Tomes 2011: Very Late and Not Quite Grand Finale

Not much reading happened in the latter part of 2011, alas. Too many other things intruding on my reading time. But I managed a few books, some of which were quite excellent and put a decent enough finish on the year. At the risk of making your already-overburdened bookshelves upset, I shall tell you about them.

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Tomes 2011: Very Late and Not Quite Grand Finale

Tomes 2011: All Science All the Time Edition

Oh, dear. I think I just heard the sound of bookshelves screaming in anticipation. Poor overloaded darlings. They’ll just have to toughen up and take it, or rely on e-readers to lighten their load. We’ve got some excellent books on tap this edition.


The Stuff of Thought

There are two things Steven Pinker always combines that I adore: the science of the mind, and language. This book delivers both in copious amounts. A few myths are dispelled, quite a few more insights given, and there’s an entire chapter on metaphor that should have any self-respecting writer screaming for joy.

The chapter on names shall greatly interest those following the Nymwars Saga.

And it’s all delivered in the gorgeous, clear, playful prose Steven’s known for. There’s absolutely nothing not to love in this book that I could find.

It’s meant to be third in a trilogy: the first two were The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. But if you haven’t read the other two, no worries. This one stands comfortably alone. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read all three, especially The Language Instinct, which is fantastic.


Crater Lake: Gem of the Cascades

This is a reasonably comprehensive and utterly enthralling book on Crater Lake. I’ve read a lot about Mount Mazama and the eruption that created Crater Lake, but this book contained a lot of things those other sources didn’t. It covers everything from its discovery to its future. The color illustrations are delicious, the geologic information clearly presented and easy to understand without being melodramatic or simplified beyond toleration, and the little info boxes and explanatory diagrams add to rather than distract from the whole. I dipped into it during our Oregon trip, meaning to skim a bit. I finished it before we’d left for home. It’s that easy to read, but I didn’t finish it feeling like I’d been spoon-fed: my brain felt pleasantly full of completely intriguing information. And it certainly made visiting Crater Lake more interesting.

I really can’t recommend this one highly enough. And, bonus, the 3rd edition is practically up-to-the-minute.

Source is moi.

Where Terranes Collide

Okay, so I had to snap a photo of it to get a cover image, and it’s rather hard to find, but if you have any interest whatsoever in the North American Cordillera, then the effort to acquire this book shall be rewarded. It was written by C.J. Yorath, who worked for the Geological Survey of Canada for a great many years. The man knows his stuff. He knows it so damned well that even if you are a grammar guru, you will be able to forgive the occasional typos.

There were a lot of ups and downs in this book – up one set of mountains and down another, from the Rockies to the coast. He takes you on a field trip through the chaos of a subduction zone, and it’s one hell of a ride. Then, he introduces you to the people behind the data. I love the paeans to the geologists he’s known and worked with. And I love the inside look at the way geology happens – arguments over data, banging on rocks, the rough stuff that the public doesn’t get to see before beautifully polished results are printed. This felt like being an insider. And now I’m going to have to go hunt down his other books…



I dearly love Oliver Sacks. I dearly love music. I dearly loved Oliver Sacks talking about music. This book is a total treat. If you’ve ever read any of Oliver’s work before, you know his prose is like really good chocolate and that the subjects he explores are fascinating. This exploration of music and the brain caused me some difficulties, because I had things I was supposed to do and didn’t do them. Went to lie abed and read.

There are so many incredible stories in here: of how music affects people who are so damaged it seems nothing can reach them, of how music affects us, the weird things and the wonderful things music can do. I have to admit that it scared the crap out of me at times: when you’re reading Oliver Sacks, you realize just how many things can go drastically wrong with a human brain. But it also delighted me right down to my toes. If you have any love of neuroscience, music, or stories about human beings doing remarkable things, you’ll delight in this book, too.


Road Guide to Mount St. Helens

I’m not actually going to say much of anything about this book. It’s not because it’s bad – far from it. It’s a wonderful, handy little guide suitable for slipping into a pocket or purse as you explore Mount St. Helens. Pick up a copy at the visitor’s center at Silver Lake on your way up.

But I won’t tell you all about it, because you can go read it for yourself, right now. Just click the link above. The authors were kind enough to put in online, for free.

So go on, then. Go have a read. Just this once, your wallet and your bookshelves will both be sighing with relief, and you’ll still get to enjoy a good book.

Tomes 2011: All Science All the Time Edition

Tomes 2011: The Mostly Atheist Philosophy Edition

I’ve been indulging in a little philosophical bedtime reading lately, meaning I’m re-reading virtually every book on atheism I own, so this edition shall be a bit light on the science and heavy on the atheist tomes. But we’ll begin with a children’s book, because Neil Gaiman writes the kind of kid’s books adults can love.


Odd and the Frost Giants

Yes, I am a sucker for Norse mythology. Yes, I am a sucker for Neil Gaiman. And yes, that’s why this was one of my purchases at his talk. Sure, it’s a kid’s book. But it’s Neil Fucking Gaiman, and that means even adults can enjoy guilt-free.

