Jennifer D. shares this review:
Kate DiCamillo’s work has always been quite popular, but The Magician’s Elephant is definitely my favorite. It features an eclectic cast of characters including a fortune teller, two orphans, a magician, a nun, a dog, an ex-soldier, a policeman and his wife, and an elephant.
One of the orphans, Peter Augustus Duchene, is searching for his sister. He has been told that she is dead but maintains the hope that, somewhere out there, she is alive. His hopes seem to be well-founded when he meets a fortune teller who tells him that in order to find his sister, he must “follow the elephant.” While that prospect seems to be quite the impossibility, at least the fortune has confirmed that Peter’s sister is alive. Then he overhears the most amazing story. A magician in town has performed an unbelievable trick. He has materialized an elephant out of thin air! Could this be the elephant that will lead Peter to his sister?
The Magician’s Elephant is a quirky, lovely book that quietly tells a story of, as Ms. DiCamillo puts it, “love and magic.”
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If You Were Born a Kitten is a realistic book about the way baby animals look, feel, and behave once they are born. Many animals react in different ways once they are born. For example, baby seahorses “pop out of their father’s pouch and swim away with hundreds of sisters and brothers.” Also, bear cubs are actually born with no hair at all and they must cuddle up to their mother to keep warm. In the end, the reader discovers that the narrator of the book is actually the mother of the baby to whom she is referring. “Naked as a bear cub. Soft as a porcupette. Wrinkled as a deer mouse. Free as a kitten. You.”
The realistic illustrations engage the reader and show affectionate love between the different animals. The soft, pencil drawings are beautiful.
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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.
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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.
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Manny’s Cows: The Niagara Falls Tale features a boy named Manny who gets out of school for summer break. But since he lives on a farm with 500 cows he never gets to go on vacation, because the cows must be attended to multiple times a day. On the last day of school, Manny’s teacher suggests that he just takes his 500 cows with him on vacation. He ponders what vacation would be like with the cows and decides to leave the next morning for Niagara Falls. He packs the 500 cows into a bus, and they are off to The Falls.
Despite all of the commotion on the way, they make it there safe and sound. Unfortunately, once they are all finished with the boat tour, the cows go to the gift shop. Manny gets upset because he cannot pay for any of the souvenirs the cows pick out. One cow decides that she is going to make butter and then, “In no time at all, Manny’s cows were up to their udders in orders for butter!” With the cows’ help, Manny was able to pay off the cows’ gift shop mess and even have enough money to “ride home in style.” The illustrations in this book are phenomenal and hilarious. Readers of any age will love this book!
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When I decided to read Linger, I was both excited and a bit cautious. Shiver, the first book in this trilogy, was amazing and, in my opinion, it set a new standard for teen fiction dealing with Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, and whatever. Would Linger live up to my expectations, or like many second, third and fourth books in a series, would it just rearrange the characters and problems ultimately telling the same story over and over? What a wonderful surprise to find that Linger is as compelling, beautifully written, and enjoyable as the first book.
Sam and Grace are still two teenagers grappling with teen problems as well as the new reality that Sam will no longer shift from human form to wolf. His internal struggle with this is amazingly believable. Grace is struggling as well, with a strange illness and with the angst of not yet being 18 and totally free to make her own choices. These are real teens who have teen problems, but who also have the determination to fight for what they want.
Isobel, a somewhat minor and unlikable character in the first book, becomes a major player in Linger. As with all of us, she too is a complex teenager whose façade of sarcasm and anger starts to crack, making her another real teen who is vulnerable and struggling with life. Stiefvater accomplishes this while retaining Isobel’s feisty approach to reality. And then there is Cole, a new character, as complicated and real as the others.
While Grace’s parents have previously been pretty nonchalant about Grace’s activities, in Linger they start reacting to some situations in a more stereotypical parental way. All of this makes all of them very real. Most people are much more complicated than they seem at first, and Maggie Stiefvater has created characters with whom we can all identify on multiple levels.
Linger is filled with subtle foreshadows and clues that let the reader speculate on the future of Grace and Sam. But somehow the author has provided just enough surprises as the reader reaches the conclusion of the book, to keep you both reading, wondering, and worrying about these people you have learned to like, respect, and love.
