The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

“I’ve spent years living safely to secure a longer life, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m at the finish line but I never ran the race.”

― Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End

Banned Book

Today, I received an internet ad from a rare book site. I usually ignore these completely and easily, but this one caught my eye. It was for a copy of the “Rare” book – The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments – accompanied by a photo of the cover. I instantly recognized that cover, because my parents had bought me a copy (which I eventually completely wore out until if fell apart) when I was in… third grade or so.

In a week, I’m going to retire, which will be the end of a forty-five plus year career as a chemist. I’ve worked in a mine, cleaning up toxic waste sites, responding to chemical spills and accidents, running an analytical lab, working in arguably the biggest  paint factory in the world, and supporting a sophisticated microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing factory. All of this, for good or for bad, pretty much began with that book (along with a chemistry set)  when I was in third grade.

I spent untold hours trying out all of the experiments that the book held that I could assemble the raw materials and equipment for… and more untold hours poring over the experiments and demonstrations that I couldn’t find the equipment for. My chemistry set – it came in a double folding metal cabinet – chemicals in plastic bottles on one side – laboratory glassware, including an alcohol burner, on the other. I remember spilling my precious phenolphthalein powder and thinking, “I’ll never see any of that cool stuff again!” – I had no idea (I have done more acid/base titrations in my life that an human should be forced to do).

I especially enjoyed setting up an apparatus for the electrolytic separation of water into oxygen and hydrogen. For someone that young – hydrogen explosions are cool.

This “rare” book appearing in a random email ad brought back so many memories – piled one upon the other – back from decades and decades ago.

But the question is, why is that book “rare.” Thousands of parents must have bought that book for their kids like mine did – I’m sure every school library had a copy.

The problem is, a few years after I had my grubby paws on my copy – someone realized that there was some dangerous stuff in the book. It tells how to make chlorine (though not, in my opinion, dangerous quantities) and talks about several reagents that have since been identified as potential carcinogens (but what hasn’t, really). So the book was banned, removed from library shelves, and destroyed as a menace to society. Chemistry sets too, like the one I had, are not available anymore. It is not considered safe to have third graders in the basement melting sulfur with an alcohol burner – no matter how much fun, how educational, and how bad-smelling that is.

It didn’t help that the book inspired one kid to try and build his own atomic breeder reactor. From Wikipedia:

The book was also believed to be a source of inspiration to David Hahn, nicknamed “the Radioactive Boy Scout” by the media, who attempted to construct a nuclear reactor in his mother’s shed,[2] although the book does not include any nuclear reactions.

It’s a shame. Danger is overrated. Risk is not understood – not balanced against the possible reward. How many future chemists ended up studying “Blank” Studies in college, instead of something useful. Useful and dangerous – in my mind the two words are synonymous.

I see that the PDF of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments is available as a free download. If my kids were still small – I’d download it, print it out, and see if they are interested.

Nana

“She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes…The fly that had come from the dungheap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostrate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever.”

― Emile Zola , Nana

Nana, 1877 (oil on canvas) by Manet, Edouard (1832-83)

Let’s see how long it has been…. It was September, 2018 when I started reading the twenty novel Rogon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola. Last night, I finished Nana, the seventeenth in the recommended reading order (though it was only the ninth published).

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Now there are only three to go. I’ll finish before September, so it will have been a four-year reading project – which seems nuts – but I have read a lot of other books too. I just keep coming back.

Nana is one of the best known of the series, and is one that I read first, years ago. No problem in repeating it, though, I remembered very little and the translation I read this time was superior and not as bowdlerized.

We first saw Nana in the amazing L’Assommoir – she was the laundress Gervaise’s beautiful, precocious, and trouble making daughter – who at the end of that novel was living on the streets and introduced to the life of a prostitute. Here she has continued down that path until she was the untalented but frighteningly sexy star of the theater – appearing practically naked in a production called La blonde Vénus, and creating a scandalous shockwave through Parisian society – one that nobody really recovers from.

Nana is a force of nature, a being of pure sexuality and no common sense that destroys everything and everyone that comes into contact with her.

