Morbid Curiosity

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  ~ Death (A Play) by Woody Allen

Most of us are fans of denial when it comes to thinking about shuffling off the mortal coil. The idea of dying is at best depressing and at worst terrifying so not thinking about it seems like the healthy thing to do. And yet, if you’re a mass of contradictions like me, you can’t help being morbidly curious about the people whose professions have them dealing with death all the time. Happily, well maybe not happily, there is a small subgenre of memoirs that are from coroners, undertakers, doctors and others that deal with ‘death issues’ on a daily basis. Here are three recent ones that I found particularly illuminating. Do be forewarned though, they contain realistic descriptions of procedures and situations that are not for the faint of heart.

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
workingstiffThis is the tale of Melinek’s rookie year as a New York City medical examiner. From suicides, accidents, murders and the much more common ‘natural causes’, the author lays out the particulars of how the bodies she performs autopsies on reveal the manner of death. Despite the gory details, this is not just a cold and calculating CSI type memoir though. She gives everyone involved, both the living and the dead, humane and complex portraits. As she describes her duties you really get a sense of what it must be like to work in a profession where you are confronted with mortality on a daily basis. Layered throughout the book is the classic attitude of realism, gallows humor and humanity that is required to survive in ‘the city’ and that comes in particularly handy in the medical examiner’s office.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
smokegetsinyoureyesWritten by a practicing mortician and host of a popular web series titled Ask a Mortician, this book is an entertaining memoir but also a serious and thought-provoking examination of how society tries to deal with death and the dead. The author recounts, in admittedly gruesome but humorous detail, her introduction to the ‘death industry’ working at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland. As she encounters the methods and tools of the trade (cremation, embalming and the horrifying trocar to name a few) she uses the opportunity to examine the history and social context for each practice. Many interesting conclusions are reached, but a central one is the great lengths we go to as a society to separate ourselves, both physically and emotionally, from the dead and the damage this separation causes.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
beingmortalWhile this book is far less gruesome than the previous two, I found the ideas it presents the most disturbing. Gawande is a practicing surgeon but this is not a memoir about his profession. Instead it is an examination of the disconnect between the medical profession’s view of death as a failure and the inevitable fact that we all die. He cuts through professional jargon such as ‘end of life care’ and ‘assisted living’ by interviewing and telling the stories of those facing the indignities of aging and death and modern medicine’s response to the process. These stories include his father’s decline and they are touching, instructive, and difficult to deal with all at the same time. By confronting the experience head on, however, Gawande gains important insight into how the medical community, and all of us, can actually serve the needs of those facing their final chapter.

Well, after reading these books I guess there is no denying the fact that I’m going to die someday. Wait, I refuse to accept that. I’m sure we will all be fine.

Out with the Old, In with the New

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new tends to be a time of reflection and planning for the future. A byproduct of all this activity is the creation of many, many, book lists: the two major types are of the ‘best of 2014’ and ‘books to look out for in 2015’ variety. Now, if you are a person who sees the glass as half full, this is great since you have lots of titles to choose from. If you are a half empty type, however, you look at all those lists and wonder when you will get a chance to look through them. And if you are a half empty person with a touch of paranoia, you will convince yourself that there are great titles in there that you will miss since you will never get to read every list (Hello, Richard).

Whatever your place on the end of year list spectrum, you may be intrigued by five of the titles that I have come across. While I didn’t plan it this way, all of the titles are short story collections. Clearly I have a type. Some of the books the library currently owns and others have been ordered and should be coming in soon.

Hhoneydewoneydew by Edith Pearlman

Garnering laudatory reviews from many outlets (The New York Times, L.A. Times), Pearlman is considered a master of the short story and her previous collection, Binocular Vision, garnered a National Book Critics Circle Award. If awards don’t impress you, how about this from the Publisher’s Weekly review: ‘Pearlman offers this affecting collection that periscopes into small lives, expanding them with stunning subtlety’. Intriguing no?

Hall of Shallofsmallmammalsmall Mammals by Thomas Pierce

First of all, this book has a title and cover that is hard to resist. Secondly, the book is receiving positive press (NPR, Kirkus Reviews) and is the author’s first collection of short stories. I’ve always found debut fiction to be more daring and creative and I’m hoping that will be the case with this collection.  The Publisher’s Weekly review states that each story ‘takes a mundane experience and adds an element of the extra weird.’ Extra weird is hard to resist.

otherlanguageThe Other Language by Francesa Marciano

I found this collection of stories intriguing because it fits into my weakness for literary tourism.  Reading how other cultures view the world, especially through fiction, is always a pleasure and these stories promise to be from an Italian perspective. The book has also acquired several positive reviews (New York Times, Kirkus,) which might help to sway you.