After reading the last page, I marveled at how much I enjoyed the book. I certainly look forward to checking out the final book of the trilogy, Forever.
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.
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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.
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Jeanette shares this review:
Sometimes, I come across a book that I immediately determine to read. Winter’s End was one of these. The gloomy cover with the solitary hooded character in a wintry landscape, a slight splattering of blood across the top, made this book irresistible. Novels in which seemingly powerless characters do their best to survive and bring down an unjust authoritarian regime are among my favorites. I figured that since it was originally in French and translated into English, it might be a story of broad appeal.
Helen and Milena are orphaned teenagers at a prison-like all-girl boarding school during the oppressive reign of the Phalange. Helen’s depression gets the best of her, so she requests a visit to her assigned consoler, and names Milena as her companion. The girls will be allowed out of the school for three hours. If they do not come back in time, another student, Catharina Pancek, will be punished by being placed in isolation until the girls return.
On their way to the consolers’ houses, Helen and Milena meet two students from the boys’ school, Milos and Bartolomeo. The four exchange names and construct a way to keep in touch by sending notes through the Skunk, a man who takes care of laundry for both the boys’ and the girls’ schools.
Consoler Paula and her little boy Octavo are the closest thing to a family Helen has known. They welcome Helen into their home for a few hours. Octavo shows her his homework while Paula fixes hot chocolate and delicious baked potatoes. When Helen’s visit is over, she goes to meet Milena. Instead of her friend, she finds a note saying, “Helen, I’m not going back to school. Don’t worry. I’m all right. Ask Catharina Pancek to forgive me. Milena. (Please don’t hate me).”
That is how the book starts. The four students escape from school, Milena and Bartolomeo together at first, followed several days later by Helen and Milos. On the run, the students learn about their parents: how and why they died and what they themselves can do to revive the dormant resistance movement against the Phalange. The story is told from multiple points of view: from Helen’s, Milena’s, Milo’s, Catharina’s, and from one of the Phalangist hunters sent to find them.
There is nothing clichéd in this book. The hunters use trained dog-men—genetic combinations more hound dog than man—that can walk upright, hunt, and use limited speech. There is a race of humans called cart-horses or horse-men, who take pride in finishing any task they’re asked to do or die trying. Milena’s beautiful singing voice plays a prominent role in the novel, as does Milos’s training and skill in Greco-Roman wrestling. It is the age-old struggle of a determined group fighting against a powerful regime, but the cold, repressive society Mourlevat has created is unique and darkly fantastical.
In reading this novel, I found myself immersed in the oppressive world Mourlevat created. I would recommend it to young adults as well as to adults who enjoy dystopic fiction but don’t require complex romantic relationships in their reading.
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Everything Goes: On Land is a thrilling and informative book about every type of machinery that moves. For example, cars, trucks, RVs, bikes, and motorcycles come alive on the pages. The book begins with more familiar vehicles that go and proceeds into more complex vehicles like trains. It features a father and a son who are learning all about things that go on land! Everything is labeled, and this book really puts the reader in the middle of a busy city! The book has large illustrations that inform the reader of the different types of parts and functions of the different objects. In addition, each page if filled top to bottom with exciting and colorful illustrations!
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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.
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The unrhymed poem that comprises the text of this book makes it unusual and refreshing. It is a toddler’s stream of consciousness narration of an outing in the stroller. It cleverly evokes toddlers’ energy, curiosity, and distractibility: “Mama unstraps my belt/I climb out/run behind/Mine/Mine!/My wheels pushing/Mama calls me/but I won’t bump/a baby/Hey baby!/Hi baby!” The watercolor and ink illustrations are appropriately imprecise. Many pictures are done from the toddler’s perspective. In one, grownup faces loom down toward the stroller. In the foreground, a pudgy hand reaches up: “I want to pinch their noses.” The toddler’s antics recall Little Mister and the Max and Ruby books. This is a must for toddler and preschool story times. The author is known primarily for her poetry for adults. The illustrator has said that she tries to sneak her cat into every book she illustrates. Can you find it in Baby Radar?
