Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Blurbed by Chris, Bridgewater Library

What if Hogwarts existed, but rather than an eager young English orphan, the accepted student was a Brooklyn-born high school senior and angsty slacker? And similarly, what if one could reach Narnia, but Aslan had been gone for centuries? And what if magic was real and could be performed by anyone, but required incredible amounts of discipline, training, and finger contortions, and it was more fun to get drunk and have sex?

This is the premise of "The Magicians". Overeducated and underambitious Quentin is accepted into the prestigious Brakebills College of Magic, where he discovers that magic is real, hard, and has consequences that were never written in his favorite books.

Fans of the "British boarding school" type of magic school novels will likely be disappointed; Quentin rushes through five years of school with little detail given to the actual instruction, focusing on Q's interaction with a small clique of fellow students; indeed, halfway through the book, he graduates and moves back to New York to live the life of a twentysomething with unlimited power.

Those lured in by the otherwise apropos comparisons to Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia may also be surprised -- this is not a kids book. There's blood, sex, death, drinking, drugs, debauchery, jealousy, and those niggling, petty human things.

Despite all that, the book will likely keep you hooked until the end (provided you can sympathise (like i do) with an angsty loser).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Science and Nature Writing

Some of the librarians at the Bridgewater Library decided to read some great non-fiction this month that fell into the category of science and nature writing. Maybe you'll find something in this list that will interest you too.

Against Medical Advice: A True Story by James Patterson and Hal Friedman
Blurbed by Jane

This book, written in James Patterson’s very readable, page-turner style, tells the true story of Cory Friedman, his medical problems, and his family’s long struggle to help their son.

Until he was five years old, Cory was a seemingly normal little boy, but then one morning he woke up with uncontrollable urges to twitch so hard that he often injured himself, as well as tics and involuntary utterances. He was eventually diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD. He and his family went from specialist to specialist, and he received many different drugs with various side effects. Throughout this long ordeal, Cory and his parents never gave up hope and the family’s bond remained strong.

Also of note, there is an Appendix to the book that contains excerpts from Cory's medical records including side effects and a list of the medications prescribed over a 13-year period. This information could be useful to someone reading the book for help with a similar condition rather than just as an amazing story.

Unable to shake the injury bug when running modest distances, the author travels to the Copper Canyons of Mexico to learn the distance running secrets of the legendary Tarahumara Indians, who can casually run multi-marathons without suffering the ailments common to modern distance runners. Information seeking turns into full blown participation when the author encounters the mysterious Caballo Blanco, a counter-culture American who dropped everything to live among and run like the Tarahumara, as the expatriate enlists the author's help to bring America's best ultra marathoners down to Mexico to challange the Tarahumara on their home turf. Weaved into this main narrative are the author's scientific explorations of human endurance running, including the pre-modern lifestyle of the Tarahumara that leaves them devoid of the illnesses that run rampant in our society, why they became the world's greatest endurance runners, how their running ways defies conventional medicine's thoughts on running and injury, as well as anthropological theories on how endurance running played a key role in human evolution.

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex by Olivia Judson
Blurbed by Carolyn

Another cleverly titled book that attempts to make science, this time biology, more appealing to the non-scientist. Using an advice column format, Judson as her alter ego Dr. Tatiana educates her readers on the sex lives of insects and animals. For readers who want their science with a little bit of a twist.

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
Blurbed by Morris

If you think evolution is just a "theory" and that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old (it's actually closer to 4.54 billion years old) then Richard Dawkins thinks you're a fool. To Dawkins, evolution is a scientific fact. It's as much of a fact as the earth revolving around the sun. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins spends 400 pages surveying the vast amount of scientific evidence that exists in support of evolution from dog breeding to mollusk fossils to biotic pollination to primate skulls and beyond. The evidence is all around us and it is overwhelming. Every living organism on Earth has evolved in some shape or form over time, be it hundreds or thousands or millions of years. All you have to do is open your eyes and your mind and you will see it.

Richard Dawkins is passionate about evolution. He is an unabashed atheist and vehement opponent of creationism and intelligent design. This comes through loud and clear throughout The Greatest Show on Earth. He compares creationists to “history-deniers” and refers to them as “ignorant” a number of times. This will probably not win Dawkins many new fans. Regardless of his personal feelings, Dawkins does an admirable job of presenting the evidence for evolution in a clear and interesting manner. There’s a lot of information to digest and the details can get quite technical at times, but the general argument is easy to follow and the examples given to support it are numerous and fascinating. This is an incredibly interesting and educational book. It’s the kind of book that any open-minded, well-educated person should read. Even if you have a good grasp of evolution, I guarantee you will learn something new by reading this book. If anything it will help to clear up many of the misconceptions and much of the misinformation that creationists spread about evolution and is so unfortunately pervasive, especially in our country.

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog by Chad Orzel
Blurbed by Carolyn

Through a series of conversations with his dog Emmy, Orzel explains the central elements of quantum theory. Well I must be dumber than a dawg because even though Orzel uses cute examples (dog chasing squirrels, bunnies made of cheese) I still could not understand the principles of quantum physics. For readers who already have an interest in physics.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Blurbed by Kay

This book exposing the deadly effects of unregulated use of pesticides and herbicides throughout the US was written in 1962. The author writes with passion and authority on the destruction of our environment by haphazard use of chemicals. It was a ground–breaking work in 1962 and a much-needed warning to our government and to environmentalists.

