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A suggestion a day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
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Orfeo, by Richard Powers

Fri, 2015-01-02 01:02

What does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo


A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth

Thu, 2015-01-01 01:01

OK, let’s get this out of the way first – the book we have in our collection is actually titled The American, which as you read the book becomes patently ridiculous. This is a movie tie-in for a George Clooney vehicle, which got middling to bad reviews from ‘ordinary’ people, but middling to good reviews from top critics. If the movie follows the pacing of the book, I can see where the thrill movie seeker would come away less than satisfied.

A Very Private Gentleman is slow, but in the way that develops tension even as the gentleman slowly allows readers into his very private world until we get a more complete view of a character who rationalizes and even elevates the evil he does.  Even the nature of that work is trickled out until we fully understand that he is a master craftsman of death. Not the death-dealer, but the maker of the custom weapons the death dealers require. That doesn’t make him any less a target, and there are plenty of people who want him dead.

His craft requires subtlety, patience, watchfulness, and mobility. For this, his final job, he has chosen to live in a small Italian village under the identity of a painter of butterflies, so he becomes Signor Farfalla to the inhabitants. While awaiting the commission, he argues theology over bottles of fine wine with the local priest, becomes known at the local bars and restaurants, and a regular customer at the local brothel. Even considering his obsession with security, this is the most idyllic place he’s ever lived.

Indeed, the idyll is seductive. The kindness of people who don’t demand intimacy, the eternal feel of this ancient village, the excellent food, the romps with two beautiful girls, the landscape around his temporary home all call to him that he can maintain this identity and settle into a well-deserved (but still watchful) retirement. But his sixth sense turns up a hint of danger, and the idyll becomes less than ideal.

Signor Farfalla still has that commission to fulfill, which means meeting the client for the specifications, finding the materials, creating and testing the weapon, then making the final delivery. Each of those is a potential vulnerability, and Signor Farfalla practices his professional paranoia to the hilt. When the commission comes face-to-face with the source of his unease, it quickly becomes apparent that his professional life will cause his personal death.

Signor Farfalla addresses the story directly to the reader, even telling us that he’s withholding information that might allow us to identify him. That almost-confiding tone also conveys a sense of hubris when he claims the rightful role he believes history owes him, but involves us in his love of nature, and the good life he’s got. That personal connection makes the climax much more shocking than a genre thriller as the final revelations erupt and Signor Farfalla must make fatal decisions.

Check the WRL catalog for A Very Private Gentleman (aka The American)


The Fever, by Megan Abbott

Wed, 2014-12-31 01:01

It’s a small community, tight-knit in the ways that places get when the residents watch their children grow up together. The parents have high expectations and mostly refuse to recognize that their teens are moving beyond childhood. The teens are experimenting – drugs, hair color, sex, clothing – but there’s still pressure not to go too far outside the bounds. There’s jealousy, and memories of the kid who threw up on the school bus in second grade. There’s the long shadow of past infidelities, spouse abuse, alcoholism, and divorce that hangs over these kids, who can’t name or deal with the emotions that such trauma bring. Megan Abbott couldn’t have chosen to set The Fever in a more normal place.

Until one of the bright, talented, and popular girls has a seizure in class, followed by another at home, these kids haven’t experienced the trauma of serious illness among their peers. What better way to lose that teenage feeling of immortality than seeing a familiar face twisted in rictus and a familiar body sprawled in a tangle of desks? Add to that the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and that trauma quickly spreads across the world. Scary, right?

Then it happens to another girl, and another, and another. Now the singular tragedy becomes an epidemic and people start pointing fingers. Is it something in a vaccine? A chemical spill? Abuse by the boys? The Internet proves a goldmine of information and opinions and this normal community begins to break down in fear. Is the mystery ever solved? Yes and no – but I’ll leave the reading to you.

Abbott tells this story of growing hysteria through the eyes of the Nash family. Deenie is in her first year of high school, and it’s her best friend Gabby who suffers the first episode. Older brother Eli is a sports standout and the target of aggressive girls who want to score on the popular boy. And dad Tom is a popular teacher at the school all the affected girls attend. That should make for a cohesive family, but grouped together as they are they make a convenient target for those looking for scapegoats.

Each of the Nashes is captured in their individual voice, with the concerns and qualms of each fully articulated. The tone of the rest of the community – from the girls posting YouTube videos of their symptoms and fears to the outraged parents to the authorities trying to sift through mountains of opinion for some sensible explanation – also feels truthful. Knowing that there’s nothing they aren’t seeing on a daily basis, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this to a mature young adult reader, but it’s also worth suggesting to any adult who wants to look across the chasm of time and see what those young adults are facing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Fever


The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Tue, 2014-12-30 01:01

I’ve blogged before about one of Gabrielle Zevin’s wonderful novels, but am ashamed to say that I didn’t make the link between the two right away. It wasn’t until I was digging in to see if one of WRL’s reviewers had written about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry that I made the connection; I certainly couldn’t tell by tone or topic, since both are very different from the earlier book.

A. J. Fikry is one of those books that book people like. It reaffirms the role that reading plays in creating community and bringing diverse people together to hold close, tear at, or speak in awe of the books that affect them. (Like most book people, I include everything from a few hours of entertainment to a fundamental questioning of one’s role in the universe as affecting the reader.)

The title character lives on an island, literally and metaphorically. Alice Island is a long ferryboat ride from the nearest town, itself a long drive from the nearest city. Fikry runs the only bookstore on the island, marking him as somewhat of an oddity among his neighbors. And he is in a black depression, mourning the sudden death of his much-loved wife. He drifts through the days, turning people away, dully watching his business fail, and frequently drinking himself into a stupor. Following one of those nights, he wakes to find his most valuable possession gone.

