Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Book review: "The Alps - A Human History From Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond" by Stephen O'Shea

 In today's episode of Wesley Loves a Real Specific Nonfiction read today we have one about a series of places that I would like to visit - the Alps!

What I appreciate about this book is the incredible range of topics that this book covers, like the title suggests you get Heidi and Hannibal but you also get more modern takes on things that effect the Alps. Also, holy shit, the amount of really terrible accidents that I learned about in this book. There are accidents in traffic tunnels (the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire - also side not the beautiful Chamonix Valley is the most polluted valley in france thanks to all of the exhaust of the trunks that are funneled through the tunnel), more mountaineering accidents than I could possibly recount here, and one of the most horrifying things that I have ever heard of - the Kaprun Cable Car Fire. Lots of bad awful things happening in beautiful places.

The books is a travel memoir along with a history and the author recounts his experiences in places and with people along the way. One thing that he learns from his travels is the "lard line" - on the north side of the Cottian Alps they used animal fat and on the south side they use olive oil. Theres a map that Ive seen that I really love where theres a line and on the north side it's all potatoes and on the south side it's all tomatoes.

- Did you know that Europe's largest Tibetan population is in Switzerland? There was an influx after the Chinese occupation of the country. Maybe the Alps remind them of home?

-According to the Heidi museum, the book Heidi is the third most translated book in the world after the Bible and the Quaran. Seems like......something you would say about your own book in your own museum, but hey, what do I know?

-WWI was really costly for the Italians. 689,000 dead, over a million seriously disabled and 600,000 civilians were killed. 100,000 Italian POWs died in captivity because the Italian government refused to supply food to their POWs like literally every other country did because they didn't want it to encourage desertion. They also shot 750 of their own soldiers.

I absolutley reccommend this book - funny, interesting, informative. Anything I could ever want!

Sunday, October 2, 2022

"Below the Edge of Darkness: Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea" by Edith Widder, PhD

I think that the ocean is one of the scariest things that this world holds. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deepest depths of the ocean. When I think about that I'm pretty thrilled that I am Great Lakes adjacent but not anything bigger than that. But that never stops me from reading book about it. Especially books about cephalopods. I for one will welcome out octopus overlords.

Also, I'm going to spell bioluminescent wrong and in a variety of waves in this review and I just, don't care, so bear with me. 

One of my favorite things from this book is actually from the preface and it's a quote that the author keeps in her office, most people think it's from GK Chesterton "The world will not perish for want of wonders, but for want of wonder". I think a lot about how easy it is to lose your sense of wonder when the answers to almost everything can be found on your handheld computer that lives in your pocket or most often your hand. I like not always having the answers to some things, especially when it comes to nature. 

So this researcher is a marine biologist who focuses most on bioluminescence of deep sea creatures. If you don't know what bioluminescence is it's basically that these critters glow, a lot of times on command! But the author also weaves in some personal stories about her struggles with regaining her eyesight and other faculties after an accident. She also has a fair amount of funny footnotes a la my main squeeze Mary Roach, which I appreciate.

Did you know that 95% of all animal species on earth have eyes? I'm assuming that the ones that don't our the earth dwelling ones, like moles who having eyeballs wouldn't be an advantage. The giant squid has an eyeball the size of your head (which makes me kind of want to puke and desperately want to see one at the same time). Seals and their big beautiful eyes are more sensitive than human eyes, and elephant seal eyes the most sensitive of all of the seals which is helpful because a lot of their food sources are bioluminescent. 

A lot of bioluminescent fish have lights on their bellies, so when open ocean predators, like sharks, look up and expect to see a familiar outline of a specific prey animal the lights obscure the expected outline and sometimes allows them to get away. It's very common apparently.

The author also spends a lot of time in very small submersible vehicles (kind of like James Cameron is famous for - besides directing - and he actually blurbs the book) and when she is in a machine that holds 2 people one of her colleague joking hands her a switchblade and calls it "an oxygen doubler" in case she wanted to cut her diving partners oxygen line. Which, honestly I found hilarious. 

This books is full of interesting facts about the oceans creatures and it also sheds light on how hard it can be to be a researcher, always wondering where your funding is going to come from and the high pressure to have everything go right so you have something to show for all of your spending! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Book review: "A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Use Them" by Neil Bradbury, PhD

 I'm not a true crime person, but I love a book that makes science easy to understand so I booked up this book. Right off the bat let me tell you who are 11 molecules are: Insulin, Atropine, Strychnine, Aconite, Ricin, Digoxin, Cyanide, Potassium, Polonium, Arsenic, Chlorine.

