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« September, 2002 »
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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 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.

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.