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Terminal Beach

I feel like I enjoy Ballard latelybecause he is not American. He is a masterfulstoryteller with recurring themes that go through a lot of his work -- man returning to his awakened primordial identity, injury and recovery, going to meet your maker due to some sort of uncontrollable impulse. His stories are a delight. His characters, while strange and often a bit daft, are never helpless or hopeless. The ideas can be fantastical, -- as with the shortish story about a giant man who washes up on the beach and is dismembered by the townspeople as his corpse rots --or more plebian. He has a huge vocabulary that does not seem ostentatious and a lot of his stories seem to start with a very simple “what if” as in “what if the earth’s oceans dried up and almost everyone moved to remote planets? what if someone decided to stay behind.” His characters are often solitary but rarely lonely and have very rich internal lives, in any case. I loved this book from beginning to end and am looking forward to finding a copy of his new book of short stories which is 1,00 pageslong. He’s that good.

Signal to Noise

This book has the worst cover ever. I have been down that road, so I know it’s not the author’s fault, but it kept me away from the book all Summer. Finally, its paperback size and fictional nature drew me back, and I was happy I returned. Mostly because I am out of William Gibson books to read and reading Nylund makes me feel sort of like I do when I read Gibson. To be more specific, his plot is good and moves rapidly, there’s a lot of fancy gizmos to look at, the time is not quite the present but not really the future. Unlike Gibson, Nylund kills nearly everyone in the entire world at the culmination of this book [and yet there is a sequel? hard to fathom]

The book takes place at a point in time when VR worlds and scenarios are somewhat real, butinsteadof making his characters all impressed and “oooh trippy!” about it, Nylund makes their integration into everyone’s work and home life no big deal. The super-computing environment that must be accessed nearly constantly to maintain these worlds, means that every time you are truly “outside” [as so few people are] you must wear shielding helmets to protect you from the massive bandwidth coursing through the air. There is definitely a Dic-ian paranoia at work as well. The book works, the main character is believable and mostly likable and as I said before, the story moves, hustles really. There is a bit of clumsy foreshadowing, but it’s not entirely unexpected. This book is a fresh name on the scene of a very small cyber-genre, he’s worth reading.

Storming Heaven

It’s nice to see people write about drugs as if they were any other topic. This is an interesting and well-researched history of LSD and other psychedelics, from their discovery, manufacture and eventual outlawing. This book follows some of the major players of the LSD movement -- Leary, Owsley, Huxley -- through their experimentation and enchantment or disenchantment with the drug. Reading histories of drugs before they became illegal is always particularly interesting since all sorts of people, from Hollywood stars to Ivy League faculty were interested in LSD use as a sort of hip interesting thing to do. For a long time LSD therapy was thought by some to be the most effective form of psychological treatment. Jay Stevens does not seem like an insider to all the goings-on, more like an astute researcher with a willingness to explore the minutiae of a movement and come up with some form of coherent narrative. If you’re looking for a Tom Wolfesque writing style or an in-depth exploration into the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project, you will be out of luck, but if drug culture history fascinates you, this book is filled with enough trivia to keep you going for weeks.

Bag Balm and Duct Tape

Another slice of life book from Vermont. This is written by someone who actually used to live in New England, before he moved to rural Vermont, so it spares you some of ther “wow, these people are backward” observations. Conger thinks of himself as a bit of a funny man, so you have to sometimes endure his ribbing of his patients [in a sort of wink wink way as he prescribes them placebos for their pains and aches as if they were some new wonder drug] in ways that seem somewhat disrespectful. On the other hand, when he tries to go the other way and give long lectures on apprpriate medical treatments, his patients' eyes glaze over and he’s not really giving them good care either. Being a doctor in a community that is quite traditional and somewhat ruled by superstition must be sort of tough. Conger seems to have made the best of it and maintained his sense of humor.


Chuck Palahniuk can be sort of gross. Most people who read his books already pretty much know this, but this was the first book of his that got reviewed pretty much as it was coming off the presses and so may be getting attention from people who only know that he wrote the movie Fight Club. And that may be trouble because this book is sort of icky, like his other books. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I did, very much. But I knew what to expect -- dead babies, necrophilia, raw infected wounds, deeply damaged human beings. Palahniuk writes these things like no one else, except maybe David Foster Wallace, who I’ve always suspected was a bit mean-spirited about it all.

This story reads more like his other book Survivor. It’s about a lullaby that kills kids and the messed-up guy who discovers this, and what he does about it. When you have the power to kill people with your mind, not always on purpose, is that a skill you want to lose? This book goes into all to gory details onvolved in answering that question.

In the Little World - A True Story of Dwarfs, Love, and Trouble

This book grew out of an article that Richardson wrote for Esquire magazine about attending a convention of Little People of America, a once a year event that is attended by thousands of dwarfs. Richardson makes friends with amny of the particpants and his continued relationships with them make up the rest of the post-conference part of the book. He is a good writer, though perhaps better suited to the magazine format than the longer book style. I enjoyed the parts that talked about the dwarf world, interviews with people who have spent their entire lives less than four feet tall, some who have married people of average stature, some who have married people their own size, some who haven’t married at all. Dwarfism is quite rare and so this convention is one of the few chances that small statured people have to mingle with and meet people their own size.

The book is strongest when it is letting people tell their own stories. It is least strong when Richardson’s relations with some of the people involved -- a dwarf woman who befriends him, a couple unhappy with his protrayal of them in the magazine, a mother trying to get good medical care for her dwarf daughter and splitting up the rest of her family in the process -- because Richardson himself has his own set of problems. He is happily married with children and yet carries on this tumultous long-distance email and phone call friendship/relationship with a woman that only ends when the woman wants them to go into therapy to work out some of their differences and Richardson’s wife tells him flat out “friends don’t go into therapy together.” The long-suffering mother of the dwarf daughter is such a mess of a character that reading about her and her increasing obsession with the online world is wincingly painful. And, of course, I agreed with the couple who were upset at his portrayal of them -- in the quest for a hook for his story, he wound up carelessly hurting these people’s feelings becaue he felt like he was one of them, in on the scene, when he clearly wasn’t. And, of course, like any popular writer, when he starts looking at social phenomena and quoting the likes of Derrida and other French philosophers discussing the nature of “difference” I just start skimming.

Enabling Romance: A Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships for the Disabled

I’m not sure why I picked this book up, except that I’ve been reading about diability issues lately and this seemed to be a logical extension of the other boooks I had been reading. The book is written by a couple, he is disabled, she is not. They discuss all manner of disabled relationships and sex, with chapters devoted to specific disabilities -- blindness, polio, deafness, MS, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia -- as well as just general information for people contemplating a relationship with a disabled partner. The bulk of the book is told in the words of the disabled people that were interviewed by the author; many are in or have been in fulfilling sexual relationships. Some have not. The tone is matter-of-fact “well why shouldn’t I be having a healthy sexual relationship?” and is full of chatty advice on how to re-engineer sexual relationships to accomodate various sorts of disabilities, including the often problematic situation of working with an aide. The book also has accompanying Joy of Sex style drawings which depict disabled people in sexual situations. The models themselves seem suspiciously able-bodied, but the drawings serve to normalize the book as a how-to manual for any sort of people. The authors admit in the introduction that the respondents to their survey were all heterosexual, but stress that they are as much in favor of homosexual relationships as heterosexual ones.

The Club Dumas

When my sister learned that I had been reading antique book mysteries, she thrust this into my hands. The main character of this book is actually a bookscout of a sort, tracking down and buying or otherwise obtaining the rarest of the rare books in Europe. And, of course, a book he is commissioned to attain has a mystery associated with it. Actually, there are two mysteries that interweave and may or may not be related. There are many sumptuous books and a lot of lovely libraries and a lot of fanatical book folk. Perez-Reverte is a skillful storyteller and a great writer. The story has a lot of depth, depending on how much you know about the subjects he discusses: the devil, angels, the Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas. Lots of interesting characters, a top notch book about books.

Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Program in the Green Mountain State

Mention the term Eugenics nowadays and most people think of the horros of Nazi Germany and their creepy master race ideas. People don’t remember, or choose to forget, that Eugenics was in many ways the predecessor to much of biological and evolutionary science education at the turn of the century. This book traces the Eugenics movement in Vermont, particularly the work of Harry Perkins who got into the field of Eugenics early and left it a bit late. Vermont hung on to many ideas about Eugenics even after it was thought ot be passe or tacky or just errant in the rest of the country. Sterilization laws -- allegedly voluntary -- were passed as late as 1931 in Vermont. The combination of pseudosientific declarations of “unfitness to breed” and the possible threat of sterilization caused the Abenaki nationals -- Vermont’s only Native Americans -- to go underground for the next few decades

Gallagher tries to undo some of the simplistic “eugenicists were Nazis” argument on favor of a more fleshed out history explaining the motives and ideals of this group of people. Though not an apologist by any means, she tries to instill some humanity and sense of purpose into the people who were basically trying to set up a system in which they would decide who should and should not be able to bear and raise offspring, supposedly all in their best interests. Through it all, the problems faced by the borderline “unfit” seem to be more those of poverty than any sort of genetic traits of insanity or other bad inborn habits. Gallagher paints a lot of the genetic battlefield as more of a class war, the rich trying to monitor and control the poor, immigrants and asocial people of Vermont.

The Bookman’s Wake

It’s hard to tell when reviewing genre fiction that you really like, whether the book itself is really excellent, or if you just fit the niche completely perfectly. I loved this book. It’s the second book by Dunning concerning this particular character -- Cliff Janeway, cop turned rare book dealer. This particular story concerns a pair of brothers who specialize in printing ultra-rare fine art press books. They die in a mysterious accident and then, years later, someone is killing people to acquire one of their rarest volumes. It sounds dorky but the story was very believable with interesting quirky characters and enough obscure book information, especially about the rare book trade, to keep a book nut interested indefinitely. This is head and shoulders above his last book which, while good, had some not-unexpected plot twists. It also takes place primarily in Seattle and outlying areas which made it all the more relevant to me, personally.

The New Disability History : American perspectives

Snappy new book this was, an almost completely unreadable unless you are interested, not only in disability history, but also the semiotics of disability and the whole concept of “otherness” and people relentlessly talking about it. While I am interested to learn more about Helen Keller and her Socialism and politics in particular, I don’t really want to hear about Helen Keller reinterpreted accoding to modern-day mores and ideas about the place of the disabled in society as it appears to us today. While this book has many fine essays that cover historical issues in disability studies, overall it is plodding and weighted down with too much pomo theory which seems to me to be as potentially disrespectful to the disabled as the discrimination the essays describe.

Pattern Recognition

One of my favorite things about Gibson is that I trust him not only to not disgust me with graphic sex, violence and crappy writing, but also to provide compelling female characters and plotlines that neither try my patience nor test conventional credibility. This is his latest, a seemingly up-to-the-minute story much like many of his others, a mystery and some travel and some online interactions and some offline interactions. The injection of current day themes like the World Trade Center disaster and steganography make this book seem even more likely-real than many of his others. Like his other novels it’s not super deep, but also like his other noveals, I didn’t care; I was sad when it was over.

Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

I don’t know if it’s the fact that my family is Jewish or the fact that I was just a scared paranoid child, but while I was growing up, I would always make sure I had a good hiding place, in case the bad people came. Reading books like this takes that whole idea a step further -- what if you had to live off of just what nature gave you and what you could do on your own? My easy answer is “I would probably die” but Brown tries to make you think that wilderness survival is not only possible, it might actually be fun.

