Monday, April 30, 2012

On Writing Book Reviews for Booklist

For the past two years, I have been writing book reviews for Booklist, the review journal for public libraries from the America Library Association. Every month or so, I get a package from Adult Books Editor Brad Hooper with one, two, or (once) even three review copies of forthcoming books. Most have been science and nature books aimed at general readers. Early on, I received a series of human-animal interaction books - a man and his pet grizzly kind of books. I also got collections of thoughtful essays on human stewardship (or lack of) of our environment. I enjoyed all of these books immensely.

Then, I started getting books about the seas and oceans. Perhaps there is a boom in this field of publishing. I was not expecting it, but I am starting to feel I could test for some college credit in marine biology. I am sure I can now talk very knowledgeably with my old biology major apartment mate Joe about microorganisms and fisheries. Here is a list the marine-related titles that I have read and reviewed to date:

  • Demon Fish: Travels through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin
  • Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams
  • Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Ocean's Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter by Ellen Prager
  • Bayshore Summer by Peter Dunne
  • Arctic Summer by Peter Dunne
  • The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear by Kieran Mulvaney
  • Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future of Antarctica by Fen Montaigne
  • Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey
  • Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know by Ray Hilborn
  • Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts
  • Floating Gold: An Unnatural History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp
  • Horseshoe Crab: Biology of a Survivor by Anthony D. Fredericks
  • In Pursuit of Giants: One Man's Global Search for the Last of the Great Fish by Matt Rigney

The books at the bottom part of the list are not yet available in stores, but I have gotten to read them already. That is half the fun of being a book reviewer.

I have also found my reviewing has helped at parties. I go to very few, but I actually found myself in a conversation at one about the books of biologist Richard Fortey and was able to say "I've read his forthcoming book." Maybe I will now get more invitations. Everyone wants to know a book reviewer.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness by Loung Ung

It has been seven years since I read First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child, books in which Loung Ung vividly recounts life and death in the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia, her escape through Vietnam to Thailand and then to Vermont, and her struggle to assimilate in America. She continues her immigrant story in Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness.

"Lulu" was the name Loung used with her school friends in Vermont. She hoped to seem less foreign and more like a regular American girl, which was made difficult by the strict rules enforced by her older brother and sister-in-law with whom she lived. Primary among their rules was "no dating." Her family expected that they would arrange a marriage for Loung to another Cambodian. Never openly defiant, while in college she secretly began a relationship with a tall and handsome American from Cleveland. The development of that relationship over time - a long time - is the central story line of Lulu in the Sky.

Parallel to the love story is Ung's account of her need to find purpose or a calling, which she does first through social work and then by becoming a spokesperson for the international effort to ban the use of land mines. This work allowed her to travel internationally, giving her an opportunity to visit her family still living in and around Phnom Penh. I especially enjoyed her visits with her Chinese grandmother, who would, of course, have been very familiar with the symbol for "double happiness."

Readers can start with Lulu in the Sky, as Ung provides enough detail for them to understand her journey. Those who recoil from stories of brutal oppression may only want to read this new love story, but I recommend most readers start with First They Killed My Father to get the full story of the Cambodian genocide.

Ung, Loung. Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing, and Double Happiness. Harper Perennial, 2012. 330p. ISBN 9780062091918.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher

I think I like the idea of The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher better than I like the actual book. The problem may be my own expectations more than the author's writing. I am sure some other readers will like the book well enough, and I liked parts of it very much. I enjoyed how Mosher starts the book with a memory of listening to Yankee-Red Sox baseball games with his father and his father's best friend on a car radio in a spot on  mountain where they could get a signal. I appreciate how he told me of his cancer and then said that the disease would not be the focus of the story. I enjoyed all of the parts about his marriage, teaching school, and life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The story about moving a piano is particularly funny.

What disappointed me about The Great Northern Express were some of the chapters about his three-season driving trip around the U.S. to promote a novel at 100 bookstores. He does warn readers that he uses literary license and folds into the account incidents from previous book tours. So I knew that not everything he was going to say was literally true, but I was not expecting obviously fictional conversations with literary and personal ghosts. Perhaps fans of his fiction will like these fantasies, but I wanted to know more about his actually experiences. I would have liked to have read more about the bookstores and the real people he met.

As The Great Northern Express winds down, it gets really good again. At least, Mosher pleased me by writing about what I wanted him to write at the end.

