BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH, by Jan Swafford

18222670Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – 5th August 2014
ISBN 9780618054749 – 1077 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Passing a whopping 1000 pages (okay, around 900 minus the extensive endnotes) this Beethoven biography just kept me enraptured. Enough that I kept lugging the hardback to read at the bus stop and on the bus into work each day. Getting into work I began back diluting cultures to the compositions I had just been reading about. From this you can tell that Swafford has written a readable and inspiring biography of the Ludwig van.
Covering the totality of Beethoven’s life, Swafford also nicely givens contextual background from what is known about his immediate ancestors to the cultural and historical events that swirled around both locally and internationally. At times the biographical details on Beethoven’s benefactors seems a bit too detailed, though they are mostly discussed to highlight the ups and downs of Beethoven’s support, why he was appreciated by the upper class of the time and the limits of even their lifestyles to continuously supply patronage.
What really makes this lengthy biography work is that it isn’t merely a biography of Beethoven the person, but also Beethoven the composer in the sense that a good amount of space is spent both describing the process by which his major works were created and critique of the music itself. Swafford nicely attempts (and largely succeeds) at taking a step back from the long history of viewing Beethoven as a genius to to look objectively at his achievements.
For fans of classical music, serious or just vaguely familiar, this biography and discussion of his music will probably be appreciated. The musical analysis was at times more advanced than the basic music theory/history I was familiar with, but Swafford also does a fair job of explaining so that even the non professional musician will understand the main points, and a newbie will likely learn some wonderful things about music in general and about distinctions between different approaches (eras) of what is all lumped together as ‘classical’. In addition to covering the style of Beethoven’s output, Swafford also covers the basics of his contemporaries, particularly those he learned from.
If you are thinking about reading this but aren’t sure whether to commit to such a large work you can get a fair idea the whole thing by just reading a few chapters (interspersed with listening to some recordings I’d recommend). The first couple chapters are more laden with biography compared to a larger amount of musical focus further in, but you should still get a fair idea of Swafford’s scope and style.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Cheese and Microbes, Edited by Catherine W. Donnelly

My latest post for Small Things Considered, an American Society for Microbiology blog, is up with a review of Cheese and Microbes, an interesting collection that may be of interest to general readers with scientific interests (or those who just simply adore cheese!).6a00d8341c5e1453ef01b7c7551c32970b-800wi

“Well-established centuries prior to discovery of the unseen universe of life, cheese production seems perhaps closer to an art than to a science — look no further than that descriptor artisanal… Now an entire book of cheese-related microbiology reviews awaits the curious with the publication by ASM Press of Cheese and Microbes, edited by Catherine Donnelly… Donnelly opens the collection with a brief historical overview of cheese and the microbes involved in its production and Kindstedt follows this with a chapter covering the general processes of cheese making that covers the basic chemistry of milk and the techniques for each common step of its transformation into cheese including coagulation, maintenance of pH, moisture, and salt levels, control of environmental temperature/humidity, physical manipulation, and ripening/maturation. These opening chapters, together with the final ones, form easily readable bookends of with broad appeal and provide excellent resources for someone curious about the food they eat…”

Read my entire review at Small Things Considered!

CONTENTS:

Chapter 1 : From Pasteur to Probiotics: A Historical Overview of Cheese and Microbes
Chapter 2 : The Basics of Cheesemaking
Chapter 3 : Cheese Classification, Characterization, and Categorization: A Global Perspective
Chapter 4 : Mesophilic and Thermophilic Cultures Used in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 5 : The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tales of Mold-Ripened Cheese
Chapter 6 : The Microbiology of Traditional Hard and Semihard Cooked Mountain Cheeses
Chapter 7 : The Microfloras and Sensory Profiles of Selected Protected Designation of Origin Italian Cheeses
Chapter 8 : Wooden Tools: Reservoirs of Microbial Biodiversity in Traditional Cheesemaking
Chapter 9 : The Microfloras of Traditional Greek Cheeses
Chapter 10 : Biodiversity of the Surface Microbial Consortia from Limburger, Reblochon, Livarot, Tilsit, and Gubbeen Cheeses
Chapter 11 : Microbiological Quality and Safety Issues in Cheesemaking
Chapter 12 : Towards an Ecosystem Approach to Cheese Microbiology

