Archive for the ‘Dwight’s Picks’ Category

Latin for Bird Lovers00_Birdwatching has been a passion of mine for many years, and I have been fortunate to see some amazing birds in exotic locations that include South Africa and Tanzania. I saw this book on the library’s new book shelf, and I was immediately interested. Very few popular birding books are based on the scientific names of birds, which are usually in Latin. Most guides are based on common names and classes of birds, with the scientific name coming after the common name and listed in smaller print. I was intrigued by this approach, which uses the binomial system of genus and species, which scientists use to classify and study birds. These scientific names can be based on several things, including the features of the bird, places where they are found, and even the names of people. The authors hope that this approach will deepen your understanding of birds and make your birdwatching more fascinating.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, though I have a few quibbles with the actual listing of names which makes up the bulk of the book. The listing is actually a compilation of both genus and species names. But you only get one of the names, so if you have a specific bird you are looking up, you have to look up both names to get a full understanding of the scientific name of the bird. I also think an index of common names of birds matched to their scientific names would have been helpful. Without it, those of us who are Latin-deficient either have to browse through the list (which can be fun, but…) or we can grab a bird guide like Birds of North America by Ken Kaufman, find the Latin name of common birds we like, and then use this guide to find their scientific meaning in English. I like woodpeckers, so I did a search for some common woodpeckers I see around my bird feeder. The red-bellied woodpecker is Melanerpes carolinus, a black creeper from the Carolinas, whereas the Northern Flicker is Colaptes auratus, a golden chiseler. I could not find the complete scientific names for the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) or the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but I did find that picoides means “likeness of a woodpecker” and pileatus means “capped,” so you get at least a partial understanding of their names. And any new knowledge of the birds you love to see is a good thing.

This book is packed with special features, including profiles of 20 genera of birds, including my favorite, Melanerpes, the largest genus of woodpeckers (with 22 species); Corvus, the genus of about 40 species of crows or ravens (known as the smartest birds in the world, they can make tools, play games and find hidden objects); and the beautiful but odd Phoenicopterus, which is made up of 6 species of flamingo. There are also 8 different bird themes covered in this book, including bird beaks, the color of birds, and feathers and the important role that they play in the life of birds. There are also brief biographies of 11 famous birders, including the well-known John Gould and the birder with the famous name, James Bond, whose book, Birds of the West Indies, was read by Ian Fleming, who decided to use his name for the hero of his novels.

I highly recommend this book for people who are interested in knowing more about birds. And, if you like this book, you should definitely check out some of the other excellent birding books in the WRL collection, some of which I have reviewed for Blogging For a Good Book, including Angry Birds: 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, & Furious by Mel White, Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds, by Hugh Wiberg, and Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask by Mike O’Connor.

Check the WRL catalog for Latin for Bird Lovers.

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frankenstein's catEmily Anthes is a journalist who has written for many science journals including Wired, Discover, and Scientific American and also has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.  In this book, she explores the many ways in which animals are involved with the latest advances in biotechnology. She has a breezy, easy-to-understand writing style, and I was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge and research (includes over 40 pages of footnotes).  I enjoyed reading about the specific contributions to this science that many animals like Jonathan Sealwart, an elephant seal, and Artemis the goat are making, and her visits to some of them were often quite humorous.

The production of genetically altered (transgenic) animals is perhaps the most controversial use of biotech. I was very interested in learning how some pretty-colored tropical fish won over a skeptical public in the U.S. to become the first and only transgenic animals sold in this country. These fish are called GloFish and they are derived from 2 types of tropical fish that are commonly sold in the US, zebra fish and white skirt tetras. What makes them unique is that they have an added dose of DNA from sea anemone or sea coral that make them glow in red, green and purple colors.  I have enjoyed the aquarium hobby for years, and if GloFish can bring new people in to the hobby (like the author) all the better.  I have also had my eye on one of the purple tetra GloFish and would like to add it to one of my aquariums. I just hope my 4 large angelfish don’t think he is a brightly colored dinner treat.

A much more promising use of these new animals is in “pharming,” where their DNA is manipulated so that their bodies can create medicinal properties. Transgenic goats can produce milk with elevated levels of lysozyme, which has been found to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, a deadly disease that kills over 2 million children every year. These goats have also been used to produce antithrombin, an anticoagulant that can successfully treat life threatening blood clots. It is unfortunate that none of these pharming techniques have been approved in the United States, though other countries like Brazil are taking the lead in this type of biotech.

I appreciated the author’s thorough review of the many ethical considerations in the use of transgenic animals and other types of biotech. She discounts the “Are we playing God” notion with these new animals by arguing that we have already tried to play God for thousands of years by manipulating the various types of animals through selective breeding.  The results have not always been good, as is the case with canis lupus familiaris, the common dog, where we’ve created hundreds of unique breeds of dogs, many of which are saddled with crippling genetic diseases and conditions.

One of the most important factors to consider is how the biotech affects the livelihood of the animals  involved. Bernard Rollin, a philosopher at Colorado State University considers their fate with his “conservation of welfare” ethic: “If you’re going to modify a line of animals, the resultant animals should be no worse off from a welfare point of view – and preferably better.” The author thinks that most pharming animals would be able to pass this test, since studies show that genetic alteration does little to curtail their longevity and overall health. But she gives numerous examples of transgenic animals that would fail this test, including transgenic mice produced in Chinese labs with thousands of different kinds of deformities caused by messing with one strand of their DNA.

