Keep Watching the Skies!

When it comes to monsters in the movies I’ve got a rule for being able to suspend my disbelief and actually believe in the creature, if only for an hour or two. If said monster is a product of the supernatural realm I just can’t buy into it. Ghosts just aren’t scary to me and I would be the guy denying that demons exist, just as Damien makes my head explode. If you give me the thinnest shred of ‘scientific’ evidence, however, I am down with it. Giant ants produced by atomic testing in the Nevada desert? You bet. An ancient alien discovered frozen in the ice in Antarctica that can shape shift? It could happen man.

I first discovered this rule in my precocious youth on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay up late on a weekend night and watch a locally hosted TV show, TJ and the Ant, which played what were then considered ‘horror’ films. These films were rarely frightening, unless you were terrified of men in foam rubber monster suits, and consisted primarily of Science Fiction films from the 50s and 60s. That didn’t stop me from loving them though. It also made it impossible for me to resist ordering Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The Twenty First Century Edition) by Bill Warren for the collection.

This two volume (yes, two whole volumes) set is a lovingly crafted examination of nearly 300 science fiction films from 1950 to 1962. Each entry is an extended essay on each film touching on the plot, cast, production values, critical reception and much more for each title. An extensive collection of movie posters and film stills is also included. Even the appendices are fun with listings of films that didn’t make the cut and why, titles that have been remade and science fiction serials among others. All the classics of the genre are here including titles such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The real fun comes in with the films of, shall we say, dubious quality. I mean how can you resist learning about movies titled The Astounding She-Monster, The Brain from Planet Arous, Monster on the Campus, and, of course, Plan 9 From Outer Space?

Speaking of bad movies might I humbly suggest that you view some of these lovable but, let’s admit it, at times god awful films with the aid of professional comedians? You can do so by sampling the many excellent examples of riffing produced by the folks from Mystery Science Theater 3000. While there are now several different ways to experience MST3K (the original show on DVD, the excellent online service Rifftrax, and now a new reboot of the show on Netflix) they all have the same concept at their core: snarky commentary while watching bad movies. Also, they are freaking hilarious. I seriously can’t imagine trying to get through some of the films from Keep Watching the Skies (Eeegah, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Cat Women of the Moon and Reptilicus to name a few) without the comedic assistance of MST3K. The library has three volumes of the original show for you to cut your teeth on. But be warned, once started they are very addictive.

So remember to keep watching the skies. Also watch out for snakes.

Centaurs and Mermaids and Zombies, Oh My

Camped out at the very end of the Dewey 300s range, past the more sober sections on politics (320s), economics (330s) and education (370s), you will find an unexpected land of mythical creatures and tall tales. When you hit the Dewey number 398 you have entered the shadowy realm of folklore and fairy tales. While you might think that books about folktales and folklore are exclusively collected by our intrepid Youth Services librarians, you would be mistaken. There are actually a good number of them tucked away in the adult nonfiction collection as well. Despite what some mega corporations would like to you to think, I’m looking at you Disney, folktales and folklore are actually serious stuff. Take a look for yourself with a few of these new additions to the collection.

The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales Legends & Myths edited & translated by William Hansen

Gird yourself for tales not only of gods, goddesses and monsters but also urban legends, ghost stories and jokes in this anthology of ancient Greek and Roman tales. Divided up into topics such as ‘tricksters and lovers’, ‘artists and athletes’ and ‘numskulls and sybarites’ each tale is skillfully translated and given context by the author who is a professor of classical studies and folklore at Indiana University. You gotta love a culture that produced stories concerning ‘The Third Cup of Wine.’

Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales illus. by Kate Forrester

This volume contains 16 stories transcribed by folklorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and divided into the tantalizing categories of ‘Tricksters,’ ‘The Sea,’ ‘Quests,’ and ‘Romance.’ The tales themselves have a definite sense of humor as well as similarities to more familiar folktales that came later. The real standouts of this volume are the illustrations including great examples of silhouette art and the Celtic borders framing the tales themselves.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar

This collection of 26 newly translated tales is the perfect mix of fiction and scholarship. Each tale is comprehensively annotated by Harvard professor Tatar bringing out the historical and cultural context of each story as well as the psychological impact on children and adults throughout the ages. Most impressive is the comparison of the various illustrations that have been made for different versions of each tale including works by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane and Gustave Dore.

