Pluto and Beyond!

Mission-PathtoPluto-MissionTimeline-TenYears

Do you remember where you were on January 19th, 2006 at 14:00 EST? Unless you have an extremely detailed journaling addiction, I’m guessing you don’t. If you have a fondness for a certain celestial object, however, you just might. You see, on that fateful day the New Horizons probe launched on a journey to Pluto and the mysterious Kuiper Belt. If you have been following New Horizon’s progress through the solar system, complete with a gravity assist from Jupiter, you are in for a treat. In an epic case of delayed gratification, New Horizons is finally going to make its close encounter with Pluto, plus its five moons, in just a few days on July 14th.

plutofocusWhy is this exciting you ask? Well beyond satisfying the innate human desire to explore strange new worlds, the encounter with Pluto is epic because we know so little about it. Discovered in 1930 and billions of miles from Earth, Pluto is essentially a blank spot in our knowledge. As Pluto comes into focus, everything we learn is brand new. Even better, once New Horizons passes Pluto, it will go on to other objects in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud while exploring the icy ‘third zone’ of our solar system. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what many of those terms mean, but I love it when actual science starts sounding like an episode of Star Trek. Fingers crossed that we can start talking about the Delta Quadrant and the Delphic Expanse soon.

The one disadvantage to all this newness is trying to find current information on Pluto in book form. The library does have some great books on Pluto, but they are a little dated. This isn’t because we aren’t buying new books on the topic; it’s just that they haven’t been written yet. Once New Horizons sends back its data, new books are sure to appear on our shelves. Until then, you will have better luck using our magazine resources to find the latest articles about Pluto and New Horizons.  Our two major magazine databases are EBSCO and Proquest which are easy to search and include many science-related journals. You will also want to check out our new digital magazine services, Flipster and Zino, which have full issues of several science and technology magazines.

plutoOf course, for immediacy it is hard to beat the Internet. Luckily, there are plenty of great sites to keep you up to date on New Horizons and its discoveries. There are two major websites for the New Horizons Mission. One is based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the other is based at NASA.  Both are chock full of current information, including the latest data, photos and timeline for the mission as well as a spiffy countdown clock to the closest approach.  If you feel like getting social there are Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts and even a Pluto Time feature where you can share photos of the exact brief time on earth when the sunlight matches that on Pluto at high noon. Also, be sure to hang on to all those web and social media links beyond the July 14th fly by. New Horizons is way out there, with data taking a long time to get back to Earth, so new information should be coming in months after the initial encounter.

So take a little time this July 14th to think of distant Pluto and all of the brand spanking new information we will finally be getting about the formerly mysterious Planet X. Go, New Horizons, Go!

Selfish, Shallow and Short

Much like Carol, I’ve got a fondness for brevity when it comes to reading. I could blame this tendency on the evil information age shortening my attention span. Really though I’ve liked short reads long before the interweb came on the scene. I’m told that The Snowy Day and The Story of Ferdinand were two of my childhood favorites. Moby Dick they are not. When it comes to brief adult books, short stories are a perennial favorite but I’m also very fond of their non-fiction relative: the essay.

Essays are great for many reasons, but one of my favorites is the way an author can focus in on a specific topic and essentially riff on it. A good essay is often like a good stand-up comedy set, just not necessarily funny. The author can make you think about a familiar topic in a totally different way and challenge your assumptions. There is also the pleasure of cheering them on if you agree with their point of view. Best of all, there is no two drink minimum to start reading.

Here are three newish essay collections to wet your whistle.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum

selfishshallowWhile the confrontational, yet entertaining, title of this collection might make you think this book is simply a screed promoting the ‘child free by choice’ concept at all costs, the essays are actually quite thoughtful. To be sure there is plenty of material to offend, but unless you take the extreme position that every person must breed, you should find yourself chuckling, cheering, or shaking your head at many of the writers’ positions. All the big questions are addressed (What is natural? Is a child required for a fulfilling life? What is the point of it all?) with wit, style, and humor.

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett

Iunrulyplacesn this collection, the author sets out to explore many of the odd, quirky and downright weird places that dot the globe. Each short essay examines places that are hard to define. There is the Principality of Sealand, an old World War II gun platform off the coast of England that has been declared a sovereign nation. And don’t forget Sandy Island which was placed on maps, even Google maps, for years despite never having existed. The author also explores odd communities, the RV Camp next to the runway at LAX, and strange unclaimed environments, the meridians between major highways, to get you thinking about what a place actually is.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

badfeministThe far ranging topics of these essays, from Sweet Valley High to Django, are served up by cultural critic and novelist Roxane Gay with humor and personal insight. She is a bona fide consumer of popular culture, who lists the Hunger Games and Scrabble as obsessions, but is not shy about pointing out the misogyny and racism that can be lurking in the many books, films, TV shows and albums that we choose to consume. Gay understands the oddly conflicted nature of enjoying and abhorring many aspects of popular culture simultaneously. It is this understanding that makes these essays humorous, confrontational and insightful but never boring.