I first learned about Brown while reading David Rakoff’s Book Fraud. Rakoff goes to a survival camp that Brown runs and, while he has a tough time there, being a city kid and all, gains a fairly strong respect for Brown and all the stuff he knows. Brown grew up in and aorund the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and was taught a lot of his skills by a Native american man who was the father of a friend of his. They would take instructive trips out into the woods and Brown would get educated through doing, not be reading books [like this one]. He passes on a lot of these ideas in a very common sense way, explaining that while getting by in the wilderness may not always be fun and easy, it is possible if you keep some very basic things in mind. I’m sure if I were stuck in the forest alone, most of the things he teaches would not seem quite as easy as he portrays them to be, but just knowing enough to say “build the shelter first, then worry about food” might mean the difference between a good and a very bad time.

How Do They Do That?

I never tire of trivia books that actually are good at explaining things. Sutton tackles big questions like How do they build suspension bridges? and more personal ones like How do they select donors at a sperm bank? Her writing style is illustrative and also somewhat amusing. There are a few pictures, but not many. The answer to How do they notate dance choreography? was absolutely fascinating.

Posters of the WPA

I’ve always been fascinated by the look and feel of the WPA poster series that I’ve soemtimes browsed on the Library of Congress website. They have an almost Bauhausian set of lines and fonts and yet the topics they cover are all distinctly American -- tourism posters, hygeine posters, crazy racist WWII posters. This book compiles many of the posters in an attractive volume, sandwiched between commentary by a few of the original WPA artists and some of the people involved in the WPA project. Unlike many other WPA projects [the federal theater project, the federal music project, etc] the posters were intended as ephemeral art, and as a result very few of the original pieces remain, and many of them are just available by accident. The original artists -- who were paid by the federal government to operate a poster shop and make promotional materials for other WPA projects as well as local endeavors -- are all nearing their eighties and nineties, so this book may be the last chance to get firsthand stories about this government project from the Thirties and Forties.

Still Weird

I’ve been reading Gahan Wilson comics since I was a kid. He and George Price were my two favorite New Yorker cartoonists -- both of them had a very strange sense of the world. Price’s was filled with disheveled hillbillies and oddballs, Wilson’s was filled with strange creepiness in otherwise normal situations. His book Nuts is quite possibly the funniest book about childhood I have ever read, filled with horrid parents, cheery little brothers and an overwhelming sense of impending doom. This book, while amusing, is somewhat of a disappointment. Though it claims to have “100 brand new cartoons” [some of which are the same old horror updated with new 90’s sensibilities] a lot of the older works are really poorly reproduced, sort of murky and in some cases obscuring whatever the gag is supposed to be. The work is still good and the selection is good but the poor layout and general book design make the whole affair a bit lackluster.

The Anti-Capitalism Reader

I have mixed feelings about things you can buy to support anti-capitalism. Now that corporate globalization is a daily reality that most of us can write and converse intelligently about, it seems only natural that someone would compile these discussions and sell them back to us. That said, this book offers a good overview to the many “talking points” surrounding the current cynicism about the brave new capitalist world being force-fed to us by the likes of Big Business and their henchmen the WTO and the IMF.

The essays range from a very down to earth and humorous look at the consumer-orientation of transexuality to post-modern yammering that I stopped reading at the phrase “the terms of anti-capitalism’s symbolic/conceputal production.” You’ll find more Marx here than Kropotkin, but the Reader is largely doctrine-free, though more closely aligned with the philosophical concerns of the anti-capitalist movement than the very real “well what do you do without capitalism, smart guy?!” issues that affect the day to day lives of many modern anti-capitalist thinkers.

Interviews with Thomas Frank from The Baffler, and Ramsey Kanaan from AK Press are two of the book’s stronger pieces, as is Naomi Klein’s homage to Subcommandante Marcos. The Reader covers a wide range of topics from open source software and intellectual property rights to bioengineering to Leninism. There’s a little something for everyone -- a perfect primer for Anti-Capitalism 101 at your local Megaversity -- and Punk Planet co-editor Schalit has the necessary cred to not only bring it all together but get it noticed as well.


This was a little something handed to me by my sister who is getting a Master’s in criminal justice. She, like me, has always been interested in forensics. This book is a sort of casebook by forensic anthropologist Ubelaker and Henry Scammell. It outlines, chapter by chapter, many of the issues that come up when dealing with the dead, particularly the bones of the dead. Ubelaker is often called upon to try to assist law enforcement officials in identifying victims of crimes, often with very little to go on. He explains how he does this, using examples culled from his real-life practice. Some of the stories can get a bit gory, so don’t start reading this if the idea of maggots or rotting flesh sicks you out. Ubelaker’s style is readable and chatty and there’s some really good jokes tossed in in a few places.

Sewer, Gas & Electric

First off, this book of somewhat speculative fiction begins with a dedication to Ayn Rand. And yet, I read it because it is one of my sister’s favorite books and I trust her judgment. It’s not a heavy read. It takes place in a world a few decades in the future where huge beast inhabit the sewers and rich people build towers miles into the sky. And all Black people were wiped out by a virus a few decades back and only a few remain in isolated hamlets. The Black people you see around exist as machine servants made to look human called Electric Negroes. The dark-skinned versions were apparently more popular than the lighter skinned ones. I had a hard time getting around this set of premises, though I enjoyed the book. I just spent a lot of time thinking to myself “is Ruff a racist?” "Is Ruff a Libertarian?"

The answer to those questions doesn’t matter too much -- though Ayn Rand does show up as a character in the book -- and the story itself is a bit of a romp with a lot of weird character, sentient machines and odd goings-on. There is a nutty superhero guy, a quirky rich guy, an environmentalist theme and a cross-dressing 168 year old woman; knowing all that information should give you a good idea as to whether this is your type of book or not.

Why Things Bite Back: technology and the revenge of unintended consequences

Tenner is fascinated by failure, he is curious about revenge. He notes that prior to the Industrial Revoltuion, there was almost no discourse about technological innovation being bad or dangerous or out and out spiteful. Advances were seen as a good thing. We know how far we have come from that nowadays. Everyone moans and groans about their labor-saving devices actually taking more time to accomplish tasks than their low-tech predecessors. This is what Tanner called the revenge effect. A new thing winding up doing the exact opposite of what it is supposed to do; low-fat foods causing you to gain weight, for example.

Tanner explores revenge effects and other failures of technology in a very level-headed way. He doesn’t whine about things that are hard to use, rather he explains how these failures occur, and what to do about them. He is also not an activist -- he doesn’t blame Big Business for society’s ills, he just tells it like it is. He investigates more areas than just high tech, he discusses innovations in domestic technology, sports technology and business technology. The end result is very readable since in many cases you are likely to smack your forehead and say “hey, that happens to me!”

The Ransom of Russian Art

I generally think of John McPhee as painting pictures with words. As a result, his books are rarely illustrated, except with maps and other austere diagrams. This book is different. It has vibrant color plates of paintings by Russian dissident artists who were working in the USSR when being creative was punishable by imprisonment or death. He specifically focuses on the activities of one eccentric collector, Norton Dodge, an absent minded professor of a man who, through many trips to the Soviet Union in the 60’s and 70’s managed to collect a huge amount of this art, essentially preserving an entire art form for posterity. The books goes back and forth between examining the climate in Russia and examining Dodge’s own strange life and habits. McPhee interjects himself as Dodge’s examiner more than I have seen him do in any other book I have read by him. The book is short, filled with rich details and characters and a captivating story.

Islands in the Sea of Time

I was not the target audience for this book. That said, I enjoyed the parts I liked a whole lot. The premise -- something goes wrong and all of the sudden Nantucket of the present day finds itself in the 1300’s where the island is intact, btu the rest of the civilized world has disappeared -- is very creative and is the launching point for a lot of interesting problem solving. However, ultimately, the book is a war book, even if the war in question is being fought with trebuchets and hand-forged muskets and cannons.

The range of characters is broad, there are women and men in powerful positions, bad guys and good guys and peopel in-between. There appears to be a large value placed in “getting things back the way they were” so when the tiny island, near the end of the story opens a bank I think it’s supposed to be the good news. Honestly, I was fine with this book until I peeked at the author photo on the dust jacket and thought -- probably unfiarly -- “oh, this is just one of those typical sci fi guy fantasy stories” There are a few too many rapes and a little too much emoting [a lot of ZZZZiiiik and Pow! thrown in makes for good reading but a less than serious story] and utlimately it breaks down into a big dumb battle that seems to go on forever.

Booked to Die

I was looking for a cheesy mystery that did not gross me out and this one fit the bill. It’s not even that cheesy. Along the lines of other “themed” mysteries, this one is about book collecting and book dealing. The protagonist is a cop-turned-bookselller who still has to figure out what happened to one of the nearly-homeless bookscouts that normally hung around in Denver’s used book stores. He’s a likable guy and you learn an awful lot about the world of rare and valuable books as you read it. The mystery part itself is tricky enough, not terribly clever or obvious and worth reading through to the end.

Women Sailors & Sailors' Women

Cordingly says in the preface of his book that he originally meant to do a slightly different book, one about women sailors. However, he had a hard time dredging up facts about these women and so he expanded his scope and wrote a book about women sailors, women pirates, women left ashore, women prostitutes that served sailors and the mothers and wives of sailors. This disjointed topic sphere does cause some troubles. Cordingly is an amazing researcher -- the things he was able to dig up, some dating back to the 1700’s -- are nothing short of astonishing. however, ghood research does not always a readbale book make. Some of these chapters -- on less interesting subjects like the wives and mothers of sailors -- are downright dull. They hop from well-researched anecdote to well-researched anecdote without letting hte author really tie them all together or breathe life into them. I wound up knowing a little about many subjects and wishing I’d read a pop history book about the subject -- something with a bit more of a narrative -- than this recitation of facts.

A Case of Curiosities

Kurzweil comes out with about a book a decade. This doens’t stop him from being one of the more popular authors around, especially since his latest book came out only last year. I picked up his first book -- not knowing he had written two total -- and was blown away by it as much as I was with his last one. The story begins with an artifact that someone wins at an auction, a box with some weird stuff in it. The stuff turns out to be the historical footnotes of the life of a peasant-turned-engineer from the late 1700’s. The book then sets out detailing his life.

It’s not until you get to the end of the book that you realize how truly masterful it is. The protagonist has a friend, a bit of a hack writer, who is always thinking if gimmicky books to try and sell to the general population. His last attempt that we read about is a book about clock mechanisms that has 360 pages [for degrees in a circle] but only ten chapters [because the French attempted to mandate a sort of metric time for the poulace prior to the revolution] and you realize with a suddeness, that this is the exact number of pages and chapters of the book you have just finished, more or less [the less being explained in one of the last paragraphs of the book]. Like Kurzweil’s other book, the characters and the mechanical fabrications of this book are rich and worth a close examination.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette

Amy Dacyczyn’s name has become synonymous with household thrif and probably plastic bag recycling. She is the writer/editor of the Tightwad Gazette, a nationwide newsletter encouraging people to be thrifty and use products responsibly. Dacyczyn seems to be motivated more by quality-of-life issues than by simple living mantras or eco-friendly ideas. Her tips and tricks do tend to be more environmentally friendly but mostly because they teach you how to do more with less -- less trash, less product purchasing, less glut. When I picked up the book, I quick scanned to the introductory list of ten things you could do to save money and found that I already did pretty much seven of them [and missed out on two more because I don’t have any kids]. I stil found that there was stuff I could learn from this book

Dacyczyn’s main point is that in most cases, people who complain about money [i.e. most people these days] are not really doing all they can to save and live frugally. While she does agree that everyone should be thrifty within their comfort range, she offers a wide range of strategies for people who are trying to make ends meet. Depending on your personal outlook, these ideas may sounds crazy or they may give you some hints on what you can do in your own home. She complements her advice with many hand-done illustrations that make the entire book an interesting read.

