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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Format: Paperback|Change
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Primo Levi’s 1975 book is a joy to read, taking as it does certain elements from the periodic table and creating tales around them. Apart from two actual short stories here the rest of the pieces are autobiographical, and so we have incidents and anecdotes from the life of the author.

Voted as the best science book ever written in I believe 2006 by the Royal Institution, it may seem slightly weird that this could be classified as such, although when you think about it without chemical reactions there would be no us, and the planet would be just another dead rock orbiting the sun. So what we end up with here is a series of pieces that do have direct bearings on the headings, or sometimes in a more allegorical or prosaic way.

We thus follow Levi through this as he gives us a piece about his family history and name changes, to growing up, living under Fascist rule and working, onto his partisan activities and incarceration, and then life after the war as Europe started to rebuild itself.

There is some wry humour here and at times it pays to look at the translator’s footnotes as some items here are wordplays on names which obviously you will miss reading this in English. Making for an enjoyable and thoughtful read this is something that can give you a lot to ponder upon and shows up life as it is, rather than something seen through rose tinted glasses.
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on 21 February 2017
Some readers have complained about the quality of the printing in the paperback edition; I found the hard copy to be to be very good quality and the print quite clear.

While I enjoyed the book, I was expecting there to be more science content. Perhaps because of the title and that it has been described as one of the important science books. However, I had previously listened to a serialisation of the book on Radio4, so I should have expected it largely to consist of a series of anecdotes from the authors life as an industrial chemist.

I found it quite easy to read, thought it well translated and enjoyed the simple prose. My favourite chapter was the penultimate entitled 'Vanadium'. The writer describes how a detective process to determine the cause of a faulty batch of paint led to the author finding a Doctor Muller who he had last seen 20 years ago at an Auschwitz laboratory. I liked the description of the investigation and the seamless but subtle link to the past.

The last chapter entitled carbon seemed rather pretentious to me and although others have enjoyed it, it was one of my least favourites.

I am glad to have read the book, but I think some readers might well be surprised by the very high rating many have given it here.
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on 27 June 2013
This is the second book I read after 'If this is a man' and 'The Truce' (and I would recommend reading them in that order). I love Levi's writing style - detached but not unemotional. This book is a somewhat strange mix - mostly autobiographical but with some fictional short stories in the middle - but you can't help but feel involved. I even started getting interested in Levi's work, which, given that I know nothing about chemistry whatsoever, can only be put down to his fantastic writing! The penultimate chapter where he accidentally comes into contact with a former chemist from Auschwitz is incredibly gripping. I can't wait to read more.
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on 14 March 2017
An excellent book as enjoyable to the non-chemist as to the chemist and almost as good in English as it is in Italian. It gives an insight into the life lived by an Italian Jew during WW2 in a forthright and entertaining way.
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on 23 April 2015
Masterly writing about one of the worst crimes in modern history, focussing on the personalities of some of the fellow-inmates of the notorious Nazi concentration camps, whom he likens to elements in Mendeleev's periodic table.
Cool dispassionate observation of human nature in extremis, this book is a must-read for all generations and somehow, in spite of the terrible backdrop it manages to convey a certain wry humour and to be strangely uplifting.
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on 22 November 2015
The sane, rational, yet entirely evocative manner in which Primo Levi writes, combined with the deep horror (neither tiptoed around nor dwelt upon) of some of the subject matter, and the incredibly pleasing device of basing each tale-cum-anecdote on an element, makes this just about the most satisfying book I've ever read. I read it after having been pointed to it as an example of an unusual writing technique - enough to put anyone off - but it's so easy to sink into. It leaves you feeling more connected to human experience, not to mention considerably more knowledgeable about extracting trace metals.
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on 4 December 2014
This book contains a number of semi autobiographical short stories on the theme of various elements. Levi, a chemist, used his experience to relate these anecodotes. They contain a lot of humour and are sometimes very perceptive. I found them riveting at times, although the science fiction was not quite so. The style reminds me of Chekhov, and is as engaging. Altogether a well worthwhile and profound book.
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on 19 July 2017
Thank you for the book it's my brother's favorite book and it was in great condition thank you so very much again kindest regards Patricia Thompson
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on 10 June 2014
Brilliantly conceived and written. A blend of philosophy, science and autobiography. Writers and poets could learn a lot from Primo, the use of the extended metaphor. He sees no boundaries, the world is open to him and he writes with humanity and supreme skill and insight.
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on 6 November 2016
I love this book - Primo was a chemist before he was a writer and this is an interesting twist on the character of the elements - no spoilers!!
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