Book Review: Rain, Cynthia Barnett

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When I was a child, my father always told me that I would begin enjoying nonfiction books when I grew up. I never imagined I would begin to prefer nonfiction over fiction, but today, I am writing a review about a book on the natural and cultural history of rain, so I guess I am officially grown up. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain mainly caught my eye because Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice sentence about the book that was printed on the front cover: “A lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book.” I have a lot of respect for Kolbert, so while I won’t call her a liar, after I finished the book, I noticed she didn’t actually tell me the book was worth reading.

Rain: a Natural and Cultural History is an ambitious book that tries to cover a little bit of everything, such as explaining the rain cycle, the invention of waterproof raincoats, and whether rainy cities like Seattle spark creative genius. The book is half thought provoking and half fun trivia. It kept my interest, and I learned a slew of new facts that I used to impress my sister, the resident water-expert, such as the fact that Mobile, Alabama is the rainiest metro area in the country. However, the book was all over the place, jumping around in time, location, and themes. The book is broken into five seemingly arbitrary sections (for example Elemental Rain, Mercurial Rain, and American Rain.) Barnett tries to thread it all together by bringing up the same scientists every few pages throughout the book, but instead of creating a cohesive thesis, it makes the book seem disorganized and all over the place. While Barnett’s passion for her subject is palpable, I wish she would have spent more time editing and organizing the book. Some of the writing is confusing and unclear. Halfway through the book, Barnett starts writing in the first person to tell us about her travels chasing rain in Meghalaya, which both threw me off and annoyed me – where were you earlier?

I also have a bone to pick with nonfiction literature in general these days. Maybe it’s the law school rubbing off on me, but where are your footnotes and sources? I am a big fact checker and was disappointed at the glibness with which Barnett treats sources and studies. In the Introduction, for example, she tells us that rain had a huge impact on the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. According to Barnett, if it hadn’t rained, Gore would have won the election, but I didn’t see a study cited for this in the endnotes, and she didn’t expand further on this bold statement. I expected further elaboration on either rain’s impact on the election or on people’s decision making behaviors later in the book, but alas, much like Barnett’s search for rain in Meghalaya, the explanations never came.

Cynthia Barnett seems like someone I would love to have on my trivia team or to grab a cup of coffee with one day, but I think I’ll have to respectfully decline reading her next book. While I did learn a few new things and discovered an interest in understanding how urban planning can disrupt the rain cycle, I think there must be better book out there on these subjects. I don’t regret reading this book, but I don’t think I’d really suggest it to anyone else.

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I’d only recommend this book to people who spend hours perusing Wikipedia for fun or who are looking to brush up on their rain trivia for a geography bee.

Additional Reading:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • If you’re interested in urban planning and rain, I’d recommend starting with Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on The Siege of Miami.
  • In case you’re curious about rain’s impact on the 2000 election, the National Constitution Center writes about it.
  • In case you want to read this book and argue with me about whether it is actually the best science writing ever, you can find Rain on Amazon. Or if you ask me nicely, I may mail you my copy.

Books I Read in October

Is it just me or has this year flown by? October was a relatively quiet month for me – with the exception of my trip to California, I stayed in pajamas at home for the bulk of the month. I read six books this month, which is about average for me this year. I read a memoir, a nonfiction book, two books of fiction, and two books of poetry. In chronological order, here are the books I read in October.

yes pleaseAmy Poehler’s Yes Please – Before this book, I only had a vague idea of who Amy Poehler is. I knew her as a feminist, the best friend of Tina Fey, and one of the creators of Smart Girls. I chose to listen to Amy Poehler reading the book, because I’m a firm believer that anytime a comedian or actor writes a book, listening to them read it is 100x better. Since reading the book, I’ve become obsessed with Parks & Recreation, and I will probably read the book again in a year. I think this book is probably more enjoyable for true Poehler fans, because a lot of the book talks about the specifics of her career and journey. I enjoyed the book, but think I’ll enjoy it more in the future.

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the sound and the fury

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – This was probably the most difficult books I’ve read all year, but also one of the most beautiful and rewarding. I would highly recommend it to just about anyone. Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style is frustrating at first, but a friend recommended that I sit down and read a big chunk of it at a time, so that I can really get into the rhythm of the book. This was exactly what I needed to do, rather than reading 10 pages at a time on the bus, so that’s my advice to you as well!

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sixth extinctionElizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction has been on my to-read list ever since I watched a work-in-progress cut of Six (now Racing Extinction) two years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. The book is cleverly organized into 13 chapters, each studying the extinction of a different species. The chapters build upon each other until we see the history of man’s understanding of and contribution to the concept of a mass extinction. I found the book enjoyable and fascinating, but also hopelessly depressing. I think Kolbert is an upbeat pessimist, who is able to write cheerily about things that she thinks will inevitably lead to our doom.

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telephone ringingAdrienne Rich’s Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth is the second book of Adrienne Rich’s that I’ve read this year. I found the themes hauntingly similar to the first book I read, even though they were written forty years apart. I wrote a short review of the book last week, so for today, I thought I’d share another quote.

If the word gets out if the word
escapes if the word
flies if it dies
it has its way of coming back
The handwritings on the walls
are vast and coded

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magiciansLev Grossman’s The Magicians – Okay, I have a confession. I almost never reread books. I have only read the Harry Potter books once, even though I thought I was a Potterhead. (I’ve come to accept that I am not really one.) This is the first book I’ve reread in years, and you know what? It was even better than I remembered! Dark, smart, and hilarious – this is absolutely everything that I want in a fantasy novel. I’m currently rereading The Magician’s King now in preparation of reading the third book of the trilogy as well as the television adaptation. Have you seen the preview? I’m nervous and excited!

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the gold cellSharon Old’s The Gold Cell – This is one of the more deeply personal and insightful books of poetry that I’ve read this year. Olds dissects her own life for us in search of what it means to be a human, a mother, a daughter, a wife. After reading the book, I really felt a connection with her, like I knew more about her life and how she thinks and processes things than I know about even some of my closest friends. The book is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, because parts of it can be quite explicit or uncomfortable, but I think it will actually make you a more compassionate person for having read it.

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I’m a lucky girl this month, because there wasn’t a single book that I didn’t like on this list. If you only read one of these books, I would have to say read Faulkner. Have you read any of these? What did you read in October? What should I read in November?