If you read the book you will learn of other unique ways biotech is being used in the world of animals. You will learn why cats are far superior to dogs in the process of cloning. You will learn about a group of volunteers who helped design a prosthetic tail for a baby bottlenose dolphin after it got trapped and nearly died in a crab trap. And finally you will want to learn how a poor, lonely elephant seal got a name and got hundreds of friends on Facebook all through a sophisticated process of wildlife tracking.

Check the WRL catalog for Frankenstein’s Cat

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ellery1I am always on the lookout for good television shows to watch with my family. A few months ago, I decided to give this Ellery Queen Mysteries series a try, and boy am I glad I did. This rare gem of a mystery show is based upon the Ellery Queen mystery stories written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. It has everything you could want in a great TV series: great acting, a good plot formula, interesting stories, superb sets, and of course, a fun musical theme by Elmer Bernstein that you will find yourself humming for days after watching the show.

The cast of actors is excellent. Jim Hutton is great as the eccentric mystery writer Ellery Queen, who is brought in to solve difficult murder cases by his father, Inspector Richard Queen, played very well here by David Wayne. I liked the interplay between Ellery Queen and his father as they try to solve the cases together. Part of the fun was also watching Inspector Queen put up with his son’s eccentricities as they share an apartment together in New York City. I also liked Sergeant Thomas Velie  (Tom Reese), the Inspector’s right hand man, who will often assist Ellery Queen. This show has a long list of supporting actors that reads like a who’s who of famous actors in the 1970s, including Betty White, George Burns, Bob Crane, Larry Hagman, and another favorite of mine, Rene Auberjonois.

Ellery and his father are routinely hounded and challenged by two of my favorite characters, a pushy news reporter by the name of Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) and an amateur radio sleuth, Simon Brimmer (John Hillerman). Hillerman was my favorite actor on the show; his role as the the stuffy Brimmer, who always tries to one-up Ellery Queen by being the first person to solve the mystery on his radio show, was wonderful and brought to my mind the role he is most famous for, as the British snob Higgins in Magnum, P.I.

Set in New York City in the late 1940s, this show follows the same fun formula that made those stories so popular. Viewers are made aware that a murder is soon to be committed and they are introduced to the soon-to-be victim and the cast of possible suspects, who all have good reason for sending the victim to his or her untimely death. Once the person has been done in, Ellery Queen is brought in to help solve the murder by his long-suffering father and NYPD police Inspector, Richard Queen. Ellery finds clues that others usually miss, and right before solving the mystery, he will turn and look at the TV camera and remind viewers of the essential facts of the case, and then will challenge them to solve the crime. My favorite episode that you don’t want to miss is “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader” with guest star Tom Bosley. Ellery becomes a suspect in the murder of a comic book publisher when he goes to protest the use of his stories in comic book form. Every episode has an opening narration, and the one for this episode is classic:

In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!

The show was written and produced by Richard Levinson and William Link, who emphasized non-violent shows that depended on logic and deductive reasoning rather than weapons to solve a crime. They are best known for shows like Mannix, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote. And speaking of Murder, She Wrote, there are many similarities between it and Ellery Queen Mysteries worth noting. Both have great stories and acting (Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher is a real treat) and both feature a protagonist that is a mystery author. There is even an episode of season 9 of Murder, She Wrote (“The Dead File”) where Jessica finds herself ensnared in a comic murder mystery that rivals the fun of the Ellery Queen “Comic Book Crusader” episode.

The only real crime in Ellery Queen Mysteries is that this show only lasted for one season, for a total of 22 episodes. But if you haven’t seen it yet, you are in for a real treat. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Ellery Queen Mysteries


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coverlayout.inddTwo men exchange jobs for a year so that one of them, a comic artist named Etienne Davodeau, can write a graphic novel about their experiences.

Richard Leroy, a wine-maker, takes Etienne through the whole one-year process of creating a good wine from his vineyard in the Loire Valley region of France. Etienne  learns first-hand about the fine art of pruning the vines, selecting the right kind of barrels, using the right kind and amount of natural fertilizers, and knowing which grapes to pick – and not pick — at harvest time.

Etienne gets to experience first hand the hard work that goes into making a wine as sweat is in ample supply on these pages. They are visited by an  assistant of Robert Parker,  the famous American wine critic and taster, who makes the long trip to France to sample several of Richard’s wines.

Etienne introduces Richard to the world of the graphic novel, a subject with which Richard is completely unfamiliar. They start by visiting Etienne’s publisher, Futuropolis, and Richard gets to see the whole process of how a graphic novel is produced. Richard watches Etienne finish making the first proofs of the novel and is taken aback by how much paper is used to get these proofs. Richard also meets and interacts with the many people involved in getting the book finished and shipped.

They have the most fun (as does the reader) when they make special trips to enhance their learning of and appreciation for their very different vocations. Richard takes Etienne on a trip to visit a vineyard in Corsica and on trips to several wine exhibitions, including one in Angers that features mostly “biodynamic” or organic wines from all over France. Etienne takes Richard to several comic book festivals and they visit several well-known graphic novelists, including Marc-Antoine Mathieu and Jean-Pierre Gibrat. It was refreshing to see how upfront and honest Richard is about his opinions, how he shares with them that he does not  like many of their novels.  The graphic novelists are fine with that; they agree that their graphic novels, like a type of wine, are not meant for everybody.

