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What If?

posted by: May 4, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for What If?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 art form 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.


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Finding Jake

posted by: May 1, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Finding Jake“Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5.” When Simon Connolly gets the text message from his children’s school that there’s been a shooting, he wastes no time getting to St. Michael’s church where he’s expecting to meet his son, Jake, and daughter, Laney. As parents are taken one by one out of the church to be reunited with their children or given the horrific news, Simon waits. His wife Rachel escorts a tearful Laney outside. When he is the last person seated, his heart cannot bear the idea that his son Jake is still missing. As rumors start to spread that Jake was one of the shooters who planned and carried out the attack, Simon is desperate to find him.

 

Bryan Reardon’s new novel, Finding Jake, centers on a tragedy that has become all-too-familiar in news headlines: a school shooting that leaves 13 students dead. Simon’s perspective moves back and forth between the horror unfolding of the present day and his memories of Jake’s birth, childhood and adolescence. It is through these memories that Simon clings to one objective: to mine every detail for a clue that will lead to finding his son. However, as he adds up these details, he cannot help but wonder if he missed signs that Jake could be capable of such a terrible act. As tension mounts, any mundane or trivial memory about Jake consumes Simon and his quest to discover the truth. Compounding his grief is how the media has influenced the court of public opinion into trying and convicting Jake, leaving the entire Connolly family to bear the brunt of the community’s anger and fear.

 

There is no shortage of novels dealing with school violence: Lionel Shriver’s excellent We Need to Talk About Kevin, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, and Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed are a few examples. Finding Jake is a sharp page-turner that, similar to these novels, will stay with the reader long after the conclusion.


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I Must Say

posted by: April 30, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for I Must SayMartin 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.


 
 

Food Will Keep Us Together

posted by: April 24, 2015 - 12:00pm

Cover art for Fed, White, and BlueCover art for Eating Viet NamCover art for Life from ScratchWe 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.


 
 

Find Me

posted by: April 24, 2015 - 7:00am

Find Me by Laura van den BergPrepare to embark on a journey through desolation in Laura van den Berg’s debut novel Find Me. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Find Me is a deglamorized record of post-pandemic survival, one where recovery cannot begin until what’s held dear is forsaken.

 

Joy Jones is in the hospital, but not because she is sick; rather, she’s flotsam in the wake of a new virus that has left America 400,000 people fewer. Joy is one of around 90 survivors living in quarantine at the hospital, hoping to avoid the sickness which manifests as silver skin lesions and deteriorates the memory until the body forgets how to function. Under Dr. Bek and his armada of imposing nurses clad in hazmat suits, the 90 undergo daily stress tests to increase their chances of survival. Despite the uncomfortably close monitoring, some of the interned contract the illness and are sent to the upper floors to die. Joy knows that things at this medical sanctuary aren’t as they seem, and the sudden imposition of a localized media blackout exacerbates her fears. Armed with a photo of her estranged mother bequeathed to her by a deceased aunt, Joy plans her escape with the hopes of finding all she has squandered and relinquished.

 

Find Me is about loss both immediate and lifelong; it’s a mural of a populace haunted by all things unrecoverable. In a world where there is no hope or love left to fill voids, chasms consume those desperate souls who can’t bring themselves to let go. Laura van den Berg writes in a superb literary voice without betraying her young heroine, and brings ancillary characters to life through their unique memory mnemonics and coping mechanisms. Readers who enjoyed or who are anxiously awaiting their copies of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven should go to great lengths to track this one down.


 
 

Locked Out of a Good Book

posted by: April 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Unbound: Magic ex Libris: Book Three by Jim C. HinesThe central conceit of Jim C. Hines' Magic ex Libris series is that practitioners of magic can pull tools out of books, creating arsenals of the wildest ideas that authors have ever come up with. Consider the benefit of Lucy's magic cordial from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a potion that can heal all wounds and sickness with just a drop, or the devastating power of Robert Jordan's balefire, a fire so strong that it doesn't just destroy its target, but erases it and all its works from existence. For years, Isaac Vainio was a Porter, a magical librarian tasked with keeping the public from knowing that magic even exists. In Unbound, book three in the Magic ex Libris series, the lid gets blown off so far that there's no chance magic will ever be secret again.