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“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.
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Jennifer D. shares this review:
Yoda was wise beyond his 900 years, but how wise is Origami Yoda? Or, perhaps more importantly, how wise is Dwight, the boy who wears the origami Yoda finger puppet and gives him his voice? Because, socially speaking, Dwight seems to be pretty inept. He is known for making a fool of himself, especially with girls, yet, when he speaks in Yoda’s voice, genius advice comes out. Could Yoda really be speaking through the puppet, or is Dwight actually a genius? Tommy and his friends are determined to thoroughly investigate the matter.
What follows is a diary entry formatted story, similar to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. We get stories and drawings from Tommy and his friends explaining how they have benefited from the advice of Origami Yoda. By the end of the book, you may be just as surprised with their findings as Tommy is. Don’t miss the final section of the book, where you, too, can learn how to make an Origami Yoda!
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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.
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Although the limited number of colors used in the illustrations gives this title a dated look, it is a delightful story with distinctively stylized, amusing pictures done in heavy pen and ink. The equally amusing rhyming text describes the activities of a little boy who is good friends with the king and queen. The royal couple is constantly inviting him to join them for special occasions. His first response each time is to ask if he may bring a friend. The king and queen always graciously assure him that his friends are welcome, and so are called upon to entertain a giraffe, monkeys, lions, and other zoo animals. A similar story is Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo. For a silly story time about animals in unusual situations for preschool children, pair this with Mercer Mayer’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed and sing “Down by the Bay.” The illustrator, Beni Montresor, was a renowned Italian artist who received a knighthood for his work.
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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.
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Jan shares this review:
I have decided to take a risk and recommend one of my favorite books ever. It has a satisfying story, strong characters who are learning about themselves, magic and magical creatures, a magnificent horse, evil elderly relatives, a castle, and children who are better people than the adults around them. How could any book need more? In fact, my enduring ambition is to live in Chrestomanci Castle.
The Pinhoe Egg is shelved in the children’s section and is certainly enjoyed by children, but it is also a marvelous book for teens and adults to relish. If you guiltily enjoyed the early Harry Potter books for their humor, magic, and “Englishness” you will probably love The Pinhoe Egg and the rest of the Chrestomanci Series.
Marianne Pinhoe lives in a quiet English country village. The school holidays are starting and she is looking forward to having free time and working on her story about romantic Princess Irene. Unfortunately for Marianne, her family has other plans. Marianne is to run errands for her ailing grandmother, Gamma, while her older brother Joe is to go to work as a boot boy at nearby Chrestomanci Castle and report back what he learns (to spy, in other words!). On Marianne’s very first morning at Gamma’s house things start to fall apart as the old woman is visited by members of the Farley family from the next village and Marianne’s Gamma appears to go mad. The entire, overwhelming, extended family gather round to look after the old woman and decide that they need to clear out her house to sell. The attics are forgotten, and one day in search of Gamma’s constantly straying cat, Nutcase, Marianne discovers a strange spherical object covered with strong “don’t notice” spells. Thinking that it is useless, Marianne gives it to Eric Chant (or Cat) from the Castle, unknowingly betraying her family’s Sacred Trust. What is the spherical object? Could it be an egg? And what is the Sacred Trust and has Marianne done a bad thing in breaking it, as her father says, or a good thing as the people at the Castle claim?
(Note that the object is clearly described as round and mauve with speckles, and not gold and hen’s-egg shaped as it is shown on this cover.)
This book can be enjoyed on its own, but readers of Diana Wynne Jone’s other Chrestomanci books will recognize plenty of characters. I enjoy series like this which include the same characters, but are told each time from a different person’s perspective. We get to see how our favorite characters are seen by other people in other situations–sort of like seeing your teacher in their tatty track pants in the supermarket during the weekend.
Although I have read The Pinhoe Egg several times, I have just listened to it on CD during my commute. Diana Wynne Jone’s wry humor and Gerard Doyle’s engaging narration have seen me looking like a fool and laughing out loud.
Check the WRL Catalog for The Pinhoe Egg
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.
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