Shortly after, a package (OK, it’s a baby abandoned by her distraught mother) is left in the unlocked shop, and Fikry is thrown out of his self-absorption and isolation. Between the chief of police and the Social Services office following up on Maya’s case, and the women convinced that no man can possibly care for a little girl, Island Books’ doorbell and cash register are suddenly ringing again. And A. J. Fikry’s life is saved. Not only that, it takes on a new vigor, and the next thing he knows he’s grabbing at all kinds of opportunities. But life is life, and one tragedy is no inoculation against future sorrows.

The story covers about 20 or so years, with some chapters covering small steps and others making giant leaps into the future. Zevin introduces each chapter with a small annotation of short stories and novels Fikry is writing to his daughter, a literary bequest for the clever girl who is growing to be an accomplished young woman. As she matures, so does his analysis of the reading he wishes for her. The intimacy of those notes, plus Fikry’s rediscovered contact with the quirky islanders make this a tender story completely unlike the searing tale told in The Hole We’re In. Try them both (or at least read the blog entry) and you’ll see what I mean.

Check the WRL catalog for The Storied Life of A.J Fikry

It’s also available in Large Print, CD audiobook, downloadable audiobook, and ebook


The Murder Man, by Tony Parsons

Mon, 2014-12-29 01:01

Humanity has a fundamental conflict over revenge. Do we follow Confucius? Gandhi? Don Corleone? In a way, The Murder Man invokes all three, showing both the strengths and pitfalls of each.

Our guide to this episode of revenge is Max Wolfe, a heroic but disgraced detective constable of the London police. Reassigned after disobeying orders, he joins the Homicide squad and begins working the case of a banker killed in his office, with no clue to identity or motive of the killer.  Then a homeless drug addict is killed the same way. A photo on the murdered banker’s desk provides a link between the two – they had gone to one of the most prestigious public schools in England.  The photo also gives the investigators the names of five others linked with the victims, and a reason to dig into the past.

The investigation is balked at every turn. The school’s headmaster and staff, the surviving “boys,” even the families of the dead men want to put an end to it. The murderer’s weapon and method are unlike any Wolfe’s legendary boss, Detective Chief Inspector Victor Mallory, has seen, requiring special skills no potential suspect has. With a rabble-rousing blogger claiming responsibility and making oblique threats towards Wolfe and the rest of the department, the pressure to solve the case mounts.

Wolfe is a tenacious investigator, but he doesn’t have unlimited time to investigate. He’s a single dad, caring for a five-year old daughter deeply wounded by the loss of her mother. He’s also responsible for Stan, the spaniel puppy his daughter has bonded with. Parsons takes these potential weak points and turns them into strengths that give Wolfe both purpose and insight, plus inject tenderness, humor, and a little humanity into a tough character.

The Murder Man has enough red herrings to stock the fish market across from Wolfe’s house, plus some interesting behind-the-scenes views of the London police. The blend is well-balanced, making this a fun and tense mystery.

Check the WRL catalog for The Murder Man


The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

Fri, 2014-12-26 01:01

She’s one of the most memorable and enduring superheroes: an Amazon from Paradise Island sent to America to promote liberty and freedom while fighting suffering and injustice. She’s Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) and since her debut in 1941, her adventures have been chronicled in comic books, a daily newspaper strip, and a popular television series starring Lynda Carter. Wonder Woman’s adventures may be legendary, but the story behind her development is as incredible as any superhero story.

Wonder Woman was created by a man named William Moulton Marston, a polymath, psychologist, and huckster heavily influenced by suffragists and early feminists. The story of William Marston and Wonder Woman is a fascinating tale involving feminism, psychology, the advent of comic book superheroes, unconventional relationships, and family secrets. Historian Jill Lepore explores the complicated life of William Marston and the development of Wonder Woman in her entertaining and provocative new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Lepore’s narrative is divided into four main sections: Veritas, which recounts the early lives and education of Marston and his childhood sweetheart (and later wife), Sadie Elizabeth Holloway; Family Circle, an exploration of Marston’s family life, including his polyamorous relationships with Holloway and a former student named Olive Byrne; Paradise Island, an examination of the development and success of Wonder Woman; and Great Hera! I’m Back, a discussion of Wonder Woman’s influence and legacy. This structure allows Lepore to unpack the nuances of Marston’s life, work, and relationships and how they relate to Wonder Woman in an engaging and accessible manner.

William Moulton Marston was born in 1893 in Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he became interested in the movement for women’s suffrage. He was particularly fascinated by the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst who, in 1911, was scheduled to speak at Harvard, but was later barred from speaking on campus.

Marston studied Philosophy and Psychology and was especially interested in determining whether or not deception could be detected by measuring systolic blood pressure. His research was instrumental in the development of early lie detector tests, and Marston testified as an expert witness in lie detection in several court cases.

After graduating from Harvard, Marston married Sadie Holloway, a Mount Holyoke graduate, and the couple stayed in Massachusetts to attend law school. They also pursued advanced degrees in Psychology.

While Holloway found work in New York as managing editor of Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education, Marston pursued a career in academia at Tufts University. At Tufts, he met Olive Byrne, niece of ardent feminist and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Byrne became Marston’s research assistant and eventually moved in with Marston and Holloway.

Marston, Holloway and Byrne formed an unconventional family unit. Marston had a son and daughter with Holloway and two sons with Byrne, but they kept the true nature of Marston’s relationship with Byrne a closely guarded secret from everyone, including their sons. Byrne invented a husband named William K. Richard who died after a long illness, and wrote feature articles for Family Circle magazine using the name “Olive Richard.” In these articles, she discussed pressing issues of the day with prominent psychologist William Marston.

