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INTERVIEW WITH SAM KEEN
Sam Kean is a science writer currently working at Science Magazine in Washington D.C. He has written for Mental Floss, Slate, The New York Times Magazine and Air and Space. His first book, THE DISAPPEARING SPOON: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99/ Back Bay, $14.99), brings a human element to the elements. He illustrates both the history and the science behind the periodic table of elements through stories of greed, folly, genius and politics. Mr. Kean takes a chart dreaded as dull and indecipherable since its conception and brings it to life with engaging, astonishing tales. Anna Thorn, one of our booksellers, asked Mr. Kean about chemistry class, his varied interests, and why lady chemists have often seemed to deserve pity. Here is an excerpt; click here for the rest of the interview. We hope it will entice you to join us this Friday at 7p.m. when he visits us at the store!
AT: One of my favorite things about The Disappearing Spoon is the amazing breadth of knowledge that you bring to the exploration of the periodic table. You write about history, biology, economics, mythology and many other subjects. You majored in physics and literature and have a masters' in library science. With all these fascinating interests, what inspired you to write a book about chemistry?
SK: I actually don't consider it a book about chemistry! Or rather, it's only partly about chemistry. It's really about the periodic table, and I knew that the table intersects with so many different areas of life that I wouldn't be limited to chemistry. As for why I started writing the book, I knew a few of the tales from teachers and other sources over the years, and I just thought it would be great to get them all in one place, and cover the entire table, top to bottom, every element. I really liked the idea of completeness there, since there are so many elements we never get to talk about in class.
AT: Did you have a favorite chapter or story to write or research?
SK: I really enjoyed the chapter about the Soviet-American element naming war during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It's probably the most narrative chapter in the book, and it also illustrates so well the messy way that real scientific research gets done.
AT: After exploring the tumultuous history of the periodic table, do you have any insights about the likely role of any particular elements in the future?
SK: Well, we'll definitely keep adding new elements to the table -- two more actually just got added to the table in early June, numbers 114 and 116. People always want to know if these heavy elements, which fall apart in less than a second in most cases, have any real use. And the short answer is no. But making ultraheavy elements can help scientists refine their theories and equipment, which can have trickle-down effects. And just as important, I think it satisfies something about human nature to keep exploring and keep pushing past the boundaries nature sets. So these elements are important beyond the narrow sense of having use in industry.
Amid all the hoopla, protest, and outright disgust (Carmen Callil of the feminist publishing house Virago) shown toward the Man Booker International for awarding Philip Roth a lifetime achievement award, it was great to see the announcement in the New York Times of some young writers receiving awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, received the Benjamin H. Danks Award in Literature. Becca Kirk, one of our former staff members, called her stories "compelling... darkly imaginative, heartbreaking, and beautifully written."
Brando Skyhorse was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the 2011 Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for The Madonnas of Echo Park. I wrote this review before he came to visit our store so I thought I would share it again.
We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.
Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, THE MADONNAS OF ECHO PARK (Free Press, $14), recounts the lives of Mexican Americans living in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, once a fashionable home for people in the movie business and now a working-class community. Through a series of shifting points of view, we meet Felicia, a cleaning lady, and her daughter Aurora. We meet Efren Mendoza, a bus driver, and his brother Manny former jefe of the street gang Locos and father to Juan who’s just enlisted in the Army. And there are others -- all of these people who make up a neighborhood, people we see every day, never imagining the richness of their lives, or knowing how they intersect.The title comes from an incident that shaped the whole community, an act of violence, an accidental shooting, affecting some tangentially and affecting others deeply and crucially. This is a fine and beautiful novel by any standard, but as a first novel, it is astoundingly good.
Many of our booksellers enjoyed these books by these talented young authors, and we hope that you will, too.
- Mark LaFramboise
This has been another year of posthumous books. A new edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain came out late last year, and The Pale King, the unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace, finally was published by his editor. These and others (2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson) made us think about the many books that became famous only after the author was no longer around to reap the praise. Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was released just days after he died, and he had fully completed the book, but other authors did not consider their manuscripts to be ready for the world, and were even tormented by the sense that their work was incomplete. Geoff Dyer wrote:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author's reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author's stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being.
- Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (Picador, $15)
Gilbert Cruz wrote more about the subject in a 2009 Time Magazine article about readers' appetite for dead authors' unpublished works. Click here for more posthumously published books that we believe deserve to be read.
