Why Science Book Titles Are The Best Book Titles

Browsing the science shelves at my local library yesterday, I found the following books:

How to Fossilise Your Hamster and Other Amazing Experiments for the Armchair Scientist

Dunk Your Biscuit Horizontally

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?

The Velocity of Honey

Lies, Deep Fries and Statistics

The Joy of X

Do Polar Bears Get Lonely?

Ignorance

Actual book titles, people. And How to Fossilise Your Hamster is “The must-have companion to the No. 1 bestsellers, Does Anything Eat Wasps? and Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?

Bat Babies And Other Minutiae

The book I’m working on now has required a lot of research – far more than for any other book I’ve written. Most of this research was done as part of the planning stages of the book, but there have also been many smaller facts I’ve needed to find out as I’ve been writing. Among the questions I’ve had to ask Google over the past few months are:

– How did the Secret Service agent who uncovered the Great Phenol Plot of 1915 get hold of that incriminating briefcase?
– What do you call those small yellow spongy things made of corn that are used as packing materials for fragile objects?
– What’s the name of the girl in The Scooby Gang who isn’t Velma?
– How many churches in Europe use human skeletons as interior design features?
– Can you actually buy genuine ancient Egyptian faience amulets, and if so, how much would one cost?
– How do you spell the names of those two bumbling detectives in the Tintin books?
– Is the nursery rhyme Ring Around The Rosie really about bubonic plague?
– How many Catholic saints have names starting with the letter ‘v’?
– Why does grapefruit juice interact with some medications?
and
– When did Rembrandt paint The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp?

Quite often, I get a bit distracted. Especially when I encounter photographs like this:

Bat Babies
A crib full of 2-3 week old baby Grey-headed Flying-foxes in care of Wildcare Australia at The Bat Hospital. Creative Commons Licensed image by Wcawikinfo.

I needed to answer a minor question about the feeding habits of flying foxes and ended up reading, um, quite a lot about them. (This may explain why I’m still working on this book, two years after I started it.) But did you know that flying foxes (as these fruit bats are commonly known in Australia, because they look like little winged foxes) don’t have echolocation and instead rely on sight, which is why they have such large eyes! Were you aware that there are more than sixty species of flying foxes, including the big-eared flying fox, the masked flying fox and (my favourite) the spectacled flying fox! Did you realise that these cute furry creatures carry fatal rabies-like viruses including Australian bat lyssavirus, and that some species of megabats have tested positive for Ebola!

Anyway, this is why Memoranda has been a bit quiet lately. However, coming up next week, I do have an interview with historical novelist Anne Blankman and a review of her debut novel, Prisoner of Night and Fog.

In the meantime – look at those bat babies!

(Don’t pretend you didn’t go, “Awww!” when you saw that photo.)

What I’ve Been Reading

'The Death of Lucy Kyte' by Nicola Upson I liked The Death of Lucy Kyte by Nicola Upson, a murder mystery set in the 1930s, featuring a fictional version of the real-life mystery writer, Josephine Tey, as well as several other famous people (for instance, Dodie Smith and Wallis Simpson both make brief appearances). In this book, the fifth in a series, Josephine has to unravel the mystery of her godmother’s death and strange bequest. Could this possibly be linked to the famous, real-life murder of Maria Marten, a local servant girl who’d died a hundred years before? Well, yes, of course it is, but it also ends up being far more complicated and terrifying than I’d expected (admittedly, I am easily spooked). The story reminded me quite a lot of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, although I think The Death of Lucy Kyte was more successful at handling the ‘supernatural’ elements of the plot (which may or may not be truly supernatural). I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries, because they so often use violent death as a mere plot device, without much acknowledgement of the terrible suffering it causes to the people who knew the victim. However, in this book, each of the characters was a plausibly complicated person, each violent incident had tragic repercussions, and there was nothing neat or painless about the conclusion. I hadn’t read the previous books in the series and this one worked well as a stand-alone novel, although I did become curious about the background of Josephine’s lover (who presumably is the subject of one of the earlier books). I believe the first book is called An Expert in Murder and it’s now on my To Read list.