Over the years, Marston’s academic career fizzled, but he never stopped trying to promote his expertise in psychology and lie detection. He offered his services in the case of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son; he also appeared in an advertisement for Gillette razor blades. His efforts met with limited success until he was hired by Maxwell Charles “Charlie” Gaines, the publisher of Superman, to work as a consulting psychologist. At the time, critics were concerned about the level of violence in comic books, and Marston had a solution: create a female superhero that possessed “all the strength of Superman plus the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Gaines was intrigued and Wonder Woman made her debut in the fall of 1941.

For several years, Wonder Woman was a major, if occasionally controversial, success. Working with artist Henry George Peter, a fellow supporter of women’s suffrage, Marston brought his vision of Wonder Woman as a “Progressive Era feminist” to comic books and a short-lived daily comic strip. She was not without her critics, who expressed concern about her costume and the pervasive use of chains and other forms of bondage. In response, Marston told his publisher that the motivation behind the imagery was to draw the “distinction between in the minds of children and adults between love bonds and the male bonds of cruelty and destruction.”

Despite the controversy, Marston’s vision remained largely intact until his death in 1947. Wonder Woman’s adventures continued, but subsequent writers and artists produced iterations of Wonder Woman that barely resembled the concept Marston had in mind when he originally created her.

Lepore’s background on Marston, Holloway, and Byrne is lengthy, but it effectively provides the social and cultural context for the development of Wonder Woman. She covers a lot of ground in these chapters and her lively writing style keeps the narrative moving at a brisk and enjoyable pace. The chapters on Wonder Woman and her legacy are similarly well-researched and include footnotes, a comics index, and extensive illustrations showing the evolution of Wonder Woman over the years.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a satisfying look at the making of a superhero, and the social and political changes that shaped her development.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret History of Wonder Woman


The Search for Delicious, by Natalie Babbitt

Thu, 2014-12-25 01:01

Merry Christmas! Today Meghan recommends a classic fairy tale:

The Search for Delicious is an old childhood favorite by Natalie Babbitt, the author best known for Tuck Everlasting. It was written with younger children in mind, and the story sounds downright silly.

The Prime Minister, DeCree, is writing a dictionary. The King and Queen are happy with “Affectionate is your dog” and “Bulky is a big bag of boxes” and “Calamitous is saying no to the king,” but take issue with “Delicious is fried fish.” No, says the King. He isn’t a fan of fish. It’s apples. No, says the Queen. It’s Christmas pudding. No, says the Queen’s brother, it’s nuts — and he storms out of the castle. The result of all this fuss? DeCree’s young Special Assistant, Galen, is tasked with travelling the kingdom and polling the people as to what they consider delicious.

At least, that’s part of it. There’s another, older story. It’s the story that began before the people came, and its characters are the dwarves, the winds, the woldweller — who lives in the exact and precise center of the forest – and Ardis. When the Queen’s brother, Hemlock, uses the poll as a way to rile up the people and pit them against each other and the King, these others only say “It’s nothing to me.” People and their kingdoms come and go.

Soon, Galen’s poll becomes impossible, and he finds himself having to track down the woldweller and the rest. Hemlock knows their story, and it’s that knowledge that’s the key to thwarting his schemes. What did the dwarves do, all those ages ago? Why doesn’t the key fit any locks? Who is Ardis, anyway?

Galen figures it out. This is a fairy tale, after all. And when he finds Ardis — a mermaid —he says:

“It’s nothing to you. But it’s much to me.”

Ardis comes through in the  end, and helps defeat Hemlock — or does she? Everyone agrees on a definition for Delicious at last, so it’s peace — or is it?

The Search for Delicious is about how silly people’s arguments can be, and how much importance they can attach to meaningless things. However, it’s also about how important even those silly arguments can be when you’re right there in the middle of them. This is a sweet and funny vintage fantasy that leaves you guessing. It was fun for me to read as a child and as an adult, and I’m sure children today would like it just as well as I did.

Check the WRL catalog for The Search for Delicious


The King’s Grave, by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

Wed, 2014-12-24 01:01

Today’s pick, reviewed by Meghan, tells the story of an exciting historical discovery:

Those of you who follow archaeological news may remember the 2012 Greyfriars dig. In Leicester, England, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a medieval friary beneath a modern parking lot. If you don’t remember the bits about the stone bench and the bits of window, you probably remember the bones — later identified as those of Richard III.The project was sponsored by screenwriter Philippa Langley. This is her account of how those bones were found.

Langley co-authored the book with historian Michael Jones. I appreciated the alternating chapters. Langley writes about the events leading up to, and during, the dig, using the present tense. I felt as though I was there beside her, meeting the scientists, standing at the side of the trench, excited and uncertain. In contrast, Jones’ chapters take readers back to the 15th century. In the past tense, he gives us the history of the House of York and the Wars of the Roses. He explains the events leading up to Richard’s 1483 taking of the throne and his 1485 defeat at Bosworth. He places the king in the context of his family and time.

Keep in mind that Phillippa Langley isn’t an archeologist, though she knows her history. She’s a screenwriter, and can be a tad dramatic. While she did her research, it was intuition, too, that made her focus on that Leicester parking lot. At times, I felt myself cringe a little with the scientists — as she insists on placing Richard’s banner over the bones as they’re removed from the site, for instance. We know in hindsight that her intuition was right all along, though, so she gets a break!

