There is a certain kind of mad science that takes great joy in things exploding, imploding, melting, burning and otherwise flying around violently. If that sounds exciting, Randall Munroe's What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is for you. The answers are fast, easily understood and amusingly illustrated.
A former NASA engineer, Munroe has made his name as the creator of xkcd, one of the most successful webcomics. Three times a week he releases a strip, or something like a strip, (there have been some really wild experiments on the artform that will never be printable in any meaningful way). He covers science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming, romance, language, pop culture and velociraptors. As a public figure who is recognized as being good at science, he gets a lot of questions on scientific ideas, and has compiled quite a few of those questions into a book.
Questions answered here include:
- Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
- If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?
- From what height would you need to drop a steak for it to be cooked by the time it hit the ground?
Munroe then proceeds to answer most of these questions with three to five pages of information, full of gleefully horrifying explosions, scientific laws, formulas and an explanation of how he got the answer based on experiments people have done before. Also included are the surprisingly complex stick figure drawings he uses to illustrate his webcomic. The result is quick, smart and guaranteed to make you the life of the party.
And for a palette cleanser, also included are several of the questions that didn't make it into the book, such as:
Would it be possible to stop a volcanic eruption by placing a bomb (thermobaric or nuclear) underneath the surface?
What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?
Apparently, there are questions so ridiculous that they don't need answers.
Martin Short is a comedic icon known for his zany characters and frenetic humor. Whether he's portraying the unctuous Jiminy Glick or the lovable loser Ed Grimley, Short’s genius lies in his ability to find the absurdity in life. In his biography, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short candidly shares stories about his private and public life which help to explain how he evolved into a comedy legend.
Short was born and raised in Canada, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family where humor was a major part of life. Two things Short enjoys doing are relating humorous stories and dropping names. For instance, Short, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks hold a bi-annual male bonding ritual of sorts. They gather together on the evening before their perspective colonoscopies to play poker while cleansing their lower GI tracts. This odd ritual, which Short has dubbed “Colonoscopy Eve,” helps the men to endure a rather unpleasant ordeal, and the next day they are “toasting our good colorectal health over margaritas.”
Besides this one story, the book is not scatological in nature, but an homage to Short’s friends, colleagues and family. Actually, considering the list of celebrities that he either knows or is friends with — including Martin, Hanks, Eugene Levy and David Letterman, to name a few — this book reads more like a who’s who of comedy legends. A few of his stories are poignant, but he never gets maudlin even when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges.
Whether you are a Martin Short fan or not, I Must Say will give you insights into a world that is pretty much like anyone’s life. There are ups and downs and plenty of laughter, but the big takeaway from Short’s biography is that celebrities are human, too. They just have a lot more money.
We have become a food-obsessed society, and no wonder. Besides providing necessary sustenance, the right meal has the power to transform, transport, unite, comfort and even show love. Three new memoirs center on very different culinary experiences. In Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork, British expat Simon Majumdar ventures near and far from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles to find out more about Americans through food.
Majumdar, a food writer and frequent face on the Food Network, uses his impending naturalization as the impetus to embark on an authentically American culinary tour. Each chapter of his book describes a different food-related experience, from fishing in New Jersey to making cheese in Wisconsin. As the husband of a Filipino wife and a transplant himself, he is quick to point out the influences of immigrants on our national table. He cooks traditional Filipino fare under the tutelage of AJ, the head chef at Salo-Salo Grill in West Covina, California; and “tours Mexico” by eating his way through an array of diverse food stands in South Los Angeles. Majumdar is an affable host, and readers will enjoy his journalistic efforts, which are liberally dosed with historical facts to provide background. Fed, White, and Blue is an enjoyable, distracting read.
Graham Holliday looks back to his experiences working and eating in Vietnam in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Eating Việt Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table. British-born Holliday travelled to the country to teach English, eventually becoming a journalist. It doesn’t take him long to realize that some of the most delicious, authentic, vibrant food to be had was found off the path beaten by tourists. The term “adventurous eater” doesn’t even begin to describe Holliday, as he takes on all manner of offal from stalls, restaurants and makeshift kitchens that know nothing about health code. He enters the world of blogging with noodlepie, a blog dedicated to the street food of Saigon. From duck fetus eggs to the more approachable banh mi and pho, Holliday’s prose celebrates the country’s distinctive dishes in a way that will make you eager to seek out a stateside Vietnamese restaurant.
Writer Sasha Martin is well known for Global Table Adventure, a blog dedicated to virtual travel around the world. Martin spent four years cooking and sharing approachable recipes from 195 countries in her Tulsa, Oklahoma, kitchen. When she began writing a book intended to chronicle that undertaking, Martin found herself on a journey of introspection that resulted in Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family and Forgiveness. Hers was far from an idyllic childhood, raised in poverty in working-class Boston by a single mother who struggled in myriad ways to take care of herself as much as her children. When her mother failed, she did so dramatically — leading to visits from social services and ultimately the decision to put her children in the hands of family friends in order to give them what she thought would be a better life. The thread that runs through the poignant, heartrending story of Martin’s early life is the anchoring, inspiring power of food — learned from her erratic, mercurial mother — and eventually passed on to her own family.