The best part for me may be the quotes from his friend, the poet James Hayford. That's who I want to read now.

Mosher, Howard Frank. The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home. Crown Publisahers, 2012. 246p. ISBN 9780307450692.

Monday, April 23, 2012

City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Chicagoans rang in the new year with optimism in 1919. The world war was over, and the influenza epidemic had subsided. The city's industrial infrastructure was expanded, and the mayor was determined the city would develop architect Daniel Burnham's visionary plan for the lakefront and central city. If everyone worked together, the future was bright. 1919, however, proved to be a difficult year, according to Gary Krist in his new history City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago.

Tragic might be a better term than difficult. No one seems to have realized that the end of the war lessened the call for industrial production, and with soldiers returning, the labor force was expanding. During the war, thousands of blacks from the South had come to fill the labor shortage. Racial tension was bound to increase as everyone competed for jobs. Manufactures hoped to keep or reduce wages, while unions demanded raises, as did transportation workers. Chicago already had a history of labor violence. The situation was explosive, literally, as whites began bombing the homes of blacks in the late winter and spring, just as the vote came for the election of mayor.

Mayor William Hale Thompson, the key scoundrel in the story, pursued a political path that increased divisions among the many parties. His story ran in all the daily newspapers, along with headlines about the murder of a child, a terrible airship accidents, the start of Prohibition, race riots, and a transit strike. Later, members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series. Krist weaves the many plots together, focusing much of the book on the hot days of July when the riots tore through the South Side.

As a reader, I am not really sure how Chicago was changed by these events. Corruption, violence, and prejudice were at high levels before and after that year. Perhaps pessimism grew, but Chicago was becoming modern long before 1919. Nonetheless, Krist tells a great story, and I enjoyed learning about the many players in the tragedy, not all of whom were scoundrels. City of Scoundrels is a quick read for anyone interested in American history.

Krist, Gary. City of Scoundrels: The Twelve Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. Crown Publishers, 2012. ISBN 9780307454294.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town by Susan Hand Shetterly

When Susan Hand Shetterly left the city with her family to move into a cabin in rural Maine in 1971, she had some experience with nature. She had always enjoyed a walk in the woods, but she had not yet heard the many sounds of stormy nights, seen predation, or stepped into sucking mud from which there seemed no escape. She recounts her own survival and the plight of wildlife in an increasingly suburbanized coastal community in Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town.

Shetterly's notes are short, quick-to-the-point essays about the forces of nature. She tells us about the run of the alewives, the cracking of ice, the paving of an old country road, and the care of injured birds. I particularly enjoyed her tribute to a dead tree that served as home to many birds and insects. While not so spiritual as Annie Dillard, Shetterly still takes us with her into the marshes, woods, and shallow waves offshore to discover something worth preserving. 

Settled in the Wild is a book I'd like to send to friends.

Shetterly, Susan Hand. Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010. 240 p. ISBN 9781565126183.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener by Laura Simon

Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener. For 58 years, even when he was in Europe in service to his country, he kept gardening diaries. In his letters home, he always asked for detailed accounts about the gardens and the harvest of fruits and vegetables. He often commented on the varieties of plants that he found while traveling. He even smuggled seeds out of Italy.

It seems natural that author and gardener Laura Simon feels akin to Jefferson. Every winter she receives dozens of seed catalogs, and wanting to try new varieties in her large Nantucket garden, she orders from many of them. Then she turns her guest room into a greenhouse to start her seeds. Like Jefferson, she keeps annual gardening plans, ledgers and journals. Her actually writing letters to the long deceased Jefferson is not surprising.

In Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener, Simon recounts one gardening year in Nantucket. In the process, she also lovingly comments on all that she has learned from reading Jefferson and visiting Monticello. Published in 1998, it is still a delight to read. Add it to your list.

Simon, Laura. Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener. Crown Publishers, 1998. 224p. ISBN 0609600974.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Worm: The First Digital World War by Mark Bowden

I confess that I have paid little attention to the Malware Wars. It seems that attacks come at fairly regular intervals and the world never ends. I am not alone. As a society, we are pretty immune to news about viruses and worms, but we should be more concerned, according to Mark Bowden, author of Worm: The First Digital World War, which tells how an alliance of volunteers from around the world fought the Conflicker worm in 2008-2009.