In the end, both of these men find that they share many common values about their work and the products that they make. They are both passionate about what they do, and both men have a hands-on approach so as to control the quality of their products. They both want their products to be enjoyed by people, “something to gather around, a link between people.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, my first graphic novel . The black and white illustrations of Etienne Davodeau are excellent and really helped me understand and appreciate the steps that go into making both wine and graphic novels. This graphic novel has won several awards, including Gourmand Magazine Best US wine book translation and Slate Cartoonist Studio Award nominee.  It is unfortunate that this is his only graphic novel that has been translated into English.

If you are interested in wine, you should watch John Cleese’s excellent documentary Wine for the Confused and  the wonderful movie Bottle Shock.  Both are personal favorites of mine.

Check the WRL catalog for The Initiates


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big miracle 2012I’m usually a sucker for animal rescue stories and films (just look at some of my previous posts, including this one.).  While vacationing at the beach last week, I was presented with the opportunity to watch this movie, and I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to spend my valuable beach time watching yet another movie about animals that need to be rescued.  Well, I was glad I did, because The Big Miracle is exceptional for several reasons:

One extremely cute family of three whales, including an adorable baby whale, that get trapped in the ice five miles from the shoreline near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Their desperate calls for help are very moving.

Some extremely hazardous weather conditions,  including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit , high winds, blizzards, and treacherous ice, mean that their chances of survival are slim, and make for exciting drama.

An extremely unlikely group of people join together to help these poor whales, including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a wealthy oil tycoon (Ted Danson), a local TV news reporter (John Krasinski), and a local Inuit tribal elder (John Pingayak).  A typical movie like this pits the good-guy activist against the bad-guy industrialist, so it’s refreshing to see them all working together for once, even if they have ulterior motives for helping.

The actions of this group bring about some amazing results.  The local TV news reporter, who first discovers the whales, does a feature report about their plight for the local Anchorage news. The story is picked up by the national news, and quickly goes international. Before long, thousands of reporters from all over the world are descending on little Barrow, Alaska.

More importantly, the news reports bring people to the town who think that they can help in the rescue operation, including two brothers from Minnesota who have invented a de-icing machine.

The situation on the ground quickly becomes desperate, as the rescuers race around the clock and face crisis after crisis to save these whales.  I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a lot of ingenuity on the ground and help from the Alaska National Guard and an icy neighbor of the United States. And I won’t say if all three of these whales make it out alive (oops, maybe I have said too much).

This exciting, feel-good movie is based on true events in 1988 as set forth in Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.  The acting is top-rate, and I especially enjoyed Drew Barrymore as the Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer.  In one scene she dives under water to check on the health of the whales, which I found to be very memorable and sad.

I also enjoyed watching media clips from 1988 of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings when they were still in their prime. This gives the movie a sense of authenticity (reminding viewers that this was a real story) as well as a sense of nostalgia for older viewers like myself who remember watching these famous TV news anchors.

The Big Miracle is an exciting movie that I highly recommended watching, on or off the beach.

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Saving Otter 501

saving otterOtters have got to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals in the world. They are also one of the most helpless animals when they are newborn. When a baby otter in distress is found near Monterey Bay, California, marine biologist Karl Mayer begins the long and difficult process of rehabilitating and educating this otter so that he can eventually be reintroduced back into the wild. This documentary is the story of this otter, nicknamed Otter 501 because he is the 501st otter to be rehabilitated by Mayer and other biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Fortunately for Otter 501, much has been learned about what works and what does not work in this type of rehab since the first otter was helped many years ago.  Otters who enter the program are assigned a number rather than a name, and staff wear special suits with large welding helmets that prevent the otters from recognizing them. The star of the program is Toola, a female otter who gave birth to a stillborn pup when she was in rehab herself, and now is used as a surrogate mother to pups like Otter 501.  It is quite moving to see some of the key moments in the relationship that develops between Toolah and Otter 501, which include the moment she first gains his confidence and when she shows him how to dive underwater in one of the main tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Prospects for Otter 501 to survive in the wild are not great, but Toola gives him a fighting chance.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a bittersweet one — be sure to have the tissues nearby!

There is a wealth of information about otters presented here, much of it new to me.  Some of it is quite sobering. One of the most depressing facts is that this animal, once prevalent from Northern Russia into Alaska and all the way down the Pacific coast of the United States, was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century.  The 2000 or so that are left  (up from 50 at first count) are carefully monitored by marine biologists. The many fascinating behaviors of these endangered animals are sure to mesmerize you. My favorite one was watching them crack open clam shells with a stone on their tummies while they float on their backs in the water.

There is a lot to like about this documentary. The cinematography is excellent: the views of Monterey Bay were gorgeous and the many close-ups of otters were exceptional.  I plan on watching other fine programs in the Nature Series put out by PBS; WRL has over 30 of these programs.

There is nothing like seeing these creatures live and up close. The Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, VA has an otter exhibit that I enjoyed seeing a few years ago.  A little further away in Atlanta is the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and one of my favorite places I have visited.  It has several exhibits that feature otters, it has  a special Sea Otter Encounter Program, and it is actively involved with otter rehabilitation like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

This is a great documentary, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in animals and animal rescue operations.  To further entice you to see this, you can see a short video clip and nine incredibly cute pictures of Otter 501 here.