“What was he thinking?” is the first line of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, and anyone who has ever given birth to or even encountered a teenager at some point may very well have uttered that same question. Being a teenager is difficult, and interacting with a teenager can also be very hard. Luckily, Dr. Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt are here to answer that particular query: The answer is brain science.
In The Teenage Brain, Jensen breaks down the tumultuous and terrifying teenage brain, a long-neglected niche in the field of brain study. While more has been learned about the human brain in the last 10 years than the whole of human history, the startling revelations of what actually happens to us in those years from 12 to 22 are just recently becoming well known. While past research has been quick to blame “hormones” for every idiotic thing teens do on a day-to-day basis, Jensen points out, it is really the teen brain’s inability to deal with those surging hormones that is the real culprit. As she explores the myriad of ways that teens are wired for impulsivity and poor decision-making skills, we get a better sense of why everything is a big deal to a teen. Minor inconveniences seem like life-and-death situations to teenagers because in their blossoming dendrites they are!
This book is written in such a way that doesn’t intimidate or talk-down to the reader. Chock-full of helpful information on everything from risk-taking, driving, sex, drug and alcohol use, video game addiction and the differences in the genders (and with plenty of great ammunition for winning that argument against your teen who wants to wear earbuds while studying), this is the perfect read for parents, educators and everyone who enjoys working with young people in this age range.
So the next time you think you’ve had it up to here with your teen, take a deep breath, remember this book and think that it isn’t personal; it’s just brain science.
Have you ever wondered how Beyoncé stays so thin? Or what is Victoria Beckham’s secret to her svelte frame? Well, so did Rebecca Harrington, and in her book I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting, she dishes up some interesting insights into the nutritional habits of the stars. In order to discover how effective her subjects' diets were, Harrington tested each one herself. Granted, her approach was not scientific — she only spent about a week on each diet and often times did not stick to the regime — but her compilation of her experiences makes for some entertaining reading.
The celebrities profiled range from the contemporary to the classic, and the diets range from the fairly sensible to the extraordinarily weird. Among the ones that seem not too off-the-wall is Gwyneth Paltrow’s — who Harrington gushes about throughout the book — vegan lifestyle and recipes which are palatable, if expensive to prepare. Then there is the yeast-centered diet of Greta Garbo or Dolly Parton’s Cabbage Soup Diet or even Victoria Beckham’s Five Hands Diet. As Harrington explains, Beckham apparently advocates eating five handfuls of food a day and “then for some unknown reason you declare yourself full.”
Harrington’s witty comments and occasional barbs are the real heart of the book. She doesn't really offer any serious insights into which diet is the best or the worst, instead she points out just how obsessed our culture is with trying to emulate celebrities. Harrington’s book may not cause you to lose any weight, but it will offer you a light and amusing read.
The Sound of Music had its film debut 50 years ago and The Sound of Music Story by Tom Santopietro is the book for any fan of this beloved Rogers and Hammerstein movie musical. Details abound about filming in Austria and Hollywood, and the book also includes new interviews with production insiders.
As is appropriate, Santopietro starts at the very beginning with an insider’s view of the filming of the opening shot of the movie. While viewers recall the spirited Julie Andrews singing “The Sound of Music” while traipsing through the lush mountains of Austria, readers learn what it took to capture that magical moment, including Julie Andrews being blown to the ground by the crew helicopter! In detailing the behind-the-scenes machinations, Santopietro immediately highlights the financial and logistical challenges inherent in this production. Indeed, as intolerable as it is to imagine, this was a movie that almost didn’t make it to the big screen thanks to the flop that was Cleopatra.
Santopietro’s exhaustive examination of this cherished film includes the real life story of Maria von Trapp and the musical’s Broadway success. But it is the insider information from the movie which is most appealing. Picture if you will Angie Dickinson or Grace Kelly as Maria. How about David Niven or Bing Crosby as Captain von Trapp? Santopietro also studies the movie through the lens of history as the movie opened during the turbulent 1960s — there were strong questions about its appeal during an era of cynicism and protest. But succeed it did, as it was received well by the critics (Pauline Kael, be darned!), garnered 10 Oscar nominations, was the highest-grossing film of 1965 and is entrenched as a favorite thing to countless aficionados of all ages.
Meghan Daum's new essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion starts off with an emotional stab. In her opening essay, Daum speaks about her complicated relationship with her mother and her ho-hum reaction to her death. "I was as relieved as I planned to be," she says, when her mother finally stops breathing. It’s this honesty that you should expect from Daum as she explores a hodgepodge of subjects from her flawed family to her obsession with Joni Mitchell. The L.A. Times columnist and author of three previous books, ruminates on what makes her tick, even when it is far from flattering.
