Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, by Elizabeth Little

Things I love: words. Words and I are very good friends, if you know what I mean, which is that I really like learning about them. Where they came from, what they do, how funny they can be. See: my love of a children’s book called Word Snoop. And this book is better, because it is for adults and therefore includes swear words. I am a big fan of a well-placed swear word, and Little clearly has practice in this.

I thought this book was going to be about something like the vagaries of translation, because of the title, which references a terrible transliteration of the words “Coca-Cola” into Mandarin. But actually, that’s just a bit that’s in the conclusion, and the rest of the book is EVEN BETTER, because it talks about verbs and modifiers and nouns and how nouns are pretty set in their ways in English, but how you have to go and decline them in other languages, and how some languages have a really fun time pluralizing nouns, and how the Bantu language family isn’t content with just two or three noun classes (aka genders), no, no, how about 16? Or 22? I kind of want to die just thinking about it.

And Little feels that pain, and loves it! About noun class, she writes, “Grammatical gender often appears to be based on just the right combination of reason and utterly arbitrary dart-throwing monkey logic to ensure maximum confusion,” which is SO TRUE, at least with what I remember of my French.

Little also throws in all these little sidebars of awesomeness, which highlight things that are really neat about various languages. So in a sidebar about noun tense, for instance, Little talks about how the Guaranรญ language adds endings to verbs to signify tense. There’s a past-tense marker and a future-tense marker, which is cool, but EVEN COOLER is that you can combine them. Little’s example uses presidents, so with this combination of endings you can get a word for Al Gore: mburuvicharangue, or “what we thought was going to be a future president but then turned out not to be.” How cool is that?

I will grant that this might not be that cool to you โ€” my husband certainly gave me funny looks about that last example and others that I shared with him. But if you’ve ever suffered through a conjugation in your life, you will probably find something to like in here.

Recommendation: An absolute must for lovers of words or languages or humorous anecdotes.

Rating: 10/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
books i done read

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Word Snoop, by Ursula Dubosarsky

OMG squee!


I am pretty much in love with this book. It’s about WORDS, people. You know how I love words. And it’s written for kids (I found it in the children’s section of my library) so that THEY will love words. Oh my goodness. I am going to have to buy a copy for my hypothetical children.

Ahem. Sorry. Let me breathe a bit.

Okay. So. This is a great little tour of the English language, starting with the history of the alphabet, and then of spelling, and then of cool things you can do with words, and then at the end it even talks about text messaging and the language that goes with that. There are also coded messages at the end of each chapter to solve (with hints in the back if you get really stuck). I especially loved the “Say that again!” chapter, which covers puns and onomatopoeia and portmanteaux.

It’s not a comprehensive history, by any means, and there are some things that are a little bit wrong (acronyms vs. initialisms, for one), but it’s for kids and it’s a very good starting point for learning about the crazy English language and it is amusing. It makes me want to go track down and read some Richard Lederer books again!

Rating: 10/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Things That Make Us [Sic], by Martha Brockenbrough (10 April โ€” 11 April)

Did you enjoy Eats, Shoots & Leaves? You will probably enjoy this book. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read on.

Things That Make Us [Sic], besides having an awesome title, is a book about grammar and punctuation in the real world. Brockenbrough lays out the fundamental rules of grammar and punctuation in an easy-to-understand way and throws in a few references to Princess Bride and lesser pop culture, too. So if, say, you have no idea what a comma splice is or whether to insure or ensure, you can read this book and find out.

Brockenbrough starts each chapter with a letter to someone complaining about various grammar slights they have perpetrated. This is often amusing, especially when the Toronto Maple Leafs fight back (with what I consider a good argument). She also gives lots of lists of proper usage of various constructs and covers a lot of the big complaints (split infinitives and the like). What I like about her stance is that it’s both prescriptive and descriptive, which is as things should be. But, of course, “irregardless” has to go.

Also of course, if you’re nerdy enough to pick up this book, you probably don’t need it. There were a few times I found myself skimming her lists to find the jokes because I just didn’t want to think about all those words that other people use incorrectly. And, for a book on grammar that also makes fun of people for bad spelling, I found the mangled “Germam, Shepherds” (instead of “German Shepherds”) baffling. I’m sure the next edition will fix that.

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

P.S. Brockenbrough has a blog which is, like the book, often entertaining.