Monthly Archives: February 2011

A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles

A Pocketful of History is a collection of essays about the state quarters put out during the fifty state quarter program.  Some are straight history, some are about a particular coin design’s travel from idea to eventual winner, and some … some kind-of go off on tangents.  When the coins give Noles something of historical importance, he does a good job of telling us the story.  Unfortunately, not all do, and Noles has to scramble to deliver on his promise.

A lot of the time, Noles is lucky.  A state chose something of historical interest to base the design of their coin on, and he has a good topic to write about.  This happens most frequently in the beginning of the book, which is organized by order in which the states joined the union, and thus has the oldest states closest to the start.

One of the best examples of this is the very first chapter, which tells the story of Delaware’s coin design.  It features Caesar Rodney in his gallop from Delaware to provide a critical vote for independence in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  It’s a story I didn’t know, and Noles tells it well.  I enjoyed learning that little bit of Delaware history that turned out to contribute to a fairly large part of American history.

Another type of story Noles tells is the trip the winning design took to become the design a state chose for their coin.  California’s chapter is a good example.  Noles spends a lot of time on Schwarzenegger’s decision-making process before getting to the story of John Muir, who is featured on the coin.  These chapters I found much less interesting than the ones that focus most of their attention on the story of the coin.  I found myself bored when he discussed the process of design, the way the decision was made, the people who made the decision, the number of the coins, and whatever controversy there was about the design that was chosen.  I didn’t expect to get that type of story.  I’m interested in the story the coin is intended to tell, not that of the politics that brought them into being.

The worst of the chapters go off on paths that are tenuously connected to the design of the coin.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of chapter is that of my home state, Michigan.  Noles starts off the chapter by titling it, rather insultingly, “Great Lakes, Great Drama … and a So-So Quarter”.

I’ll admit that the design of the quarter is more simple — it’s the shape of our state (not the borders, since those extend out into the Great Lakes) as well as those of the Great Lakes.  Instead of telling the story, then, of the formation of the lakes, or the history of the shipping industry, Noles chooses to tell us of the great storm of 1913 and the devastation wreaked on the ships sailing at the time.

How, exactly, is this related to the image depicted on the coin?  It doesn’t show a boat in distress.  It doesn’t even show waves, and has little to do with Michigan itself.  I was extremely disappointed in Noles’ treatment of my state.

Fortunately, the good chapters outnumber the bad ones, which made A Pocketful of History much easier to get through.  Noles would have done better to keep out of the politics, and find the more honest stories for the coins that didn’t readily provide a  historical image for him to write about.

Rating: 3/5.

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Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

I’m a bad Terry Pratchett fan.  I don’t read the DiscWorld books within their subseries; I read them as he published them.  I was, then, a little rusty on what happened during the last book that dealt with the witches — I vaguely remembered it had to do with a fairy godmother and travel on the witches’ parts.  Once I got back into their world with Lords and Ladies, though, I slipped right back into their storyline, and it’s a superb one.

The story is relatively simple — Granny Weatherwax is still a grumpy witch, but this time she’s being challenged by the Queen of the Elves, who wants dominion over Lancre.  This is one of the things that makes Lords and Ladies so good — it’s a more serious, high fantasy-like story, while maintaining a good sense of humor.  The plot is solid, without some of the meandering that occurs in earlier Pratchett books.

Mixed up with the story of the elves trying to take over is the story of Magrat Garlick, the meek, youngest witch of the trio living in Lancre.  She is to be wed to the King of Lancre, Verence II, which came as a surprise.  Magrat is, as Granny is fond of saying, a little drippy and soft.  She holds to a more New Age type of witchcraft, which is not where Granny and Nanny Ogg practice, so they think she’s fairly naïve — which she is.

The two stories collide on the days leading up to the wedding.  Magrat’s entire kingdom is put in jeopardy by Granny not telling her about the elves.  Granny’s having difficulty defeating the Queen.  Nanny is distracted by Casanunda, a blast from the past, and only gets into the action just in time.

One of the best aspects of this story is that Magrat grows as a person.  She becomes stronger in her struggles against the elves, and she becomes, in actuality, quite the impressive woman.  It’s easy to imagine her ruling a kingdom at the end of the story, which is really nice — you just knew that she couldn’t remain a dope forever.

As I stated before, one of the best things about Lords and Ladies is that it feels more serious.  To me, the danger Lancre faced seemed very real, indeed, which is not something I necessarily expect from a Pratchett novel.  There were fewer footnotes, which made the story flow better and turned it into something I liked better.  I never thought I would say that I like a Pratchett novel without large numbers of footnotes, but I really did.  It helped with the flow of the story immensely.

