Archive for the ‘Jessica’s Picks’ Category

A note from Jessica: I’ve been with BFGB since its inception 4.5 years ago. This will be my last review, since I’m leaving for a new job in a new state. Writing about books has been my favorite part of working at WRL. Thank you for the good times, readers.

They call it a cure for death, but that’s misleading. You can still drown or starve or fall out a window. It is merely a cure for aging, it is completely illegal, and it can be had for seven thousand dollars on the black market. That’s not a bad deal in the year 2019.

John Farrow decides to get the cure at age 29. He can afford it on his income as a lawyer, especially now that he’s changing his specialty to divorce law. (“‘Til Death Do Us Part” has taken on new meaning.) He does not struggle with the decision. He is not Catholic, so he can’t be excommunicated. He is not worried about potential societal consequences of pollution, scarce resources, or violence. He is normally a logical and conscionable thinker, but, he realizes, “no argument could be made against my profound interest in not dying.”

After a few years of indecision, the United States legalizes the cure. This sharply-decelerated death rate provides a fallow playground for debut novelist Magary, who imagines all sorts of unintended consequences. There are the Peter Pan cases, young children whose mothers illegally suspend aging in their infants. There are the hyper-violent trolls who forswear the cure and instead seek to maim, but not kill, people who might live forever. There are the viruses that now have decades to perfect their attacks against individuals. And there are new career opportunities, even as the planet bulges with people. Our hero John eventually takes a job as an End Specialist, a government employee who grants death to people who no longer want to be cured of aging.

John is a shrewd narrator with a strong streak of resilience, imperative for people trying to survive in a post-aging world. The novel starts out as a quirky thought-piece, filled with speculative “What-if?” scenarios of the near future, but it gets progressively deeper as the years go by. The ranks of the homeless swell. Cars are abandoned when worldwide gasoline reserves are tapped dry. Transportation grinds to a halt.  Some nations use nuclear weapons to control their populations, while other nations employ ageless armies as career pillagers.

Though playful at first, Magary’s book transforms into a bleak vision of the future. Let us hope it is not prophetic.

Check the WRL catalog for The Postmortal


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When Barbara Ehrenreich spent a year undercover working in minimum-wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, she was trying to make a political point about class, labor, and fair wages. Gabriel Thompson didn’t have a political agenda underpinning his year in crappy jobs. He just wanted to see if he could do it.

Specifically, Thompson wants to see if a young educated white guy from Brooklyn can hack it in jobs normally filled by immigrants. His first stop is Yuma, Arizona, where he convinces a skeptical foreman to give him a job picking lettuce.

He barely makes it through the day. Between the heat, the sweat, the hard labor, and the physical pain that comes from bending, twisting, and hoisting lettuces for hours on end, Thompson only just manages to get through his shift without collapsing. And yet, to the astonishment of the other lettuce-pickers, he drags himself back to work the next day, and the next, and the next, through the whole three months.

Remarkably, despite the chronic pain and severe working conditions, Thompson remains cheerful during his agricultural stint. (This same cheerfulness gets him fired from a flower shop later in the year, when he remains positive despite earning less than minimum wage and getting no lunch breaks; the shop owners prefer employees who are properly downtrodden).  He remains sanguine in the face of blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racism while tearing apart chicken breasts in an Alabama poultry plant. He stoically accepts the condescending barbs of the New Yorkers to whom he delivers food by bike.

Thompson mostly focuses on describing his work and his fellow laborers, though you can’t help noticing the heavy themes underpinning the surface story. Thompson is a reporter, not a pedantic, but it’s impossible to ignore the issues of class, race, nationality, and immigration. His book will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in physically-demanding, low-paying jobs, and it will open the eyes of anyone who hasn’t.

Check the WRL catalog for Working in the Shadows


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Joe Hill impressed a lot of critics (though not me) with his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and he impressed a lot of critics (including me) with his second novel, Horns. Unfortunately, Hill’s graphic novel series Locke & Key is not impressing the critics. It’s not even registering with them.

Or rather, the critics in the niche world of comics are taking note; the series has picked up some Eisner Awards and nominations and a British Fantasy Award in the category of Best Comic/Graphic Novel. This is wonderful, but it would be great if the mainstream folks would pay attention. Oh well. While the critics snooze on the job, Hill is quietly creating his best work yet.