In this book, Odd has to help Odin, Loki and Thor take back Asgard from the frost giants. You’ve got this little crippled kid with an infuriating smile using his wits to change his life and help the helpless gods. Hijinks ensue. Arguments are argued. Giants are fought without fighting. Words are smithed. It’s about the perfect book to read on the porch on a sunny afternoon.

The only thing I ask now is that the sequel be a Doctor Who crossover, because I really want to read a book called Odd and the Ood.



I spotted this on a display table in Barnes and Noble one day, and decided I must read it. Dan Barker, you see, used to be an evangelical preacher. We have quite a lot of deconversion stories, but he’s one of the few Bible-breathing fire-and-brimstone Christians who’s made the journey from preacher man to pure-A atheism, and written a book that covers the whole trip.

It wasn’t an easy journey: he had deep ties, both personal and financial, to the religious community. He shows how he navigated some pretty treacherous waters and came out whole. He gives us deep insight into the mind of someone who truly believes, heart and soul, every word of the Bible. And he shows us how wonderful life is on the other side of faith. I don’t think this book gets the attention it deserves. It’s not just an argument against religion, it’s not just a celebration of reason, but an enthusiastic embrace of the godless life. He shows that the journey’s not only possible, but deeply rewarding. Excitement and enthusiasm leap from every page. And there are moments of hilarity: I think my favorite was when he found out one of his old associates had asked, in all earnestness, upon finding out this evangelical preacher had turned into a certified atheist, “But isn’t Dan afraid of hell?” Um, no. Rather difficult to be afraid of something you’ve completely ceased to believe in.

One of the things I like the most about Dan is that he shows people can become atheists for purely intellectual reasons. They’re not upset at the church, they haven’t been through some trauma, they just started seeing evidence stack up against the existence of god and accepted it. He shows that one can be completely happy and fulfilled without belief in the supernatural. This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to see inside both mindsets, and who wants something that celebrates atheism as much as it disproves religious myths.



I have only one thing against this book, so I shall get that out of the way first: by the umpteenth time the author said, “But that’s beyond the scope of this book,” I wanted to whack him upside the head with the book. Thankfully, it is a small paperback and wouldn’t have done much damage. Note to authors: it’s perfectly okay to skim over stuff without saying “beyond the scope” every bloody time. It’s a short book. If we’re expecting every single topic touched on to be covered in exhaustive detail, we’re the ones with the problem, not the book.

That said, this is a delightful introduction to the fact that we are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff. It ties astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology together beautifully. You come away from it with a little bit of a strut, and quite a lot of awe. We are made of awesome stuff, people. This universe is an amazing place. And this is about the perfect book to give to someone who doesn’t realize how tied to the stars we all are, or who thinks astrology whenever our connection to the stars is mentioned. It’s so much more interesting than pseudoscience. The real stuff is much more dramatic. Nice to have an easy-to-read book that gets that across.

The End of Faith

This is the book that started it all, or at least that’s what I’ve seen claimed. It was one of the first of the “New Atheist” books. Thing is, it’s only that when you consider a narrow window of time. We’ll get to that later. But Sam Harris gets quite a lot of credit: during a time when people were tip-toeing around faith for the most part and it was hard to find anything non-bland that talked about atheism, he laced up the old hobnailed boots and trampled all over cherished beliefs. And it sold a huge number of copies, putting the lie to any idea folks had that there wasn’t a market for this kind of thing. He fully deserves his position as one of the Four Horsemen.

Now, I don’t always agree with him completely. There are times in this book when I shake my head and think he’s gone a bit hysterical. (That’s usually just before some fanatical religious fuckwit comes along and makes me wonder for a bit if Sam was perhaps not hysterical enough.) It’s not an easy read, and not quite a pleasant one, but it’s guaranteed to shake you out of complacency and get ye old synapses firing. It’s got a huge amount of useful stuff in. It’s got some bits that will make you turn a chary eye on your own brain, which it deserves, because the bloody thing doesn’t always work properly. And it’s pretty much a classic in modern atheist literature. So if you’re interested in atheism, this is an essential read. Even if you’re not, you should probably read it anyway. There are points within that must be addressed in any dialogue between religion and atheism.


Letter to a Christian Nation

I read this as a chaser to The End of Faith. It’s an answer to many of the things Christians came at Sam with, and it’s rather brutal – not because he’s mean, but because he’s honest. In this case, truth and honesty aren’t sweet and gentle.

Anyone religious who wants to argue with Sam must read this book, because chances are he’s already demolished you, and you might as well not bother.

Anyone not religious who wants a shot in the arm should read this book, because it’s full of the things we so often want to say and can’t always articulate. It’s a balm for those trapped in a nation full of religious people who have the delusion that a nation founded on secular principles is supposed somehow to be Christian. A lot of myths are busted. And it simplifies matters for you: instead of having to argue endlessly yourself, you can just hand a copy to people who insist on this Christian nation crap, and go do something more interesting with your life. Hey, they want us to read their books, it’s only fair they read ours, right?


Breaking the Spell

Dan Dennett is a professional philosopher. That means he can completely deconstruct someone’s worldview without saying one obviously not-nice thing. You may be a bit surprised that he’s one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism after reading it, because it comes across as awfully mild for an apocalyptic tract. It’s just that when he’s done, the spell really is broken, and that’s hard on the folks who had a lot invested in the spell.

