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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book was fine and I don’t have too much to say about it except that it seems even more like “one in a series” than many of the other HP books. Characters are forever reminding other characters of things that happened in previous novels and this particular book doesn’t really end like the others did. There is a fair amount of death and destruction which was what turned me off so much in the last installment. However, there is less in the way of dead children and some of the other parts of the HP universe -- some of the magical stuff, the quirky parts of Hogwarts etc -- are redeeming. Characters are starting to kiss each other which does put this book into the full-blown YA category, but otherwise it’s still pretty much the same.

Making Peace with Autism

Susan Senator had noticed that I have read a lot of books about autism and sent me a copy of her book. It’s the story of her family grappling with the diagnosis and reality of their oldest son Nat’s autism. Senator gives a warts-and-all play by play of her family learning techniques for dealing with their son and learning to have some sort of a happy life despite being a somewhat reluctant non-traditional family. This was the part of the book that I found the most interesting. Senator clearly had some notions of what parenting would be like and what life with her husband would be like, raising a family, living someplace nice, etc. When that all gets thrown on its ear, at a time before autism diagnoses were so prevalent, she has to reinvent the wheel and choose a new path. Her stories of trying to both come to terms with her new life herself, and then learning to become a powerful advocate for the needs of her oldest son and the emotions of her two younger sons is poignant and an interesting read.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if this book is trying to be a self-help guide for parents in similar circumstances to Senator and her family, or more of a tell-all about the difficulties of raising an autitic child. Sometimes Senator’s raw emotions and venting-sounding frustrations can be hard to read. As someone who doesn’t really contemplate parenthood, I sometimes had a hard time understanding some of her choices and decisions -- giving a bar mitzvah for a child who pretty well seemed to not comprehed it, for example -- but she does a great job explaining herself, so even if at the end you don’t see eye to eye with her, you can still understand where she is coming from. She and her husband both have blogs [hers, his] which are excellent companion reading.

Scent of Evil

I went on a book-reading hiatus during holiday and travel time but carried this one with me. It’s more of the same, small-town cop mysteries but mayor does them one better. There is always a large cast of characters, our same likable gumshoe, and the whodunits are always actual mysteries where even the reader doesn’t know until the end exactly what is going on. Enjoyable.

Blood Music

Greg Bear is my favorite SCIENCE fiction writer. I started reading him with his book Darwin’s Radio and with the exception of the sequel to Forge of God, I’ve enjoyed all of his books. This one is about nanotechnology. A rougue scientist discovers a way to make tony living machines. A dust-up at his lab results in him having to flee with the biologicals inside his body. Chaos ensues. It’s a bit tough to follow because there are long dense passages about cellular regeneration that were a little over my head, I think. I say I think because I didn’t understand them and I perfectly followed the entire rest of the novel. Bear’s integration of the science + story isn’t as tight in this book as it is in others, but it’s still a lively bio-apocalyptic story with some good characters and a lot of the odd scenarios that confronting this sort of disaster brings out.


The second in the Joe Gunther mystery series, this one was a signed copy from my local public library. Again I’ll say that I have been pleasantly surprised that these local mystery/thrillers really hold their own in a large and competitive genre. This one concerns a mysterious cultish community in a small town in Northern Vermont, a fire that gets out of hand and a lot of local/flatlander animosity. Joe Gunther is in town on a leave of absence from his Brattleboro job and funds himself in the thick of things in a town that has changed a lot since he used to spend summers there. Our hero is also going through some bad relationship juju and puts himself in a situation where he could potentially make some lousy choices. Good reading, local flavor.

The Sunday Philosophy Club

Maybe you like Alexander McCall Smith but don’t much care about Zimbabwe, or traditionally built women, or automobile maintenance, or secretaries who score 97 per cent on their exams. Well he has written other books, or series of books including this, the first in the Isabel Dalhousie Mystery series. Isabel is another charming female protagonist who is clever and just a little bit weird. The short novel seems more like what you’re used to getting out of an eclectic British mystery, so if you like McCall Smith and you like British mysteries, by all means dive on in.

Open Season

Everyone in Vermont loves Archer Mayor. I heard of him before I was really reading any mysteries, and once I started reading mysteries I forgot about him. The local librarian offered this book, the first in a series, as a good airplane book and she was right. It takes place in Brattleboro and is sort of the American equivalent to the cozy, all small town, a lot of peopel who know each other, not a lot of international travel or high tech intrigue. The main character is a policeman named Joe Gunther who is sort of a regular guy, good cop, knows the town etc. There is some Vermont flavor but not in the sort of out-of-towner way where everyone is going sugaring and going to ye olde swimming hole. There is the downside of poor rural areas, complete with racists and prostitutes as well as all the lovable old geezers.

In any case, I was surprised, though maybe I shoudln’t have been, that this “local” mystery was just as good if not better than the other mystery series that I read. The plot moves along, the characters are compelling, the storyline is complex and keeps you paying attention, while not being some sort of completely gross bloodbath or sadist adventure. I’m glad that my local librarian set me up with the first book in the series because now I know I’ll have a lot of fun winter reading ahead of me.

Fatal Voyage

I know I’m in trouble with a book when I leave the review til later and can then remember nothing about it. This was actually a pretty okay book but it just didn’t stick with me. It’s in the vein of the Kay Scarpetta novels, only with slightly less memorable characters and slightly less subtle writing. The doctor/forensics stuff is about the same, but combined with the other two characteristics, it just didn’t totally do it for me. The story is an interesting tale of a plane crash in a mountainous area that tips off investigators to a mysterious cabin with an odd history. The plot takes its inevitable turn for the bizarre which is foreshadowed with somewhat plodding mechanism. When the investigator’s friend starts telling her about the trip she took to France, you can tell you’re being set up with clues for later. Reichs is a fine author and this is a fine book, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to read her in the future.

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies

Another great book in the series. I enjoyed this one a bit more than the two before it for no real reason. Maybe it’s because it features the tiny white van more prominently, or perhaps it’s the talk of pumpkins while we’re in Autumn here in this hemipshere, but I liked it and continue to recommend McCall Smith’s books to just about anyone.

Access by Design

This book is about universal design, not designing specifically for people with disabilities. Of course, universal design includes people with disabilities, as well as everyone else. Somewhere between a product catalog and a manifesto, this book highlights, shows off and generally extolls the virtues of designing products and spaces that are accessible to the largest group of people possible, preferably everyone. Of all the books I read this week on acceible design, this book was the easiest and most fun to read, as well as the best layed out and, well, designed.

The examples covered range from specific silverware, to signage for public areas, to office and home furnishings. Each chapter ends with a Check List of things to remember when trying to make a particular space accessible. The book includes futuristic prototype designs as well as items readily purchaseable at your average department store. Included amonng the plentiful photos and descriptions are the author’s “random thoughts on universal design” which drive the point home that design which is universal is useful for everyone. The tone is upbeat and positive and the scenarios they show look inviting and not quite as old-school as some of the other books.

Beautiful Barrier Free

This was the second in a series of books about accessible design that I read over the past week. Each book is large and picture-filled, with many ideas of how to design personal and public spaces to be accessible to a wide range of people. This book has the fanciest pictures and has helpful icons by the pictures with descriptions indicating that the particular solution shown is useful to someone with coordination issues, for example, or with hearing difficulties. The book leads us room by room, showing us different furniture, floor-plan and accessory choices and how they increase usability.

I found this book the most attractive of the three to look at, but a little confusing in practice. It wasn’t possible to “track” through the book and look at only accomodations for one type of disability. Often it seemed that what worked well for a person with one type of disability would actually work poorly for a person with a different disability. Though many of the furniture and product designs were marked with the “universal” icon, sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly what part of a picture of, say, a living room was being advocated. In contrast, the book also has many illustrations of charts and graphs which have information on carpet height and drawer depth that are helpful to someone who is designing a space that is intended to be used by people with different disabilities. This book seemed to be more of a source bok and an idea book for accessible design rather than a step by step guide for planning out space.

The Speed of Dark

A friend sent me this book after I told him I’d been enjoying some books on autism lately. I’ve read most of Temple Grandin’s books and I also enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime, even though I thought I might not. As you probably know, autism is more of a spectrum disorder and peopel who have it can range from the severely disabled to only the moderately impaired. Many people, myself included, have some autistic traits. It’s always interesting for me to read books with characters who freak out about the feeling of a chair or tight clothing on their skin, or who shut down when the noise or business level around them gets to a certain level, or who get calm through repetetive noises and actions. I’m not saying I’m autistic, but I am saying that I can sympathize and empathize with the challenges they face.

This story, set in the not too distant future is about a group of high functioning autists who are emplyed by a company who gets a special tax break for having them on staff. They get certain accomodations [gym where they can bounce to relieve stress, their own cafeteria, the right to drive a car which is unusual in this future world] and are prized for their pattern recognition abilities which is what they are employyed to do, catch patterns in streams of data that cross their screen regularly. A new boss comes in and tries to make them all “go normal” with experimental brain surgery. I thought this book was going to be a lot like Flowers for Algernon, but most of the book is about the main character, Lou -- who is probably someone with Aspberger’s-type autism -- thinking about what it might be like to have a normal brain, and interacting both with normal people and his other autistic friends. The author, who won an award for this book, really gets into what it must be like to live inside an autistic brain. Much of the story is told in the first person and, unlike The Curious Incident book, the narrator interacts with other autistics which gives a really interesting perspective on their behavior and actions as well as his own.

Sleep No More

I got this book out of the library the same day I got the other Iles book which I hated. This book was better. It’s a thriller about a man who appears to be being stalked from beyond the grave by the soul of his ex-first-love who inhabits a lot of different bodies. It’s a good but not great story and the presence of a lawyer-turned-best-selling-author character [Iles is pals with John Grisham] as a minor character is a little too precious for me. There is a lot of good scene-setting in Natchez Missisippi and some interesting relationship dynamics and a LOT of sex. At the end of it all, I wasn’t sad that I’d read it, but it was no Footprints of God.