Daum isn't afraid to say what many might feel but would never utter aloud. Her 10 essays range from light and insignificant to a catharsis for the 40-something as she traverses life's weightier decisions. She's at her best early on with her character-driven portrait of her mother whose behavior her daughter could not abide.
Intelligent and candid, Daum exudes an unapologetic tone as she grapples with creeping midlife and what to make of it. There are moments of eloquent internal clarity that reach across the page. Her thought-provoking essay "Difference Maker," about her experience mentoring in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, delves into the underbelly of foster care. It's an observant gem that does not pretend to have the answers. That's what rises to the top of Daum’s latest effort. For all the self-analysis and "unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor," life is still often about the intangibles.
When composed by a gifted writer, creative nonfiction can be a magical vessel capable of alchemizing the mundane into the enthralling. Lifelong-Chicagoan Peggy Shinner is one such sorceress; in her collection You Feel So Mortal, she reflects on the elemental aesthetics and feelings of the human body, touching on the ideas of awkward feet, poor posture, proper fit and even plastic surgery.
In “The Fitting(s),” Shinner recounts a harrowing trip to an upscale department store to purchase new bras with the aid of a professional fitter. Her tale is laced with memories of shopping with her mother, and her own ponderings on the implications of choosing the alluring over the practical as a sort of gratuity to the fitter’s expertise. Shinner chronicles her experiences training as an advanced martial artist in “The Knife,” an essay about the myriad reciprocities between our bodies and the tools we use. “Elective” is a soul-bearing debate on the merits of plastic surgery: Does the empowerment of perceived beauty outweigh the emotional strain born from the defilement of one’s natural state?
Blended with sentimental storytelling in a lighter literary voice, Shinner’s factual anecdotes help characterize her worldly observations. She treasures her rare vantage and shares her assembled insights in nine accessible essays brimming with equal parts nostalgia and profundity. You Feel So Mortal is perfect for literary essay enthusiasts, for nonfiction lovers looking for something endearing and sentimental, or for readers interested in a Jewish or lesbian perspective.
One of the great paradoxes of history is Robert E. Lee’s decision to fight for the Confederacy rather than defend the Union. Jonathan Horn explores the great battle Lee fought within himself in The Man Who Would Not Be Washington.
Robert E. Lee was the son of a renowned Revolutionary General, the son-in-law of Washington’s adopted child and the keeper of the flame of Washington’s legacy. He graduated second in his class at West Point, fought for his country during the Mexican-American War, and was considered the natural choice to command the Union Army. Despite a lifetime defending the Constitution against all enemies, he could not bear arms against his neighbors. Horn’s extensive research follows Lee through his personal and professional life, illuminating the deep ties of family, affection and history that bound the Washington and Lee families. It is this one, fateful decision that has shaped our perception of Washington and created the American story.
Our nation’s story is not simply about the generals, but also the private soldiers. In Marching Home: The Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Jordan shatters the legend of the constantly faithful, overly sentimental soldier who attends reunions and speaks fondly of brothers-in-arms. Rather, the soldiers were tormented by wounds and memories. A new fight began after the war — the fight for dignity, fair compensation and recognition of their accomplishments. Determined to put the war behind them, civilians were unprepared for the return of shell-shocked veterans and unwilling to deal with their needs. Using pension records, diaries, letters and regimental histories, Brian Matthew Jordan has brought into stark relief the needs of veterans and the vast gulf between the home front and the battlefront.
Two great reads for Civil War devotees — from one Civil War nut to another!
Every DIYer out there has a story or two about a project that ended up going awry. Heather Mann compiles hysterical craft disasters in CraftFail: When Homemade Goes Horribly Wrong. Spanning the worlds of food, home décor, fashion and kids, Mann’s entertaining collection will amuse non-crafters and comfort those dedicated crafters who have all experienced hiccups despite the best laid plans.
Mann, creator of the popular blog CraftFail.com takes a look at what happens to those of us who aren’t Martha Stewart. The effort and good intentions are definitely there but, sadly, the end result doesn’t match. Photographs of craft failures, including new ones not seen on the blog, include glitter shoes that look like a puddle of sparkling slop and spaghetti-stuffed garlic bread which is anything but appetizing. These projects all sounded cool and seemed attainable, but the outcomes were decidedly dreadful.
Mann’s funny look at crafting gone wrong also serves as a celebration of the creative process. Failure is always a possibility, but that shouldn’t be a barrier to inspiration and imagination. The photographs and sharp writing all combine to create a humorous homage to the internal HGTV designer inside each of us who perseveres and keeps on crafting. This charming collection also highlights two important imperatives all crafters should adopt as a mantra when starting any project — follow directions and don’t substitute!