This is an excellent book for those more philosophically minded, who shy away from the more blunt styles of the other Horsemen, but who aren’t afraid to see religion put to some pretty tough scrutiny. This is another of those classics of modern atheist literature that anyone who wants to be well-read on the subject should pick up. And it’s a very necessary book.


The Elegant Universe

This is one of the few books that’s ever made me feel good about math. Not that it’s full of equations, but Brian Greene talks a lot about how these weird things mathematicians came up with, things that seemed purely abstract and intellectual, ended up being very useful for physicists. That’s the main thing this book gave me: a new appreciation for people who sit around playing with numbers just because they think they’re beautiful.

I’m still not all that sure about string theory, and I surely don’t understand it well, but this is a great book for those who want to know more about it. Brian shows us how well it could reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics if it pans out. It also helped me understand those well-established branches of physics much better. This is cutting-edge stuff. We’ve a long way to go before it’s as fundamental as the older two physics theories, and it may not be what we’re looking for, but at the very least, it’s fascinating. And if you, like me, have a hard time understanding dimensions outside of the usual four, then you need Brian Greene: he illustrates tough-to-visualize concepts in a way that allows you to grasp them without having to learn all sorts of complicated mathematics. That’s always a plus.

Tomes 2011: The Mostly Atheist Philosophy Edition

Tomes 2011: Really, Honestly, I Haven't Forgotten Tomes!

It’s just that I’ve been arse-kickingly busy and other things keep getting in the way.  I’ve also been reading a lot less than I should.  Someone needs to see about adding a few extra hours to the day without employers catching on and demanding we spend them there rather than in a nice, comfy spot curled up with a tome or two (or, in my case, more).

In spite of all that, I have a handful of delights for you.  Without further delay, then.

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The Verde Valley: A Geological History

Wayne Ranney, who is one of the best writers on Arizona geology you’ll ever encounter, wrote this very short, sweet, to-the-point and richly illustrated guide to the geology of the Verde Valley, which is not all Sedona all the time.  The Verde includes some truly amazing rocks.  You’ll find everything from Precambrian formations near Jerome to the truly remarkable Cenozoic Verde Formation – limestone from a lake! – near Camp Verde, along with some lovely recent volcanic stuff and intriguing gravels.  I know, most people wouldn’t find gravel intriguing, but Wayne turns it into something of a detective story.

This is definitely one of those books you should pack around with you when you go visit the area.  Read it beforehand so you can plan your itinerary accordingly – there is so much geological goodness that it takes careful planning not to miss something essential.  And don’t let the red rocks of Sedona steal all your time.  Some of the greatest places Arizona have to offer are in that wild, wonderful valley.

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Canyon Country

Yes, another book by Wayne Ranney.  Didn’t I mention he’s one of the best sources for Arizona geology?  I meant it.

This one goes beyond Arizona, though.  Canyon Country includes most of the Colorado Plateau.  And here, within these pages, you’ll be taken on a jaw-dropping, eye-popping tour of some of the most rugged places on earth, canyons carved deep into ancient, colorful formations, unobstructed by all that pesky biology.  Wayne shows you Salt River Canyon, Fossil Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Antelope Canyon, Grand Gulch, Bryce Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Tsegi Canyon, and, of course, the Grand Canyon, in loving yet succinct detail.  It ain’t just biology that has endless forms most beautiful: so does the geology of these canyons.

This is another slim book suitable for packing about with you in your peregrinations.  And I can advise you from experience that having it on your desk excites interest: our department manager came by, flipped through it, lost his breath, and looked at me like I was nuts for living here when I told him I used to live near there.  He might be right, actually.

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Defining the Colorado Plateau: A Geologic Perspective

This.  Oh gods, oh, this.  Wayne Ranney wrote the bulk of it, and at the end we have contributions from Richard Holm, Ivo Lucchitta, G. Kent Colbath, and Ron Blakey, and all of them together created something of beauty and power.  The Colorado Plateau is one of the most remarkable areas in all the world, and I don’t just say that because I’m from there and rather partial.  Read this book to find out what makes it so very, very incredible.

It can be a confusing place to people trying to understand it.  Wayne minimizes the confusion, explains everything that’s currently known clearly, simply, and with economical beauty.  The illustrations ensure you get a proper sense of the place.  Well, when you’re not drooling all over them, that is.

Slip it in to your pack alongside The Verde Valley and Canyon Country, and you’re set.  All three are easily available directly from Wayne, and he might even be kind enough to autograph them for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to slink off and be desperately homesick for a while…

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The Colorado Plateau: A Geologic History

Why yes, I am a glutton for punishment, whyever do you ask?  Is it because I’ve made myself homesick and yet still read another book on the geology of my old home country?

If Wayne’s whetted your appetite and you want to read more on the Plateau, this is a very good book for that purpose.  It covers the whole of the area in admirable detail.  Donald Baars has a very clear writing style that’s comprehensible even to an amateur such as myself.  The features, formations, and all of the intriguing yummy bits are explored, and you can even vicariously head down the Grand Canyon in a rubber boat.  That, I have to say, was one of my favorite chapters and very nearly had me booking a raft trip.

