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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

KingpinThe news is full of stories about cybercrime, but how does it really work, and who are the thieves turning online information into ill-gotten gains? It’s a complicated matter, and difficult to explain in terms that those without a technical background can understand, but in Kingpin, Poulsen not only succeeds in telling the story, but he manages to make keyboard crime exciting as well.

This is the story of Max “Vision” Butler, a Montana native whose hot head and illegal computer skills landed him in trouble early. He recovered and found some success working for Internet startup companies, offering his skills as a “white hat,” a hacker who discovered the loopholes exploited by criminals and made them public. In doing so, he secretly played both sides of the law, and eventually landed in trouble.

In prison he met people who could turn stolen credit card numbers and other information into hard goods, and upon release they joined forces, with Max doing the hacking. His skills grow, and eventually he is outmaneuvering other “carders,” taking over the bulletin boards where they do business, and exposing both rival criminals to law enforcement and law enforcement moles to the criminals when it suits his needs.

Poulsen tells the story of Butler’s rise and fall well, eventually detailing how a sometimes lucky, sometimes intrepid FBI brought him to justice. I left this book with a sense of surprise at how disorganized this area of “organized” crime is, or at least how chaotic it was in the years described. It makes one shudder to think at what we might be in for as these criminals become more disciplined or when their turf battles become more violent. If you have even a basic understanding of how the Internet works, you should be able to follow Poulsen’s suspenseful story to your own interesting conclusions.

Check the WRL catalog for Kingpin

 

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Drama HighThe subtitle of Michael Sokolove’s Drama High reveals many of the reasons one might like it: “The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.”

The brilliant teacher is Lou Volpe, a forty year veteran of the teaching wars, nearing the end of his career, a man who took over a drama program even though he had no experience as an actor or in teaching acting. He simply loved the theater, and taught himself how to mount major productions. By the time of his career on which the book focuses, he is so accomplished that major Broadway producers like Cameron Mackintosh ask him to test edgy or complicated shows to see if they can be licensed to high schools and small theaters.

The struggling town is Levittown, Pennsylvania, a former steel town struggling to maintain its economy and population. It’s a surprising place to find a great drama program. Usually that elite status is reached only by private schools with lots of wealthy and talented parents who can pay for expensive production elements and donate their time to teach top level skills. But Volpe’s students aren’t the typical drama kids, the edgy and emotional types, and they certainly aren’t affluent. They’re working class kids who make choices like whether or not to continue with a sports team or underdogs who struggle to be in a show while they keep a part time job that helps out the family. This gives them an affinity for some characters that wealthy, artsy kids can’t always find. They’re also the kind of students Volpe has and knows, and he makes the best of them. He’s built a program so good that many of his students find their way to scholarships and professional careers.

The magic of theater is displayed through the productions that Volpe stages during the year in which author Sokolove is a regular presence in the classroom. Where most high schools are still performing the same twenty shows that schools were performing in the sixties or seventies, Truman High is tackling contemporary theater. In particular, there’s Spring Awakening, a musical with a historical setting but very modern teen morals, and Good Boys and True, an edgy drama that Volpe’s students hope to perform well enough to take to national competition. (I won’t spoil the story and tell you whether or not they make it.) Rising to the occasion of performing well in emotion-laden, high-quality productions puts a lot of pressure on the kids, but most of them grow and even flourish with the challenge. If there’s one weakness to this kind of book, it’s that it will leave you wishing you could see for yourself the productions that Sokolove describes.

There’s also a “can you go home again?” appeal to this story. Sokolove was a student of Volpe’s long ago, in days when Volpe was a young, charismatic and influential English teacher, not yet a drama teacher. He remembers when Volpe was married to a likable woman (that status has also changed, but again, I won’t spoil the story) and motivating students like himself to journalistic careers. Volpe’s subject has changed, and Levittown has declined since Sokolove’s youth, and his own attempts to come to grips with the changes are part of the drama.

If you like theater, or underdog stories, or inspirational tales of any kind, you’ll find something to like in Drama High.