Game Over, Man

I’ve always been a bit of a history geek. Well, okay, pretty much a full-blown history geek. My second major in college was history, not because I planned it that way, but because almost all the elective courses I took for fun were in the History department. Come my senior year, I found that all those credits actually added up to a second degree. Lest you think I was a practical youth, my ‘major’ major netted me an equally bankable English degree. Hey, at least it wasn’t in philosophy or basket weaving…

While I will give almost any history book a try, one of my favorite types features the ‘they’re all doomed’ scenario. These are the stories of expeditions, explorers, military campaigners, or just ordinary citizens who come face to face with imminent destruction. The historical reason for their demise varies, but there are often few, or no, survivors. While gruesome, this sense of doom adds a layer of mystery to the historical tale. The fewer witnesses, the harder it is to piece together just what happened and historians are forced to speculate. Listed below are a few historical events worth revisiting to find historians’ new takes on ill-fated individuals.

Trouble on the Bay of Naples

frompompeiiMy interest in the fate of the ancient city of Pompeii was recently reignited (ha-ha!) by an exhibit at the Pacific Science Center titled Pompeii: The Exhibition. What actually destroyed Pompeii is hardly a mystery; the smoldering nearby Mt. Vesuvius and lots and lots of ash provide the obvious answer. What is intriguing is trying to piece together how the people of Pompeii lived and died by sifting through the ample evidence. There are many great books that try to do just that and the library has a great collection of them. Recently, though, I came across a title that has jumped to the top of my ‘must read’ list: From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.  This book is a history of the archeological site after its discovery and the way it has influenced visitors for centuries. A varied number of interesting people were influenced by the site including Mozart, Dickens, Twain, Renoir, Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

A Bad, or Good Depending on Your Perspective, Day at the Little Bighorn

laststandAs with Pompeii, the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry by a combined force of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in June of 1876 has a long paper trail with many books written about the event.  What exactly happened to Custer and the troops he personally lead on that day (other than the obvious: they died) is a source of endless speculation. Having been influenced early on by Evan Connell’s book Son of the Morning Star and the film Little Big Man I must admit that I have a rather dim view of Custer, but that doesn’t stop my curiosity for trying to find out the particulars of his fate. While not the newest, the last book I read on the topic was The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. The work does cover the final battle in gripping detail, but it is far from a simple military history. Instead, Philbrick, fleshes out the characters and careers of all the participants. This gives the events much more significance and breathes new life into a tale that has been told many times.

The Frozen North (or South)

inthekingdomoficeWhile being a fan of all doomed exploratory expeditions (yeah I’m weird) I’ve always been particularly fond of attempts made in frozen conditions. In addition to the bleak landscape and the incredible endurance of the explorers to admire, there is an absurdity to these expeditions that I find irresistible. Risking your life to find an arbitrary concept like a pole or the Northwest Passage is pretty amazing/borderline insane when you think about it. Whether you go north or south there are plenty of books about these ice encrusted missions here at the library. A recent standout for me was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This book is the story of an 1879 expedition to reach the North Pole led by U.S. naval officer George DeLong. Based on a faulty assumption, the odd notion that there was an open ocean surrounding the North Pole, the expedition quickly got locked into the pack ice. As you can imagine, things didn’t go well from there. The author creates a gripping narrative full of struggle and sacrifice with a predictably dire outcome for many of the participants.

So, if there is a little history geek in you as well, check out a few of these historical stories of the doomed. Now all I need to make my life complete is a film version of The Last Stand staring Bill Paxton.

A Serious Vocational Error

One of the great things about reading fiction is the way you can visit a person’s, admittedly fictional, life and experience the world from a different angle. I’ve always found stories to be much more helpful in dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday existence than the numerous self-help and motivation works out there. Perhaps this is delusional and a tad unhealthy (you don’t want to pattern your life too closely on Mr. Kurtz after all ) but hey, it is the way I roll. I recently read three novels that let me examine different career paths and made me feel good about my own career choice. Ah the power of negative reinforcement.