I think it also helps that these characters are ones he’s written about many times in the past.  He didn’t have to establish much in the way of character development before getting straight into the story.  I think that forced him to really think about the plot, which made for a better book all around.

Overall, I think a new Pratchett reader would want to read the other books in the Witch subseries first, and just know that it’s well worth it.

Rating: 5/5.

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My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean Deli

My Korean Deli is the sometimes-humorous story of the author, Ben Ryder Howe, and his part in his family’s decision to purchase and operate a deli in Brooklyn.  Howe, an editor at the Paris Review at the time, lives, with his wife, in his in-laws’ basement.  The deli is meant to be a gift to his mother-in-law as well as a way to earn money to move out of the Paks’ home and to earn some independence again.  Instead, the deli draws them closer together by forcing them to both live and work together, making it difficult for Ben and Gab, his wife, to say goodbye.

Before I get into what I liked about My Korean Deli, let me say that I was confused by way the word “deli” is used here.  The Paks’ store is more like a convenience store at which you can also get a sandwich.  I suppose this is an example of how words can vary in meaning — a deli here in Michigan indicates that you’re going someplace that deals only in sliced meat, cheese, chilled non-alcoholic beverages, and salads.  They aren’t a place I would think to go to if I wanted beer, cigarettes, or canned cat food.

Yet sell these things the Paks did.  Kay, Howe’s mother-in-law, is a strong woman who has always worked, whether in was in Korea while her husband George was away in the Navy, or in New York sewing sweatshops to help supplement their income.  Gab and Ben help Kay find the deli in order to provide her with a workplace she could control and is more similar to the bakery she ran in Seoul.

Unexpected events greet them at every turn.  The former owner hadn’t paid some taxes, so they become responsible for those.  They also try to make changes to the products they carry, with much complaint from the regular customers.  Renovations on a grand scale are made impossible by the reality that the store needs to be open and making money more than the hole in the roof needs fixing.

Meanwhile, Howe is still working at the Paris Review, struggling to reconcile working in the deli with his commitment to one of the best-known literary magazines.  His boss, George Plimpton, is both a bit of a sounding board and a larger-than-life, frightening source of worry for Howe.  He discusses the decline of both Plimpton and the Review during this time, when his deli is getting off the ground, which makes for an interesting comparison.

Howe writes about all of this with a gentle good humor.  There’s a sense of frustration, fun, and futility all mixed together in his prose, and it’s quite fun to read.  The only thing I could do with a little less of is his continual explanation of his WASP roots in Boston and how they differ from how Kay and Gab operate.  The reader can gather the cultural differences without having to have them pointed out.

My Korean Deli makes for a nice, light memoir about a man thrust into all sorts of unfamiliar situations — store owner, member of a Korean family, a delinquent employee from his day job — and shows him slowly growing into the idea of change.

Rating: 4/5.

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Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Let me just get this out:  I love Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I’ve enjoyed watching him on television and have read a couple of his other books.  He’s my favorite astrophysicist.  I’ve even gotten my fiance to start watching Nova scienceNOW with me, which makes me beyond happy.  This book also makes me beyond happy; Tyson makes astronomy and physics delightful to read.

Death by Black Hole is composed of essays Tyson originally wrote for Natural History.  They’ve been broken up into sections, which is in keeping with the greats of popular science writing — it’s definitely what Stephen Jay Gould did with his books, and those are almost unfailingly fantastic.

The first section, “The Nature of Knowledge,” contains essays about how we gather information about the world around us.  As a geography nerd, I loved his explanation of how something that seems as simple as measuring the length of a border becomes more complex when you adjust the scale at which you’re looking at it, as well as your rules for what to do about curves, tides, and other things that can affect a border.  It all fits in with the concept of measurement, and how it works differently depending on your tools, your intent for the result, and the time and culture in which you live.

The next section, “The Knowledge of Nature,” discusses what we do know about how things work.  The section on antimatter and subatomic particles was particularly good.  They’re such weird concepts that I love to read anyone’s description of them, and Tyson’s particularly enjoyable.

“Ways and Means of Nature,” the third section, discusses how nature appears to us.  Tyson discusses constants and limits found in nature, which are interesting to know about.  He also discusses how the work of people like Newton still contains practical, useful concepts and rules.  This is nice; I like knowing that my high school physics hasn’t all gone out of style.

The fourth section, “The Meaning of Life,” has information about how life started on Earth and how it might start other places.  This is probably one of the more controversial sections.  People vary widely in their opinions on both topics, but, in my opinion, Tyson gives a nice rundown that seems very reasonable.