Dead Sleep

Warning: this review reveals plot points in this book.

I enjoyed the last book of Iles' that I read and was happy to find this one in my local library. My sister had told me that all his books are pretty different so liking one was no assurance of liking the others. When I was reading it someone asked me how I liked it and I said “If it doesn’t go all freaky towards the end, then it’s great” Alas, it went all freaky. This doesn’t totally negate the book down to sorry-I-read-it status, but does make me strongly not recommend it to people who maybe enjoyed reading Footprints of God. Long story short the main character is a woman who is a photojournalist. Many of the people around her have died horrible deaths or disappeared. This is treated as just one of those things [father dies in the war, fiancee dies covering the war, first love drowns himself, twin sister is abducted and probably dead] and as baggage she carries around with her. A series of paintings depicting women asleep or dead start to surface and become cult objeects. One of them looks like her, or her sister.

She gets obsessed and starts trying to track down the origin of these paintings. Up to this point, it’s fascinating, moves quickly and I have to say that Iles does a reasonable job of writing a first person female perspective. Then the story gets lame. One of the possible angles, brought up by our protagonist, is “hey maybe the killer has multiple personality disorder and that’s why we can’t identify the painting style....” Someone else goes so far as to say “Nah, that only happens in movies” and then it happens in this book. The painter/killer is some sort of psychosexual MPD sufferer who abducts women and keeps them alive by maintaining them on IVs of alternating painkillers and insulin before finally killing them. The whole last scene is just a macabre “here is the story of my horrific abuse” tale recounted while our hero is locked in the torture chamber waiting for death. I have to admit that I would have put down the book at this point except that I was wondering whether the missing sister and/or Dad were alive or dead. The whole book is so tight, and non-derivative and then the last chapter or two read like a Dean Koontz novel with the main chacter frantically eating twinkies to keep her blood sugar out of coma-range. An undignified schlocky ending -- you can see how maybe it looked great on paper -- to an otherwise great book.

Design for Dignity: Studies in Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act goes a long way towards codifying what “accessible” means when describing a public building or facility. However, people often still think that things built to be accessible are ugly, awkward or otherwise non-appealing to non-disabled people. This book outlines many case studies of designing with accesisbility in mind -- both new buildings and retrofitted old buildings -- with the aim of showing that accessible design can be welcoming and highly functional for everyone and as such is a highly desireable thing to keep in mind. Lebovich has a generally positive outlook and even in cases where accessibile building doesn’t work properly, or doesn’t go far enough, he still manages to have good things to say while stressing what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Lebovich discusses both newly built buildings, such as a water fitness facility in Virginia, as well as complicated retrofittings of old buildings such as the Vice Presidential residence and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C. He discusses the particular concern of retrofitting historical buildings and how to decide how much changing of architecturally significant detail is too much. In some cases buildings that could not make their upper floors accessible have offered at least some accomodations to visitors who use wheelchairs such as providing books of photographs of upper levels, or, in the case of the Statue of Liberty, videotaped the trip up for those who could not make it. The Statue of Liberty example is part of a larger discussion of the National Parks Service campaign to increase accessibility in the areas they steward, including making accessible trails, providing restrooms that exceed the letter of the ADA, offering audio alternatives to textual signage and lowering information desks and providing multiple seating options in theater and dining areas.

Lebovich also discusses a few for-profit endeavors such as The Cheesecake Factory in Washington D.C. which includes staff training for working with customers with disabilities as part of their employee development. The Cheesecake Factory is used as an example of ADA-compliance being an iterative process. Instead of just building in the standard accessible restrooms, doorways, and tables, the restaurant went out of its way to ask people to use the space and get back to them with feedback and ways they could improve the restaurant’s usefulness for patrons with differing access requirements. The book comes with many illustrations including both photographs of accessible design as well as architectural drawings of planned buildings and spaces. Many of these pictures show inviting spaces where the accessibility details are only apparent when they’re pointed out, which drives home the point that Lebovich is making.

The Wisdom of Crowds

James Surowiecki writes for the New Yorker and this book reads like it was expanded from a New Yorker article, which it was. Nothing wrong with that, but it just means it’s a certain type of book, like many of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. The basic premise is this: collating, combining and even sometimes averaging the problem solving abilities of a group of people nets better solutions to problems than the ideas of any one person, even the smartest person, in a group. The rest of the book is just details, experimental data, and “how this applies in real life” sorts of anecdotes. Surowiecki talks about the stock market, the Columbia explosion [in a particularly chilling chapter which could be entitled “how NOT to solve problems] and the idea of tipping. He shows how in many cases the economically "rational” solution to a problem is not the one that people select, and discusses why and how they make the choices that influence their lives. This book is strongest when it’s recounting interesting experiments in sociology, group behavior, and best-case business planning. Surowiecki has a great ability to look at things that don’t work and say “this is broken” in a way that isn’t threatening and/or whiny. The book is weakest when it starts getting all philosophical about human nature and fills pages with discussion of stock market dynamics. Like many books that are expanded New Yorker articles, this one could have probbably been 25% shorter and still packed the same punch.

The Experts' Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do

I like these little how to books usually. They’re small, fun and I generally learn things. This book was spotty. It’s 100 short essays with how-to advice on a lot of common sense topics. Some of the advice was great like how to write a thank you note, how to make tea, or how to house train a puppy. Other advice was all over the map, from the unhelpful to the downright inaccurate. The how to relax article was basically about how to meditate. The how to tell a joke article was in and of itself a good joke [by Howie Mandel] but didn’t really add much to the topic except for how not to screw it up. The how to wash your hands article strongly implies that hand-washing is a good way to keep from getting meningitis which may be true in an abstract sense, but seemed like a pretty oogy-boogy way to kick off 200 words on hand washing. In any case, some articles were great and some were not. Some topics seemed well covered and some did not. All of these articles were written by “experts” but I didn’t know a lot of them. This doesn’t mean much in terms of their expertness, but each little about the author blurb seemed like an advertisement for the author’s business or product.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

This book was fun and I learned stuff from it. Bryson has an incredible knack for explaining fairly complicated topics using metaphors that make sense but at the same time don’t talk down to you. He’s also a master at doing this without trotting out too many cliches. So, you learn new things, or you even learn about thing you may have already known about, but in new ways and with new and interesting trivia. He’s well read. He doesn’t just rely on secondary sources to flesh out his tales of astronomy and biology, he talks to scientists, he reads books about them, he goes to archives and looks through papers.

Above all, he’s funny. You wouldn’t think this was a necessary part of learning about DNA, approaching it with a sense of humor, but it helps. He has a tendency to anthropomorphize his subjects, so he gives feelings to the DNA and insight into the black holes he discusses. Bryson starts by talking about the beginning of everything with the Big Bang and the solar system and winds up talking about the end of everything with cautionary tales about extinction and the survival of our species. He’s good at scale. He has a tendency to explain large amounts of time or very tiny things by lining them up against something you already know about. He’s very fond of clock metaphors, so that when he’s talking about the evolution of the species that eventually became homo sapiens you get a real sense of just how long things like that took. The only thing that is bad about this book is that I am done reading it. For even the mildly curious or the slightly scientifically interested: go, get this book, you will not be disappointed.

Chasing the Dime

This story starts out with a smart rich guy who is in a new apartment because he’s just broken up with his smart rich girlfriend. He works in high end bio-computing work and runs his own company of smarties. But he has a secret past, and a troubled future because of the messages that keep being left on his ansering machine. Long story short, things get weird and then they get weirder. This book was a fast read but not a dumb one. The main character is a likable enough fellow who doesn’t make all the traditional “duh” mistakes right off the bat as he’s trying to unravel the mystery he is wrapped up in. The ending isn’t too foreshadowed and there are some fun twists to the story and not much of a mushy “save the girlfriend!” subplot. It’s worth checking out and not expecting too terribly much from and being pleasantly suprised.


I rarely do this, but I finished this book in its entirely only because I could not believe how terrible it was and I held out hope that it would have some redeeming characteristic by the end of it. It did not. It was a muddled mess. You could say that I should have known this by the jacket text which stated that it was based on a video game. In any case it was supposed to be about computers and technology but it basically wasn’t. It was a complicated international plot involving a lot of two dimensional characters, the top two of whom were involved in some sort of takeover bid fight with each other. One is the bad guy, one is the good guy, but both of them are in need of some serious personalities.

The writing in this book was quite possibly the worst I’ve read since I started keeping this list with lots of injected adjectives where they aren’t helpful and lots of clumsy foreshadowing and wretched dialogue. It reads like someone gave a plot outline to either a) a computer or b) a freshman composition student and said “make this into a book” I can’t say I was disappointed because I didn’t expect much, but I have enjoyed Tom Clancy’s earlier books -- it’s unclear who even wrote this one actually -- but I won’t be going near them again. The Amazon reviewer summed it up best “All-in-all a total waste of time. It should have been called mindless.com. ”

Mad Art : A Visual Celebration of the Art of Mad Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to Mad Magazine. Its weird, gross, and wacky humor made me believe that there was a place in the world for freaks like me, even if it may not have been the rural/suburban Massachusetts town where I grew up. I bought the Mad books. I learned a lot of the Mad songs satirizing ads for products that were already decades old by the time I’d heard of them. I enjoyed the slightly racy retellings of popular movies like Star Wars and Jaws.

