Thursday, 15 September 2016

REVIEW: "Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California" by Noah Siegel, Christian Schwarz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California
by Noah Siegel, Christian Schwarz
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 978-1607748175
Copyright August 2016
Paperback, 608 Pages

This is a decisively extraordinary and authoritative reference to mushroom identification in the region of the Redwood Coast. Unparalleled in quality, and coupled with exceptional comprehensiveness and arresting visual appeal, this book is an absolute treasure—the lovechild and physical embodiment of the authors' expertise, passion, and heart and soul.

The stunning book cover is only a precursor to the myriad of gorgeous and illustrative photographs found throughout the book. A sure strength, the book is richly descriptive and amazingly detailed, with material concisely written and splendidly presented.

This is a highly recommended book for mushroom and fungi lovers, an indispensable and valuable resource for students of mycology and taxonomy, and certainly, a perfect starting point for readers venturing to spice up their lives by pursuing a new, intellectually-gratifying, and enriching hobby.

This book is a great resource for the reader craving to satisfy their curiosities about the intriguing world of exotic and mind-boggling species of mushrooms and fungi. Absolutely unforgettable is the Red Basket Stinkhorn, or Clathrus ruber, which surface of its fruitbody has a pattern of “hexagonal depressions;” rather fascinating would be the “plush, fuzzy blob” or “powdery mass” of the fruitbody of the Powdery Pom Pom Polypore; and curiously alien-looking is the Golden-Gilled Waxy Cap with its opaque or slightly translucent porcelain white stipe. The alluring peculiarities of these constituents of nature seemed limitless. The rather eccentric “baseball-bat shape” of the Pale Candy Coral was certainly eye-catching, or the Horsehair Mushroom with “thick, tough, thin, [and] wiry” stipe.

This book is an excellent resource for the reader to learn and assimilate to the synchronously technical and artistic descriptive terminology for the mushroom species. The book employs such vivid and effective descriptions—for example, mushroom gills characterized as “deeply decurrent, shallow, blunt, and veinlike often forking and with many cross veins;” the partial veil portrayed as “a hanging, membranous, white skirt,” or as “white felty-cobwebby tissue covering gills;” and mushroom caps described respectively as “funnel to vase shaped, often with a ruffled margin,” or one with a surface “smooth, viscid, covered with glutinous slime.”

Catering to culinary and food lovers, the book also aptly contains a brief edibility assessment for each mushroom species. Some ominous species the mushroom hunter is warned never to eat include for example, the Death Cap—Amanita phalloides —and the Deadly Parasol—Lepiota subincarnata; both of which contain amatoxins and are deadly toxic. In line with the rather scientific approach undertaken by the book, the reader will appreciate a supplementary and neatly highlighted column where amatoxins are further elucidated.

For those with a penchant for colors, the book decently delivers on a delectable range of species. There are the eye-catching green to teal colors of the Green Earth Tongue, the vibrant purple colors of the Western Amethyst Laccaria, the “striking golden yellow” of the Flaming Pholiota, and the beautiful scarlet red cap of Rosy Russula. It goes on; the fabulous bluish lilac gills of Phaeocollybia fallax, the distinctive and richly colored Blue-Green Wood Cup, and the burgundy color of the Maroon Madrone Tubaria.

Along with unmistakably interesting and useful pieces of information furnished as well in each of the “comments” section for each species—an example would be further details provided on the Fly Agaric on the presence of “coarse, discrete off-white to yellowish universal veil warts” covering the surface of the mushroom cap—the dedicated and tenacious learner will bound to grow and mature in this field of knowledge to become a pundit of mushrooms and fungi.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

REVIEW: "Wildflowers of New England: Timber Press Field Guide" by Ted Elliman, New England Wild Flower Society

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Wildflowers of New England: Timber Press Field Guide (A Timber Press Field Guide)
by Ted Elliman, New England Wild Flower Society
Timber Press
ISBN: 978-1604694642
Copyright February 2016
Flexibound, 448 Pages

Wildflowers of New England is the ultimate field guide to wildflower identification in New England. Filled with incredibly gorgeous photography, the book is not only exceedingly visually appealing, but also impressively comprehensive. The book is very concisely written, densely packed with information, and strategically structured; every wildflower included in the guide is fittingly featured alongside an exemplifying photograph.