After Wayne’s three-course meal, I could’ve done with some more color photos.  Alas, this is all grayscale.  But it’s still got quite enough to give you a sense of what things look like, and there are diagrams to help you puzzle everything out, and all-in-all, it’s worth your time and money.

But I have to stop with the Arizona geology just now, because I’m in terrible danger of moving back, and while the geology is outstanding, the politics of the area aren’t so much.  Not to mention, most of the jobs are in Phoenix, which is, shall we say, not quite so much fun…

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The Joy of Chemistry

Want fun, need fun, need joy.  I have a book with joy in the title.  And hey, I could use some chemistry in my life.  So I turn to this one.


I mean, seriously, wow.  You have to understand, the last time chemistry and I had more than a brief flirtation was back in high school.  I’m so not-versed in chemistry it’s pathetic.  This book took me from abject ignorance to near-competence in just a few hours.  And it’s a hell of a fun read.  The authors intended to get across the joy of chemistry, and they did.

It’s even got experiments.

Since reading this book, I’ve found it leaping back up into my consciousness in just about everything else I’ve read, from blog posts to – well, mostly blog posts, because I haven’t read many more books.  But I’m in the middle of one that would have defeated me completely if I hadn’t read this first.  There’s so much more I understand because it was covered in the Joy.  If you need an introduction to chemistry, or a simple reminder of why chemistry is a lovable science, this is your book.  Go and buy it forthwith.

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The God Delusion

This is a re-read, actually, as I read this a few years ago but got the sudden hankering to read it again.

A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over this book, so I shall just say this about it: it’s a damned good book.  You may despise it if you’re religious – it does not leave religion standing.  Religion is the emperor without clothes, and Dawkins is one of those people along the parade route going, “Well, that guy’s nekkid.”  Not that he puts it like that.  Dawkins is a gorgeous writer, just simply wonderful.  Every sentence is elegant, even the very simplest ones, even the most uncompromising ones.

I wish all of my religious friends would read this book.  It’s not so strident as some terrified theologians would have you believe.  It’s just that it’s true, and religion and truth don’t mix.  So I can imagine it is a painful read for those who believe, but religion causes too much harm to leave it to blind faith.  If you read this, and understand there’s a compelling argument for the fact that religion hasn’t got any clothes, and that it’s dangerous in very many ways, and has caused a great deal of harm, and does society no favors, and is something humanity can do without, yet you still choose to believe, that’s your choice.  But at least you’ll know where I’m coming from, because reading this book the first and second time showed me that I wasn’t at all alone in thinking the way I do.

Also, a lot of myths about atheists are debunked.  That’s a necessary thing: people, in this country especially, have got very little idea what atheists are really like, and how they can get along without a god.  The God Delusion goes a long way toward explaining that.

For me, and for quite a few atheists, I think, this book is a sheer pleasure to read.  Richard Dawkins is a fabulous writer, and it’s one of those you can settle in with and savor the language as much as the ideas.  Wonderful.  I can’t wait to read it again.

Tomes 2011: Really, Honestly, I Haven't Forgotten Tomes!

Tomes 2011: About Bleedin' Time I Finished a Book" Edition

I know it doesn’t seem that way, but I’m still reading.  It just hasn’t been much.  There are these times when the Muse takes over, and I can’t concentrate on anything other than my own work, and maybe the show or movie or what have you that prompted the outburst of creativity.  I read a page or two of someone else’s work, and then I can’t read any more, because it makes me want to jump back on the computer and get on with things.

So it’s taken half of forever to finish some books, but finish them I have, and here they are.


Dreaming in Hindi

I don’t usually read travel books, or memoirs, or travel books that are memoirs.  But I’d decided I’d best read a few travel books on other countries, because my perspective gets locked down in America too often, and this one acted like the proverbial puppy in the window.  It jumped up and wagged its tail and gave me those big gooey eyes and said, “See? I’m a travel memoir, but I’m also about the science of language acquisition!”

Okay, so that’s not something you’d expect from a puppy.  But neither is this book what you’d expect from a travel memoir.

Reality warped when I read this book.  It made me think in completely different ways.  I started treating words differently.  It’s hard to explain, but you can’t walk away from this book and see language and human relationships in the same way again.  The science included is utterly fascinating.  There’s adventure, and intrigue, and a bit o’ danger, and confusion, and hilarity, and humanity. 

This is the book that inspired the idea for the geology book I’ll be working on this summer.  Whodathunkit?  A travel memoir inspiring a geology tome.  But it happened, and that’s not the only way this book affected me.  It made me think about issues that had only ever been abstract before.  It gave me a window on the reality of a different part of the world.  And the writing’s just delicious.

So, if you only ever read one travel memoir in your life, it should probably be this one.


The Science of Doctor Who

Yes, my obsession with Doctor Who really has gotten that bad.  But I love science, and I love books that explore the science behind shows, and so this seemed a good choice.