At some point, I stopped reading Mad as much. I sold my Mad books and kind of forgot about it for a while. I saw this book in the library and remembered how much I had enjoyed it. This book is a history of the illustrators of Mad and the story is told in the same irreverent slightly crazy tone that the magazine always had. It tracks the magazine from its very beginnings to the present day where I noticed many illustrators I know from other places are also contributors. Even though the history of Mad is far from sanguine, the tone of the book is upbeat and positive with every artist -- even the nutso ones -- being praised for whatever it was they did well. The book is heavily illustrated with black and white and color illustrations and a few photographs. It was fun to page through it and remember some of the covers of issues that I had personally owned and later to see covers by artists I knew from elsewhere.

The Nautical Chart

Perez-Reverte is the best kind of euthor, one who can write books that capture your attention, but make you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you’re done with them. This treasure hunting story delves into the complicated love triangle between men, women and the sea. A down on his luck sailor meets a woman with a secret plan. He joins forces with her to try to help her solve a mystery. Until the very last pages, you’re never quite sure what is going on, but you learn a lot in the process and you get to enjoy Perez-Reverte’s wonderful writing.

Anvil of Stars

This is the only Greg Bear book that I haven’t thought was just awesome. It’s the follow-up to the “end of the world” novel Forge of God which was really pretty interesting. This entire book takes place in spaceships after the destruction of the earth and a team of children are assigned by unknown beings to destroy the beings who destroyed their planet. It’s convoluted and weird and bear has a real task set out for himself to describe a whole bunch of places that are completely foreign, with no familiar hooks to hang descriptions off of.

That said, it’s flat. There is a lot of description and very little human interaction that is familiar. The kids are precocious, bisexual, and directed in almost all of their daily routines by these silver robots. It reads a lot like the child packs in some of Orson Scott Card’s novels but with less of an emphasis on social aspects. In short, I didn’t like any of the characters and there was a lot about how their society was organized that just needed to be taken at face value. Many of the rules seemed odd or forced. When the kids have to interact with other alien life forms, Bear has obviously gone through a lot of trouble to think out how a completely alien life form would appear and interact. However, it seems like a sci fi exercise more than a coherent story that someone else would want to read. As a sequel it just barely gives a nod to the previous book and shares none of its compelling parts.

A Right to Be Hostile

I read the other Boondocks compilations and I swear this had most of the same material, but some new stuff. I enjoy the comic very much, but this was perplexing for me and made me sort of confused going in to the book. McGruder’s angry kids and their biting wit and youthful hotheadedness are a good frame for viewing the current madness in the administration. I enjoyed the post-9/11 comics even more than the ones in the beginning.

McGruder’s introduction at the beginngin came off sort of odd though. He talks about missing deadlines, trimming characters and not reading email from people. I wasn’t particularly impressed with his attitude in the two pages of personal commentary he added to a treasury that otherwise spoke for itself. I’m sure it’s a difficult issue being both rebellious and popular, but I would have liked to hear more about how he addresses that conflict personally, not how blase he’s become now that he’s super popular.

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

Another in the Portuguese Irregual Verbs series. This one was funnier than the last. Our hero the linguist gets to travel to distant cities, including some in America, does horrible things to a daschund, and meets the pope.


This 1200 page graphic novel was staggeringly amazing. Smith takes a few pogo-looking characters who have been kicked out of their homes and tosses them right into the middle of an epic adventure of dragons and princesses and talking locusts. Except, and this is a bit except, the book doesn’t suck. It’s funny. The characters are amazing: a blase dragon, a shit-talking grandma, some rat creatures that go on and on about quiches. Each one has some sort of referent in more traditional comic tales and manages to use that historical sense at the same time as taking it someplace new. The illustrations are great, fluid and very familiar at the same time. My only complaint at all is that at 1200 pages this book was harder to carry and a bit diifcult to read except in the traditional opened-on-bed lying-on-stomach way. Small quibble, I know. I’ve known about Bone for some time and I’m sad I didn’t discover it sooner.

All Over But the Shoutin'

Rick Bragg loves his momma. He’s a great writer and perhaps also something of a scoundrel. He grew up very poor in the Deep South with a drunken father and a saint for a mother and has been writing their stories into his stories as a journalist for the past few decades. He’s got a flair for finding the emotion in a story and showing it to you and he doesn’t shy away from making himself seem goofy or arrogant in the process. This book details his growing up, culminating in his Pulitzer Prize for journalism he did at the New York Times. He talks about taking his mom, who decided against getting new teeth for the awards banquet, to New York City where she had never seen an escalator before, or flown on a plane. He talks about having two brothers, one good like his Mom and one bad like his Daddy, and how he tries to deal with them as best he can.

Bragg later resigned from the New York Times under allegations of plagiarism and went on to write about Jessica Lynch’s troubles in Iraq. He’s never settled down, really, and he seems to always have an unsteady relationship with his past. These are stories that are worth reading, but not always easy to read. Bragg’s take on many issues -- the unfailing goodness of his mother for example, and the sometimes bizarre-seeming sacrifices she made for her family -- are not my own. However, I enjoy his language and I enjoy the warts-and-all apporach to his own personal history. And, as someone who has visited the Deep South but never really lived there, it’s a fascinating first person look into a world I can barely imagine, told by someone who I can at least somewhat relate to.

The Unique Inauguration of Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was in Plymouth Notch Vermont in the middle of the night. He was sworn in by his father. Many people don’t know this. Many people may sort of know this, but not know the facts. Many people may think they know the facts, but don’t know them correctly, owing to many different versions of the tale bouncing about. This slim volume tries to set the record straight. It’s a collection of facts from primary sources published by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. It contains a lot of photos of Cal in Vermont, a few of them which have never seen publication before.

The brief facts are these. Warren Harding died while Cal was in Vermont at his family homestead. The news trickled out to various people via radio and telegraph and telephone and many different reporters, federal employees, and locals raced to Plymouth Notch to be the first to tell the new President the news. Many reporters came and went but at some point someone mentioned that since Cal’s father was a government offical, he could do the swearing in himself, and they did. The next day Cal and his family took a Pullman car down to Washington to start his new presidency. Somehow the story becomes fascinating reading, especially if you’re familiar with Vermonters and their ways.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

Perfect summer reading book. I wasn’t even aware of this new series of small humorous books by McCall Smith until I saw them ont he new shelf at the library. Then of course I was even more surprised to find that they weren’t quite new at all. While I would disagree with the jacket blurb that called this book “hilarious” I did enjoy it and it definitely had its amusing moments.

McCall Smith has switched from his African lady detective to a trio of German linguists who travel and research obscure language pecadillos such as the title, Portugueses irregular verbs. Worth picking up, short and funny, a little more black humor than the detective novels but a good way to show another side of McCall Smith’s style and talents.

Dies the Fire

Stirling has one basic storyline that he likes to tell over and over. Something bad happens to the world where people are forced to live before the invention of many modern conveniences. Chaos ensues and the nerds who spent a lot of time learning to build trebuchets have the last laugh. That’s a bit of an overgeneralization but I’ve read four of his books so far and it’s mostly accurate. That is not to say that these books aren’t engaging, just to say that they have similarities. In this book something happens to make all electric engines die AND all gunpowder and explosives stop working, oddly. This means that all planes in the air the instant the event occurs crash, fires start, people freak out. The new world has all new priorities, mainly food and how to feed people living in close quarters in the cities while all the fertile farmland is in the outer areas.

There are mass die-offs and plague and cholera spread. Some people go bad. Stirling always has some despicable characters and in this book that are groups of people known as “eaters” who turn to cannnibalism and allow for the books gorier moments. Mostly we follow two groups of people, a pagan clan/coven in the Oregon area, and a pilot/natural leader guy whose small plane goes down as he’s bringing people into rural Montana. We follow them as they try to set up thriving cultures amid the chaos and fight the bad guys such as the weird food-hoarding lords who are trying to amass land and acolytes in the Pacific Northwest region. This is probably my favorite of all of Stirling’s books mainly because it deals with small scale conflicts and fighting [there is always fighting in his books] and not large scale tactical maneuverings between armies which I find more of a snore.


Since I’ve been working at the library in the YA area, I’ve been taking home more and more YA books to read. This one has been on my list for quite some time. I’m not sure if I didn’t like the cover, or just thought it was a book on bullying, or what, but I’d been staying away from it. The youth librarian put it in my hands and said “no, I really think you’ll like it” so I took it home and read it in an evening.

The story is more complex and more interesting than just a tale of bad boys in a desert digging holes as punishment. It’s subtle for a YA book with some summarizing of what the heck was actually happening at the end of it in case you miss something. The tale of Stanley Yelnats and his incarceration at Camp Green Lake where you have to dig holes all day every day is actually a much deeper story than it first appears. Stanley is a protagonist, but not a “do no wrong” hero. The kids he meets seem like kids, somewhat fickle, alternatingly antagonistic and friendly. The story unfolds in not too many pages, but is drawn out enough that every twist in the plot isn’t clumsily foreshadowed. A pretty enjoyable story for one that takes place in the punishing heat of the desert for most of its length.

Box Office Poison

I’m not sure how many more book length graphic novels about bad relationships I can read. I loved Blankets. I liked Silly Daddy. I loved David Chelsea in Love. I loved Beg the Question. This one was, we find out at the end, more autobiographically about the guy’s friend than himself, but still, it’s mainly about a relationship that goes on too long. Maybe I don’t like these because they have sad endings, or because the main character makes terrible choices that become wretched train wrecks later on in the book. The illustration and the swiftly moving plot keep this book interesting, but by the end of it, I hated the main character’s drunken loser girlfriend [as perhaps I was suppsoed to] and flipped ahead every time I saw a plotline with her coming up.

Making Things: The Hand Book of Creative Discovery

I had this book when I was a kid and got a new [to me] copy of the same older version, before the new cover, at a library sale last month. Wiseman is the consumate craft-y educator. With lovely illustrations and a lot of hand and rubber-stamp lettering she creates pages of projects kids can do that don’t just allow them to get messy and play with paste but actually show them how to create things that they can use in every day life. She has a section on making your own paper, on how to make sandals, and creating instruments from things lying around the house. Even when she covers standard kid-craft topics, she’s showing kids how to make inventive animal masks in three dimensions and cut paper patterns into lovely mobiles. The message here is that everyone, including kids, can make lovely works of art and play with paints and tools to have fun and learn a thing or two about the things we interact with every day. This has got to be one of my favorite all time books.

