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.

Invasion of the Killer B-movie Robot Monster from Mars

It CameB-movies meet P.G. Wodehouse in the 2014 graphic novel It Came!, ‘directed’ by Dan Boultwood. Boultwood previously illustrated a series of graphic novels about The Baker Street Irregulars which were written by Tony Lee, who has also written for IDW’s Doctor Who Comics.

Before the main ‘feature’ there are a number of 1950’s style advertisements. For example, the top of one page sports an illustration of an attractive, stylish woman declaring, “I like my men like I like my bacon: Smokey.” At the bottom of the page: “Smoke & Choke’um Cigarettes: For that discerning odour.”

Just before the ‘feature attraction’ begins there is a ‘trailer’ for another ‘feature’ (and possible future comic, according to interviews with the author): The Lost Valley of the LostLost Valley features the two stars of It Came!, Dick Claymore and Fanny Flaunders, as well as Cecil Herringbone and Sir Rutherford P. Basingstoke as Caveman. The trailer features views of canyons with our heroine, played by the lovely Fanny Flaunders, in perilous situations: being attacked by a snake, a plant and a spanner. The trailer’s climax sees the heroes being confronted by a rather cuddly dinosaur.

On to our ‘feature’, It Came!, presented in Eyeball-O-Rama-Vision! A colorful poster-style page depicting a giant robot clutching a beautiful woman proclaims, “Something is coming round for afternoon tea…and it isn’t the vicar!” Then our story begins. In 1950’s England an old farmer drives his tractor under the stars. Suddenly, a robot monster attacks!

Two days pass and Dr. Boy Brett, dashing pipe-smoking British scientist, and his lovely assistant Doris Night are motoring down a country road in what appears to be a Morris Minor. Brett is very English, with rather Wodehousian speech patterns. For example, complimenting Doris, Brett says, “You know, Doris? For a girl, you’re a good egg!”

Doris and Dr. Brett stop at a pub in a quaint country village. The village is deserted. Our heroes are chased by an alien robot. They escape to the next quaint village, which is inhabited by people who appear to be living in the 1940’s. Dr. Brett makes a very British phone call to Colonel Willie Warwick Wilberton of the British army, who sends out some troops in exchange for two pints and a pork pie.

And that’s just the first quarter of the book!

Earth vs Flying Boultwood is inspired by American B-movies of the 1950’s, the type one might see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, such as Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and Attack of the Crab Monsters. However, It Came! is more of an homage than a send-up. Boultwood has lots of fun with the genre (for example, when the flying saucer is revealed there is a string attached!), but the fun is never cruel.

It Came! has everything: beautiful women, flying saucers, soldiers, politicians with really big pipes, explosions, tea and crumpets, and, of course, science! It’s enjoyable, funny reading and I highly recommend it.

My Name is Helen and I’m a Minotaur

I am not a fantasy literature enthusiast. (Don’t even get me started on science fiction and fantasy being lumped together). Oh, there was a time when I would occasionally read a questing book, but seldom was my interest piqued. Then came a day when I could no longer tolerate the Hermit of Xymanocles and his winged steed Zqlkmoyx climbing the Teeth of Mekjalinm in search of Belxogggm’s Sherbet. It didn’t matter if the story was compelling or well-written, I just couldn’t take one more unpronounceable name.

Helen and TroyBut recently while walking the hallowed aisles of EPL, a book cover caught my attention, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest. It had “quest” in the title, definitely a bad sign, but between the enticing blurb, the bitchin’ artwork and my enjoyment of the author’s Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain, I decided to give it a go.

One of my favorite devices in literature, as well as in other artistic endeavors, is for an author/artist to take an established form and to mess with it. For example, Picasso, although employing an abstract style, painted classical subjects such as still lifes and portraits. Many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels take well-known fables and twist them. And literary remixes like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters surround actual classic books with additional text, thus making something new from something old. So I had high hopes that this quest would be the fractured fairy tale of all quests.