A Treasury of American Folklore edited by B.A. Botkin

This book is a reissue of a 1944 edition put together by B.A. Botkin who was the national folklore editor for the Federal Writers Project in the late 1930s. It is an invaluable and entertaining collection of American folktales and songs that could easily have been lost to history. Classics tales concerning the likes of Paul Bunyan and John Henry rub shoulders with the more obscure tales such as ‘The Talking Mule’ and ‘The Phantom Train of Marshal Pass.’

Gnomes (Deluxe Collector’s Edition)
by Will Huygen

First published in 1976, this is a ‘scientific observation’ of the local gnome population in Holland. This illustrated work is now considered a classic, hence this anniversary edition, and its detailed breakdown of gnome culture (including medicine, industry and, gulp, mating habits) is beloved by many. To me, however, it has always been nightmare fuel. This could be due to my encountering it during my youth but I think it also has a lot to do with the huge amount of, heavily illustrated, TMI in this book.

Living with the Living Dead by Greg Garrett

Zombies shuffle into the folklore collection with this examination of tales of the living dead and their meanings from Baylor University English professor Garett. Drawing from the many current cultural examples of the zombie apocalypse, including the films of George Romero and the TV series The Walking Dead, the author wrestles with meaty (har, har) questions such as: Who are the Living Dead? Do zombie stories actually encourage community? and What are the ethics of the zombie apocalypse?

So take a stroll down the aisle of the 300s and check out the folklore section. Just make sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs or you will be sorry.

Non-Beach Summer Reading

As summer arrives in our neck of the woods, the library and publishing worlds are already knee-deep into summer reading season. Here at the library we think reading is great for all the year round, but if the sun coming out and temperatures rising inspires people to crack open a book or power up an eReader, we are all for it. The one thing that has always puzzled me though is the long lists of ‘beach reads’ that come out this time of year purporting to be the ideal summer reading choice. The whole idea of what a beach read is, usually ‘light’ and ‘not requiring a lot of brain power,’ seems insulting to both the reader and the authors of said works quite frankly.

I say reject the convention and just read what you want during the summer months. For me, dense but rewarding nonfiction is the name of the game. Perhaps I don’t trust the utopian promise of extended hours of sunlight and warm temperatures and feel the need for a reality check. In any case, here are a few titles that are well worth your summer reading time.

The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding

How do you try to examine, let alone explain, the complex, frightening and dramatic history of Germany in the 20th Century? Thomas Harding accomplishes this herculean task by telling the story of one summer home and its occupants on the outskirts of Berlin. In the process he humanizes the broad sweep of German history. The author’s interest is personal: his great-grandfather built and owned the summer house in the 1920s and 30s before fleeing Germany for the United Kingdom due to the rise of the Nazi party and its anti-Jewish legislation. Visiting the house in the present day, he finds that it is in a dilapidated state. He brings together the people of the village and former inhabitants of the house to find out more about the history of those who have lived there and begins an effort to try and save the house from demolition. During the cold war, the house was just inside the borders of East Germany and the former occupants have fascinating tales of life behind the ‘iron curtain.’ This book is an example of social history at its best and provides an ultimately hopeful and humanizing view of an often dark corner of European history.

Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan

With one of the greatest opening lines in literature and growing to become a virtual rite of passage for disgruntled youth everywhere, The Stranger by Albert Camus has had an undeniable impact on society and culture. But how exactly did this come to pass? Alice Kaplan has crafted an excellent history of The Stranger’s creation, publication and influence to answer just that question. Kaplan delves into Camus’ early life in colonial Algeria and his career as a journalist covering criminal trials. Then it is on to the improbable circumstances of The Stranger’s publication in occupied France and its early critical reception. The most fascinating details come out after the war when The Stranger becomes an international best seller and takes on a life of its own. I certainly never knew that part of its popularity in the United States was due to the book being a good text for French language classes because of its easily accessible language and style. Finally Camus’ complicated relationship with The Stranger after its publication, and with the label of Existentialism itself, is examined. This is a truly fascinating book that will appeal not only to those who have been affected by The Stranger themselves but also to those interested in the history of literature and ideas.