Dogsbody by Dianna Wynne Jones was a clever and charming children’s book about Sirius the Dog Star, who is wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to live in the body of a dog on Earth. I am not very interested in mythology or astronomy (or fantasy), but I loved the descriptions of Sirius’s doggy life and particularly his interactions with the other animals he encountered. Sirius is taken in by Kathleen, a young Irish girl with her own problems, and I liked the way the author didn’t hold back from showing that truly awful things can happen to children – but also that children can be brave and resilient and that hope can be found in unexpected places.

'Goodbye to Berlin' by Christopher IsherwoodGoodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood was a fascinating look at Germany in the early 1930s. The author insists in his introduction that it’s not “purely autobiographical”, but given the narrator is a young Englishman called ‘Christopher Isherwood’ who is living and working in Berlin at the same time that the author did, I think it’s fair to say it’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of his real experiences. Christopher drifts about Berlin, giving English lessons, hanging out in coffee shops and seedy bars and meeting a lot of interesting people. These include Sally Bowles, only nineteen and hopelessly naïve and romantic, even if she does refer to herself as an “old whore”; Peter, an Englishman besotted with a working-class boy called Otto; Otto’s impoverished family, living in a decrepit attic; and the Landauers, a wealthy Jewish family who own a department store. At first Christopher seems quite detached (“I am a camera with its shutter open, recording, not thinking . . .”), but he becomes closer to the people he’s observing, even when he disapproves of them and despairs for their future (“these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything”). He shows clearly how poverty and despair created by high unemployment and the collapse of the banking system after the First World War made it easy for Hitler to rise to power. The film Cabaret is based on the Sally Bowles section of Goodbye to Berlin, but the film doesn’t have a lot in common with the book. Both are interesting, though, in their different ways.

Old Filth wasn’t as immediately warm and engaging as most of Jane Gardam’s novels, perhaps because it was about a snobby, emotionally-repressed old Englishman. However, the story of how Edward came to be that way was engrossing and involved a variety of interesting settings. Edward spends his early years in a remote Malayan village before being sent to an abusive foster home in Wales, then on to several English boarding schools, whereupon war breaks out and he finds himself on an evacuee ship . . . and he hasn’t even made it to adulthood yet. The plot is very clever, moving back and forth in time to reveal information at exactly the right pace, with characters reappearing at strategic points (although occasionally in a way that strains credibility). It was fascinating to watch the decline of the British Empire through the eyes of a ‘Raj orphan’ who ended up a judge in Hong Kong before retiring to an England that was no longer Home. I believe there are several books about the same set of characters, and I’d be especially interested to read more about Edward’s wife Betty, who seemed to have led a very busy life (even if Edward was unaware of most of it).

'Bad Science' by Ben GoldacreFinally, some non-fiction. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre takes aim at the pharmaceutical companies, vitamin pill manufacturers, homeopaths, nutritionists, politicians and journalists who ignore scientific evidence in their quest to make money or become famous. Some of his examples will probably make more sense to UK readers (for example, he devotes a chapter each to Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford, apparently famous in the UK although I’d never heard of them), but there are also good general discussions about statistics, the placebo effect and how to analyse a scientific research paper. If you’re familiar with Dr Goldacre’s website or you read a lot of sceptic-based blogs, there won’t be a lot here that’s new to you, but I still found this to be an entertaining and interesting summary of some major issues in modern medical science (or at least, how medical science is reported in newspapers, magazines and on television).

Miscellaneous Memoranda

I really liked Erin Bow’s suggestion of a SNOT award for books (“given to STORIES NOT to be read ON TRANSIT, the SNOT shall honor and mark books that will make you ugly-cry while on a crowded cross-town bus”). A SNOT sticker would have warned me, for example, against reading Feeling Sorry for Celia on the train to work one morning and thereby saved me a fair amount of embarrassment (because I have not yet learned how to weep in a neat and dignified manner).

The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, including an amusing one about her incisive parodies of D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb. There’s also a thoughtful discussion in the comments section of this article about the anti-Semitism in the book (which is definitely there, although I don’t think it’s quite as bad as many other English novels of the time).

As I’ve been talking about Jane Gardam’s novels lately, here’s an interesting profile of her.

And here’s yet another article about how mid-list authors are doomed, which I liked because it actually defined the term:

“A ‘mid-list’ author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name.”