The story of Richard III is history at its most exciting. The story of the Greyfriars dig and its most famous find seems too good to be true, until you read about the research and the dedication that made it happen. This coming spring, Richard III will be reburied in Leicester — but this time, he won’t get stuck beneath a parking lot. Come on back and pick up this book to hear the whole story.

The WRL has a print copy of The King’s Grave, as well as the audiobook, read by Corrie James. James is an excellent reader — very clear and very English — and does a good job of bringing Langley’s narrative to life. Either format comes recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for The King’s Grave

Check the catalog for the audiobook


In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

Tue, 2014-12-23 01:01

Today’s review marks the blogging debut of Meghan from Circulation Services. Be sure to check out her posts on Wednesday and Thursday, too. 

There are countless books out there about languages, about their history, their grammar, and so on. But — have you ever read one about invented languages? I hadn’t, until I discovered linguist Arika Okrent’s fun little book. This is an interesting and irreverent look at the history of conlangs (constructed languages), as well as the lives of their eccentric inventors.

While she includes many interesting facts and anecdotes, Okrent keeps to a chronological order, and readers can see the trends in language invention over time, starting with 17th-century attempts to define the absolute meaning of everything and finishing with Klingon. From philosophy to world peace to Star Trek, people have quite a few different reasons to try language invention!

Some inventors and languages she mentions in passing, like Elmer Hankes and Ehmay Ghee Chah. Some, she describes in more depth, like Fuishiki Okamoto and Babm. I can’t possibly list them all here. The big ones she goes into big-time, like Esperanto. If you’ve ever heard of an invented universal language, it was probably Esperanto. Invented by Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof, “Doctoro Esperanto,” and officially published in 1887, it still boasts thousands of international speakers.

There are certainly more Esperantists then there are Klingon speakers, but Okrent looks into auxlangs too —languages invented for creative purposes. This is where Tolkien’s famous Elvish languages fit, for instance.

Does Okrent try to learn Esperanto? Yes. But, in case you were worried that this book was getting too serious, I can assure you —she also tries to learn Klingon.

In the Land of Invented Languages presents conlangs and their history in a readable and engaging way, and I highly recommend it for anyone thinking “Invent a language? How weird. Why would anyone do that?” Okrent’s book gives you some answers, and makes you laugh in the process.

Check the WRL catalog for In the Land of Invented Languages


Rachel Rising, by Terry Moore

Mon, 2014-12-22 01:01

This week, BFGB welcomes two new bloggers from Circulation services. Today, Tabor reviews a creepy graphic novel:

The first word that comes to mind when picking up Rachel Rising is — macabre. Flipping through the matte black and white pages will guarantee a similar response. This tale is not for the faint-hearted or those who are not fans of Edgar Allan Poe.

Rachel was normal before this tale began; she had a good life with friends and a loving Aunt Johnny. Unfortunately, her luck runs out even before the beginning of this twisty tale when she wakes up in a grave . . . her own grave.

Instead of being a blue-eyed beauty, Rachel now has permanently blood-shot eyes and unnatural bruises around her throat to match. Not exactly the warm and friendly look she remembers. Further, she discovers that she’s been “dead” for a total of three days, and to top it all off, everyone keeps saying she’s not Rachel. With these elements in play, the story unfolds around Rachel’s investigation into her peculiar situation. A new woman in town hints at being the reason for Rachel’s new appearance, and suggests that they used to be friends.

The setting captures the essence of a small town, complete with the close ties and secrets that bind together the lives of those who abide there. Moore skillfully weaves an impending sense of doom over his characters’ heads. No one is safe from the strange events occurring in this town, and this is illustrated through the trouble that befalls Rachel’s friends. Regrettably, Rachel’s business could kill you or worse — bring you back from the dead.

Moore creates a suspenseful and dynamic tale that ponders the question of what happens when you die, and consequently incorporates timeless stories that encircle mankind. In fact, the wonderment of Moore’s story is that it feels timeless and as if this could happen in any town.

Fair warning:  the work is not a stand-alone, so don’t stop after the first volume if you enjoy this tale. The ongoing nature of the series and the wait for the next issue are the only negative qualities — besides the amount of tragedy.  Questions raised in the first volume will remain unanswered for a while. Overall, the series is worth the wait.

Check the WRL catalog for Rachel Rising


Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead, by David Casarett

Fri, 2014-12-19 01:01

“Witty” and “entertaining” are not words I would expect to use to describe a book mainly about resuscitation, but Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead is definitely both. Author David Casarett manages to be droll even about death: “I’m watching his respirations (nil), heart rate (zero), blood pressure (zip), and EKG tracing (flat). It’s a textbook case of someone who is undeniably and incontrovertibly deceased.”

Casarett is a medical doctor who explored historical resuscitation techniques (good and bad) and interviewed doctors, researchers, and cryogenics enthusiasts among others to bring us up to date on modern research and techniques. Laugh-aloud moments include when he tries an old resuscitation technique of lying face down on a trotting horse and nearly suffocates himself.

The book tells stories about many individual people who have been brought back for a second chance at life after being resuscitated, such as “The Ice Woman” who was submerged under ice for eighty minutes in Norway but survived. For those interested in the idea of never dying there is a section on cryogenics. Casarett’s verdict is mostly negative, because the problem with freezing a living thing is that ice damages the cells. Some animals, such as wood frogs, can manage to survive a type of freezing but “science has yet to adequately preserve anything much bigger than an acorn.”