Bowden begins his book with a bit of history. It seems there have been pranksters since the beginning of the Computer Age. Brilliant geeks have always found satisfaction in surprising their colleagues by pirating their monitors and sending clever messages buried in software. Then criminals discovered they could send viruses via email that could crash computers or steal personal information and account numbers from unsuspecting victims. Through the decades, the menace has grown. Now terrorists or nation-states can imbed code in millions of computers to make them slaves to their bidding. Personal computer owners might never know they are harboring and assisting malicious attacks on corporate and government websites.

The Conficker story is now out of the headlines but the battle continues. The worm still lives in millions of computers that have not loaded Windows updates properly. To date not much has really happened as the master of Conflicker seems to be biding his time. He has leased the botnet at least once to purveyors of email spam, but the potential for much greater harm, such as attacks on utilities or military command stations, still exists.

Worm is certainly an eye-opening book. I suggest readers with an interest in technology try the audiobook read by Christopher Lane.

Bowden, Mark. Worm: The First Digital World War. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 245p. ISBN 9780802119834.

Also, Brilliance Audio, 2011. 6 compact discs. ISBN 9781455825233.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Chicago Music Scene at Thomas Ford

What do musicians Sam Cooke, Corky Siegel, Jim McGuinn (later known as Roger), Ramsey Lewis, and Dean Milano have in common? They all played Chicago clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were many venues offering a variety of live music in the Chicago area. Milano, with his guitar and laptop in hand, lovingly described the time in a slide presentation as a part of our spring Elmer Kennedy History Lecture Series.

Milano, as author of Chicago Music Scene: 1960s and 1970s, has amassed a large collection of photos to accompany his fond memories. Many of the images that he included in his presentation were from his 2009 book, but he had some extras that he included while recounting the intersecting circles of folk, country, rock, blues, and jazz musicians. Showing an old musical friend on the screen, he often stopped the narrative to sing a verse and a chorus from one of that artist's songs. Most of them were instantly recognized as national hits, such as Sam Cooke's "Cupid" or the Buckingham's "Hey, Baby, They're Playing Our Song."

Milano has taken his presentation to numerous libraries and organizations around the Chicago area. We were glad to get him. I know I went home wanting to hear more music from old CDs or YouTube.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe: A Tribute to Five Decades of Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation

Jane Goodall is one of the planet's most revered scientists. Because of National Geographic coverage of her studies of chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1960s and later, and because of her global campaign for humane treatment of all animals, she is known by adults and children worldwide. Many want read about her and her continuing work. Because some biographies of Goodall are over 500 pages, requiring a commitment of many days for most readers, I am glad to find Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe. At 144 pages and filled with many color photos, it highlights Goodall's life and explains her most important work with both economy and enthusiasm. Readers are introduced to the most prominent of the chimpanzees that she studied and are given contacts for contributing to Goodall's causes. It is a good book for both libraries and fan collections.

Another good way to learn about Goodall's work is to view the DVD Jane's Journey.

Goodall, Jane with the Jane Goodall Institute. Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe: A Tribute to Five Decades of Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010. 144p. ISBN 9781584798781.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss

Geologist Clarence King was a famous man in post-Civil War America. He led the 50th Parallel Survey, helped establish the U. S. Geological Survey and was its first head, and penned the bestselling book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. His close friends included historian Henry Adams and Abraham Lincoln's former secretary John Hay. He toured Europe, started an art collection, and belonged to prestigious clubs. But, according to author Martha A. Sandweiss in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, King never really liked being a part of high society. He escaped to far flung places whenever he could and when he could not, he slipped away from his high class hotel and enjoyed the company he found in poor ethnic neighborhoods. He even pretended to be a mulatto Pullman porter named James Todd and married a former slave named Ada Copeland.

Passing Strange is a dual biography of Clarence and Ada that investigates their secret relationship. With a rich dose of 19th century history to give her story context, the author recounts how Clarence led a double life by being a person who was often "away," keeping a distance from people in both of his worlds. For at least thirteen years and until his death, he succeeded in keeping his secret, but at a tremendous cost to his career and fortune.

Instead of stopping at King's death, as many biographers have before, Sandweiss follows the lives of Ada and the children that she bore for King, showing the successes and failures of his idealistic plans. A subsequent court case for King's estate heard thirty years after his death reveals much about the state of racial relations at the time. Read by Lorna Raver, it is a great audiobook for listeners wanting a mesmerizing epic. Those who enjoy Passing Strange may also like The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Sandweiss, Martha A. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Penguin, 2009. 370p. ISBN 9781594202001.

