Thursday, January 28, 2016

Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science

edited by Ronald L. Number and Kostas Kampourakis

I think I jumped on this one just from the title. At first I was puzzled that my library only had one copy of it, because popular science books tend to circulate well. I figured out why once I started reading: this book is not about people's incorrect knowledge of science (eg., most people think Schrödinger's cat is 50% alive and 50% dead, when really its status is indeterminate), it's about myths within the history of science and the pedagogy of science as a body of knowledge, a methodology, and/or a way of thinking. So, pretty academic and not so much intended for the lay reader.

Here is a series of quotes from the book that give an idea of how it's written and what it's about:

"What exactly do we mean by 'myths in science'? Often we mean the propagation of stories that are at odds with the historical record -- be it because their protagonists have specific views on how science has (or ought to have) developed or because teachers and textbook writers find them educationally expedient."

"Myths, as the French linguist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) put it in his Mythologies, are not simply inaccurate statements about the world; they are a specific kind of speech. Myths are a way of collectively expressing something about values, beliefs, and aspirations, even though, taken literally, the content of myth is not true."

"Part of the problem reflects a general limitation of all textbooks. Textbook writers, in consideration of space limitations and intended audience, present science as briefly and simply as possible. This systematic omission of details regarding the process of science has the unfortunate consequence of portraying the results of science as certain, rather than tentative and the object of continued investigation."

Even though this book is very different from what I expected, I rather enjoyed it. The academic tone isn't all that bad, the chapters — each one dedicated to a particular myth — are short, and the entire book is of modest length. Good to stretch the brain muscles and feel like a smartypants. I learned new things and deepened my understanding of others.

Into the Unknown: how great explorers found their way by land, sea and air

by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty

Such an amazing book! Cataloged for kids but so much for adults to enjoy too. Lovely detailed drawings and big fold-out pages about fourteen amazing journeys, from a Greek sailor in 340 BC to the moon landing in 1969, along with explanatory text and informative sidebars. This book would be an excellent gift for that smart kid you know; even if it's beyond their current reading level, they can geek out over the pictures and grow into it. Adults will appreciate this book but probably would want something heftier for their own shelves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Assholes Finish First

by Tucker Max

I enjoyed the raunchy, obnoxious comedy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, so I was prepared again to ignore the fundamental — and self-identified — asshole-ism of the author in order to get some laughs at the expense of others. His second outing is, not surprisingly, not as good as the first, though (because?) it covers very similar ground. Call it the sophomore slump, or maybe just the novelty wearing off. To be fair, I did laugh out loud more than once.

I'm not particularly inclined to read his third book, but I still want to see the movie based on the first. And the third book, if I were stuck at the airport and had it to read, I'm sure it would help pass the time with at least a few chuckles.

You Got Nothing Coming: notes from a prison fish

by Jimmy A. Lerner

Let's not try to figure out why I'm so fascinated by life in prison. Let's just agree that this is an interesting book, very gritty and honest and real, and it scratched most of my itch. It's no literary masterpiece, but the writing is fine and appropriately straightforward. This true story is not boring.

And let's not discuss the problems with the American criminal justice system and the correctional industry. Let's just agree that life in prison in the United States is very rough and could stand to be improved a lot without lessening the intended punishment.

Blind Descent: the quest to discover the deepest place on earth

by James M. Tabor

Since it's about going down instead of up, this book could sort of be the opposite of Touching the Void, or one of the other books about climbing Mt. Everest. It's pretty well-written, mostly not boring, and manages to convey the excitement and danger of the expeditions even to someone not involved or particularly interested in spelunking. Solid recommendation if you like travel and adventure, extreme sports, survival stories.

My one complaint is sort of a technicality: if the cave starts up the side of a mountain and the bottom of it is at the level of a valley floor, no matter how far it is from top to bottom, it just doesn't feel as "deep" as something below sea level. I've probably just read Journey to the Center of the Earth too many times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Single Digits: in praise of small numbers

by Marc Chamberland

Another book that is not what I'd imagined it would be. The intro says that, yes, it gets into some pretty advanced math, but also says that one can gloss over the finer details of the equations without losing the greater sense of the explanations, which are written such that a 12-year-old can understand — to which I call shenanigans! I admit my math is a little rusty, but I'd be surprised if any twelfth-graders would get this stuff.

One particularly annoying thing is the frequent use of "nontrivial" to describe numbers or equations or whatever without ever defining it. I made it through a semester of college-level calculus (barely) without ever encountering that terminology.