It was a fun read.  Mind you, the author has an inordinate fondness for Ray Kurzweil, and the science is at times questionable at best.  (I should have marked out the bits that didn’t mesh with what I’ve learned from other, more reliable, sources, actually, but too late now.)  And some of the science herein is no more than speculation.  But it’s still a hell of a good time, and a lot of the science in here is solid.  Doctor Who fans who also like science should be enjoyably entertained.  It’ll leave you hungry to learn more about fields you didn’t even know existed.

It’s obvious the author loves his Doctor Who.  That passion comes out on every page, even when he’s poking fun at the so-shoddy-it’s-not-even-science bits of the show.  That’s another thing I liked: that he wasn’t afraid to call the frankly impossible flat impossible, and present the science saying why.  The book’s salted with quotes and references and suchlike that will delight those in the know and intrigue those who aren’t.  That’s the power of good science fiction: to make us fall in love with science, real science, not just the made-up variety.  The dramatic license taken gives us a license for the real deal.  It’s about exploring the what-ifs, because that’s how we make discoveries.

And there’s nothing more valuable than that.


Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

I’ll have to read this one again when I’m older.

It’s an excellent book.  Dan Dennett’s one of the best thinkers around, and this is one of those books you see quoted extensively and in many places, for very good reasons.  But it’s not an easy read.

I have to admit something: when it comes to science, I’d rather be reading about actual science rather than the philosophy of science.  I’d rather see the results of real experiments than engage in thought experiments.  But it’s important to come to grips with evolution’s impact on philosophy.  Especially since so many people haven’t, and therefore still fear it, and misunderstand it. 

Not to mention the chapters dealing with Steven J. Gould helped me understand why the man could be so brilliant in some respects and such a bloody pain in the arse in others.  That, alone, was worth the reading.  And a second and third and probably fourth reading of this book will uncover a lot of facets I’ve missed this first time round.  It’s one of those books that repays revisits.  If you want to improve your philosophy chops, this is the crash course.


Living With Karst: A Fragile Foundation

This is a very handy little booklet from the American Geological Institute that far more people should read.  It’s got everything you need for understanding karst: what it is, how it forms, and why living on it can be so damned difficult.

I have to admit this book actually scared me in a few places, especially the bits where they talk about groundwater flow through karst aquifers, and how very easy it is for human beings to fuck everything up.  Too much pumping leads to things falling apart.  Screwing up the drainage leads to contamination and flooding.  And much, much more.  A fragile foundation indeed.

I read it because I wanted to understand karst landscapes better for the world I’m building.  I ended up wanting to be a karst crusader.  We have such a tendency to do horrible things to gorgeous landscapes because we’re short-sighted morons.  At least this book gives some very good ideas on how humans and karst can get on better in the future.

Everyone from government officials to landowners to folks who just appreciate beautiful places will find something useful in here.  It’s inexpensive and an easy read.  What more do you want, a free pony?


Unseen Academicals

I’ve learned, over a great many years, to trust Terry Pratchett without reservation.  So when I found out his latest Discworld novel would be all about sports, I didn’t groan.  I knew he’d do something awesome with it.

And he definitely did.

If you haven’t yet read a Discworld novel, let me put it this way: this is the only author who can make a flat circle of land on the backs of four elephants standing on a space turtle utterly plausible.  There’s quantum wizardry and issues of interspecies diversity.  And football* isn’t just football in this world, especially not when patronized by the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork.

And you’ll get to see Lord Vetinari drunk in this one.  Quit
e the sight, I assure you.

One thing about Terry Pratchett’s books is this: they are side-splittingly funny, and yet there’s depth and wisdom and so much that makes you stand back, squint a bit, and realize that yes, the world can and very probably should be seen that way.  You never did before, but you do now.  And life is better because of it.

Oh, and the Librarian.  Playing football.  An orangutan Librarian playing football.  You shouldn’t need any other reason to read this one.

*That’s soccer for all you Americans in the audience.


Sedona Through Time

Now I want to go back to Sedona.

I lived there for two years, spent all my life living near it and visiting it and getting my white socks dyed red by its rust-red soils.  I loved the scenery and didn’t know a damned thing about it.  When I went home in 2009, I took a trip through Oak Creek Canyon and could appreciate its geology a bit better, but damn it, I should have read this book first.

Wayne Ranney is one of Arizona’s best science writers.  He teaches geology and leads field trips and ensures that people who crack open one of his books or takes a course or a field trip with him can appreciate just how incredible Arizona’s geological history has been.  He’s done the field work and the hard thinking, and he’s friends with some of Arizona’s premier geologists, and he writes with clarity and enthusiasm about what they’ve learned, studying one of the most remarkable places in the world.

If you ever plan to visit Sedona, have this book in hand, because otherwise you’ll be where I am now: cursing voluminously over the bits that I missed by not having this book in hand.  If you never plan to visit Sedona, read this book and then book your trip, because you won’t put it down without wanting to go see for yourself.

And did I mention the lavish photographs of some of the most photogenic scenery anywhere?  Ron Blakey’s paleomaps making visual sense of it all?  Bronze Black’s diagrams making the complex seem almost simple?  Utterly wonderful.

You can buy direct from Wayne at his site.  And if you do, don’t forget to look at the title page.  Put a grin on my face from ear-to-ear, I can tell you that.

Thank you, Wayne!