The book is at times hilarious even as it imparts solid scientific information about things like the electrical rhythms of a beating heart. It also raises important philosophical, ethical, and even religious questions about dying and end-of-life care. Casarett concludes that resuscitation techniques have changed all of medical practice because: “The most exciting thing about this safety net is that most of us have been affected by it. If you’ve undergone any procedure as an outpatient, for instance, that procedure was possible because of advances in life-saving technology. Procedures like wisdom tooth extractions or endoscopy or even hernia repairs that used to be conducted in the operating room can now be conducted in an outpatient surgical suite.”

Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead will be a hit with readers who enjoy quirky science books like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, or What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe.

Check the WRL catalog for Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead


The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, by Kent A. Kiehl

Thu, 2014-12-18 01:01

Yesterday’s book, What If?, claims in its subtitle that it will provide answers to “Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” Science is all about hypothetical questions because scientists are always asking “Why?” about all aspects of nature and life, and then asking “What would happen if I change something?” Sometimes a question may seem absurd on the surface but the answer may provide a an interesting, profound or counter-intuitive glimpse into the nature of reality. Scientist and author Kent A. Kiehl seems to have asked, “Are psychopath’s brains different from normal people’s brains?” Being a clever scientist (and apparently a man of great persuasive powers) he took fMRI machines into prisons and concluded that “Yes, psychopath’s brain structures and functions definitely differ from normal brains.”

Kiehl has published many scientific papers, and one published a few months ago says that the abnormal brain structures associated with psychopathy can be detected in adolescence. It is not ethically clear what society can do with this information. “Psychopath” is a word used popularly to describe mentally ill people–often people the speaker doesn’t like! Before I read this book I didn’t realize that psychopathy is measured by a standardized test used by psychiatrists and psychologists with a fair degree of consistent results. Psychopaths are estimated to be less than 1% of the general population, but they may constitute up to 35% of the prison population. Obviously, not all psychopaths are criminals but a lot of criminals are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be the very bad people of popular myth and culture. Kiehl gives numerous examples of murderers and rapists who simply could not understand why their actions were bad and elicited horror and condemnation from other people (and society at large).

In the past it was very difficult to measure the internal and real-time workings of a brain. Electrical activity could give researchers an idea of what was going on but mostly functions and structures could only be measured when the brain wasn’t working, that is, after the person was dead. An fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine can measure the blood flow in real time within a living subject, and increased blood flow means that the person is using that part of their brain. Kiehl uses this to examine how psychopath’s brains react differently to normal people’s under certain stimuli.

The Psychopath Whisperer is a great book for readers who like to explore the emerging physical and psychological reasons why people act the ways they do such as Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom. Fans of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia or Hallucinations will appreciate that Kent Kiehl also uses profiles of real people. It will be interesting if you like reading true crime books like Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham. Also try it if you like fiction exploring the idea of inherited criminality, such as Defending Jacob by William Landay or The Dinner by Herman Koch.

Check the WRL catalog for The Psychopath Whisperer


What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Wed, 2014-12-17 01:01

In the introduction to his unexpected bestseller, author, scientist and web-comic guru Randall Munroe says “They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong.” Working in a public library we don’t encounter stupid questions, a more accurate description may be tiring questions. What If’s questions (and answers) turn out to be neither stupid nor tiring, rather they are witty, thought provoking and often very, very funny.

Even the inside of the dust jacket is entertaining (certainly the first time I’ve ever encountered this in a book!). Munroe has drawn a map of the world, but the familiar shapes are not quite right. The key tells us it is “The World: After a portal to Mars opened at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, draining most the Oceans (sorry about that).” After the portal to Mars event there is, of course, a lot less water. There is now a West Atlantic and an East Atlantic, separated by dry land with mountains called (what else?) Atlantis. The mountainous island nation of New Zealand got a lot bigger with an entire new section labeled “Newer Zealand.”

The “Serious Scientific Answers” from the subtitle really are serious. Munroe attempts to answer questions using the best scientific knowledge currently available, and lots of scary looking math. He has a quirky style that he uses to answer some very quirky questions, such as: “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” This is the sort of question my sons asked all the time growing up, but they didn’t expect (well, I didn’t give) a serious answer. For this question, Munroe gives six pages of Serious Answer, including his famous stick-figure diagrams. (You’ll have to read the book to learn how many Legos you’ll have to acquire to avoid a transatlantic plane fare).

The Absurd Hypothetical Questions can be submitted by anyone through Munroe’s extremely funny, science-based web comic xkcd. I often enjoy the comic, but I admit that some of it goes whoosh straight over my head (these seem to be the ones that my nerdy children laugh hardest at). xkcd are purported to be the only letters in the English language that can’t be pronounced as a word (although I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “Ex, Kay, See, Dee”). Even Munroe finds some of the questions so bizarre that he doesn’t answer them. Some of these get their own sections called “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox,” including examples such as, “What is the total nutritional value (calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.) of the average human body?” or “Would it be possible to get your teeth to such a cold temperature that they would shatter upon drinking a hot cup of coffee?” These are not things to try at home. As Munroe says, “I like it when things catch fire and explode, which means I do not have your best interests in mind.”

What If? is a great book for science fans and is fun to browse when you’re feeling like something lighter after plowing through six-hundred page scientific behemoths like The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee or Spillover by David Quammen. The questions may be absurd as the subtitle claims, but the answers are scientific and who knows, if you buy a copy for the stocking of your family nerd, it may spark (or rekindle) a lifelong interest in science.

Check the WRL catalog for What If? 


Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen

Tue, 2014-12-16 01:01

“The current scientific understanding of Ebola viruses constitutes pinpricks of light against a dark background.”

