Well, not really. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is only about pandas in that there’s one on the cover and involved in the joke that is the title. It’s really just a concise, funny, and detailed look at the effect punctuation has on the English language. The humor of it is probably more satisfying if you’re one of those people (like me) who cringes when you see a sign in the grocery store that says “Sale: Apple’s”, but everyone will find something to giggle at and something to learn from this book. Check it out — if you’re a college student, and read this one, you’ll find a lot less red pen on your papers. And if you’re a professor, you might find more places to put that red pen.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.
Why I liked this book: One of the reasons that I loved His Majesty’s Dragon was that it felt like it captured a mood, a tone, and a character very effectively — it was a moment in time, on the page. Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte makes me wish I knew more about seventeenth century Spain, because the cultural references to that moment in time, in history, and in the world are fierce and omnipresent, and settle this book all the more firmly in its mood and tone.
Honestly, though, there are worse ways to remind myself of European history than to read a lovingly translated work of historical fiction that calls back to an earlier era — the Golden Century of Spain — while telling the story of the thoroughly disreputable but equally thoroughly honorable Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste’s squire, Inigo Balboa, recounts his master’s exploits, and regales the reader with his star-struck recollections of meeting Lope de Vega at the opening of one of his plays, listening to Francisco de Quevedo spout drunken poetry, and learning a plethora of respectable (and not-so-respectable) skills from the many unemployed soldiers frequenting the same haunts as his Captain.
His respectable but not-so-respectable Captain is at the heart of the story — a brave man, struggling to find a place in war-weary Madrid, weaving through the politics and laws and custom and tradition of his society as he goes. That weaving of the adventurer’s tale, politics through the eyes of the common man, and Spanish history and culture into one cohesive tale is what makes this book so remarkable, and so very, very readable. Inigo is a wry, adoring, and honest narrator, telling the story of a swashbuckling hero in a cape that needs mending, in a time that glows with culture, art, and weighty history, and he narrates a story well worth reading.
Is it science fiction blasphemy to say something was like Heinlein, but better?
A whole bunch of people who write better than I do say very nice things about the book on that page, and I’m not going to try to paraphrase them or outdo them. I will say that this book had me laughing, intrigued, and completely hooked by page 15 or so. John Perry’s voice is the perfect balance of age and wisdom and experience and the essential snarkiness of the skeptical, intelligent American. The slow reveal of the reality of the CDF and the politics and science of the universe kept me reading, page after page, ever-curious and enlightened by increments. The arc of the plot — one man finds his second life and learns about the CDF and humanity’s place in the universe — was perfectly balanced with the moral, ethical, and humanistic questions raised by that plot arc. What’s it mean to be human? What, if not your body or your mind, makes you human? Is it your actions? Your culture? Your heritage (there are no minorities in the CDF, after all)? Your society? Your politics? Your love for other beings? The relationships you build with others?
I loved it. I’m still thinking about the ideas it presented, about the dazzlingly plausible speculation about how humanity will interact with the universe, about the startlingly obvious portrayal of how humanity will respond to that interaction, about the scientific ideas it set forward, and about the dialogue and writing that moved all of those things forward so brilliantly.
Plus, the action was fantastic, without overwhelming the rest of the narrative. It is, after all, a book about a war. More than that, though, it’s a book about the people who fight wars, and it’s the portrayal of those people that really makes it shine.
Y: The Last Man
Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan
Why I liked this book: Y: The Last Man, by Pia Guerra and Brian K. Vaugan, falls neatly into my long history of loving the story that tells us what happens after the world ends. I’m a big fan of The Stand, Alas Babylon, and A Canticle for Liebowitz, also, all of which ask that same question — if we fall prey to disease by the billions, blow up the world, or, again, blow up the world, what happens next? What becomes of the survivors? Y asks those same questions, but with a different perspective. What happens when all the men die? Specifically, it looks at what happens to the government, the military, and all the industries where women are highly underrepresented, and then it asks the best question of all: Why is Yorick still alive? And what happens to the one last man mysteriously walking the earth?
Lots of stuff, is what.
This ongoing story blends the best of the serial comic with serious issues — gender issues, political issues, moral issues — to produce a gripping adventure tale, complex and endearing heroes, and thought-provoking questions and situations.
If you still think comics are just for kids, I dare you to give this one a try. (If you’re in Potsdam, Tim’s Comic and Game can hook you up, as can Amazon and other internet vendors. But support your local comic shop!)
Why I liked this book: What a time to be a reporter with access to the Soviet Union. Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist with a reputation built on his reporting from corners of the third world, turned his attention to his large neighbor as it was coming apart. He travels from Azerbaijan and Armenia to Vorkuta and Kolyma, and places in between. He has a keen eye for the absurd, and the details that capture the essence of the human situation in each locale. He knows the history, and the weight that history still brings to bear on the people. He has called what he does, “literature by foot” since so much is on the scene reports.
What you sense most when you read, in addition to the outrage that so much suffering has been inflicted, is his compassion for the people still trying to live in these environmentally and politically blighted lands. Kapuscinski is a talented storyteller. His writing brings to life these seldom visited corners of the vast Soviet empire. Many of these places are now struggling with self-governance – still burdened with the legacy of years under the Soviet yoke.
Kapuscinski died on Jan. 23, 2007, at age 74.