So, totally not for beginners, no matter how intriguing the book description sounds. Perhaps someone will write a book about the interesting qualities of numbers that really is for the layperson.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Routes of Man: how roads are changing the world and the way we live today

by Ted Conover

I had such high hopes for this book! Hopes that were neither fulfilled nor fully dashed.

I was disappointed that the book doesn't have more of an overview or history of road building and civilization. Instead, each chapter looks at a particular road (not always what we Americans might imagine) and it's current significance in a globalized/globalizing world. I remember each chapter being interesting in and of itself, along the lines of a longer magazine article, but the book as a whole isn't what I wanted it to be. I think maybe I didn't quite finish, or perhaps did some skimming.

A fine book, though, especially if you like travel writing and have an interest in the developing world.

Call Me Home

by Megan Kruse

I hemmed and hawed on this book for a while after the first review I read. Eventually, I decided the story of a young gay man in the rural Pacific Northwest was enough of a hook for me. Even after I checked it out, though, it took me a while to get around to reading it.

At first, I was stunned and thrilled by the writing, which seemed fresh and tender and emotionally taut. That initial blush of amazement wore off somewhat, but I still give this book great marks overall. It's a tragic story, with domestic violence and desperate choices, wrenching betrayals and hopeful reunions. Point of view alternates among three characters, sometimes unevenly in terms of length. At times I wasn't feeling the sections from the mother's POV, but ultimately her story becomes a convincingly difficult picture of a woman in a destructive relationship.

The young man's storyline is thoroughly explored, but I was never 100% sold. His relationship with a closeted construction foreman seems too good to be true, even while it is clearly doomed, but his emotions and longing are realistic. The third narrator is the younger sister, whose sections are told in first person, lending them more immediacy. She's less fully-drawn and in ways more intriguing, partly but not only by virtue of being young and half-baked.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Let Dai, vols. 1-15

by Won Soo-yeon (원수연)

So, I've written recently that I don't actually read that many graphic novels, but I've recently reviewed three and am now going to review a Korean manhwa series. Playing catch up on things I read long ago is partly to blame, but maybe I read more graphic stuff than I realize.

I read about this series last year in School Library Journal, I think, in an article about popular new manga for teens. (Korean "manhwa," Japanese "manga" — same diff.) My library didn't have it, so I wound up using interlibrary loan for the entire 15 volume series. I felt a little guilty about doing so, because a lot of work goes into getting a book through interlibrary loan, and once or twice I started and finished one of these books on my lunch break and checked it right back in after only having it checked out for an hour. Oh, well. Having read a fair amount of Japanese yaoi, I was interested to see the Korean take. (Boy Princess, also mentioned in the article and also Korean, was a big disappointment.)

The tender and wistful boys-love style covers belie a much darker interior. A sudden and intense attraction between two young men of different backgrounds — a clean-cut mama's boy and a rebellious gang leader — swirls into violence that threatens to destroy their own lives and brings grievous harm to those around them. It's quite tragic, really, and occasionally confusing, but overall it's a difficult story well-told. No really sexy bits, but the young men's tense and tortured relationship is convincingly drawn, and other characters are nicely developed too. Top notch.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ranger's Apprentice series:

The Ruins of Gorlan

The Burning Bridge

The Icebound Land

by John Flanagan

This fantasy adventure series is solid, and I regularly recommend it to kids. It's also up to 12 books, and ain't nobody got time for that!

Will, the 15-year-old protagonist, is drafted by the mysterious Rangers, stealthy warriors trained to fight and, more importantly, to forestall battles through covert operations. Even while training to become a protector of the kingdom, he will face mortal danger.

I don't remember there being any magic in these books, but they share the vaguely medieval setting of many fantasy stories that do feature magic. This series is more about adventure and survival, and of course the perennial middle-school-to-young-adult themes of independence and individualism, while also relying on the support of others and developing mature relationships.

Gripping, entertaining, and relatively quick (for an adult). I'd always meant to read more of them, but I'll probably never get around to it.

Grayson, Volume 1: agents of Spyral

written by Tim Seeley, Tom King; art by Mikel Janín, Stephen Mooney, Guillermo Ortego, Juan Castro

I have great affection for graphic novels, but I also have a dirty little secret: I don't actually read many graphic novels. I also love movie adaptations of comic books, but I very rarely read the super-hero graphic novels or comic books. Further confession: I didn't know Professor Xavier had a sister until I'd finished reading an entire book featuring her and asked my friend "But who's this weird bald guy?" (Mitigating factor: the book was third in a series, and I hadn't read the first two.)