Tomes 2011: About Bleedin' Time I Finished a Book" Edition

Tomes 2011: A Distinct Chinese Theme

My reading of late has taken a bit of a detour from geology.  I’ll no doubt swerve back that way soon, but when building a region modeled a bit on Southeast Asia, one needs to read up on Southeast Asia.  Not that that kept me from sneaking a bit o’ geology in there anyway….

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Tigers, Rice, Silk & Silt

When I first began writing, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested I’d need to read up on old Chinese farming practices, and moreover, would love doing it.  That was, of course, before I came across Robert Marks’s wonderful book.

Anyone who’s interested in how people fed themselves and their nations before the industrial age, how humans have shaped the environment, how climate factors in to things like population and war, and who’s ever had a desire to see history from the perspective of ordinary farming folk – this is your book.  Environmental change is tracked by, of all things, tiger attacks.  And you’ll find out that the Pearl River Delta is very far from being a completely natural feature.

Robert Marks knows his stuff.  And he’ll teach it to you in a style that, while academic and detailed, doesn’t bludgeon with facts and figures, but weaves a tale of people, tigers, weather, and civilization.  I found it one of the more fascinating things I’ve read for research purposes.  And it’s given me a new perspective on China’s history.  The past is far more than the doings of emperors.  This book brings that point nicely home.

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The Pattern of the Chinese Past

Well, of course, if I was reading Tigers, I needed to pick this one up again.  I read it many years ago, and it’s a very good, easily readable survey of Chinese history.  It doesn’t focus as much on environment as on social and economic factors.  A nice crash course, if you will, outside of the usual dismaying tendency for so many histories to focus on war, dynasties, more war, regime change, salacious bits, and yet more war.

It’s a good companion volume to Tigers, reinforcing some of the former’s points and expanding the view from the Lingnan region to the whole of China.  And it covers a fair number of revolutions: in farming, water transport, money and credit, urbanization, and science and technology.  It’s a good reminder that modern folk and ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t the only clever bastards on the planet.

These two books are a good way to get a feel for where China comes from.  It’s a nation with a very long, very civilized past, and if we want to understand it today (as well we should), it’s a damned good idea to see where it came from.  Besides, with the push for organic farming, it’s also a good idea to see how that worked in the past.  It wasn’t, contrary to popular crunchy belief, all sweetness and environmental harmony: understanding that can prevent us from mistaking organic for completely eco-friendly.

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The Man Who Loved China

Sounds like a spy novel, dunnit?  Well, there’s a spy or two in it, but the Man himself isn’t a spy.  He was a biologist, nudist, socialist, ladies’ man, and Morris dancer named Joseph Needham, and he’s very nearly single-handedly responsible for ensuring China got proper credit for all of those ancient scientific breakthroughs the West liked to filch and then take credit for.  You should really get to know him.

No better introduction than Simon Winchester’s book, which follows Needham’s adventures in China with all the flair and dash of the man himself.  This is one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads I’ve encountered in a long while.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me, in the immortal words of one of my former creative writing classmates.  I came away with new respect for China, for Needham (whom I’d never heard of before) and for Cambridge and England, who together decided it was quite all right for a man to go fall in love with China and spend the rest of his life writing Science and Civilisation in China, volumes upon volumes of it, even though the book rather stole Western thunder at a time when everyone was freaking out over commies everywhere, including the ones running China, and took a scientist and scholar seriously even though he was a pinko commie lib who liked to run around with no clothes on and with women who weren’t his wife.

And it’s one hell of an intellectual adventure.  So, if you want to know more about China but don’t want to spend pages and pages on farming, make this one your first choice.

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A Crack in the Edge of the World

I really had no intention of reading this one.  Ever.  Sick of the San Francisco Earthquake, thanks ever so much.  But pickings in the geology section were slim, this was on sale for five bucks, and it’s Simon Winchester, so I folded. 
I’m so very glad I did, even though it’s had a rather earth-shaking impact on my dreams.

What I love most about the book is that the earthquake only occupies a small part of it.  We’re treated to a boundary-to-boundary tour of the North American Plate, its history through geologic time, and, just to shake things up a little, a detour by the New Madrid earthquakes.  There’s a good look at the San Andreas Fault, and the remarkable monitoring going on in Parkfield.  Then there’s a heaping helping of California history, complete with sturm, drang, und Chinatown.  I don’t think any other book not specifically dedicated to it has ever given me a more intimate look at the Chinese immigrant experience in America, and it belongs here because Chinatown shattered and burned with all the rest in the great quake of 1906.

And the descriptions of the event itself do it geological justice.  There’s stuff in there that will give you a new appreciation for good, earthquake-resistant construction, not to mention the importance of building with an eye to being able to put fires out after the rocking and rolling’s done.  You get a visceral feel for what it’s like to be in the midst of an earth-shattering event.  And, when all’s said and done, you’ll take a trip up to Alaska, where you’ll discover the San Andreas has a presence still.

Layfolk like myself will appreciate the clear and concise Appendix that takes some of the confusion out of things like magnitude and intensity. 

