about and why they do certain things, they are however sad from at least from one of the character’s perspective, which was fascinating, as there are small problems for some people, that become bigger to others only because of knowing someone who has issues…

I enjoyed the last short story the most – The Third and Final Continent.

It is about a Bengali, who has lived in United Kingdom, just gotten married in Calcutta to a girl that his parents arranged for her, and has just moved to USA and is trying to adjust there before his wife will come there as well.

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

It’s possible I liked this story the most, because I felt I could understand this one the best, mostly because of this:

“In a week I had adjusted, more or less. I ate cornflakes and milk, morning and night, and bought some bananas for variety, slicing them into the bowl with the edge of my spoon.”

Yes, it’s because of the food – eating the same thing over and over again, and the food being something that is generally considered breakfast food. I’ve seen that. I’ve done it myself. And it reminded me of the movie Wake Up Sid, only the part where Sid is staying in the apartment and not being happy at all because he doesn’t know how to cook and hasn’t eaten the whole day… Although the main character in the story does know how to cook, but for a while he simply lacks the necessary equipment for cooking, but when his wife arrives from India, he cooks egg curry, and later she starts cooking for him and he isn’t used to that kind of thing.

So in general I liked the stories. I haven’t had dinner yet, so I’m focusing on the eating and cooking themes here, but there were others like being far away from family and friends who are in a war-zone and hence in danger and one can do nothing to help.

There’s also the sadness of a couple drifting apart and getting a little bit closer again, but all for the sake of an even bigger blow to the relationship.

I liked the stories, but as with so many books that I review – it’s not a book that makes for happy reading, it’s not fun, it’s kind of unlikely to make you laugh (even eating cornflakes for every meal isn’t funny..)

 

For a review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel The Namesake (2003) see here.

 

Book 132: Going Commando by Mark Time

 

Going Commando by Mark Time

Finished reading on April 14th, 2014

Rating: 7/10

A sixteen-year-old Mark has had two ideas for what he’d want to become – a geologist or a Royal Marines Commando. This book is about how he undergoes the rigorous training trying to earn his green beret.

This book is entertaining to a certain type of person – one who has undergone infantry training themselves, or someone who’s intrigued by the (occasionally almost silly) discipline that the trainees have to follow. I fall into the second category and as such I found it an interesting read, but also illuminating, since I’ve read a book dealing with infantry training in my country, which isn’t voluntary for most of the young men going through it.

There was some rude language involved, but that was understandable given the situation… Otherwise the writing was good, and funny, if you find other people’s misfortune entertaining…

“So, why do you want to join the Royal Marines?” It was as if he had asked me to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity, only with commandos as elementary particles.

What I liked the most were parts where Time describes having to have the equipment in excellent order and polishing boots to a near mirror-like shine, and what happens when they fail to meet the cleanliness standards.

I got access to this book via Netgalley.com.

Book 131: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

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A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Finished reading on April 13th, 2014

Rating: 9/10

In 1959 a young widow Rehana loses her children Sohail and Maya – they’re taken from her by her brother-in-law’s family to Karachi, Pakistan. The children stay there for a year, while Rehana is searching for a way to get them back.

The story continues in the year 1971, the children have been back with Rehana in Dhaka, East-Pakistan for ten years, and while Rehana’s family is having a party, there are political and military events afoot, that throw the lives of people in East-Pakistan in to the middle of a war.

The young people are fighting for a separate country from Pakistan – Bangladesh, and Rehana’s son and daughter are actively taking part in the fight.

A Golden Age is an interesting novel showing the life of a family and the birth of a country through violence. The writing is simple, in parts almost ironic, and conveys the feelings of loss and fear. The story is also fascinating as the reader can see how some people change the side from supporting a separate country to staying one with Pakistan, as well as the opposite, but also how someone who doesn’t really have no reason for preferring one or the other has to choose.

The novel does show one fighting side with more reason to support it.

“They blamed it on a sudden, collective deafness. How else could they explain the military planes that had landed at the airport, the soldiers told they were saving the world? How else could they explain not knowing, not hearing?”

You can read about the military entering Dhaka and what they do.

“At ten o’clock the tanks began to fire.

It was the sound of a thousand New Year firecrackers, of metal pipes being dragged across a stone road, of chillies popping in a smoking pan.”

