Thursday, August 30, 2012

Be a Nerd, or Just Read Like One

Okay, that may be a bit harsh. I love to read books about information science and books about behavioral economics. The most fun comes in finding the intersection of these two fields of study. I just finished reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is the Nobel Prize-winning Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. That being said, do not expect this to be an easy, breezy light read. Although Kahneman uses personal storytelling and descriptions of interesting experiments designed to demonstrate how people actually make decisions, the content is still pretty deep.

 Kahneman’s hypothesis is that the mind wants to conserve energy and look for short-cuts for decision making. In other words, people’s thinking often jumps to the obvious solution rather than the more sensible or valid solution to life’s problems. He illustrates this with various scenarios in which he gives subjects the opportunity to make a well-informed choice, but they chose to make the apparently obvious choice, one that is typically influenced by the way the information was presented or by how the question was posed.

His point is that we all do it. His conclusions become a cautionary tale about fully engaging our minds as we make decisions. There is much to be learned from this book.

If you enjoy books about behavioral economics, you might also be interested in books by Dan Ariely. His books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality also provide accessible insights into our often lazy psyches. And, if you want to read the ultimate book on information science, it just might be The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. Start reading titles like these and you too may join the cult of the Library Nerd.
Review by Pat

Monday, August 27, 2012

Animal (stories) make us human

Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Bergman is married to a veterinarian, which may be why so many of the stories in her debut collection are about animal caretakers and their significant others (whether two- or four-legged). Her short stories bring Lydia Millet's novels to mind, though Bergman is more grounded and less prone to poetic flights of fancy. If her characters some times seem damaged or ever-so-slightly eccentric, it is only because that's how people really are.

A constant theme in her stories is our animal essence and the fundamental kinship of humans and animals. "Animal" here does not imply savage so much as "of flesh and bone." Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but every living thing knows love. More's the pity.

In the title story, a rueful single mother and her young son drive hundreds of miles to a roadside animal show where she hopes to find her late mother's African gray parrot and hear it mimic the dead woman's voice. Other stories hinge on a failure of imagination or of sympathy, as in "The Cow Who Milked Herself." The title character there is a pregnant woman whose husband  unthinkingly points out how the breast pump she unwraps at a baby shower works exactly like a milking machine for cows. He's a boor, sure, but his boorishness is born not of malice but of a typically male kind of blinkered, professional enthusiasm. The reader sees this when he proudly uses his veterinary sonogram equipment on his wife to reveal the child growing within her.

Many of Bergman's stories are driven by competing loves and conflicting loyalties, as when an animal shelter worker is forced to choose between an incredibly indulgent boyfriend and a houseful of unruly strays in "The Right Company." The same conflict plays out more dramatically in the final story, "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock." There, a young mother living in the wilds of Maine with a newborn child and a ne'er-do-well husband is tormented by her inability to provide for their baby, much less afford life-saving surgery for their hapless, sock-eating dog. The dog's agony—by contrast—is purely physical, and he remains selflessly loyal to the very end.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Historical Whodunit

Behold a Pale Horse
A Mystery of Ancient Ireland
By Peter Tremayne

Historical mysteries may seem like a non-starter. After all, these days we have such an abundance of crime-based TV shows featuring technological gadgets that you may wonder how many surprises a nun from ancient Ireland could possibly provide.

The answer, fortunately, is plenty. In the very first scene Sister Fidelma proves she can handle herself when attacked by a man wielding a cudgel. She's far from helpless, and her persistent curiosity drives the story here. The year is 664, and Fidelma is returning from a visit to Rome. While in the city of Genua waiting for a ship back to her homeland she rescues a monk from two thugs following him down a dark alley. The grateful man tells her he lives at an Abbey where Brother Ruadán, an old teacher of hers, now resides. Because her old teacher is in very bad health, Fidelma decides she must visit the Abbey to see him one last time. When she arrives, she discovers a scene of unease and tension. Brother Ruadán warns her that all is not right concerning the death of a young shepherd who lived on the nearby mountain. Before Fidelma can learn more her teacher is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Though surrounded by people claiming to be friendly, she has too many questions to feel comfortable. Who can she trust? How can she stop the murders starting to pile up? And why is everyone so tense in this little valley?

A complex mystery that starts small but grows quickly into something more, this book examines a landscape in the midst of roiling political change during a time when questions of religion were sometimes decided in battle. Fortunately, Fidelma is there to save the day.

The Killing Way
By Tony Hays

If you prefer something a little more Arthurian, this may be the book for you. The setting is ancient England in the time of Arthur. But Arthur isn't the king yet, Guinevere lives down the lane, and Merlin isn't particularly magical. The book goes for gritty and realistic, using characters we know from legend, or at least from Disney's The Sword in the Stone. Throw in a murder and a one-armed sleuth and you've got a British mystery with more Saxons than Miss Marple ever ran into.