Cooking Allergy Free: Inspired Meals for Everyone, by Jenna Short

Cooking Allergy Free; Inspired Meals for Everyone, by Jenna Short
Publisher: Taunton Press
ISBN: 1627103961
288 pages, Hardcover
Published 21st October 2014
Source: NetGalley

With family and close friends with myriad food allergies I am always on the lookout for new recipes of yummy dishes that spark inspiration and could conceivably made by the average home cook. While many of the dishes in this cookbook appear delicious, however, it isn’t the allergy-free recipe cookbook I expected it to be, and I didn’t find it personally useful. However, this cookbook is excellently designed and could be very useful for the right kind of person/home cook.
The purpose behind Cooking Allergy Free is to provide relatively simple and healthy ‘gourmet’ food that can be adapted to an eater’s particular dietary restrictions among the major 8 food allergens: nuts, wheat (gluten), soy, dairy, eggs, shellfish, fish, and corn. The key word here is ‘can’. The recipes collected by Short here (which cover salads, soups, sides, entrees, deserts, sauces, and baking) are for the most part NOT inherently allergy free. Most of these types of recipes could be found in a regular everyday cookbook without the ‘allergy-free’ theme.
What Short does here, however, is clearly highlight for what diet(s) each recipe is appropriate. This is done at the top of the recipe with consistent, colorful icons, and recipes are indexed at the end of the cookbook according to diet. In addition to allergy restrictions, the dishes are also classified by icon as vegetarian or vegan where appropriate. The design of this book therefore would be exceptionally useful for someone who isn’t remotely familiar with allergens, recipes, or when/how recipes could be altered according to dietary restrictions. As comparison, I could see this book fulfilling a role similar to the “Idiot’s Guide” of technology books.
The highlight of this cook book is really how it looks and the easy navigation/interpretations allowed by the design. You can tell that Short has experience and talent in design. The photographs of the food are high quality and whet the appetite for trying out the dish. These are important considerations for a cook book, but excelling just in these categories doesn’t hold up if the overall purpose or recipes don’t meet your need.
For me the biggest problems come down to that fact that so many of the recipes contain many allergens in them still. It is important to note that a key feature of the book is that variant instructions are offered at the bottom of each recipe (with icons) to highlight how the dish could be altered to make it fit the needs of additional allergy restrictions.
One issue is that not all of these substitutions will work particularly well for the dish in question. For example, not all grains can be substituted well with quinoa to make something gluten-free. Quinoa could be used, but the dish isn’t going to have the same flavors, texture, or basic experience. This issue becomes most prominent in the baking section – where gluten-free flour just simply can’t serve as universal substitute across the board.
The second issue is that so many of the recipes contained allergens for no logical reason. If you are writing a book with ‘allergy-free’ in the title, why would you include recipes with peanuts? Really? One of the worst offending allergens? Why would you garnish something with nuts and then put in the ‘alternate’ instructions ‘Omit the nut garnish’? Why not make the recipe nut-free and then at the bottom say that nuts could be added if you DON’T have a nut allergy. Another recipe mentioned that people with nut allergies often had soy allergies, so the recipe could replace soy with something else – but the recipe also included almonds.
In the end, if you are looking for a book of allergy-free recipes, go find books specific to the dietary restriction(s) in question. If you could use a lovely designed book of recipes with mostly well laid-out guidelines on how to adapt them to a particular diner’s requirements while keeping the food still taste decently acceptable, then this is worth looking into.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats, by Sandra Markle