So, I guess I might have moved from Emerging Writer to Mid-List Author, although I suspect I’d have an easier time getting my next book published if I was a Debut Author. After all, if publishers know from sad experience that your books do not sell in large (or even moderate) quantities, they are not going to fall over themselves to publish your next work, whereas if you’re completely unknown, there’s always a hope you’ll turn out to be the next J. K. Rowling. Okay, this is getting depressing. I need a squid to cheer me up.

Today’s squid is from that bastion of scientific accuracy, Popular Science Monthly, circa 1878.

The giant squid, 'Popular Science Monthly, Vol 14,  1878-1879'

Five Books, Five Songs: Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart

I had difficulties coming up with a song for my work-in-progress, so I asked the two main characters, Rosy and Jaz, for their opinions. Rosy immediately nominated Vincent by Don McLean, because Vincent van Gogh is her favourite artist and he makes an appearance in the book.

“It’s a very brief appearance, though, isn’t it?” I said. “I was hoping for a song that’s about the entire book.”

“Oh, right,” Rosy said. “You want something science-y, then. Never fear, I will use my amazing research skills to find a song for you.” She flipped open her laptop. “What about Weird Science by Oingo Boingo? Or She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby? Or Science Friction by XTC? Ooh, here’s a good one – Science Genius Girl by Freezepop! Or how about Biology by Girls Aloud? If only that song was a lot smaller. They could have called it Microbiology …”

I went off to find Jaz, who said she didn’t know anything about music but wanted to see what Rosy had discovered. When we returned, Rosy was still at it.

“Did you know that there’s a band called Placebo? And there’s a song called Bad Medicine. But I think you should go with a song from They Might Be Giants – they have loads of science songs. This one’s my favourite.”

“Is this song funny?” I asked. “Because the last song I chose for Five Books, Five Songs was really sad, so I need something cheerful.”

“It’s funny,” Rosy assured me. “Also, there’s a giant squid on the album cover.”

“But the lyrics say ‘koala bear’,” said Jaz, peering over my shoulder at the computer screen. “Koalas aren’t bears, they’re marsupials.”

“Well, They Might Be Giants aren’t Australian,” said Rosy. “Or scientists. You can’t expect them to know very much. They were probably getting koalas confused with drop bears.”

“At least they understand how the blood circulation system works,” said Jaz.

“William Harvey would love this song,” said Rosy, nodding.

“Right, then,” I said. “It’s decided. Mammal by They Might Be Giants. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Rosy.

“Okay,” said Jaz. “But, Michelle?”

“What?”

“You should stop messing about on the internet and get back to writing our book now.”

So I did.

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More in Five Books, Five Songs:

1. The Rage of SheepHester’s Request
2. A Brief History of MontmarayThe Sea Is Writhing Now
3. The FitzOsbornes in ExileDoing The Lambeth Walk
4. The FitzOsbornes at WarWe’ll Meet Again
5. The Work-in-Progress – Through The Large Four-Chambered Heart

Giant Squid Makes Film Debut

Yes, Memoranda brings you all the important news. Scientists from Japan’s National Science Museum have filmed the giant squid in its natural habitat for the first time, in the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean. Scientist Tsunemi Kubodera described the creature as “shining and so beautiful”, and estimated it would have been eight metres long if it hadn’t been missing its two longest arms.

By an amazing coincidence (well, not all that amazing, considering my interest in giant squid), I was only yesterday reading about Pierre Dénys de Montfort, the French naturalist whose claims about a “colossal octopus” that attacked ships were dismissed by his peers as sensationalist nonsense. Poor Pierre! Well, okay, maybe some of his illustrations were slightly exaggerated . . .

Pierre Denys de Montfort's 'Colossal Octopus' 1810
Pierre Dénys de Montfort’s ‘Colossal Octopus’ attacks a merchant ship, 1810

Montmorency

Having devoted an entire blog post to a cat, it’s only fair that I give dogs their turn during Animal Month here at Memoranda. I couldn’t think of any dog poems that I loved, but here are some excerpts about one of my favourite fictional dogs, Montmorency from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog).

“To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.”

Montmorency

When we first meet Montmorency, he is helping Jerome, Harris and George pack for their boating holiday, although the three men don’t always appreciate the dog’s assistance:

“Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.”