The most entertaining section is next.  “When the Universe Turns Bad” contains his essays on how people, Earth, and the Sun can be destroyed by outside influences.  He also talks about what it would be like to fall into a black hole (not so awesome), have Earth hit with a large meteor or asteroid (also not awesome), and to be hit with massive amounts of gamma radiation (surprisingly enough, not awesome).  It’s a fun section, in a morbid sort of way.

“Science and Culture” is all about people, how they perceive science and nature, and how often they get it wrong.  One particular essay that made me laugh was how movies get science wrong.  I found this entertaining for a couple of reasons.  The first was that Tyson said he hates people who say, “the book was better,” because he often doesn’t read the book — the movie’s more condensed!  The second reason was that, for Pete’s sake, it’s a movie.  As long as it’s not egregious, can’t you suspend disbelief for two hours?  That essay was still entertaining in the way he intended it to be, but I also thought it was cute for those other reasons.

Lastly, we have “Science and God.”  While Tyson doesn’t come right out and say that science and religion are incompatible, he does mention that God has become the answer for the gaps, which I think is very true.  The more we know about nature, the less God is responsible for and the less he’s needed in a creator role.  He’ll always be needed for comfort and faith; that’s just a fact.  But he’s not very effective as a causative factor regarding the physical universe and all it contains.

My only complaint with Death by Black Hole is that sometimes Tyson’s humor doesn’t come through as he intends it to.  Sometimes he sounds grumpy, which I don’t think he is.  I think he just has a subtle or wry sense of humor that doesn’t translate very well on the page.  Having seen him many times in many different appearances, I’m able to gauge his intent a little better than a reader coming to him for the first time.  It’s unfortunate that’s the case, and is the only thing that kept me from giving the book a perfect score.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart

This book came along at an opportune time.  I’m getting married in September, and we will be looking to buy a house in the next couple of years.  In fact, whenever he saw me reading Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, my fiancé asked me, “So, now you know all about buying a house?”  I think it’s reasonable to say that, while I might not know everything there is to buying a house, I’m much more aware of all the procedures and paperwork that go along with making that ultimate of purchases.

Bray, Schroeder, and Stewart start off the book with a chapter titled “What’s So Great About Buying a House?”, which was one of only a few chapters I had issues with.  I appreciate that a house is a good investment, and that you’re really paying yourself in equity when you pay off your mortgage.  Having just moved into an apartment, it didn’t exactly feel great to have apartments talked about in less-than-glowing terms, either.  The ideal thing is to buy a house; that’s why I’m reading the book.  I don’t need to be sold on the idea.

Most of the rest of the book is really quite good.  The second chapter encourages the potential buyer to think about what they really need and make priorities.  It also mentions some more unorthodox forms of houses, such as condominiums, modular and manufactured homes, townhouses, duplexes, and co-ops.   New homes are also discussed.  To be honest, this chapter was very helpful, since I would never have considered a condo as a house; they always just seem like a rental property in my mind.

I also like the fact the authors encourage the house-hunter to know exactly what his finances are and to do his homework on the housing market in the area.  Having your numbers straight has to make it a lot easier when it comes down to looking for a home, but I suspect it’s not something everyone does.  It’s good to have the reminder.

The other section of this book that I have some issues with is the part about nontraditional loan sources, such as borrowing from a parent or a friend.  I think it’s a horrible idea, even if there are tax breaks for the giver and the receiver.  Personal relationships and business agreements rarely end well, and I don’t think it’s a great idea to ask even one’s parents for a loan for a house.  If you can’t afford it without the help of family and friends, you need to save up some more money.

The rest of the book goes through the steps one takes before looking for a house, during the house-hunting process, and while drawing up contracts and closing on a house.  I thought all this information was very useful.  I knew that an inspection is a great idea; I didn’t know that a general inspector can’t tell you about any pest-related problems (and that it might be illegal for him to do so in some states).  It also overwhelmed me with its completeness; I’m a little glad that we aren’t in the market quite yet.

Included with the book is a CD-ROM with examples of different forms, which is also helpful.  It cut down on the number of forms reproduced in the book itself.  In fact, the entire layout of the book is really nice; I didn’t have to cut back and forth between the main text and asides.  They are all included in the flow of the book.  I love it, since that’s my least-favorite part of books that have small sections that force me to then figure out when I should cut over to read.

Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home is a useful resource for those looking to buy their first home.  It made me feel like I’m much more prepared for the process in front of us in a couple of years.

Rating: 4/5.

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