Archive for January, 2012

Review: My Daddy Was A Pistol And I’m A Son Of A Gun

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

When people hand me books, I tend to read ’em.  My Dad handed me this one when I saw him over Christmas break.  He’d been killing some time in a used bookstore and he liked the title.  It’s a great title to get you to pick up a book, so I see how it drew him in; Lewis Grizzard, the author, pulled it out of a country western song for just that reason.  My Daddy Was A Pistol And I’m A Son Of A Gun is also a great title because it sums the book up so well.  Grizzard’s father was larger than life, and their relation shaped him.

The title is so universally appealing that it is easy to imagine that the book is about fathers and sons in general.  It is not.  This is about a specific father and son, a larger-than-life engaging but eventually tragic drifter and his son.

Grizzard does a great job at getting all of his enormous father on to paper.  His daddy was such a man of extremes that most people trying to think about him would have to constrain themselves to one or two aspects, to write the man into a caricature.  Grizzard manages to give a fully realized picture without pulling a punch or failing to give credit.  Getting something like that right in your own head is hard enough; putting explaining it to someone else on paper is much harder.

He looks at his father’s influence on himself with the same clear eyes.  Again, clearly sizing that up and presenting it honestly is a feat.

All that would only be interesting to Grizzard and maybe a mental health professional except that Grizzard writes an entertaining yarn.  This is entertaining in the best sense of that word – diverting and interesting.  This is a great story told to keep an audience listening.  The yarn is much more than a shaggy dog story, but its told with the rhythms that hold a listener’s interest without exhausting their patience.  Being honest and engaging simultaneously is Grizzard’s great achievement here.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Disappearing Spoon

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Sam Kean takes the Periodic Table as a loose guide for a series of stories about the unusual things we know about the elements and how we found them out.  There’s some promise that this is a book about the periodic table and its history, but that falls more and more by the wayside as the book goes on.  From a writing perspective the table is as much a McGuffin and an organizing principle.  How that affects your enjoyment is largely going to be a function of how much you wanted to know the table’s story.

Kean’s writing has two excellent features.  He can clearly and intuitively explain science and he can bring scientists to life.  His discussions of the discoveries that people have made are plain enough that one can follow them easily, but keeps enough of the complexity that the reader understands why they are discoveries.  That balance keeps the reader’s interest up without losing them in the details.  Secondly, he does a great job at making the scientists distinct and memorable with a few anecdotes.  Several times he reminds the reader of a person we haven’t talked about in a couple chapters with a pithy summary of the person’s character that brings them immediately back into focus without the feeling that you’ve been studying for a test.

The periodic table is a broad subject, even when taken strictly.  Just understanding why the thing is laid out the way it is and what it says keeps physics and chemistry students busy for weeks.  If you throw in a historical discussion of how we figured out the layout, there’s quite a bit to say.  Kean doesn’t say all of that.  In fact, he strays from the details and evolution of the table itself pretty quickly, branching into other areas of physics, chemistry and the people who do them.  If you are interested in that in-depth exploration, you will be disappointed.

I was not disappointed.  The topics and discussions are connected and intriguing.  Though Kean never goes into the secret origins of the periodic table in obsessive detail, everything he talks about rhetorically connects.  He started from the table, and stays connected, so there’s always a way to where we started.  And the trips are interesting and informative.

Strongly recommended.