The book was easy to listen to on audiobook as well as easy reading. Carson is a great naturalist and fine writer who proved her point that man was slowly poisoning the environment by the use of chemical spraying polluting our air, land and water. In her book she had a 53 page list of principal sources. The book contained hundreds of human interest stories relating chemical mishaps and deaths by poisonous pesticides.

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Blurbed by Yvonne

This is a light-hearted look into what it is like to be dead. The whole book depicts the journey a body takes after death. The author describes the many productive uses to which cadavers have been put, from medical experimentation to applications in transportation safety research (crash test dummies are all well and good, but sometimes you need to use the real thing) to work by forensic scientists quantifying rates of decay under a wide array of bizarre circumstances. There are chapters on the various ways a body is put to rest: burial, cremation, etc. I was fascinated to learn that various parts can go various ways when you donate your body to science. Limbs can go for one type of research while your head could go to a seminar for plastic surgeons learning new techniques for face lifts.

Roach has written two other books Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Blurbed by Chris

Zoellner talks about the nearly parabolic curve that describes the rise of uranium as one of the world's most useful resources. The rock was first known as simply a nuisance (known as "pechblende" ("bad-luck rock") to the Bohemians). In the 1700s, it was renamed "uranium", after the newly discovered planet, and was used as an additive in glass. But after some experiments in the 1900s, scientists discovered its hidden power, its instability, and the deadly secrets of radiation, culminating in the deaths of millions in 1945. A useless mine in South Africa became one of the most strategically important sites in the 1940s. The power, it was discovered, could be used for peaceful purposes -- a nearly unlimited supply of energy, far less poisonous than coal or oil. But the specter of its deadliness overshadowed its usefulness, and a combination of political forces wishing to keep the power limited to certain people and the public fears after the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl caused a decline in its popularity. This trend is starting to reverse in recent years, as the demand for electricity fights with the fears of pollution.

Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones by Sue Hubbell
Blurbed by Yvonne

Having a tarantula as a pet, I have a fondness towards squishy, creepy, crawly creatures. I can spend long periods of time watching a caterpillar make its way across a leaf or watch a spider spin her web. Yet Hubbell takes her love of those without backbones, the invertebrates, to a whole new level. She is a science writer that decides to get her questions about these creatures answered. While the answers she receives are amazing, it's the questions that can not be answered (like how many beetles and spider species are there?) that are mind-boggling.

After listening to this book I now have a greater appreciation of bees, millipedes (which I used to loathe) and sea cucumbers. There are also a few interesting tidbits I can add to my store of trivia: pillbugs are not bugs, they are related to lobsters; and those gorgeous webs that are oft photographed highlighted with dew are from the lesser web makers, it's the dense cobwebby ones that are a sign of a more evolved, and more successful, spider.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Not My Daughter
Barbara Delinsky

At the core of this book are three teenaged girls. All are bright, have stable home lives, and are genuinely happy individuals. Why then, do they decide to make a pregnancy pact at age seventeen? Their reasoning for getting pregnant and the consequences of their actions, not only for themselves, but their families and those around them is explored in depth by the author.

Delinsky has the thought processes and reasoning of teenagers perfect. For example, one of the pregnant girls can't understand why the town is upset with her mother for a decision she made with her friends. Her mother is the principal of the local high school; a woman who herself had a child at seventeen, and fought hard for a clinic within the school where kids could get advice and free condoms. As adults we ask ourselves, how could this teen NOT see how these circumstances would affect her mother? Not My Daughter is a thought provoking and discussion worthy book.
Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger will always be known for The Time-Traveler's Wife, but I think she should be better known for this gem of a story. Twins, Valentina and Julia, inherit all of their aunt's possessions, including her flat in London, even though they know nothing about their aunt aside from the fact that she was their mother's twin. Valentina and Julia still live with their parent's in America and they will need to cut themselves off completely from their parents. You see, when their aunt drew up her will she added the stipulation that her twin sister, a women she hasn't seen in twenty years, never set foot in her flat.

This story has everything, old graveyards, family secrets, strange neighbors and even a ghost. The ending is one that will stay with you long after you close the covers of this novel.
Douglas Preston

Three storylines come together in a race against the clock. A college dropout in Maine catches the path of a meteoroid streaking through the sky and sets off to find the rock and make a lot of money. Wyman Ford, a former intelligence officer (and a major character in Preston's Blasphemy), is back trying to find the source of honeys – radioactive gemstones that can cause horrific disease in their wearers as well as be used in the creation of dirty bombs. And finally, a scientist at the National Propulsion Facility is finding some strange gamma ray data coming from Mars...

Preston takes the global catastrophe by meteoroid storyline and twists it in amazingly creative ways. If you like your action mixed with science, this one is for you.
Labor Day
Joyce Maynard

Henry is a typical young boy dealing with the onslaught of puberty. His home life is not typical. His mom and dad divorced and since that time his mom just hasn't been like the other moms. It's gotten so they eat soup and fish sticks night after night because his mom can't face leaving the house. He only sees his dad on vacations with his "new" family and at the weekly dinners out at Friendly's. Until Labor Day weekend comes around. Henry begs his mother to take him to Pricemart for school clothes and they come home with Frank, an escaped convict who half-heartedly takes them hostage. Frank is everything Henry ever wanted; he teaches him how to play baseball better, fixes things around the house, and best yet, he takes care of Henry's mom so he doesn't have to.

Henry is overjoyed to have someone take over taking care of his mom, but he's worried about losing his place in her heart as well. If you enjoyed Atonement you will really like this book.