In the world that A. Lee Martinez created for this epic road quest, Helen is a Minotaur. This is unusual. Although there are people with Minotaur characteristics here and there, very few of them are full-blown 100% Minotaur. And, life can be difficult for a 7 foot teenage girl with horns and fur. Troy by contrast is human, Asian (which helps him relate to Helen in how people can be stereotyped) and perfect in every way: handsome, fit, smart, funny, patient, unflappable. The two work together at a burger joint until the day when their leprechaun boss tries to sacrifice Helen (assuming that she is a virgin) to his god.

In Helen and Troy’s world, most people are … well, just that, people. But mythical beings such as orcs and the occasional Cyclops are also a common part of the mix of creatures inhabiting the earth. And these beings do not live apart from the humans; orcs, nearly indestructible and somewhat nasty, are accountants, salespeople, and so on. This mixture of races isn’t regarded as remarkable, it’s just how things are.

And as many types of creatures as there be, even more gods are toying with people’s lives. Helen and Troy are given the choice by a sort of paranormal FBI to go on a quest or die. They choose to quest, even though chances are they’ll die in the process. So the two are assigned to find certain unidentified items but aren’t told what items to look for, nor for that matter where to look. This might seem to be an insurmountable undertaking, but adventures/fables/quests follow a certain format and the two teens end up on the right track despite their lack of preparation.

To tell too much more would give away the fun bits of the story, but what I can say is that this quest was palatable and enjoyable because it turned expectations upside down and didn’t use funny names. Here is a world where mythical monsters are just everyday joes doing their jobs (practically clocking in for the day) and everyone is a pawn of the gods, working unwillingly to help the immortals overcome the boredom of eternity.

The tale is filled with large doses of humor, teen angst, and romantic tension between the two main characters. An orc motorcycle gang, following the command of their own god, creates further interest and comic relief. Finally, here’s a quest I can get behind.

Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is a Quick Pick, so you won’t find it in the EPL catalog. But try browsing the Quick Pick collection until you find this fantasy gem. If late summer finds you looking for adventure, romance and tips on how to keep boys from noticing your shedding fur, you could certainly do worse.

Books That Started as Blogs

If you’re like me, and I hope you are, you follow a blog or two just because it’s fun. Of course I read this very blog because my smart and hip co-workers contribute valuable stuff to it. Hey, you’re reading it right now! You must be just like me.

Did you know that there are a lot of great books which have been spawned from blogs? Let’s explore some recent titles which had their starts as blogs. I’ll start with the visual ones:

indexCake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong by Jen Yates is so funny! Yates has been entertaining us with the worst cakes ever, including the ugly, silly, creepy, sad, and suggestive on her blog since 2008. It currently features photos of awful graduation cakes. Have your cake and laugh at it, too. With witty commentary and behind-the-scenes tidbits, Cake Wrecks will ensure that you never look at a cake the same way again.

index (1)There, I Fixed It! No, You Didn’t by Cheez Burger is part of the ubiquitous Cheezburger Network of blogs and is another hilarious visual feast full of epic fails which show human ingenuity at its worst. My favorite ‘chapter’ features quick fixes with duct tape.

index (14)How To Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You is based on the blog, The Oatmeal, a hugely popular website. It is a brilliant 136 page offering of cat comics, facts, and instructions to help you enjoy, love, and survive your cat. The book is a #1 NY Times best seller and sold over a half million copies in its first three months in print. Check it out from the library for free. Even I laughed, and I hate cats.

index (3)I do love dogs and fortunately for me there’s Dog Shaming by Pascale Lemire, based on the blog with the same name. This book features the most hilarious, shameful, and never-before-seen doggie misdeeds. It reminds me of the evening we were sitting around with friends having a nice conversation, when we discovered that our friend’s dog had chewed apart another friend’s shoe. We didn’t think to take a photo, but these folks have taken some pretty funny ones.