Check the WRL catalog for Drama High

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Island on FireSome volcanoes are world famous; everyone has heard of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in the time of Pliny. Iceland’s volcanoes are less known, although they were in the news a few years ago when unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull spewed out enough ash to disrupt European air travel for weeks. Eyjafjallajokull may be more present in modern consciousness but it isn’t the only, the largest, or even the most dangerous of Iceland’s many volcanoes. Recently, scientists and historians have been focusing their attention on Iceland’s fissure volcano Laki, which evidence suggests may have disrupted world climate for years after it started erupting in 1783.

Island on Fire’s long subtitle, “The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano the Changed the World” sums up the problem with its history: this eruption occurred in a sparsely populated part of the world before the advent of easy international travel or communication. Nonetheless new research using techniques such as ancient ice cores suggests Laki’s eruption affected the climate all over the world. This lead to crop failures and famine and, depending on how you calculate it, may have killed millions of people. In a long eruption that continued over months Laki spewed out enough toxic gases to poison the entire lower atmosphere, especially over Europe. From all over Europe numerous newspaper accounts from the summer of 1783 report a “dry fog” that made it difficult for people to breathe.

Much of the surviving eyewitness account from Iceland comes from Jón Steingrímsson the ‘fire priest’ who famously gave a sermon while lava was bearing down on his village church. His journal reports unbelievable devastation and destruction, including the horrific symptoms in people and livestock from months of exposure to fluorine gas.

A compelling, if sometimes disturbing read, Island on Fire includes plenty of maps and black and white photos. The interested reader can also find color visuals of Iceland’s wonderful landscape, and the story of Laki’s eruption in the documentary Doomsday Volcanoes. For those interested in volcanoes in general try the documentary series Mega Disasters.

For another fascinating book about the historic effects of a major volcanic eruption try Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. And for a gripping teen trilogy about the worldwide effects of an apocalyptic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano I heartily recommend Ashfall by Mike Mullin.

Check the WRL catalog for Island on Fire.

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ManagingManureHaving farm animals is fun. They are cute and fun to watch, but (to put it as delicately as possible) they, um, poo a lot. Managing Manure may be about an impolite topic, but to those of us who live in the long-polluted Chesapeake Bay watershed it is an important one.

Apart from the obvious problems involving shoes, manure is, as author Mark Kopecky puts it, “Brown Gold”.  From Managing Manure I learned that much of the nutrients a farm animal eats are excreted.  For example, an average of 70 to 80 percent of the nitrogen goes right through, so manure is vital for recycling nutrients.

Based on solid research from many universities, Managing Manure is filled with practical information aimed at small farmers and gardeners. It does have some mild humor, such as a chapter sub heading of “Number One or Number Two?” but generally takes its important subject very seriously. It is a small book of a hundred pages with instructions on things like how to store, compost and use your Brown Gold. It includes line drawings throughout and a useful glossary, resource list and index.

Managing Manure is from Storey, the well-regarded publisher of farm and country lore which produces go-to books for all gardening and small scale livestock enterprises. This is the very newest of their books owned by Williamsburg Regional Library. Other books in our collection to look out for include titles such as Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees: Honey Production, Pollination, Bee Health, by Richard E. Bonney and Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, by Craig LeHoullier.

Managing Manure is a great book for readers interested in gardening as naturally as possible, such as people who enjoyed Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. It will also appeal to readers interested in raising livestock who pored over Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals, by John P. Hunter.  You will learn much scintillating information such as the consistency of cow manure will depend on the quality of the food the cow eats.

Check the WRL catalog for Managing Manure.

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Design Star, by MIchael Gaffney Eletha continues our week of diverse posts from the WRL Outreach Services division:

Floral design was on my bucket list. Flower arrangements? Why? I love making things—working with my hands keeps me from talking too much. I would spend hours making paper and silk flowers—only to have my flower arrangements look awful. I just could not get my arrangements to look resplendent, dazzling, or gorgeous.

I conquered floral design when I accepted the task of making flower arrangements, corsages, and boutonnieres for a banquet. “Since you make such beautiful flowers, this is the perfect job for you,” the banquet committee members said. However, they did not know floral arrangement was extremely challenging for me.