As the story opens, we meet the Locke family: children Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode; mother Nina; and father Rendell– but don’t get too attached to Rendell, as he gets killed off a few pages later. A disturbed young man named Sam brutally murders his former teacher, and nearly succeeds in slaughtering the rest of the family. Sam escapes, and the grieving survivors escape across the country to Lovecraft, Massachusetts.

Which is dumb. Characters in horror novels ought to flee away from towns called Lovecraft, not toward them.

Lovecraft is home to the Locke family estate, Keyhouse, where the recently-deceased Rendell spent his childhood. Nina is too busy drowning her sorrows in a bottle to see that something is profoundly off-kilter in Keyhouse. High school senior Tyler is too haunted by guilt over his father’s death to notice the strangeness, and Kinsey is too busy trying to blend in at her new high school. But six-year-old Bode has discovered the keys that, when inserted in the right locks, deliver marvelous results; one of them, for instance, allows Bode’s spirit to fly around untethered to his body. And Bode has made a new friend here at Keyhouse. Too young to have seen The Ring, Bode does not realize that you must never, never make friends with ghost-girls who haunt wells.

Hill’s ongoing comic series (now up to four collected volumes and counting) is doing fresh and creative things. Hill started his career as a novelist with two perfectly respectable books, a ghost-story and a devil-story, but this is where his imagination is really taking off. The supernatural keys just keep getting cooler and cooler as the story progresses, and the malevolent shape-changing ghost haunting Keyhouse just keeps getting nastier and nastier. The characters are superb, the in-jokes are geeky (there are references to Arkham Asylum! and to Bone! and to Calvin and Hobbes!), and Gabriel Rodriguez’s art is lovely. These books are the best-kept secret in the horror and dark fantasy genres.

Check the WRL catalog for Locke & Key


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The early campaigning for the 2012 presidential election is well underway, which is impossible. We only just finished the 2008 election season. Hillary vs. Obama, then McCain and Palin vs. Obama and Whatshisname– all that drama took place, like, last week.

So why read a book about it? We all lived through it. We were there. We were active at the polls; we were engaged in discussions about race and gender and politics. We voted in primaries, for crying out loud, primaries. We already know what it was like.

Or do we? Television and the internet deluged us with election info in 2008, but mostly with “sloppy synopses and cartoonish characters at a rat-a-tat pace,” recalls Salon writer Rebecca Traister, whose prose is disgustingly quotable. “Many of us, struggling to keep up, were happy to just get the Cliffs Notes version. But in the ceaseless cycle of revelation and analysis we lost depth, clarity and perspective on the story that was unfolding around us, as well as on how that story was itself changing and reshaping itself.”

Traister delivers on the depth, clarity, and perspective in a book that is compulsively readable. If you thought you had a firm grasp on the events and personalities of the 2008 presidential campaigns, prepare to be taken down a peg. Traister has rummaged through the glut of information from America’s recent history and emerged with a narrative that will enthrall anyone who cares about sex, power, gender, or the media.

Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Sarah Palin all feature prominently in the book, but this story is not just about them. It is about Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow, Gloria Steinem and Tina Fey. It is about the older feminists who flocked to Clinton and the younger women who flocked to Obama, and the young men who loathed Hillary but who swore they weren’t sexist. It is about understanding feminism as it related to a vice-presidential candidate who balanced marriage, five children, and a powerful political career while remaining staunchly anti-choice. It is about the eighteen million pro-Clinton voters whom Clinton so eloquently thanked in her concession speech: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it.”

I hope you remember that line– it still makes me tear up to read it– but you can be forgiven if you don’t. The mainstream media spent most of their time focused on the other part of Clinton’s concession speech, the not-news that she would be endorsing Obama. That decision to focus on Clinton’s capitulation, rather than on her astounding feminist success, speaks to the subtle sexism in the media and at large. This is where Traister truly shines. It is easy to cry sexism when newscasters criticize a candidate for her ankles or the pitch of her laugh rather than her policies. (Not that many people did cry sexism when that happened, alas.) It is harder to perceive sexism when it is nuanced and subtle, but Traister recognizes it for what it is and cries foul.

Does this sound like feminist screed? It’s not. Traister is in her thirties. She identifies less with the trailblazing feminists of her mother’s generation and more with younger women, many of whom felt uncomfortable at even considering gender when evaluating a candidate (because that sort of thing would be sexist, right?). Instead, Traister teases out the subtleties of feminisms old and new, creating her own fiery perspective.

