Book Reviews



When electric light was a scary idea

A book explores why people took decades to plug into having current in their homes


Dark Light

Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X-Ray

By Linda Simon
Harcourt 368 pp. $25

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Monday August 16, 2004

Snap, crackle, zzzzzap! Electric power lines hum with menace after a heavy storm, sparking a foresty fragrance of ozone incongruous with the raw danger of high voltage. You rush inside to the security of your home.

But what if it's scarier inside? Not because it's dark, but because there is light?

Linda Simon's Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X-Ray is a unique analysis of that time when homes were first illuminated with incandescent light. An era of rapid technological innovation amid media predictions of the utopian benefits of electrification, it was also a time when the average citizen was more comfortable having electrodes attached to private body parts than turning on a lightbulb.

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'Shadow' illuminates power of words



The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translated by Lucia Graves
Penguin Press. 487 pp.$24.95

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday, July 18, 2004

The book you are about to read will consume you in a way that can only be compared to the discovery and obsession of a first love. In your blindness to the world, you do not see the end coming - the edges of the pages now curling upward, loosing dark soot into the Barcelona sky, as fire destroys the book, its author, and you in the process.

These words, even if expressed, would not have helped Daniel Sempere, protagonist of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, avoid the losses and self-discovery that can only be experienced alone.

Daniel, you see, is reading The Shadow of the Wind.

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High jinks are back in life of Monty



The Pythons Autobiography

By The Pythons
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's 359 pp, $60

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Stand totally erect, straight-backed, bowler lodged firmly on your head. Now bring your right knee up, chin level. Back down in a semi-squat, then cluck like a chicken. Snap the right leg out viciously, haul it back in and then out again like a confused pendulum. The motion takes you forward for your first slithering step without disturbing the contents of your briefcase. Aaaah... you always remember your first Silly Walk.

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Travel writer Bill Bryson conducts engaging tour of 'nearly everything'



A Short History of Nearly Everything

By Bill Bryson
Broadway. 544 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday, August 31, 2003

If this is Tuesday, it must be Betelgeuse. Or could it be Olduvai Gorge?

There is no need to worry about missing any important sites because Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is the ultimate guide to the universe, taking you from the outer reaches of the cosmos to the mysterious molten interior of the Earth, and then into the even deeper, helically twisted landscape of our DNA.

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How the everyday objects that we use have transformed us



Our Own Devices

The Past and Future of Body Technology

By Edward Tenner
Knopf. 314 pp. $26

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday, June 8, 2003

For physicists, string theory is one of the great hopes for an ultimate theory of matter. However, this "theory of everything" leaves out some tiny details - human behavior, for example. In Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology, Edward Tenner focuses on everyday objects instead of subatomic particles. In this stellar fusion of how we design and use technology, and how technology in turn transforms us, the simple shoestring is a more appropriate path to understanding everything that matters.

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The Surveyor's Chain and America

Enlightenment ideals, land speculation and geometry intersect



Measuring America

How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy

By Andro Linklater
Walker. 310 pp. $26

Reviewed by Richard DiDio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002

For those confused about the difference between a "fifth" and "three-quarters of a liter" of Scotch, imagine purchasing libations in 18th-century America. After all, a Boston brewer's hogshead of beer, with two cooms, four kilderkins, eight rundlets, or 64 gallons, differed in size from a Pennsylvania hogshead, which in turn changed depending on whether beer was sold inside or outside an inn.

In Andro Linklater's remarkable Measuring America, attempts to standardize measurement units provide the backdrop to the development of the early American republic. Weaving a history of eccentric surveyors with Jeffersonian philosophy, Linklater suggests that America's democracy resulted from the interplay of Enlightenment ideals, land speculation and utilitarian geometry.

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The scientist-tycoon whose work on radar helped win WWII



Tuxedo Park

A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II

By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster 330 pp. $26

Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday, July 21, 2002

An eccentric, fabulously wealthy scientist performs groundbreaking experiments on the nature of time in his stone castle and, after hosting a sumptuous feast for his colleagues and friends, forces his guests to participate in brain-wave experiments while hypnotized. Something out of H.G. Wells or Mary Shelley? No, a real scene from the life of Alfred Lee Loomis, the extraordinary American financier, scientist, and philanthropist who played a pivotal role in the development of radar and the creation of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

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