This is just the beginning to a series that has received excellent reviews. Click here to see other books by Tony Hays. Or click the titles or covers of the books above to request them.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Meaning to Life After Death

The Undead
How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death
by Dick Teresi

Dick Teresi is going to die. He'll be the first to tell you. But when the time comes, how will the doctors know that he's gone? That's the question at the heart of this book. Teresi dives head-first into the science of determining when a person is officially dead, and he doesn't like what he finds.

Near the beginning he claims, with upraised palms and wide-eyed innocence, that he is "merely a journalist reporting facts." But it quickly becomes apparent that if there is a pot, Teresi will be stirring it. He's a cantankerous tour guide through the medical establishment, and even if you don't like what he's got to say you're in for a wild ride.

His focus through much of the book is on organ donation, and the methods by which those organs are procured. He is suspicious of doctors who seem to rank the lives of some patients over the lives of others. He particularly warns that you should not die in Washington D.C. where the laws allow procedures "strangely similar to practices during the era of the European anatomy theaters." This is because if you're a visitor with no family nearby you may be volunteered for organ donation, the same way visitors in town were offered up for public autopsies in the eighteenth century.

He also discusses near death experiences, communication with people in persistent vegetable states, and how Ambien can occasionally wake people from comas.

Be prepared to take it all with a large grain of salt, but this is a sensational look at a subject that many of us would like to ignore.

Review by Danny Hanbery

Friday, August 17, 2012

Away Team

A Review of John Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS
by Steve Thomas 

In Star Trek parlance, “redshirt” was the term for a character whom the audience had never seen who went on dangerous missions with Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, et al and usually ended up dead (and almost as often, wore a red shirt). Killing off a character with little depth provided cheap drama, a quick and dirty way to convey the danger inherent in a situation without endangering the main cast. It’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of a swashbuckling hero like Captain Kirk but what about the poor doomed ensign whose only purpose in life is to die melodramatically?

John Scalzi’s Redshirts tells the story of those unfortunate souls on a spaceship very much like the USS Enterprise and the strange secrets they uncover as they search for a way to avoid their fatal fates, but it’s also much more. The first 100 pages are fun in a light, action-packed way, but once the big twist is revealed, the story takes a sharp turn and whisks the reader through at warp speed to the end. Science fiction comedy is hard to do but Scalzi pulls it off with aplomb. The book is entertaining throughout but gains its real heart with the three codas which examine three of the characters with fascinating depth and emotion.

Part Star Trek parody and part metatextual analysis of the nature of reality itself, Redshirts defies expectations from beginning to end, leading to a novel that feels familiar yet completely new and leaving the reader with a smile on his face and a tear streaming down his cheek. Request it here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Heading Out to Wonderful

Goolrick is back with a vengeance with his new book. Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of Charlie Beale, newly arrived in Brownsburg, VA. Charlie seems to be searching for something, and decides that Brownsburg has it. He becomes a member of the small community and forms a close relationship with his employer Will and his son Sam. He reveals little about his past, and is content with his life. Until he sees HER. Her name is Sylvan, the bride of the wealthiest man in town. Having been purchased to be his bride, her life is not her own. Sylvan is in love with the glamour of Hollywood, not her husband. She does not involve herself with the town, and the community shows their disdain for her in small ways, careful not to anger her husband, since his money keeps the town running.

Charlie is infatuated with Sylvan, and they begin a clandestine relationship. Only Sam, an observant 5 year old who hero worships Charlie knows their secret. But secrets in a small town do not stay secrets for long. Charlie's obsession with Sylvan tests all relationships around him and shakes up the small community forever.  

This beautifully written story explores relationships between family, friends, and lovers. Each word is chosen carefully to either conceal or reveal. If you enjoyed Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, you will want to read his newest offering. Request it here

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Urban Fantasy Debut

by Leah Bobet 
Review by:  Kathleen Richardson 

I grabbed Above by Leah Bobet from the new book cart and quickly put it on my hold list because, for one thing, I did love the cover. Ariel and her butterfly wings are featured in a classy yet glamorous shot and the book jacket plays up the romance between two of the major characters, Ariel and Matthew. 

In Above, the inhabitants of the world called Safe live below the city. Above is the story of what happened when they had to come above, after an emergency within their conclave of unusual people. There was murder and mayhem. and that drove them to the home of Dr. Marybeth, a psychiatric nurse who offers them sanctuary. "Sanctuary" is a term used throughout the book about the choices that determine who is welcome above and who is welcome to continue living in Safe. Ariel gets stressed out often and she runs away to the world the rest of the inhabitants have intentionally fled from. Ariel is almost kicked out of Safe for her forays above to the city streets. In one, night shadows come to Safe and it is thought that they followed Ariel back home. That is part of the ongoing conflict between Ari and Matthew. Above is a good book, you just have to be prepared to hear in graphic detail how the mental health system has failed people in a hospital setting and about the abuse they have undergone or in some cases simply believe that they have suffered.  