Check the WRL catalog for Big Girls Don’t Cry


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Le Cirque du Rêves does not publicize its tour destinations. Its arrival goes unannounced in the local papers. Its dusk-til-dawn schedule is inhospitable to families. But no matter: there is no need for publicity or fanfare or convenient operation hours. The mere reputation of The Night Circus is enough to draw the crowds.

This is no county fair, with face-painting and ring-toss booths, nor even a normal three-ring traveling circus. There are no barkers, no hucksters, no carnies from a Tom Waits song. The Night Circus elevates the concept of the carnival to a lush, luminous, sensuous feast for the senses. Some acts are familiar– the fortune teller, the lion tamers, the acrobats– but others are strange and new and wonderful. There is a cloud maze, a wishing tree, an ice garden that never melts. It is magical.

Literally. The circus is magical. Most of the performers are just ordinary people with a professional passion for entertaining, but Celia and Marco are magicians. Celia, an illusionist, and Marco, a circus assistant, are unknown to one another. They do, however, know that they have trained their whole lives to compete in a duel with a magical opponent.

Naturally, Celia and Marco complicate matters by falling in love with each other.

Erin Morgenstern’s debut is getting a lot of positive press. It is being touted as a fantasy novel that will appeal to people who don’t normally read fantasy. The only magic here is of the stage-magician variety; there’s not even a struggle between good and evil, much less a whomping willow or a ring of power. Lovers of literary fiction will appreciate Morgenstern’s luscious descriptions, and fans of historical fiction will like the carefully-crafted atmosphere of a traveling circus in the late Victorian era.

Check the WRL catalog for The Night Circus


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Caveat reader: The links contained in this review, possibly excepting the one for Zombie Harmony, lead to content that many will find offensive.

Dear Matthew Inman:

Hi, this is Jessica. I’m a librarian in Virginia, and I’m a longtime fan of your work. For years I’ve satisfied my social needs with your website Zombie Harmony (“One of the Best Free Dating Sites for Zombies”). More recently I’ve been following the comics you’ve posted at The Oatmeal; it’s not a good place for people offended by strong language, sophomoric humor, or sexual innuendos, but I personally have loved every single comic you’ve published online. (I did finally find a comic that was appropriate for all ages– that one you did about Seattle’s weather, remember?– but it took a lot of digging.)

So I was thrilled when you published 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth. It was just like reading your web comics, only with the added tactile pleasure of glossy pages! Some of the content was stuff I’d already seen before, but that’s okay. Your comics crack me up every single time.

But of course there was new material, too. That strip about Nikola Tesla was both entertaining and informative– sort of like Randall Munroe does things over at xkcd. Though, and I hope the internet gods don’t strike me down for my blasphemy, I’ve come to think that you’re even funnier than Randall. I think you’re funnier than The Onion, and way funnier than that guy who drew the picture of the spider. (I tried reading his book, The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius, but it couldn’t hold a candle to yours.)

Now that your comics are collected in convenient book form, my life is much easier, since I’m always foisting your work on other people. It’s nice to see them laughing to the point where it becomes physically painful. I also hold out faint hope that people will learn from your educational comics. If you can’t save the English language from the scourge of the comma splice, no one can.

Given that you’ve made me laugh harder than any other comic artist except Gary Larson (I think maybe you guys are tied), I’m just about ready to bear your children, especially since the people I’ve met through Zombie Harmony have turned out to be dead ends. I’ll see about getting a dowry prepared.

Cheers, and thanks for writing the book!

Check the WRL catalog for 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth


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Frank Ross, a fair-minded farmer living in Arkansas in the 1870s, tries to intervene when a barroom fight breaks out one day in Fort Smith. One of the fighters, Ross’s own farmhand Tom Chaney, takes the opportunity to kill and rob the farmer. Chaney then flees on horseback to Indian Territory.

Ross’s fourteen-year-old daughter Mattie is angry. She is beyond angry. She wants blood and she wants justice. She is going to hunt down the man what done kilt her pa.

Mattie is not stupid. She is stubborn, impatient, and unforgiving, but she is not stupid. She knows she can’t go blazing off into the frontier without help, so she goes in search of a man with enough grit to get the job done. The man who matches that description is the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, technically on the side of the law– he is a U.S. marshal– but of very questionable repute. You don’t kill twenty-three men in four years without getting some rough edges.