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery,
by Sandra Markle
Publisher: Millbrook Press
ISBN: 1467714631
48 pages, Hardcover
Published: 1st Sep. 2014
Source: NetGalley

 With bat decorations just around the corner for Halloween, now is a perfect time to check out this wonderful nonfiction science book with any curious young scientists in your life.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats is about the recent fungal infections (white-nose syndrome) that has decimated brown bat populations in North America.
As a biologist and bat lover myself, I appreciated the way that Markle told this scientific story of epidemiology in an engaging way that can introduce children to diverse concepts: the wonders of nature, the effects of the microbial world on larger familiar organisms, the process of scientific investigation, the power of curiosity and creativity, and the importance and benefit of research.
Markle relates these rather complex ideas with straightforward language that is ideal for a middle school (or even late elementary) aged child, all in the format of a ‘scientific mystery’: the observation that something is wrong with bats and the steps that were taken to try and discover what was causing the problem. Only then, with dedicated research and understanding can the problem be addressed, a mystery must be solved.
Apparently this book is part of an entire series, so I’ll have to look into the other titles offered. Although I could only look at this on a Kindle, the photos and illustrations are plentiful, bright, and well-done. I should note that given the topic of a deadly disease of bats, there are illustrations that may be considered ‘gross’ or ‘uncomfortable’. I appreciate the honesty that the text and photos show in just how awfully devastating disease can be for any organism and the price that must be paid to try and determine its cause and treat it. I also really appreciated the realistic images of scientists just simply doing their work in the lab, the latest equipment at hand.
This book is really a great opportunity to expose a child to the wonder of nature and the appeal of science. It makes complex, and perhaps even frightening realities accessible to children and may help inspire curiosity or dreams in a future scientific researcher.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, Edited by Isiah Lavender III

Black and Brown Planets:
The Politics of Race in Science Fiction
Edited by Isiah Lavender III
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
ISBN:1628461233
256 pages, hardcover
Published 1st October 2014
Source: NetGalley

CONTENTS:

Introduction:
“Coloring Science Fiction” by Isiah Lavender III

Part One – Black Planets:
“The Bannekerade: Genius, Madness and Magic in Black Science Fiction” by Lisa Yaszek
“The Best is Yet to Come; or, Saving the Future: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Reform Astrofuturism” by De Witt Douglas Kilgore
“Far Beyond the Star Pit: Samuel R. Delany” by Gerry Canavan
“Digging Deep: Ailments of Difference in Octavia Butler’s The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Isiah Lavender III
“The Laugh of Anansi: Why Science Fiction is Pertinent to Black Children’s Literature Pedagogy” by Marleen S. Barr

Part Two – Brown Planets:
“Haint Stories Rooted in Conjure Science: Indigenous Scientific Literacies in Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire” by Grace L. Dillon
“Questing for an Indigenous Future: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as Indigenous Science Fiction” by Patrick B. Sharp
“Monteiro Lobato’s O presidente negro: Eugenics and the Corporate State in Brazil” by m. elizabeth Ginway
“Mestizaje and Heterotopia in Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech” by M. Rivera
“Virtual Reality at the Border of Migration, Race, and Labor” by Matthew Goodwin
“A Dis-(Orient)ation: Race, Technoscience, and The Windup Girl” by Malisa Kurtz
“Yellow, Black, Metal, and Tentacled: The Race Question in American Science Fiction” by Edward James (updated with additional reflections ‘Twenty-Four Years On”)

Coda:
The Wild Unicorn Herd Check-In: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction Fandom” by Robin Anne Reid

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben

Wandering HOme: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 1627790209
176 pages, paperback
Published: 1st April 2014
(Originally Publ: 2005)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In this inspirational essay that blends nature appreciation, travel, and environmental activism, Bill McKibben structures his ruminations around a walking journey he undertook from his present-day home in Vermont as professor at Middlebury College to his former home across the lake in the New York Adirondacks.