I think I picked up the book and thought it would be like watching an episode of the old Beauty and the Beast television series which makes the whole notion of living apart from the rest of society seem very special, very romantic, even though it is fraught with danger. Above does not romanticize the ordeal of a life apart; it shows the grim and gritty side and of course that's why it is labeled an "urban fantasy." There is a relationship between Ariel and Matthew but it is fragile and full of difficulties that will not get better with time, and the characters are aware of that. Ariel has been abused at home and then at the hands of a boyfriend she chose not to leave. We are not assured of a happy ending to any of the situations in the book, in fact the opposite.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Problem with Positivity

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation
by James Howard Kunstler

Looking for a book that will keep you up late, give you nightmares and leave you feeling like you've just come from the doctor with really, really bad news? You were with me till that last part, weren't you? Well, that's exactly why you should read Too Much Magic, says author James Howard Kunstler.

Barbara Ehrenreich covered similar territory in Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, but Kunstler's warning is even more urgent. Too Much Magic continues the exploration of "the converging catastrophes of the 21st century" that he began in The Long Emergency. To the intertwined and mutually amplifying problems detailed in that book (climate change, "population overshoot," resource depletion, urban decay/suburban sprawl), Kunstler now adds economic collapse and deepening political paralysis. And no techno-wizardry is going to save us this time. If this sounds like grim reading, be assured it is. But it's also wickedly funny. Kunstler's barbs sting, but his jabs are well aimed and anything but gratuitous.

"Times are hard," Kunstler writes, "and look like they will get a whole lot harder soon." Especially out here on the fringe of car-loving Atlanta, which he declares will be spectacularly unlivable in the "post-oil" era. Reading Too Much Magic is like contemplating your own death; you know it is going to happen, but does it have be so soon? And soon it will be, says Kunstler. He warns that something like the gas crises of the 1970s could become a way of life within a decade. After that, natural gas lines will start to sputter and—barring a miracle—the electrical grid will begin unraveling as gas-fired generators fail. What happens next is anyone's guess, though the survivors may well regard their Amish neighbors with envy.

Because "there is no solution for the insoluble," Kunstler offers no solutions for the crises we will face in the Long Emergency. His only advice: be ready. He has published two novels about what life in post-oil America might look like: The World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. I haven't read them yet and can't tell you whether they're any good (though Goodreads rates them highly), but one thing is certain: they will still be readable long after the lights flicker out and the last e-reader has gone dark for good.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Is it History, Mystery, or Conspiracy?

Sometimes it just takes a little time for the truth behind a good urban legend or cultural myth to come out. But can we ever really be sure that there's not a Bigfoot roaming the woods or that there isn't some bizarrre portal floating around the Bermuda Triangle? Today we're looking at a couple of books from folks who think they've figured out the real events behind some historical mysteries that have spawned countless books and movies.

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen

When you think of Area 51, what do you think of first? If the answer is aliens, then you may be disappointed that there are very few aliens in this book. Instead we have the history of a top secret base that features in tales of espionage, supersonic spy planes, nuclear bombs, and other sorts of Cold War intrigue. But if you're interested in flying saucers and little men with great big eyes, don't fret. There's some information on UFOs here too. Unfortunately, the conspiracy in this theory is probably not the conspiracy you were expecting. The author gathered together much of the public information about Area 51, talking to some of the people who claim to be in the know and using Freedom of Information requests to glean what she could from government records. I didn't expect to be thrilled with the subject matter, and in truth it can be a little dry at times, but all the talk of supersonic speed and dangerous missions kept it interesting. (Fun fact: Did you know that if you go high enough in the atmosphere you might run into a lot of black specks? Those specks are insects orbiting the Earth after being blown sky-high during tests of nuclear bombs.)

The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed by Gavin Menzies

There are lots of theories about the island called Atlantis, and every once in a while someone finds something on the bottom of the ocean that they claim might be the lost civilization. Therefore, the interesting part of this book isn't the theory that the ancient Minoans from the islands of Crete and Santorini were the source of the culture known as Atlantis. It's that Menzies believes these Minoans were early world travelers, creating a global economy long before people were thought to sail across the ocean. 3,000 years before, in fact. The most surprising claim is that Minoans traveled to the Great Lakes region of North America to mine copper, sailing up and down the mighty Mississippi to do it. Menzies travels the world, from the markets of Beirut to dried up ports in Egypt, searching for clues. He finds artifacts all over the planet that he believes come from the ancient Minoans. He also argues that the Minoans created stone circles, such as Stonehenge and other similar creations around the world. If he's right, then we should be re-writing history books. The book comes with plenty of photographic evidence so you can come to your own conclusions.

Review by Danny Hanbery