A Friend of the Flock: Tales of a Country Veterinarian

I got this book out of the library assuming that it was about vets in rural Vermont. As it turns out, Dr. John is a vet in rural Alabama, which means he is doing a lot more working with hunting dogs and large scale farms than working on people’s house pets and dairy cows. This book is laid out in chapters, each one telling a short story about what a rual vet does all day. The stories range from doing the yearly travelling rabies clinic to helping a cow deliver a difficult calf. McCormack is not from rural Alabama but he chose it as a good place to set up a vet practice. As a result, he has an outsider’s view of smalltown life, although he and his wife seem quite happy to be there. Some of the stories could be summed up as “guess what crazy thing happened to me on my way to the farm?” but the commitment that McCormack has made to the area and to the community makes these observations seem a lot more benevolent than if he were just visiting.

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

We don’t think about it much, but massive level genocide or epidemics have wider ranging effects than just the loss of human life. Cantor rexamines some of these effects in the wake of the plague that swept through Europe in the 1350’s. The book is not much of a voyeuristic trip through plague-infested Europe -- Canton minimizes the gory details and chooses instead to focus on the political and social implications of the massive die-off that the plague caused.

Some of these effects were: an excuse for the already extant rabid anti-Semitism, an increase in the moneyed female population as a result of land rights incurred through the deaths of their husbands, and a distrust of any religion that included any sort of benevolent Supreme Being. Cantor examines these topics via tracing the histories of individuals affected and thus manages to put a personal face as well as an academic treatment to the effects of the plague years. The depth of the research he has done is amazing and even though the book is academic in tone, it is still accessible to even the amateur historian.

The Virus that Ate Cannibals

This books explores the research of six medical professionals in their searches for the causes and cures of various diseases such as polio, koro and the common cold. Eron traces the lives of the scientists involved and explains their trial and error processes of some of the world’s most important scientific discoveries. It goes without saying that since this book was written in the early eighties, all of the doctors involved are white men. it is nonetheless interesting but a bit dry. The chapter on DNA and RNA was a bit unreadable due to the absence of any sort of human story associated with it. The chapter on polio was probably the most interesting due to the war being waged between Jonas Salk, inventor of the first widely-used polio vaccine, and Albert Sabin, inventor of the first totally safe polio vaccine. The book is well-written but contains a lot of medical speak that may be tough to overcome for all but the most seriously-minded medical non-fiction readers.

A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell

It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that AT&T [then still a monopoly] acceded to the wishes of the deaf population and provided lower cost phone services, TTY operator services and was forced to live up to its universal service claims by allowing deaf people to use TTYs hassle-free in their homes. This book traces the two decade fight that early deaf telecom pioneers went through with AT&T and other telcom regulators [such as the FCC and overseas telcos] in order to make that happen. Prior to these advances, deaf people could not make a 911 phone call, could not communicate with other deaf or hearing people via telephones, and were legally prohibited from using devices that worked with their telephone lines such as flashers to alert a deaf person when the phone was ringing.

Prior to the development of the telephone and “talkie” movies, deaf people were more involved in hearing and deaf communities because there were social arenas [ham radio clubs, captioned movies, live theater] that they could attend with only minimal accesibility issues. After the rise of the telephone, a vast part of society suddently became unavailable to the deaf who would then have to rely on family members or neighbors or even community volunteers to help them communicate via the new device. At the same time, AT&T, who had a complete lockdown on all long distance calling in the US, was claiming their service to be universal while at the same time systematically excluding services to deaf people. This book explains the long fight with AT&T who were not only merely inattentive to the needs of the deaf, but actively working to promote their own technologies -- a series of signalling telephones that required the deaf to learn morse code -- at the expense of better technologies currently available. These stories are told throgh tracing the lives of three early telco pioneers who started a company called APCOM that would provide TTYs and coupling devices [sort of like modern day modems] that they built themselves out of materials the phone company had thrown out and tried to destroy. It’s great reading and has at least a mostly happy ending.

Between Silk and Cyanide

This book has been called one of the last great war memoirs. It is a first hand account of Mark’s time working for the British Intelligence code bureau as a code cracker. This was back in the days when they still employed teams of young women to try to crack codes by brute force methods and Marks would often explain how they would only get an agent’s missent code cracked after 2,000 or 3,000 tries. The advent of computers into the world of math and science has rendered most of the practices in this book quaintly obsolete which is one of the reasons it makes such good reading. Another reason is that Marks’s father is the Marks who owned 84 Charing Cross Road, a famous British bookstore and peppers his text with anecdotes about that well-loved landmark.

As in many war memoirs, Marks is the hero of all of his stories and paints himself to be quite the character. Each chapter shows him going up against the military higher-ups who he is sure will fire him but he always remains employed and victorious. He is the codemaster responsible for the troops using silk code sheets [easily hidden, easily destroyed] to encode their agents' messages towards the end of the war. If I had one objection to this bok, it would be that looking at WWII -- an event of unspeakable horror for many members of my family as well as the families of others -- through the eyes of a desk-jockey, can be a bit off-putting. You see people making understandable mistakes, but ones that endanged the lives of others who are on the front lines and you wince over and over again.

The Septic System Owners Manual

One of the differences between living in the country and living in the city is that I get junk email about my septic system. I also need to think about my septic system somewhat. Peoples' waste disposal practices are not often discussed and as a result most peope don’t know damned near anything about their septic and sewage practices. This can result in very bad situations where you have a septic system failure and you don’t even begin to know hwo to fix it. This book is an attempt to help people get a grip on how their septic systems work. It has many good illustrations that are reminiscent of R. Crumb and Rube Goldberg showing how you get from point A to point B with your system. it explains the different types of ssytems, what they are good for and how to use and maintain them. Above all, the book’s emphasis is on sustainability; how to care for your system so that you are also caring for the environment by means of water conservation, responsible wastewater practices and good advances planning for whatever system you do wind up putting in. The entire book is conversational in style, accessible in format and practical in its advice. The end of the book contains resources outlining where to go for more information. Anyone who has ever been curious about where the water goes when it leaves the sink or where the toilet effluvia winds up would do well to read this book.


Maybe I’m being too sensitive here, but this is the second book I have read where a father has to suffer his daughter’s rape in two days. Coetzee is a masterful writer and his stories have depth that is almost hard to fathom at first glance. This book, set in post-apartheid South Africa, details a fall from grace of a university professor who then goes into the hinterlands to live with his adult daughter. They get attacked by people who may or may not be strangers and each has to figure out how to get on with their own lives, together or separately.

The story is rich and full of nuance. The Professor is an aging lothario who can’t help view himself in relation to his ability to gain women as conquests. His daughter has seemingly gone 180 on him and become an outback lesbian, now single after the departure of her partner. They have an unsteady alliance that is threatened when each decides to cope with the recent violent acts completely differently. I was not ready to read this book so soon after the massive gang rape in Clay’s Ark. I’m not sure if I would have had a different, likely more positive view of this book if I had.

Clay’s Ark

This book probably deserved a better rating. However, I was so revolted after finishing it, reading page after page describing the gang rape of a [somewhat willing] 16 year old who eventually gets beheaded, that I can’t honestly recommend it. Which is too bad; Octavia Butler is one of my favorite sci fi writers. Her characters are well written and itneresting and she often interjects race issues in ways that are entirely appropriate and thought provoking which lends itself to better-than-average sci fi reading.

The premise of this novel is also fascinating. Astronauts come back from space exploration harboring an aggressive virus. The virus’s mandate is to replicate itself at all costs. This leads to a lot of quasi-survival behavior from the infected humans including a lot of tough-to-read-about sex and aggression. The sex and aggression are appropriate to the story, and the tales of the humans who are undergoing this viral invasion and trying to retain their human instincts at the same time are very poignant, but it crossed a line for me and wound up making me feel icky when I finished it. I generally read female sci fi writers to avoid the whole sex-with-minors aspect that pervades a lot of traditional science fiction, this book let me down.

Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club

People who hate technology fascinate me. They fascinate me even more than people who dislike me for not only working with technology but also trying to help them get over their fear of it so that they might be able to use to to help themselves do whatever they are doing. Not everyone needs to use technology, but for the people who do need to use it, for whatever reason, they may as well not hate it. This book is a collection of essays [called testimonies] and cartoons and other materials from the ad hoc Lead Pencil Club who arrived on the scene at about the same time as the graphical web browser. The people who are at the core group issued a manifesto that became briefly popular. Opting to use pencils for communication rather than email and the PC, they espouse the virtues of the tech-free world and decry, at various different levels of desparation, the evils of technology. This is not a club with members, they do not have an overarching platform. Some of them are technophobes, some of them have computers and dislike the lack of community they can inspire. Others can’t even type. Some of them brag about not being able to even use an answering machine.

To me, hating technology is sort of like hating water. It exists and you may get into trouble one day if you really truly don’t know how to work with it. Otherwise, it’s your choice how much you want to stay around it. Many of these people just seem like jackasses to me. They explain how their computer crashes all the time and then draw the conclusion that computers are hard and they hate them. Or they come up with all these horrific future scenarios based on articles they read in Omni magazine. Then again, there are other folks who don’t need to use computers and don’t care to. They argue that computers and the Internet are causing our society to become more fragmented, less community-oriented and more consumer driven, more haves vs. have-nots. I have no quibble with them. This book has some smart people writing articles [Neil Postman comes to mind] and some people who probably can’t even use their can opener. It’s a motley bunch and more often than not, i wondered to myself what they were doing now.

Casanova Was a Book Lover

A lot of books about books tend to trot out a lot of the same tired quotations and anecdotes about the industry, and book readers and writers. This book presented something fresh. First, it’s contrarian. The first thing Hamilton wants you to know is that just about nobody makes money writing books. That said, he discusses the marketing and publishing [and self-publishing] industries, talks about how they work and the weird quirks and personalities involed in them. My favorite chapter involved going behind the doors of the Library of Congress where highly trained staff determine which books make it inside and which don’t. Hamilton also despairs about the 10 year backlog of cataloging the LoC has yet to do. In general, Hamilton himself loves books but may or may not love the book industry, writers, and even sometimes readers. The book is wonderfully researched, humorously written, and will have at least one new book story for anyone that reads it. Anyone who pokes fun of Oprah is okay in my book.


If someone had handed me this book of essays and said anything about what was inside it [something like "here, it’s some humorous reflections of a gay Jewish Canadian living in New York, it’s hilarious"] I would have hidden the book far away and never looked at it again. Instead, I picked it up of my own volition and enjoyed it. The problem is, there are too many unfunny Jewish new Yorkers, there are also too many unfunny gay 30-something hipsters. There are some really funny Canadians, however. This book is Rakoff’s look at a bunch of different things: Climbing Mount Monadnock, going to a Steven Segal Buddhist retreat, finding out he has cancer.

Oh yeah, there’s nothing funny about cancer and Rakoff devotes a small amount of time basically apologizing for riffing on a disease that may be giving other folks real trouble. He also suspects out loud that his brush with cancer may be one of the reasons he can never really approach tough subjects head-on. Basically, he doesn’t seem to be doing the stuff that pother humor writers my age seem to be doing -- he doesn’t play the wry detatched observer, he doesn’t play the city mouse in a country setting [too much] and he doesn’t make fun of people. He basically looks at new situations, finds out what is interesting, meeets people he likes and talks about it in a number of shortish essays with illustrations that he made himself. And it’s pretty good.

The Dentist of Auschwitz

The full text of this book is available online. I got it from my local library. I’m always interested in Holocaust memoirs, especially if they add new information to what I already know about concentration camps and the lives of Jews in Europe before and after World War Two. Jacobs, who lives in Boston, lived in the camps for almost five years. He had dental training before he was interned and so was able to keep himself alive with larger rations and better work assignments doing dental work in the camps. His story discusses his family’s life in Poland before the war, the gradual encroaching Nazism and anti-Semitism and his internment in Auschwitz and other camps, culminating in being loaded onto a cruise ship with thousands of other Jews as the allies were streaming into Germany only to have it be sunk by the British -- killing 15,000 Jews freed from the camps.

