the nearest thing to life – James Wood

I am not sure what to make of this collection of essays. They link the essential parts of life to a selection of works of literature. Potentially if I was better read in his type of literature I would take more from this. But even without knowing all the works, the writing is wonderful. Consider phrases such as this

…and sometimes blew their parsimonious horns – the British Rail minor third.

It is just wonderfully evocative of a moment in time, and the book is filled with this language.

Additionally there is a sense of how we grow apart from our childhood homes, and how doing so is essential, is how we grow and heartbreaking. And how modern technology has both changed this process and made it easier for us to go still further. And how no-one would ever leave if they already knew how hard it would be to come back.

Not a life-changing book, but one that leads to deeper thought and a great appreciation of the English language.

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Knitting Yarns edited by Ann Hood

As well as walking and reading, my main hobbies are fabric crafts: sewing and knitting. I knit whenever I get the chance: on the sofa, on the train, in a corner during my lunch hour and the gradual building up of stitches has gently become how I think about things.

This book was tucked in a corner of the LRB bookshop, an American import without a price in pounds. My aunt, who I was in London with, kindly bought it for me has half of my birthday present (the other half is a book on mathematics which I haven’t yet read).

It is a lovely collection of stories and essays, covering how knitting brings people, mainly women together. From mother-daughter bonding over learning together to a passionate gap year affair. Then there are the serendipitous meetings an conversations, because knitting in public is a way to break down the barriers that stop strangers talking. But mostly it is about how construction of fabric from a ball of string using a pair of sticks is a wonderfully soothing, powerful thing to be able to do.

I did wonder if the non-knitter: Elizabeth Searle’s friend was Suzanne Strempek Shea, as they seemed to describe each other so well, one wanting nothing more than to sit by her knitting friend and watch her produce something from just that ball of string.

My only misgiving about knitting the patterns included is that there are no photos in the book, so no indication as to how they will turn out. But I have Ravelry, so patterns aren’t something I am short of, and photos of the finished projects are never far away

Remarkable Minds – Pendred E. Noyce

17 other remarkable women in science & medicine

Noyce has decided not to mess with her formula, and has produced a second book full of essays outlining the lives and careers of historical women scientists. It is enough to make a modern woman feel inadequate, reading about women who continued scientific research in the face of not only sexism, but also in secret as Jewish women against the rise of fascism or African-Americans before the civil rights movement.

The message definitely comes through loud and clear that anyone sufficiently intelligent and determined can contribute to the world, just that some barriers have been swept away.

Sophie couldn’t stay away from her mathematics. She smuggled in more candles, wrapped herself in blankets, and managed to study through the night anyway, even when her ink froze in its pot. Finally her parents gave in, and once convinced he couldn’t stop her, her father supported her study of mathematics for the rest of her life.

This is a powerful message for young people working out who they are, and who they want to work to be, especially girls. I appreciate Noyce noting that family life is possible, although careful choices have to be made, and that some of these scientists were noted as elegant and beautiful. If this was a statement made in isolation it would be problematic, but combined with the acknowledgement of their achievements it tackles some unhelpful stereotypes.

I had only heard of two of these women before: Germain (I am a mathematician by training) and Franklin, but many of the rest had made discoveries I am familiar with, and it was fascinating to read how they managed their lives to achieve what they did. It was also a sterling example of how parenting makes a difference, with almost every woman having had supportive parents who encouraged ambition, even if they were reluctant at first.

Each essay was prefaced by a timeline showing how wider history intersects key points in that woman’s life, putting them into a historical and cultural context. This may however have worked better woven into the margins/headings rather than on a standalone page.

My only quibble is that I wanted a bit more of the detail of the science for many of the essays, as opposed to hinting about the science then swinging back to discuss personal and academic further, even if that was the actual subject of the book.

 I received Remarkable Minds as an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review