When author Sam Kean was a student, he had trouble with the endless experiments in his physics classes. But he loved the true science stories his professors would tell about the discoveries of new things and ideas, great risks taken, and the links between physics, chemistry, history, literature, mythology, and forensics.
In this book he presents dramatic and astounding stories of the chemical elements. He also makes it clear how the periodic table both arranges elements in a useful way and provides guidance to find new elements. (I had no idea that the table predicted exactly what elements were yet to be found!)
Why I picked it up: I loved the disappearing spoon trick in Theo Grey's book and wanted more like that.
Why I finished it: The discussion of how silicon is similar enough to carbon to make people wonder if it could serve as a basis for alien life. (But there isn't an easily breathable form of it under 4,000 degrees F!) The possibilities of oceans of metallic hydrogen and red streaks of neon rain on Jupiter! The almost made-for-fiction story of Fritz Haber's wife, Clara, who committed suicide after Haber refused to stop poison gas research during WWI. (Haber was later exiled from Germany because of his Jewish roots, but not before inventing a powerful insecticide that was developed into the poison used in concentration camp gas chambers). The mad tale of a Colorado molybdenum mine bought for almost nothing by a German company after a campaign of nonstop threats and harassment against the previous owners and miners. The element was shipped to Germany to make big Bertha guns used in WWI. (All of this happened a few years before the U.S. joined the war.)
I'd give it to: Jason, fan of the James Burke television series Connections for the way it showed science as being part of every realm of human knowledge. He’d like the story of how a 1950s experiment to establish the age of the earth ended up showing how much of the contemporary environment was contaminated by lead from gasoline, pipes, and paint. And for my dad, who loves hearing and telling edifying science stories like the one in the book about a tragic series of mass poisonings in Japan. Called the Big Four Pollution Diseases, these were the result of elements being released into the environment, including a release of cadmium during mining which caused terrible joint pain and easily cracking bones.
Somewhat explicit stories about famous people who died in unusual ways or whose remains suffered unusual indignities. The timeline ranges from King Tut (Dr. Carter used a chisel to pry his mummy out of the sap at bottom of the sarcophagus and then cut it lengthwise down the chest and broke multiple bones) to Albert Einstein (his brain was stolen, sliced up, and stored in a closet for years, and whose eyeballs remain in a safe-deposit box in New Jersey). The body of King Henry the 8th exploded in its coffin, while on display, due to a buildup of decomposition gases. President Garfield suffered mightily at doctor’s hands as they looked for an assassin’s bullet in his body. He finally died three months later after being fed only eggs, beef extract and whiskey via enemas. Beethoven spent his last days having huge amounts of brown, pus-filled gunk drained out of his stomach via a hole drilled without the aid of anesthesia. With three days left in his life they got ten quarts -- Beethoven ballooned up again, doctors drained even more, then he finally died.
Quirky illustrations abound.
Why I picked it up: Because of the short chapters and illustrations, it looked like a good bathroom reader.
Why I finished it: There was just the right mix of medical explanation and gore to interest me. The author is snarky, sarcastic, exaggerates just a bit (although it is clear when she is not being literal) and succeeds in making her dead subjects seem lively.
I'd give it to: Martin, who often asks me for short, easy to read books for class. He’d snatch it from my hand if I told him about Napoleon’s epic poops at the end of his life, which were documented by the aide who had to change his sheets hourly.
Originally published at www.kawaiinot.com, 100 vertical, four-panel comics featuring cute, inanimate objects being crass or uttering unexpected innuendos. (Imagine Hello Kitty comics by the writing staff of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
Why I picked it up: At NEWW, I told my friend Amanda I needed a gift for my daughter. She escorted me to Meghan’s table. Sold!
Why I finished it: This strip proved this was a book I was going to love. There were also great strips about popsicles, doughnuts, stamps, and peas. The book itself is an awesome thing -- the spiral binding and fold-out cover make it a desktop stand to display my current favorite, and there are stickers in the back. Each strip is also perforated near the binding so that it can be removed from the book for easy gifting.
I'd give it to: My office mates, because this is way more entertaining than the ___ a day calendars on everyone’s desks. (But I don’t have officemates anymore. Maybe I’ll amuse myself and buy one for my mother-in-law, who will think it looks cheerful but won’t understand what the hot pepper is saying. She doesn't speak English, so I'll get to have fun explaining.)