 

The value of the secret of magic is small compared to the incoming threat. An ancient queen has re-awoken, possessed the body of the only libriomancer who has so far figured out how to tap into e-books and started a rampage that should eventually result in a collapse of mortality and a whole lot of destruction. In her path: a former mage, the most kick-butt dryad to ever grace the pages of literature, a cranky psychiatrist not sure any of her extended family has any business in the field and the rapidly collapsing network of the Porters.

 

The greatest brilliance of Unbound may take place between the chapters, in one or two page stories that perfectly capture the fear and excitement of a world waking up to magic in its midst. As YouTubers fight over the special effects used in videos, wizards sneak into cancer wards and family members berate people for not doing enough when they had the power. It's exhilarating, heart-breaking and hopefully a promise of a fourth book set in the completely shattered status quo.


 
 

The Teenage Brain by Dr. Frances Jensen“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.


 
 

The First Bad Man

posted by: April 20, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The First Bad ManMiranda July is an extraordinary artist capable of channeling her creativity into any medium, and her debut novel The First Bad Man surpasses the ambitiousness of her fantastic short collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. In The First Bad Man, July makes a mockery of relationship conventions and proves through her quirky, heavily flawed characters that for love to exist, it simply needs to be felt.

 

Manic, obsessive, middle-aged Cheryl works from home for a nonprofit women’s self-defense studio. Her bosses Carl and Suzanne are looking for a volunteer to shelter their obstinate daughter Clee who is in desperate need of a change of scenery, but they’re met with little enthusiasm around the office. So when Clee shows up on Cheryl’s doorstep with her stuff, neither she nor Cheryl is prepared for how violently their disparate worlds are about to collide. At first, the two avoid each other when they’re both home, but once they’re forced to acknowledge how weird this is, the avoidance devolves into nightly wrestling matches inspired by the self-defense exercises constituting their livelihoods. Ritual gives way to shame, which cycles back to anger between the estranged housemates, and it takes a grounding realization for Clee to feel open to reconciliation with Cheryl. Will their relationship bloom into something even more complex and beautiful, or break down like everything else in their lives has?

 

Cheryl and Clee waver between the roles of optimist and pessimist, offsetting the absurdity of their situation with a sense of “I guess it could happen” realism. With a supporting cast including a pair of psychiatrists with more problems than their clientele and a philanderer who needs a spiritual permission slip to do his thing, The First Bad Man is a strangely perverse, endearing and memorable warping of the tale of two people united by calamity.


 
 

I’ll Have What She’s Having

posted by: April 17, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for I'll Have What She's HavingHave 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.


 
 

This Is the Life

posted by: April 15, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for This Is the LifeWhen do we know the people we love best? When things are easy or when life doesn't turn out as we expect? In Alex Shearer’s new novel This Is the Life, we meet two brothers who have been estranged for some time. When one of the brothers, Louis, is diagnosed with a brain tumor, they are reunited under difficult-to-navigate circumstances. Our narrator discovers Louis, whom he thought he knew, is so much more, but is the Louis in his brain a better version of the man himself?

 

Loosely based on his own life experience when his brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Shearer may be writing about himself as the brother who frequently gets frustrated with Louis’ situation, treatment and odd behavior. Shearer uses a jumping timeline to compare the Louis of the past and the Louis of the present — the stark contrast between the functioning Louis and the Louis in the hospice highlights how quickly and devastatingly cancer can render someone so helpless.

 

This is not a sentimental look at family members going through illness together, but a brutally honest account of the “little things” that no one reveals when confronted with terminal illness. Day-to-day operations such as haircuts, grocery shopping, paying bills and cleaning become almost impossible; further down-the-line tasks like writing a will and long-term hospice care are even more daunting. It's this honesty that makes the book successful. There are no punches pulled here. Each frustration and set back is out in the open. It reminds us that while those who are sick will of course receive the most attention and care, there exists a network of caregivers who may also be suffering and need resources.

 

Those who are looking for solidarity in a character navigating the hardship of caring for someone, or fans of Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing or We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg will find a captivating story in the pages of this novel.


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