And how the people who gathered for a party see it:

“Suddenly they heard everything: the killing of small children, the slow movement of clouds, the death of women, the sigh of fleeing birds, the rush of blood on the pavement.”

The book has similarities to some other books that deal with military and political conflicts, the differences mostly beginning with different geographic location, and at least in case of novels that are set in the Middle East or Asia, there’s more of a religious conflict, but there’s not too much of that (not visibly anyway) in A Golden Age, although we do know that Rehana and her family and most of her friends are Muslim, and the Hindus are leaving East-Pakistan to go to India.

However it certainly had a slight family drama aspect to it.

Some of the events in the book were quite unexpected though…

Rehana is the main character in the novel, so we see everything through her eyes – her opinions, her past, her fear for her family etc.

Book 130: The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

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The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Finished reading on April 8, 2014

Rating: 8/10

The Sari Shop follows the life of a Ramchand, a shop assistant in Amritsar (which wikipedia tells me is in Punjab, India).

His day-to-day life might seem repetitive – as he wakes up in the morning, washes himself, is usually late to work and has to show saris to customers at work, eats a quick lunch and back to work, and the evenings he’d usually just spend staring at the ceiling, and on Sundays he’d go and see a movie in the cinema.

However Ramchand’s life is about to change, as he decides that he will try to read and write English every evening. In addition he is getting extra assignments at work, to go and show saris to the rich Kapoor family, whose daughter Rina is about to get married (and has a role to play further on in the story), or go fetch his colleague to work.

But while he is trying to improve himself, he also finds out more about his work colleagues, especially about Chander, one of his older colleagues, and about his wife Kamla, who he once sees, when he is sent out to find Chander who hasn’t turned up at work. Kamla is drunk and saying all sorts of obscenities. And this is where the novel’s mood changes, and we’re in for a surprise (not too nice one) ending.

“Just to be alive meant to be undignified, Ramchand thought, his stomach aching with acidity. Because it wasn’t just about your own life eventually. What was the point of trying to learn, to develop the life of your mind, to whitewash your walls, when other people lay huddled and beaten in dingy rooms? Or had dark, dingy memories like rooms without doors and windows, rooms you could never leave”  – Rupa Bajwa

The book was interesting, and the second part of the novel, which gives a lot of background information about Kamla  reminded me of the writing of Fyodor Dostoyevsky – showing the miserable life and living conditions of the working class, and what humans might become or do under pressure. An interesting look at life.

Book 129: The Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

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The Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Michael Hanlon

Finished reading on April 7, 2014

Rating: 9/10

Teleportation, time-travel, manipulating genes and alien species – those are some of the topics in this book, that would be interesting to a popular science fan, even if they’re not a fan of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It is a well-written account of some of the most intriguing questions in science, starting with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, without which Arthur Dent wouldn’t have any bigger problems than his house being demolished, and not his whole home planet blown up for example.

We also have such topics as the beginning of the  time, the Universe and everything, and the end of it all – what do scientists know about it, what are our options, etc. Maybe we can escape into a parallel universe by creating one inside a home-made black hole?

Or what about animals that would like to be eaten?

All in all it’s a nice little book, that will keep you occupied for a while not requiring too much brain-work, but it is fascinating enough to keep you glued to the book once you’re past the introduction and the first chapter.

I liked it quite a lot, although it took me about half a year to get past the first chapter. I started reading it again on a dreary Monday, when the sky was obviously feeling very sick and pouring it’s guts down, and there’s no better time really for reading about science in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, than when you really miss your laptop and would really want to watch the movie with Martin Freeman playing Arthur Dent, but you just can’t, and have to be fine with science. It turned out okay though, as Hanlon’s writing is as fun as Adams’:

“Some physicists get quite snooty about time machines, referring to them instead as ´closed, time-like curves ´(CTCs). But despite this snobbishness – which is fast disappearing as the discipline makes its bid for sexiness – it seems at least probable that time travel may mot be banned by the laws of physics. All you need to do is find a way round the speed of light.”

But it ends with the ultimate questions, about which Hanlon has this to say:

“A good candidate for the Ultimate Question seems, to me anyway, to be ´Why is there anything here at all?` The more you think about this question the deeper and more unsettling it becomes, and the ability to unsettle is usually a sign that you are on the right lines.”