Check the WRL catalog for Saving Otter 501


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mad science This daily guide to memorable inventions and discoveries comes from Wired magazine’s popular blog “This Day in Tech.”  The book covers a wide range of subjects, including medicine, computers, food and war.  Each article is short (one page) and concise.  The daily entries also mention two other discoveries made on the same day, as well as two discoveries made in the same year. 

I found most of the articles to be entertaining and informative, the perfect material to use at your next cocktail party.  For instance, I thought it was interesting that on November 11th, 1930, Albert Einstein applied for a US patent for one of the few commonplace inventions of his life, a refrigerator that used a complex process involving ammonia, butane and water. It was exceptional because it didn’t use freon or electricity, but it was not nearly as efficient at cooling as standard refrigerators of the time, so it never became a commercial success. Modern researchers have tweaked his formula and have been able to increase the cooling capacity of his refrigerator, so the verdict is still out on Einstein’s fridge.

Some of these inventions didn’t catch on right away with the public. Sylvan Goldman of the Humpty Dumpty supermarket chain in Oklahoma City came up with one of the first grocery carts on June 4, 1937.  He wanted to make it easier for his customers to carry their groceries, and at the same encourage them to buy more, but the public initially resisted using them. Women thought they were unfashionable and men feared that using them would make them look weak.  So he hired male and female models to push them around in his supermarkets, and before long the grocery carts became a huge success.

Some of these inventions had unintended uses that became much more popular with the public.  My favorite one in this category involved a Dr. John Kellogg, a strict Seventh-Day Adventist who taught the importance of a healthy diet to his mostly wealthy patients at his sanitarium in Michigan. He came up with bland cornflakes as a way for his patients to achieve a balanced diet. But his brother Will saw a different opportunity by adding lots of sugar to those cornflakes and, with lots of marketing savvy, the Kellogg cereal company quickly became a big business.  John  of course was very unhappy with the way his brother Will was using his cornflakes, and he sued him in court and lost.

Most of these articles can be found on “This Day in Tech” blog on wired.com.  The  online versions are slightly longer than those in the book, with larger pictures and text size, so they are easier to read. The online stories aren’t indexed, though you could try a Google search for “This Day in Tech” and the title of the entry you want to read.  I enjoyed reading these both online and in print, so I would encourage others do the same.

Highly recommended!

Search the WRL catalog for Mad Science

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angrybird1I have been an avid birdwatcher for years and I am always on the lookout for new and interesting bird books in the library’s collection, so I was excited to see this on the library’s new book shelf.

This book is unique in that it shows what happens when real birds get angry.

Birds are grouped into four levels of angry behavior: annoyed, testy, outraged and furious.  Each level presents snapshots of a wide variety of birds, which include a photo of the bird, a helpful “rap sheet”  of useful facts about the bird that includes its species, physical description, known whereabouts, aliases, and a very brief description of its angry behaviors along with a one-page summary of the bird and its angry behavior.

I found a few of these birds and their behaviors to be quite common, like the Northern Cardinal fighting its reflection in a car window.  But most were new to me and I think they will be new to most readers here in the United States. I especially enjoyed reading about the following birds.

The Fieldfare is one of the annoyed birds. It is a medium-sized songbird from Europe that groups together for protection—when a larger bird like a raven encroaches on their territory, the alarm call is given, and a flock of fieldfares will mob the intruder and shower it with a burst of their collective poop.  This is not just nasty but can prevent the intruder from flying and staying warm, and can even lead to death.

The Masked Lapwing is a testy bird that looks like a character from a Stars Wars movie. It likes to hang out in open spaces like golf courses and playgrounds. It  screams at any people who get too close, and it will not hesitate to use the sharp spurs on it wings, which like a pocket knife can inflict painful wounds on any intruders.

My favorite bird is the Northern Fulmar, an outraged bird from the Arctic regions that protects itself in a unique way, by vomiting a noxious stomach oil onto its predators (or victims).  This particularly nasty oil, which is based on their diet of seafood that includes fish and shrimp, can cause death  to other birds and some rodents,  but can also be used as an emergency source of nourishment for the Fulmar if the bird is unable to hunt for food.  I think the photo of a baby Northern Fulmar engaging in this behavior is particularly amusing.

Interspersed among the snapshots of these real angry birds are two other features. The first is a series of short feathered facts about birds getting angry and taking action.  The second feature is a description of several of the major birds from the mega-hit Angry Birds game, including Terence, Chuck, Matilda and Red.  Each bird gets a background story, a  description of what makes them mad and a rap sheet much like the real angry birds, all of which can help you better appreciate the game.

This book would definitely appeal to younger readers with the tie-in to the popular Angry Birds game. But the interesting stories, high-quality photographs, and well-organized content make this a must-read for anyone interested in birds.  Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Angry Birds

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I’ve always been a fish guy, and I’ve had aquariums for as long as I can remember.  About a year ago I made a special trip to Atlanta to see the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium.  I was totally blown away by the size of the exhibits and the incredible diversity of sea life.

I recently discovered this book on the new bookshelf, and I am again blown away by some of the same creatures I saw at the Georgia Aquarium.  Sea features over a hundred incredible photos of sea life from the acclaimed photographer Mark Laita.  The colors are so vibrant that these animals almost jump off the page (which thankfully they don’t do) and many are breathtakingly beautiful.

