So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Building Big

Building Big by David Macaulay

David Macaulay takes the reader on a tour of some of the really big civil engineering structures of our time. Building Big has sections on Bridges, Tunnels, Dams, Domes, and Skyscrapers. Each part of the book describes the design and construction of from four to ten outstanding examples of the structure highlighted. The examples in each category are described in chronological order with some going back to the time of ancient Rome. The drawings that accompany the text are excellent at focusing on the details and techniques described. The integration of text and graphics is wonderful. In each case, Macaulay describes the design objectives, the interplay between the structure and the environment, and the engineering solutions used to bring the structures into being. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in structural engineering and design. I have not seen the related PBS video series, but I can say that the book stands on its own very well. Highly recommended.

Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World

Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World by Jeremy W. Hayward

Although written in the form of letters from a father to his daughter, this book is a great read for anyone interested in modern physics, neuroscience, and biology and their relationship to spirituality. If the "Dear Vanessa" is removed from the beginning of each chapter the letters take on a universal audience. By writing as if to a teenage daughter, the explanations of advanced scientific concepts and mindfulness practices become accessible to the general reader. Hayward re-enchants our world by showing how something he calls awareness-feeling-energy fills all of space. He shows how changing the way we think about the world can allow us to see the universe as alive and full of awareness. Three of the chapters in the book are what Hayward calls Interludes where he describes meditation practices derived from Buddhism that are aimed at helping the reader make the concepts described intellectually become integrated into consciousness. The bibliography is divided into chapters so the reader can pursue any concept discussed as far as desired. A great book for anyone interested in the topic.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie

The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots by Thomas Fink & Yong Mao

Well, maybe not my WHOLE life, but it has done wonders for that minute each weekday morning when I tie my tie. Before this book the most interesting part of this ritual was picking a colorful tie to match my clothes. Then came the boring task of getting one of the two knots I knew tied correctly. Now I can chose a knot that fits my collar line and the thickness of the tie.
What this book doesn't cover is the art of the tie. Ties are the most artistic part of a man's wardrobe and yet this book ignores the design element of the fabric and focuses on the knot tied about the neck to hold the tie in place. There is an introductory section on the history of neck cloths that traces them back to an ancient Chinese emperor and discusses all the major precursors to the "long tie." Then the authors, who are both physicists, give a brief introduction to Topology and its branch, Knot Theory, and we are off to the fun. Using higher mathematics and a few basic assumptions about ties that they call "constraints" they come up with (you guessed it) 85 ways to tie a tie.
Although I have read the whole book, I have not tied all the knots so I can't vouch for this next part. They added additional "constraints" for balance and symmetry, and narrowed these 85 down to 13 that meet their demanding criteria. Even if they are right and none of the others are superb, 13 is enough to make a boring routine into an exciting choice. Still there is the thrill of the undiscovered in the 72 they rejected. One of them may be the perfect knot for that beautiful silk Indian block print tie that hasn't looked good with either of my two knots, but that I love too much to throw away. I have finally learned the names of my two original knots and learned enough about tie knots to recognize some of the more famous knots I see on others.
The book is illustrated with black-and-white photos of the famous and not-so-famous wearing various knots in their ties and has the most wonderful diagrams that make tie knots a joy to learn. A great book for any man who wears a tie on a regular basis.

A Tale for Midnight

A Tale for Midnight by Frederic Prokosch

This is a great story and the best part is that it is true. It is a novel based on historic fact, and Prokosch did a considerable amount of research to be sure he got the facts right. The story is of a famous murder in Rome that occurred in 1598. Beatrice Cenci, the young daughter of a wealthy Roman count, killed her father with the help of her brother, her stepmother and her lover. A year later they were all found guilty and executed for the crime. The story has been told many times before in history books, fiction, plays, poems, and even music. Probably the most famous version in English is Percy B. Shelley's play, The Cenci, written in 1819. Although a great play, Shelley doesn't always get the facts straight.
This is the first novel that Frederic Prokosch wrote based on historic fact and he did a lot of research to ensure the accuracy of what he wrote. Prokosch was highly regarded in his time but now, a generation later, he has been mostly forgotten. This is sad because he is a great writer with an engaging style. His descriptive prose reveals his background as a poet, yet his dialog is crisp and direct. He writes mostly about the aftermath of the murder and the events leading up to the trial, detailing the tangled web of hearsay, rumor and fact that always follows a crime of national interest.
Highly recommended for lovers of historic fiction.

The Tough Winter

The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson

In The Tough Winter, written in 1954, Robert Lawson brings us back to the setting of his Newbery Medal winning 1945 book Rabbit Hill. Set on a small hillside near Danbury Connecticut, the book tells the story of a rabbit family and their animal neighbors as they face a tough winter. The kind Folks, who live in the Big House and love and respect the animals, are going south for the winter, and all the animals are concerned about how the Caretakers, who will spend the winter in the house, will treat them. In addition, Uncle Analdas has predicted that they are in for a tough winter.
Analdas' prediction takes on increasing importance at defining events as bad things start to happen. A major ice storm starts the winter off badly, and the uncaring Caretakers arrive with a dog who threatens the animals and their homes. Yet they show a response of communal support to all hardships that prevents tragedy from overcoming them. Lawson lovingly contrasts the wisdom of the older rabbits to the exuberance of the young Little Georgie and his friend Willie the field mouse.
Written three years before the author's death at the age of 64, this book is about threats and obstacles overcome and how community and cooperation are vital to this process. Its portrayal of a tough Connecticut winter is excellently done. Beautifully illustrated with black and white drawings of rabbits, this was a book I enjoyed reading.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by Eric Berkowitz

Disputes over sexual behavior are not new, nor is our attempt to use the legal system to resolve differences involving sex. But Eric Berkowitz has looked at the legal disputes involving sex and has found that the behavior considered a crime and the punishments administered to those found guilty have varied quite a lot. Not only over time, and he has decided to look at a 4,000 year time period, but also between different cultures of the same time, what is considered criminal sexual behavior can vary significantly.
Eric Berkowitz is a writer and a lawyer and he takes us on a historic survey of documented sex crimes and their punishments from the Mesopotamia of 4,000 years ago up to the dawn of the 20th century. He felt to do justice to the 20th and 21st centuries in such a broad survey would require a second volume. His treatment is chronological with chapters on the Ancient World, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, 1500-1700, the New World, the 18th, and the 19th centuries.
His treatment is not prurient, but it is quite descriptive as legal documents often have to be, yet his writing is lively and enjoyable. While there are 20 pages of notes and a 20 page Bibliography for those who want them, the book can be easily read without referring to them. A large part of sexual abuse has to do with men of privilege and power having their way with those less fortunate than themselves, both male and female. Sometimes these wrongs against the powerless are judged and condemned by our legal systems, often they are not. While the author does not take a stance in the book, the amount of injustice presented may be upsetting to the reader.