The Periodic Table

By Primo Levi

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this collection of mostly autobiographical stories, sketching the life of the author, a Jewish-Italian chemist who grew up in the 1930s and who later spent time in a concentration camp. The stories each take a chemical element as their starting point, before wandering off in sometimes unexpected directions. For example, Hydrogen is about Levi as a child, with a friend, experimenting with electrolysis while Chromium is a cautionary tale about how processes that once had a point can become fossilised and sometimes even harmful. There are also a few pieces of outright fiction in the book, which he wrote during his first job after graduation, trying to extract nickel from waste rock that was being mined for asbestos and which are interesting in their own right.

The writing is clear and straightforward. It doesn’t necessarily have “literary flourishes” but is enjoyable to read, and the chemistry is enlightening. I must confess that I’ve given little thought to industrial chemistry and the processes that enable the analysis and transformation of matter, so it’s really interesting to see Levi shed some light on it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349121987
Publisher: Abacus
Year of publication: 1975

The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter

By Benjamin Woolley

Rating: 3 stars

An interesting look at the life of a woman who is mostly recognised today for her impact on the world of computing. While Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the first programmer, for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, Woolley pulls back from this claim, saying that Babbage himself had written such “programs” as well and that Ada’s mathematics wasn’t great. But this book is about much more than her contributions to computing; it pulls back and looks at her life in the context of a rapidly changing world and where science and art were in the process of being torn apart.

Woolley makes a lot of Ada’s parentage. Indeed, the first two chapters are entirely spent on telling of how Annabella Milbanke married Lord Byron, the poet. He portrays Annabella as a cold, analytical woman, contrasts her to the hot-blooded poet and then considers what would happen in the fusion of these two people.

To be honest, while the book is very readable, it’s a bit soap-opera-y too. Woolley does go on a bit about Ada’s split heritage and how her artistic side was suppressed by her mother. He also seems to be “on Byron’s side” for most of the book (despite the fact he dies in Ada’s childhood and never got to see his daughter beyond infancy) and portrays Annabella in a fairly negative light, being a controlling influence on Ada throughout her life. Without going back to the primary sources it’s difficult to know how accurate this portrayal is but I instinctively dislike it in what should be a work of fact. However, to balance that, the book is very readable and provides a decent introduction to someone I’ve known about for so long (my first programming language at University was Ada) but knew very little about.

Book details

ISBN: 9781447272540
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 1999

Ethel & Ernest

By Raymond Briggs

Rating: 4 stars

This is a charming short book in which Raymond Briggs tells the story of his parents, the Ethel and Ernest of the title, from their first chance meeting in 1928 up to their deaths, very close to each other in 1971. It’s a lovely story, without much in the way of embellishment. Ernest was a working class lad, and proud of it, while Ethel was upwardly mobile and wanted more for her family. They lived through the second world war and the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s and we see how life changes for them over the decades.

The art is lovely. Typically Briggs and very appropriate for the story being told. This is social history told through a single family, right up to their heartbreaking, not to mention tear-jerking, final months. Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9780224046626
Publisher: Random House
Year of publication: 1998

Memoirs Of A Dutiful Daughter

By Simone de Beauvoir

Rating: 4 stars

The first volume of Beauvoir’s autobiography spans her early life until her graduation from the Sorbonne. She goes into a lot of detail and puts us into her head very well, although part of this is the head of a teenage girl which was sometimes teeth-grinding. From very early on, Beauvoir is shown to be a very intelligent person with a tendency to analyse everything around her and she is very good at also showing us the sort of world she grew up and and the mindset of her class and her attempts to rebel against that.

Although she goes into detail for large parts of her life, she fails to do so for a part in her late teens when she starts seriously rebelling against society, drinking and associating with dodgy characters. But it seems to me that that she failed to go into the reasons for that in the same meticulous detail as as she covered the rest of her early life.

Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Beauvoir’s philosophy and why she wrote and thought what she did.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140087550
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1958

Darwin: A Graphic Biography

By Eugene Byrne

Rating: 3 stars

This short graphic novel was being given away free as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. It’s a sketch (no pun intended) charting Darwin’s life and the decisions and milestones that led to natural selection. The language is clear and pretty simple and the art is sketchy but clear. The book is framed by the device of a group of anthropomorphic apes making a documentary about an orchid and nebulously tying that to evolution.

A good way to get an overview of Darwin’s life.

Book details

Publisher: BCDP
Year of publication: 2009

The Complete Persepolis (Persepolis, #1-4)

By Marjane Satrapi

Rating: 2 stars

An autobiography in graphic-novel form, this was a rather odd book. The author is Iranian and the great-granddaughter of the last emperor and the book tells the story of living during the Islamic Revolution and the odd schizophrenic society that developed after it, as well as her time in Austria for four years.

I wasn’t hugely impressed by this. I don’t think the graphic novel format worked and that normal prose would have told her story better. It just didn’t add anything to the telling, and it also meant that each incident (the focus of a chapter) had to be told in sketch form (no pun intended) rather than in any great depth. An interesting experiment, but I don’t think it worked. I also didn’t feel much sympathy for the author for a good chunk of it either.

Book details

ISBN: 9780375714832
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Year of publication: 2003

Howard Aiken: Portrait Of A Computer Pioneer

By I. Bernard Cohen

Rating: 2 stars

Howard Aiken developed one of the first world’s first computers, although since machines like the Colossus became known, his Mark I is no longer regarded as the first computer. I’m not sure that it would count anyway, since it wasn’t electronic and didn’t have any stored program capability. I must say that I struggled with this book. The history of the Mark I was interesting, but I found the book quite dry and academic, and Aiken’s personality irritating — he had a tendency to be very hard and arrogant at times. He was also important for starting one of the very first computing degree programmes in the world as well, at Harvard.

Book details

ISBN: 9780262032629
Publisher: MIT Press (MA)
Year of publication: 1999

Give Me Ten Seconds

By John Sergeant

Rating: 3 stars

John Sergeant has had an interesting life. He was in the crowd during Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, he was in a comedy series written by Alan Bennett and, of course, he’s spent most of his life as a journalist and reporter. His dry wit shines through and he writes well. His anecdotes, both political and non-political, are interesting and entertaining and his commentary on political matters is definitely worth reading. Shame it was let down by a rubbish last sentence.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330484909
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2001

Moab Is My Washpot (Memoir #1)

By Stephen Fry

Rating: 2 stars

I wondered for a lot of this book why it seemed so familiar before it dawned on me: it looks like Fry plundered large parts of his own life for his novel The Liar. In fact, he did it so well, you almost wonder why he bothered with this autobiography. Although it’s as well written and full of the wonder of language as you would expect from Fry, much of it comes across as pretentious and somewhat self-pitying, or rather, pitying his younger self, since this book covers the first 20 or so years of his life. And he certainly did go off the rails a bit, culminating with a spell in prison.

One thing that I liked about this book was its wonderful conversational (or possibly monologue) tone. He would start a point and then get distracted and spend two pages off on a tangent before remembering that he had a point and getting back to it. This is something that could have easily been “fixed” at the editing stage, but I’m glad they left it in, since it does add colour to the book.

Worth reading for the new light it shines on the author but be prepared for lots of public school twaddle.

Book details

ISBN: 9781569472026
Publisher: Soho Press
Year of publication: 1997

Boy and Going Solo (Roald Dahl’s Autobiography, #1-#2)

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 4 stars

Roald Dahl led an interesting early life, and these two books tell the story well. Boy tells the story of Dahl’s childhood, until he leaves school, and Going Solo takes it from there until the end of his active service in the second world war. Both worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141311418
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 1984

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