You will not want to miss my top three favorites: the incredible blue & green colors of the Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like an oversized jellyfish with long tentacles; the tessellate eel, a serpent-like creature with a yellow & white pattern with black dots; and a group of moon jellyfish, with the pale blue colors imbedded with electric neon-white flower patterns.

Laita explains in the introduction how he was able to achieve such amazing detail with his photos.  He did this by recreating the sea in his studio using custom built  fish tanks and lighting where he could frame the animals and control the exposure of his photos.  For some of the bigger creatures, like the whale shark, he visited several aquariums (like the Georgia Aquarium) to get their pictures.  Those pictures are much less interesting, and the colors look rather drab compared to those he took in his studio.  But most of the photos in this book are studio-produced and contain unique details like color that you won’t find in any other resource.

I liked the layout of the book, with a few exceptions.  His photos are presented one per page on a black background without descriptions or page numbers to distract from the visual experience.  There is a helpful information index at the back of the book that includes a small snapshot of each creature’s photo along with their name, temperament, maximum length and distribution.  Some people might find the lack of descriptive information on each page annoying (I found the lack of page numbers to be annoying), but you get used to it.  I do think it would take away from the visual experience if he had included them.  Laita provides very general information about how he took these pictures,  though he does not reveal technical details that many would like to know, like what cameras he used and  what programs he used to develop his pictures.  I would also like to have seen a few photos of his studio when he working on this project to see what his custom built fish tanks looked like and the size and position of the strobe lights he used.

Mark Laita has built quite a reputation as a photographer, and he has worked on a multitude of projects.  You can see many of his photos,  including those in this book,  on his web site,  www.marklaita.com.  You should definitely look at the photos from his latest project, Serpentine, which features amazing colors and  shapes of 100 of the most poisonous snakes in the world.  While working on this project he was actually bitten by a deadly black mamba snake, which he didn’t realize until the next day when he was looking at his photographs.  Check out the story from The Daily Mail.  The snake photos, like the sea photos in this book, are absolutely gorgeous. Hopefully the library will be able to get this book when it comes out later this year.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea


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This is an exceptional historical drama about the Big Three leaders of  the Allied front—Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt—and how they worked together to fight and overcome Hitler’s Nazi war machine in World War 2.  It offers a fascinating and unique “behind the scenes” look at the negotiations and decisions made by these three men. This insider view is enhanced by the fact that David Rintels, who wrote the screenplay, based most of the dialogue on transcripts, reports and memoirs of that time,  which lends an air of authenticity and significance to the dialogue, even when minute and mundane matters are discussed.

This three-hour film covers all of the major events of this great war from beginning to end. This includes many of the major conflicts like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad and the D-Day invasion. Newsreel footage from each of these major events adds realism to the movie and significance to the diplomacy of the Big Three leaders.  Several meetings between the leaders are featured prominently,  including the important and well-known conferences in Tehran in 1943 and in Yalta in 1945.  Many of these meetings  involved a good deal of discord and wrangling: Churchill, for instance, was vehemently opposed to the spread of communism and was especially concerned about the fate of Poland when the war ended, while Stalin pushed long and loud for a second front in the West to help relieve his armies in Russia, and often accused the other two leaders of not doing enough.

The acting is first-rate: Bob Hoskins as Churchill, John Lithgow as Roosevelt, and Michael Caine as Stalin do a fine job with their very demanding roles. I especially liked Michael Caine, who had his part down pat; with his height, make-up and accent he made for an often chilling Stalin, so it is no surprise to me that he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance.  I also liked Ed Begley Jr. as Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins and Jan Triska as Stalin’s aide Vyacheslav Molotov; both are very believable as top assistants carrying out the plans of their respective leaders.

I would recommend this movie, which won one Emmy award and was nominated for five others, to anyone interested in the history of World War 2. Because of its comprehensive coverage, it could be a good way for students to learn about this war,  and would also be a good movie to watch on Memorial Day.  I showed it to my 81-year-old Dad, who has seen every WW2 movie at least a dozen times and who was not interested in watching any of them for a thirteenth time.  But he paid this movie the biggest compliment when he thanked me at least three times over the next day or so for getting and watching this movie with him.

Check the WRL catalog for World War II: When Lions Roared


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We truly live in an affluent society here in the US of A. There are a plethora of services available to make our lives more comfortable and more fulfilling, and more seem to be added every day. And most of the time, we get what we pay for.

Sometimes, though, a breakdown occurs between what is promised and what is delivered. You complain, but to no avail. What should you do?  Reading this book would be a good way to start. Jon Yates is the Official Problem Solver of the Chicago Tribune, and  in this book he shows how he has  helped people overcome myriad problems and get the service they deserve.  I have had my share of problems, but they pale in comparison to those mentioned in this book, which range from dreadful to downright scary. Take the case of the lady who survived brain surgery only to find she owed the hospital $300,000 when the insurance company wouldn’t pay her claim. Then there is the ice-cream store owner who realized why his utility bill was so high: he had been paying the bill of a neighboring business for four years, and when he confronted the utility company, they refused to reimburse him.