Knowing that David Quammen was such a great science writer I wanted to read his timely update about Ebola. In the introduction, Quammen acknowledges that this book is adapted from his 2012 book Spillover that I blogged about yesterday but Ebola is a much quicker read. It is still well worth reading even if you have read Spillover because of the updates. In early December as I write this, the current Ebola outbreak has killed over 6000 people (CDC – 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa – Case Counts). This means that this outbreak has killed more people than all previous outbreaks combined. Quammen’s expert and readable style is very matter of fact and it paints Ebola as a terrifying and largely unknown disease, even if it doesn’t spread much to countries outside the continent of Africa. It has “a case fatality rate ranging from 60 to 75 percent. Sixty percent is extremely high for any infectious disease (except rabies); it’s probably higher, for instance, than fatalities from Bubonic plague in medieval France at the worst moments of the Black Death.”

Ebola is currently being studied furiously but there is still much that scientists don’t know. For one, they are not sure what causes “the transitory nature of the disease within human populations. It disappears entirely for years at a time. This is a mercy for public health but a constraint for science” and why “Ebola viruses barely showed themselves anywhere in Africa for fifteen years (1976-early 1980s).” Quammen concludes that “We don’t even know if the past is a reliable guide to the future–that is, to what degree history and science can illuminate the Ebola events of 2014.”

There is sobering information like, “The higher the case count goes, the greater the likelihood that Ebola virus as we know it might evolve into something better adapted to pass from human to human, something that presently exists only in our nightmares.” This is terrifying when coupled with information like “the virus was mutating prolifically and accumulating a fair degree of genetic variation as it replicated within each human case and passed from one human to another.” We can only fervently hope that Quammen’s apt metaphor doesn’t come to pass: “Every spillover is like a sweepstakes ticket… Sometimes the bettor wins big.”

Oddly, even Ebola has facts that I found quirky: apparently when an Ebola patient develops the commonly annoying but harmless condition of hiccups, it usually means death is near.

Try reading Ebola if you like the history of science and history of disease books that I mentioned yesterday. If you previously read the bestseller The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, Ebola is a good update. Sadly, for the 6000 victims of this dread disease who have already died, and those yet to die, you may also be interested in reading Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus if you want to read about the scientific background of large events in the news.

Check the WRL catalog for Ebola.


Spillover, by David Quammen

Mon, 2014-12-15 01:01

Zoonotic diseases are in the news and the news is not good. Sixty percent of human diseases are zoonotic–that is they are spread to humans from animals (at least at first). This includes terrifying rabies that everyone knows comes from the bite of an infected animal to diseases like flu that we think of as human. The evocative title of this book, “Spillover” is the actual scientific term used by disease ecologists for the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species into another. I like books about animals. I’m all over cute and fluffy and I’m fascinated about the role that we play in animals’ lives. Spillover is a book about the role animals play in human lives and you may not sleep peacefully after reading it.

David Quammen spent almost a decade gallivanting around the world, interviewing hundreds of scientists, doctors and disease survivors as well as researching and writing Spillover. It is almost 600 pages, but I was unable to put it down as he talked about the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the origins of AIDS and ebola. I learned an enormous amount about virology, natural history and epidemiology. And if you are obsessed and super-nerdy (like me) you will enjoy Spillover’s 25-page bibliography of scientific studies that you can look up in PubMed.

Quammen has a gift for making the scientifically complicated understandable to the everyday reader. He has a poetic turn of phrase about viruses–“They can’t run, they can’t walk, they can’t swim, they can’t crawl. They ride”–that just highlights how scary they can be. I learned odd facts for instance that certain types of moths and tent caterpillars have outbreaks on trees some years. The caterpillars die back because they are killed by viruses that cause them to ‘melt’ onto leaves, and then the other caterpillars just eat them (yuk!) Thankfully, unlike the insects, we can change our behavior to protect ourselves from viruses!

I think the best quote from Spillover sums up human knowledge and control over zoonotic diseases in general. We think we’re ahead but we might not be. When asked a lot of questions about the Hendra virus in Australia, scientists answered: “We don’t know but we’re working on it.”

Spillover is a sure bet for readers who are fascinated by the role of diseases in human history. For nonfiction readers who have tried The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson,  or Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Or for fans of fiction such as Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks.

Check the WRL catalog for Spillover


Will It Waffle?, by Daniel Shumski

Fri, 2014-12-12 01:01

I was up late, reading The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, and needed a snack before turning out the light. Lovecraft is heavy going, so I wanted something to restore my spirit:  a grilled cheese sandwich. I found some Cabot’s Extra Sharp, bread, and butter, and fired up our trusty SuperLectric waffle iron. A few minutes later, the hideous excrescences of Lovecraft’s imagination were forgotten as I ate my hot, crispy, perfectly melted, dimpled grilled cheese.

Will it Waffle? has rocked my world. The waffle maker, which I used to haul out of storage on rare Sunday mornings, now lives in the middle of the kitchen counter, an essential part of my batterie de cuisine. It glorifies sandwiches, hash browns, fruit, and other things that I’d never thought to use it for. Right this very minute, I am thinking about trying waffleized churros for breakfast tomorrow.

Daniel Shumski is the genius who thought to ask, “What can I cook in a waffle iron besides waffles?” For several years, he has been blogging about his experiments in waffling, and Will It Waffle continues the project with a collection of 53 recipes.  Any dish that is meant to be hot and crisp is better when cooked in a waffle iron — thanks to all that additional surface area. Ergo, waffled bacon, falafel, leftover mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and stuffing. These are actually some of Shumski’s less daring dishes. If you’re a thrill seeker, try throwing a soft-shelled crab or cookie dough into your waffle maker and see what happens. The book includes a short list of foods that won’t waffle, such as soup and drinks. Beyond these liquids, almost anything goes. There’s even a section where readers are encouraged to document their own waffle experiments. The message is clear: play with your food.