bridgeBridge by Robert Thomas

This one admittedly does sound a bit experimental, but in a good way. This work consists of 56 brief linked stories that try to delve into the mind of a single protagonist as she goes about her life. There is a nice summary of reviews on the author’s webpage. He usually writes poetry which I think is a plus with a work trying to get into the mind of a single character. As a bonus this collection of stories takes place in San Francisco.

manMan v. Nature by Diane Cook

This was another collection with a title that demanded my attention from a debut author. As the title implies the stories promise to center around the rather antagonistic relationship between humanity and the universe. As the New York Times review tells it:

It’s a meaningful moment in the story, and it also lays bare one of the fundamental concerns of Cook’s work: We’re constantly fighting a battle against a force larger than we are, and we’re probably going to lose.

I am so there.

I hope you enjoyed my highly subjective distillation of all the ‘end of year’ and ‘titles to look out for’ lists. Have I missed anything? You bet.

Inquiring Minds

whatifAccording to tradition, curiosity is a bad thing. If you’re a cat, curiosity kills and if you’re Pandora your curiosity releases all the evils of humanity. A tad harsh if you ask me. Luckily curiosity has a lot of defenders, especially among those that are scientifically minded. It makes sense since questioning and experimentation are at the heart of the scientific method. As Mr. Einstein said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

The best thing about curiosity is that it can take you to some really weird places. I’ve always liked those incredibly odd hypothetical questions curious people ask that seem to come out of left field. There is a problem if you like these types of questions though. Rarely does anyone take them seriously enough to try to answer them. Imagine my delight then, when I saw this title while perusing the new nonfiction books here at the library: What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. Time to investigate.

Randall Munroe is the author of a popular webcomic, xkcd, and a former NASA roboticist. The fans of his webcomic are an inquisitive bunch that enjoy sending him all sorts of hypothetical questions that range from the intriguing to the downright scary. Monroe receives so many of these questions that he has set up a separate blog, what if?, to answer many of them and share them with the world. This book is a collection of some of the best of these questions and answers as well as lots of material not on the blog itself.

So how odd are the questions? Here are a few examples to give you an idea:

What would happen if everyone on Earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?

If you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

How much Force power can Yoda output?

Which U.S. state is actually flown over the most?

And my personal favorite:

What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Each question is answered by Munroe using all the powers of reason, science, creativity and lots and lots of humor. As you might guess, the author sprinkles each answer with hilarious, and often informative, illustrations of the concepts he is trying to get across. Whatever you do, don’t skip reading the footnotes. They are the opposite of the usually arcane explanations found in academic journals and Munroe’s dry wit really shines through. His footnote for the sentence “The periodic table of the elements has seven rows” reads:

An eighth row may be added by the time you read this. And if you’re reading this in the year 2038, the periodic table has ten rows but all mention or discussion of it is banned by the robot overlords.

The thing that surprised me the most about this book was that in addition to it being quirky and really funny, I found myself learning a lot. While the questions are definitely outlandish, the concepts used to answer them are grounded in many diverse fields such as physics, mathematics, geology, astronomy and many others I usually find difficult to absorb. It’s amazing what you can learn about fluid dynamics when the author is trying to explain what would happen if a rainstorm dropped all of its precipitation in one giant raindrop.

So ignore all those archaic dire predictions and let your curiosity run rampant while reading What If? Inquiring minds want to know.

A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.

A Novel Debut

Pity the poor debut novel. First it has to overcome the almost impossible odds of actually getting published. No mean feat with an unknown author. Then it has the daunting task of competing for a reader’s attention with books that are from established writers who have a dedicated fan base and a big publicity machine behind them. All these obstacles have a benefit for the reader though: debut novels are often unconventional. To grab a reading audience, an unknown author will often go out of their way to establish a unique style, theme or ambiance. Sometimes this flops, but other times it produces a unique and mesmerizing reading experience. I’ve never found a foolproof way of discerning the good from the bad, but recently I’ve come across two debut novels that are well worth your reading time.

Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter
whyareyousosadRaymond Champs, an illustrator of instructional manuals at a large furnishing company, is not a happy camper. He casts a jaundiced eye at the world around him and sees little to celebrate and much to criticize with biting humor.  Instead of seeing his resulting despair as a personal problem, however, he becomes convinced that his condition is universal. Everybody on the planet is suffering from clinical depression, they just don’t realize it. In order to prove his theory, and save his sanity, he decides to create a questionnaire to probe his coworkers supposed afflictions. To get them to actually fill the form out, he claims it is from Human Resources. Not a smart career move, but it gets the job done. His coworkers begin scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to answer questions such as:

If you were a day of the week, would you be a Monday or Wednesday?
Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
Do you think we need more sports?