All Holocaust memoirs are tough to read and this one is no exception. Jacobs is a talented writer and actively engaged in Holocaust studies to this day. He does not mince words or try to downplay the horrors he and his family suffered at not only the hands of the SS officers, but also the complicit Germans and Poles and even other prisoners.

Marathon Man

Old thrillers are great. I spent the first part of this book thinking it was written by the same guy who wrote Lord of the Flies and expected the book to take that kind of a turn eventually. It doesn’t, it is a pretty straightforward tale of a guy caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, with secret family history that he discovers once it is nearly too late. The main character, a genius Jewish marathon trainer is likable and interesting. He has some weird unbelievable character traits [what Jew has never heard of mengele, honestly?] but his interactions with his mentor professor at the beginning of the book are some of the strongest writing in it.

Then things start to go badly for our hero and many people if they know anything about this story know about the infamous “dentist” scene which is the worst torture anyone can conceive of. Personally, I think this is easier to deal with when you read it in a book then when you are forced to see it on the big screen; it’s really a small part of this novel.

Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words

This book has every offensive joke you’ve ever heard, plus some that are probably new to you. It’s a compendium of articles that have appeared in the journal Maledicta, a scholarly publication devoted to the study of "verbal aggression". The articles run the gamut from ones that are just lists of epithets particular to a language, to articles about Mozart and his bad language and an inquiry into whether he had Tourette’s syndrome.

Some of the articles are highbrow and the result of good research and scholarship while others are fairly informal, though no less well written. The articles focus more on the what and less on the why or how of bad, dirty and nasty language though there is a wonderful article about stand-up comedians' responses to hecklers that is amusing as well as interesting. Obviously, if you have a weak stomach for racial epithets or would not enjoy reading 50 words for the vagina, this book may not be for you. I found it good reading and well worth my time, in addition to teaching me a good new swear or two.

The Botany of Desire

Like many good books, this book left me really tantalized to know more about its varied subjects. Pollan is a garderner and writer who is fascinated by the way species reproduce and cultivate themselves as well as other species. In this book he describes four different plant-man relationships and shows how man’s desire for intangibles led to a relationship with a particular plant. For example, he discusses tuilpomania and how people’s desire for beauty in an otherwise staid and unappealing landscape led to the popularity and breeding and appreciation of the tulip.

The book is well-researched with Pollan himself discussing his own experiences growing the plants in question -- completely hilarious when describing his attempts at marijuana growing in the seventies. He also does a lot of field work, going to visit the plant genetics research facility in New York where scientists are working to maintain genetic information for all species of apples known to humankind. He has an informal style and a gardener’s eye for detail. His writing is lovely and my only regret about this book is that it was not long enough.

From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals

Haber is a book curator at Radcliffe where she gets to oversee the cookbook collection. Drawing from her love of cooking and all things food related, this book describes some fascinating food stories and histories and the people who were involved with them. Along the way, Haber has created not only a readable non-fiction book but also a history of American women who were involved with domestic affairs as far back as the 1840’s. She describes food in Civil War hospitals in one chapter, in another she examines the food served in the White House during the FDR administration.

While this book is not necessarily supposed to be a feminist text, Haber highlights many women who made discoveries and advancements in food service and preparation -- the book comes with many recipes from the eras described -- and makes them seem like the regular old white males you read about in the “normal” history books. She has done a great service to the history of the domestic field and the book is fin to read.

The Weblog Handbook

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a position to really know nearly as much as the author with any technical manual I’ve read. Rebecca’s Weblog Handbook is just such a book. And I found, delightedly, that the fact that I know a lot about the subject already did not detract from the fact that Rebecca has written a wonderfully helpful guide to weblogs. Sort of a weblogs 101, including how-to’s, helpful links, a bit of history and her own personal observations.

If you’ve ever read her weblog, Rebecca’s Pocket, you’ve probably already come to appreciate her no-nonsense style and calm rational tone, even when she is discussing heated issues with complicated politics. In this book, she is part Emily Post and part tour guide with just a little bit of under-the-hood information thrown in. If you’re completely new to HTML and want to start yor own weblog, or even if you’re just wondering what all the fuss is about, Rebecca can explain it to you. If you’ve been around the block once or twice, you’ll probably still find something in this slim book that is new to you, and you’ll certainly never be bored. Rebecca is in some ways her own best subject. Her personal stories about starting and maintaining her weblog are what sets this book apart from ordinary technical stylebooks and give it a warmth and personality so that learning something new -- or getting new information about something familiar -- becomes an experience in skill building and self-assurance. In full disclosure I should mention that Rebecca is a good friend of mine, which is what makes it so excellent that I really enjoyed her first book.

Nickle and Dimed

This book really split my friends. Some thought it was a really effective social critique from a known and talented writer. Others thought it was an insulting pseudo-realist look into the world of the underclass by someone whose only approach to such a lifestyle is to whine and complain her way through it.

As I was reading this book, I was itemizing all of my particular issues with it, reasons it made me insanely mad. By the time I finished with it, I was merely tired of Ehrehreich and wanted her to go home to her middle-class existence and boyfriend and house, probably even more than she did. Ehrenreich, who I generally respect as a writer, sets heself up as a fake poor person, gives herself a seemingly arbitrary set of rules, and goes out to live as she envisions a poor person would. She takes low wage jobs in a number of cities and tries to both keep the job and make a living while paying for rent, food, expenses, etc. Oh, except she rents herself a car, off the books. Oh, and she won’t share a living situation with anyone, forcing herself into more expensive lodgings with no personal posessions. Oh, and she quits jobs that are too hard and complains her way through the rest of them

Ehrenreich’s points -- made frequently through footnotes and a summary chapter at the end -- are valid and worthwhile. She explains how people living at subsistence level have an entirely different set of concerns than the next class of people above them. She explains how attaining and keeping housing and food become survival activities and how the current economic system makes this even more so. She stresses how lousy it is working in a lousy job and living in a lousy apartment, but she does a pisspoor job at getting inside the heads of the people she works with -- who can’t rent cars, or return to a boyfriend and a house at the end of their tenure. Ehrenreich seems to roll her eyes a lot and wonder aloud just how anyone can live like she has forced herself to temporarily live and all this does is further patronize people who are too busy working two jobs, raising kids and figuring out where the next meal is coming from, to give a shit about Ehrenreich’s undercover journalism. Subculture tourism at its finest.

Uncle Boris in the Yukon

This book dovetailed nicely with the Sacks book I was reading simultaneously. Both were memoirs of Jewish misift kids growing up around the same time period. While Sacks became fascinated with chemistry, Pinkwater grew fanatical about dogs and pets and having a pet of his own. I know Pinkwater more from the books he has written for young adults such as Alan P Mendelson Boy From Mars and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, I also vaguely knew he was involved with dog training. In this book, Pinkwater seems like a guy who lived his whole life to be involved with dogs -- he and his wife have many dogs as pets and devote enormous amounts of time to them and used to run a dog training school -- and that his writing career is only a tiny side project. The book is humorously illustrated by his wife and has lots of lovable pictures of dogs in it. It tells real stories but manages to be funny at the same time.

Uncle Tungsten

There appears to be a miniature subgenre of the memoir which is the chemical memoir. I only know two of these books, Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and this one. In this book Sacks reflects on his adolescence, growing up in wartime Britain at the same time as he describes his love affair with chemistry. As Sacks was growing up, so was the discipline of chemistry and many grand chemical epiphanies of international importance occurred during the time of Sacks' boyhood.

Sacks manages to tell the tale of the discovery of the periodic table and various elemental discoveries while also telling stories about his family, his ancestors and the general atmopshere of the UK for a young neurotic introverted Jewish boy with brilliant parents and a large warm extended family.

Planet of the Blind: A Memoir

This is not an easy book to read. It tells the personal story of a kid who grew up not quite blind. He could make out shapes and colors, often with little relation to what was actually in front of him. He also had parents who were not willing to consider him blind. This was not necessarily because they thought he could do anything despite his vision impairment, but more because they were too wrapped up in their own personal lives and were not very focussed on their children at all.

Kuusisto was in his 40’s before he got a guide dog, and even in his 30’s before he got a white cane. Before that he just careened around, deperately unhappy and trying hard to ‘pass’ for sighted. He was also an avid reader of poetry and a literature lover -- and a great writer -- which made his predicament doubly tough. The tale wraps up with a fairly happy ending, but it is a poignant tale overall.

Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness

This is another illustatred history book, somehwat like the morphine book I read earlier this month. That one was a slick glossy affair and this one was a black and white pamphlet with a purple card stock cover. However, this one has what the other did not -- a solid set of opinions on which to hang their research on. Ehrenreich and her co-author Deirdre English make a compelling case for the Western medical system’s systematic oppression of women, with resultant poor care and creation of dis-ease where previously there had only been complaints

The book is chock-full of illustrations -- photos, advertisements, editorial cartoons -- that support the claim that while women may have had a tough time of it generally in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, doctors and social pressures made this worse. Fashion dictated that upper class women be idle, delicate, and even frail while at the same time being completely at the beck and call of their husbands. Lower class women, on the other hand, were somehow able to overcome this ‘weak’ trait of womanhood, but were thought to spread disease and poison community morals. The authors do a good job describing the odd split in heath care for upper and lower class women while at the same time showing how they were both victims of a male-dominated medical establishment that was more concerned with preserving the status quo than with improving the health of womankind.

Unnatural Exposure

Every so often there is a ‘cybersleuthing’ story that catches my attention and winds up being worth the effort. This story is not one of those. basically Cornwell seems to not have been able to decide whether to make this a computer crime story -- grisly murder photos were sent to the medical examiner via email -- or an epidemic/contagion thriller -- one of the victims has a disease that looks a lot like smallpox. The end result is weak in both areas. The computer/Internet descriptions are laughable, and the contagion factor is too easily wrapped up to be too captivating. I need to stop reading mysteries.

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner

Now that Thomas Noguchi doesn’t seem to be writing any more books about being a medical examiner at a large metropolitan city, someone had to fill his shoes. This book is equal parts celebrity gossip, medical trivia and rumor quashing. Baden has some very strong opinions on some very famous cases, cases that he was somehow involved in, including the Kennedy assasination. He is a medical examiner in NYC and was the chief examiner until he was fired by Ed Koch in a politically charged series of events. Baden tells all and while the writing isn’t super interesting -- it was ghostwritten by Judith Hennessee -- the subject matter makes it very readable.

The Stone Monkey

Everyone knows, mystery novels are like drugs. Good ones leave you with a craving for more, bad ones just make you feel cheap and tawdry and like you’ve wasted your time. Once I read Cornwell’s forensic mystery earlier this month, I was jonesing for more good investigative crime novels. I had previously enjoyed this series, with quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme and his sexy fast driving girlfriend Amelia Sachs. When I went to the library to get another one of his books, i encountered the awful realization that not only did Deaver have many such books, but I couldn’t even remember which ones I had read.

That said, this book is interesting, well researched and compelling. It is, however, a gory forensic crime mystery and not half as interesting as The Bone Collector which, I’m beginning to uneasily suspect, may be the best of the lot. These books keep me up at night reading to find out what happens, at least some of the time i’m not disappointed.

Adrian Mole, The Cappucino Years

Not as good as the previous Mole books I have read, this book catches up with our hero after a marriage and divorce and a child. He is still somewhat clueless, still living at home -- for at least part of this book -- and still likely to get wrapped up in events over which he has little or no control or understanding. That said, this book was really funny and enjoyable to read, but the lack of understanding that Adrian has about the world around him [like when his parents are cheating on each other, or he is made fun of by his friends] seemed a bit more likely and forgivable in a child of 13 than in a grown man. The diary format still works well and helps move the book along and the cast of characters is as colorful as ever, but the book lacks the same sparkle and zing of the original.