Slightly more respectable is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has his own reasons for tracking Tom Chaney, but Mattie doesn’t want him interfering with her search– and LaBoeuf doesn’t want a teenaged girl interfering with his search. It is under a very uneasy truce that the girl, the ranger, and the marshal agree to pursue the outlaw together.

If you’ve seen the John Wayne movie adaptation (1969) or the Coen brothers adaptation (2010), you know what’s coming: adventure, and lots of it. There are bandits. There are fight scenes. There are more fight scenes. There are galloping horses and perilous injuries and there are snakes, lots and lots of snakes, all conveniently gathered into the pit that Mattie falls into.

I have no idea if True Grit is typical of its genre– I’ve never read another Western except for Brokeback Mountain, which probably doesn’t count– but you don’t have to be a fan of Westerns to like it. It’s an easy and fast read with tons of action. There is a lot of subtle humor that comes by way of Mattie’s contrary disposition and her colorful idioms. Children and squeamish readers would find the violence to be too intense, but it’s a great read for teenagers and adults who love a good story and who aren’t bothered by a few rattlesnakes.

Check the WRL catalog for True Grit (the 1968 book), True Grit (the 1969 John Wayne movie), or True Grit (the 2010 Coen brothers movie)


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Christine wakes one morning to find herself sleeping next to a stranger. She does not remember how she wound up in bed with this older man– she must have been very drunk– and she is dismayed to see that he wears a wedding ring. When she finds her way to the bathroom, the woman in the mirror is at least twenty years too old.

It takes a while for Christine to come to grips with the truth. She is no longer a college student but a middle-aged woman. The man in the bed is Ben, her husband. Decades ago, while she was in her late twenties, Christine suffered a head injury that left her with an exceedingly rare form of amnesia. Every night her mind resets. She can make new memories but cannot retain them the next day. Ben patiently explains all of this– but of course he must explain it again the next morning, and the next, and the next.

And that would be that– a strange but directionless story, Groundhog Day meets Memento replayed in an endless loop– but for the phone call Christine receives. The caller claims to be her doctor. (Is he telling the truth? Christine cannot ask Ben, who has left for work.) Dr. Nash suggests that Christine look in the bottom of her bedroom closet. Though she is uneasy, Christine follows the doctor’s cryptic advice and finds a hidden journal. Its pages are filled with her own handwriting, and she has left a message for herself to find: “Don’t trust Ben.”

The atmosphere is tense throughout S. J. Watson’s debut. We learn early on that something isn’t right, that the pieces just don’t add up, but we are helplessly bound by Christine’s own limitations. As with the protagonist of Turn of Mind (another 2011 debut, reviewed here yesterday), mental disease has rendered our narrator unreliable, and the other characters do not seem to be entirely trustworthy, either. Someone is lying, but every step closer to the truth puts Christine in more danger– and even when we as readers figure out the mystery, there’s not a thing we can do but watch our heroine greet each new day with a blank slate, innocent of whatever perils she may have unearthed the day before. It is an absolutely nerve-wracking plot device that makes this an unusually strong thriller.

Check the WRL catalog for Before I Go to Sleep


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Amanda O’Toole is dead. The attacker bashed in her head and surgically removed four of her fingers. Shortly before she was murdered, Amanda had fought with her neighbor, Dr. Jennifer White, a retired orthopedic surgeon. Jennifer is probably guilty as sin, but the police don’t have the proof they need, and the suspect refuses to confess.

Jennifer is not being uncooperative on purpose. She can’t confess because she can’t remember if she committed the crime or not. Most days she can’t remember that her friend Amanda has even died in the first place. Jennifer is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Jennifer is the very definition of the unreliable narrator. Her fractured version of reality offers only meager clues about the events surrounding Amanda’s death. We must instead rely on Jennifer’s son, daughter, and caretaker, but they are hiding their own secrets, and they are in no hurry to aid the police in the murder investigation.

Alice LaPlante’s debut is a very strange thriller. The crime is committed before the story opens, and no one is worried about the murderer striking again, yet the atmosphere crackles with nervous tension. The book is a page-turner, but each turn of the page accelerates Jennifer’s unraveling, making it less and less likely that we’ll ever learn what really happened. But even though LaPlante rejects most of the conventions of the thriller genre, she still writes a harrowing story. It is scary, not for the crime, but for the horrible, painfully realistic treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Check the WRL catalog for Turn of Mind


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It is a significant day for Michael. He is sojourning on a Mississippi River plantation with Laurie, his new girlfriend, young enough to be his daughter. Michael expects to consummate the relationship tonight, after his lawyer calls to confirm that his divorce has been finalized.