Stories Not for the Nervous

This is an amazing collection of stories. One of the things that I forget about Hitchcock is how funny he can be. The back cover states “Alfred Hitchcock has always been concerned with our environment. His favorite cause is developing a lead-free gas chamber. Poisons in our food are of special interest to him....” There are stories from people you’ve heard of -- Dorothy Sayers and Ray Bradbury -- as well as many people I didn’t know. There is also a very interesting story at the end of the book which sort of breaks down the fourth wall in that “I’m right BEHIND YOU” sort of way that I don’t think was paricularly trendy in the mid 60’s. Otherwise I was surprised how well creepy stories from 40 years ago held up over time.

The Ghost Writer

The only reason I didn’t like this book more is because I was expecting it to be something it wasn’t. Or, more to the point, it was something I didn’t want it to be. Like Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age, this book has one main narrative and then a story-within-a-story weaving through it. Also like the other book, one story is much more interesting than the first. The novel is about a librarian who grows up in a reserved family in Australia. His Mom’s family has some sort of secret and he doesn’t know what it is. He aquires a penfriend in Britain who becomes the sole outlet for his lonliness and longing for companionship. His parent die, he becomes a librarian and the mystery begins to unwind, both as told by him and as related in stories he find in old copies of a now-defunct journal he finds lying about in odd places.

The stories from the journal, of course, are windows into the mysteries of this man’s family. However they are also long, and written in an altogether different style than the main narrative. I am not a good code switcher and I found myself skimming the stories [which were 30-40 pages long themselves] to figure out what happens to our hero. This is not, naturally, the best way to get involved with a good tale and at the end of it, I felt like it just wasn’t the right sort of story for me. There were clearly lots of clues strewn about in the inserted stories, but I couldn’t focus both on the main story -- which is delightfully creepy -- and them.

Remaking the World : Adventures in Engineering

Petroski’s book on the history of book shelving stands apart from the whole “history of the thing through the eyes fo the thing” genre as best in class. I enjoy his matter of fact style, his general interest in the trivia of the things he discusses and his willingness to debunk commonly held misunderstandings about things instead of just repeating things he has heard. He is a researcher and writer of my favorite kind and every time I pick up a book by him I am giddy with anticipation. This book was just one more delight.

The book is a collection of essays about engineering. That alone should be enough to make you run screaming if you’re new to this sort of thing. However Petroski finds the interesting parts, the quirky bits, the weird and famous personalities and the big messes that always make great storytelling. He explains how Nobel, an engineer, became the benefactor of a series of prizes none of which went to engineering. He describes the design and building of the tallest buildings in the world. He explains what “back of envelope” design is and why it’s important. He makes a very good case that engineering is one of the most important and yet most overlooked contributors to successful modern capitalism. Fascinating stuff.

The Forge of God

It will be pretty hard to review or even talk about this book without giving out some spoilers. Then again, the same could be said for other reviews I read of it which said things like “The best end of the world novel ever!” In any case, there is a lot to like about this book besides just the dramatic end of the world scene at the, um, end of the book.

Bear knows his science which is one of the things that makes most of his books entertaining in a cerebral as well as an escapist way. This book concerns one or possibly two alien life forms that come to earth with the intent to destroy and/or save it. It’s confusing and murky and you follow a lot of different people through the policy and personal issues that this new development raises.

Perdido Street Station

Since I loved Neal Stephenson’s books about old technology, someone suggested the steampunk genre and handed me this book. It takes place in a alternative future dystopia where we have very capable machines and technologies, but no computers. Things run on steam and cities are dank dangerous and dripping with ooze and slime that Mieville describes in great detail. There are a variety of human and non-human occupants of the fetid city who live in close quarters sometimes well adn sometimes poorly. This story is about a scientist, his non-human girlfriend and an escaped pack of monsters that threatens the city. There is also an exile from a band of birdmen type creatures who is hoping to regain flight.

The book is great, creepy, interesting and long. While I enjoyed reading about every sodden sidewalk, tilting building and rotting river, it got tiresome as I became more and more curious how the plot details were going to work out. Mievielle includes a map at the beginning which implied to me that the book would have something to do with the geography of place, but really it’s about decay in its many forms and the actions of semblances of governments, relationships and nature under the heavy weight of neglect and distinterest. This book was so singularly itself, that I think I am still going to have to look for more examples of the steampunk genre to see if it’s one that I enjoy or not.

American Gods

Any book that has the phrase “don’t fuck with me” in the second sentence probably has something to tell me. This story is about paradigms and, more specifically, religion. It’s built upon the premise that when people moved to what is now the United States, over the previous milennia, they took their gods from their homelands with them. These gods had to set up shop in a new world and eventually most were almost entirely forgotten and lingered on in various half-alive ways. If you’ve seen The Year Without a Santa Claus, you’ll know what I mean. Now the new gods of technology, media, computers and so forth have challenged the old gods to some unspecificed battle. In the center of all of this is ex-con Shadow who is all human but gets to interact with the gods as they get together, discuss strategy and eventually fight. He meets other humans and other gods-as-humans and generally tries to make sense of his world.

Knowledge of religion is not necessary in this thick and well-written fairy tale. Some of the gods that Gaiman outlines were familiar to me, others less so. He takes care at the beginning to say that while many of the characters and locations in the novel are fictional, “the gods are real” so it’s fun to see how to moves them to this country and tells their stories. The book is really a great parable for just about any “out with the old and in with the new” tale, and this is less a story about religion than it is about faith or belief or even just how to get by when the chips are down. With my perspective, I saw it as a story about libraries, but I’m sure you could get your own particular pet topic to be reflected in Gaiman’s broad and well written set of ideas.

The Secret Life of Bees

I’m not sure how a book that was published almost two years ago wound up #35 on Amazon’s best-seller list, but I guess it’s that sort of Oprah book that is all the rage among people who buy huge quantities of books. If you like those sort of heartwarming “person who has had it very rough finds comfort in a place she would have never expected” books, this is really a great example of it. Lily is a girl who grows up practically motherless in a house ruled by a tyrannical angry Dad. Her only real companion is her housekeeper. Long story short, they run away, take up with a houseful of eccentric black women and learn the art of beekeeping. This all takes place in the mid-sixties South when race relations are particularly problematic. Lily is white, the houseful of women are all black.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like this book, I did, it’s just that it seemed like a familiar theme with all the parts you expected [a forbidden love, an ugly duckling turned beautiful, an evil patriarch or two, the eccentric house on the hill] and nothing else. Kidd is a great writer and if you haven’t read a slough of beekeeping books, there will probably be enough honey imagery to keep you interested even if the familiar storyline doesn’t captivate.


Village Voice reporter Frank Owen expands his articles on the seamy underworld of the NY club scene into one book that reads like a bunch of different articles. The book opens with Owen’s own recounting of searching and finding some Ketamine and describing the feeling of falling into a “K hole” Since this is the launching point for the book, I felt that it would be a tale of drugs and sex and power brokers, but instead it’s more a tale of law enforcement, violence and club kids turned losers. The basic gist is answering the question “What happened to the club scene in New York in the last 80s and early 90’s?” and the basic answer is “People went to jail”

The first part of the book is mainly about the rise of Peter Gatien, owner of popular NYC clubs The Limelight and The Tunnel. For a time it seemed that he could do no wrong, opening up wildly successful clubs that were rife with sex, drugs and drama. He is the subject of a targeted sting operation which is eventually his undoing. Also profiled are a mafia-identified kid from Staten Island who winds up becoming a club mogul in Miami Beach and party promoter Michael Alig who goes from being one of the most popular clubbers in the world to doing 10 to 20 for manslaughter.

Interesting? Sure, but I was looking for a different book when I picked this up and got a bit bored with the minutia of who was wearing a wire when and transcripts of the dumbest people on earth ploddingly plotting crimes. Owen clearly is not enamored of his subjects and his descriptions of their rises and minute-by-minute outlines of their falls is one of the less-charitable depictions of the club scene that I’ve read. At the end we get back to Owen and he describes years of clubbing and drug-taking and music, but very little of it makes its way into this book.

The Devil’s Code

This was a perfectly fine book that I brought for the plane and it did not disappoint. The story follows a computer programmer/painter/PI named K as he tries to untangle the chain of events leading to the murder of a fellow programmer and the extraordinary cover-up that follows. Generally I don’t enjoy books about computers because they seem to get so many thigns wrong, either about how computers work or how tech culture works in general. This book gets enough things right that it doesn’t stand in the way of the storyline. The main character is likable enough and the story is fast-paced enough to keep the pages turning until the end. For a book I knew nothing about except for seeing the word “code” in the title, this was a pleasant surprise.

Moving Mars

Greg Bear takes science fiction to an entirely new level of depth and understanding. He’s a great writer and the characters he creates can really hold their own against some pretty spectacular science and technology. This book is about the colonization of Mars, a few generations after the initial contact. The Earth, Moon and Mars are part of a loose organization called The Triple. Earth folks are proceeding in all the science-y ways, getting biological enhancements, experiencing simlated realities and prolonging life while Martians are a more serious bunch, concerned with the more immediate issues of survival and resourcefulness. One Martian woman works her way up through the political process [visting Earth along the way] at the same time as things between the Earth and Mars starts to sour. Add to this mix some technology that is not fully understood and could have devastating impacts and the political finesse required to work things out is a challenge to our heroine.