In the Arms of Morpheus

Barbara Hodgson’s bio says that she is a book designer and writer. Her talents, in that order, inform this book. The subtitle is ‘the tragic history of laudanum, morphine and patent medicines’ However, anyone who is not an anti-drug activist will likely quibble with the word ‘tragic.’ Lots of people became addicted to opium derivatives, and many died. Patent medicines were always a dodgy proposition. Addiction is probably not a good thing. All of these are likely true and yet the adjectives Hodgson uses throughout this book seem to indicate that there was some vast social ill in all the opium-earting going on.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with many full page color images of old patent medicine ads and pulp paperback covers extolling the ills of morphine and opium. It was also well-researched, and mostly well written. However, the sum total was bland -- this book didn’t go anywhere. The chapters on notable drug-takers reads like a laundry list of famous people in the late 1800’s. So and so took opium, so and so injected morphine, so and so was an addict. Patent medicines contained ingredients that were not good for you. The end result, for me anyhow, was to say ‘so what?’ The book suffers from a lack of emotion. Hodgson is neither sympathetic nor antagonistic to the subjects she portrays. It is hard to tell what her opinions are. The book reads more like a college thesis than a popular non-fiction book. Check it out for the pictures, skip most of the explanations.

The Last Precinct

This is one of those beach reading books. In fact, I borrowed it from the vacation bookshelf of a friend’s vacation cottage they were renting, figuring no one would miss it. The book is a page turner, true. The forensic science in it is captivating. There’s just enough sex and gore to be titillating but not so much that it is repulsive. The female lead is tough without being completely butch about it, and the story is semi-believable. However, it was one of those thrillers that you’re reading and all of the sudden you think to yourself ‘sheesh, there’s only 20 pages left, how are they going to wrap this up in that amount of space...?’ and the answer is: badly, quickly and half-assedly. Up until the ending, I was all set to give this book a + review but I couldn’t do it in good faith once it all wrapped up. Cornwell is a great writer, I’ll have to try one of her other books.

Our Singular Strengths: Meditations for Librarians

Michael Gorman gets libraries. In some ways, he seems wistful that he has advanced to a management position and no longer gets to deal with patrons on the front lines so much. This thoughtful book of koans celebrating libraries and librarianship can make even the most crusty librarian feel honorable about their profession and give them food for thought. Gorman offers topics -- intellectual freedom, learning to be a librarian, the war of AACR2 -- and writes short paragraphs on them and ends each section with a final thought: I will accept no substitute for the unique value of books and reading, I will beautify my library to honor its guests, I will do what I can to make my library a compassionate place. He delights in Ranganathan and even goes so far as to offer his own New Laws of Librarianship. While I don’t always agree with Gorman, I respect the effort he made for the profession.


Library cartoons. As librarians, we’re sent a link or a clipping any time someone sees a cartoon that is vaguely about a library or a librarian. Too often, these suffer from a lack of understanding about the profession and so they fall into the same old gags and gaffes that librarians have seen a thousand times before. Handman is different, he actually is a librarian and a good cartoonist besides. With a spcial flair for drawing Rube Goldberd like apparatus, he makes astute observations and wry inside jokes and even throws in an obscure cataloging reference or two. A delight from start to finish, even for the most jaded librarians.

David Frost’s Book of the World’s Worst Decisions

Yep, that David frost, the talk show guy. This book seems to have stemmed from idle bar chitchat where people were trading worst case horror stories of the coulda-shoulda-woulda variety. The British guy who thought it was a good idea to introduce African bees to local populations, the guy who sold all the rights to Elvis’s recordings before Elvis made it big, Adam and Eve, etc. The anecdotes are all told in a chatty style with no corroborating evidence whatsoever. Funny pictures. A quick fun and light read.

The Circus of Dr Lao and Other Improbable Stories

Honestly I picked this book up because it had Ray Bradbury’s name on the cover and I’m sad to say I had never before heard of Charles Finney’s story about Dr. Lao. The story -- which takes up almost half of this papaerback -- is a strange and fantastical story of a completely amazing circus that comes into a small town and winds up impressing no one. Sort of. The book was made into a regrettable movie with Tony Randall and I’m quite happy I wound up finding myself a copy.

The rest of the stories in this book are also quite strong. Bradbury has collected many disparate authors, from Shirley Jackson to Roald Dahl to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who all tell fantasy stories about bad things that can happen to quite normal people in a world that is slightly different from ours.

The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float

I’ve known about Mowat since watching Never Cry Wolf as a kid and thinking that I’d never see a better movie again. In some way I assumed that he was a naturalist who wrote one book and then disappeared into the wilds. Turns out that he’s had a series of adventures and written books about many of them. This one is about the special relationship that a man has with his boat. Especially a cranky boat that won’t hold water too well.

All these adventures take place on the shores of various Newfoundland-area islands. The book starts out hilariously funny and then gradually relaxes to become mildly amusing once Mowat takes on a female first mate who one can only assume is his girlfriend because he doesn’t make fun of her like everyone else in the book.

The Science of Everyday Life

These essays are little science lessons into fascinating phenomena. They used to be radio shows which means they are engaging and just the right length for snack-sized reading. Ingram goes into the weird habit people have of sticking out their tongue when they are concentrating and explains why wintergreen lifesavers will spark when you crunch them in a darkened room. All the science is easy-to-digest while not dumbed down so that you feel condescended to.

Time Lord

When I picked up this book, I thought I was just getting another pop-history shot in the arm about one of my favorite subjects -- the creation of time zones. The truth turned out to be both better and worse than whan I was expecting. Blaise is no pop historian, he is an esteemed and very erudite writer with a graceful hand and a large vocabulary. Every sentence of this book was delightful. This is not to say, however, that all the sentences lined up in neat order to form a cohesive narrative. While I found all the anecdotes about Berman to be fascinating, sometimes I had a difficult time ascertaining whether I was reading a flashback or a future projection of him on any given page.

Blaise would also occasionally branch off into a philosophical rambling about the nature of time itself which, while interesting, detracted from the overall narrative and could have merited a book of its own. The overall gist -- that the creation of standard time zones really paved the way for a transfer of cultural norms from Victorian to Modern -- comes across well. However, the devil is in the details and I got a bit muddled trying to parse an exact sequence of events from all the lovely language.

The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read

Another book from the library books section of the library that could have been great but wasn’t. The idea is great: gather a bunch of essays from famous writers about learning to read, and what it meant to them. However, the compilation isn’t exactly this. The book is comprised of excerpts from books, not new essays by the authors. In many cases, the authors fiction has been used to indicate a personal story of the author, on the assumption that the story is semi-autobiographical. While there are some gems -- e.e. cummings and Ben Franklin come to mind -- the book is otherwise a good idea, mediocrely excecuted.

The Member of the Wedding

This short novel has the same characters as another book by McCullers that I really liked The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The main character is the same -- a young girl with mixed-up feelings and an impetuous nature and not many friends. This book takes place during the dog days of summer when Frankie spends most every day hanging out in the kitchen with the maid and a local eight year old boy, doing nothing, talking about stuff, being lethargic. Her brother is going to be married and Frankie develops an odd crush on the wedding, on the idea of happiness made real, and becomes determined to be a part of their happiness, even if it means running away with them.

While it’s hard to understand exactly why Frankie does the things she does, her emotions feel real and her actions, though sometimes mystifying, always come from the heart. McCullers' books always include a lot of adolescent confusion, poverty, and longing for not necessarily a better lot, but just a more peaceful one.

What’ll You Take For It?

Yes, this book on bartering is written by that Annie Proulx, though you wouldn’t know it because no one dies, or commits suicide or is doomed to a long life of perpetual despair. I knew Annie Proulx could write well, I just often didn’t cotton to her sense of subject matter. This book is a great introduction to the wonderful world of barter, geared towards the complete beginner. Proulx goes into such subjects as how to make a good trade, some of the unspoken barter ethics, and what larger barter organizations are like and how to find them. There are amusing illustrations by Jeff Danziger to go along with the whole deal and the end result is an excellent primer on how to live slightly more off the grid than you may already.

Black Odyssey

I saw the overwrought Spielberg movie and was determined to learn more about what actually happened to the slaves who mutinied while at sea and found their ship landing in Connecticut to uncertain legal dominion. I spent a lot of time reading this slim book and hollering out loud “here’s another discrepancy...!”

I think we’re all aware that the big Hollywood movies tend to play free and easy with facts in order to suit their dramatic purpose, and since this book was small it was tough to tell what anecdotes in the movie might be true but there were some major points of issue:

  • the Amistads [as the black people who were aboard the ship were called] were attended to frequently while in prison and taught to read and write English by Yale students. They had good counsel for the majority of their legal odyssey
  • they were returned to Africa not by the US government but by a collection of Abolitionists and Missionaries who wanted to set up a mission in Sierra Leone and use the Amistads as preachers/coverts
  • John Quincy Adams -- while he did give a 100,000 word speech before the Supreme Court -- was not in any way reluctant to take the case on.

And those are only the major issues. While I think the movie had its good points -- slavery was worse than we can possibly imagine and people behave badly when their livelihoods are threatened -- overall I recommend that anyone really interested in the historical facts of the case read the book instead.

Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out

Most of the books I have read about disabled people are from the perspective of the disabled person and are somewhat autobiographical. The disabled in movies seem to often be either a tokenistic afterthought in the name of diversity, or someone who the movies goes through great pains to portray as "normal". As a result, none of these experiences have given me an overview of disabled culture, as such.

This book -- though it does contain many pieces I had read before -- provides such an overview. It has fiction, non-fiction, poetry and theater sections. The disabilities of the writers range from quadriplegia to hemophilia to cerebral palsy. Some of the pieces dwell on the disability, many do not. Very few of the writers are names you have heard of before unless you are well versed in the writing of the disabled. As a side note, many of the writers are also gay which creates an odd and interesting juxtaposition of subcultures

Darwin’s Radio

With the recent death of Stephen Jay Gould I have been casting about to make sure I get enough science reading in my diet. This book -- while nominally science fiction -- fits the bill. It’s fascinating. The general premise, summed up as ‘what if evolution didn’t happen gradually over time, but all of the sudden, and you could prove it?’ makes a gripping story. The story is told from the several perspectives of main characters who are involved in differing ways as the tale unfolds. They are believable and yet flawed, and make decisions the reader can understand.

The book also does not skimp on the science. While the ultimate premise is not currently correct, many of the smaller sub-premises concerning retroviruses and the study of contagious diseases and virii are spot on. I have never read another one of Bear’s novels, but if his other books are anything like this one, I will be sure to pick up anything he has done.

I Saw Esau

Remember all the stupid kids rhymes you and your friends and/or siblings would make up and recite over and over, passing the time, and amusing your friends and quite possibly annoying your parents? This book is a collection of many of them. Collected by noted children’s scholars and illustrated with lovely rich watercolors by Maurice Sendak [with the occasional naked butt thrown in to raise some eyebrows, surely] the end result is a delight. While many of the rhymes are British in origin -- and thus do not include many of my personal favorites -- just being able to skim over these and get back again into the mind of being a child who considers these phrases the ultimate in conversationalism is a delight.

The Mummy

Whenever anyone asked me what I was reading when I was going through this book, my response was always “mummy porn.” While not strictly true, Anne Rice’s books seem to have gone more down that path lately. A little more tawdry and a little less historical. A little more blood and a little less conversation. This story of the mummy of Ramses coming back to modern-day London is entertaining but the venal supporting characters and the overall focus on conflict and strife [and killings] instead of a more nuanced plot is a bit of a shame.