Check the WRL catalog for Will It Waffle?


Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, by Emily Anthes

Thu, 2014-12-11 01:01

Emily Anthes is a journalist who has written for many science journals including Wired, Discover, and Scientific American and also has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.  In this book, she explores the many ways in which animals are involved with the latest advances in biotechnology. She has a breezy, easy-to-understand writing style, and I was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge and research (includes over 40 pages of footnotes).  I enjoyed reading about the specific contributions to this science that many animals like Jonathan Sealwart, an elephant seal, and Artemis the goat are making, and her visits to some of them were often quite humorous.

The production of genetically altered (transgenic) animals is perhaps the most controversial use of biotech. I was very interested in learning how some pretty-colored tropical fish won over a skeptical public in the U.S. to become the first and only transgenic animals sold in this country. These fish are called GloFish and they are derived from 2 types of tropical fish that are commonly sold in the US, zebra fish and white skirt tetras. What makes them unique is that they have an added dose of DNA from sea anemone or sea coral that make them glow in red, green and purple colors.  I have enjoyed the aquarium hobby for years, and if GloFish can bring new people in to the hobby (like the author) all the better.  I have also had my eye on one of the purple tetra GloFish and would like to add it to one of my aquariums. I just hope my 4 large angelfish don’t think he is a brightly colored dinner treat.

A much more promising use of these new animals is in “pharming,” where their DNA is manipulated so that their bodies can create medicinal properties. Transgenic goats can produce milk with elevated levels of lysozyme, which has been found to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, a deadly disease that kills over 2 million children every year. These goats have also been used to produce antithrombin, an anticoagulant that can successfully treat life threatening blood clots. It is unfortunate that none of these pharming techniques have been approved in the United States, though other countries like Brazil are taking the lead in this type of biotech.

I appreciated the author’s thorough review of the many ethical considerations in the use of transgenic animals and other types of biotech. She discounts the “Are we playing God” notion with these new animals by arguing that we have already tried to play God for thousands of years by manipulating the various types of animals through selective breeding.  The results have not always been good, as is the case with canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, where we’ve created hundreds of unique breeds of dogs, many of which are saddled with crippling genetic diseases and conditions.

One of the most important factors to consider is how the biotech affects the livelihood of the animals  involved. Bernard Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University considers their fate with his “conservation of welfare” ethic: “If you’re going to modify a line of animals, the resultant animals should be no worse off from a welfare point of view – and preferably better.” The author thinks that most pharming animals would be able to pass this test, since studies show that genetic alteration does little to curtail their longevity and overall health. But she gives numerous examples of transgenic animals that would fail this test, including transgenic mice produced in Chinese labs with thousands of different kinds of deformities caused by messing with one strand of their DNA.

If you read the book you will learn of other unique ways biotech is being used in the world of animals. You will learn why cats are far superior to dogs in the process of cloning. You will learn about a group of volunteers who helped design a prosthetic tail for a baby bottlenose dolphin after it got trapped and nearly died in a crab trap. And finally you will want to learn how a poor, lonely elephant seal got a name and got hundreds of friends on Facebook all through a sophisticated process of wildlife tracking.

Check the WRL catalog for Frankenstein’s Cat


Virtue Falls, by Christina Dodd

Wed, 2014-12-10 01:01

Looking for some fast-paced suspense?  Pick up the latest from best-selling author Christina Dodd.

Elizabeth Banner has returned to her hometown of Virtue Falls to study the geology of the area.  It was difficult for her to return home, what with everyone’s conviction that her father, once a respected scientist-now a convicted felon, murdered her mother 20 years ago in a jealous rage. Elizabeth copes with the whispers and speculation by relying on logic and facts, both in her work and her personal life.

The everyday routine of life in Virtue Falls is literally shaken up when a large-scale earthquake hits the area.  Lives are lost; secrets are uncovered. And Elizabeth finds herself investigating her mother’s murder with the help of her ex-husband, Garik, a suspended FBI agent.

The book has short chapters, a lot of action, and plenty of secondary characters to keep it interesting. I particularly liked how Elizabeth developed a relationship with her father, and through his descriptions began to understand the truth about her parents’ relationship. I’m also a sucker for a love story, and I enjoyed seeing Elizabeth and her ex-husband rekindle their romance.

Fans of James Patterson or Nora Roberts should pick up Virtue Falls.  Looks like this is the first in a new series–can’t wait for the next story!

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Mayday! Air, Land and Sea Disasters (2011)

Tue, 2014-12-09 01:01

These intriguing disaster films are reviewed by Bud:

Aviation disasters have been much in the news this past year with the most prominent stories being the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 over the Gulf of Thailand and the loss of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine. The media made much of these tragic events and the public avidly followed the articles because, despite their grievous nature, stories of airplane accidents are inherently gripping. Air disasters occur rarely but when they do the destruction is usually so large scale and dreadful that our attention is just drawn to them.

The non-fiction DVD series, Mayday! Air Disasters shows just how riveting these occurrences can be. This documentary program, which also aired under the title, Air Emergency, profiles twenty-nine different disasters, most, but not all, aviation accidents. Some of the events covered are:

Unlocking Disaster During United Flight 811 from Honolulu to New Zealand, the door to the cargo hold spontaneously opened tearing off a piece of the fuselage in the process and sucking several passengers out of the plane. The parents of one of the lost passengers worked tirelessly to identify the cause of the accident and hold the aviation industry responsible.

