One-Minute Book Reviews

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 6, 2010

Caribou Lasagna and Science Lessons at the Dinner — Sarah Palin Talks About Her Father in ‘Going Rogue’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 pm
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Sarah Palin writes in Going Rogue that her father, an Alaska science teacher, often taught his children lessons at the dinner table:

“Dad’s curriculum was cleverly all-Alaskan. His spelling tests included words like ‘ptarmigan’ (Alaska’s state bird) and ‘akuutaq’ (Eskimo ice cream). We learned the difference between glacial crevices and crevasses, and a cave’s stalagmites and stalactites. His lessons spilled over to the dinner table. We ate together every night, and I just assumed every kid learned clever acronyms for planet alignments and the elements of the periodic table between forkfuls of caribou lasagna. Didn’t every family talk about what differentiated a grizzly from a brown bear?”

A review of Going Rogue appeared last week. You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

August 4, 2009

‘Disappearing Destinations,’ 37 Places to Visit Before THEY Die

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 pm
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A book I haven’t read but ecotourists might want to look at: Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them (Vintage, 400 pp., $15.95, paperback). Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen won the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2009 Outstanding Book Award for general nonfiction for this collection of travel essays on spots that face an arsenal of threats, including logging (Lapland), mining (Appalachia), overdevelopment (the Galápagos), rising waters (the Maldives), and melting permafrost (the Alps). Pico Iyer writes in his foreword that “many of the marvels of our collective inheritance are disappearing, and because of human neglect or corruption or greed,” and Lisagor and Hansen sought out spots that, if unique, represent the dangers facing many other places.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 9, 2009

The Little Parrot That Could – Irene M. Pepperberg’s ‘Alex & Me,’ The True Story of a Lovable Bird That Could ‘Say Better’ Than Others

A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.

Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.

Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”

The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.

Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“‘No, Alex.’
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.

Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”

Published: October 2008

Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.

Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announced the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 18, 2008

Maybe You Don’t Need That Colonoscopy or Those Statins — A Noted Doctor Challenges the Medical Establishment – ‘Let My Polyps Go’

Angioplasties and stents are "good ideas that proved bad."

“Dr. Hadler sees no evidence that mild high blood pressure or mildly elevated blood sugar pose much of a risk to longevity — certainly not enough to warrant the aggressive drug treatment often offered for them. The same goes for … the modest elevations in serum cholesterol that, these days, spell a statin drug for life for many healthy people.”

Self-help books that urge you to micromanage every health risk have become disease unto themselves. So it was cheering to see the New York Times giving serious attention to a new book by a noted physician who still believes that less medicine can be more.

Abigail Zuger, an internist and frequent contributor to Times, recently reviewed Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America (Univesity of North Carolina Press, 376 pp., $28), by Nortin M. Hadler, “a rheumatologist and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina who is a longtime debunker of much the establishment holds dear.” Zuger wrote:

“Dr. Hadler may not actually keep a skull on his desk, but he might as well. We are all going to die, he reminds us. Holding every dire illness at bay forever is simply not an option. The real goal is to reach a venerable age — say 85 — more or less intact.”

Zuger adds that Hadler believes the way to achieve that goal is to ignore much of the conventional advice:

“Reviewing the data behind many of the widely endorsed medical truths of our day, he concludes that most come up too short on benefit and too high on risk to justify widespread credence.

“Dr. Hadler sees no evidence that mild high blood pressure or mildly elevated blood sugar pose much of a risk to longevity — certainly not enough to warrant the aggressive drug treatment often offered for them. The same goes for the extra 20 pounds that make you overweight but not obese, and the modest elevations in serum cholesterol that, these days, spell a statin drug for life for many healthy people.

“He deplores the careful attention we pay to the state of our coronary arteries. Angioplasties, stents, coronary artery bypass grafts — all these procedures, he writes, ‘should be consigned to the annals of good ideas that proved bad.’

“As for the screening that purportedly keeps us safe from cancer, mammography and the blood test for prostate cancer are, in his view, blunt cudgels that can harm as much as help. Nor does he want any part of routine colonoscopies: ‘Let my polyps go.’”

Zuger compared Worried Sick with a new guide by Nancy Snyderman, a surgeon and the chief medical editor of NBC News, who — as anyone who has watched her televised reports may know — is ever-ready to parrot the medical establishment’s prescriptive-flavor-of-the-week. And though Zuger doesn’t come down on the side of either approach, her review is lively, open-minded, and worth reading www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/health/24book.html?ref=science.

To read more about Hadler and Worried Sick, click here uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=1545. Hadler’s book and individual chapters from it are available in e-book or downloadable formats through the Caravan Project www.caravanbooks.org/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 19, 2008

Why Should We Spend Billions of Dollars to Send Astronauts to the Moon When People Are Starving Here on Earth? Randy Pausch Responds in ‘The Last Lecture’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:29 pm
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Why spend money to send astronauts into outer space when we could use it to fight poverty and hunger on Earth? Americans began asking the question long before July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Jr. walked on the moon as Michael Collins orbited with their spacecraft, and some may ask it again today.

Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, responds in The Last Lecture www.thelastlecture.com, written with Jeffrey Zaslow:

“I understand the arguments about how the billions of dollars spent to put men on the moon could have been used to fight poverty and hunger on earth. But, look, I’m a scientist who sees inspiration as the ultimate tool for doing good.