But when Michael’s phone rings, his lawyer has upsetting news. Michael’s wife of twenty-five years never showed up at the courtroom in Pensacola.  Kelly is not at home and not answering her phone.  She is nowhere to be found.

And that is because Kelly does not want to be found. She has retreated to a hotel in New Orleans. Room 303 is filled with memories of her marriage to Michael, and it is here that Kelly sequesters herself with a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of pills.

This is a portrait of a marriage that crumbles because the two partners cannot communicate with one another; as we discovered in Butler’s previous novel, not being able to say “I love you” is the very definition of hell. But just below the surface story of the failed marriage is a love story struggling to shine through. It is a grim love story, much darker than what you find in a traditional romance novel, but it prevents the book from being an unmitigated tragedy.

Butler’s prose is about two millimeters shy of poetry. He does not suffer from an excess of words–this book can be read in two or three hours– but neither is he terse. His words are fluid and fast and filled with meaning. His books deserve to be read and read widely, just for the grace of the writing style.

Check the WRL catalog for A Small Hotel


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In a compassionate and selfless act of environmental activism, I have decided to never handwash another dish again in my life.

Big of me, isn’t it?

Dishwashing, as Mike Berners-Lee explains, is ecologically friendly only if you use tepid water. If you’d rather not have bacteria swarming over your dishes, you’re going to have to heat the water, a process that is far more efficient in a dishwasher than in a sink.  A year of running a full dishwasher twice per week on the economy setting has roughly the same ecological impact as driving 110 miles. That’s not bad.

(If you’ve been fretting over the chemicals in your detergent, don’t. That’s nothing compared to the impact of heating the water.)

Berners-Lee, founding  director of Small World Consulting, offers a truly useful book for people who care about the planet. He considers the carbon footprint of nearly 100 products and acts, from drinking a pint of beer to having a child to waging a war. Sorted in groups from least harmful (text messages, tap water) to most harmful (erupting volcanoes, forest fires), these entries follow the format of a reference book—but it is the rare sort of reference book that you read cover-to-cover, staying up well past your bedtime to finish.

This is partly due to the humor. In discussing the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee, Berners-Lee explains that the worst pollution offenses come from any added dairy. He and his colleagues decide to forgo milk in their beverages for a week: “At best we’ll change habits of a lifetime, resulting in decades of reduced hassle, lower carbon, slight cost savings, and possibly even fractionally improved health. It has to be worth trying.”

He follows this with a footnote: “Update: We survived. It was horrible. I’m going to pick different battles.”

Berners-Lee starts with three assumptions: climate change is a big deal; it is caused by humans; and humans can do something about it. Some skeptics will not agree with those three assumptions, but they will be hard-pressed to argue with the exceedingly well-documented research and logic in the book. Berners-Lee goes into great detail to explain his analyses and conclusions, though he freely admits that the available methodologies are far from perfect; sometimes he has to rely on guesswork.

Determining the carbon footprint of an act or an object is not yet a precise science, but this book is a magnificent starting point. The precise ecological impact of each individual is subject to error and interpretation, but taken collectively, they can help readers make more informed choices as consumers.

And if you were wondering, bananas are just fine. Go enjoy one.

Check the WRL catalog for How Bad Are Bananas?


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Once upon a time, in the city of Khaim, people used magic to solve their problems. Is that cut infected? Not a problem! Magic it away! But the era of magic is over, due to the growing threat of the bramble. Every time a spell is cast, a shoot of bramble sprouts. Already the bramble has spread across the land, destroying crops, poisoning people who touch it, and felling whole cities.

The mayor of Khaim does not want his city to succumb to the plant. Ordinary citizens are forbidden to practice magic, under penalty of death—but the alchemist Jeoz is willing to break the law. Destitute and widowed, he will do anything to save his little girl, who is dying due to a bramble-related illness. He casts spells to save his daughter, but only when absolutely necessary, and when no one will catch the telltale scent of his magic use.

Meanwhile Jeoz labors in his basement each night, desperate to find a cure. Finally he stumbles across a solution that will not only save his daughter but stop the bramble, too. He presents his alchemical device to the mayor and to the mayor’s chief advisor.

Bad idea, Jeoz. Fantasy literature has taught us to never trust the mayor’s advisors. Remember Wormtongue in The Two Towers? The grand vizier in The Horse and His Boy?