Oddly, this is a book about politics, it is also about science. Like other Bear books I have read, most notably the Darwin series, he infuses books with a hearty dosage of both. So, while we learn about the atmosphere on Mars and the differences in a society where years are longer and days are shorter, we also learn about the many forms of governance that Mars has, has had, and will have. This is not a short book and some of this information is detailed in a way that only a real fan would truly love, but it all coheres into a whole story that’s fascinating from start to finish.

Incidental Findings

More medical musings from doctors. This one reads a lot like Atul Gawanda’s book. Ofri is a doctor who works at Bellevue in NYC with some of New York’s less-insured people. Each chapter is a small essay about something she learned about people and human nature from her work with a really wide range of interesting people. The whole book is sort of sandwiched between the beginning and the end of her own story about being on the other side of the examining table as an expectant mother and then as a delivering mother. The insights are interesting, though some of them have a sort of “duh” feeling to it, where you think that if Ofri hadn’t been spending so much time reading medical books, she would already know certain things about the human experience. As an author she’s capable, but not amazing and comes off as just a bit self-indulgent throughout. If you like the NPR voice, you’ll know what I mean. If you like that voice, you’ll love this.

Killing Time

The only reason I didn’t like this book more is that I know Carr can write much better. Carr is a historian and a writer. This book which takes place in the near future has a lot of passages that read like “and this is the history that brought us where we are today...” which are good in a historical novel, less so in a sort of space thriller where the protagonist is flying about in an amphibious spaceship with holographic cloaking and wood panelling inside. Also, the foreshadowing is really really clunky, so much so that whatever suspense the book might be able to muster, a lot of it is telegraphed so early, you wind up waiting for it instead of surprised by it.

So, leaving aside that it’s written by Carr, this book is a fun romp. It’s the near future, the greedy capitalists and the governments they own have ruined the world and the Internet is the main source of information for people. A few rich separatists [shades of Atlas Shrugged here] are trying to make it better through a quirky misinformation campaign which is supposed to clue people in to the mess they’re making of things. It works badly, or slowly, and stuff gets destroyed and they get to fly around a lot in the spaceship. It’s fun, has some interesting doomsaying predictions about the path we’re presently on, and is pretty forgettable but fun to read while you’ve got it.

Tales of Young Urban Squatters

I enjoyed this book for what it was, but I was hoping it would be more. Burch has assembled the personal stories of a group of squatters who live in Berkeley California. They range from almost incoherent to pretty astute. There isn’t a real cohesive thread thought them except that some of them know each other, some of them have stayed in the same places and most of them with a few notable exceptions are kids. This book is too short and too lacking in geographical diversity for casual readers to get any real handle on the squatting movement. Many of the kids in their statements had very little to say about historical squatter encampments or anything else except their day to day survival.

That said, the voices are real and they dispell some of the basic myths surrounding squatting -- that squatters don’t work, that they’re all moochers, that they’re all unemployable, drunks or what have you. At the same time it does seem to support other myths, that squatters are somewhat lazy, selfish and poorly educated. I’m sympathetic to the squatter cause and have enjoyed getting to read more first hand squatter stories, especially about an area of the country that I am familair with, but I don’t know if this would be a good book for someone who was unfamiliar with the movement as an introduction. It’s definitely a slice-of-life potrayal of squatting, practically apolitical if such a thing is possible. It’s interesting to read but not good as an overview of all things squatting despite the inclusion of How to Squat, reprinted from an underground pamplet with what the author says is “implicit permission of the unknown original creators”

The Footprints of God

My sister pushed this into my hand and said “You have a long bus ride, you’ll like this” and I did. It’s another in what has been a long series of quasi-religious fiction thrillers. This one is both the most serious about religion and also takes it the most lightly in some ways. The general idea is: scientists are building a computer that may or may not be able to attain consciousness. Some people are trying to stop it from happening. Good guy battles incredibly powerful people who may or may not be evil and may or may not have consciences.

The religious stuff isn’t really central, or it didn’t seem that way to me who did skim some of the religous parts. However, the questions that are raised about consciousness and supreme power do have religious overtones, probably more if you go in for that sort of thing. The thriller part of the story -- people trying to avoid detection by other people who seem to have every detection device available -- is a fun enough romp as it is. I’ve rarely read thrillers lately that don’t make me feel sort of cheap and used at the end of it when I learn the resolution. This book does have a bit of a pat ending, but the reading to get there is still worthwhile.

The Seville Communion

This book was a bit of a change from The Covenant of the Flame. Both would fall into the “religious whodunit” category but the other book was a really fast-paced thriller with a lot of history [based on actual groups but fictionalized]. This book is much slower paced and has a bunch of made-up history that seems somewhat real. The main character is a priest who works for the enforcement and policeman arm of the Pope’s crew in Vatican City. He’s ultra-straight-laced and very good at his job. He has to go sort out a situation in Spain where a small church with a crazy priest is in danger of being closed down by lack of parishoners and the greed of developers. Of course, there is a beautiful woman and a mysterious story and a lot of other interesting characters hanging on the periphery like many of Perez-Reverte’s stories.

The mystery in this one doesn’t pack quite the punch of some of his others, particularly the Flanders Panel, but the settings and characters are richer and, as always, the language is lovely and makes you pine for a place you hadn’t previously been aware existed.

The Covenant of the Flame

For some reason the new pope has put me in the mood to read a bunch of books about religion. This is one from Morell’s series of thrillers that have at their center ancient orders of fringe religions who are intent in protecting a secret. This book is unusual in that instead of the central character fighting the bad guys, this story mainly concerns a group of fanatical bad guys and fanatical good guys both with almost unlimited resources, intent on protecting a secret. It’s a good lively read and the central female character is a welcome change from the almost unrelenting maleness that these books usually have.

King of Torts

Picked this up at a library book sale. It’s a more traditional Grisham story about the guy who gets sucked into a life of big money lawyering with a semi-anonymous tip about a lucrative mass torts claim. Nothing very spectacular and a little duller than Grisham’s other works because of the relentless brand name signifying and fairly traditional Grisham themes. Enjoyable but nothing to pay real money for.

Protect and Defend

The more I date my law school boyfriend, the more I seem to read and enjoy political thrillers. This is an in-depth back and forth over the nuances of abortion in the guise of being sort of a classic tale of the nomination and confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice in the first weeks of a new presidency. The story centers around an America just a wee bit in the future where legislation has passed banning late term abortions without the consent of the parents. A young girl with pro-life parents gets pregnant, waits too long, discovers she had a hydrocephalic fetus, and all hell breaks loose. She wants to abort, her parents won’t let her, they go to court with her Dad, somewhat overdramatically, playing opposing counsel.

Everyone’s got a dog in this fight. The new President is trying to get his choice for Supreme Court Chief Justice approved yet she has no record on abortion at all, though she does have a secret. The President has his own secrets, as does nearly everyone else in this tale. It’s a long involved political brinksmanship game that only rarely resorts to the tired device of putting the political argument directly into the mouths of the characters. Instead we just see the complicated story get more and more complicated with Senators trying to curry favor and outguess the other one as they decide what to do about the political climate and the case slowly creeping its way towards the Supreme Court. Not a tough book by any stretch but a long involved one with more to chew on than I usually expect from Patterson.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004

I will read whatever Dave Eggers edits, I just can’t stand the things he writes. In fact, I skipped his introduction entirely. This series is clearly aimed at people like me. The covers are colorful and usually done by known comics artists, this one was by Adrian Tomine who I have always had a crush on. The selections are from things I already read and contain some writing by people I already know. In this case, I read a story by Thom Jones that I hadn’t read before and stumbled across a David Sedaris story that I had only heard read aloud.

Of course, there is the “usual suspects” problem where I wonder if David Sedaris needs any more print time, but many of these authors wrote things that I thougth were delightfully inventive and I would have otherwise never seen. There is a story about a lion hunter in New York City and an essay [because this is both fiction and non-] about that guy who lives in the airport and what he is really like. Most of the stories washed over me with their style and wording and if I was still a bus commuter, I would have travelled far beyond my stop because I was so engrossed in this. Don’t let the Eggers name scare you, there is good writing here.

A Stir of Bones

This was a YA title that my friend Sharyn gave to me. It’s about a group of kids who come upon a haunted house, make friends with a ghost and learn about the house’s history. At the same time, the narrator is coming to grips with an abusive father and her own issues dealing with that. It’s a good if somewhat breathy purple-proseish story. I liked it, but didn’t totally love it though I enjoyed the characters and their interactions. Apparently it’s a prequel to another novel by Hoffman which is more geared towards an adult readership and I’ll probably look that book up when I have the chance.

The Street Law Handbook

The Street Law Handbook is fun to read and will teach you something at the same time. The core premise of this book is that while we may be interested in big court cases, and watching a lot of Law & Order on TV, a lot of what people really want to know is “What is likely to get me in trouble, and how much trouble will I be in?” Viswanathan takes a handbook-type approach to this problem and tackles infractions such as drug laws, sex/nudity/decency laws and basic petty crimes. She discusses what the infractions are like, how the laws vary from state to state and what sort of penalties you are likely to get for them in major cities across the US.

While this book is not a “how to” handbook of how to get in trouble, it defintely does give you some how-to-do-it advice, particularly about drugs which was an odd side note to an otherwise fairly legalistic book. She uses many examples to highlight various trouble people could get in and made the unfortunate style-decision to use jokey type pseudonyms for the people involved which overall lowered the tone of the book which otherwise tried to give good legal advice, albeit in an informal manner. Anyone who reads the papers, in many cases, would have known who she was writing about anyhow, so going to lengths to call your characters Jack and Jill when everyone knows she’s talking about Mary Kay Letourneau seemed weird and stilted.

