Author: Mark Miodownik
Genre: Nonfiction; Science
Publisher: Mariner Books
Number of Pages: 272
Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist. Basically, he researches the stuff that makes up our lives. In this book, he describes several everyday materials like concrete, glass, and paper through a scientific lens. He explores the history of how each material was discovered or invented, but also delves into the specific characteristics which allow that material to behave the way it does.
I found this a fascinating read. Although there is a lot of science in this book, Miodownik does a very good job of describing the processes and concepts in a way the general reader can understand.
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Dystopia
Original Publisher: Scholastic
Number of Pages: 384
Set in a dystopian/post-apocalyptic America, the book is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from a poor District of Panem. Since her father’s death in a mine explosion several years before the events of the book, Katniss has kept her family alive by using hunting and gathering skills in the forests just beyond the District fence. The story opens the morning of Reaping Day, when tributes are selected for the annual Hunger Games.
The Ties That Bind
You may be wondering what a non-fiction science book and a YA dystopian novel could possibly have in common. It’s all in the details—literally.
In Stuff Matters, Miodownik takes a picture of himself sitting at a table on a rooftop and, chapter by chapter, delves into the history and molecular structures of each and every thing in that picture: glass, concrete, ceramic china, paper chocolate, even the human body.
For example, the first chapter, “Indomitable” starts with the subject of stainless steel razor blades, rewinds back to the Stone Age, then makes the journey back to the present via chisels, the pyramids, Excalibur, Samurai swords, and the industrial revolution. He explains that metal structures are actually crystalline and that carbon (which can be found in any fire) changes the chemical structure of iron. By the time I finished reading the chapter and was presented again with the picture of Miodownik on the roof, I had found a new appreciation for the steel legs holding up his coffee table.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss also pays incredible attention to detail. In her case, this is mostly a survival mechanism—Katniss is always looking for the strings attached to a gift or the secret meaning behind every conversation. One scene that particularly shows Katniss’s exhausting scrutiny takes place in the Capitol when she sits down for a meal which appears at the touch of a button.
“He presses a button on the side of the table. The top splits and from below rises a second tabletop that holds our lunch. Chicken and chunks of oranges cooked in a creamy sauce laid on a bed of pearly white grain, tiny green peas and onions, rolls shaped like flowers, and for dessert, a pudding the color of honey.
I try to imagine assembling this meal for myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods. I don’t recognize the grain; our own tessera ration cooks down to an unattractive brown mush. Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version.”
When Katniss looks at anything, whether a meal, a tool, an animal, or even another person, she has trained herself to look deeper and recognize attributes and potential inconsistencies that others might not notice. She uses these insights to size up people and situations in her daily attempts to stay alive.
The narrators of both books invest ample time and energy to take a closer look at everyday objects others may take for granted. Furthermore, they use the knowledge they gain from this scrutiny to their advantage—one as a scientist the other as a survivor.
Side note: Both Mark Miodownik and Katniss seem to have a penchant for hanging out on rooftops.
Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion by Jeff Parker & Pasha Malla and The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn