Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly/ Jean-Dominique Bauby/ 131 pp.

Paralyzed by a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly through eye-blinks. This is a literary book, translated from French, but it is accessible with short chapters and rich descriptions. It is almost stream of conscious at times, filled with brief vignettes of life and memories. While reading, I could not help but be amazed at the memories, sensations, tastes, smells, places, etcetera that Bauby can recall - a testament to him having embraced his earlier life experiences.

The first paragraph: “Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room slowly emerges from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubiax bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined theses past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock” (3).


Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism/ Temple Grandin/ 240 pp.

Thinking in Pictures is Temple Grandin’s autobiography that also includes insights into autism. Ms. Grandin is a “world-famous animal scientist and autism self-advocate” and “the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world” (homepage). She has a Ph.D in Animal Science, and “one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment [she has] designed” (p.3).

Throughout Thinking in Pictures, a common theme is Ms. Grandin linking autistic behavior, especially her own, with animal behavior. For example, both autistic children and wild animals tend to calm down when exposed to a firm but gentle touch. Ms. Grandin credits her ability to see from a “cow’s eye view” and design handling implements to her hypersensitive senses and visual thinking. While certain chapters were more interesting than others, I enjoyed this book, especially the few chapters at the start and end that introduced and tied concepts together.

Early in the book, Ms. Grandin describes her visual thinking. “I think in pictures,” she says. “Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. . . . Spatial words such as ‘over’ and ‘under’ had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory” (from chapter 1). She talks about a video library in her head that she can playback, with new “videos” constantly being added. Her invention process for equipment involves skimming her video library and combining elements to form her invention, rotating the equipment in her mind as it runs and examining it from every angle as it operates.

DBRL, MERLIN, Amazon (new, expanded and updated edition)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Olive Kitteridge / Elizabeth Strout / 286 pages

I picked up this tattered paperback copy at a Saturday morning Daniel Boone Regional booksale, and was sold upon seeing the emblem announcing it was the "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." I was not disappointed in this powerful book.

Unlike many of the heroines in popular fiction, the character of Olive Kitteridge isn't "special" or even always appealing. She is a teacher in a coastal New England town. There are 13 stories, some of which involve Olive directly, others which only tangentially mention her. Years pass and we see the characters change, including her.

The poignancy of this book is how it captures the disappointments of life: including the ones encountered while getting older, imperfect marriages, and in the decisions of adult children. At the same time, some characters do evolve and are capable of bright glimpses of insight. People do have impact on each other, sometimes in a healing way and sometimes in a destructive way. This is not escapist fare, but you feel so much richer having read it.

We learn so much about ourselves in relations with others. Some are truths we would rather avoid. Olive faces many of these truths courageously. After all, that is often what life requires: courage to keep moving forward and growing. Don't be afraid of your hunger, as she tells her classes.

MERLIN, Daniel Boone Regional Library, Amazon

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mind's Eye / Oliver Sacks / 263 pp.

The Mind's Eye is another “popular neurology” book by Oliver Sacks. While I did not find it as accessible or emotionally-wrenching as Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I still enjoyed this book. The Mind's Eye highlights people who have lost some part of their perception or “vision.” Among others, Sacks highlights a pianist who looses her ability to mentally recognize objects (including written scores), a writer who overnight looses his ability to recognize letters and thus read, and a woman whose depth perception is restored, giving her a 3-D view of the world. Having read other Sacks books, I especially enjoyed this book’s revelations about Sacks himself, chronicling his battle with an eye tumor and his inability to recognize faces.

Here is a section I found particularly thought-inspiring where Sacks talks about how other senses can be heightened in a blind person.

Ben Underwood [who had both eyes removed at age three] developed an astonishing, dolphin-like strategy of emitting regular clicks with his mouth and accurately reading the resulting echoes from nearby objects. He was so adept at moving about the world in this way that he was able to play field sports and even chess” (p.235).

MOBIUS, Amazon

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages / Ammon Shea / 223 pp.

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea is a book that is sure to please word-lovers. This book chronicles Shea’s journey of reading all 21,730 pages of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary in one year, usually reading 8-10 hours per day. I like how this book is divided with each letter having its own chapter. Each chapter starts with text about Shea, events throughout his year, editorial feuds, histories of dictionaries, etcetera, and ends with a list of some of the most interesting words from that particular letter. Shea provides simple definitions for the words and includes often-hilarious paragraphs about origins, usage or thoughts. I never knew a dictionary could be such rollicking fun.

Here are some of the words that I found most interesting and am already planning to sprinkle into conversations. (I have only included the word and definition.)

  • Airling: A person who is both young and thoughtless

  • Nod-crafty: Given to nodding the head with an air of great wisdom

  • Onomatomania: vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word

  • Psithurism: The whisperings of leaves moved by the wind.

MOBIUS, Amazon

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads / Ammon Shea / 216 pp.

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Ammon Shea was a book I picked up because of its yellow cover. I could not put it down. While a book about phone books had the potential to be dry, this book is fascinating. It also discusses enough related topics to keep the book paced well; topics include sending mail via guided missile, old-time switchboards, making art out of phone books, and ripping phone books in half. This book explores it all. I would recommend this book and enjoyed Ammon Shea’s engaging writing so much that I have already checked out his other book, in which he reads through the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are some parts of the book I found especially interesting:

  • In 1959, three thousand letters written by the postmaster general were delivered via missile. The missile was launched from a submarine 100 miles off the coast of Florida, took 22 minutes to arrive, and was remotely controlled. The postmaster is quoted as saying that mail would be delivered by guided missile before man reached the moon.

  • Ed Charon, at age 70, ripped fifty-six Portland white pages in half in three minutes.

  • Beginning in the mid-1960s, Bill Holland, a painting contractor in Los Angeles, decided it would be easier to tell people to look him up in the very back of the phone book rather than to use business cards. So he changed his name to Zachary Zzzra” (66). To stay in the back of the phone book, he had to add several more “z”s to his name when Vladimir Zzzzzzabakov appeared in 1978.

MOBIUS, Amazon

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Ganstas in the Public Library / Don Borchert Memoir / 223 pp.

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Ganstas in the Public Library is Don Borchert’s memoir about working in an urban public library. All of the chapters are divided by theme, are self-contained, and range through the emotions. Many of his stories are character-based, taking a type of public library regular and telling their story. Uniting a few of his stories are observations of how the library has affected these people’s lives. From his introduction: “[T]here is the belief that once you begin to open books, you will become a better person. It is Pandora’s box, but in a good way. You are inching toward the promised land, page by page. And it doesn’t matter if you subscribe to this theory or not. The subscription has already been bought and paid for.”

While I did enjoy this book, I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I did find it interesting that it received quite varied Amazon reviews. While I enjoyed the book, I think the writing could have been improved to make the stories more vivid, and I was occasionally rankled by a few blanket statements about libraries or librarians.

A few stories that stood out to me were the story of the man who got upset when his library card number had two sixes next to each other, the man who wanted the circulation people to alphabetize his books for him, and the Mother who tried to scam her way out of hundreds of dollars of fines but was allowed by the library to check out children’s books for her kids.

MOBIUS, Amazon

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Little, Big/John Crowley/538 pp.

I began reading this book because it was part of a list of works that Neil Gaiman said influenced his writing of American Gods. The book tells the story of four generations of a family living on the fictional estate of Edgewood. The family knows that they are part of a great "Tale", which they don't completely understand, but they know their destiny is entwined with that of the fairy folk that have inhabited the estate for generations. The book is a combination of family history and fantasy (but not your typical fairytale, dragons-and-dwarves-and-elves fantasy). It's a difficult book to get started on (and even more difficult, apparently, for me to explain), but for fans of fantasy and turn-of-the-century drama, it's well worth the struggle at the beginning.
Book Links: Amazon, GoogleBooks

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Julian Comstock: A Story of Twenty-Second Century America / Robert Charles Wilson (413 p.)

In an interview with Tor.com about his latest book, Canadian sci-fi author Robert Charles Wilson revealed that, upon deciding to write a novel set 150 years in the future, he looked to popular books of 150 years ago, to see the difference in culture and worldview that he would have to convey between today and his future setting.  As it turns out, this look backward ended up influencing Julian Comstock much more directly: the characters speak as if they had stepped from the pages of a mid-19th century novel, often to hilarious effect; the post-oil future looks uncannily like a coal and steam driven Victorian era...and somehow, nary a machine gun has survived what the novel's religious establishment calls "The False Tribulation" that followed the end of the "Efflorescence of Oil" and the era of "The Secular Ancients" (that is, us), despite ongoing war with the Dutch over Labrador, and various other conflicts.  As prediction in any linguistic or technological sense, the novel cannot be taken seriously.

Nonetheless: once one accepts the idea of a chunk of the 19th-early 20th century being picked up and plunked into the 2170's...this novel is a treat: a splendid read, with memorable characters, a social, political and religious world spun and extrapolated comically and tragically from the substance of America, past and present, and a narrative that is capable of stirring the mind and moving the heart.


Links to Tor.com Interview, Part I and Part II.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Murderous Procession / Ariana Franklin (352 p.)

The fourth book in Franklin's "Mistress in the Art of Death" series finds medieval pathologist Adelia Aguilar enjoying a quiet domestic life in a small village in England, surrounded by her daughter, her lover, Rowley, the Archbishop of Albon, her friend Mansur, a Moor, and various others she has picked up on the way. Her domesticity is shattered when Henry II, who originally requested her services from Palermo and now refuses to give her a passport to leave England, asks, or rather commands, her to accompany his ten year old daughter Joanna to Sicily for her wedding with William II. Adelia is thrilled to be going back home until Henry informs her that he will be "safekeeping" her daughter with his queen consort Eleanor, currently under house arrest (albeit quite a splendid house). Henry, you see, does not want to lose his female pathologist. Adelia reluctantly sets out on the journey, accompanied by Rowley, who wants Adelia out of England because someone, unknown to her, has been trying to kill her. The journey turns perilous for all involved when Adelia's would-be killer joins the large traveling party and people start to die.

Franklin is a master at weaving historical fact into her narratives, and includes a section of author's notes at the end explaining the historical context of the novel. Palermo in the twelfth century did accept females as students, and it was famous for its work in anatomy and pathology. Similarly, other events and people scattered throughout the book are based in historical fact and woven into the fabric of the novel. I would suggest that if you haven't read the other novels in the series that you do not start with this one, but rather with the first, Mistress of the Art of Death. Franklin leaves us this time on a cliffhanger, so here's hoping the next book comes soon!

The Devil's Bones: a Body Farm Novel / Jefferson Bass (320 p.)

The Devil's Bones is the third book in Jefferson Bass' Body Farm series. Jefferson Bass is the writing team of journalist Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass, forensic anthropologist and founder of Tennessee's world famous Body Farm, a forensic "lab" where donated bodies are left in the open to study what happens when bodies decompose under varying conditions. In this third novel, the protagonist, Dr. Bill Brockton, is involved in two forensic cases: one, in which Mary Latham, a well-liked local Knoxville woman, is found burned to death in her car; and another involving a disreputable Georgia crematorium. Also returning is Dr. Brockton's arch nemesis, Garland Hamilton, who killed Brockton's lover and tried to frame him for the murder. Up for trial, he escapes and carnage ensues as he plots his revenge.

I always enjoy Bass' books, due to the detail of the forensic anthropology and the realistic depiction of the capabilities of forensic science. The science is always spot on and I learn something new every time I read one of his books. His character, Dr. Brockton, is engaging and human, not a superman but a smart, normal professor with an unorthodox profession. That being said, I found the revenge plot with Hamilton a little tedious, and easily the least intriguing part of the book. I would have much preferred he stick to the cases and the forensics. I should also say that these books are not for the squeamish--I wouldn't recommend them to people who don't like discussing dismembered body parts, maggot-riddled corpses, or bodies exploding in the sun. However, if, like me, you find that stuff fascinating you'll like this series of books.

In the Shadow of Gotham / Stefanie Pintoff (400 p.)

Reminiscent of The Alienist, Stefanie Pintoff's debut novel features Det. Simon Ziele, formerly of the New York City police, who has moved to a small town in Westchester County after the death of his finacee in a tragic ferry accident. It is 1904. Ziele is pulled back to Manhattan whenthe brutal murder of a brilliant young female mathematics student in his sleepy town leads to the patient of a controversial criminologist and psychologist, Alastair Sinclair, a professor at Columbia University. Sarah Wingate's murder closely resembles the deranged fantasies of a man Sinclair has been studying, and who is now missing. Ziele, with the help of Sinclair and Sinclair's widowed daughter-in-law Isabella, weaves through turn of the century New York City, its back streets, brothels, rich and poor, powerful and not, trying to find the killer and bring him to justice.

The book was enjoyable read with a few quibbles; I found some of the exposition to be a bit obvious, as when Ziele launches into the history of the use of fingerprints, and found an occasional off-key note when language or situations seemed more modern than authentic for the time period (did they really have trash cans on the street in NYC in 1904?) It was also fairly easy to spot the killer half way through the book, even if, like me, you don't necessarily read mysteries to try to figure them out. However, the characters were interesting, with great potential for future stories, and Pintoff's knowledge of NYC at the turn of the century brings the city to life on the page.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tortilla Curtain / T.C. Boyle / 355 pages

I was anxious to read this title after learning it was a former One-Read title picked by the regional library. It did not disappoint: the Tortilla Curtain was a well-written compelling view of 2 families from vastly different worlds. I was pulled in right from the start as one of the characters (Delaney) is jolted out of his comfortable upper-class world through an accident. His and his wife's (Kyra's) point of view is a familiar American one. However, the book also weaves the story of two homeless illegal aliens: Cándido, a thirty-three year old and his 17 year-old common-law wife, América.

The novel twists and turns and does not fold itself neatly into a feel-good narrative for which you might hope. Instead, it can be downright uncomfortable, as the Mexican couple's struggle to survive imparts a jarring triviality to the Americans' worries and "traumas." Each character undergoes tribulations that challenge and transform his or her world-view, not always for the better.

My husband and I listened to this audiobook (CD's checked out from Daniel Boone Regional Public Library) and were pleasantly surprised to learn that it was narrated skillfully by the author himself. We're looking forward to reading/hearing other titles by this author and would recommend the Tortilla Curtain without hesitation.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Into the Minds of Babes / Lisa Guernsey / 287 pp.


Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to age Five espouses the moderate view of limited and content-appropriate television usage for young children. It is written accessibly and is a nice mixture of entertaining anecdotes and scientific studies. It is a quick read, and can also easily be skimmed. While much of the scientific findings are common sense (young children often imitate what they see on TV), anyone reading this book is sure to be surprised and/or vindicated by something. This book is full of practical advice, including what programs are good/bad for teaching children various things (e.g. vocabulary, social intelligence, problem-solving).

Some random things I found interesting from this book:

  • Background noise (from radios, TVs, flight paths, city noises) has a strong negative affect on the ability of children to acquire language skills.

  • The heavier the child, the more likely her or she has a bedroom TV set” (229).

  • From a study of 1,000 children from various countries, researchers have found that children do not “show signs of understanding the purpose of advertising” (222) until they are 7-8 years old. Children, even up to the age of 12, have a hard time differentiating advertising from content on web pages.

  • In 2002, two researchers at the University of Connecticut decided to compare data on speech and language tests from sixty children ages 3-4, factoring in how much television-including educational television-they had watched. They found no correlation to any skill related to language development, save one: the children who watched the most television performed worse in tests of grammar than the other children in the sample. Grammar, it seems, is something that children need to hear and practice in real time situations, where what you say is contingent on what someone else says and vice versa” (148)

Book links: Amazon, Merlin

How To Have Style / Issac Mizrahi / 214 pp


How To Have Style has a basic premise: give 12 women advice to stretch their fashion limits and spruce up their wardrobe, documenting the process with plenty of pictures. I am not usually one for fashion books, but I enjoyed this one and thought the clothes were wearable and the author's advice mainly good. If you like looking at lots of pictures and saying, “who would wear that!” or “I want that!,” you would probably enjoy this book.

Book links: Amazon, MOBIUS

note: For page count, some adjustment might be needed for the pictures.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Help / Kathryn Stockett / 464 pages

What bothers me about much of fiction through the ages is the upper class perspective. Growing up poor myself, I always wonder about the perspective from the lower class. What are the hopes and dreams of the servants, for example, who frequently only appear as plot devices and stereotypes?

Undoubtedly, such a novel wouldn’t be as light-hearted as other fiction. There would be tales of survival and sacrifice, far removed from the romantic antics or obsession over social appearance often seen in the upper class novels. Throw racism from decades ago into the mix and you might have some pretty grim reading.

But The Help was one of the more compelling novels I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The backdrop is the 1960’s segregated South, when the Civil Rights movement is slowly making inroads into Mississippi society. It takes the perspective of three women: two maids (Aibileen and Minnie) and one white college graduate (Skeeter), daughter of a well-off cotton farmer. Their stories interweave together as they become united in a common goal.

There are suspenseful, anxious moments, as you might imagine in a novel where the threat of brutal violence from the Ku Klux Klan overshadows a whole race. But there are also comic moments, especially revolving around, well, rogue toilets. And there are hopeful moments, as the characters make decisions and take steps to improve their lives.

If you like writing, this book might inspire you to look around your universe and uncover the hidden. What assumptions do you live by that blind you to the reality around you? Perhaps an individual cannot totally transcend the limitations of their culture, but they can glimpse the blind spots and injustices of the status quo.

I listened to the unabridged audio version, which has different narrators for each of the characters. I can’t recommend this audio version highly enough, which I downloaded from our local public library (Daniel Boone).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Empire of Illusion / Chris Hedges / 240 pp.


Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle discusses style trumping substance in American Culture. Despite the title, this book does not look at the decline of reading or literacy rates, but at the rise of people’s demands for entertainment-value in general. I found this book to be a surprising mixture of conservative and liberal views. Even if one does not agree with everything in the book, it is an interesting read and sure to prompt discussion and debate. I would recommend this book with the caveat that it contains explicit content.

Chapters and some of their key topics:

1. The Illusion of Literacy (professional wrestling/entertainment)
2. The Illusion of Love (pornography/violence)
3. The Illusion of Wisdom (higher education/entitlement)
4. The Illusion of Happiness (positive thinking/workplaces)
5. The Illusion of America (politics/capitalist system/corruption)

Links for this book:
Amazon, MERLIN
note: This book was
finished in November.

Don’t Make Me Think / Steve Krug / 197 pp.


Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a fun and quick introduction to web usability filled with easy-to-understand examples and illustrations. As the book is mainly about what works and what doesn’t on websites from a design perspective, the only background you need to enjoy this book is occasional Internet usage. While this topic has the potential to be dry, this book is a surprisingly quick read and contains a nice amount of humor and interactive elements. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about web usability.

One of my favorite quotes: “It is always interesting to watch Web designers and developers observe their first usability test. The first time they see a user click on something completely inappropriate, they’re surprised. (For instance, when the user ignores a nice big fat ‘Software’ button in the navigation bar, saying something like, ‘Well, I’m looking for software, so I guess I’d click here on “Cheap Stuff” because cheap is always good.”) The user may even find what he’s looking for eventually, but by then the people watching don’t know whether to be happy or not.”

Links for this book: Amazon, MERLIN, eBook
note: For page count, some adjustment might be needed for the pictures.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Sunborn / Gregory Benford / 436 p.

I picked up The Sunborn on a rushed descend-and-grab mission to Columbia Public Library, just before it closed for the night, so that I'd have something besides the South Carolina history item (review coming later) to read on the way to a conference in Charleston, SC.  As it turned out, this sci-fi paperback was anything but light reading - for one thing, it was written by a physics professor and contains diagrams of the heliosphere. 

In much of science fiction (or at least, much of that genre that I read), fairly ordinary human dramas of the political, military, social or sexual kind are played out against a background of some future, spacefaring civilization, or some other universe and cast of characters and species.  But in this novel, the scientist-astronauts deal primarily with problems of...science.  (Imagine: the two main characters are female scientists, including one of reproductive age, and there's no romantic or sexual plot at all, for a change!)  Sure, some of the most amusing moments deal with interpersonal tensions between the explorers and the corporate and political interests "Earthside" in the mid- 21st century, and their troubles with information overload and battling bureaucracies, but that's all just background noise compared with the tumbling cascade of events that begins when weird electric energies on Mars and vast, methane-based...um...entities on Pluto show signs that seem, beyond all human expectation, remarkably like intelligent life.

By the end of The Sunborn, the characters still seem hardly more than sketches, yet deep questions of philosophy and even glimmers of theology are sparking through the pages, spiraling at once outward to the cosmos and inward to the memory and art.  I came away thinking, "Now this is true science fiction, worth every diagram."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thirteen Great Stories/various authors/256 pp.

I'll be the sacrificial lamb and write the first review...
I'm almost finished with this compilation of short stories "by 13 master storytellers"; I've started the last story in the book, "The Morning Watch" by James Agee. By the way, this book was "remaindered" from the MULSA book sale!

The anthology includes stories by Saul Bellow, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but also includes work by lesser-known artists like Felipe Alfau of Spain, Luigi Pirandello of Italy, and Isaak Babel of Ukraine. Most of the stories were written in the 1930s-1950s, and the book was published in 1955. The stories are truly representative of their time; two stories written by American authors deal with changing racial relationships in the Deep South, and Babel's work details the life of the Soviet worker during the early days of the Soviet Union. (Interestingly, although Babel himself was an "enthusiastic Communist", according to Wikipedia, he was killed during Stalin's purges in the 1930s.)

Here's a full list of the stories (and authors) included in this collection: "The Beggar", by Felipe Alfau; "Looking for Mr. Green", by Saul Bellow; "The Jar", by Luigi Pirandello; "Hook", by Walter van Tilburg Clark; "The Downward Path to Wisdom", by Katherine Anne Porter"; "The World's Fair", by F. Scott Fitzgerald; "Two Gallants", by James Joyce; "The White Rooster", by William Goyen; "The Bath of Death", by Joaquin Arderius; "And I Am Black, But O! My Soul Is White", by Peggy Bennett, "Benya Krik, the Gangster", by Isaak Babel; "The Eye", by J.F. Powers; and "The Morning Watch", by James Agee.