This field guide is no doubt excellent for flower lovers living in New England, or those venturing to the region for a delightful wildflower immersion trip. For flower lovers not in New England, the book nonetheless qualifies as an excellent reference. In the likelihood that the book falls into the hands of those have yet to discover their interest in or fall in love with the earth's glorious nature and its wildflowers, this book could be the critical factor marking the beginning of one's love affair, and even obsession, with flowers. Not to mention that this visually delectable and exhaustive guide also makes it an ideal candidate for a bibliophile's book collection.

The book references an eclectic range of wildflowers, segmented in terms of color. The section on white flowers illustrates for example, the glorious Queen Anne's lace, or Daucus carota which has flowers “clustered in flat umbels;” the artistically symmetrical ladies'-tresses; and aesthetically-pleasing ragged fringed orchid. Especially eye-catching are those peculiarly-shaped—the likes of Dutchman's-breeches, squirrel-corn, and bladder campion—and certainly those undeniably beautiful, such as the unicorn root with flowers sporting an unconventional but nonetheless alluring granular surfaces, or the stunning white meadowsweet.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “invasive” water chestnut belonging to the Lythraceae family, or for example, the American pokeweed from the Phytolaccaceae family characterized by its toxic fruit, and poisonous stems and leaves.

Wildflowers found in the yellow flower section include for example, the highly distinctive yellow lady's-slipper, a rather appropriately-named bullhead pond-lily, the exquisite roseroot from the Crassulaceae family, or interesting species such as the Canada lily, or Lilium canadense, whose habitats include “floodplains, swamp edges, and wet meadows.”

The book certainly also covers sections of red and blue flowers. Examples of the former include the regally and lusciously gorgeous wild chives of the Alliaceae family, the romantic sweet-scented camphorweed from the Asteraceae family, and the exotic bee-balm, otherwise called Monarda didyma, whilst examples of the latter include the “common selfheal” of the Lamiaceae family whose flowers are ravishingly reminiscent of jellyfish, or lovely flowers such as the blue lobelia, wild lupine, and the sheep's bit.

Concise coverage of fundamentals at the beginning of the book is excellent, and certainly useful to both amateurs and the more experienced. The reader will certainly appreciate distinctions clearly established for example, between the types of inflorescences—panicle, raceme, spike, and umbel—, fruit types—achene, berry, capsule, silicle and more—, between radial and bilateral flowers, or even the different life cycles attributable to different plants; the reader's learning of essentials in the section of which is critical to actually successfully and effectively utilizing the guide.

Living up to its purpose as a field guide, the book aptly contains a rather comprehensive list of plant families, each family denoted along with its scientific name, a brief overview and summary of characteristics of its plants, and list of genera in the family. The relative thoroughness of this section serves as a handy and convenient reference for those educating themselves in the abundance of existing and fascinating plant families. The reader could quickly learn for example, that the aster family, or the Asteraceae, contains genera such as Heliopsis, Mycelis, and Tanacetum, or that the water-lily family is actually known scientifically as Nymphaeaceae.

The reader might even be pleasantly surprised to find certain additional and interesting information furnished at the beginning of the book covering intriguing realms such as the ecological communities in New England, morsels of geological history, and even introductory information on the various wetland habitats of swamps, marshes, and bogs, or even denominations of for example, the spruce-fir forest, or the oak-hickory-hemlock forest.

Whilst the book is mostly flawless, at least one instance in the book however required better illustration of the specific concept discussed. Especially for a beginner to botany newly exposed to the concept of inflorescence—a jargon that seemed daunting at first glance—, compounded with one-sentence descriptions of each type of inflorescence without illustrative photos seemed counter productive. An example of such a descriptive and supposedly self-explanatory sentence went, “A panicle is an elongated, branching inflorescence, roughly pyramidal in shape.”