Damned Lies and Statistics

I generally eat up these “teach normal people math” books and this one is even a cut above the rest. While Best is aware that people lie with statistics, he is specifically interested in how statistics come to us, from whom, and to what end. He explores the relationship of statistics to activism -- how statistics are often produced by activists who want to make a particular point, refuted by members of the status quo and often misrepresented by the press -- and how they often take on lives of their own. He uses several very strightforward examples, covering the whole range of political beliefs, so no one comes away disbelieving them due to their own biases, and explains how the lifespan of a statistic works. It’s great reading, and makes you feel smarter and more assured -- not angrier and more annoyed -- when you are done reading it.

The Future of History

Howard Zinn is great. He is well read, entertaining, has a suitable lower class upbringing and is Jewish. When he talks politics and you are left-leaning, you listen. If you are not left-leaning you probably also listen and then say ‘bah! what does he know?’ When he is interviewed by Barsamian, it’s always a good read and I hesitate to say anything bad about him, but these sorts of interviews seem to be to be one of the reasons that more conservative folks despise the left. Barsamian and Zinn are friends, Barsamian seems to know more about Zinn than Zinn himself, so these ‘interviews’ are really just Barsamian lobbing softball questions at Zinn so Zinn can come back with more of his witty repartee, ingenious political analysis and stories of growing up in the 'hood.

Not that conservative interviews are anything different, but I think those tactics are inherently not good ways to be convincing. To be informative, sure, but without any meaty back-and-forth on issues of substance [even if it were only to be straw man arguments along the lines of 'but surely you can’t be saying that the US government is corrupt? 'yes, that’s exactly what I am saying'] it becomes tough to understand just how tricky the issues of globalization and social change really are to the non super-genius populations. Zinn does a wonderful job of explicating how all history is politicized and if you want to be a faithful activist, choosing the version of history you support should be an early step you take. I just wish I could hear him up against someone who wasn’t so convinced of the righteousness and correctness of his ideas as barsamian is.

The Messiah of Stockholm

This book holds a special place in my heart because it has two of my favorite book themes in it: the little old lady who lives in her bookshop, and the hapless newspaper reporter at the barely functional newspaper office [think Shipping News]. The story itself is also compelling, a sort of weird guy with a zero of a job gets involved in a pseudo-mystery concerning a long lost manuscript, his own paternity and other pretenders to the same paternity throne. Along the way, the reader becomes party to the mytery and at the same time, not really sure what exactly is going on, but not in a bad way. I have a very low tolerance for authors that confuse me and yet Ozick does it in a way that is masterful and clever.

Pre-Civil War Black Nationalism

According to the introduction by Amiri Baraka, this book is one of the essential texts discussing the roots of black nationalism in the US. Unfortunately, it’s really tough to read. McAdoo obviously knows his subject very well, and has researched it extensively. However, the bulk of the test is primary source material from various black congresses and meetings, interspersed with commentary like ‘need I say anything more?’ by the author. I exaggerate a little, but not too much. If you are really interested in this topic, this book spells out the major players, the formative events and many of the major moments of the black nationalist movement prior to the war. However, if you do not come already ready to pore over speech after speech, you likely won’t enjoy this. Many good illustrations, spotty presentation overall.

In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians

This book just came out a few months back and I signed up on the hold list at my library so that I could be the first to read it. Some of these stories are farily familiar -- Borges and Calvino have written about libraries in the past -- and some are new to me. Only one of them didn’t grab me and make me think in some way. One of the little delights of getting to read a lot of stories about librarians at once is that some of the stories can have bad libraries, some can have spinster librarians and some can have a lady who lives at home with seventeeen cats and you don’t have to get your dander up about it, you can just enjoy the story without getting huffy about the author playing to type. This is an excellent collection with stories about all sorts of librarians and all sorts of libraries, reserve it now.

The Cobweb

Unlike other snack food authors, Stephen Bury’s books deserve more attention than a binge-purge approach. Unfortunately, I am so delighted when I find somethign by Neal Stephenson [and J Frederick George] that I just dive on in, read wildly and don’t generally stop until I’ve finished the book. This is in some ways unfair to the author[s] but I feel I can’t help myself.

This is a different sort of book from the ones I’m used to seeing from either Stephenson or Bury. It concerns Iraq, the Gulf War starting up and the possible manufacturing of biological warfare agents. The book seems a bit quaint after the 2002 anthrax scares, but it still delivers strong characters, both male and female, and frequent chages of venue and perspective without the usually accompanying discombobulation. I’ll try reading this again when I’m not staying up all night to do it. I’m sure it will be worth the effort.

Casual Day Has Gone Too Far

Even though Dilbert comics and their wildfire popularity among cubefarm workers very nearly defines the word irony, I can still pick up a Dilbert book and eke out a chuckle or two. In this case, my amusement was mainly at the bearded, suspendered, anecdote telling Unix Guy who is the object of much scorn and ridicule by the other workers, and the only one of the humorless drones who I remotely identify with

I like Dilbert fine, and this is a Dilbert book, so it’s fine. Reading Dilbert books always reminds me of two things:

  • my friends at my old office jobs who probably still silently suffer at work with Dilbert cartoons posted above their desks
  • Scott Adams using the Dilbert characters in Xerox training manuals

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth

This is a children’s book about Eratosthenes, the librarian and mathematician who forst thought out a way for measuring the circumference of the planet. The book has an intro that basically states that the author made up the parts of Eratosthenes' early childhood since no records survive of how he really lived. Drawing on historical account of the time, they paint a picture of their estimation of what a smart Greek child must have been like, and extrapolate from there. The book was well-illustrated and clearly explained the procedures that Eratosthenes went through

The Myth Of The Liberal Media

If you’re like me, you cringe whenever anyone forwards the idea that the American media is in some way liberal and soft on left-wing ideas and activities. And yet also, if you’re likeme, you do not have the hard facts to back up these gut feelings that the media isn’t liberal at all. This collection of essays by Herman does a great job of meticulously picking apart media coverage of majorly politicized news stories and explaining the slants that he finds [often right-wing but always supporing the corporate/capitalist agenda] and explaining where he thinks they come from

Herman isn’t a conspiracy theorist and he does not feel that the heads of major media get together and decide to cover certain topics and let other topic lie. Rather he explains how publicly held companies, with their mandate to bring profits to shareholders, have an obligation to cover news and highlight issues that are advantageous to their corporate owners and, most of all, advertisers. And, in being pro-business and pro-advertiser, they wind up, in many ways supporting an anti-left stance. Fascinating and not easy reading, this is one of the best political books I’ve read.

High Fidelity

People complained when this book came out as a movie that they had done the original text a disservice by moving the setting from the UK to the US. While I saw the movie first, I enjoyed reading the bookwith its UK settings and dialogue. Amazingly, despite this change, the movie was incredibly faithful to the book with almost entirely the same characters and a lot of the same dialogue. I noticed one or two scenes that had been changed or omitted but this was the exception and not the rule. The book is fun, fairly light but amusing and is readable in one [long] sitting.

Dr Bloodmoney

Ack, more spooky grossness from PK Dick. This paranoid sci fi novel talks mainly about the post-apocalyptic world after the bomb has gone off. But it’s far weirder than that. Populating this primitive stretch of Northern California is a strange scientist who may have magical powers, a seven year old girl whose twin brother lives inside her and talks to her, an astronaut trapped in orbit above the Earth, and a deformed maybe-psychic with delusions of grandeur.

The book starts out very eerily 50’s-style normal and then the bomb goes off and, well, it all goes to shit. Dick has a really great way of making you really feel how people must have been living -- using horses to drag their old cars around, but don’t leave them in one place for too long or people will eat them. Everyone becomes paranoid and somewhat bizarre, a perfect environment for Dick characters to live in.

Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes

This book is a reprint of one written in the 80’s and according to the new intro from the author, much has changed since then. The author also says he can look back wincingly at some of his writing and shake his head at how naieve he was, writing about all his innermost thoughts and maintaining an “aw shucks” atitude towards a lot of the sticky life dilemmas that confront the poor.

The perspective from the author is welcome because I read a lot of this book sortof horrified at the way Conover took on a voluntary life of poverty to go ride theraisl wiht the hoboes and then spent a lot of time seemingly surprised that life was so tough, so frustrating, or that hoboes didn’t seem to treat him as a real friend. Here he is, a college educated white kid, spending some time basically slumming with some emergency money in his bedrool [and a calling card] trying to live the authentic life of the hoboes. Laughable. The stories he tells are interesting and the people he meets make grand pictorials, but it was Conover’s presence in this book that was the annoying part, and his interjection of supposedly deep thoughts about the nature of poverty and our country’s disenfranchisement of the poor made for really tooth-grating reading.


Apparently this book was originally published as a 900 page Yiddish account of Weisel’s experiences in the concentration camps and only later released in French in its current abbreviated form. There’s not much to say about a first person account of theconcentration camps except that I am continually amazed and the human capacity for evil as well as the power to resist it.

Holy Fire

The premise of those book was tough to deduce from the cover and back pages so I dove right in. The writing in this bookis some of Strerling’s best. He creates a very believable elderly female protagonist and a future world where the “gerontocracy” determines a lot of political and social directions of the world. Life extensions are the norm and the good life is identified as being somewhat stable.

The book takes a rapid shift when the main character undergoes a radical life extension procedure making her appear essenntially 20 years old despite the fact that she has the brain of a 95 year old woman. At this point, the plot gets muddled. There is a virtual world that seems like it should play a large part but doesnt. Much attention gets paid to a fashion shoot for no discernible reason. And the lead character’s friends suddenly become possibly the vanguard of a new world view, or do they? Like the Difference Engine, the plot of this story confused me. I kept reading thinking “there’s no way they are going to wrap all this up in 20 pages” and sure enough, they didn’t.

Sex Magazines in the Library Collection

This book describes itself as a monographic supplement to the Serials Librarian magazne, but it looked like a book to me. I’ve been intrigued by some of the titles I’ve been seeing lately about librarians and sex, my favorite being “For Sex, See the Librarian” [about censorship, I believe]. This book is a collection of fairly scholarly papers dealing with how libraries deal with sex periodicals. The papers are easy to read survey types with no information that will knock anyone out, but some humorous parts. Most of the focus is on magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Oui, but some of the writers explore more hardcore literature

The book wraps up with a long listing of sexually useful [as opposed to either LC or DDC’s sexually backward] subject headings. Sandy Berman is always a delight and I think I would even enjoy reading his shopping lists. This article is no exception titled “If There Were a Sex Index” he does an index -- with his own subject headings, natch -- of twelve sex magazines, ranging from the scholarly to the hardcore. The nomenclature becomes extra funny because, of course, all the headings are written in all caps, making all the smutty words seem like they are being shouted at you: GAY SOCIALISTS, SEX ON ROLLER COASTERS, SUCKING OFF See FELLATIO. You can see how amusing this is.

The Librarian at Play

More library humor from the early part of the last century. This one is a collection of essays, some inspired, some that seem more dated. My favorite essay deserves some discussion... It comes in the form of a letter found in a bottle. The writer is an essayist who recently had won a contest where he listed his 100 favorite books that he’d like to bring to a desert island. Well, he chooses all sorts of scholarly and erudite stuff. His prize is a cruise with these 100 books as his companions. Predictably, the boat sinks and he is marooned with nothing but the works of Plato and Homer while her wails about wanting to read something about knot-tying. His journal entries include such gems as “Aenid eaten by a goat” etc.

This book, in addition to the one I read previously, highlight that while the library profession has been steadily evolving, the role of the library in modern society, has stayed more or less the same. Annoying patrons are still weird in the same way; librarians are still stereotyped as overeducated and undersocialized. This book is a gem and worth tracking down at your local library archives.

Library Jokes and Jottings

I have a ahrd time laughing at comtemporary attempts at humor. It may be that I find the authors trying to hard, or maybe they are assuming a frame of reference that I don’t share. However, once I convinced the librarian to please let me take home this reference book just this once, I sat in the backyard and laughed.

