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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.