Especially for a guide as outstanding as this, it appeared unwarranted that exemplifying images were not inserted in this case especially to facilitate learning for the beginner, and in order for one to more effectively contextualize and construe meaning from the otherwise beautifully crafted descriptions.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

REVIEW: "Perfumes: The Guide" by Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Perfumes: The Guide
by Luca Turin, Tania Sanchez
Viking Books
Copyright April 2008
Hardcover, 362 Pages

Perfumes is a primarily valuable and practical book for the budding perfumista looking to venture into the richly sensorial world of perfumery. Predominantly informational, the book could be a great starting point for aspiring fragrance writers and even perfumers. The abundance of fragrance reviews that make up the majority of the book qualify as a decently rich source of reference of the myriad possibilities and formulations of scent varieties currently available in the market.

The chiefly entertaining editorial writing style adopted in a substantial portion of reviews distinctly enlivens the subject matter; aspiring fragrance writers might even be inspired to emulate the linguistic rendering and descriptions of the perfumes.

Distinctly engaging use of metaphors, analogies, or even personification techniques are examples of which strongly invigorate the reviews. Undoubtedly making for a rather pleasurable reading experience, the reader would come across such delightful analogies such as Choward's Violet Mints noted as “the closest one can ever get to edible Art Nouveau.”

In a fascinating use of personification, Climat by Lancome—created in 1967—was described as being “born old, a laggard latecomer to the Ma Griffe tweedy-floral category.” On the other hand, there are instances whereby the fragrance Eau de Cartier, for example, was creatively noted as exuding “the feel of full-range electrostatic speakers,” or CK One being intriguingly noted as “not so much a perfume as a chemical time machine.”

The reader would appreciate the instances where lucid and authoritative commentary propels the substance of the fragrance reviews. A*Maze by People of the Labyrinths for example, was beautifully described as delivering “an excellent, bright, powerful, liqueur-like spiced rose in its top note,” with “the clove aspects of rose dominat[ing] and the woody amber get[ting] ever louder” with the passage of time, whilst L'Ame Soeur by Divine was lyrically outlined as “this combination of dry, talcum-powder wood and a slightly metallic, sweaty cast” the author found “classical in feel and pleasingly aloof.”

Though minuscule in comparison to the bulk of fragrance reviews, the selection of fundamental information on perfumery included in the book is no doubt educational. The reader would read about the distinguishing feature of orientals—“sweet, amber, vanillic accords enlivened with woody, animalic, or floral notes.” One could learn about the differentiation between natural raw materials versus aromachemicals, or synthetic ingredients; the former expounded in greater detail in terms of for example, extraction techniques of solvent extraction or steam distillation, and the latter exemplified in the case of the discovery of “a synthetic route” to coumarin.

There was also rather interesting coverage of for example, the fougere genre and the chypre genre—the “sonata form of fragrance” with the basic accord of “bergamot-labdanum-oakmoss;” distinctions established between feminine versus masculine perfumery along with intriguing examples furnished; allusions to, or mentions of, notable figures in the perfumery world—for example, the perfume taxonomist Michael Edwards, or perfume impresarios like Vera Strubi and Chantal Roos—that may inspire the reader to conduct independent research beyond the book; most significant would be the insertion of captivating details, historical or otherwise, on certain perfume designers, perfume brands or companies. The review of 28 La Pausa by Chanel for example, was fronted by a fascinating piece of information—“iris root is the dominant theme of Chanel's boutique fragrances.”

A strong distinguishing feature of the book is the incorporation of a concise two-word summary encapsulating each reviewed fragrance's “smell character”—such as “fruity patchouli,” “spicy vetiver,” “metallic citrus,” “aniseed musk,” “leather chypre,” “apricot suede,” “lemon verbena,” and certainly countless more. Reading the book would no doubt acquaint the reader with the great abundance of fragrance terminology and materials. Further examples of the latter consist of the likes of ambergris, aldehydes, sandalwood, civet, and isoquinolines.

Having acknowledged the merits of the book, it is imperative however to highlight the highly unfortunate morsels of distracting writing interspersed in an otherwise flawlessly enjoyable book.