What's interesting about all of these molecules, and they mention it in the book, is that so many of those molecules can be used to treat you, and not hurt you. The dosage is reallllll important. As someone who was involved in medical research for a long time, I also found it interesting that it only took 2 years from insulins discovery in 1921 for it to be commercially available and ready to treat diabetics. But then three decades later we have the first known case of someone using it as a murder weapon. 

What else is interesting: you'd think that a lot of these chemicals would need to be injected or something noticeable but the amount of people who were killed by just having their food or beverages doctored was pretty incredible. The a-hole who poisoned is wife with atropine in her drinks was released from prison and for a time taught PHILOSOPHY AND MEDICAL ETHICS. Because irony is alive and well.

Do you remember hearing about the story of the former Russian spy and his daughter who were poisoned by current Russian spies at their new home in England? Current Russian spies had coated the door knob of their home with  a nerve agent, Novichuk, that is absorbed into the skin. When the ex-spy and his daughter were taken to the emergency room it was thought that they were suffering from an opioid overdose, until his past with the Russian government came to light. This was a compelling enough story but the last part of it, which I had never heard before just broke my heart. Apparently the would be assassins' smuggled this poison in a bottle of perfume so that it could be taken through the commercial airports they travelled through. After they used it they haphazardly tossed the bottle into a container for charitable collections. A man walking past saw the bottle of high end perfume just sitting there and took it home to his girlfriend. She was thrilled. She sprayed the nerve agent directly onto her wrist - about 10 times more than the ex-spy and his daughter was exposed to. She died 8 days later in the hospital. The Soviets/Russians show up in this book more than any other group, not super surprised.

This is a super interesting book, the chemistry talk is engaging and easy to understand. I wish all chemistry books were like this!

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

"Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies" by Catherine McCormick

 This was such an incredibly interesting book, I learned so much and it also made me mad. Maybe not a surprise given the subject matter. The parts of the book that I found most compelling where the sections about female bodies in fine art.

I've seen similar statistics before and they always make me mad: "In the National Gallery there is a collection of 2,300 paintings - only 21 are by women." or "an annual report on gender disparity in the creative arts sector found that 68% of the artists represented by London's top commercial galleries were men, only 3% were women, despite the fact women takeup more than 2/3 of the places on creative arts and design courses in higher education". Also unsurprisingly, these statistics are worse for artists of color: "in the US, African American women make up just 3.3% of the total number of female artists who work was collected by US institutions between 2008 and 2018 (190 of 5,832)."

Woof. Support living, female artists everyone.

On the topic of specific art. The image of Venus comes up A LOT. Venus de Milo, the Rockeby Venus, and the ultra famous The Birth of Venus. Even just these three examples you have a range of types of Venus, from demure and coquettish to more sensual. The status when a subject has the arm and hand draped across their groin and genitals to cover and yet also draw attention to that area is called venus pudica. Feel free to bust that fact out at your next cocktail party.

Another depiction of women that comes up frequently, unfortunately, is rape. And it's not just the classic Greek and Roman stories depicted in art - though goodness knows that assault by a bored and horny god with no consequences was a real possibility. A frequent story depicted is the Rape of Europa - this one is Reubens, this one is Titian  and this one is a Goya. Pictures with rape depictions are more frequent than you might imagine - they can be found on money (like the Greek and Italian 2 Euro coin), in a statue outside of the Council of the European Union headquarters in Brussels, and in a sculpture outside of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Christmas Gift Reads

 There are only a couple of people in my life who are bold enough to buy me books as presents, and oddly enough they are generally my two friends who are also brothers. Samwise (really just Sam but how could I not?) got me two books and Garrett got me another. Because these two are not strangers to me and my book choices my gifts involved arctic exploration gone terribly wrong, daring WWII rescues and Russian science fiction short stories.  Clears throat ~~~~~These are a few of my faaaaaaavorite thiiiiiinngs"~~~.