The funniest part, sadly, is that librarianship has changed so little in the last hundred years or so. We still have religious zealot patrons, and the guys who sit there all day long reading the newspapers. People still expect all sorts of entitlements because they are the taxpayers that keep the library open and children are still a constant threat and simultaneous delight. This books did not have the word “masturbator” in it, like a current library humor book might, but many of the situations were the same. Some of the jottings also included many humorous pieces that were in some ways quaint because they were not ribald or racy; plays on words with book titles, the amusement of dirty children not washing their hands, the plaitive yowlings of the patron who owes overdue fines. Find it through interlibrary loan if you possibly can.

Sombrero Fallout

Brautigan’s book s are nothing if not somewhat surreal. This surreality is often juxtaposed by the most banal normalcy that the contrast is what hits you the most. This book is actually two books, the failed novel ofthe protagonist -- which we are introduced to learning that it has been already shredded and discarded -- and the protagonist himself, moping over a breakup with his recent girlfriend.

The story within a story is completely absurd, amusing and far-fetched. The regular old story is about as prosaic as you can get and still be readable. Our hero mopes, attempts a few forlorn phone calls and walks around his house being reminded of his ex, who is meanwhile asleep and dreaming across town. Likers of Brautigan will like this, people who hate Brautigan will hate this too. It’s a quick read and not at all as disjointed as I am making it sound.< P>

Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Dating and Sex

You know, my worst case scenario for dating and sex have more to do with getting pregnant or having some stalker try to force his way into my house than it does having to politely or not so politely excuse myself from a bad date.

I thought this series was cute when it explained how to escape from quicksand, or a marauding alligator. My reading of it was accompanied with a lot of eye-rolling and “that would never happen” discussions. This book is just bad. Worst case scenarios in this case include how to cheat on your lover and how to tell if your lover is cheating on you. How to deal with bad breath, how to fake an orgasm etc. The fake-y wilderness guide format does nothing to mask the fact that worst case scenarios are often fought with more emotional landmines than logistical landmines. If you have a heart of stone and just need to learn how to go through the motions, maybe this would help you, or interest you. I just felt sad after reading it, and not at all amused


Part graphic novel and part journalism, this collection of Sacco’s series of comics about his trips to the occupied territories throughout the early nineties is just as relevant today as it was a decade ago and that thought alone shoudl be chilling.

Sacco decides early on that he wants to document the abuses that the Palestineans suffer at the hands of the Israeli government and settlers and winds up getting shuttled from horrific scene to horrific scene by the natives who are very anxious to tell their story to someone who appears to be even somewhat on their side

The stories of abuse and injustice are accompanied by Sacco’s capitivating and complex illustrations and explanations of his own internal dialogue as he wanders from war zone to war zone trying to make sense of an insane situation.

The Man Who Ate Everything

Steingarten is a man who loves food, loves to research food, eat food and cook food. Luckily for him, he is also the food editor of Vogue magazine where he can indulge his food fetishes lavishly and often. This book is a collection of essays about all sorts of food. Foods he has tried to prepare, foods he has tried to eat, food myths he has tried to debunk, food dentiations he has gone to.

The introduction to this book is Steingarten explaining the irrationality of what he calls “food phobias” by which he means the extreme like or dislike of particular foods or types of foods [note to Steingarten, get a dictionary]. After spending a lot of time huffing and puffing about picky eaters, vegetarians and health food eaters, he then goes on to write the rest of the book which can be called nothing else if not partial.

It would be horribly annoying if it weren’t, mostly, so amusing. The parts I like less were when Steingarten veered off into the areas of health and gastronomy. You see, Steingarten is a big fat man who does not like being told that certain food are bad for him. As a result, he spends inordinate amounts of time disproving, or attempting to disprove many food-based health tips such as salt being bad for your blood pressure, or fat being bad for your heart. Steingarten is not only no doctor, he is also obviously looking for an excuse to load up with more butter, salt, lard and horse fat [you heard me] so while I enjoyed his cooking tips, travel journals and general food enthusiasm, I think I’ll leave the medical science to someone else.

A Librarian is to Read

Found this hidden on a shelf with the other books about libraries. Vogel used to be a Seattle Public librarian and her collection of short essays about libraries, library school and the job of being a librarian, will ring true to anyone who reads.

Vogel covers such topics as “sex in the library” and “god in the library” with humor and a certain level of respect for even the craziest of patrons. It is clear that she loves her job, despite griping about low pay and low status. I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to check out a book or two when she was working at SPL.

Doomsday Book

This book was worth the wait. I had brought it on a long plane ride, determined to save it for the ride back. At some point in the trip, I lost it, the ride back was spent reading my backup book gnashing my teeth the whole time.

This is one of her time travel novels, involving some of the same characters as her others. In this one, a girl is sent back to the 1300s at about the same time as a weird epidemic outbreak in London. She nearly gets lost in the shuffle and gets trapped in -- bleah! -- an outbreak of the plague. You have to admire the spunk of a writer like Willis who can make interesting reading out of the death of a high percentage of characters and have you read with rapt attention as buboes are lanced and infections run rampant. The history lesson alone makes it worth reading.


If paranoid sci fi is your thing, no one can do it like Dick. He has the unfortunate tendency, however, to fall over completely into spiritual/mystical ramblings. This book is heavy on the sci-fi, heavy on the paranoia and very very low on the extraneous talk about god. Super. Includes a lot of time travel, unexplained happenings and a lot of time where you are thinking to yourself “wait a second, if what this guy says is true, this whole series of events has been created by someone else to suit their own nefarious ends.... gee!” Trying to keep track of the subjective reality that you are betting on to be the true one is tough, but not impossible. [ link ]

The Drowned World

It’s so tough for me to read Ballard because I loved Crash so terribly much that anything else seems to be a letdown. Empire of the Sun was on the long side and I just associate him with one-hit wonders, completely unfairly. So, I grabbed a copy of this book from the Bookshelf of Ednless Sci Fi in my house and brought it on the plane. I lost the Connie Willis book I was going to read, so it was the natural successor. And oh wow. This story of a scientificish expedition to the submerged cities of Europe in a post-greenhouse-effect disaster world is just stunning. The days are hot, hitting 140 degrees at noon. The people are languid. The scientists are taking data measurements no one may ever read and the last survivors are being rounded up to be moved northwards to Greenland. Meanwhile people start having dreams that seems to be reaching deep into their collective unconscious, of when dinosaurs ruled the earth and so forth. Short and compelling, the beautiful picture Ballard can create out of seemingly disasterous circumstances is his true forte.

The Incurable Wound

This book had some parts of it that were completely familiar. It is a book about medical detection -- someone comes in to your hospital sick in a weird way and you need to find out not only what is wrong with them but how they got sick. Roueche has written several books like this one. Many of the stories are in the first person, such as the one about the man who woke up one morning in a strange hotel with his memory completely gone and wandered around the city frenetically trying to figure out who he was. This book was first published in 1954 but is still good reading today, though some of the medical dilemmas the doctor has to deal with have been taken care of by better sanitation and better product packaging and labelling. Turns out some of these stories appeared in a book I had read last year also by Roueche, giving me an odd sense of deja vu when I read it. Fascinating account of the history of apsirin and a scary tale of cortisone overdose.

Burning Chrome

I was handed this book by my roommate because one of the stories in it reminded him of his girlfriend. So, because for some reason I haven’t felt like I’ve read enough Gibson this year, I dove on in. The stories here have more depth than a lot of his other work. Longer reads, more fleshed out characters, more empathy, less cybernothingness. I enjoyed it. I also skipped the stories that dragged on forever [only one or two] and doted on the ones I loved [3 or 4 easily]. If you’ve given up Gibson, this might be the book to make you change your mind.

New Guinea Tapeworms & Jewish Grandmothers

Parasites and humans, Ick. High ick factor usually guarantees a good read and this book is no exception. Desowitz is a doctor who discusses some of his more interesting cases and those of his colleagues. Through the study of parasites, we can also learn a lot more about the human condition and the things that effect quality of life such as farming [some parasite laden bugs will only migrate to infesting humans when their animal hosts have left] water [more standing water = more bugs] and food prep [sushi, prepared badly, can leave you with worms]. Desowitz is a personable, even chatty writer and brings his own experiences and opinions into the mix to make an otherwise slightly gruesome topic seem really interesting and involving, even for the squeamish.

Difference Engine

I read through this book mostly on the plane and always felt like I was missing something. I will be the first to admit that my competitive relationship with my books can lead to skimming in order to finish quickly. However this book either relied on the subtle connections between chanracters that it was implying throughout the book’s three sections, or else it was basically telling three separate stories, only tangentially related. All I know is that when the book ended [with several pages of appendices left to read] I was scratching my head and wondering if anything had really been wrapped up. The concept -- a preternatural Information Age puts a whole new face on Victorian England, whereby you have computerized data files on individuals before you have fingerprint analysis. Interesting, but bogged down.

The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole

Not quite as captivating as the previous one in this series -- I didn’t laugh out loud nearly as much -- but these diaries of a poor pseudointellectual British teenager are amusing, poignant and a good read all at once. Mole is going through puberty and a political awakening and though he growns no less naieve about the world around him, the reader becomes more familiar and thus the stories can get a little more predictable. If there were more in this series, I’d still be reading them.

Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4

Found this book on the house bookshelf and grabbed it because I love the adolescent diary format. Can’t help myself really. This one is even better than most because Our Hero is British and I am one of those Americans who finds the oddness of British humor inescapably funny. During his 13th through 15th years, Adrian endures his mom cheating on his dad, his parents divorce and reconciliation, “spots” on his face, measuring his penis as he ages, love loss and love again and befriending many odd characters in his neighborhood. A poor child, he has dreams of growing up to be an intellectual and is often mailing the BBC his latest poetry. Though Mr Mole was unknown by me before reading this book, he is fairly well known in England. We have one more Mole book in the house and I’m sure I will devour it just as speedily as I did this one.

Hacker Ethic

This book made me happy. It describes the differing work ethic of the hacker set [emphasis on project over working hours, cooperative not competitive, not hung up on money etc] as opposed to the old and tired Protestant work ethic. It put into words what I had been feeling about myself for a long time -- that I didn’t work badly, merely differently, and perhaps awkwardly in the current economy. As someone who grew up with Atari video games, I have always viewed computers as a source of entertainment. Working and messing about with them is fun. Spendinhg as long as i need to hash out a computer project is likewise fun. Trying to fit my idea of fun into a plausible job description is more difficult. This book delves somewhat into the history of the Protestant work ethic and a lot of our current cultural values in the US with regards to work, carrer and avocation. While the ending chapter -- which describes Genesis as if it were writen by a hacker -- is a bit much, this books was an eye-opening exploration of an alternative view of the concept of work and the concept of jobs.

The Assertive Librarian

Assertiveness training for librarians is a really good idea. Teaching asshole patrons how to behave properly. Learning how to properly advocate for getting more funding for your libraries instead of just sucking it up and saying “Well it’s true, we don’t have a revenue stream...” It’s all a great idea. And this book was written in 1974 so I shouldn’t be too harsh. And I did read it cover to cover. My problem is exactly the opposite; having been raised to be assertive, I’ve gone too far over the edge into being [sometimes] aggressive. This book carefully delineates the differences between assertive and aggressive and helps you to moderate your behavior. The downside to this book is that it seems like it’s basically written for anyone in the service industry, or really anyone with a job. I didn’t see enough situations that pertained to librarianship specifically to make me think it was warranted to have a whole fresh assertiveness book for this profession. And did I mention it was written in 1974?