Jon Yates’s strategy is based on what he calls the “Problem Solver’s Golden Rule” that people must stick up for themselves and at least try to fix their own problems. You have to get tough if you are going to fight the big guys, those companies and agencies that treat you like another number or statistic. Yates cites three basic and universal keys to solving your own problems. First, businesses are out to make money, and you must convince them that NOT helping you is going to cost more than helping you (by complaining, which he turns in to a fine art). My favorite and probably the most helpful advice can be found in his 10 consumer commandments. You will learn how you can complain to get the best possible results, the importance of keeping all of your paperwork (which can be challenging since more and more transactions are done online now) and several other important things to keep in mind, such as never giving out your personal information to anyone you do not know in any medium, whether it be in person, over the phone or in an email.

The book is broken up into 16 easy-to-read chapters and covers a wide variety of businesses and bureaucracies to look out for, from health insurance companies to airlines to public utilities. There are chapters to help you with a specific task, like “Dial H for human being,” which is filled with tips on how to get what you need from those dreaded customer service calls, and “Poisoned Pen,” which explains how to write a successful complaint letter. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is the appendix, which includes all of the phone numbers, websites and other resources that are mentioned in each chapter.

I have added this valuable resource book to my personal collection, and I recommend that you check out a copy from WRL.

Check the WRL catalog for What’s Your Problem?


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Anyone who is tired of watching the typical Hollywood blockbuster movie should see this rare gem about the power of transformation. Tom (Martin Sheen) is a doctor from California who gets the news that every parent dreads—that his estranged son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) has died in an accident in the mountains of southern France while attempting to walk the famous El Camino de Santiago. When Tom visits France to recover his son’s body, he is helped by a local police captain, Henri (Tchéky Karyo, who played General Lafayette in The Patriot). Henri explains to Tom that pilgrims have walked this 500-mile trail for over a thousand years, seeking transformation on the journey and at its end, the Santiago de Compostola, where the bones of St. James are said to be buried. After going through Daniel’s personal effects, which include little more than his backpacking gear, Tom decides to walk the Way himself, using his son’s gear,  and he honors his son in a special way as he walks the trail.

Along the way he meets and walks with three very different people, all of whom have their own reasons for walking El Camino. There is a jovial Dutchman, Joost,  who is undertaking the journey to lose weight. There is the bitter Canadian, Sarah,  who wants to quit smoking. And then there is the comical Irishman, Jack, who wants to write the big novel but has been suffering from a bad bout of writer’s block. As they progress on the 500-mile journey, they learn much about themselves and each other as they experience the sights and sounds of the Camino. As they get to know each other, they slowly build a sense of community, helping each other find the transformation that they all seek. And together they learn the difference between the life they live and the life they choose.

There are many qualities that make this movie stand out. The acting is excellent. One of the reasons I saw this in the theater was because of Martin Sheen. I had just finished  watching all seven  seasons of  The West Wing, a TV show about the White House, where he figured prominently as President Josiah Bartlett. I wanted to see him act in a  different and much more demanding role. He doesn’t disappoint. Emilio Estevez is great as Tom’s son (and is Martin Sheen’s oldest son in real life), and also directs and produces the movie. They are supported by a fine cast of actors: Yorick van Wageningen as Joost,  Deborah Kara Unger as Sarah, and James Nesbitt as Jack.

As an avid traveler, I loved to see what the El Camino was like in the movie and would love to experience it for myself some day. The many scenic views of the El Camino were well chosen and were often breathtaking. The movie is enhanced by the wonderful music of Tyler Bates and songs from the likes of James Taylor and Alanis Morissette.

Williamsburg Regional Library has some resources you should check out if you want to know more about the Camino. They include Jack Hitt’s book  Off the Road: A modern-day walk down the pilgrim’s route into Spain which was used as a basis for the movie, but there are several others, including The Road to Santiago by  Kathryn Harrison, Travels with My Donkey: one man and his ass on a pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore, and  Walk in a Relaxed Manner : life lessons from the Camino by Joyce Rupp. And coming up in May 2012, Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez will be releasing their book Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son.

Check the WRL catalog for The Way


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This companion guide to the excellent DVD series by the same name presents so much new information about the great classical composers and the places where they lived that I thought it deserved its own post here on BFGB.

One of the first things you will notice about this book are the hundreds of beautiful and sometimes stunning photographs of Wendy McDougall. Her pics of indoor concert halls and palaces (like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg) are just as impressive as her panoramic pics, like those of the Norwegian fjords and the old city of Prague.  I was especially taken by her photograph of the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, where you can see many of the ornate details of a Russian orthodox church, so different from the churches you see in Western Europe. Her many fine pictures go well with the HD images in the series and make this book an excellent choice for a coffee-table book.

The book also serves as an excellent source of travel information about these destinations.  Every destination city has a “City at a Glance” section with many of the same features that you will find in hundreds of other travel guides, features like climate, top 5 tourist attractions, and popular shopping locations. But what makes it unique is its emphasis on classical music. It has a “Composers” section that lists the composers who lived and worked in that city (Vienna and St. Petersburg tie for the most composers who lived in their city, with 14 each).  It also has a list of composer museums/ homes that you can visit in the city.

Most importantly for the traveler, though, is a list of annual musical events held in that city, with a brief description of each event, time of year it is held, and the event website where you can go to get more information. It’s too late if you want to attend the world famous Salzburg Festival, a tribute to the music of Mozart which is held in July and August of every year. But it’s not too early to plan to see Salzburg’s Mozart Week, held in January, when it can be cold and snowy in Salzburg.

