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Cynthia Barnett – Rain

November 2, 2015

LibraryThing Early Reviewers54. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett (2015)

Length: 368 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction / Microhistory

Started: 07 August 2015
Finished: 19 August 2015

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? Microhistory and rain, I’m in.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 May 2015.

Rain, rain, go away…
or don’t, since you make for an
interesting book.

Summary: Rain is something that shapes each of our lives – whether by its abundance or its lack or just by getting caught out without an umbrella – yet it is something that most of us know relatively little about. In this book, Cynthia Barnett is out to change that, discussing rain’s role on our culture, starting with the rains that filled the oceans on primordial Earth, and how the lack of rain may have shaped our species’ evolution. She then moves through the relationship between rain and religion, weather forecasting in its early and modern forms, the effect of droughts on agriculture and American history and the effect of the monsoon elsewhere, cloud seeding, rain as depicted in art and literature, architecture designed with rain in mind, and the likely effects of global climate change on our relationship with the water that falls, proverbially, into each life, at least a little.

Review: I love me a good rainy day, so I was a natural fit for this book. And it was especially appropriate after moving from somewhere with occasional good solid steadily rainy days to somewhere with almost daily brief torrential downpours – at least during the summer when I read this. This book also ticks a lot of my non-fiction boxes: microhistory on a unique topic, a blend of science and culture and history, a good source of trivia, some exotic locations, etc. (Not to mention references to some of my favorites: Douglas Adams, Ray Bradbury, Doctor Who.) Barnett writes smoothly and engagingly, and seemed equally comfortable writing science as she did writing a travelogue. But what I most enjoyed about this book was the new perspective she gave on something so familiar. I learned a lot of history, sure, and brushed up on a lot of the science. But what I really took away from this was the moments of “Huh, you know, she’s right, we have a bunch of specific scientific terms for things like cloud formations, but no shared lexicon when it comes to types of rain.” (This was one of the Douglas Adams references, to So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.) I also thought her ideas about the relationship between rain and religion – that religions that were born in arid agricultural regions tend to be monotheistic, with God as a paternal figure that can give or withhold the precious rain, while regions that experience the yearly innundation of the monsoon tend to be polytheistic, and tend to have a cyclical vision of birth and death and rebirth – were fascinating. I don’t know how well they would hold up under intense scrutiny, but it’s certainly something interesting to consider. On a less grand scale, I also never realized before reading this book that the Morton Salt slogan “When it rains, it pours” slogan was a pun on the fact that the salt doesn’t clump (and thus will pour) in humid weather. So in general, I quite enjoyed this book, although of course there were some parts that I found less interesting and thus somewhat slower going than others. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like meterology, microhistories, or just a good rainy day, you’ll probably find something in this book that you didn’t know before. Worth the read.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: 8 Hamilton Ave., The Book Cove and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
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First Line: If you’ve ever admired a brilliant azure sky, and wondered how it was the heavens that day radiated such clear and dazzling color, you could probably thank a rain storm.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 21: “Rather than flashy thunderstorms, Seattle is known for salmon-silver clouds that drizzle through winter, just the way I found the skies on the morning I drove to the University of Washington to interview the weather pasha of the Pacific Northwest, atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Maas. ” – Used formerly as a title for military and civil officers, especially in Turkey and northern Africa.
    .
  • p. 24: “The annual drama makes monsoon season something of a holiday for people across south and east Asia, who throw colorful festivals, sing monsoon ragas, go for monsoon cures, hook up for monsoon romances (the eastern version of the summer romance), and dance barefoot in deep street puddles to rejoice in its arrival” – A traditional melodic type in Hindu music, consisting of a theme that expresses an aspect of religious feeling and sets forth a tonal system on which variations are improvised within a prescribed framework of typical progressions, melodic formulas, and rhythmic patterns.
    .
  • p. 157: “Also on this first line, Dyrenforth “made several mines or blasts by putting sticks of dynamite and rackarock into prairie-dog and badger holes,” he reported” – A Sprengel explosive consisting of potassium chlorate and mono-nitrobenzene.
    .
  • p. 212: “Likewise, the familiar, musty odor that rises from streets and storm ponds during an old-fashioned deluge is called geosmin.” – an organic compound with a distinct earthy flavor and aroma, and is responsible for the earthy taste of beets and a contributor to the strong scent (petrichor) that occurs in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather
    .
  • p. 219: “In the Siyarams’ clay pit, Mom, Dad, and their grown children are squatting in ankle-deep slurry, using their hands to shape parched yellow marl into clay disks” – A crumbly mixture of clays, calcium and magnesium carbonates, and remnants of shells that is sometimes found under desert sands and used as fertilizer for lime-deficient soils.
    .
  • p. 226: “Following the aldehydes, she might reach for a synthetic muguet to re-create Coco Chanel’s outcast lily of the valley.” – French term for lily of the valley
    .

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 8, 2015 9:40 pm

    This does look interesting! I’m putting it on my Goodreads TBR list right now. I love a good “microhistory” as you call it (great word, totally stealing it). I grew up in West Texas, where we prayed for rain almost every Sunday in church, where the high school closed down if it stormed because the campus flooded because the soil just couldn’t handle all that water at one time. And now I live on the Gulf Coast, hurricane territory, right on the edge of the flood plain, and rain is just as significant but in a completely different way. Thank you for the rec!

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