Tantor Media. 12 compact discs. 14.5 hours. ISBN 9781400141517.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Children can be thoughtlessly cruel just to have what they think is a little fun. We probably all remember incidents from our school days when popular girls or boys teased individuals who were not fashionable or were in some other way different. Others went along with the teasing. Such is the case in the children's classic The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. Peggy and Maddie notice that shy Wanda wears the same blue dress to school every day. When confronted by Peggy, Wanda claims that at home she has a hundred dresses and describes them. As Peggy asks Wanda each day about the dresses, Maddie feels increasing guilt but never says anything to stop Peggy. Then Wanda quits coming to school. Maddie wonders if they have driven the girl away.

There is a fine line between teasing and bullying, and bullying is a hot topic in education and parenting circles these days. Every few weeks there seems to be a story about a teen who commits suicide to escape relentless bullying. Prevention efforts need to start at an elementary level, which is why books like The Hundred Dresses are important. The book seems a bit old-fashioned and the story develops slowly, but I believe it could still be effectively used with some elementary students. National Public Radio agrees and chose the old book for its Backseat Book Club for young readers and their parents. NPR paired it with Shooting Kabul by N. H. Senzai in February. Click here to learn more about the club.

Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1944.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift

We use interstate highways to cross the United States all the time but rarely marvel at them as we should, according to Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Usually we just buckle up and guide our cars across the plains and through the mountains with little worry, not recognizing the largest and most expensive public works project in history. If we have any historical sense at all, we thank President Dwight Eisenhower for letting us bypass curving rural roads and small towns that would slow us. Eisenhower did have a role, the author admits, but he is given much more credit than he is due. Swift argues that driving clubs and engineers had been designing national roads for four or five decades before the former general was president, and President Franklin Roosevelt had extensive federal plans drawn early in his administration. Eisenhower just came along at the right time to secure the funding for a system that he did not actually understand.

There are other myths that Swift dispels. One is that the interstate highways are designed to allow military aircraft to land almost anywhere in the country. Military concerns were considered in early designs, but civil engineers quickly realized that there would be no way to clear the roads of traffic before plane landings. Another myth is that the system's primary aim is to get military forces and supplies across country. This myth helped secure the support of some legislators, but the designers really had travel and commerce in mind when plotting routes.

Back to Eisenhower. He believed that the interstates would be strictly rural, coming close to but not actually entering cities. That had been the original idea when they were first conceived as no one wanted to rip cities apart to insert multilane highways. But as more people bought cars, the cities became gridlocked, and drivers and car manufacturers began demanding expressways. Accommodating this demand increased the costs tremendously and led to urban clashes as poor neighborhoods were often chosen for the highways. Swift highlights the difficult history of Baltimore.

In telling this history, Swift profiles many of the people involved, including engineers, politicians, and community organizers, and recounts the history of companies, such as Howard Johnson Inns, Stuckey's Pecan Shoppes, and Holiday Inn. He also bring readers up to date with the state of the highway system and its desperate need for repairs. His discussion is lively and I learned much about why we now have a mixture of free and toll roads. I am glad that I heard the author on National Public Radio's Science Friday and checked out his book.

Swift, Earl. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 375p. ISBN 9780618812417.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

On the back cover of the audiobook case for Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, Kirkus Reviews is quoted “Move over Alexander McCall-Smith. Ghana has joined Botswana on the map of mystery.” This seems to me an unintentionally misleading statement because the only common factor between mysteries of McCall Smith and Quartey is the African setting. They are otherwise very different. McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books are gentle and filled with humor, while Quartey’s Inspector Darko Dawson Series mysteries are violent and serious. Inspector Dawson, who loves his marijuana, violates police protocol frequently, and beats a couple of suspects after charging other cops with brutality. Mma Ramotswe would never act like Dawson.

Now that you are forewarned about the differences, I suggest that you try listening to Wife of the Gods if you enjoy flawed cops like Kurt Wallander or like learning about foreign cultures while trying to solve a mystery. The author Quartey evokes a tropical Ghana filled with superstition and bad cops. The plot also has a good supply of twists that will be a challenge to foresee. It will be interesting to see how Inspector Dawson develops in subsequent titles.

Quartey, Kwei. Wife of the Gods. Tantor Audio, 2010. 8 compact discs. ISBN 9781400113415.