On the other hand, I am signed up to get e-mails from DC and Marvel, as well as a big comics and manga distributor, about new releases and such. One of those e-mails is how I came across this new series (volume two coming soon!) and decided to give it a go, though I'm not entirely sure why. I have great nostalgia for the 1960s Batman television show, and I've seen all the recent Batman movies and two or three of the older ones, but I wouldn't say I'm a big Batman fan, and even less of a Robin fan — Chris O'Donnell's 1997 costume nipples and codpiece notwithstanding. Perhaps I was attracted to the lurid pink cover and a character named Dick?

Whatever the reason, I wound up really liking this book. In this universe, everyone thinks Dick Grayson is dead. Some group of villains who wanted to unmask all the heroes took him on television and outed him as Nightwing (or outed Nightwing as Dick?) and killed him. Being dead is a great cover for becoming a super-secret double-agent, which makes for a promising series storyline. I anxiously await volume 2, and I almost regret that I read volume 1 when it was brand new, because my only complaint is that it's short and I want more.

A final admission: sure, this Dick Grayson is pretty attractive, and that certainly is part of his appeal for me. I also appreciate seeing a male character get a bit of the lady–super-hero treatment with sexual objectification and beefcake shots (and in a book written and drawn by a bunch of men, to boot).

Big Baby

by Charles Burns

A very weird and kind of gross graphic "novel." More like a comic book, maybe, since it's not a long story but several shorter ones. But nothing like a traditional comic book. I don't know what it's called, but there's a genre of graphic books that is all about the surreal and bizarre, often with gore and nudity and monsters and half-humans. Not recommended unless you're into that genre.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second

by Drew Ferguson

I guess my library doesn't have this book anymore, so I'm glad I read it when I did. I certainly have some complaints about it, but overall I quite liked it. Being about teenagers, this book would have been a young adult book if not for the graphic sex scenes. I mean, teen fiction often has sex, but not with this level of detail in the descriptions. Older teens could definitely handle this aspect of the book, and younger ones probably could too, even if their parents don't want to admit it.

The main character is pretty likeable, if dopey and naive at times. (Maybe he's just hopeful and uncynical, unlike grown-up me.) He struggles with being gay in high school, his parents' separation, general high school angst. The ending is crushingly sad and traumatic. The most important secondary character reacts to his own difficulties in a way that didn't make sense to me, though his response might seem to someone else to be the natural one, and maybe it could have been adequately explained if the book had been about him.

Kiss & Tell

by Alain de Botton

I love this author's nonfiction books so much, particularly because of his writing style, that I decided to take a chance on this novel. Forever philosophical and always quotable, de Botton turns a simple love story into an exploration of love as an act of biography, and mistaken biography at that. One quotation from this book that sums up the whole premise, I liked so much that I wrote it on my wall. It's something to the effect that we are never more wrong about who someone is than when we are in love, because we are in love with the person we believe them to be or want them to be — a person capable of loving us — rather than the person they really are.

Verdict: an enjoyable book, pleasant to read, that is more than just its story. Not recommended if you're all about the plot or looking for earnest romance, though it's not entirely cynical on the possibilities of love.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Sex and the River Styx

by Edward Hoagland

Lordy, lordy! Writing about a book I read four (five?) years ago sure can be challenging. I'm at a total loss as to how I found out about this book, since it's not the sort I normally read or casually encounter, but I'd bet that the title grabbed me. In any case, I liked it enough that I regularly put it on the staff picks shelf.

I'm usually hesitant to read a collection of essays, unless they're humorous ones in the vein of David Sedaris. This aversion is probably due to some negative association between essays and schoolwork, or the feeling that most essayists are cranky older men, but I ought to try and get over it, because so many great writers write essays, and when the writing is really good the subject hardly matters. Also, the essay format is readily digestible, amenable to skipping around, and easy to put down and let go if you're not enjoying yourself. Reminds me of reading Harper's or The Atlantic Monthly.

This collection finds the author examining his experience of aging and re-examining his earlier experiences, while he writes about his childhood explorations in the woods of rural Connecticut, his years working in the circus, and his many travels around the world. A thread of melancholy and the feeling of imminent endings are woven throughout the book, but so is a sense of wonder and transcendence. I recommend this book to anyone who takes pleasure in well-crafted language and thoughtful commentary on being human.


by Derf Backderf

If you don't have anything nice to say... just ignore the guy's name. I imagine there's some kind of story behind it, right?