Fallen Glory: the Lives and Death’s of History’s Greatest Buildings by James Crawford

This intriguing book is all about the strange fascination we have for buildings and spaces that were once considered great and are now obliterated or in ruins. The author chronicles the rise and fall of twenty-one buildings, from the Tower of Babel to the Twin Towers, and their impact on history and society. This is far from a simple chronological account of each building, however. Instead this book is an exploration of why we are drawn to each site and the meanings we create for them. The chapter on the Library of Alexandria is a great example. Founded in 300 BC and tasked with collecting all the knowledge of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria was truly a wonder. But what happened to it exactly? The story of its demise varies depending on who you want to believe and what agenda you might have: It could have been Julius Caesar as he dallied with Cleopatra in 48 BC, Christian fanatics trying to stamp out paganism in 391 AD, or during the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 642. One thing is for certain, a new library of Alexandria has been created by UNESCO and it is currently hosting a backup edition of the Internet Archive which is tasked with storing every website that has ever existed. Clearly the idea of accumulating knowledge is what the Library of Alexandria represents more than any one building.

So read what you want this summer season. Intriguing nonfiction included.

Gallows Humor

Of the many, many great reasons for using the library, one of my favorites is being able to ‘impulse buy’ a book. Since there is no cost involved, I can throw caution to the wind and select a book based on its cover, size, title or any other bizarre criteria I fancy. While there is definitely fun to be had selecting a book after thorough research and vetting, randomly finding a great book seems twice as sweet.

Recently, I made just such a discovery after coming across the intriguingly titled And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens if You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon or Go Barreling Over Niagara by Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty. While the book definitely delivers some gruesome and snarky fun, it also provides a surprising amount of science to back up the macabre scenarios. I actually ended up learning a lot about fluid dynamics, nuclear fission, physics and, of course, human physiology among many other ‘serious’ topics.

This effective combination of gallows humor and scientific inquiry is down to the two authors. Cody Cassidy is a sports reporter and editor who lets you know that “He has no firsthand experience with any of the scenarios described in this book.” Paul Doherty is the senior staff scientist at San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum and has a PhD in solid state physics from MIT. Their collaboration produces some truly hilarious and surprisingly scientific writing on gruesome, bizarre and outright implausible ways to end your existence.

How implausible you ask? Well let’s start with the simply unlikely: What would happen if…  (Illustrations by Cody Cassidy from the book)

You Were Attacked by a Swarm of Bees?

You Were Struck by Lightning?

You Were in an Airplane and Your Window Popped Out?

Now let’s graduate to the currently impossible. What would happen if…

You Jumped Into a Black Hole?

You Stood on the Surface of the Sun?

You Time Traveled?

And finally, my favorite category, the totally absurd. What would happen if…

You Were Strapped into Dr. Frankenstein’s Machine?

You Were Raised by Buzzards?

You Were the Ant Under the Magnifying Glass?

To give away the answers would be to spoil the fun, but as the book title suggests, the answers to all these questions tends to end with “And Then You’re Dead.”

One final note, whatever you do don’t skip the footnotes when reading this book. Some of the most entertaining bits are contained therein. In the chapter titled ‘What Would Happen if You Put on the World’s Loudest Headphones?’ the footnote to a sentence on sound pressure waves reads:

These pressure waves dissipate in the air as heat, and though yelling doesn’t produce enough heat to be a health risk, if you hollered at a cold cup of coffee that was in a perfect thermos, your cup would be hot and ready to drink in a year and a half.

So if you feel like learning while laughing, and don’t have a weak stomach, definitely check out And Then You’re Dead. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there is no need to fear. There are plenty of other titles in the collection to ‘buy’ on impulse. No purchase required.

To Boldly Go….Remotely

When it comes to space travel, both real and imagined, all the attention tends to focus on human expeditions. We see ourselves in a snazzy space suit, preferably with a laser blaster at our side, exploring and colonizing the moon, the planets, and the galaxies beyond. In reality, except for a brief foray to the moon, we haven’t gotten very far. Robots, on the other hand, have been tooling around the solar system and beyond for many years now, dutifully beaming back invaluable information and images for us to enjoy.

A current and spectacular example of robotic exploration is the Cassini mission to Saturn. Cassini has started the final phase of its almost 20 year mission, which has been dubbed ‘the grand finale.’ The probe will be doing a series of tight orbits of Saturn, being the first probe to go between the famous rings of Saturn and the planet proper before ‘completing’ its mission by plunging directly into the planet itself. I was hoping Cassini would be getting a nice retirement, maybe to a farm upstate somewhere, instead of a fiery death, but science is not big on sentimentality, alas.