“When you use money to fight poverty, it can be of great value, but too often, you’re working at the margins. When you’re putting people on the moon, you’re inspiring all of us to achieve the maximum of human potential, which is how our greatest problems will eventually be solved.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 20, 2008

How Gross Is Your Tap Water? ‘Bottlemania’ Has an Answer

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:07 pm
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Kaitlin Bell says that Elizabeth Royte’s new Bottlemania (Bloomsbury, 242 pp., $24.99), an indictment of the bottled-water industry, does more than fault some of the major players in the field, including Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé: “It also provides some devastating revelations about the quality of America’s public water supply. In stomach-churning detail, Ms. Royte describes how arsenic, rocket fuel, antidepressants, birth-defect–inducing herbicides and even potentially carcinogenic byproducts of the disinfection process all make it into municipal water supplies.” Read her full review in the May 18 New York Observer here:
www.observer.com/2008/raise-glass-eau-de-bloomberg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 8, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time — Gina Kolata and Jerome Groopman

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work in a way that may have financial benefits for both

 

I usually post these examples of backscratching without comment, but this one is bad on so many levels, I’d like explain why. A pillar of journalistic ethics says that reporters should avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who has used Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a bestselling author, as a source. As the comments below make clear, she accepted a favor from Groopman — the blurb for Rethinking Thin — that could put money in her pocket if, say, you bought the book based on his recommendation or if a paperback or overseas publisher paid more for the reprint rights because of the quote (and quotes can affect the amount offered). Kolata has compounded the problem by selecting one of Groopman’s essays for Best American Science Writing 2007, a decision that has almost certainly put money in his pocket, given that contributors to anthologies typically receive an up-front fee or a percentage of the royalties or both. She also used on the cover of the paperback edition of her earlier Flu a quote from Groopman that appeared in the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times. It gives me no pleasure to say any of this because I enjoy Kolata’s work for the Times and regard it as far superior to that of her colleague Jane Brody, who writes the Personal Health column. I also admired much about Flu, Rethinking Thin and Groopman’s How Doctors Think www.oneminutebookreivews.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/.

 

Jerome Groopman on Gina Kolata

“Kolata is a seasoned reporter, and knows how to craft a riveting tale … a masterly recounting of medical history.”

Groopman in a review of Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic (Touchtone, $15, paperback) in the Boston Globe, Dec. 12. 1999. “A masterly recounting of medical history” appears on the cover of the paperback edition of Flu.

 

“An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight.”

Groopman in a blurb on the cover of Kolata’s new Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

Gina Kolata on Jerome Groopman

“I also liked Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, ‘Being There.’ It raises an issue I had never considered, and in an unforgettable way …”

Gina Kolata on why she choose Groopman’s article as one of the best of the year, in her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2007 (HarperPerennial, $14.95, paperback), edited by Kolata and Jesse Cohen.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors should be in “Backscratching in Our Time,” a series in inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine.

© 200X Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 2, 2008

Do These Genes Make Me Look Fat? Gina Kolata’s ‘Rethinking Thin’

Can you lose weight through willpower alone? Maybe not, says a science writer’s book about the myths, misconceptions and half-truths about diets

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting. By Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 257 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

You know how some people say they can eat anything and not get fat? And how others insist they gain weight if they so much look at a Caramel Pecan Brownie at Panera?

Their claims may be less far-fetched than they sound. In Rethinking Thin Gina Kolata makes clear that dieters have been misled for decades by academic and other experts who promote strategies that haven’t been proved to help people achieve long-term weight loss. Among the oversold tactics: willpower, talk therapy and removing soda and snack machines from schools.

Rethinking Thin also casts doubt on the popular behavior modification techniques, such as portion control, that drive many weight-loss clubs and programs. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere have found that dieters lose more weight and keep it off longer if they join groups that give them “tools to track and change their behavior toward food and to recognize and defuse risky eating situations.” But Kolata notes that this doesn’t mean that they do better because they are adjusting their behavior: “It could also be that better results arise from the accountability that they feel when they commit themselves to coming, time after time, to a meeting where they will be weighed and where they will talk about their eating and whether it is under control.”

If willpower doesn’t help most people stay thin, what does? Perhaps above all, having slim parents. No small value of this book lies in Kolata’s willingness to say two things diet experts rarely acknowledge: first, that people don’t get fat because of psychological problems and, second, that in the struggle to stay thin, genes matter. Rethinking Thin offers persuasive evidence that fat and thin people suffer equally from stress, anxiety and depression and that weight is to a large extent inherited. This doesn’t mean that trying to lose weight is a fool’s errand, but it does mean that some people will always have to work much harder than others to stay thin. And if you have trouble keeping a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, the fault may lie less with you than with all those Size XXL branches on your family true.

Best line: “Free will, when it comes to eating, is an illusion.” Kolata is summarizing the views of Jeffrey Friedman, an obesity researcher at Rockefeller University, and his colleague, Bruce Schneider, and much of her book supports this view.

Worst line: Kolata quotes from e-mail she received from an obesity researcher at Johns Hopkins who was responding to a question she had asked: “You are very perceptive, my friend.”

Published: May 2007 www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who lives in Princeton, NJ.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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