This has been another year of books published after the author has died. Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was released just days after he died. A new edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain came out late last year, and The Pale King, the unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace, finally was published by his editor. These and others (2666 by Roberto Bolaño, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson) made us think about the many books that became famous only after the author was no longer around to reap the praise. As Geoff Dyer wrote:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author’s stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being.- Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (Picador, $15)
Gilbert Cruz wrote more about the subject in a 2009 Time Magazine article about longing readers' appetite for dead authors' unpublished works, even those they had not considered worthy of circulation. Here are some of the notable books that we do believe deserve to be read.
MAY IS SHORT STORY MONTH
May is short story month and our booksellers have created a display of some of their favorite collections.
No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to thrown down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.
And so begins YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE (Amy Einhorn, $23.95), eight stories in which Siobhan Fallon takes us into the world of Fort Hood during wartime: a place where families struggle, wives miss their husbands and children rebel. For most of us, the sacrifice of war is left to others, but in this collection we’re allowed to peek in the windows of the people who give up the most: a wife who hacks her husband’s email overseas searching for clues of infidelity, a wounded soldier returning home, a runaway teenager. Each story is emotionally acute, beautifully written and will leave you haunted and in awe of this world that feels foreign, but is not so far away. - Jennifer Close
Yes, it's absolutely true: T.C. Boyle is a master storyteller. In "Balto," a young girl is asked to lie in court for her alcoholic father; in "Sin Dolor," a young boy living in squalor astonishes a community—including its detached doctor—with his inability to feel physical pain; in the title story, WILD CHILD (Penguin, $16), Boyle chronicles the heartbreaking tale of the Savage of Aveyron, implicitly asking, “who are the real savages?” Boyle frequently works with issues of social and environmental justice. These tales of humanity brought to weakness by the natural world and our own flawed nature prove that Boyle captures human folly and frailty better than any of his contemporaries. - Lacey Dunham
Mailie Maloy's second collection of short stories, BOTH WAYS IS THE ONLY WAY I WANT IT ( Riverhead, $15), is so quiet that many climaxes tiptoe by, only to make themselves felt later, as you turn them over in your mind: You'll be washing dishes or brushing your teeth and realize, suddenly, why the perversely casual relationship between a dead woman's father and her murderer's girlfriend in "The Girlfriend" resonates with so much truth; or why you felt so uncomfortable reading the benign "Travis, B.,” where a lonely young man with a limping gait falls in love with a young lawyer he will never see again. Meloy draws her characters through each story with simple, unfettered prose it is easy to lose yourself in. - Lacey Dunham
So you think Pevear & Volokhonsky's translations have introduced you to Russian literature? Think again, and meet your contemporaries. A WEREWOLF PROBLEM IN CENTRAL RUSSIA: And Other Stories, by Victor Pelevin (New Directions, $13.95) and THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL HER NEIGHBOR'S BABY: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin, $15) will introduce you to the rough impact on ordinary citizens during the transition at the end of the Soviet period to the failures of the new economy. In classic yet shockingly current Russian style, Pelevin plays with the surreal and absurb; Petrushevskaya explores the realm of strange occurences and fantasy; throughout their stories, there is a relentless hope and longing for a better, more deeply meaningful existence. Aren't these elements what make everyday reality so shockingly brutal and harsh, but also bearable? Because if we can't laugh at bizarre twists of fate and escape into dreams, what else does the world have to offer? - Andrew Getman
Each of Julie Orringer’s short stories in HOW TO BREATHE UNDERWATER (Vintage, $14) features a young woman on the cusp of something—an adolescent on the brink of adult experience, a teenager caught between childhood and independence, a college student hovering nervously on the edge of the "real world." Orringer approaches these thresholds with precision and grace. But each story is also shot through with darkness—an undercurrent of violence that disrupts her characters' coming-of-age. Orringer's debut collection emotionally unsettling and completely, compellingly original. - Liz Sher
NEW! SHOPPING ONLINE: Gift Card Payment Option for Google eBooks
Google eBooks are available through www.politics-prose.com. Our eBooks can be read on iPads, Sony Readers, Kobos, Nook, and other digital readers. Now, in response to your requests, customers also can use P&P gift cards to buy Google eBooks from Politics & Prose! Simply enter the number on the back of the card as your method of payment. As with your other shopping on our website, if there is not enough balance on the gift card to cover the eBook purchase, you will be prompted to enter a credit card as well.
While it is not yet possible to give an eBook as a gift, you now can give a P&P gift card along with a book recommendation so that your gift recipient can use the card to add the book to his or her personal electronic library. If it's not convenient to come into the store to pick up your gift card, we can generate a gift card number to use as an online gift certificate. Call us for more details!
Here are two bestselling books available electronically from P&P, click here to see more.