There were multiple instances of displays of lack of professionalism on the part of the authors in formulating the reviews. In a rather incredulous instance, and perhaps a negative display of emotionalism, there was the incredibly annoying use of texting and chat abbreviations within the reviews itself, unimaginable in the context of a supposedly professional text, and more so in an educational source of information heavily dependent on credibility.

In the one-liner review of cK IN2U Her by Calvin Klein, the author went, “OMG PU. Insanely strong fruit meets insanely strong woody amber. KTHXBYE. TS,” immediately followed by the “review” of cK IN2U His by Calvin Klein which went, “IM IN UR BOTTLE BORIN UR GF. TS” which is blatantly incoherent. These not only betray an attitude of unwarranted irreverence and carelessness on the part of supposed experts, but also screams at the dismal editing process the book underwent.

In another instance of the review to L'Air de Rien by Miller Harris, the commentary actually began with, “The prodigiously airheaded Jane Birkin (terrible singer, lousy actress, thirty years in France and still sounding like she got off the Folkestone ferry yesterday) apparently never could find a fragrance to her taste...” The expression of sarcasm and insults are best reserved for a casual hangout or meal with friends. When inserted into this perfumery book however, it rather effectively turns the reader off.

In another separate occasion, irrelevant commentary absolutely contradictory to the quintessence of the book gave the impression of the author treating the book as a platform akin to social media sites where ranting is permissible. The review of Curious by Britney Spears began in such a manner, “Before I go on, let me get this off my chest: I loved Britney. I loved her uncomfortably inappropriate...her funny, slightly strangled-sounding...the photo of her slouchy barefoot walk...the shaved head...the umbrella attack on the paparazzi...”

The review of Aldehyde 44 by Le Labo again demonstrated an excruciating lack of focus. The immensely critical and sarcastic tone employed in addition to specific pieces of “information” forefronted and emphasized, only magnified the impression that the review was merely an extended platform for the author to express displeasure, criticize, and even to avenge the brand's initial refusal to send them samples.

The authors are clearly very opinionated and are unrestrainedly candid in their reviews, perhaps occasionally inserting too much of their emotions, personalities, and themselves into the book that may be endearing to some, but alienating to others. Certain comments are certainly boldly critical; a particular review began with “this egregious screwup...” whilst in another instance, fragrances for men are said to be “mostly identical crap.”

Understandably, the book is co-authored and the authors insist upon the very manifest attribution of articles, chapters, paragraphs, or even sentences to the respective authors. In certain instances however, the over-attribution distracts the reader from the actual content of the book, and thus affects the readability and overall enjoyability of the book. This is especially pronounced for short and especially one-liner reviews whereby nearly every complete sentence on the page would end with an initial.

Done on the extreme, the superfluous attribution in addition to the drastic difference in writing styles between the two authors paradoxically consistently reminds the reader that majority of the book is merely a slipshod assembling of disjointed pieces of writing, and therefore undermining any priorly conceived notion of overall cohesion in the book.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

BLOG TOUR: "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margot Lee Shetterly
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062363596
Copyright September 2016
Hardcover, 368 Pages

Hidden Figures is a book fiercely dedicated to foregrounding the exceptionally formidable faction of black female research mathematicians employed at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory—“a conclave of the world's best aerodynamicists”in the “engineer's paradise” of NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and thereafter NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The book engagingly introduces the reader to the microcosmic world of aeronautical science. Highly inspirational, and beautifully and lyrically written, the book is a glorious blend of fascinating scientific details weaved together with a distinctly relatable human angle—of passion, curiosity, resilience, strength, and optimism, and of the trials and tribulations faced by the African American women mathematicians as they navigate the traditionally and predominantly white and male vocation.

Cohesively structured and lucidly written, the book commendably expounds the nature of aeronautical research carried out during the onset of the space age—Project Mercury summoned to tackle the “Sputnik crisis” which plunged the United States into a space race frenzy—, during the postwar era, and during the war. The book qualifies as an enjoyable and rather relaxing read ideal for the general reader.