One of my favorite features of the City at a Glance section is the “Top 2 Coffee Houses” feature. The Café Tomaselli is one of the top 2 in Salzburg, though be forewarned, Mozart often went there and complained on more than one occasion about the quality of the coffee. But the authors insist that the quality of the coffee has improved considerably since then, and the café is now one of the best in Salzburg. Drinking coffee and hanging out in coffee shops was a popular pastime, as many composers besides Mozart frequented them. Johann Sebastian Bach liked his daily cup of joe so much that he composed one of his very few secular cantatas in praise of the beverage and, not surprisingly, called it the “Coffee Cantata.” It is one of my all time favorite choral pieces (think of it as Bach in a good mood) and it is definitely worth seeking out.

The book also has a useful “Composer at a Glance” feature that highlights the lives of 16 composers mentioned in the DVD series.  It includes basic biographical information and mentions some of their greatest musical works. It highlights some of the challenges they had to face in their lives; many of them, like Mozart and Vivaldi, had extreme financial challenges; others, like Grieg, Schubert, and Beethoven, had to cope with severe health problems.

The book, written by Matt Wills, one of the co-hosts of the DVD series, serves as an excellent introduction to the world of classical music. Its combination of high-quality photographs with highly relevant information about these classical destinations and composers make it a very useful resource to those interested in classical music, and it is an excellent companion guide to the Classical Destinations DVD series.

If you want to hear some of the music mentioned in the book and DVD, you should listen to the companion Classical Destinations album, a 2-CD set of 24 pieces of music with over 2 ½ hours of music. It includes the wonderful Classical Destinations theme tune by Terracini played by the incredibly talented violinist and series co-host, Niki Vasilakis. The music of 17 of the great classical composers is arranged by region and includes many gems of the classical repertoire, including Mozart’s beautiful “Ave verum corpus,” the Largo movement from Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, and a rousing rendition of Sibelius’ Finlandia.

Check the WRL catalog for Classical Destinations: An Armchair Guide to Classical Music.


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Anyone with an interest in classical music must see this amazing travelogue, which explores some of Europe’s most beautiful cities and the composers whose lives and music had such a great impact upon them.  It includes 13 episodes (5 ½ hours total time) with over 14 major destinations, including my favorites, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, and Venice. It features many well-known composers, like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi as well as some lesser-known composers, like Sibelius and Shostakovich.

Classical Destinations takes you on a grand tour of the places and the music that made these composers famous. The places include many of the famous buildings and landmarks of Europe where these composers lived and worked, including St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the Schönbrunn palace in Vienna, and the Old Town of Prague. You are also taken on a tour of some of the most beautiful landscapes of Europe, like the fjords in Norway and the Moldau River in the Czech Republic that inspired composers like Grieg and Smetana to compose some of their greatest music.

The music, of course, is glorious, and it is infused throughout the tour. When you visit St. Mark’s Square, you are treated to an excerpt of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine and Vivaldi’s “La Primavera:” Concerto for Violin and Strings in E Major. When you tour Vienna, which was the music and cultural capital of the world for hundreds of years, you will get to hear music from several great composers who made Vienna their home, like Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler.

Classical Destinations is narrated by the actor Simon Callow, with help from Matt Wills and Niki Vasilakis. Niki plays the violin part in the wonderful Classical Destinations theme tune and also plays her violin at many of the destinations. The series was filmed in HD (high-definition) quality video, so the picture and the sound are top quality.

I loved this travelogue and I hope you will take the time to watch, listen, and experience these classical destinations. My only regret is that it did not cover more of the great destinations of Europe, particularly Paris, where many of the great French composers like Berlioz and Saint-Saens lived and worked. Hopefully there will be a Classical Destinations 2 sometime in the near future. But this one is an excellent introduction to the world of classical music. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Classical Destinations.


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Jack McDevitt is one of my favorite science fiction authors. I discovered him by searching for award-winning books on our NoveList database, and found his novel The Seeker won the prestigious Nebula award for 2006. I thoroughly enjoyed that book and the other books in the series, which features antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath.

Another series of McDevitt’s that I have enjoyed reading features Priscilla Hutchins, a space pilot. In Omega, the fourth novel in the series, she gives up her wings to become the Director of Operations for the International Space Agency.

Thankfully she doesn’t have long to dwell on the downside of  running a large bureaucracy and all of the red tape that goes with it. A mysterious dark cloud deep in outer space is destroying any artificial structures and any life that gets in its way. Upon investigation, it is found that this destructive cloud, called the omega, is only three months away from overtaking a world with a pre-industrial alien civilization. The creatures are nicknamed the “Goompahs” for their resemblance to the characters in a popular children’s show, and when news of their fate is beamed back to Earth, they garner a great deal of support and sympathy from the public.

So Priscilla Hutchins puts together a two-pronged rescue mission. One team is dispatched to try and divert the omega away from the Goompah homeworld. Another team, anthropologist Digger Dunn and pilot Kellie Collier, is sent to the Goompah planet in an attempt to warn the Goompahs before it is too late. They are limited by the ISA’s strict non-interference policy with alien cultures. Thus, using lightbenders, devices that make them virtually invisible, they observe (mostly unnoticed) Goompahs in their theaters, stores, and parks, picking up their language and their culture. A major breakthrough occurs when they find a Goompah library and are able to copy scrolls that enable them to piece together the written language of the Goompahs.