index (13)And what blog-book list would be complete without an awkward family photo selection? I’ll include Awkward Family Pet Photos which came from the Awkward Family Photos blog. These books are always so weird, yet funny. Just look at this fellow hugging his dog on the cover. The photos with monkeys, possums, and chickens are especially hilarious. And now on to the blog-books which have more text than photos.

index (4)Let’s Pretend This Never Happened:  (A Mostly True Memoir) is written by Jenny Lawson, the “Bloggess”. She’s ‘like Mother Theresa, only better.’ She writes this about her book: “You should probably go buy it right now, because it’s filled with awesomeness. And cocaine. But only if you hollow it out and fill it with your own cocaine. I’m not buying you cocaine. Because I love you.” I thought it was hilarious when I read it and you may also, since you’re just like me!

index (5)Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas who writes dispatches on McSweeney’s. Scott Douglas works for a smallish public library nestled cozily between Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California. This is where most of his observations occur, although sometimes he goes to other libraries. This book is super funny because it could have taken place at our very own local library. Read it and see for yourself.

index (6)The Happiest Mom by Meagan Francis who writes the Happiest Home blog online. The author also writes for Parenting magazine and is the mother of five children, so she presumably knows her stuff and spells it out in ten simple rules that are delivered with humor. This book has gorgeous graphics and the main idea is that you can be a mom (or grandparent) and still be happy. As I’ve always said, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

These blog-books are sure to make you happy.  Check them out at your local library!

To Read or Not to Read [Shakespeare]

It’s Month Five of 2014 and I’m still clawing my way through my Reading Resolutions. That’s right—I haven’t quit yet! As a result, I’m pretty sure this is the longest I’ve ever followed through with resolutions I’ve made. Hooray! Anyway, this month I tackle reconciling my past. Sounds scintillating, right? Here’s a recap for those of you just joining us, or those of you who may not remember them all (I have to look them up constantly, and it’s my list after all):

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past (see below)
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

This will surprise no one who had to suffer through countless English classes with me in school, but I’ve never held a fondness for Shakespeare. It’s true, and this knowledge cuts through the heart of my English-major boss. However, as she is responsible for buying the Dewey 800s (Shakespeare’s home) I’ve discovered some of the more unique Shakespeare related titles she has ordered. Because of this, I’m learning to love Mr. William and think you will, too.

bricks

Who doesn’t love LEGO? I grew up playing more with LEGOs than I did Barbies. Luckily, the authors of the Brick Shakespeare series know how to hook the LEGO generation (but please don’t call them hookers). One book covers the comedies, and one covers the tragedies. I’ve always consider them all tragedies because I tragically could not get into anything The Bard composed. These books changed everything! Each scene is adorably illustrated with LEGO pieces and the dialogue is typed verbatim. So, sadly, you do still have to do a bit of translation. But in the end it’s totally worth it. Watch Shakespeare’s words written hundreds of years ago come to life with children’s toys! The next generation has a shot at loving and understanding Shakespeare, thanks to these brilliant books.

reducedTouted by the New York Times as “intellectual vaudeville” The Reduced Shakespeare Company performed the longest-running comedy in London with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).” RSC’s two managing partners, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, then wrote a book on the topic. Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impared [Abridged] is told in an engaging style sure to grab anyone’s attention. Not only are each of The Bard’s works broken down and summarized in plain English, there’s also a healthy dose of humor sprinkled on top. And, to make this truly educational and thought-provoking, the authors have included essay questions at the end of each piece. Consider the following essay questions:

Was one of your siblings considered the family’s “problem child?” Did they get this label simply because they were not as funny as they should have been? (Triolus and Cressida)

In this play a baby is abandoned on the shores of Bohemia, a country with no coastline. Make up some smart-ass essay question about the “genius” of Shakespeare’s knowledge of geography and then answer it. (The Winter’s Tale)

There are also an assortment of pop quizzes scattered throughout to keep you on your (mental) toes:

Pop Quiz, Hotshot: Which famous sexual come-on originated in “Venus and Adonis?”
A. “Let’s get it on.”
B. “I’ll smother thee with kisses.”
C. “I’m your Venus, I’m your fire / What’s your desire?”
D. “Shake it like a Polaroid picture.”
(Answer: B)

insultedShakespeareThese books are all about making stuff that was written many hundreds of years ago relevant to today’s idiot children like me. If I still haven’t hooked you, this next title will do the trick. Shakespeare Insult Generator, compiled and introduced by Barry Kraft, has been all over the interwebs this publishing season. In fact, I’ve kind of been hoping to see it in a future Quarterly shipment from Book Riot. But I digress. I consider this book to not only be required reading for everyone struggling with Shakespeare, but I’d like to see it have a permanent home on every English major’s desk (do you hear that, boss lady?). This ingenious spiral-bound book dares you to “put dullards and miscreants in their place.” You can mix and match three horizontal pages at a time to create one of over 150,000 combinations of Shakespearian insults. Flip each word over and you’ll get the definition so you can be duly informed of just what you’re calling someone.

So don’t be a hater. Join me in welcoming The Bard into your life. With the right tools at your side, you can prepare to become a Shakespearian scholar at your next dinner party. It’s like I always say: wow them with whimsy.

I Love Bernie (And So Will You)

This year I decided to give my reading life a little bit of direction and structure. Though I tend to prance through life with copious amounts of chaos, I decided that I could and would cram in some reading goals for 2014. Why not stretch my mind a little? Though I’ll still be reading fun, fluffy, and frivolous books (currently reading a YA spy thriller) I thought if I mapped out my year I could easily shift in some unexpected titles and see how well I do following directions, even if they are from myself. I detested assigned reading in school but I’m hoping that taking orders from myself will go over better.

Yeah, I’m a hot mess.

Let me recap for you what I’m calling my 2014 Reading Resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book (see below)
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

wheredyougobernadetteThis month I decided to tackle the Everett Reads! book. As Kate mentioned already, Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is what we’re hoping all of Everett will try this month. On February 23rd at 7pm Maria will be at the Performing Arts Center downtown. We’re told she’s a very engaging and entertaining speaker, and those who wish to meet her/have a book signed afterwards will have that opportunity. Oh, and did I mention it’s FREE?!

We’ve been doing this “one book for the whole community to read” type of program for several years now. The first year we read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I love mysteries, so that year I read the book, discussed it with colleagues, and went to the programs offered. In the intervening years I didn’t really get excited about any of the other titles. That’s not to say they were bad books. They just didn’t capture my interest.

This year everything changed. This year we picked a book that was funny.

I’m not great at summarizing stories without giving anything away. What you should know is that, although everyone told me this book is all about teenager Bee searching for her mother Bernadette who just disappeared, it’s so much more than that. I checked out the eBook edition and Bernadette didn’t disappear until about 2/3 of the way through the book. While many books heavy on exposition and background can be tedious and overbearing, it’s just not the case here. The writing is laugh-out-loud hilarious, the best lines coming straight from Bernadette herself:

Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are “gals,” people are “folks,” a little bit is a “skosh,” if you’re tired you’re “logy,” if something is slightly off it’s “hinky,” you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit “crisscross applesauce,” when the sun comes out it’s never called “sun” but always “sunshine,” boyfriends and girlfriends are “partners,” nobody swears but someone occasionally might “drop the f-bomb,” you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with “no worries.”

Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?

The whole story is told through varying forms of communication: school memos, emails, faxes, magazine articles, and even a captain’s report from a cruise ship. This structure really held my interest and also provided deep insight into each characters’ motivations, feelings, and personalities. That’s a really tricky thing to do well in a book but Maria Semple pulls it off.

