If only all science books were as entertaining as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson explains the major scientific theories known to man with masterful storytelling skills. Weaving in richly researched details on the lives and characteristics of the foremost historical scientific figures, Bryson discourses on everything from the big bang theory and quantum physics, to paleontology and plate tectonics. As he put it, the book is about “…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” Not just detailing what we know, Bryson describes how we learned what we now know.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Chef Anthony Bourdain tops many a recommended reading list on my favorite food weblogs. So when I noticed it on the book list at Audible.com, narrated by the author himself, I snatched it up. It does not disappoint. Kitchen Confidential is a rollicking, crude, hysterical, and sobering account of life behind those kitchen doors at the best restaurants in New York City. Bourdain pulls no punches in his storytelling, honestly copping to his early career addictions with drugs and alcohol. Of note is his revelation of why he is not the best chef – that early on he went for the money instead of apprenticing himself at lower pay to the real masters. This book has tips on cooking like a chef – what knives to buy, kitchen equipment really needed, insights on why more restaurants fail than succeed, and presents Bordain’s code of values and behavior that will help you succeed should you choose the professional culinary life.
The concept of time traveling has been explored in many classic tales, but usually the time traveler goes back in time hundreds of years ago where there’s no chance of running into someone she knows. What if you went back in time and actually interacted with your younger self, or forward with your older self? In Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the protagonist Henry De Tamble has a genetic disorder – “Chrono Displacement” – in which he unwittingly leaves the present moment and is transported backwards and forwards in time. As a middle aged man he travels back in time and meets is future wife when she is only 6 years old. He visits her frequently as she grows up, though when she finally meets him in the present time, he doesn’t know who she is, because in the present, he is just meeting her for the first time. Time traveling is not as romantic a notion as one might think. It is dangerous for Henry as he is always transported naked, and therefore arrives naked, and often in freezing weather and around unsavory characters. Henry must learn to pick-pocket and steal, just to survive.
Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn, is the first of three books in the Tales of the Otori trilogy, a fantasy epic placed in feudal Japan. Young Tomasu is rescued from a massacre of his village by Lord Otori Shigeru who gives him the name “Takeo” and adopts him into the Otori family. Takeo’s village is destroyed by the evil warlord Iida because the villagers are members of a secret, peaceful Christian-like sect. Otori Shigeru, Iida’s sworn enemy, discovers powerful ninja-like talents in young Takeo and together they plan to take revenge on Iida. Meanwhile, beautiful Shirakawa Kaede is held hostage by another warlord, an ally of Iida’s. Betrothed to Otori Shigeru as a pretense for Iida to lure Shigeru into his castle, Kaede and Takeo meet and fall in love.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is an epic story, the family history of Calliope Stephanides, a young girl who discovers at age fourteen that she is actually a boy, a hermaphrodite. Tracing the recessive gene that gives Cal his ingrown gonads, the story starts with Cal’s Greek grandparents in Turkey, and courses through time to the present – their escape from the Turkish massacre in Smyrna in the early, their new life in Detroit, their son Milton and cousin’s daughter Tessie, and on to Calliope’s eventual discovery of himself.
From a purely historical perspective, Middlesex makes an interesting read. Eugenides colorfully paints the long gone or far away eras of Greek village life 80 years ago, the crossing of the Atlantic to Ellis Island, the struggles of young immigrants in a new land, working on the assembly line at the Ford factory, bootlegging operations over the Canadian border, the Detroit riots of the 60s, and the hippies of the early 70s.
Seven or eight years ago I had the privilege of hosting Douglas Adams at my home in San Francisco for a brainstorming meeting on a game project (which eventually became Starship Titanic). I had heard of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, aka H2G2, but hadn’t read it. What I had heard was that it was very funny – Monty Pythonesque humor applied to sci fi. Wanting to get a rise out of Douglas, I made him some tea and served it in a ceramic mug from Japan with a little ceramic frog hiding in the bottom of the cup. Douglas sipped his tea coolly, and when the frog emerged from the depths of the tea Douglas gave a little startled grunt, caught my eye and laughed, and continued to drink his tea. As I expected, unflappable.
Now years later, and three years after Douglas’ untimely passing, I am finally enjoying what brought Douglas his initial fame. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first book in a five book trilogy in which our unsuspecting hero Arthur Dent narrowly escapes the Earth seconds before it is demolished to make way for an interstellar highway. Arthur escapes with his colleague Ford Prefect, who reveals to Arthur that he is actually from another planet and was working on a guidebook to the galaxy before getting stranded on Earth. Catching a lift with the cooking crew of the Vogon ship that destroyed Earth, Arthur and Ford are subjected to the torture of Vogon poetry before being ejected into space, only to be picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the galaxy’s BMOC, with his Heart of Gold improbability spaceship.