Hanging By A Thread Aloha Airlines Flight 243 was flying 24,000 feet over the Hawaiian Islands when suddenly thirty-five feet of the plane’s upper fuselage peeled off, completely exposing the first five rows of passengers to the open sky. Can a passenger jet remain airborne with this much damage?

Out of Control Twelve minutes into a flight from Tokyo to Osaka Japan, JAL Flight 123 mysteriously malfunctions and for over thirty agonizing minutes plunges up and down as the anguished crew fight to regain control of the plane.

Fight For Your Life A suicidal company employee hitches a ride on FedEx Flight 705. Mid-flight he attacks the crew with hammers and a spear gun. The badly injured pilot looks for a place to land while his co-pilot, also seriously wounded, engages in desperate fisticuffs with their crazed passenger.

Falling From the Sky While flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, British Airlines Flight 009 begins experiencing very unusual phenomena. A strange haze drifts into the passenger compartment. A “brilliant, white shimmering light” appears to be clinging to the plane and 20-foot long flames start shooting from the engines which then proceed to shut down one by one.

Ghost Plane En route over Greece, tourist flight Helios 522 with 100 passengers on board cannot be contacted by anyone on the ground. Army jets sent to check on it find something very strange. The plane is flying normally but no one on board is moving. The plane’s occupants all appear to be unconscious or dead. What is going on?

These are just a few of the many intriguing stories covered in a series that totals 12 discs. The first part of each episode uses film footage of the actual incidents, interviews with the people involved and recreations to show what happened. The second part explains why it happened. The accident investigation process is fascinating as scientists and aviation experts try to determine exactly what went wrong.

You learn a lot about avionics, the airline industry and human behavior under extreme conditions. You also pick up some memorable, if occasionally creepy, factoids. Did you know that if you are unfortunate enough to somehow exit an airplane at 23,000 feet it will take you approximately four minutes to hit the ground?

This show proved to be compulsively watchable. It’s the best kind of reality TV because it’s both educational and entertaining and despite the potential for being lurid, is not exploitative or overtly gory. However, if you have a fear of flying, you may find it disquieting.

I’d recommend it for anyone with an interest in aviation, science or human drama.

Check the WRL catalog for Mayday! Air, Land and Sea Disasters and Mayday!:Air Disasters


The Ice Storm (1997), and The Ice Storm, by Rick Moody

Mon, 2014-12-08 01:01

DVD

I don’t remember why my husband and I first watched the DVD The Ice Storm, but it was probably because we were enjoying movies directed by Ang Lee  (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pushing Hands; Brokeback Mountain, and others). We had been through Williamsburg’s ice storm of 1998 and knew how dangerous it could be. The movie wasn’t so much about the storm itself, but about two troubled white, middle-class, nuclear families in suburban New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1973. The emotional impact of the movie was shattering.

Events take place when the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal are topics on the news. The sexual mores have loosened considerably from the constraints of the 1950s and have not yet been walloped by AIDS. The Hoods, Ben and Elena, have two teens: a boy in boarding school, Paul, and a girl in middle school, Wendy. The Carvers, Janey and Jim, have two boys: strange, pensive teen, Mikey, and pre-teen, Sandy, who likes to blow things up. Throughout the course of the Thanksgiving week, each person in each family, except Paul who is away, explores his or her sexuality with others in the other family.

But the story is much more than about sex, and the sex certainly isn’t a feast of sensual stimulation. Almost the opposite, the sexual encounters are interrupted, fumbled, “awful” or, after the fantasy of the encounters have been built up, they don’t take place at all. The real story is of the emotional relationships between each of the characters. The actors are extremely good at showing these changing relationships. The cast includes top-rated actors Kevin KlineJoan AllenTobey MaguireChristina RicciElijah Wood, and Sigourney Weaver. Katie Holmes plays a rich, sort-of girlfriend of Paul’s. There are some very funny scenes, mostly of adolescents being adolescents, such as Wendy’s giving grace, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.” Her father’s reaction, “Jesus! Enough, all right? Paul… roll?”

One of the key scenes in the movie is a neighborhood “key party,” where men put their car keys in a bowl and, at the end of the party, after much drinking, their wives pull out random keys, and, at least in theory, go home with the owner of that set of keys. Meanwhile, there is an ice storm outside. The roads are slick, the power goes out. The adults are high or drunk at the party, and their children are left at home, within walking distance of each other’s houses. What could go wrong?

Book

After watching the movie a second time, I decided to read the book, by Rick Moody, on which it was based. Although there are a few plot differences between the book and the movie (and the name Carver is Williams in the book), both are excellent in depicting the members of these two families. Each uses a different medium to portray the individuals and the dynamics between them. Moody’s words are a joy to read. “The idea of betrayal was in the air. The Summer of Love had migrated, in its drug-resistant strain, to the Connecticut suburbs about five years after its initial introduction. About the time America learned about the White House taping system. It was laced with some bad stuff. The commodity being traded was wives, the Janey Williamses of New Canaan. The payoff was supposed to be joy, but it was the cheapest approximation of exalted feeling. It was just a demonstration of options, nothing more.”

The characters in the book, notably, are less attractive and more “real” than those in the movie, and I was thinking that if readers have to “like” characters to enjoy a book or a movie, they may want to stick with the movie.  If you want to get a real depiction of changes some families were going through in the early 1970s, you may want to read the book. The language in the novel is frank and raw, but intricate and beautiful in places. Ang Lee’s theatrical adaptation, however, is also very good, distilling Moody’s words into a stunning visual portrait.

Check the WRL catalog for the DVD The Ice Storm.
Check the WRL catalog for the book The Ice Storm.