With this subject matter it was going to be a racy book – but I was surprised at its frank sexuality. For example, I didn’t remember the plot thread of lesbianism that ran through the story from the first time I read it, years ago. This theme might have been edited out – or I might have simply missed it – probably a bit of both. There are a few scenes of raw sexuality – such as the passage where Nana spends time admiring her nude image in a full-length mirror while her lover waits in bed. Really heady stuff.

The book starts out slow – there are the numerous crowd scenes that Zola is known for – effectively written but a bit of a slog – so many French names – until you get to know the characters. An online character list was a big help. After a few chapters the pace picks up until, near the end, Nana is destroying another man in almost every other paragraph.

So, all in all, a rewarding read. I can see why it is near the top of the Zola canon – a little too flamboyant to be with the classics like L’Assommoir or Germinal – but still…

Now I’m excited… on to La Terre. Seventeen down – only three to go.

Load It Up

“ Give up all hope, all illusion, all desire..I’ve tried. I’ve tried and still I desire, I still desire not to desire and hope to be without hope and have the illusion I can be without illusions..Give up, I say. Give up everything, including the desire to be saved.”
― Luke Rhinehart, The Dice Man

Kindle
Call Me Ishmael

I have not been reading enough lately. I’m struggling through another Zola, Nana, and a couple other books – but I decided to refill the tank… maybe get some new game going. So I dug out my lists of books I want to read – went out on the internet – and bought a half-dozen new virtual tomes to load into my Kindle.

1. The Dice Man by Luke Reinhardt – I’ve read this one before, but want to re-visit it. I also picked up The Book of the Die as a companion volume – plus a set of dice, of course.

2. The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter

3. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – this is the book that Tarkovsky’s great film, Stalker, it based on.

4. Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey. I’ve been wanting to read this for a decade.

5. How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell. Have to have at least one non-fiction how-to tome.

6. Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle. Another non-fiction – this one a biography. I read Sex and Rockets, a book about the amazing and strange life of Jack Parsons several years ago, this is another take on the story.

But the question remains… which one to start first.

Well, there are six of them, and in the spirit of the first book I took out a single die and let it roll.

Now it’s off to go read.

Lanzarote

“Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.”
― Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Striding Figure (RomeI), Thomas Houseago, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

Somehow, I don’t know how, I was introduced to the French writer Michel Houellebecq. He was described as controversial, racist, and pornographic – in addition to being one of the most renowned modern French novelists. So, of course, I had to read him.

I collected a few ebooks and decided to start with something short. I chose a novela (84 odd, odd pages) called Lanzarote. The first person narrator is a man without purpose or hope… it starts out:

MID-WAY THROUGH THE afternoon on 14 December 1999, I realised that my New Year was probably going to be a disaster – as usual. I turned right on to the Avenue Felix-Fauré and walked into the first travel agency I found. The assistant was busy with a customer. She was a brunette wearing some sort of ethnic top; she had had her left nostril pierced; her hair had been hennaed. Feigning a casual air, I began picking up brochures from the displays.

Pretty much by accident he ends up going for holiday to an island called Lanzarote. At first, I thought Houellebecq made the place up – but I realized (and did some research) to discover it is the northernmost of the Canary Islands – in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Lanzarote is pretty much a volcanic wasteland – with a couple of passable beaches. According to the novel, it never rains there.

Somehow, the narrator manages to meet another man, a cop from Belgium, who is even more alienated and hopeless than he is. He also runs into a couple of German women of indeterminate sexuality. And yes, there are some pornographic passages (not too many, luckily).

The narrator pretty much goes with the flow – trying to get through the days as easily as possible while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket all around him. He’s not a bad person, but not really a good one either… though I guess he does his best.

So, did I like it? Yes, I did… though I’m not sure why. Will I read more Houellebecq? Yes, I will. I found a list of recommended novels in order of quality (Titles of the English translations):

7.Whatever

6.H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (a short essay – easily found online)

5.Platform

4.Submission

3.The Map and the Territory

2.The Possibility of an Island

1.The Elementary Particles

Might as well start at the best…. I now have a copy of The Elementary Particles on my Kindle. I think I’ll go to bed and read a little. Tomorrow comes soon enough.

