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Archive for the ‘Social Science’ Category

inside the obriensThe O’Briens are an ordinary Boston family. Catholics of Irish descent, they have Sunday supper together every week, and the four early-twenties children still live in their parents’ house. The father, Joe, is a life-long, dedicated Boston cop while mother Rosie raised the children and now works part-time. Into this steady but satisfying existence is thrown deadly, hereditary, debilitating, degenerative Huntington’s Disease.

Lisa Genova’s many fans will be thrilled to learn that she is back with another dramatic and wrenching tale of a family battling a disease. Like Genova’s first book, Still Alice, with its portrait of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, the disease portrayed here is entirely inherited. Children have a fifty percent chance of inheriting the genes from a gene-positive parent, but gene-positive people will always develop the disease. It is a cruel disease that some people don’t know they have until they get symptoms in their forties.

Huntington’s Disease drives the plot of Inside the O’Briens, but the deeper story is the love, strength and resilience of the O’Brien family. Keep the tissues handy for scenes when Joe is painfully aware of his own disintegration, such as when he stops being able to hug his wife because his chorea (involuntary movements) mean that he might hurt her.

Inside the O’Briens is a must-read for fans of Lisa Genova’s earlier books such as Left Neglected, as well as other compelling, but wrenching, family stories such as The Light Between Oceans.

Check the WRL catalog for Inside the O’Briens.

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Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

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WhyDidtheChicken

The title of this book poses an interesting question: why do chickens occur all over the world, and have for a long time? The short answer is that people took them around the globe because they are useful and noble birds.

Penguins (which I blogged about yesterday) are relatively rare birds and are considered cute, while chickens are so ubiquitous as to be thought boring. Andrew Lawler has done a great job of convincing me that chickens are not in the least bit boring, and hopefully the photo below of Henny Penny and Co. (wondering if my iPad is edible) will convince you that they are cute. Readable, surprising and captivating, this book will make you want to immerse yourself to find out more about this fascinating bird of contradictions.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is dense with facts, including many surprising ones such as that there are more chickens in the world than cats, dogs and rats put together, in fact, so many chickens that they outnumber people. Andrew Lawler argues that chickens are far more useful and important to human history than they are generally given credit for. They have been significant for religions from Zoroastrianism to Christianity for thousands of years and, because of the rooster’s habit of crowing just before dawn, they have frequently been seen as symbols of light and resurrection. As small animals that will eat scraps, they have always been economically important to poor or marginalized populations such as American slaves. They are important to medicine and scientific research in areas from growing vaccines to chick embryo development.

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The chicken’s own history is somewhat murky. They are almost certainly descended from Asian Jungle Fowl (probably Red), but whether it was once or multiple times, and exactly where, is still controversial. We know why the chicken crossed the world, but how is not as clear, because chickens are small animals with tiny, easily eaten, scattered or rotted bones. Archaeological evidence of chickens is scarce, but it does suggest that Polynesians took chickens on their remarkable Pacific voyages, and that Tandoori Chicken recipes may have been invented in Indus Valley civilizations around 5000 years ago!  For local history buffs, in 1752 the College of William and Mary banned their students from attending cockfights, but that didn’t stop George Washington attending one in nearby Yorktown!

One thing I found missing from this book was illustrations. When the author talked about the Red Jungle Fowl or Queen Victoria’s many exotic breeds, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I used a copy of Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius with its great illustrations.

This book will appeal to readers who are interested in the intersection between humans and animals such as  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog, or the effects of animals on human history like Spillover, by David Quammen.

Check the WRL catalog for Why Did the Chicken Cross the World.

WyandotteChicken

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PsychopathWhispererYesterday’s book, What If?, claims in its subtitle that it will provide answers to “Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” Science is all about hypothetical questions because scientists are always asking “Why?” about all aspects of nature and life, and then asking “What would happen if I change something?” Sometimes a question may seem absurd on the surface but the answer may provide a an interesting, profound or counter-intuitive glimpse into the nature of reality. Scientist and author Kent A. Kiehl seems to have asked, “Are psychopath’s brains different from normal people’s brains?” Being a clever scientist (and apparently a man of great persuasive powers) he took fMRI machines into prisons and concluded that “Yes, psychopath’s brain structures and functions definitely differ from normal brains.”