Montmorency has quite a few adventures during their holiday, including an encounter with a tomcat:

“I like cats; Montmorency does not.

When I meet a cat, I say, ‘Poor Pussy!’ and stop down and tickle the side of its head; and the cat sticks up its tail in a rigid, cast-iron manner, arches its back, and wipes its nose up against my trousers; and all is gentleness and peace. When Montmorency meets a cat, the whole street knows about it; and there is enough bad language wasted in ten seconds to last an ordinarily respectable man all his life, with care.”

Montmorency in a fightHowever, Montmorency has met his match with this particular Tom (“there was something about the look of that cat that might have chilled the heart of the boldest dog”). Montmorency also comes off the worst in an encounter with a kettle, but this doesn’t stop him helping with the cooking – for example, when the men decide to make an Irish stew:

“Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.”

Montmorency may have begun the book by advising the men not to embark on their trip (“He never did care for the river, did Montmorency”), but he valiantly supports them throughout their travails, so it’s only fitting that he has the last word:

“‘Well,’ said Harris, reaching his hand out for his glass, ‘we have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames—but I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men well out of a Boat!’

And Montmorency, standing on his hind legs, before the window, peering out into the night, gave a short bark of decided concurrence with the toast.”

Montmorency gets wet

Puffins and Giant Squid and Portuguese Water Dogs

It seems to have turned into Animal Month here at Memoranda.

Firstly, I read a wonderful story about a birding enthusiast who re-established a breeding colony of Atlantic puffins on the tiny island of Montmaray Eastern Egg Rock, off the coast of Maine. Stephen Kress and his colleagues used wooden decoys, recorded bird calls and mirrors to entice puffins and terns to nest on the island, and these techniques have now been used to help “restore 49 seabird species in 14 countries, including some extremely endangered bird species”.

Bo ObamaThen there was this story about Steve O’Shea, a marine biologist from New Zealand who is on a quest to capture (and breed) live giant squid, despite the many difficulties involved (for example, “Accustomed to living in a borderless realm, a squid reacts poorly when placed in a tank, and will often plunge, kamikaze-style, into the walls, or cannibalize other squid”). I also enjoyed Sy Montgomery’s description of the intelligence and creativity of giant Pacific octopuses1, who often do not appreciate being captured and studied by humans. According to Montgomery, “Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish—upon whom they have usually been dining.”

Finally, it was announced this week that the world’s most famous Portuguese water dog, Bo Obama, will remain in the White House for another four years. Well done, Bo.

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  1. Yes, apparently it’s octopuses. My Oxford dictionary says that “the word octopus comes from Greek, and the Greek plural form is octopodes. Modern usage of octopodes is so infrequent that many people mistakenly create the erroneous plural form octopi, formed according to rules for Latin plurals”.

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart

I am more of a dog person than a cat person, but I was completely charmed by Christopher Smart’s ode to his cat Jeoffry, when I first read it a few years ago. The Jeoffry verses are part of a much longer work, Jubilate Agno1, which was written sometime between 1759 and 1763. Christopher and Jeoffry were incarcerated at St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics at the time, which may account for what Robert Pinsky calls the “oddball, manic seriousness” of the poem.

Poor Christopher Smart died in a debtor’s prison a few years later, and Jubilate Agno was not published until 1939. Naturally, Rupert Stanley-Ross loved it and learned the Jeoffry section by heart, which is why he’s able to quote from it in The FitzOsbornes at War. There wasn’t room to quote the entire Jeoffry section in that book, so here it is, for those who are interested.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually — Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

'Six studies of a cat' by Thomas Gainsborough
‘Six studies of a cat’ by Thomas Gainsborough, 1763–70

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  1. The Jeoffry segment can be found in Fragment B, part 4.

Pigeon Power

Commando
Commando, one of the British pigeons who served in the National Pigeon Service during WWII
Carrier pigeon’s skeleton sparks WWII code mystery!1 Pigeons AND coded messages! My favourite kind of news article! Poor brave little pigeon.

On a cheerier note, here’s a news reel of some valiant pigeons who did make it home. It shows pigeons Gustav and Paddy being presented with the Dickin Medal, the animal version of the Victoria Cross.

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  1. Thanks for the link, Zoe.