After gorging yourself on Cassini information, you might want to take a step back and explore the other missions, the importance, and the history of robotic space exploration. The library, as always, has your back. Here are a few resources to get you started on your journey to the final frontier.

Dreams of Other Worlds: the Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration by Chris Impey and Holly Henry
The number of robotic missions in the past 40 plus years makes for quite a long list. Thankfully the authors of this excellent work don’t simply try to run down that list in telling the tale of unmanned space exploration. Instead, they focus on a few key missions and their importance. The Viking and ongoing MER (Mars Exploration Rover) missions to Mars are each given a chapter as well as the Stardust mission to collect samples from a comet. The less glamorous but scientifically invaluable space telescopes Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble are also covered. Throughout the authors impart a sense of wonder and demonstrate the way these missions continue to change our view of the universe and our place in it.

Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Curiosity Rover by Roger Wiens
While the incredible results of robotic missions are rightfully lauded to the skies, the actual nuts and bolts of getting the mechanics to work and the mission to succeed are often glossed over. Red Rover is a great corrective, with the author giving you a fascinating behind the scenes view of several missions that he has worked on. With the shift away from manned missions beginning in the 1990s, primarily due to cost, robotic missions had to be nimbler and rely on more creative engineering to get off the ground. Wien’s experience demonstrates the triumphs and failures of this endeavor and the general DIY spirit of the teams themselves. If this book piques your interest about the Mars Curiosity Rover, definitely check out some of the other works the library has on the mission.

One of the oldest, launched in 1977 no less, but still ongoing robotic mission is the Voyager program. Currently the Voyager 1 & 2 probes are hurtling through the heliosphere in interstellar space sending back invaluable data and pushing the boundaries of human exploration. For a rundown of the mission itself and the team that continues to work on it, take a look at The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Mission by Jim Bell. For a wider view of the mission and how it fits into humanity’s continual quest for discovery definitely check out Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen Pyne. If you are more visually inclined, take a look at the DVD produced by the BBC titled Voyager: to the Final Frontier. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Voyager mission is the message that was put in it to be discovered  by any extraterrestrial life that might happen upon it. The contents of that gold-coated copper phonograph, it was the 70s after all, can be found in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record put together by the people who selected the items meant to represent us, including Carl Sagan.

While it is a bummer that most of us will not be heading to the stars anytime soon, it is a great time to enjoy all the great discoveries and images that our robotic proxies are beaming back to Earth. Plus it’s nice not to die of radiation poisoning. Just saying.

Video Games, Seriously

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m pushing 50 and I play video games. There I said it. For those in a younger age cohort there is no shame in admitting and even championing the fact that they play.  But for those of us who remember playing Galaga at the arcade when it first came out, there tends to be a strange self-imposed stigma of seeing video games as childish or a waste of time. Also, back in the day it was definitely NOT an activity you mentioned if you wanted to hang out with the cool kids. If you suffer from this ancient malady as well, you will be happy to learn that nowadays there are plenty of people who take video games seriously and even write about them. Here at the library we have a great collection of books that examine the history, meaning and impact of video games on society and the people who play them. Here are a few to get you started.

Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade by Carly Kocurek

Part history and part cultural critique, Coin-Operated Americans is the story of the rise and fall of the video game arcade phenomenon in the late 1970s and early 80s. The author is particularly interested in how the early arcades and games came to be seen as the almost exclusive domain of young men despite ample evidence that girls and women participated as well. She leaves no cultural stone unturned, examining the games and films of the era that came to shape people’s perceptions of video games and those who played them. She makes a particularly convincing argument that these attitudes persist today not only in the realm of gaming but also in the larger digital culture created by the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

This work is no paean to video games as the ‘next great thing’ that will usher in a shining future with benefits for all. Instead the author, an admitted video game addict, boldly tries to apply critical tools often reserved for traditional art forms (plot, characterization, dialog, meaning) to video games. The results tend to raise more questions than they answer, but they are stronger for it. While video games are visual, they aren’t passive like watching a film, with the player’s participation altering the outcome. While many video games rely on plot, characterization and dialogue, it is undeniably a fact that some games lack almost all three and are still very popular and fun to play. Despite there being no easy answers, Bissell isn’t afraid to wade into the fray and look at video games with a critical eye. After reading this book, you might as well.

Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline by Simon Parkin

As you can probably guess from the title, Parkin isn’t afraid to deal with the obsessive, and sometimes lethal, fascination people can have with video games. Starting with an investigation into how an individual literally played an online video game for so long that he died, the author then begins to ask questions that examine the impact games have on individuals and society as a whole: What is it about video games that can produce such obsessive fascination? Are virtual worlds more appealing than the real? If so, what does that say about the way ‘real life’ is structured? While examining these issues, the author intersperses his personal experiences with interviews with game designers who are trying to push the medium into new areas. The result is a work that is much more than a simple pro or con argument about video games and it is all the better for it.

Gamelife: A Memoir by Michael Clune

This affecting and intimate memoir chronicles the impact of video games on the author’s childhood and early young adulthood. Each of the seven chapters is devoted to a specific game Clune was obsessed with from the second grade to the eighth and how it affected his emotional development. Clune’s formative years were in the 70’s and 80’s so the games described are definitely old school and mostly text based. This work could have easily been swamped by nostalgia and become an overly technical explanation of the games he played. Instead it is a genuine examination of how the game experience helped the author navigate the treacherous waters of gym class hazing, cafeteria politics and all the other ‘joys’ of early adolescence. By focusing on his emotions and experiences, Clune gives his memoir a much broader appeal and relevance. No knowledge of how a Commodore 64 worked is necessary to enjoy this book.

If you want to continue to explore the topic, definitely check out the many other titles we have about video games and their impact. It is far from game over.

Great Danes

If you haven’t noticed lately, Denmark has been taking the publishing industry by storm:  Specifically, the Danes ability to create a ‘quality of coziness’, hygge in Danish, is being lauded and held up as the path to an ideal and happy life. There are several new titles on the topic including How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Happy as a Dane: 10 Secrets of the Happiest People in the World and The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident Capable Kids to name but a few. So are the Danes, and their Nordic cousins, the happiest people on earth? For the pro argument, definitely take a look at the titles mentioned above. There are other works by and about the Danes that suggest a more nuanced view however. Here are a few I’ve read and watched that might be of interest.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

Michael Booth has lived and worked in Denmark for many years, even marrying and starting a family there, but he can’t quite let go of his very British wit and outlook. This gives him a unique perspective as he examines the culture of not only Denmark but also the other Nordic countries he travels to including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. He finds much to admire (a strong sense of community and egalitarianism) but also sees some contradictions (a distrust of exceptionalism and pressure to fit in). None of his musings are mean-spirited, he clearly loves his adopted culture, but he does enjoying taking a few hilarious jibes at their foibles (Swedes seem incapable of addressing each other, let alone forming a proper queue). This work is a great place to start if you want to examine the Nordic cultures with a more critical eye.

Karate Chop & So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors

Nors is an outstanding Danish writer who specializes in brief tales that seem to hover on the surface of things but ultimately expose a deeper and often darker meaning underneath. She likes to experiment with form as well, with her subject often being contemporary culture and an individual’s place in it. Karate Chop is a collection of brief short stories, many just a page or two in length, that exposes the weirdness lurking underneath the seemingly mundane actions of everyday life. Each word is selected with care and to a devastating and darkly humorous effect. So Much for that Winter is more playful and experimental. It consists of two novellas, one told in a series of lists and the other in a series of headlines, which charts the inner lives of two very 21st century women grappling with all that life sends their way.

Unit One & Borgen

Watching popular television shows are another great way to try to understand the Danes. The police procedural series Unit One is a good example. A bit like the Law and Order franchise, Unit One follows the members of an elite mobile task force that travels to different locations in Denmark to help the local police solve crimes. While definitely fiction, it is an interesting way to compare and contrast different cultural attitudes towards crime and punishment. It is also fun to watch Mads Mikkelsen, of Hannibal fame, in a very early and very different role. Borgen is another series that is helpful for trying to understand the Danes, this time in the political arena. Borgen is the fictional story of Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark, who has to learn the art of wielding power in a way that will benefit the greater good while, hopefully, doing the least harm. This series is also concerned with the press and how the news gets reported and spun to suit various interests. Even if you aren’t a big fan of political drama, there are plenty of personal and family machinations to keep you hooked.

So are the Danes the happiest people on earth? As with all interesting questions the answer is a bit complicated. Best to come to your own conclusion after checking out all of the great material here at the library.