Danny, a slender high school gymnast, sticks to a routine to avoid the brawny football players who rule the hallways. But then a turf war over the weight room gets out of control. Danny hides while three football players sexually assault a shy gymnast. Kurt, a traumatized, abandoned child inside a goliath’s body, sees what his teammates are doing and puts a stop to it because of abuse he suffered. The players turns on him and threaten to frame Kurt for the abuse. No one knows Danny witnessed the incident. It becomes a question of whether Danny will have the courage to stand up for his victimized teammate and Kurt, and what Kurt will do to survive the pressure.
Why I picked it up: A veiny arm, pumped up like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in his prime, on the cover. Steroid and football-related books are big at my school.
Why I finished it: There is football action, pranks that quickly turn cruel, and Kurt’s backstory makes him one of the most fully developed protagonists I’ve read about in a while. I would have a hard time believing that kids could do these kinds of things to other kids if I didn’t remember news stories about identical abuse decades ago among wrestlers in my state.
I'd give it to: Hunter, who devours football related books the way I go through guacamole and lime-flavored chips during bowl season. Brandon, a football player student of mine who would recognize both the locker room’s fug and the motivational speeches that pepper this book.
The narrator, Daniel Franks, is a young art journalist who women describe as “nice” or “benign”. His friend Lacey is sexually shocking, predatory, and ambitious. Intrigued by her beauty and daring, Franks tells Lacey’s story as she climbs the rungs of New York’s art world. But the story that Martin really wants to tell concerns the transformation of the high-end art scene over the past two decades, when demand for established masters of the past was edged out by young, ironic artists unafraid to make “bad art” and put a big price tag on it.
Why I picked it up: I have enjoyed most of Steve Martin’s books, starting with Cruel Shoes back in high school.
Why I finished it: Aside from all the fun banter, I enjoyed seeing the color photos of fabulous works of art. Not vital to the story, they seem to be there simply because Martin wanted us to see them.
I'd give it to: Darcy, in thanks for loaning me The Pleasure of My Company (read by Steve Martin) on CD, one of the best listening experiences I have had. It may be why I heard his voice in my head while reading this one.
Jack has lived all of his five years of his life in Room. The only person he has ever spoken to is his Ma. The only bit of the world he has seen is through a small window in the roof and on TV, though he doesn't believe anything outside Room is real. He has no idea how bad things have been for his mother. She has made the best life for him she can. But now it is time to escape because the man who visits his mother every night has stopped pretending Jack isn’t there.
Why I picked it up: I was intrigued by the mix of claustrophobic horror and childhood innocence.
Why I finished it: When the mother taught Jack how to play dead so they could escape in a rolled-up carpet. The plan so full of risks that it was terrifying, but it made me realize how much horror the mother must have experienced to see this as their best option.
I'd give it to: My brother Jonathan, who really gets the bliss of childhood ignorance, and will grieve as Jack starts to understand his world.
A history student from the future visits our time to witness the first Miracle Monday, which will become an annual celebration the world over. She's hoping to meet Superman, but she has no idea she'll also get pulled into his struggle with Lex Luthor and the magical entity C.W. Saturn. Ray Bradbury makes an appearance too.
Why I picked it up: Fourteen year old Bill was relieved that this "companion" novel bore no relation to the blockbuster Superman movie, and instead took its cues from Maggin's tenure writing some of the best DC comics of the seventies. I was inspired to re-read it after enjoying Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, an ode to this era.
Why I finished it: Jonathan Kent dreams that his omnipotent son Clark grows up without empathy. He wakes up screaming. The way the first chapter resolved left me both adrenalized and teary, and my level of emotional engagement only increased as the main plot kicked in.
I'd give it to: My son Theo, now that he's old enough to read my yellowed copy without tattering it further. This book has by far the most insightful, nuanced, and euphoric take on the Superman characters I've ever seen or read, and I want him to read this before he watches the travesty that is Smallville.
Angela and her friends at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver study mechanical engineering, drink, and take part in secret rites of passage (both Canadian and science-related).
These autobiographical Wasted Talent comics originally appeared online, but Angela redrew them for the collection.
Why I picked it up: Angela is both super cool and ultra talented, and she’s the first person my daughter looks for at a comic convention.
Why I finished it: When Red is holding up his coffee cup, asking a barista for coffee, she asks, “What size?” Red: “This f*cking size!”
And also to understand The Red, the letterman-like jacket covered with patches (including the mysterious Larceny & Mayhem patch) Jam is wearing on the book’s cover , and which Angela wore at NEWW.
I'd give it to: Jorge, who writes the fabulous grad school webcomic PhD because he rarely writes about undergrads.