The Pendulum Ran Its Course

“Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called ‘the simple pendulum’.”
― Jean Bernard Léon Foucault

Ice Sculpture

Let me look back… it was October 1 of last year when my Difficult Reads Book Club began plowing through Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. One of the reasons we chose that book was because it was a bit shorter (a mere 642 pages) than the other’s we have tackled (Gravity’s Rainbow – 770 pages, The Brothers Karamazov – only 586) and we planned to be finished well before Christmas. There were some delays… COVID related, death in the family, which delayed the schedule and we didn’t get to the end until the New Year.

It was not an overly popular book and a good number (most) of my fellow readers dropped off before we reached the conclusion. I stuck it out, however… and am glad I did.

The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a thinking-man’s Da Vinci Code – but it turned out to be more of a satire on the genre than a homage. Humberto Eco was asked about the popular book:

INTERVIEWER: Have you read The Da Vinci Code?

ECO: Yes, I am guilty of that too.

INTERVIEWER: That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.

ECO: The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

I like the idea that Dan Brown is a character from the book. It fits (except that Foucault’s Pendulum was written first).

So the book kept surprising me. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot of the center sections – they were a long, long list of various obscure (and not-so-obscure) semi-supernatural groups from history and explanations of the fictional connections between them. I understood the point right at the beginning, but there were hundreds of dense pages to make sure that point was driven home.

All through all of this, I could not imagine how it would all end. And it ended in a way I could never have imagined. There was a climactic scene of insanity and bizarre violence that answered no questions at all. It was fun. Then there was a final section of quiet nostalgic contemplation and an slight sense of almost closure – with plenty of mystery remaining.

It was a thought provoking book – I’m not sure if it was worth the effort – but I haven’t read anything remotely like it before (and doubt I ever will again).

So now we’re taking a break – I’m catching up with some of my other reading – and then we’ll decide on our next project. We are thinking about a selection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels (The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) and one other) – which sounds good to me. I’ve read Left Hand when I was a kid but remember little about it.

So many books, so little time.

The World is Full of Monsters

The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The World is Full of Monsters

Trinity River Bottoms, Dallas, Texas

The world is invaded by horrible monsters – monsters that take the form of stories. The world is destroyed and changed over a hundred years and the author, a writer, is taken over by a monstrous story-packet left on the stoop.

I found this bit of fiction as an audio book on Hoopla. Hoopla… if you don’t know about it – it’s a streaming service that is offered through local libraries. You really need to check it out if you have a card from a booklender that offers membership – there’s some good shit in there. And as far as I can tell, none of the stories it offers are invading the earth.

I’ve been a fan of Jeff VanderMeer, the author, of The World is Full of Monsters, for a while now – ever since reading The Dead Astronauts for the Wild Detectives Book Club. I find his mutating, doomed characters distasteful, but in a good way. Borne is greatness. So I saw this on Hoopla, and decided to give it a listen.

It was a tough, long day at work, and I needed a break, so I listened to the audiobook on my phone, sitting at my desk, office door closed, eyes mostly shut. It helped.

Then, I discovered that the story is published by Tor… and there is a copy online here:

This World Is Full of Monsters | Tor.com

Enjoy.

Foucault’s Pendulum

“I love the smell of book ink in the morning.”
― Umberto Eco

Half-Price Books Clearance Sale, Market Hall, Dallas, Texas

It’s that time again, my Difficult Reading Book Club has started to tackle another tome.

It started with Gravity’s Rainbow. I saw this sign, a couple of years ago, at The Wild Detectives bookstore in Bishop Arts. We met there (a bit of a trip for me) every Wednesday evening for several months as we slogged through the difficult, but fantastic, book together.

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

Then came COVID, and a long pause.

But, using Zoom, we started up again virtually, and read The Brother’s Karamazov and then Murakami’s 1Q84 together.

I’m not sure how I think about the whole Zoom meeting thing for book club. I miss the one-on-one, of course. But it is such a long trip to the book store, and there is something interesting about the dynamic of talking to those little heads in boxes. I think everybody being at home, in a place they are comfortable, makes the conversation interesting. Still….

And now we’re doing another. Last night we had our kickoff meeting (no reading yet) for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

I’m stoked. I have never read Eco before – though I bought a copy of The Island of the Day Before and prepared to read it a couple decades ago – never started. There are some familiar faces in the Zoom and some new ones. Some of the folks are particularly interested in Kabbalah – and are reading it for that reason. We discussed conspiracy theories in the opening meeting (as an icebreaker everyone told their favorite conspiracy theory -mine was that Any Kaufman faked his own death).