"In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeanette" by Hampton Sides

There was a stretch of time there when polar exploration was all the rage in the United States. Trying to find a way, by water, across the top of the world was on the front of everyone's mind.  For a long time it seemed like there was an endless cycle of excitement sending off an expedition, a few years wait where people got increasingly nervous about what happened to the expedition, a different expedition being sent to find the original one, and having no luck, then the people in the rescue expedition being like "oh man this arctic place is enchanting" and then it starts again. That was certainly the case for the USS Jeanette. A rabble rousing newspaper man underwrites the cost of this expedition and a mostly seasoned crew take off from San Francisco to see what they can find. Though they are well equipped and careful they are no match for the ice packed waters which embrace their boat in a grip that they can't escape from. Then it's a fight for survival for this crew - and the poor dogs that are with them. The dogs, always the worst for them when it comes to arctic expeditions gone wrong.

"Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission" by Hampton Sides. 

Samwise kept with a theme with the same author for the second book. This is the story of a group of POWs who were captured and imprisoned after the fall of Manilla. The book literally starts with a different group of POWs being burned alive by panicking Japanese soldiers and it was the most jarring start to a book that I've read in a long time. So there is a certain prison camp that the US military is worried will be liquidated (aka all the POWs killed) as the end of the war becomes more obvious and a daring rescue mission is brewed up! It is also one of the, if not THE first, mission by what becomes the Army Rangers. You get to know the men in the camp, the men doing the rescuing and one or two really amazing civilians who worked to get food, medicine and supplies (including a Greek Old Testament) to the POWs. What I always find super interesting about these stories is that there are some men who served in these positions that are lifelong military men who come from long military families, went to West Point, whatever. But there are just as many, if not more, men who are just regular, every day men who are put into these positions of power and leadership but after the war they just go home and lead civilian lives and what an extreme change that must be. Was a great read, edge of my seat but doesn't shy away from the scary and graphic subject matter.

My friend Garrett got me a collection of Isaac Asimov's short stories called Nightfall. In truth, I haven't read this one yet but I'm sure I will soon!

Monday, January 10, 2022

What I've been reading (poetry, nonfiction, sandworms oh my!)

Two different collections of poetry from Nikita Gill "Fierce Fairytales Poems and Stories to Stir Your Soul" and "Where Hope Comes From: Poems of Resilience, Healing and Light".  Hope Comes From was a book of poems that were written during the pandemic, so all of those poems felt very timely which is nice. The Fierce Fairytales collection were retellings of fairytales and fairytale inspired poems. The pandemic collection was my more favorite of the two, though I liked them both!

"You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why it Matters" by Kate Murphy. When someone is talking to you are you actually listening and taking in what they say or are you listening to form a response? Are you paying attention to their emotion and inflection or are you strictly listening to their words? Are you inserting your own opinions when it is not asked for or when it's unwelcome? Do you try to domineer conversations because that's how you show that you are in charge? All things to be watching for when you are listening. 

Dune by Frank Herbert. Maybe you have heard of this book and/or movie? One of my friends is real passionate about this book and was very excited about the movie so I said that I would read the book before I saw the movie and then we could be on the same page to discuss them together. I love a weighty sci-fi novel but this one was a little dense for me. I think it's the lots of families, lots of political intrigue that I got a little bored with. But I am glad that I read it!

The Power of Ritual: How to Create Meaning and Ritual in Everything That You Do by Casper ter Kuile. So I like the idea of this book more than I like the actual book. It was a little more woo woo than I was hoping it would be. What it really boils down to is: take time to disconnect from technology, be grateful (like truly practice gratitude), get into nature, don't be afraid to look deep into yourself, be vulnerable.

(I don't know why this last one is formatting weird and I'm too lazy to try and fix it, lo siento) 

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova.  This was a fun read! A far flung family is reunited by the impending death of their matriarch. Told in current time and in flashbacks you learn this families history as their mysterious, homebound grandmother finally reveals some of their family secrets and gives them an unusual gift. A wonderful south american, magical realism read.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Favorites of 2021

Well, its the new year which means it's time to talk about the books that I enjoyed the most in 2021. I also read a total of 46 books this year, which is a little bit short of my goal but still a respectable total for me, especially in a panini, ugh. In no particular order: 

From August, we have:

You can see my review here.

 From March:

You can see my review here!

I didn't review it on the blog, but I very very much enjoyed this read. Mary Roach is one of my favorites, and this was one of her best. She's funny, easy to understand and very well researched and I learn so much in each of her books. 

Here's to more great reads in 2021!