His other books include: The Soccer War, Another Day of Life, Shah of Shahs
Title:The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Why I liked this book: There is so much fervent and conflicting opinion about food these days – what is one to do? The author tries to take as objective a look as he can at the food system in the U.S. – from farm field to dinner plate (or styrofoam box, as the case may be.) He is not a vegetarian, but considers seriously the case made for that option. He examines the claims for organic farming, and the skeptics and opponents. He looks at the industrial food system that produces most of our food.
What makes his book most interesting is that he goes to see contrasting systems in action – on the ground, as it were. He buys a beef cow and follows it through the process from Wyoming ranch to slaughterhouse. He follows corn from the field to its many derivatives. What fascinates him most is a farm in Virginia practicing a form of integrated farming that produces a variety of foods largely without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides – where the whole operation runs on well-managed grass.
Some critics have noted mistakes, including miscalculation of the relative caloric content of a bushel of corn and a half-gallon of gasoline (which he incorrectly equates), but exact numbers are not his main point. The case he effectively makes is that the highly industrialized system that dominates food production and distribution in the U.S. (and increasingly worldwide) has hidden costs that make it unsustainable and unhealthy. Since we all eat, this is a problem that everyone should all care about, whether one reads this book or not.
In Crumb Library at GT 2850.P65 2006
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Title: The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class
Author: Kidder and Oppenheim
Why I liked this book: I wish I read more non-fiction, but it’s hard to find truly readable and gripping non-fiction. So I read less than I wish I did, and I have a hard time motivating myself to read more.
One page a night, though… that I can do, even on my longest, tiredest days. The Intellectual Devotional offers up one page on a different topic each day, with pithy and concise encyclopedia-style entries in seven different areas (one for each day of the week): history, literature, philosophy, mathematics and science, religion, fine arts, and music.
Because the entries are short, and written with a quiet bit of humor here and there, and some really entertaining footnotes, they’re easy to read, reflect on, and really pay attention to. Of course, because the entries are short, they’re far from comprehensive. But I’m enjoying this — I know more about Alexander the Great than I did yesterday, and I find myself reflecting, with horrified amusement, on Hammurabi’s Code of Laws. So… I’m learning. And that’s always good. And if I want to know more, I DO work in a library.
Title:Salonica, city of ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950
Why I liked this book: The city now known as Thessaloniki, Greece has had a remarkable history. Situated very strategically, on the eastern shore of the Balkan peninsula, the city was a crossroads for Greek, eastern Mediterranean, Turkish, Albanian, and Slavic peoples. It also became a major destination for Jews expelled from western Europe at the end of the 15th century. The interrelationships among these groups were complex, but often in surprising ways. Religion was clearly a recurring issue, but toleration was more common than not. Business interests often exerted a stronger influence than ethnic or religious ones – until the German occupation of the 1940s.
This book takes the story of the city from the time it began to become an important port, through the centuries of Ottoman rule, the Greek-Turkish partition which brought the Greeks to power, and to the atrocities of the second world war. It is a vast story, but one that illustrates very well some of the major forces at work in modern history. In addition to the broad picture, the narrative includes personal histories that show how the great forces play out in the lives of individuals. 490 p.
In Crumb Library at DF951.T45 M39 2006
Title:The fly in the cathedral
Why I liked this book: Some of the most amazing stories have been the true tales of scientific discovery. Tell them well, and the drama comes through along with the science. The Fly in the Cathedral is the story of the men and women who first probed (literally) the atomic nucleus to try to discover what was there and how it was built. The central characters are the handful of men who worked under the formidable Sir Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge, England. Between 1919 and 1932 the secrets of the nucleus were slowly unraveled, and physics moved into the era of big apparatus (cyclotrons, linear accelerators, etc.). The work of the theoretical physicists – Einstein et al. – has been famously celebrated. This is the tale of those who labored with primitive equipment to gather the experimental data that the theorists needed.
The story includes the many failures and mis-directions, the competing teams of experimental physicists around the globe, and the personal lives of those most involved. Among those who play a role are the very biggest names in modern physics – Bohr, Heisenberg, Curie, Gamow, Dirac, de Broglie. But the heroes of this tale are no less interesting for being less well known. James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, and Ernest Walton provide perfect opportunities to look into the life of science at the dawn of the nuclear age.
In Crumb Library: Q 141.C2525 2005
Title: Five Quarters of the Orange
Author: Joanne Harris
Why I liked this book:
I like books with quirky characters and twisty plots. I also like stories that explore the natural world and stories about the culinary arts. This book has it all: suspense, war, superstition, love, betrayal and a great fishing tale to boot.
The setting is a small rural town on the Loire River in France. Frambois Simon returns to her childhood home town as an old woman to open a restaurant in the old family homestead. She tells us of the events of her childhood in her eighth summer that led to a great tragedy in the village.
As a child, Frambois has difficulty with family relationships, especially with her moody mother who suffers from migraines. She has an even stranger relationship with a legendary pike (as in fish) named “Old Mother” who lives in the nearby river. Frambois is also infatuated with a young Nazi officer stationed in her village during the occupation. He is both a father figure and the target of her puppy love. Frambois and her siblings feed information about the local villagers to the Germans in exchange for trinkets and oranges.
The story revolves around Frambois’ struggle with the moral issues surrounding her relationships and her daily pursuit of the ancient pike. Suspense and mystery abound as events spin out of her control. Throw in her mother’s scrapbook/diary filled with old family recipes and cryptic clues about the town tragedy, you really have a great recipe for a great read.