A Walk in the Woods

Greg and I read this book out loud to each other in the evenings over a period of several months. Bryson is a bit hard to read out loud. He’s a great writer, very smart with words and wordy with sentences. However, much like this trip he takes, in fact, he tends to ramble all over the place making you read ahead three words for every word you read out loud. We both loved this book. Bryson starts down South determined to get to Mount Katahdin in Maine by the end of the season. He both does and does not accomplish this. Along the way he spends time with an old friend, learns way too much AT history and even gets himself in a bit of shape.

This book isn’t quite, as the back cover blurbs call it, “hilarious.” There are some pretty funny parts, definitely worth chuckling over, but just when you think you’re in for a rip-roaring good time, Bryson will tell you the stories of what happened to the American Chestnut tree, or discuss hikers who have been murdered, or how development is encroaching on the rest of Americas wilderness, and you sober right up. This was a perfect read for when we had to sit inside and look out at the freezing Vermont landscape and just try to remember what a tree smelled like, or a long walk felt like. Bryson’s practically a neighbor and I was suprised how much his perception of much of this area is not unlike my own. Definitely one of the best books of this year so far.

The Librarian

I have read a lot of books with the word librarian in the titles. They’re usually written by librarians, in which case they’re usually fairly accurate, or they’re not in which case they are often laughable. This book is a grand exception. It’s a political mystery/thriller featuring one librarian primarily but with another librarian who helps out from time to time. The general theme is “The bad guys may be trying to steal the presidential election!” and the librarian for one of the possibly bad guys is in an awkward position of possibly having [or having access to] information that could help uncover the deception and save the free world.

It’s a good storyline, and what’s better is that the librarian character rings trup, to me anyhow. He’s a smart but reluctant hero and gets out of many tricky situations by using available resources and good problem-solving abilities, not super-strenght, dashing charm or nerves of steel. I liked him and enjoyed the story, setting and overall plot. An excellent read for all you librarians.

Killer Smile

I picked this up because it was a mystery novel that was also loosely about Italian-American internment camps in the US during WWII. I know next to nothign about these so I figured I’d pick up the book and learn some. The newsy bits of this book were good. However the whole chick-law-firm angle wasn’t as interesting. Too much brand-name consciousness that never resonates with me [oh that woman is wearing XYZ brand shoes, does that mean she is high class or low class?!] becomes tiresome. Additionally, the red herring random threatening unhinged male character received the unlikely nickname premenstrual Tom which, to me, was the height of ridiculous, as if to say “see we’re women here, this is the language of women!” I can’t see any good reason to give anyone a nickname that is four times as long as their actual name. It seems contrived and flat, as did a lot of the rest of this book. Good for the history, not great for anything else.

The Orchid Thief

The story Orleans tells here, which is all true, was somehow made in to the movie Adaptation, which I haven’t seen. The part of her tale that was highlighted and exaggerated in the movie is the least interesting part of this book. Orleans goes to Florida to write about orchid thieves for the New Yorker and comes back to finish an entire book on the subject of Floridians and their orchids and the history of orchids generally. It’s a book about fanatics and the history of orchid fanatacism and does not disappoint. The least strong part of the book, however, is Orelans’s time spent with her subject from the New Yorker. She thinks he’s cool and fascinating. I did not. As a result, she talks about him a lot in parts of the book that I found somewhat boring.

Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man

Sometimes I just want a little light reading either before bed or when I get up in the morning. This is Tim Allen from Home Iprovement fame talking about himself and the nature of men and women. It’s sortof funny. Not crazy-funny, but funny. He also talks a lot about himself. Who knew that Tim Allen’s real last name was Dick? Or that he had been to prison on drug charges before he became a comedian? The best part of this book is hearing Allen tells less-than-flattering stories about himself and his growing up and you get to know a little bit more about the funny guy that you might have only known through his tv show and movies. Perfect light reading.


This book had a flashy cover and was in the sci fi section so I picked it up. It’s just barely sci-fi. Actually, I read in Library Journal that only losers call science fiction sci fi any more so I guess I’ll have to say sf. In any case, it’s mostly a love story, the way The Goldbug Variations was a love story but also sort of about math and science and music.

Not that this is bad, but the premise of the science in the book -- of a transhuman-ish future where the sex and gender lines blur dramatically -- was appealing and didn’t really come to the forefront until one of those long awkward “here is what the science is all about” conversations in the last pages of the book. Of course, the entire story is an allegory for this larger scientific discovery. A group of friends in college explores different sorts of relationships and lifestyles while one smart but tortured soul becomes a bit of a woman-hating feminist pundit. I was hoping for more science and less parable, but the story alone supported the book, and the writing and relationships were both sincere-seeming enough to make it worth while.


I love Penn Gillette’s writing but I couldn’t get through this story of a dead woman and the guy who used to love her told from the perspective of a sock monkey with a propensity for obsessively quoting lines from eighties pop song.

Animals in Translation

It’s worthwhile to know a little bit about Temple Grandin before reading this book. She is an adult with autism who is extraordinarily perceptive when it comes to animal psychology and she uses this skill to work with the slaughterhouse industry to help them make their slaughterhouses more humane. She has an autobiography called Thinking in Pictures which is another good read

She co-authored this book with Catherine Johnson, a writer who has two autistic sons. Together they have created a clear concise book about animals and humans and the murky unknown that lies between them. It is Grandin’s well-researched opinion that people with autism lie somewhere along the spectrum of consciousness somewhere between animals and people in terms of how their brains work. As a result, she believe that she and many other autistic people have specific insights into ways the animal brain works. She outlines many of these ideas in this book and gives humans educated guesses why she thinks animals do what they do, and act how they act.

Grandin’s writing style is very precise and direct which I always enjoy. She defines many of her terms, and while she uses a lot of anecdotes, both personal and professional, she’s rarely flowery or hyperbolic. As a result I find her books a lot of fun to read, especially since they touch on difficult issues like slaughterhouse procedures and animal abuse. Seen through Grandin’s dispassionate gaze, we can learn from these examples not just get emotioanlly swept up in them.

The Summons

Reading this book made me realize just how much better Grisham’s writing has gotten even in the past few years. This is another of his tales about the evils of money, with a brand conscious young lawyer who is trying to figure out where all the cash came from that he found at the site of his father’s death. Lots of good father/son and brother/brother tension in this one, and a completely fine book, just nothing special.


My friend Sharyn is the editor of this book and I think she generally has good taste. So, when she was complaining that her [now ex] boyfriend had never read this wonderful book she edited, I decided I would read it. I’m normally not much of a fan of fantasy fiction and I don’t read a lot of young adult literature and yet I really enjoyed this book. Part of the reason is because the stories are all quite different, and yet somehow the same. There are a few “babies from someplace else raised by a town” stories and a few “dark stranger waltzes in from noplace” stories and a few retellings of better known folktales or myths, including one graphic novel-y one which mixes things up a bit. As a result, if you find even one story you like, there’s a good chance there will be another one somewhere in this thick book of stories that you will also enjoy. In any case, I am now a convert and have a short list of authors I would really like to read more of, which is probably the point of many compilations. Additionally, this book has short author bios and little “about the story” blurbs at the end of each story, which I am a total sucker for, and are also good fodder for the new reader of fantasy fiction.

Yankee Magazine’s Living Well on a Shoestring

I’ve always had a frugality that bordered on the obsessive. I don’t like to buy extraneous paper products. I almost never buy new clothes. I reuse and repari and recycle as much as I can. It never really occurred to me until reading this book that I might be that was because I’m ffrom New England. This book is a wonderfully attractive compilation of over 1.500 tips for being frugal. The author’s dont expect that everyone is living on povery level wages, but they do explain that saving money on things that you don’t care about leaves you more money to spend on things you do care about. To this end, they intersperse little quizzes between the tips asking questions like “which of these is actually a better buy?” and then explaining why one coupon for dining out might be a better value than buying a coupon book which costs and might encourage more eating out in order to recoup that money.

The illustrations are wonderful and the tips are geared towards people who live a rural or semi-rural lifestyle. It’s a delight to read a book that actually seems to be geared towards the way I live, instead of a city dweller who might have an organic grocery or hardware store two blocks away. The Yankee editors even include little anecdotes about thrifty living and special techniques that can help out as sidebars to the rest of the good information. The writing is good enough that you can just read this book cover to cover though it would also be pretty useful hanging out as a reference on a kitchen shelf too.

First Person Plural: My Life as a Multiple

This is not an easy book to read. It details a year or so in the author’s life between the time that he began having outward indications of Dissociative Identity Disorder [what many of us know as multiple personality disorder, or even "that Sybil thing"] and the time he acknowledged the disorder and began taking steps on the road to healing. West was abised as a child by at least his mother and his grandmother and instead of having terrible memories of those events, his psyche split off separate personalities deep within his subconscious that held the memories. At some point these personalities -- some of whom were female and some of whom were children -- manifested themselves into his normal life with disturbing and upsetting results. One of the personalities was angry and would injure him. Several of them were children which meant driving a car or making love to his wife became nearly impossible.

West was hospitalized many times. Through it all he has a wife who has spent over a decade with him not having DID who had an adjustment period. With her he was raising their child, who had only the vaguest understanding of what was going on with his parents. This book is at its strongest when it discusses trying to ekep the family togeter and dealing with outsiders' reactions to people with DID. It’s at its weakest when it gives first person accounts of the tantrums and extended narratives of the alter personalities. I’m sure this is part of living with DID, but since West is telling this story through his own eyes, his causal acceptance of something that is very hard for others to understand sometimes results in a glossing over of feelings or emotion that would lead to greater understanding of the reader. We learn towards the end of the book that West is working on his own denial about having DID, but since he’s been telling us about it all along, it’s hard to parse this with the explanations of denial. West now has his own Ph.D. which he was working on during the course of writing this book.