Unfortunately this format can be tricky to follow when listening to the audiobook, as one of my colleagues discovered. So I would suggest if you’re getting lost or losing interest in the audio, grab a hard copy of the book and try that instead. Give Bernie a chance to win your heart like she did mine.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (yes, it bothers me that the official title does not include a question mark) has something for everyone. Bernadette’s husband, Elgie, is an avid cyclist, so this will appeal to my friends who bike to work. Elgie also works at Microsoft, and the book goes into great detail about life on a business campus. I read these parts out loud to my software engineer husband. There’s a lot of coverage of the school Bee attends and the moms Bernadette refers to as “gnats” since they’re annoying but nothing you’d really exert effort over (hello, all my parental friends who have experience in the trenches). Ever been on a cruise? Deal with motion sickness? You’ll be nodding your head (nothing that would trigger that horrible nausea feeling, though). If nothing else, this book is a great fit for anyone who has had a complicated relationship with their parents (who doesn’t?) and, of course, any humor fans.

bernie

I want to hear from you. Are you joining your neighbors in reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I’d love to see you all pack the house at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 23rd. The program starts at 7pm but if you want the good seats you’ll want to get there a little early.

If Bee can search the ends of the earth for her mom, surely all of Everett can enjoy the same book.

Physician Heal Thyself

DR.I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but doctors, in the real world at least, are no longer considered infallible gods. This is great when it comes to getting second opinions and not being railroaded into unnecessary treatments. There is, however, a downside:  the perils of self-diagnosis. You see, without an authority figure (I tend to imagine Spock or Tuvok) to say “the chances of you being inflicted with such a disorder are infinitesimal” my fevered brain tends to see a deadly and rare disorder in the slightest cough or rash. Luckily, perhaps, the library has many tomes to guide me on my journey of disease self-discovery.

It is always best to start with the classics. The two heavy hitters are Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment (CMDT) and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Such scintillating titles no? Both are geared toward the medical professional and provide rational, current and highly technical information on almost every disease and its symptoms, that you could possibly think of. Just don’t expect much sugar coating. Also avoid looking at the diagnostic images at all cost.

If ice cold logic doesn’t put your mind at rest, perhaps it is time to admit that the problem lies in the fear of disease itself or as the professionals like to say, hypochondria. Luckily, you are not alone. There are many tomes dedicated to individuals who struggle with the fear of disease. Best of all, they tend to use liberal doses of humor to describe their plight. Here are a few examples:

wellenoughalone

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig
Convinced she was having a heart attack at 18 (the college nurse’s reply: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re not dying) the author realized that she just might have a problem. This book is a witty, and often hilarious, self-examination of all the foibles of a woman convinced she has every disease known to man. Each chapter not only highlights her own “issues” but also puts her hypochondria in a historical perspective with amusing anecdotes from the past.

Hyper-Chondriac: One Man’s Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
hyperchondriacFrazer definitely suffers from hypochondria, as a child he came down with a new disease every month, but this book is also a far ranging quest to find relaxation and, for lack of a better term, inner peace.  He tries reiki, yoga, Zoloft, Craniosacral therapy, Ayurveda, dog walking, and even, gasp, knitting. Sadly none of them seem to fully rid him of his demons, but the hilarious journey is well worth it. For the reader in any case.

The Hypochondriacs: Nice Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
hypochondriacsnineAnother subtitle for this book could be: misery loves company. After reading about these nine famous suffers and their quirks, you probably won’t feel so bad about any fears of disease that you might have. While each sufferer’s oddities are definitely amusing, this work also highlights the interesting connection between each malady and the individual’s creativity. In several cases, such as Charlotte Bronte, the illnesses, both real and imagined, provided a means of escape as well as inspiration.

hypochondriacsguidetolife

The Hypochondriacs Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten
While there is a smattering of actual medical information throughout this work, this is pure satire and all the better for it. The author introduces you to his own neuroses, and then tries to convince you that you should have them as well. The chapter titles (such as ‘How Your Doctor Can Kill You’ and ‘Pregnant? That’s Wonderful! Don’t Read This!’) tell you all you need to know about the contents of this book. There are even helpful quizzes to confirm your paranoia.

So you now have all the tools you need to calm your irrational fear of disease. I’m sure you will be fine. Well, maybe not.