Porter’s novel is definitely a modern office satire and any fellow denizen of bureaucratic culture, be it corporate or governmental, will find themselves chuckling throughout the work. The author clearly also has an absurdist bent and likes to play with language, especially dialog, and plot. This turns what could have been a more conventional satirical novel into something more experimental. The ending especially, which is far from conclusive but ultimately satisfying, might be a hard sell for some. Still, if you are willing to leave a few conventions behind, and have no problem laughing out loud while reading, this novel is for you.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
nightguestRuth Field lives in an idyllic Australian seaside home just steps from the beach. She is recently widowed, her husband having died suddenly from a heart attack, but is slowly getting used to living alone. She stays in contact with her two adult sons and also has memories of her early life growing up in Fiji to keep her company. There is one problem though; when she wakes in the evening, she hears what she thinks is a tiger prowling around her house, knocking over furniture and trying to get into her bedroom.  One day a woman named Frida, stating that she is a caregiver sent by the government, shows up and begins to help Ruth out in small ways for an hour or two a day. Ruth is taken aback at first, since she is not used to having a stranger in the house, but slowly comes to rely on Frida for most things. As the relationship develops, however, it soon becomes clear that Frida is not what she claims to be.

The plot of this novel may seem somewhat conventional, but the presentation is anything but. Most of the book is from Ruth’s perspective as she struggles to figure out what is real and whether Frida is a force for good or ill. Slowly her ideas of the past and the present begin to blend as she tries to make sense of events that could be either real or imagined. The author’s use of language is the key here, with it beautifully reflecting the strange state of consciousness that can come as the mind slowly slips away. The effect is quite haunting and produces a gothic ambiance that has no need for paranormal activity to produce a sense of dread and foreboding. What‘s in the mind is more than enough.

So why not try a debut novel or two? There’s nothing wrong with being unconventional from time to time.

The (Radio) Play’s the Thing

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that most of us in the library world like things to be in their proper place. This isn’t some kind of obsessive/compulsive disorder, usually anyway, but all in the name of access. Whole systems, both digital and physical, are created and designed to put materials into an organizational scheme and, most importantly, make all our great collections easy to find. Despite our best efforts, however, there are always a few types of materials that just don’t seem to fit anywhere easily, becoming the stuff of librarians’ nightmares.

One such area is Radio Dramas, sometimes called Radio Plays or Audio Theater. These collaborative recordings are hybrids that could fit in many different places in the library. Rather than go into the super scintillating reasons why, the important thing to note is that the radio dramas at the Everett Public Library are in the Audio Books section. Not super intuitive I know, but hey, at least they are in the same collection area. To encourage you to seek out these classification misfits, here is a sampling of some of the top notch titles the library has to offer.

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama
starwarradioA long time ago, 1981 to be exact, on a radio station called NPR, a serialization of the original Star Wars film was performed. This rerelease is a full cast adaptation, including Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels from the film, complete with sound effects and theme music. The intriguing fact for the true Star Wars aficionado is that this program expands the original storyline by adding significant amounts of backstory. Curious about how Princess Leia actually acquired those Death Star schematics? This production will let you hear how it was done.

Smiley’s People: a BBC Full-Cast Radio Dramasmileyspeople
The sequel to Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has spy chief George Smiley coming out of retirement to engage in some more deadly Cold War espionage. This could be the final round, however, as he must face his Soviet nemesis, code named Karla. All the hallmarks of BBC radio drama at its best can be heard, including great sound effects, veteran voice actors, and a plethora of regional accents.

It’s Superman
itssupermanThis dramatization of Tom De Haven’s novel traces the evolution of the young Clark Kent including his journey from 1930s Kansas to New York City and his acquisition of super powers. As with most modern takes on the superhero genre, this reimagined Superman has skeletons in his closet and plenty of issues to deal with as he battles Lex Luthor and woos Lois Lane. This is a GraphicAudio production, an organization known for its radio drama presentations and should not disappoint.

Tales of the City
talesofthecityArmistead Maupin’s tale of a young woman’s experiences in 1970s San Francisco gets the radio drama treatment in this set of CDs.  This is the first novel featuring the quirky and downright odd tenants of 28 Barbary Lane and these characters are a bonanza for the talented voice actors of this production.  If you want to continue your listening experience, definitely check out the sequel, More Tales of the City, as well.