This novella is a quick read. Grab a copy, and within an hour or two you’ll have the whole story. You’ll find out exactly how nasty things get after the mayor’s head honcho gets his paws on Jeoz’s device, whether Jeoz and his daughter survive, whether the bramble’s growth is halted. If you like the story, you can pick up the companion novella, The Executioness, written by Tobias S. Buckell and set in the same bramble-choked world.

But wait! There’s more!

I chose to read The Alchemist as a work of ecological fiction. The similarities to our planet’s energy crisis are striking. For years we’ve used the magic of coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy, and just lately we’ve glommed on to biofuels, even though they destroy rainforests and deplete the world food supply and actually use more energy than they create. The cost of all this magic is finally catching up with us.

Did Bacigalupi intentionally include these environmental parallels? I’m guessing so. He’s a savvy writer, winner of impressive awards including the Hugo and the Nebula.  He is best known as a science fiction novelist, but this dark and dirty fantasy novella is a good introduction to his writing.

Check the WRL catalog for The Alchemist


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In general, a healthy tree wants to grow taller. New growth means new leaves, and new leaves mean new sugar. But the taller a tree grows, the harder it is to transport water and nutrients from the roots all the way up to the leaves. Eventually, these two tensions can no longer be reconciled, and the tree dies of old age.

That’s what happens to the lucky ones.

When I started this book, I expected to find a lot of information about trees being harvested for lumber, or about trees dying due to climate change. Horticulturalist Jeff Gillman does touch on these topics, but the in-depth discussion focuses on other aspects of the life and death of trees, including managed deaths in fruit orchards, widespread deaths from insect plagues, and unintentional deaths from well-intentioned but deadly care.

Peppering his chapters with personal anecdotes and lots of photographs (including a photo of an Asian longhorned beetle; I do not recommend studying this one too closely), Gillman examines the life cycle of many different trees, from peach trees in Georgia (which is actually a bad climate for peach trees) to the ill-fated American elm (most elms have been killed off by a fungus that is carried by a beetle) to plants that aren’t trees at all, such as the potato, whose story illustrates the dangers of limiting the diversity in a crop’s gene pool. Gillman speaks about whole species of trees, of course, but he also focuses on a few individual specimens, guiding the reader through their unique lives from seed and growth through maturity and death.

The entire book is written in an easygoing style, with the science rendered into understandable language. I found the “Loved to Death” chapter to be particularly engaging; most of us will never have to worry about managing acid levels in an apple orchard, but many of us will find ourselves caring for a tree in our yards or at work. Gillman exposes a number 0f practices that can harm or kill a tree. Planting it deep? That can kill it. Mulching? That can kill it. Adding potting soil, pruning, topping, overwatering? It’s amazing any trees manage to survive at all.

One final tip: don’t beat your tree with a baseball bat. Though this used to be a fashionable practice, and though it’s true that excessive damage will cause a tree to send out new buds, guess what happens the following season? You’re left feeling foolish and guilty because you clubbed your tree to death with a Louisville Slugger.

Check the WRL catalog for How Trees Die


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Arkansas: They tell me I was born there, but I really don’t remember.

What I do remember is the place where I grew up, the intoxicating confluence of the Appalachians, the Smokies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though a transplant to western North Carolina, I think of this area as home– and no one describes it better than Sharyn McCrumb, not even Adriana Trigiani. Set in the rural landscape of eastern Tennessee, McCrumb’s Ballad series evokes the landscape, the people, and the lifestyle of the area. Beyond that, however, the series is hard to describe: The books have a crime element and a mystery, but they’re not whodunnits; they are sometimes set in the present, sometimes in the past; they are beautifully written but not usually marketed as Literary Fiction; and they have recurring characters, but each book works on its own.

The second book in the series, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, weaves together several stories. Four members of the Underhill family die in a murder/suicide, and the remaining two members are suddenly orphaned. Laura Bruce, though pregnant with her own child, wants to take in the orphans. The contemplative Sheriff Spencer Arrowood delves into the story behind the suicide and murders, and the elderly clairvoyant Nora Bonesteel observes a lot but says little, though she does predict that Laura Bruce will experience a tragedy.

Another sub-plot centers around Tavy Amis, a farmer who is dying of cancer after too many years of living near a polluted river. Though the carcinogens come from a paper mill in a neighboring state, the pollution is taking its toll on the people and the land in Tennessee. Tavy’s medical fate is sealed, but perhaps he can extract his revenge in his remaining days.