Katherine Goble Johnson was one of the figures prominently featured in the narrative. As the author of the research report “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position,” Katherine was credited for leading NASA to “the day when the balance of the space race was tipped in favor of the United States.” Reverently described to have proven herself to be “as reliable with numbers as a Swiss timepiece,” the author further spotlighted Katherine's ferocious curiosity and childlike passion for learning.

Particularly notable, the author's characterization of Katherine as loving “every moment” of the “seemingly endless hours, days, weeks, months of the same thing,” and of the “typical eye-straining, monotonous computing work” will doubtlessly strike a chord with similar-minded readers. The implied intense intellectual and mental discipline in turn potently inspires both female and male, black and white, reader seeking analytical careers.

The narrative of black female mathematicians in the aeronautics field is also explored through smart women such as Mary Jackson—one who possessed “the soul of an engineer”—and Dorothy Vaughan. Staying true to presenting and sustaining the human element of the narrative, the author detailed the personal lives, struggles, careers, and aspirations of the individual women. To Mary Jackson for example, life was “a long process of raising one's expectations.” The reader will inevitably find strength in the stories of the intellectual and inspirational women who successfully conquered the odds and institutional prejudice.

For the reader not generally acquainted with the discipline of aeronautics and the properties of aerodynamics, the book will offer a considerable amount of novel and interesting information. Incorporating clearly elucidated jargon moderately into the narrative, the book shuns unnecessarily technical or intricate presentations of scientific knowledge that could potentially turn off readers.

Select morsels of information are notably more intriguing than others. The Reynolds number is one such exceedingly captivating detail; the author explained its significance as a “mathematical jujitsu that measured how closely the performance of a wind tunnel came to mimicking actual flight.” It was equally and surely fascinating to learn of the Collier Trophy, the aeronautics industry's equivalent of the most prestigious award.

Other pieces of information are rather jaw-dropping, especially for one not in the field of science. It was transfixing to learn of “aerodynamic equations describing transonic airflows” that might contain “as many as thirty-five variables;” in this case the author definitely successfully convinced the reader regarding the immense difficulty and complexity of mind-boggling tasks within the job scope of the mathematicians. Or mentions of for example, calculations of pressure distributions that the black female computers were assigned.

Countless other concepts were presented in a manner that effectively whets the reader's appetite. Presented in the narrative in no way an intimidating manner, the author introduced the reader to concepts such as the notion of “subsonic,” “transonic,” and “supersonic” flight; the fundamental aerodynamic concept of lift and drag,” and the practice of “drag cleanup;” the vehicle performance checklist with the three categories of longitudinal stability and control, lateral stability and control, and stalling; and research in “faster-than-sound flight” along with its associated concept of “compressibility.”

No less riveting are mentions of the somewhat eclectic range of wind tunnels available in the NACA/NASA facilities—for example, the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, the Free-Flight Tunnel, and the Variable-Density Tunnel. Surprises kept arising as the reader later discovers also the existence of what is called an “icing tunnel”—one that “led to improvements in flight safety in freezing temperatures.”

The narrative documents as well the more unsavory aspect of the indignity, discrimination, and constrained career mobility experienced by the black women mathematicians; the humiliating and demoralizing caste system at Langley; the inevitable gender tensions in the male-dominated aeronautical industry and amidst the nation's engineering schools; and even the undercurrent of racial segregation and prejudice in the country, and its accompanying black freedom movement and activism.

The term “Mississippiitis” in the book was especially memorable, defined as that disease of segregation, violence, and oppression that plagued America like a chronic bout of consumption.”

The book contains noticeably beautiful metaphorical writing. One such example was the author describing employees working on Project Mercury as having transformed their desks into a “trigonometric war room.” In another instance, and exquisitely penned, women were said as having to “wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.”

The final one-third of the book, chronicling the dawn of the space age and related research and information, and potentially the core focus of the book judging by the book title, is distinctly more captivating in content compared to the first two-thirds of the book. That said, the first two-thirds of the book could greatly benefit from a comparably more in-depth coverage of information.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.