Thursday, March 24, 2016

Non-Fiction Book Quickies

I like to read non-fiction books and I noticed a dearth on my TBR (to be read) list. I went through the new releases list on Amazon and was able to get a handful of them from the library.

Here are four books I've finished in March:

    • Hair: A Human History by Kurt Stenn
    • Published February 15, 2016

    • Hair, hair, hair! An overview of the history of human hair and humans' use of animal hair. All the facts you need to impress people at cocktails parties with your erudite knowledge!
    • Grab a cocktail! 
    • I now know how to make felt WITH MY OWN HAIR. I will NEVER actually do this but I COULD and that's really what matters here.
    • People used to make memorial jewelry and art out of hair but that died out as photography came in. You don't need locks of hair to remember someone when you have a photograph of them.
    • Since hair absorbs oil, blankets made of hair are used to sop up oil spills.
    • Wool is a renewable source of hair with which to make thread, fabric (including felt) and clothes. Beaver pelts were all the rage in hats for the last several hundred years. Beaver hats fell out of favor in the 1800s and beavers are grateful, having been mostly wiped out in Europe before the New World beavers were decimated by fur trappers.
    • The author is a scientist whose specialty is hair. You will learn about the growth cycle of hair follicles and so many other things of a science-y nature.
    • The science was fine but I most enjoyed about the book was stories about the many ways hair is utilized by humans: paint brushes and wigs are the most obvious items.
    • The book has 224 pages and the notes take up about 54 pages of that. All the listings say it should have 368 pages. The book seems complete so either there was a data-entry mistake or a bunch of arcane hair knowledge was cut from the book.
      • I noticed this because I keep track of my reading on Good Reads and even though I was almost done with the book it said I was only 1/3 finished. Just a weird quirk.
    • I have never been invited to a cocktail party. Do people still have them? Or is this a relic of the past?

    • The Shakespeare Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to the Man and His Works by A.D. Cousins
    • Published: September 2009

    • Umm, the topic is Shakespeare?
    • The plays and the poems are discussed in a glossy coffee table-style book (though my copy is a large paperback) with lots of photos and illustrations.
    • For each play there's a plot synopsis, a cast list and a discussion of the work. The author also talks about noted performances of the play on stage and film. 
    • There are plenty of photographs of noted performers in various roles and plenty of illustrations of the pre-photography era people.
    • The names that pop up often as producers and performers of Shakespeare include Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Orson Welles, Kenneth Brannagh and Judi Dench.
    • Actors performed in blackface for the title role in "Othello" because of the whole black man/white woman thing that used to be verboten. Now it would be almost unthinkable for that to happen.
    • This is an interesting book to read if you just want to learn about Shakespeare's plays without having to read them! I have only read or seen 13 out of 36. That seems a sad amount!
    • I own a copy of the book and it has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I think I will keep it as a good general reference to the plays. I also have an amazing book called Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare which explains every reference in the plays. These two books should keep me educated about Shakespeare quite well.

    • Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War by Pamela D. Toler
    • Published February 16, 2016
    • Other works by the author: The War of 1812, The Everything Guide to Understanding Socialism, Mankind: The Story of All of Us, and Matt Damon. I'm guessing Matt Damon pays for her time on all the other books! (Or else it is attributed to her incorrectly?)

    • I'm not sure which came first: this book or the PBS miniseries that ran last month, also called "Mercy Street". Probably the book.
    • At the time of the Civil War nursing was NOT a profession. Some nuns whose orders ran hospitals did nursing as part of their work but there was nothing like the nurse we know today. 
    • When the war broke out even the doctors were overwhelmed with the diseases and damage to limbs and bodies. In those days doctors didn't even need to go to medical school. The germ theory of disease was as yet unknown or unaccepted. Pain relief was limited to the very addictive opioids (laudanum, heroin and the like).
    • Nursing was done at home, almost exclusively by women, for sick family members. Women were considered too delicate: too weak to move patients as needed or too womanly to view male anatomy. 
    • When the war started and the men eagerly signed up for war the women wished to help too. The army wanted nothing to do with them, having convalescent soldiers or contraband slaves perform the nursing. But because women generally did the family nursing the men were not very helpful. Women were also used to cleaning, making beds, cooking and so forth because those tasks were in their sphere at that time.
    • Using letters, diaries and other sources the author introduces us to several women who became nurses in spite of the difficulties. And names like Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale appear too.
    • Nurses learned how to dress wounds and wash naked bodies. They realized that different patients needed different diets depending on their situation (doctors fighting them all the way).
    • The PBS series, which I really enjoyed, is completely fiction even though a few of the character names, situations and locations are based on reality from this book.
    • After the war nursing was recognized as a real profession and was dominated by women for many decades. My grandmother went to nursing school and became a registered nurse about 1930. She benefited by the change in the medical profession that made her work possible.

    • Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden
    • Published December 1, 2015
    • The author's first book.

    • This was a fun read. If you enjoy this type of history book, here are some other titles:
      • Hair (see entry at top)
      • Salt or Cod (both by Mark Kurlansky)
      • A History of the World in 6 Glasses or An Edible History of Humanity (Tom Standage)
      • 97 Orchard Street (Linda Granfield)
      • The Disappearing Spoon, The Dueling Neurosurgeons, The Violinist's Thumb (all by Sam Kean)
      • Gulp or Stiff (Mary Roach)
      • At Home (Bill Bryson)
      • The Emperor of Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee)
    • These are known as a "micro-histories": a study of human history through a smaller lens. For example, 97 Orchard Street was a history of the several immigrant tenants who lived in a New York City tenement over the course of several decades. Each group of tenants had their own foodstuffs and ways of cooking. You learn a lot about their cultures and the impact of those cultures on the American palate in the book.
    • This book was about how various gemstones and pieces of jewelry changed and affected history.
    • Topics include pearls (cultured pearls are real and considered more perfect than natural pearls), emeralds (green means money and "go"), diamonds, wristwatches (World War I made this timepiece essential war gear), Faberge' eggs (bye-bye Romanovs), and the necklace that helped bring down Marie Antoinette (they made a movie called "The Affair of the Necklace" about it starring Hilary Swank).
    • Diamonds are so numerous that they are really "worth" very little but the marketing combined with the decades-long monopoly by the DeBeers company controlling the supply have created a world where people think they ARE valuable.
      • I know this personally from when I had some jewelry appraised during the height of the most recent gold price rise. The gold was worth something (gold is a more finite resource than diamonds) but they said the diamonds weren't worth anything! (I didn't sell anything though.)
      • Diamonds are NOT forever (you can pulverize one with a hammer) and they DO NOT hold their value. You'd be better off buying cubic zirconia.
    • It took forever to get through the Faberge' eggs chapter because I kept stopping to look them up online to see what they looked like: stunningly beautiful works of art.
    • Bottom line: a really good micro-history. I will definitely be on the lookout for any other book by this author.