There is little in the way of strong language or sex, but be warned: in the tradition of the best Southern fiction, this is a dark book. Themes of poverty, environmental degradation, and death are explored through the lives of realistic and sympathetic characters. This is not a romanticized portrait of life in the mountains, but rather a beautiful and haunting portrait that cements McCrumb’s place as a talented observer of human lives.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter


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It’s been five weeks since I reviewed five books examining animal welfare and factory farming. To ensure that no one starts feeling too optimistic about the future, here are another five disquieting books, each with a different angle on the environment.

Many ecologists advocate for the minimalist approach. Asceticism, they argue, is the ethical lifestyle choice and the key to our planet’s future. It’s an admirable perspective but, let’s be realistic here, it’s never going to happen on any large scale. Americans like their flat-panel TVs and personal cars.

But here’s the thing about Daniel Botkin: he’s a scientist, and he’s an ecologist, and he’s against nuclear power and coal and pollution, but he doesn’t want to give up driving his car and he doesn’t think you should, either. He wants a future where we can all enjoy a high standard of living without laying waste to the environment. Powering the Future shows how it could happen.

The first part of the book focuses on five conventional energy sources (oil, natural gas, coal, water power, and nuclear power) while the second part focuses on new sources (wind power, solar power, ocean power, and biofuels). Botkin explains the pros and cons of each source, with particular regard to estimated remaining global supplies, financial cost, and environmental impact—though with no particular regard to carbon cost. This is a deliberate omission, as Botkin felt that the question of global warming warranted a separate book entirely.

The chapter for each energy source includes a bulleted list for “Key Facts” and another for “The Bottom Line,” but though this sounds suspiciously text-booky, don’t worry. Alongside the graphs and charts and photos, there are anecdotes and illustrative examples to make sense of it all. In the section on nuclear power, for instance, Botkin describes an experiment in which scientists exposed a forest to radiation for fifteen years; the results were not pretty. In the section on wind power, he considers the Beluga SkySails, a ship powered by diesel and a really big kite, a combination that reduces fuel costs by $1000 per day.

Combinations, in fact, are key to Botkin’s vision for energy in the future.  As he explains in the final section of the book, we will probably never stop using conventional energy sources, at least not until they run out. (Are you fond of petroleum? At current rates, it will probably be gone by 2050.) But we can learn to use limited resources sparingly and to draw more from renewable energies, particularly wind power and solar power.  Botkin offers several detailed scenarios as to how this might happen, and—this is the true strength of the book—he shows how it needs to happen on a large scale. Individuals need to do their part, but businesses need to encourage innovation and governments need to at least partially subsidize clean, renewable energies. (Bear in mind that the United States government already heavily subsidizes oil and gas.)

This book is quite readable, and the science is easily digestible for the average person. I hope that average folks pick it up and learn something—but I really hope that politicians, lobbyists, and activists read it, so that we may begin to move away from polluting energy sources and toward energy independence.

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“University of Arizona researchers found more fecal bacteria in the kitchen—on sponges, dish towels, and the sink drain—than they found swabbing the toilet” (p. 11).

The researchers, by the way, had first washed everything with bleach. Twice.

Unless you’re a strict vegan, you’d be better off licking your toilet than your kitchen counter. If you eat meat, eggs, or dairy, you ingest what the animal ingested—and farm animals may eat pig and cattle waste, as well as poultry litter. It’s perfectly legal.

Gristle, a very quick read comprising ten short essays, is filled with all kinds of unsettling information. People who deliberately want to bury their heads in the sand about the perils of contemporary meat production and consumption should stay away. You can’t unlearn what you have learned.

But if you want a fast overview of the personal, environmental, humanitarian, and financial arguments against big agribusiness, this is a great place to start. Even if you already consider yourself well-informed, you’ll probably discover something new. For instance:

—You could drive to the moon and back 114,000 times and still have released less carbon than the United States chicken industry does each year (p. 57)

—In a given year, 1.5 million residents of Philadelphia produce 1,000,000 tons of urine and feces, while 800,000 pigs at one (only one!) pork facility produce 1,600,000 tons of manure (p.16)

—For nearly their entire four-month pregnancies, breeding sows on factory farms can only stand or lie down. They do not have room to turn around. (p. 43)

Contributors to the anthology include farmers, activists, researchers, grocers, business people, and world-famous musicians. The strength here is not depth but scope, with topics ranging from personal health to animal welfare to climate change, and perspectives advocating veganism and vegetarianism and even omnivorism (but only if the animals were raised ethically!). Filled with graphs and images  like the one shown here, from the Humane Society of the United States, the book is a great overview for people who are concerned about food supply and distribution; it is particularly timely, considering the recent outbreak of e. coli in Germany. I recommend it for anyone who eats food.

