Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Lonely Empress: a biography of Elizabeth of Austria

by Joan Haslip

The disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire up through World War I is a long, bizarre, twisted, sordid, unbelievably complex saga about which I wish I knew more. This book has the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire and the volatile ethno-political morass that was Europe as a shimmering backdrop, but except for a few important names and the general tenor of relations among the grossly intermarried aristocratic families, it didn't teach me much.

But that's totally OK. I knew from reading a review that this book is light on the history and very tightly focused on the personal life and personality of Elizabeth Hapsburg (née Wittelsbach), fascinating and complex all unto herself. It's written in an almost gossipy tone, and it's practically a real life fin de siècle romance novel. It really is quite exciting and fun to read, even though it could be (falsely) accused of being insubstantial. Honestly, I kept waiting for the story to start to drag, or become repetitive or stupid, somewhere in the 440 pages, but it didn't. It helps that each chapter is only 10 to 15 pages, so the reader has a say in the pace of reading, but ultimately it's all down to the enigmatic character's ability to hold one's attention. Her Majesty still has the power to enchant.

Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture

At 20.8 x 16.3 x 3.7 inches and a whopping 16.3 lbs., this is surely the biggest book I've ever read. Not that I read everything. I did look at all the pictures, but some of the buildings were kinda boring, so I didn't read about them. And one can read only so many of those highly stylized descriptions of architecture before beginning to feel a bit batty. (I really feel sorry for the people who have to write them; how many synonyms for façade do you know?)

Some of the buildings were crazy-cool, some were meh,— particularly toward the end of the thousand pages, when the novelty of a cantilevered rectangle had worn off. Some of the buildings made me think, "You know, just because you can, doesn't mean you have to." In a few cases, I found myself really wanting more or different photos to get a better overall picture of a particular building, but for the most part each structure got half a page and three or four images. At one point, I started hatching a plan for a worldwide tour of amazing buildings. (I am accepting donated airlines miles; my preference is for Delta SkyMiles.)

I have a serious boner for architecture, and I got bored after a while, so I'd only recommend this book to a hardcore enthusiast.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bretz's Flood: the remarkable story of a rebel geologist and the world's greatest flood

by John Soennichsen

Just in case you haven't yet realized what a nerd I am, here's a fascinating book about geology! And not just about geology, but about the personal story of a geologist who made a major discovery in the eastern Washington scablands — but no one believed him, so he had to defend his theory alone for many years before his findings finally were accepted by his peers.

I don't know how to explain it, but this is a really good book: enjoyable, informative, even poignant. If you scoff at the very idea that a book about rocks-dorks could ever be a good read, nothing I say will convince you. If, on the other hand, you know me or have read enough of my blog to have a sense of me as a critic, you'll just have to believe me.

Really, though, this book is written in a way that makes it accessible and interesting to anyone who's ever looked out the car window on I-90 (or any number of highways) and thought, "damn, that's a cool-looking mountain/canyon/coulee/alluvial fan/butte/glacier/etc." If you've ever taken an intro to geology (aka "rocks for jocks") class in college, or if you've seen the megafloods special on Discovery Channel, you might already know a thing or two about ginormous Lake Missoula and you might find this book even more enjoyable. I also think this would a fun book to read on a road trip up through the Spokane area (on the way to Montana or Yellowstone or something).

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Waste and Want: a social history of trash

by Susan Strasser

What... an amazing book. (That's my Chelsea Handler impression, which I realize doesn't work so well in print. How about a Chandler Bing: could this book be any better?)

Seriously, though, this book is great. I suspect there's a fair amount of cross-over from her other two books, which are on somewhat related topics. There's even a bit of repetitiveness from chapter to chapter in this book, but somehow it doesn't detract from the reading experience, probably because the level of detail allows the author to present information that is superficially the same in a different light in other chapters. The sharp focus also justifies the book's occidental bias (pretty much exclusively U.S., in fact, with some comparisons to Europe), and even explains why this history begins in the 1800s and starts to peter out post WWII — as much as it requires written records of what people did with their garbage, this type of sociology requires a sufficient distance and objectivity, so more recent cultural trends can only be painted in broad strokes.

So much fascinating info is on display here, I hardly know where to begin... with a focus on individuals' and society's (including business and government) relationship to the objects they choose to save, repair, reuse, recycle, discard, etc., the book covers everything from kitchen "waste" and leftovers to clothing and paper, metal and rubber to bones and bodily functions, always explaining how historical events, socio-economic changes, and industrial innovations have altered the trash-scape.

Highly recommended to nonfiction lovers and people into extreme D.I.Y. (That is, people who make their own clothes out of cut-up old clothes or build furniture from found wood and scraps, as opposed to people who can put together Ikea stuff or make things according to published instructions.)