Those worried about having nightmares of being trapped in falling buildings should probably relax.  This book fascinated my brain enough to make it dream about earthquakes for several nights, but instead of a lot of chaos and destruction, it was mostly dreams about earthquake monitoring, which were far more interesting.

Those of us who know and love Chris Rowan will probably think of him frequently while reading this book, because there’s a distinct feel of Friday Focal Mechanisms about some parts of it.

So, yes, it turns out I wasn’t completely and totally tired of the San Francisco Earthquake after all.  When it’s in the hands of a geologist and historian who knows how to step outside the main event and see it as one piece in a continent-spanning whole, it’s quite interesting indeed.

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Great Caves of the World

Here’s what you do if you want a book that will give you a short, sharp intro to cave geology combined with a whirlwind world tour of the world’s most spectacular caves, illustrated with photographs that will cause you to consider joining the local spelunking club forthwith: you go out and procure yourself a copy of this book.

It’s absolutely wonderful.

There’s your basic limestone caves, some richly decorated in calcite and some not; there’s caves formed by sulfuric acid, formed in salt, formed in lava, decorated by ice, and decorated by dangling strings of buggy mucus that are far more beautiful than they sound.  There are caves with lakes, and caves with canyons, and caves with skylights.  The common theme is that they are magnificent.

It’s a whole new world down there.  And this is a wonderful window in to it.  If you only ever buy one book on caves in your life, it should very probably be this one.

Oh, and in keeping with our Chinese theme, it does indeed contain a cave from China.

I think that will do for now.  Additionally, I haven’t finished any other books just yet.  That’s as good a reason as any to stop here, then, innit?

Tomes 2011: A Distinct Chinese Theme

Tomes 2011: Inaugural Edition

Those of you who’ve been with me for a bit know I started a project last year wherein I report upon the books I’ve recently read.  It’s been upsetting to some, as it causes unplanned additions to reading lists.  I do feel your pain, believe me.  But I can’t not talk about books, so the suffering shall continue.

Tomes 2010 has of course been retired.  Time now for the maiden voyage of Tomes 2011.  Without further ado, then:

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Mountain Geomorphology

This is not the type of book you buy for a casual perusal.  It’s written by experts for experts.  It doesn’t make concessions for laypeople.  That said, if you’ve done some extensive reading of the popular literature and cut your teeth on science blogs, you’ll understand at least 40% of this book.

It’s got everything: from defining what a mountain is to how they evolve, functional and applied mountain geomorphology, and global environmental change.  I learned things from this book that changed many of my perspectives on mountains, and the information in it comes trickling back at odd times to inform something else I’m reading.  I’ll be reading this book again in a year or so, when I’ll understand more, and referring to it more than once in the future.  If you want to know how mountains work, and aren’t afraid of actual science, this is an excellent resource.

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Never actually wanted to read this one.  I know the story of Krakatoa: big boom, no volcano.  Seen a program on it, hadn’t I?  Read up on it in other books about volcanoes, even so.  Then I read this bit about the book by Suvrat Kher and decided I’d better read it after all.

It’s a rich read: full of history, geography, economics, and all sorts of interesting cultural bits.  Only problem is, you know this nice, quiet, pretty island volcano is about to explode spectacularly and kill a great many thousands of people, and it seems to take forever getting there, and then when it does it seems like it should’ve taken longer.  I think Simon didn’t linger for ages over every single detail of the eruption because it’s been covered elsewhere, but I wouldn’t have minded a wee bit more detail.  That’s not to say there wasn’t quite a bit – there was.  I’m just being nitpicky.

Aside from my impatience with getting to the big boom, though, it was an excellent read.  It’s definitely the kind of thing I plan to chuck at people who don’t know and don’t think they’d like to know geology, but are easily sucked in by big flashy volcanic eruptions and all of the other bits.  “Oh,” I’ll say innocently, “you’d like to read about big explodey things?”  Or, “Hey, there’s this great book about colonialism/Java/natural disasters/whatever,” and then slip them a copy and run away sniggering, because by the end of it they’ll have had an education in plate tectonics they won’t soon forget.

And really, there’s just something utterly remarkable about the thought that an island over 2000 feet high and several miles in diameter could simply vanish over the course of a morning.  That the sound of it blowing itself apart could be heard clearly almost 3,000 miles away.  We’ve been lucky, we modern humans, that we haven’t witnessed many events so huge in historical memory.  Krakatoa is an uncomfortable reminder of the enormity of such things.

In short: if you haven’t already, just read the damned book.

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The Alps: Europe’s Mountain Heart

I bought this book because it’s desperately difficult to find anything affordable on Alpine geology in this country.  It’s got a whole chapter devoted to the geology of the Alps.

Was rather a bit shocked to discover the authors were deceased.  They died before the book came out.  This led me to speculations about all sorts of alpine accidents and so forth, but Nicholas, at least, died of a perfectly ordinary tumor at age 81, and Nina (though I can’t find an obit for her) seems to have lived to a good age as well.  So this book becomes a memorial to lives well lived, and it’s clear from all they say about the Alps that they lived very full lives indeed.  They loved these mountains.  They loved everything about them, and that love comes through very clearly.