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During an American bombing raid in 2003, four lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. This true story is the inspiration behind Pride of Baghdad, a magnificent graphic novel by Eisner Award-winner Brian K. Vaughan, best known for his two series Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina.

As the story opens, our four heroes are squabbling over the merits of captivity versus freedom. Safa, a grizzled old female, is content to be free from the brutality of the jungle. The younger female Noor, who barely remembers life on the outside, is plotting an escape. Her cub Ali likes the thought of adventure, while the adult male Zill is wary of rebelling, though he is nostalgic for the natural beauty of the free world.

The matter is decided for them one day when some strange and noisy shapes go careening across the sky. The zoo explodes into flame, the human zookeepers flee, and animals start dying. It is too dangerous to stay.

Safa, Noor, Ali, and Zill tread past the gates, free at last—but freedom turns out to be full of unpleasant surprises. The lions need food, but there are no zookeepers to tend them. They need water, but the river is polluted by oil. They need shelter, but when they try to seek refuge in a palace, they are attacked by a starving bear, the pet of Saddam Hussein.

Artist Niko Henrichon’s illustrations are painted with gorgeous warm yellows and browns. This literal brightness is the only luster in a story that is dark, grim, and violent. Torture, animal abuse, savage death, and gang rape are here, as well as the more abstract violence of environmental destruction. It is a haunting anti-war novel of the highest caliber.

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“Like most people, I am conflicted about our ethical obligations to animals,” writes psychologist Hal Herzog. “I oppose testing the toxicity of oven cleaner and eye shadow on animals, but I would sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer.” Herzog is an anthrozoologist—one who studies human/animal interactions—but though he devotes his time to studying the moral, philosophical, and practical nuances of humans and their treatment of animals, at the end of the day he is just like the rest of us: inconsistent.

This book is about those inconsistencies, and it is fascinating.

The biggie, of course, is meat. There is only one strong argument in favor of eating animal flesh: it is tasty. There are several arguments against it: you have to kill the animal; the animal suffered continuously during its dismal life, if it came from a factory farm, which it probably did; meat production is terrible for the environment; meat causes obesity, cancer, and heart disease.

“You would think it would be easy to convince people not to eat flesh,” says Herzog. “You would be wrong.” There are far more former vegetarians than current vegetarians, and even the omnivores are terribly inconsistent. No one wants to eat a Patagonian toothfish, but re-name it as a Chilean sea bass, and suddenly it’s a sophisticated entrée. Most Americans wouldn’t eat a dog (“No! Not Mr. Fluffers!”), nor would most Kenyans (“No! Dogs are vermin!”), but Koreans view dogs as neither pets nor pests. Bon appetit!

Or consider cockfighting, a sport that has finally been criminalized in all fifty states. Most people think it is repulsive and barbaric to force two chickens to fight to the death, but we inhumanely slaughter 9 billion broiler chickens every year. For every one gamecock who dies in a fight, there are something like 10,000 to 20,000 chickens who die in factory farms—and those chickens live without ever seeing the light of day. Gamecocks live long, pampered lives, right until that final night.

And why pick on cockfighting? Could it have something to do with race and class? Cockfighters are mostly Hispanics and poor whites, while horse racing is a pastime of the rich. Most Americans oppose any ban on horse racing, never mind the 5,000 horses who died at racetracks between 2003 and 2008. Herzog includes a quote from comedian Chris Rock, who sums it up nicely: “[Sarah Palin is] holding a dead, bloody moose. And Michael Vick’s like, ‘Why am I in jail?’”

Herzog teases out the oddities of the relationship between humans and animals in a wide variety of contexts. (Gentlemen, next time you’re trying to meet women, bring a dog. Your chances of success will triple.) He relies on quirky personal anecdotes as well as very-heavily-endnoted scientific research, and he delves into the philosophical underpinnings that govern, or fail to govern, our actions. And because Herzog readily admits his own hypocrisies toward animals, the tone throughout the book is informative rather than strident, making this an excellent choice for people who want to know more about animals without being preached at.

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