The Sign of the Book

I’ve read the entire Bookman series of mysteries that Dunning has written. They all deal, more or less, with rare books, a cop turned book collector, and usually some weird stash of rare books with a mystery behind them, and some other non-book crime. Cliff Janeway is Dunning’s protagonist and he’s a flawed hero. He’s got a bad temper and sometimes acts inappropriately. However unlike sharped-tongue leading men, Janeway often takes the heat for his missteps and it’s wlays interesting to see whether he is his own undoing. This book moves more into the realm of actual mysteries with the rare books as a sort of sub-plot. Still great, still interesting, and Dunning is a master of the multi-character whodunit that have solid pacing and yet are still compelling but brief reads.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

I’ve just been devouring Bryson’s books lately. This one is a compilation of columns that he wrote for a UK paper after returning to the US from 20 years abroad in the UK. He comes back to the country he grew up in and is charmingly confused by many of the ways in which US and UK cultures are different. He writes up these little observations in newspaper-column length and sends them overseas where they amuse British readers. This is easily one of the most readable of Bryson’s books, though sometimes that’s at the expense of some of his herculean trivia expositions. He talks about American customs and traditions like decorating the house for the holidays, arcane income tax hurdling and sending your kids far away to go to college.

The book is at its best when it details the weird little differences between US and UK culture and weakest when it’s just talking about the US because, well, I already know about the US. I am not this book’s intended audience at some level though I enjoy it just the same. The book drags when Bryson seems a bit too much like Dave Barry and goes with the “I’m just a dumb man and can’t button my own shirt” easy laugh. It’s still funny it’s just not as smart as Bryson usually presents himself. There are many pleasing reflections on New England life which, since Bryson lives about 30 miles from here, rang very true to me. As an interesting sidenote, he was writing these columns at about the same time as he was working on A Walk in the Woods, his story about walking the Appalachian Trail. As such, every now and again he’ll mention the writing of that book in this book. Since I am reading both of them at the same time, it adds a weird little jolt of recognition “hey, he was just talking about that trip in the other book!” that makes this short collection of essays seem even more relevant and current.

Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well

I don’t know what it is with me and retirement books. I’ve always been sort of semi-retired, but like many other people I think I have anxiety about having enough money when I’m older in a way I don’t have anxiety about having enough money now. Even though this book is put out by Nolo Press, it’s short on legal mumbo jumbo and really good at talking about more nebulous lifestyle issues like happiness and loneliness. Warner’s main thesis is that while it’s important to have money for your retirement, there are other things you need that are equally if not more important. These things are: your health, good family/friendship network, and interests and activities that get you in touch with other people from other age groups.

He takes these issues in turn and goes over things like how and why you might want to improve your health, how and why you should make sure you have people close to you, how and why you can and should find hobbies and other interests. Starting many of these projects can be done well before people reach retirement age and some of them, like staying fit, can be lifelong avocations and are better started early. Warner includes many testimonials from happy retirees who mostly talk about what they are doing in their post-work life, how they decided what to do, and how important money was to their sets of decisions. He’s not all sun-shiney, he also includes a few less-personal stories about seniors who had a hard time adjusting to retirement or who found it hard to make new friends or find new interests once they were already in their seventies.

This is not to say that the book is all feelgood talk about making friends and eating vegetables. There is also a lot of sound advice about finances, including how and when to save, and particularly what sorts of financial advantages you can get if you, for example, buy a three year old car instead of a brand new one, or if you pay an extra fifty dollars towards your mortgage every month. Warner knows that saving isn’t easy, but he’s also very clear that saving earlier and smarter is better than having to make tough choices about working later and later into your life when you’re less excited about it. His advice is sound and his approach is very people-centered in a way that you don’t find when you’re watching the ads for financial planning companies or listening to the advice of your banker.

Derelict Days

I got an email about a month or two ago from a fellow radical library/reader type named Irv Thomas who had known Celeste West and company back in the day and had self-published a book about his decades of hitch-hiking. We arranged a book swap, mine for his, and I just now finished reading this one. It’s a wonderful exploration of what he learned while travelling in this fashion around mostly the Western US but also including a side trip to Europe.

If you’re not super-interested in hitch-hiker and traveler culture, as I am, you might find some of the recountings of when and where he got picked up and by whom and how far they took him to be a bit on the dry side. I really got into the interesting synchronicity of his trips and the people he met and the adventures that he had. The book is well written -- Thomas also has a rich and eclectic writing history ranging from Co-Evolution quarterly to his own zines Black Bart and Ripening Seasons -- and fun to pick through. Thomas teaches himself a lot about not being greedy [for a ride, for a deadline, for money] as well as taking each experience in his life, good and bad, as an experience to gain knowledge and hopefully wisdom. He’s got a positive take on things, a refreshing perspective and, judging from his manner and the photos of himself and his travels sprinkled through the book, a sunny outlook. In the library world we talk a lot about lifelong learning, Irv Thomas’s story is a wonderful example of going well off the beaten path and coming back with something to share for just about anyone.

A Walk Across America

Peter Jenkins had a hard time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life, so he walked across America. His story is a recognizable one. Kid grows up with privilege in Greenwich Connecticut, goes to an artsy college, feels that something is missing from his life. After a failed college marriage, Peter decides to load up his backpack and see the world. He heads out with his dog and a contract of sorts from National Geographic and a determination to meet people, get jobs when he needs money, and go from coast to coast. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the book ends when he finds religion and meets a woman [in that order] and ther New Orleans to Colorado stretch is summed up as an afterword.

Some parts of this book work great. Jenkins' descriptions of the scenery and the people he meets seem very real and geniune and are the most pleasant part of the book. However, when he starts getting philosophical, including one embarassing moment where he sees himself in the mirror as “black” after spending a few weeks with a black family in Appalachia that he starts to call “my black family", the book drags. The naievete that he has towards other peoples' ideas about him, the difficulties in finding a job in some of the poorest regions in the country, and some of the trials he has to endure, are hard to read through without wanting to shake him. On the other hand, some of his observations and feeligns turn out to be glaringly incorrect, as when he lands in Alabama and meets Governor Wallace who turns out to be an okay guy in person despite his persona and crappy politics.

Peter Jenkins is a seeker who seems to have some sort of trouble figuring out what things mean in his life. He places a lot of power in his dig, his "forever friend” and then later in God after one evening at a tent revival, and then finally in the woman he meets in the last pages of the book. I know a lot of people like Peter so this book has a familiar, if not always agreeable, storyline to it.


I’m not sure how I missed Abel’s comics before. She’s a very tallented illustrator and has a knack for telling a story. This is a collection of her works which she calls “short stories” from 1989-1996. The only thing the book has in the way of commentary is the annotations on the chapter headings in the table of contents, along the lines of “this was the cover of suchandsuch magazine” There’s no introduction or notes otherwise. A lot of her pieces are actually short journalism bits, such as when she goes to a punk all-ages show at a bowling alley in Chicago and illustrates what she finds there. She has a good knack for storytelling, both in the journalistic vein and pieces that appear to live more solidly in the realm of fiction.

A Few Perfect Hours

This was a pretty short well-illustrated graphic novel that seems to fall into the iceberg problem. Josh and his then-girlfriend now-wife Sari, took a trip through Southeast Asia and Central Europe early on in their relationship that has achieved some sort of totemic importance to them now. When recalling it ten years later, they remember that the stories were interesting and important, but perhaps not how to make them that way to people who haven’t been living together with them for the past ten years. I felt after reading about their adventures and Sari’s prologue where she worries about the pointiness of her nose, that they were sort of weird American neurotic tourists who would have annoyed the hell out of me. It was only when I got to the back of the book and saw the smiley happy picture of the two of them that I realized this book is much more about relationship moments than telling their story to the outside world. With that taken care of, I began to feel much more warmth for the characters than I did while they were telling their stories.

Fever Pitch

I mostly knew Nick Hornby from his book High Fidelity which I read after loving the movie. I thougth of him as a sort of reflective somewhat introverted type which was why I felt that I connected so well with his writing. Well, he’s not, he’s an addict, a football [in the US: soccer] addict. This book is a sort of autobiography through football games. Hornby outlines his increasing attachment to Arsenal, his one true love team, and along the way mentioned his relationships with his parents, friends and various girlfriends, as well as the game itself. Though I think it’s somewhat pathetic to be someone so attached to a game that you’d miss your best friends' wedding if it happened during a home game, Hornby ackowledges that this is a character flaw and tries to account for it, if not apologize for it. The writing is strongest when discussing the other parts of Hornby’s life and how he tries to wedge them in to a life already full of a football addiction. It’s least strong when he falls into the predictable play by play discussions of “really important” games and when he offers half-hearted explanations for football fan voilence and hooliganism in general.

Chance : a guide to gambling, love, the stock market and just about anything else

This was an otherwise inteersting book onthe nature of probabilities that was flawed in my opinion by too much math and not enough chatty anecdotes. The author is clearly a smart man who knows his stuff. Yet, a lot of times he would start explaining a phenomenon like the liklihood of finding two people in a room with the same birthday [whcih is over 50% if you have 23 or more people in the room, if I recall correctly] and then veer off into a complicated equation as an “answer” to is, assuming his readers are as facile with math as he is. This wasn’t a huge problem, but sometimes I’d really want to learn more about how a probability problem worked and find that in order to do that, I had to really start crunching some numbers. I’m even good at math but this was too much math for me in an otherwise sort of popular book. The appendix by Brad Johnson may easily be the most interesting part of the book in that it deals with gambling directly and has many more real-world exaples to draw from and much less math.

The Charming Idioms of New England

We have a weird collection of very old books kicking around in our library like this one. They seem to be written by graduates of Ivy League schools and demonstrate the authors superior erudition and wit rather than any true scholarship. This book was fun to read because some of the idioms are quite familiar and some are completely foreign. I have absolutely no confidence that the author is anything but a linguistic dilletante. That said, the sheer listings of the idioms he heard that he attributes to New Englanders is an amusing, if quick, read.