Wandering is an apt word to describe the essay, for it is not primarily about details of the actual journey, nor is it particularly about the natural features of the two neighboring regions. While both of these topics are given voice, the walking trek and its environment are really just a narrative backdrop to symbolically contain McKibben’s wandering thoughts and anecdotes. These anecdotes primarily take the form of recounted encounters with other people along McKibben’s route who embody a sort of spirit or cause that he meditates upon, as in the style of a sermon.

Personally I would have enjoyed this more if there had been greater structure to it, if there had been fuller details on the journey and the environment, or a deeper probing of the ecological, social, and political themes that the anecdotes touch upon. However, I acknowledge that isn’t what this work is meant to be, and the brief read that this essay provides is certainly inspirational. Thus, for those who do appreciate this kind of book and have a striking love of nature or environmental activism, you will enjoy it.

While I found Wandering Home to be too cursory overall, I certainly did also find moments of intense beauty and inspiration within it. McKibben’s writing is impassioned and poetic. The passages where he is detailing the environmental qualities of each region are evocative and rich. The meditative quality of the text and its wandering nature probably make this the type of book that isn’t best read in one sitting as I did, or even in the same span of general time. This is more like a resource that could be dipped into during precious reflective times, or a during a moment’s anticipation of going on a similar hike or journey.

If nothing else, Wandering Home serves as a fine, gentle reminder that other types of existence – closer to nature – are possible than the one we may be accustomed with, and perhaps we could each find ways to seek and embrace some aspect of these alternatives.

Three Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program, in exchange for an honest review.

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization, by Jacques Ellul

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization,
by Jaques Ellul
Translated by Willem H. Vanderburg
Publisher: U. of Toronto Press
ISBN: 1442626267
273 pages, paperback
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

This fascinating volume was not what I initially expected based on the provided summary and the title. It is not a well-developed treatise on the theme of Christianity in an age of economic globalization. At all. Rather than a cohesive whole, it is rather a transcription of separate studies on the books of Amos and James, commentaries with follow-up remarks to questions from Ellul’s audience. Though the theme of rich/poor comes up as one aspect in each study, that particular issue is not necessarily predominant. Additionally, in those sections that do address this theme, Ellul repeatedly points out that richness/poorness should not be understood merely in economic terms. Hence my disappointment with this volume solely consists of how it is being sold. If you are looking for a structured and complete exploration on the subtitle topic, I wouldn’t recommend this.

However, ignoring this subtitle and the emphasis of the blurb, this book is well worth reading, for Ellul’s writing is clear and well-reasoned, and his insights into both Amos and James are substantial, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Rather than an overall focus on economic disparities, what rather unites these texts more strongly and thoroughly is the simple message that God loves, and then consideration of what follows from this in God’s means of connecting with humanity and the rest of Creation.

In this way I found “On Being Rich and Poor” to be in some fashion an Apologetic, something that like Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” sets out to answer some of the common critiques of Christianity by defining what exactly the faith is. Here, Ellul delves into the texts of Amos and of James to clarify his interpretation of the texts and the unity of their messages across the span of the Old to New Testaments and its relation to both Christians and Jews. In contrast to defining Christianity, Ellul instead spends a lot of the text detailing what he thinks these books tell us about what/who God is, and how this is sometimes quite different from popular understandings. In another sense these two commentaries strive to point out the various ways Scripture has been abused through literal readings and ignorance of both historical context and nuances of the original languages.

Although not as ‘sold’, this is a tremendously good and approachable read, and would be ideal as the basis for group or individual Bible studies on Amos and/or on James. In addition, anyone with an interest in theology and interpretations of the Bible could gain valuable insight from Ellul’s thoughts, and it serves as a potentially useful tool for clarifying common misperceptions on the nature and ‘personality’ of God as portrayed by the Biblical authors.