Digger and Collie make an astonishing discovery that makes their mission seem almost impossible. But when attempts to divert the omega fail, and it comes bearing down on the Goompah planet, they have no choice but to try and make direct contact with these creatures in a last-ditch effort to save them. A very exciting and fun novel from Jack McDevitt. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Omega.


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This made for TV HBO docudrama explores the little known early life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, before he became President of the United States and led his country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. In 1923, in the prime of his early life, Roosevelt is struck with infantile paralysis, or polio, after visiting a group of boy scouts at their summer camp for a photo opportunity.

The movie is about his struggle with the disease, which leaves him crippled from the waist down.  Determined to get help any way he can, Franklin visits Warm Springs, a dilapidated spa in rural Georgia. Though he is appalled at how run-down the place is, he is determined to try out the warm spring waters for which the place is named. From his first encounter, he realizes how therapeutic the water is, and, feeling rejuvenated (though not completely well), he decides to stay for an extended period of time. Word of his adventures gets out, and soon other people with polio make the effort, some at great sacrifice, to get to Warm Springs and also experience the healing properties of its warm mineral water.

There are several issues that FDR faces as he attempts to deal with the  trauma and limitations of his disability in Warm Springs. One of these is discrimination. Roosevelt is told at one point that his frequent use of the springs is driving away the local clientele, who won’t go near him or others with polio, shriveling up an already dwindling business. FDR finds a young man very sick with polio in the back of a train, where he had been forced to travel alone for days without food or water. Another issue he deals with is the skepticism of those in the local medical profession that the waters could do any good for someone with polio. Roosevelt handles these and other issues with courage and daring, making a positive impact on not only his own life but on those around him as well.  Warm Springs still carries on his legacy as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center.

What makes this movie really shine are the exceptional actors, especially  Kenneth Branagh, the fine English actor, as a young Franklin Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as a shy Eleanor Roosevelt, Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless, the ailing manager of Warm Springs, and Kathy Bates as the physical therapist Helena Mahoney.  These actors add a tremendous amount of realism and color to the story and make the movie all the more memorable to watch.

Warm Springs has made a lasting impression on me since I have a quadriplegic father who I have helped for the past couple of years, so I can identify with many of the themes of this movie. If you know someone who faces physical challenges you will certainly want to see this movie. It will make you more sensitive to the needs of others as well as give you a new and better appreciation of the man who was our 32nd president. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Warm Springs


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The cast of the  popular but long-canceled sci-fi show Galaxy Quest are languishing at yet one more convention of fans. The Thermians are alien looking creatures in desperate need of help who think they have found it on a place called Earth.  The burned-out cast of characters connects with these aliens in this very funny parody of a sci-fi television show.

There are many funny moments to enjoy as the crew (once they are encouraged to help out) cross space to help save their new friends from their arch-enemies. They have a hilarious encounter on a strange planet with creatures that look like big blue babies, so innocent and adorable that the crew foolishly stops to admire them. Several times in the movie the Thermians forget to turn on the devices that make them look and sound human, and the crew is shocked to see them for who they really are, which is like really gross octopi that walk.  Then there is the scene when the crew seeks the help of a young teenager on Earth,  a fan of the show, whose help is jeopardized when his mother yells at him to take out the trash.

One of the best things about this movie is the fine cast, which includes Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub and Justin Long. I’ve enjoyed all of these actors in other movies (especially Rickman and Weaver) and they really shine here and make a so-so movie plot into a memorable comic masterpiece. It has won numerous awards, including a Hugo Award in 2000 for Best Dramatic Presentation.

If you like comedy and have seen these actors in other more recent films, you should definitely check out this movie. Highly recommended.

Check the WRL catalog for Galaxy Quest


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A drug smuggling operation in South Africa has the British government concerned, so they send James Bond (Sean Connery) in to investigate. The adventure begins in Holland,  where Bond is sent to follow and then take over the persona of  a drug smuggler by the name of Peter Franks. Bond then teams up with a Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) to move the diamonds into the United States, where he tracks the diamonds first to Los Angeles and eventually into Las Vegas where he uncovers a nefarious plot by his evil archnemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Charles Gray).

This is my favorite Sean Connery Bond film, which was unfortunately his 6th and last role for the James Bond franchise, though he did return later to play an unofficial Bond role in “Never Say Never Again.” It has everything you expect to see in a “great” James Bond film. It has a fantastic plot involving a very evil guy doing naughty things with laser weapons in space. It has several great action sequences, including a car chase through the Las Vegas Strip with a very cool looking red Ford Mustang. It has beautiful women throughout the movie, including the aforementioned Jill St. John and Lana Ward as Plenty O’Toole. It has good character actors as well, especially one of my favorite regulars, Desmond Llewelyn, who plays “Q” the gadget guy in most of the movies in the Bond franchise.

One of the qualities of a classic Bond film is that it never takes itself too seriously. There is plenty of humor here (with the usual corny play on words) that balances the considerable amount of action. It also has good music by the film composer John Barry, who won five Oscars for his music and did most of the soundtracks for the James Bond films. This movie is highly recommended for anyone who likes a good action movie.

Check the WRL catalog for Diamonds Are Forever


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