The job: Middle school teacher
The book: Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsThis novel opens with Yuko Moriguchi’s farewell address to her middle school science class upon her early retirement. The reason she is leaving is the recent accidental death of her 4-year-old daughter on school grounds. As the address continues, however, it becomes clear that Yuko believes some of her students are responsible.  She also doesn’t believe the criminal justice system is up to the job of punishing them due to their young age. This is no simple tale of revenge, however.  The narrative shifts, with each chapter being from a different character’s point of view. This keeps you guessing as to what actually happened and who is really to blame until the very end. Even then, what is right and what is wrong isn’t entirely clear. A good book for testing your moral compass. It will also make you happy not to have chosen a career in secondary education.

The job: Office drone
The book: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

theroomBjorn, yes this book is a Swedish translation, shares a desk in an open office plan in a government ministry simply titled ‘the Authority.’ One day, while looking for the bathroom, he stumbles upon a room which is spacious and well appointed. To get away from the office hubbub and concentrate on his work, he frequently visits this room. The problem? No one else can see it. Even worse, when he enters the room, all that his fellow officer workers see is Bjorn staring at the wall and mumbling. It doesn’t take very long for objections to be raised, meetings to be held, and threats of termination to be bandied about. The entire novel is from Bjorn’s perspective, so there are definitely surreal elements that will have you questioning what exactly is going on. Primarily though, it is a funny and biting office satire that will leave you chuckling as well as scratching your head.

The job: Estate agent
The book: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

apleasureandacallingWilliam Hemming does not suffer from job dissatisfaction. He loves showing people new homes to buy or rent in the small English town where he owns an estate agency. His job allows him to indulge in a rather odd hobby. Mr. Hemming keeps a key from every property he sells and likes to make return visits, unbeknownst to the owners. He is obsessed with viewing the minutiae of his clients’ everyday activities (making breakfast, doing laundry) but as a detached observer who never gets involved in their lives. The novel is entirely from Mr. Hemming’s point of view and you find yourself chuckling at his observations of small town life. When his darker side is slowly revealed, and his detachment turns into involvement with deadly consequences, you may feel guilty for laughing along. At the very least, it will make you consider having your locks changed at home.

So is using fiction to choose a career a sound policy? Perhaps not, but it sure beats going to a guidance counselor.

It Came from the 300s

You may have an image of the library, and library workers, as lovers of order and method. While there is definitely some truth in that (it is handy to actually know where a book is located after all) there is also a surprising amount of chaos just underneath the surface.  Take the vaunted Dewey Decimal System for example. The idea is a noble one: assigning all non-fiction work a simple number code based on subject so similar books are grouped together and easy to find on the shelf. Sounds simple, no?

As it turns out (spoiler alert!) it is actually quite difficult to categorize all knowledge into a numbered system. I was reminded of that fact when I recently started ordering for the 300s Dewey range which has the broad subject heading of ‘the Social Sciences.’ While the Dewey Decimal System gets it right more often than not, I was surprised how many times I would scratch my head when faced with a possible purchase and think ‘That book is in the 300s?’ Instead of bemoaning the weirdness, though, it is probably best just to embrace it. Order is great, but chaos can be fun as well. Here are a few of the curious subjects and titles I’ve come across so far.

When History isn’t in History:
Usually history books are safely tucked away in the 900s range. Oddly though, if a book is about a specific ‘group’ it can wind up in the 300s. How or why this distinction is made has never been clear to me, but the important takeaway is for history buffs to keep the 300s in mind. Here are a few examples:

Women’s History & the Suffrage Movement

criminalconversationwheneverythingchangedwomensvotes

African American History & the Civil Rights Movement

redsummerhalfhasneverdowntothecrossroads

Business History

chocolatewarsbeyondthepaledrivinghonda

Military History

lordsoftheskyhistoryofwarlastfullmeasure

History of Crime & Outlaws

tinseltowngentlemenbootleggerslostcause

Spies:
Spies themselves are often out of place in a strange land so maybe it is appropriate that they have a home in the 300s. Whether you like 007 or have been watching The Americans, here are a few titles that might intrigue you.

spyamongfriendslordsofsecrecyspymaster

Recovery from Substance Abuse:
It has always seemed like these titles should be in the health section to me, but hey, the important thing is that we have the books on this important topic.

recoveringbodycleaninsiderehab

Tattoos & Body Art:
Tattoos are a cultural phenomenon so maybe they are now a social science. In any case, we have lots of great books on the subject.

tattootattooartartonskin

Wedding Planning:
Luckily a colleague tipped me off that all things wedding are in the 300s. Who knew? Clearly not me. Keep your eyes peeled for these titles and more to come.

bridalbibleweddingetiquetteweddingceremony

Miscellanea:
No specific topic headings, just a few unique titles that took me off guard.

noiseseveredhowtoreadagraveyard

So, clearly the 300s are more complex and harder to define than I first thought. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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.