Web Search Garage

I loved this book. I learned new things. Tara’s got some great ways of starting out each section with a general priciple and then explaining how to put this principle to use with specific search strategies. Though she’s widely known as the gal who co-wrote Google Hacks, this goes beyond Google and talks about other search engines as well as offers search strategies that aren’t engine specific. My only beef with this book is that the design/layout was sometimes a bit hard to read. The “garage” theme resulted in some header font choices that were less than legible and I sometimes had a difficult time figuring out why some URLs were displayed one way and some another. This is really a minor quibble and the book deserves a prestigious place on the desk of every librarian.

Weird US

I both loved and did not love this book. I loved it because it covers all those weird little out of the way places that have freaky stories about it and is a great collection of trivia, odd pictures and first hand accounts of strange goings on. I knew some of the places being talked about and others were all new to me, to be added to me “to see” list. I did not love it for a few strong reasons: no index by state, or helpful map of locations if you actually wanted to see some of these places, lack of captions for a lot of the pictures, and an annoying intro that states that veracity was not a prerequisite for inclusion. I can see this being the case about a ghost story but the disclaimer was phrased in a such a way that essentially stated “this may be true, this may be lies, who knows?” For some reason, I’m much more interested in weird true stories than weird made up ones, so that dampened the usefulness of this book for me. That said it’s a gorgeous book chock full of weird stories and first hand accounts of places with names like The Gates of Hell or Blood Road or Midgetvilles. The authors supplement their own knowledge with letters and emails from locals who describe some of the places and include fun stories of childhood or teenaged visits to them when creepy stuff happened. There’s an odd mix of ghost stories, real life museums and collections of outsider art that will probably contain something for everyone.

Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s

Pagan Kennedy is about my age and grew up in the suburbs, sort of like I did, except that I grew up in a little farming town outside the suburbs then was bussed in to a suburban school. In any case, I had many of my formative years in the seventies and remember them not entirely fondly. This seems to jibe with Kennedy’s experience of them except that where I just blithely thought of the decade as vapid and empty, she has actually explored all of the ways the decade was giving the appearances of freedom [for women, for gay people, for blakc people] while not being all that revolutionary. The seventies were when people realized that you could capture the counter-culture and sell it back to people and so they did.

Pagan Kennedy is no Tom Frank though her style and her lit-crit approach to the subject matter [how many times does she refer to a prototypical item as an ur-thing? more times than I needed to read it] are reminiscent of him. Where he comes across as well-researched, she seems more anecdotal and it only took a few stories of her or her friends saying something in the first person for me to realize that I couldn’t really relate to her experience of the Seventies. We watched the same TV shows but had different reactions. We shopped at the same stores but bought different things. I have a hard time determining if Kennedy is the expert on these things, or if she’s just a self-proclaimed expert, giving her opinion along ones like mine or my friends'. She listens to way too many eight track tapes according to her author bio, and maybe that highlights the difference between her attachment to the Seventies and my own, I’ve let mine go.

The Turk

First off, this book has a web site that’s not the usual promotional dreck, if you’re really super fascinated in this stuff. The story follows the creation of a chess playing “automaton” that was first created in the late 1700’s and had a career spanning over 75 years, through several owners and across several continents. The degree to which people were willing to believe that a machine could be made that could not only move and somewhat look like a human but also think like a human reveals ths hopefulness and wonder of the age. The secrets of this chess playing machine were not revealed with certainty until after the death of the man who had been touring with it for decades. Even notable writers of the time like Edgar Allan Poe got into the act of trying to determine its mysteries

Like a mystery novel itself, the unknown mechanism that runs the Turk is the real story to this book so the reader, like the people who were witnessing performances of the Turk over the decades, is not brought in on the solution until the final pages. There are a few afterthought chapters on actual chess-playing computers including the famous Kasparov and Big Blue matches that, for the second time, convinced people it might be possible to devise a machine that could beat a human opponent in chess. This book, like many others I’ve read recently, does seem a bit like an expanded magazine article, but the research is solid, and the book itself is just plan lovely, well laid out with some interesting illustrations and

Get Even: The complete book of dirty tricks

I’ve seen this book on so many shelves of radical bookstores that when it showed up at my librayr’s book sale I decided I had to take a look at it. Hayduke claims to be value-neutral with regards to his pranks, basically allowing the reader to determine which “marks” are deserving of such dirty tricks and which are not. This is a fairly interesting assumption since in many cases the tricks he offers could do serious harm to the victims. Truly harmful tricks that could easily kill a victim are noted, and of course there’s the “don’t try this at home” entreaty in the beginning, but this book is a set of recipes for causing trouble. That is not really what’s wrong with it, my problems lay more in its outdatedness (mess with a computer by punching new holes in the punchcards!) and its lack of a sense of humor. It’s all well and good to think about sending your enemy’s mail to some central Los Angeles factory, but for this book to actually be a good read, I’d like to think that I’m not just reading the words of a terminally angry man. We’ve all been wronged by people and we’ve all thought about ways to get even, but I would have enjoyed more creative and itenresting solutions, not just learn lots of different ways to slip laxatives or stink bombs into someone’s life.

Devil in the White City

This book about the Columbia World’s Exposition in Chicago near the turn of the century reads like fiction but is actually all true. The author goes out of his way to include a list of footnotes at the end and tells the reader that any direct quote comes from primary source material. The story outlines two, almost three, tales at once: the creation of the fair in Chicago, creating a palatial spread of wonder and amazement from where there once was a lackluster park; the workings of a serial killer who lived right near the fair; and the assassination of the Mayor of Chicago.

Larson interweaves these stories with such skill that they all seem to balance and interact with each other. His descriptions of settings and characters are lush and thoughtful, even though he is describing many scenes and events that have been imperfectly left to history and has to do some speculative re-creation in order to fully flesh out his tales. The book is also chock full of weird bits of trivia about the fair, the people involved in the fair - most notably Frederick Law Olmstead, but there are also cameos by Teddy Roosevelt and Frank Lloyd Wright among others - which propels the stories alongs at times when nothing else of note is going on. If you’re a crime fiction buff, you may want to try out some crime non-fiction and see if you don’t learn something about the history of Chicago before you’re done.

Eggplants, Elevators, Etc.

Remember those great bathroom type trivia books you’d see a lot in the seventies with all the really great engraving illustrations and sort of funky collections of odd lore? This is one of those. The subtitle to the book is “an uncommon history of common things” Some of the histories of the usual suspects are now more commonplace, such as the story about the guy who invented the safety pin, sold the patent rights for 0 and lived unhappily ever after. In fact a lot of the stories in this book are about patent struggles, simultaneous or near simultaneous invention/discovery, and one guy getting rich while the other guy died peniless and destitute. The articles are a page or three long and any modern invention is accompanied by a collection of pretty interesting photographs, with illustrations and often advertising interspersed throughout. Meyers additionally peppers his text with relevant pithy quotations and the result is a fun readable book of the curious origins of really commonplace objects.

The Radioactive Boy Scout

One of my resolutions for this year is to really try to get reviews posted in a timely fashion, hence, they may be shorter. This book is an expansion of Silverstein’s Harpers magazine article, for all the good and bad that portends. It’s the story of a kid who is obsessed with nuclear power [Aspergers anyone?] to the point that he tries to obtain as much nuclear material as he can, both legally and illegally, and tries to build a nuclear reactor of sorts in his backyard lab. Add a few inattentive ineffective parents to the mix and a lonely kid with few friends and social outlets and it turns into a mess that eventually turns the backyard into a Superfund site. Since most of the experiments and whatnot are related by the main character to the writer of this book, there is definitely some question as to the veracity of all the events, a note that is only sort of acknowledged by the writer towards the end. He has done a great job of expanding a magazine length article and adding in a lot of pretty interesting factoids about the American nuclear power industry and its history.

Made in America

After finishing this chock-full-of-word-trivia book by Bryson who wrote one of my favorite books of last year In A Sunburned Country I’ve decided that I like Bryson talking about Bryson even more than I like him talking about anything else. So, to say that this book was a disappointment would be wrong, but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny and the things that I found so delightful about Bryson as a writer were less evident in this book. On the other hand, that’s the absolute worst of it, and that’s not too bad.

Word fans will die when they see what Bryson has in store for them. He traces the history of the peculiar language we call English and other people call AMERICAN English from the very beginning settlements on the continent up until the weird PC era of the 90’s. He discusses where a lot of slang comes from, dispells common myths about word origins and has weird factoids you are pretty much guaranteed not to know on every page. I read this book at about the same time greg was reading about the Gettysburg Address in one book and while we watched the PBS documentary about the history of New York City and both segued uncannily into what I was reading. Bryson’s humor, though not as always-apparent as it was in his other book, is still present and keeps some of these chapters from turning into dull recitations of history. I’ve learned more from this book than possibly any other book in the past few months, now if I can only remember all of it...

Clean It, Fix It, Find It

Anne Adams and her co-author Nancy Nash-Cummings write a syndicated column about basic how-to home repair and cleaning that started out in Vermont and now has a national audience. This book consolidates some of their Q&A from their columns as well as some additional resources and commentary. They are more concerned with practical low-cost solutions to household problems like termites, stained sinks, pantry moths and the like, then just buying the latest product from the shelf which may have dubious efficacy. To this end, they also compile suggestions from readers supplmenting their own research and reporting. In cases where their suggestions lead to hard-to-find items like pennyroyal oil or decaffeinated cocoa, they will also try to provide a way to find the items they suggest. A lot of their responses fall into the “folk wisdom” category because they tend to try to solve problems with minimal damage to the environment as well as to family memers and pets. At the same time, you can read letters from contributors ruing the day when the government made various pesticides and poisons illegal and they had to resort to alternative methods of pest control. The resulting book seems very Vermont, even though it has a national audience, and is fun to read even if you aren’t contemplating a bathtub refinishing project.