Kiehl has published many scientific papers, and one published a few months ago says that the abnormal brain structures associated with psychopathy can be detected in adolescence. It is not ethically clear what society can do with this information. “Psychopath” is a word used popularly to describe mentally ill people–often people the speaker doesn’t like! Before I read this book I didn’t realize that psychopathy is measured by a standardized test used by psychiatrists and psychologists with a fair degree of consistent results. Psychopaths are estimated to be less than 1% of the general population, but they may constitute up to 35% of the prison population. Obviously, not all psychopaths are criminals but a lot of criminals are psychopaths. Psychopaths can be the very bad people of popular myth and culture. Kiehl gives numerous examples of murderers and rapists who simply could not understand why their actions were bad and elicited horror and condemnation from other people (and society at large).

In the past it was very difficult to measure the internal and real-time workings of a brain. Electrical activity could give researchers an idea of what was going on but mostly functions and structures could only be measured when the brain wasn’t working, that is, after the person was dead. An fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine can measure the blood flow in real time within a living subject, and increased blood flow means that the person is using that part of their brain. Kiehl uses this to examine how psychopath’s brains react differently to normal people’s under certain stimuli.

The Psychopath Whisperer is a great book for readers who like to explore the emerging physical and psychological reasons why people act the ways they do such as Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom. Fans of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia or Hallucinations will appreciate that Kent Kiehl also uses profiles of real people. It will be interesting if you like reading true crime books like Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham. Also try it if you like fiction exploring the idea of inherited criminality, such as Defending Jacob by William Landay or The Dinner by Herman Koch.

Check the WRL catalog for The Psychopath Whisperer

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liesI’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.

Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand.  A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?

There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?

More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.

Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers.  He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.

The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.

Check the WRL catalog for Lies Across America

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closeThere’s no easy way to put this. Chris Bohjalian has written a book that is almost too difficult to read. Not because of the language, which is spot on. Not because of the characters, which ring true. Not because of the structure, which easily shifts between past and present. Not because of the plot, which is both frighteningly plausible and the everyday experience of too many people. When you add them all up, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands becomes unbearable even as Bohjalian demands that you bear witness.

The setup is simple enough. A 16-year old girl, rebellious and unfocused, has nonstop fights with her parents and well-meaning but ineffectual teachers. She’s fairly new to the area, having been dragged to northeast Vermont by her parents’ jobs, and she hasn’t made the transition well. The only thing she’s got going for her is her love of Emily Dickinson. (Side note Emily shares with us—take any Emily Dickinson poem and sing it to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. Perfect match!) Then the nuclear power plant where her parents work suffers a catastrophe, and Emily Shepard, with thousands of others, is forced to evacuate. Unlike them, she carries the burden of her name, because her father is blamed for the disaster.

Emily makes her way to Burlington, where she stays on the edges of the relief efforts, unable to make up a coherent story. Eventually the aid runs out and Emily is forced onto her own. She has few options, so her life quickly spirals out of control. She finds shelter wherever she can, stealing clothes and food and turning tricks at the local truck stop for cash. Other homeless girls give her advice, but one especially changes Emily’s life when she teaches Emily how to cut herself. The catharsis that this self-punishment brings doesn’t last, but razor blades and Bactine are cheap and plentiful.

Emily experiences an awakening when she finds a nine-year-old runaway boy and takes him under her wing. Cameron has been shuffled from one foster home to the next and suffered one beating too many, so he’s set out on his own. She makes it look like he’s in the company of a responsible adult, and helps provide little extras, like food, to him. In turn, he teaches Emily how to build an igloo out of trash bags stuffed with leaves, and the two live together on the lake ice with other homeless people. But the lake won’t stay frozen forever; nor can Emily keep Cameron forever. Eventually Emily is drawn home, traveling into the radioactive zone that surrounds the plant.

The meltdown offers a metaphor, a reason why a seemingly privileged kid would set out to live in squalor and degradation. It unfortunately stands in for the conditions that cause so many teens to run away from home and cast themselves into a world where no one ultimately cares if they live. Bohjalian doesn’t spare the reader any of the details of that life. It is a life he is too familiar with, working as he does with community agencies that serve homeless teens in his town. It’s a life he opens our eyes to, even when we want to close them.

Check the WRL catalog for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

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NativeAmericanGardeningNative American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.

The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.

The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.

Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.

Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods

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