The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas Volume 1
twilightzoneThis is a collection of classic Twilight Zone television episodes recently readapted for a listening audience. Many of the classic shows are here, including The Night of the Meek and Long Live Walter Jameson. In addition, the stories are narrated by a cavalcade of stars of varying wattage including Mariette Hartley, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jane Seymour, Blair Underwood and Ed Begley, Jr.  Sadly, they couldn’t get William Shatner to narrate Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Maybe in the next volume.

The Thirty Nine Stepsthirtyninesteps
This tale of wartime espionage and intrigue starts with a classic premise; an innocent man discovers a dead body in his apartment and is promptly framed for murder. As he tries to clear his name, he uncovers a sinister world of plots, conspiracies and undercover agents. This is a full cast BBC production with lots of great talent including Tom Baker (of Dr. Who fame) and David Robb.

I’ve just highlighted a few of the many quality radio dramas we have in this collection. If you are interested in even more, the easiest way to find them in the catalog is to search under the subject headings Radio Plays and Radio Adaptations. While they can take a little digging to find, you will be well rewarded for your efforts.

The Best Laid Plans

As you may recall, gentle reader, in June I devised a list of interesting non-fiction titles to guide my summer reading.  Well the good news is that I have been reading non-fiction. The bad news is that none of the titles I’ve chosen so far have been selected from that list. I had hoped to whittle away at my reading list, but sadly I’ve just added to it. Still, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse problems to have than a long list of interesting books to read.  Speaking of the grand scheme of things, the titles I have been reading this summer have had a philosophical bent for some reason. Perhaps sunshine makes a person question their place in the universe. Or it could be sunstroke. In any case, here are few more titles you might want to consider for your summer non-fiction reading.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm
dyingeverydayWhile this work is definitely chock full of intriguing Roman Imperial history, the book’s central aim is trying to answer a seemingly intractable question: Just what kind of person was Seneca? On the one hand, thanks to many of his surviving philosophical works, we know that he was a dyed in the wool Stoic preaching the rigorous virtues of poverty, morality and the equality of all before fate. On the other we have his career as a shrewd politician and tutor to the young Emperor Nero; Seneca amassed a huge amount of wealth while delicately maneuvering through the deadly and incredibly amoral minefield of the imperial court. The author is a master at examining a tenant of stoicism that Seneca espoused and then contrasting it with the rather seedy political world he found himself in. Romm makes a convincing argument concerning Seneca’s moral character, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
theswerveThis one is a librarian’s, or book lover’s, dream. In the winter of 1417 the Italian humanist and former Papal secretary Poggio Braccilini was searching for forgotten manuscripts, a popular pastime in that era, in the monasteries of Southern Germany.  What he discovered was a fragile copy of an ancient poem titled On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura). This text, written by Lucretius and promoting the ideas of the philosopher Epicurus, was praised for the beauty of its language, but the ideas it conveyed were definitely not kosher for the time. A few examples: early atomic theory (discovered centuries before the scientific method was invented), the idea of an indifferent universe, and, worst of all, the concept that seeking pleasure was actually a good thing. Greenblatt’s book is not only an examination of the history of these ideas and their influence on our culture, but also the fascinating story of Poggio Braccilini and his time.

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman
accidentaluniverseAll the essays in this short work are concerned with the impact of recent scientific discoveries on our view of the universe and our place in it. The author is both a theoretical physicist and a novelist which I found to be a great help when it came to his descriptions of some of the more complicated scientific concepts such as dark matter and the multiverse which he deftly puts in layman’s terms.  The essays are not simply explanations of scientific concepts. Instead, Lightman tries to integrate the scientific ideas with concepts from history, literature, and his own personal experiences.  This creates a balanced approach that is greatly appreciated when it comes to hot button topics like the often uneasy relationship between belief and the scientific method. This book is not a series of rants from a particular perspective, but rather a balanced and humane attempt to genuinely explore the ideas scientific discoveries are bringing to the fore.

A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning by Robert Zaretsky
alifeworthlivingWhile you may associate Albert Camus with past memories of disgruntled youths wearing all black and mumbling the first line from The Stranger (Mother died today. Or was it yesterday; I can’t be sure.) this blend of biography and criticism would argue that there is much more to the man and his ideas for living.  Zaretsky structures the biographical details around a series of concepts that Camus grappled with and that make up the chapter headings: Absurdity, Silence, Measure, Fidelity, Revolt.  What emerges is a set of ideas for understanding the world that are constantly open to exploration and interpretation, far from the static label (existentialism) often ascribed to them. While struggle is definitely a component, Camus finds that there is actually cause for hope and, gasp, happiness in this life:

It was the middle of winter, I finally realized that, within me, summer was inextinguishable.

So, a few suggestions for a little light non-fiction reading this summer. Perhaps I need to get out of the sun.