Anyway, this graphic novel pairs fictional episodes in the life of a garbage man, based on the author's own stint as a refuse collector (sanitation engineer?), with factoids about the history of trash, trash trucks, landfills, and the disposable economy. The amount of garbage we humans, and our associated industries, generate is nothing short of astonishing, and the ways we make it "disappear" are grossly inadequate. Not surprising, if you give it any thought, but then most of us never do. The stories of what it's like to be the ones picking up curbside are pretty much what you'd imagine, but very entertaining nonetheless. Well-done all around — art, coloring, dialogue — on thick paper in a strong binding: a solid piece of work both artistically and physically.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Spinoza: the outcast thinker

by Devra Lehmann

I only had vague notions of 17th century philosopher Baruch (a k a Benedictus) Spinoza until I read Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, by Antonio Damasio, during my period of fascination with neuroscience. Ever since, though, I've wanted to know more about him and his philosophy. I'm still not sure I want to go directly to the source and read Spinoza's masterwork, Ethics, because I like not being in school and don't want to feel academic. (I'm less intellectual than I sometimes pretend, or am sometimes taken to be.)

When I stumbled across this book, it seemed like a nice way to learn a little more without having to resort to reading straight-up philosophy. While I enjoyed this book, it's mostly biographical and only explains points of his philosophy as they are germane to events in his life and his difficulties in getting his work published, as well as the religious and political establishments' negative reactions to his work. I could have learned more about Spinoza's philosophy by reading his Wikipedia page. Even so, Spinoza's life, and reading about the cultural and intellectual climate of the time (1660s-'70s Amsterdam), is super interesting — and it's got me feeling a bit braver about reading Ethics.

The book seems really well researched, and the author is very clear about instances in which she's speculating how Spinoza might have felt. The writing is clear and smart without, for the most part, over-explaining. I was thinking the author might be a high school teacher, which would explain this writing style, and in trying to confirm that supposition I've noticed that this book won the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. I totally get this being a book aimed at teens, and Spinoza's independent thinking, resistance to authority, and disregard for tradition certainly have some teen appeal as well.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Men of the Manor: erotic encounters between upstairs lords and downstairs lads

edited by Rob Rosen

Nasty Boys: rough trade erotica

edited by Shane Allison

These books are anthologies, so obviously the stories are hit-or-miss (or in-between). I don't want to go into a lot of detail as to which stories appealed to me more, because personal reasons. I've never been too shy on this blog, but this time around you can tell enough about my preferences from the titles of these two books. On the whole, I'd say more stories were good than were not good. I even read a few of them more than once, and at least one has a permanent entry in the Rolodex.

One complaint, which I have about a lot of porn — er, "erotica — is that there's not a lot of condoms being used in these stories. Men of the Manor, being a period piece, has a built in excuse, I guess. I don't want to get into a whole thing about it, but I came of age when condoms were the only tool (other than abstinence and/or monogamy) to protect oneself against HIV and when living with HIV was much more difficult, so I tend to reflexively expect safe(r) sex. Obviously, sex feels better without condoms, but I personally always feel a little icky when the lack of condoms is over-emphasized as an erotic element, which isn't actually the case in most of these stories, but I'm also disappointed when the choices about safe(r) sex are completely glossed over, which is mostly what happens in these books. A couple of times, a character does briefly consider his safe(r) sex options but quickly decides "fuck it," which is even more disappointing that not bringing it up at all.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Edge of the World:  a cultural history of the North Sea and the transformation of Europe

by Michael Pye

OMG I loved this book! It's the sort of history book I adore, though not the best kind for thorough learning, a book that revels in details and unexpected connections, the sort of things for which a textbook has no room. The writing is engaging and intelligent, and the presentation of information is more artful than methodical.

In another context, I wrote a one-sentence blurb about this book; one of my best blurbs ever, IMHO: "A highly readable anecdotal narrative history of civilization around the North Sea from 476 to 1492 that skitters around the timeline in various thematic chapters, each a lens through which the author examines the importance of sea travel as the impetus and/or vehicle for social changes and technological developments."

If you're preoccupied with diversity and subverting the dominant paradigm, this book probably is not for you. By which I don't mean that it's pushing some sort of hegemonic agenda per se, only that it's very tightly focused on a particular time period in a certain place, and that place just happens to be the source of many globalized ideas and cultural norms and aspirations that, it could easily be argued, historically have not been disseminated in a way that is respectful of indigenous societies or sensitive to the differing narratives of the oppressed.