You’ll learn loads more than geology.  There’s biology and climate, and there’s whole chapters devoted to humans and history.  You’ll find a new way of looking at the Mona Lisa, you’ll come away with a deeper appreciation for all of the folks (including women!) who looked at big pointy bits and said, “Hmm, bet I can climb that,” and you’ll discover all sorts of things you may not have known before.  Such as, Mark Twain didn’t much like the Alps.  And too many people have intruded too much war into them.

I wanted more geology, so I got a bit impatient with the rest, but I feel my appreciation for the rest growing.  It’s good to know things about places and people.  And while it’s not written in the most poetic prose on the planet (whereas the Introduction was), it’s clear and simple and at times unexpectedly intimate.  A good read, indeed.

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Western Islamic Architecture

This is perhaps a bit too concise an introduction.  The book is all of 38 pages of text if you don’t count the introduction.  It covers several countries and over a thousand years of architecture, with a rather heavy emphasis on mosques and palaces.  And the author has a distressing tendency not to define terms very well.  There turns out to be a glossary, but as it’s one page sandwiched between the notes and the bibliography, I didn’t find it until after I’d finished the book.

Those flaws can be overlooked.  But what I have a rather harder time forgiving is the fact that the accompanying images are all squashed in at the back, so when the text refers to this or that figure, you have to go hunting for it.  By the time you’ve found it, you’ve rather forgotten what the text had to say about it.  This may not have been as much of a problem if this wasn’t my bathroom book, but it still would have been annoying if I’d been reading straight through.  Having to constantly interrupt the flow in order to reference something that could just as easily have been printed on the facing page didn’t help me enjoy the experience.

Those flaws in mind, it’s not a bad introduction to Islamic architecture.  It’s just that there’s probably better.  So unless you, like me, find this on a clearance shelf for a couple of bucks, don’t bother.

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The Graveyard Book

As obsessed as I am with Neil Gaiman, you would’ve thought I’d read this book when it first came out.  But alas, I did not.  I kept meaning to, but other things always got in the way.  But then I read Livia Blackburne’s series of posts using The Graveyard Book to illustrate various writing techniques (and remind us all that Neil Gaiman is a genius), and I decided it was time.

I began the book at 2:15am.  I put it down a couple of times to smoke and pee.  I finished it at 6:45am.  And promptly did not fall asleep for most of the rest of the morning.

Let me admit something: I like Neil’s non-kids stuff better.  But this was a perfectly excellent read.  You’ll get a great sense of it from reading Livia’s posts, and I haven’t much to add to those except to say, once again, Neil Gaiman is a genius.  The characters, the setting, the scenes, the beautifully fluid narration, the turns of phrase, the delights, the horrors, all of combining into the kind of book that made me turn the clock face away so I could forget, just for a little while, that I was supposed to be sleeping at some point.  It wasn’t what I expected.  It was far more.

And Dave McKean’s illustrations are the cherry on top.

It’s rather a mistake thinking this book is a children’s book, incidentally.  British authors, even expat British authors, have this idea that kids are tough enough to take the tough stuff.  Which means, of course, that at times you, dear adult, will wince, because he’s just hit you in the jaw with a haymaker, and he did nothing to pull the punch.  There was a point at which I actually looked at the back for the recommended reading age, because I thought the Newberry Medal embossed on the front might have been a strange practical joke.  But Harper assures me it’s meant for readers 10 & up, so maybe American publishers have finally decided kids aren’t such delicate flowers.  Or maybe it’s just because Neil Gaiman said so.

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From Words to Brain

This is my first-ever Kindle purchase.  It’s horrible.  Not the book, the fact ebooks are this easy to download.  It took me all of a minute or so to download Kindle for my PC, and then something on the order of 30 seconds or so to download the book, and then I’d already read the damned thing in an hour and a half.

It’s a good thing so many ebooks are cheap, because this is going to become an unfortunate habit.

Anyway, about the book… Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith.  It’s three bucks, it’s a quick read, and it’s got neurocience related to storytelling by an actual neuroscientist who’s a storyteller.  You think all those how-to-write books are necessary?  Well, this one’s more necessary than most.  Go.  Download.  Read.

And if you think you can’t because it’s neuroscience and you’re no scientist, you don’t know Livia Blackburne, then, do you?  You won’t run into a bunch of incomprehensible jargon.  You’ll get the gist no matter what, so don’t worry about it.  What you need to know is how brains react to stories.  How else are you going to write a story brains will react to?  By slogging through a thousand books on how to write when you could just read this one?  Puh-leeze.

If you’re not a writer, it’s still a good read, because you’re a reader.  Don’t you want to know what your brain’s up to while you’re immersed in a good tale?  Yes, you do.  You’ll know more about that after this book.

Research is ongoing, and if we’re lucky, Livia will expand on this book for us and really dig in.  This is a good introduction to the field, true, but it’s like one slice of cheesecake.  It’s hard to stop at one slice.  One would, in fact, like a whole cheesecake all to oneself.

Right, then.  That’s enough to be get
ting started with.  I have several more very nearly finished, and I’ve just downloaded my first Kindle book, so tell your wish list to let its belt out a bit.  Otherwise, it might become very uncomfortable indeed.

Tomes 2011: Inaugural Edition