Four Stars out of Five

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives—and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem

Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives – and Our Lives Change Our Genes, by Sharon Moalem
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 1455549444
272 pages, hardcover
Published April 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This popular science book is a broad overview of genetic and epigenetic inheritance, basically exactly what the subtitle says. The introduction oversells the epigenetic focus (how life experience or environment can lead the changes in DNA that are not strictly sequence-based) because the majority of the book does stay within the realms of traditional sequence-based inherited genetic variation. Moreover, given Moalem’s specialty, the focus is not so much on inheritance itself, nor even the specific mechanisms of inheritance.

Instead this book really comes down to these ideas: 1) There are a lot of genetic disorders. 2) Individually these disorders are often rare. 3) It is fairly likely that any given individual though will have some kind of disorder. In other words, everyone is unique; most of us have unique rare disorders of some severity or another. The truth of this may surprise some, as may the implications: namely that any health advisories are tailored for the ‘average population’. But no one is average. So not everyone can take the same amounts of medication. Eating high amounts of fat may be great for some people. Eating any fruits may be really bad for someone else. Running is good exercise for your spouse, it might give you a heart-attack, etc.

“Inheritance” thereby sweeps across a wide realm of human genetic variation, threading topics together under common themes. Moalem avoids getting bogged down into a lot of detail, making this book of greatest interest to the general public with medical interests, or those in particular who find medical anomalies interesting. For those that are really ignorant just how much variation there is to life, and how easily life can go wrong, this book is an excellent primer, and even for those with a background in medicine or biology, many of the specific rare disorders in the book that Moalem discusses may be new to them.

Personally I wish that given the title he had delved a little more in-depth, particularly into the mechanisms of inheritance, and variations across life. The book is squarely human- (or at least mammalian-) centric. Moalem’s style is very light-hearted, at times veering into stories whose connections to the actual topic at hand aren’t apparent, but for its intended audience, I find the style appropriate. Finally, I appreciated him bringing up discussion on how studies of genetic disorders allow us to have a firmer grasp of how ‘normal’ biology occurs.

An episode of the X-Files I adore, “Humbug” addresses several of the issues covered in “Inheritance”, including the speculative ones regarding the increasing genetic technologies available to our society. At what point will we be able to eradicate all genetic disorders? What understanding will we lose in the process? How do we decide what is a serious enough disorder? Though briefly touched upon, the book could have spent more space covering the implications of our increasing knowledge and technological powers.

Four Stars out of Five

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money

The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes, by Nicholas P. Money
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ASIN: B00I7TR8L0
239 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The purpose behind Money’s “The Amoeba in the Room” resonates strongly with me as a microbiologist. It should resonate with anyone who is a biologist or is interested by the varied types of life on Earth. The TV documentaries “Life” and “Planet Earth” infuriated me with their focus on animals and plants alone. The vast majority of life on Earth is ‘other’ and microbial. “The Amoeba in the Room” sets out to make this clear and detail what exactly that microbial world looks like.

I personally was interested in reading this because I was expecting a focus on the protists, eukaryotic microbes that I’m not nearly adequately familiar with. The first chapter nicely gives a tour of this eukaryotic microbe world, including the amoeba, but much of the remainder of the book covers the prokaryotes: bacteria and archaea. This isn’t a problem by any means, but for me personally, everything in the remainder of the book was well-known to me and probably will be to any microbiologist.

And that final point does get at the major concern I have with Money’s work, namely who is the audience supposed to be. Parts of the book are written with a fair amount of scientific detail (or at least jargon that goes undefined) that it would be hard reading for someone who is not trained in modern molecular biology at least. Yet the scope covers such a broad range of topics that the information given should be familiar to most scientists. I can see this working best for perhaps a well-trained biologist who happens to be in macrobiology fields. It is unfortunate that the language of the book and its style weren’t written to better serve as a general audience book for microbiology popularization. Instead, “The Amoeba in the Room” seems to exist partially in both worlds of general and technical, not being of prime use to either despite noble purpose and accurate, impassioned writing.

Three Stars out of Five