The Girlfrenzy Millenial

Girlfrenzy is a zine out of the UK. This is a compilation of things that have appeared in the zine. The tagline is The Really Big Girl’s Annual and when I read that and saw the cover, it was a fat acceptance zine. It’s not. It’s basically a girly type zine for more adult women. It’s fun to read and to look at and will definitely give you a sense of female empowerment. Some of the interviews drag on a bit long, or maybe are not as relevant to women outside the UK but the format is refreshing -- a book based on a zine that actually can maintain the appealing graphical style of a zine while having much more content.

Virtual Light

At some point, I realized that all the Gibson books I had been reading recently were all centered around a set of characters and set in a time and place in such a way that they must be sequential. Problem was, I was reading them out of order. This book was the best of the series considering that I was trying to figure out which things that were happening linked to other episodes and places in the other books. It seems to be the place where we are introduced to many of the characters and get a lot of the backstory on how an anarchic community sprung into being on what was left of the Bay Bridge after the earthquake. Gibson does an admirable job of describing this community as functional and quirky without resorting to tired political rants either pro- or versus- any particular anarchist philosophy. The story itself is a fast-paced futuristic tale of the “why are these people chasing me and how do I get back at them?” variety with much more to it than just the discussion of their bridge-dwelling community. Interesting, not super-deep, a good read.

A Good Old-Fashioned Future

I met Bruce Sterling a few years back in Austin Texas. He opens his house to the SXSW Interactive folks so they can chill out somewhere and not have to wear their dorky badges. He has tons and tons of books and a nice house. I didn’t get to talk to him because everyone else was busy chatting up the poor guy and besides, I’d hardly read a thing he’d written. I took a few of his books on a trip with me and this was one of them. I have been reading a lot of William Gibson lately and was looking for more smart-person futuristic computer-y sci fi. Some of this was good, some of it seemed like it was spawned from a buncha guys sitting around getting stoned and saying “Howabout jellyfish the size of houses that you could ride on...?” "Aw yea, man!" Basically some of the stories were fleshed out and some seemed like one-offs, one good idea surrounded by filler plot. Not as good as the other Sterling book of stories I read, by a longshot.

Everything that Rises Must Converge

I have a weird problem. I confuse Flannery O' Connor with Carson McCullers. Then sometimes I mix them both up with Shirley Jackson. I wish I knew why I did this. I picked it up thinking it was a book of McCullers short stories. It wasn’t, but it was similar in some ways. Stories of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation. People being truly horrible to each other for reasons even they don’t sometimes understand. Sometimes, if you hang on long enough in these American Gothic bleak tales of forgotten people, sometimes you see the bad folks get what’s coming to them. But not enough, not nearly enough.

Dangerous Drawings

This book is a ReSearch style compilation of interviews with artists -- mostly comic illustrators -- who do work that is somewhat on the fringe. The intervieweees range from well-know underground artists such as Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman to G.B. Jones and Emiko “Carol” Shimoda. The artists talk a lot about why they do what they do and try to explain what drives them to illustrate the topics they primarily cover. There are a lot of stories about bad parenting and nerdy upbringing. The interviewer seems to ask some of the same questions -- such as “is your art cathartic to you?” which no one seems to know what to do with, most say “no” -- but overall the artists are allowed to express themselves and ofen reveal themselves to be much more thoughtful and well-rounded than you might expect a serious comic writer/fan to be. The book is heavily and well illustrated but, again, for a book about graphic artists the actual book layout leaves a lot to be desired.

The Book of Fred

Random book from the shelf under the loose title of bildungsroman. This one tells the story of a girl who was removed from her cultish parents while they go to trial for child abuse and goes to live with a normal or “lacker” family for an indeterminate amount of time. The book itself is split up into several sub-books where each set of chapters is told by one of the main characters. Since the stories overlap somewhat in time but not completely, the story progresses and is fleshed out using this narrative device. The end of the story where the girl is reunited with her mother, raises a lot of interesting questions about the rights of children and the nature vs. nurture argument in general.

The Periodic Table

Levi’s autobigraphical collection of tales about his life before during and after WWII uses as its narrative device the periodic table of elements. Chapters are all titled with these elements and Levi -- a chemist by training -- tells stories about himself and his life, loosely linked to the chosen element. A few of the chapters, written in italic type, seem to be purely fiction. One of the final chapters -- post-WWII when he is employed as a chemist in Italy -- recounts how Levi crosses the path of a German man who he met and interacted with when he was a concentration camp prisoner. Levi spends a lot of time reflecting on the difficulties he encountered being a Jew trying to find and keep work in Europe in the WWII era.

The Sofa Surfin Handbook

Since I travel frequently and cheaply, I am always looking for advice on how to save money or be a better houseguest. This collection of essays really tries to distill the essential information you need when spending time at the homes of others. The author seems to be an accomplished surfer herself and her advice rings true to my experience. Some of the other essays are not quite as well put together or interesting and seemto be based more on heresay than actual experience. One notable exception ot this is the chapter on people with AIDS travveling including helpful information such as how to cross borders carrying hundreds of pills and how to stay healthy on the road. This book sort of just missed what I was hoping it would be, but it is a good introduction on taking advantage of free and almost-free hospitality when travelling on the cheap.

Odds Off

Madden has a style like Adrian Tomie which is what first drew me to this graphic novel. It’s a vaguely fantastical story about a couple in a relationship that is winding down and a writer character who has “word lice” and is stuck in a writer’s block. The illustrations are strong and the plot is also interesting. I made short work of this story.

Empress of the World

My friend Sara wrote a book! I have known Sara for a lot of the time she was writing this and it was exciting to finally get to read it. I first settled down just to give it a looksee. When I looked up, several hours later, I had finished the book and gotten to know a lot about her teenaged characters and the trials and tribulations they go through at a summer camp for smart kids where the main [female] character falls for another girl. The relationship is treated seriously yet honestly at a teenage level. The story is interesting enough to be useful and captivating for teens, yet not so graphic that it will freak out more conservative readers. A real accomplishment for challenging subject matter.

Spawn of Dykes to Watch Out For

Another great Dykes book by Bechdel, this one covering the birth of Clarice and Toni’s baby and the breakup of Mo and Harriet. Bechdel’s books are always pleasantly busy with characters scooting around all over the place and this one does not disappoint.

Taylor Made -- The Best of Bee Talk

Richard Taylor is a philosopher as well as a columnist for the magazine Bee Culture. This book is a collection of his columns arranged not by date of publication but by relevant season. The result can be a bit discombobulating, as when the chronology of his essays directly contradict the chronology of his adventures in beekeeping [fomerly an extraction honey producer, he is now a comb honey producer only -- the book flip flops back and forth between the two methods]. Taylor is a thoughtful and practical man and his book is half reflections on the nature of beekeeping and half useful advice for the new beekeeper. If you’re not experienced in the world of bees, the vocabulary can be a bit daunting, but Taylor’s writing is so approachable and friendly, this is not much of a hurdle to overcome.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Pancake was a young Southern writer who killed himself before he could become a household name. I’d never heard of him until my roomate pressed his book into my hands. It’s a short collection of stories with a foreword and afterword by two of Pancake’s professors who both seem to have not come easily to terms with Pancake’s death. The stories he wrote are gripping and haunting tales of loss, denial and depression, mostly among the lower to middle class folks of Appalachia. Many of them are bleak, some are downright chilling in their absolute absence of hope. And yet, the characters have a three-dimensional quality that makes you care deeply about their petty squabbles and mental defects. Once I picked this book up, I could not put it down.

The Nothing That Is

I got this book looking for a concise history of zero and was disappointed. I think my disappoinment stemmed more from what I was expecting than what this book is. Kaplan guides us through years and years of mathematical development. He gives us a good idea of just how hellish calculations and mathematical relationships must have been before the idea of a null marker as a placeholder. Can you imagine trying to do long division using only roman numerals? Along the way, however, he stops to meander through related ideas or, often, to present his own theories as to how different cultures got to zero from their older systems of measurement. I’m not sure how qualified Kaplan was to present these theories, but they felt like a tangent away from the actual “history” and into idle speculation. A good book, a rich book, but not the book I wanted to read.

Author Unknown

I heard Foster interviewed on the radio and was pleased to find that I could still get his book out of the library. Foster is a pioneer in the field of literary forensics. He uses comparative analysis of texts to try to determine the authors of unknown works. He is the professor who discovered the identity of the writer of Primary Colors and helped nail down the identity of the Unabomber and the man who wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas. He writes in a chatty easy-to-read style about cases he’s worked on and problems he’s had along the way -- Joe Klein, the revealed Anonymous from Primary Colors, denied being the author of the book for six months while Foster sweated it out. I found this book really engaging and a fascinating look at lexical patterns and how they can reflect a personal identity.


This is more of a novella than a novel and really more of a short story than a novella. The story of an officer and his wife who commit suicide together as a result of a political disgrace really gains context through the author’s later high-profile suicide using a similar method. That aside the writing in this book rings with clarity and passion which can be a bitoff-putting considering the story which ends with the meticulously detailed death of both characters. It has been accused of having “major preoccupation with sado-masochistic death ‘beautified’ by an esthetic of blood and sexuality” and this is probably true. Mishima was an exceptionally gifted writer and the kinship he felt with this subject matter gives the story a frank honesty that is glorious.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital

There are many kinds of stories about “the one that got away” and the most poignant, to me, are the tales of deep soulful childhood friendships that got weird and distanced without the author really understanding why. This is a story of an adult woman mostly told in flashbacks of her being a teenager with her best girl friend -- a bit brasher, a bit bolder -- and the things they do for eachother. The narrator also briefly comes back to the present to relate her semi-satisfying relationship with her husband which definitely runs neither as hot nor as cold as her teenaged friendship. The book was good, interesting and compelling but it was very similar to one of the Connie Willis short stories I’d recently read and paled somewhat by comparison.

An Unfortunate Woman

Lovers of Brautigan will love this posthumously published rambly tale of the second to last year of his life where he travelled and talked to people and broke his leg ["Dragons" he would say when someone asked him what had happened] and ruminated on the mysteries of his and others' lives. The language is rich and sumptuously poetic and the chapters are short and picaresque. I found myself sad that there would be no more books from him, and this book seemed like a good coda to a remarkable life.

Impossible Things

The cover of this book is what kept me from reading it for weeks. Sort of like how A Wrinkle in Time put me off because of the unicorn. Connie Willis is top notch. A bit on the sentimental side, a great writer facile in many genres, she tells a good story and has a really creative mind. She writes small introductions to the stories here along the line of “I always liked those wacky caper movies...” and then whips out this story that is at once wacky caper and science fiction of some sort. Really impressive. The main story, about the last dog on earth, and the last Winnebago, is heart-wrenching.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

I have said, and will say again, that reading Gibson is like reading romance novels for smart people. His books are interesting, engaging, use big words, and have very few hooks you can dig your memory into when you reflect back on your reading experience. They seem to be about stories rather than ideas. That is not a problem at all, just an observation. Although this one has a lot of really neat cyberfuture trappings, it’s really a story about cops and robbers and attainment and loss. Great themes and a really readable book, but each day that passes between when I finished it and when I recall it, I remember less and less about it.

Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

Ick. I like icky things, generally, and this graphic novel is no exception. A stunning cast of freaks and weirdos including the potato girl, the dog with no orifices, and the weird conspiracy obsessed characters. And, of course, the snuff filmmakers who are the impetus for the main character to get sucked into a seamy world of underground weirdness. Not for the squeamish. Dan Clowes also did Ghost World, much more mainstream palatable.

The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many

I really wish Chomsky included bibliographies. This is an older book of his, a short interview with David Barsamian, in which he tackles issues of class and globalism. Chomsky sees more truths as self-evident than I do. Not that I disagree, I just wish I knew where his sources came from. Barsamian gets Chomsky to talk about the dangers of internationalism and the mechanisms by which the rich maintain power and the disenfrachised stay poor and oppressed. A short easy primer on 21st century class consciousness.