Design Star: Lessons from the New York School of Flower Design by Michael Gaffney was the solution to my dilemma. In this book, Gaffney demystified the art of arranging flowers. He states: “Putting flowers together in a beautiful way is much like working a Rubik’s Cube; it is a formula to be followed more than an artistic creation.”

This book has easy to understand instructions and formulas that anyone may use to make flawless floral designs. Gaffney teaches the rules of design and gives tricks and tips to make each piece unique. The “6-5-1”, wiring and taping, boutonnieres, corsages, and the triangle design lessons were lifesavers. These lessons allowed me to create everything with ease. If you want to make beautiful floral arrangements, read Gaffney’s book. This book has something for everyone from the novice to the professional florist.

Check the WRL catalog for Design Star

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uglowBig social histories can seem forbidding with their blocks of print, lots of footnotes, and, too often, turgid writing style. In the hands of Jenny Uglow, though, history is anything but pedantic. I have been a fan of Uglow’s history writing since I read The Lunar Men, a collective biography of five men who, as Uglow posits, were “the inventors of the modern world, 1730-1810.” Here, Uglow brings her fluid writing style and attention to detail to the lives of the inhabitants of the Great Britain at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.

In many ways, these times do not seem so far removed from our own, as social unrest, sectarian violence, fear of war and invasion, and income inequality set the tone. Napoleon’s military successes on the European continent led to his increasing power in France and heightened fears that his next target would be the English coast. Uprisings in Ireland only exacerbated these fears. Food shortages across England left many starving and taxation to pay for the war proved unpopular, leading to civil unrest that in light of the recent deposition and execution of Louis XVI left King George concerned not only for his crown but for his neck.

In telling these stories, Uglow moves easily and with mastery from the general to the specific. She makes exceptional use of diaries, letters, and journal entries to indicate how individuals responded to circumstances and then puts those reactions into the broader picture.

With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo coming in June, anyone interested in the Napoleonic period will find something to enjoy here.

Check the WRL catalog for In These Times.

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jacketStrange that on a fine afternoon I’m thinking of death. Especially the death that killed whatever hope remained of a free Roman Republic—not that much hope existed. Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, civil war wracked Rome, and the provinces were restive under the thumbs of local governors bent on earning glory on the backs of the locals. Caesar’s hollow gestures gave the discontented Senate little public reason to oppose him. He had the power to elevate or destroy the ambitious, he controlled both the public purse and a private fortune, and he was insulated by the support of his troops.

And so, over the course of a few weeks, senators conspired (I love that word—it literally means breathed together, conjuring up images of whispering figures close enough to smell each other’s breath) to test the waters and find the like-minded who believed Caesar had to go in order for the Republic—that is, the already-powerful—to rule. And on the Ides of March, gathered in the Theatre of Pompey, the conspirators struck.

Shakespeare’s famous scene compresses events that actually took place over a period of weeks as ordinary Romans tried to figure out which faction was either in the right or stood the best chance of winning the civil war everyone saw coming. Gladiators served as bodyguards for the conspirators, while army veterans swarmed into the city to ensure their land and pensions weren’t at risk. Both sides sculpted their public events to create drama and win support, but in the end it came down to money. Who could both fulfill Caesar’s will and pay the troops who would fight the actual battles?

Strauss pulls out of the wings a number of characters who are not featured in Shakespeare’s version. One of the most interesting is named Decimus, whom Shakespeare cast in a minor role as Decius Brutus. In fact, he was one of a trio—Marc Antony and Octavian being the other two—honored in one of Caesar’s triumphs, and was widely considered a rising star. It was Decimus, not Brutus, whose betrayal was more likely to have shocked Caesar, and Decimus whose post-assassination indecisiveness cost the conspirators their opportunities. Strauss also introduces us to the politically powerful women who pushed, pulled, financed, and slept their way to positions of influence. Far from the passive skirt-clutching simps that popular imagination consigns pre-Friedan women to, these were tough, astute players who had a vision of Rome’s future and who did all but carry swords into the battle.

Shakespeare can take credit for making this the most famous assassination in history, and his drama explores deeper themes than are found in the history. But the history is fascinating, and Strauss makes it read as a drama just as wonderful as Shakespeare’s.

Check the WRL catalog for The Death of Caesar.

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