I mentioned that there is a real Foucault Pendulum in Downtown Dallas, in the lobby of the Hunt building near Klyde Warren Park. A field trip is in order.

We discussed challenging vocabulary and decided that each meeting each person is to bring a word they learned from that week’s assigned reading. We discussed reading translations vs. books written in English.

Now I’m stoked again. I need to go read.

1Q84

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

The moon rising over the Dallas skyline and the pond at Trammell Crow Park. From the October Full Moon Ride.

It started on May 5 and ended a week ago – I read all of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. The book is roughly a thousand pages long and I read it in conjunction with my Difficult Read Book Club. We used to meet every week at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. Since Covid put the kebash on all of that we have met on Zoom for the last two books, Brothers Karamazov and 1Q84.

It’s really a great way to read a long/difficult book. There is a weekly goal of a certain number of pages so the herculean task is split into manageable chunks. There is a group of like minded folk to bounce questions off of and keep you interested. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

Was the book good?

Yes, it was very good – I enjoyed it immensely. I is for everyone?

No. It is a very odd book, with an unusual structure. It is amazingly politically incorrect. It makes no sense in a lot of places. No spoilers, but the ending definitely does not tie up all the loose ends.

Here’s a guy that really didn’t like it:

He is looking for a conventional narrative (evidence for this are all the books on the shelf behind him). 1Q84, like I said, is not a conventional narrative. It exists in its own world.

Here’s one of the many, many folks that liked the novel:

I like his take – and I like the drink he made.

Our Difficult Reads Book Club will have a party soon at the Wild Detectives to celebrate in person reading 1Q84 and Brothers Karamazov – which we read earlier. At the party we will find out what our next book will be – it will be a shorter work so we can finish before Christmas. I’m excited, can’t wait.

Kinokuniya

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Pomodoro
My Pomodoro timer, Moleskine, and Ivory Pilot Prera fountain pen.

We’re a couple weeks into the Difficult Reads Book Club devouring of Haurki Murakami’s long novvel 1Q84. Tonight, we had our Zoom meeting to discuss chapters 8 through 14.

One cool thing, for me, was when one of the two point-of-view protagonists, Tengo, went into a Tokyo bookstore, Kinokuniya. I liked that because there is a Kinokuniya bookstore in Plano, Texas, not very far from where I live, and it’s one of my favorite places.

I stumbled across the bookstore online and knew I wold love the place. It’s not so much the books… it’s the other stuff. The place is a cornucopia of pens, fountain pens, art supplies, notebooks, paper… all that sort of stuff.

I had a tough time finding it the first time I went up there. It’s actually a big room off of the food court of a big Asian grocery store at Highway 75 and Legacy Drive. It’s packed with cool stuff. I’ve bought a couple pens there, some ink, and, especially, a few packs of fountain pen friendly paper (Tomoe River ).

The place is crowded… chock-a-block with cool stuff. I could look for hours. So what I do is set goals for myself and start setting a little bit of money aside. When I reach my goal, I’ll drive down to Kinokuniya and treat myself to something with the cash I’ve accumulated.

This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

DRBC

“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Recycled Books Denton, Texas

In January through March of 2019 (that feels like a different age) I went every Wednesday after work clear across town to a bookstore called The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. I had stumbled into a reading group there that tackled long, difficult books called The Difficult Reading Book Club. We finished our book, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, then had a celebration. For various reasons I skipped the next book (a set of three tomes by Virginia Woolf – though I wasn’t afraid – who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf) and then COVID hit.

For a year we didn’t do any reading, but finally momentum built and for a couple months we did a weekly Zoom meeting read of The Brother’s Karamazov. I actually liked not having to make the long trip after work and a reading group is particularly suited for remote computerized interaction.

And today we had our kickoff meeting for our latest difficult (and long) challenge – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been avoiding spoilers for the novel, but did learn some useful facts from this meeting.

Murakami is known for including music in his works – and there is, of course, a Spotify Playlist associated with the book (actually a handful of them).

an interesting article:

A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, With Murakami Himself

I’m excited – another journey, a challenge, and an opportunity to learn something.

Time to read a bit before I go to bed.