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.

Narrators of Distinction

I’ve always found choosing a good audiobook to be complicated. Not only do I want the title to be interesting and compelling, there is also the added layer of the quality of the narration. It can be the greatest book in the world, but if I find the narrator’s delivery dull, grating or outright annoying I won’t touch it. On the flip side, if I discover a narrator I really like I will often give a book a listen even if the narrator is reading a title I wouldn’t normally touch with a ten foot pole. So clearly the narrator is key, but how exactly do you choose a good narrator?

One of the easier ways is to take a look at the Audie awards. The Audies are awarded annually by the Audio Publishers Association to titles deemed to have excellent narrators in a wide variety of categories. While this year’s awards won’t be until May 31st, the APA has just come out with all the titles that have been nominated. This list is an easy way to look for titles with potentially great narrators. Listed below is a partial list of the categories and titles that have been nominated for the 2017 awards. Feel free to look at the full list of all the titles and categories, via this link, as well.

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Autobiography/Memoir

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart, narrated by Hannah Hart and Judy Young

The Rainbow Comes and Goes written and narrated by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

Best Female Narrator

Another Brooklyn: A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson, narrated by Robin Miles

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien, narrated by Juliet Stevenson

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, narrated by Bahni Turpin

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Best Male Narrator

End of Watch by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton

Jerusalem by Alan Moore, narrated by Simon Vance

Fantasy

The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson, narrated by Michael Kramer

Fiction

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, narrated by Cassandra Campbell

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes, narrated by Juliet Stevenson

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History/Biography

Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman, narrated by Jonathan Keeble

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, narrated by Scott Brick

Humor

The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy written and narrated by Rainn Wilson

Black Man, White House: An Oral History of the Obama Years by D.L. Hughley, narrated by Keith Szarabajka, John Reynolds, Fran Tunno, Cherise Boothe, Dan Woren, P.J. Ochlan, Gregory Itzin, Paula Jai Parker-Martin, Mia Barron, Ron Butler, and James Shippy

You’ll Grow out of It written and narrated by Jessi Klein

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Multi-Voiced Performance

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom, narrated by Mitch Albom, Roger McGuinn, Ingrid Michaelson, John Pizzarelli, Paul Stanley, George Guidall, and more

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, narrated by Audra McDonald, Cassandra Campbell and Ari Fliakos

Mystery

Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, narrated by Rene Auberjonois

The Crossing by Michael Connelly, narrated by Titus Welliver

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny, narrated by Robert Bathurst

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Narration By The Author or Authors

Dear Mr. You written and narrated by Mary-Louise Parker

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo written and narrated by Amy Schumer

The View from the Cheap Seats written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

Non-Fiction

Hillbilly Elegy written and narrated by J.D. Vance

Romance

First Star I See Tonight by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, narrated by Nicole Poole

The Obsession by Nora Roberts, narrated by Shannon McManus

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Science Fiction

Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster, narrated by Marc Thompson

Thriller/Suspense

Cross Justice by James Patterson, narrated by Ruben Santiago Hudson and Jefferson Mays

Home by Harlan Coben, narrated by Steven Weber

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Young Adult

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, narrated by Carla Corvo, Steve West and various

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco and James Patterson, narrated by Nicola Barber

Winter by Marissa Meyer, narrated by Rebecca Soler

Funny Strange or Funny Ha-Ha

I’ve always had a weakness for stories that live at the intersection of funny and weird. Straight up hilarious or bizarre is great in a story, but when you combine the two it produces a strange feeling of unease that I find oddly gratifying. If you have ever laughed at a situation or occurrence while reading a story and simultaneously thought ‘why the heck am I laughing at this’ then you know what I mean. Luckily, I’ve recently read three short story collections that are chock full of stories that fit the bill. Some veer a little more toward the strange and others toward the funny, but many of the stories are smack dab at the rarefied intersection of weird and funny. If you enjoy these types of stories as well, or just want to try something new, the short story collections listed below will definitely be worth your limited reading time.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis

americanhousewifeThis collection definitely brings on the funny as the author sets out to wittily skewer contemporary domestic mores and the traditional roles of women in the 21st century. She does so by taking a seemingly ‘normal’ situation and ramping it up to absurd levels with the story veering off into the truly bizarre: ‘The Wainscoting War’ records the email war between two neighbors as they try to claim the right to decorate their shared hallway with deadly results. ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ is the story of the initiation of a new book club member who begins to realize that the book club wants to control more than just what she reads. ‘My Book is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax’ is a standout and details an author’s subjugation to her book’s sponsor as it takes over every aspect of her life. While these stories are consistently funny, most head toward strange with pleasing results.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickThe stories in this collection are more somber, but still provide some outstanding tales blending the humorous and the strange. The author has a knack for creating characters that are at once obsessive, slightly neurotic, and definitely odd but still sympathetic. You may just end up chuckling at their life situations in spite of yourself: ‘Bettering Myself’ is the story of an alcoholic teacher at a Catholic school who ensures her employment by fudging her student’s test scores. ‘Malibu’ introduces you to an odd nephew and uncle who spend their days in front of the TV, except to go out to find the perfect place to deposit the uncle’s ashes when he dies. ‘The Weirdos’ details a woman’s breakup, sort of, with her truly bizarre aspiring actor boyfriend who is convinced aliens exist and that the local crows are after him. The emphasis is more on the strange in these stories, but the funny is definitely there as well.

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

childrenA near future where technology has taken a disquieting and frighteningly plausible turn is the setting for most of the stories in this work. The author is great at creating a sense of unease, but is also capable of creating a strong sense of sympathy for his characters and their predicaments. While strangeness abounds in this collection, there is definitely a lot humor-but be warned that it is mostly of the dark kind:  ‘Children of the New World’ details an infertile couple’s anxiety at having to delete their virtual children due to a computer virus. ‘The Cartographers’ is the story of a programmer who has developed a program that can beam other people’s memories into his own brain, causing him to not know what is real and what isn’t. ‘Rocket Night’ introduces us to an elementary school where parents gather annually to decide which of their children is least liked and then launch the unfortunate student into space. If you don’t mind your dystopian strangeness mixed with a little dark humor, this is the collection for you.

Enjoy these short story collections and free yourself from having to determine whether they are funny strange or funny ha-ha. Happily they are both.

Brains from the Deep

Everyone seems to have a favorite nominee for ‘smartest animal.’ Many prefer the much-lauded chimpanzee or dolphin, but crows, elephants, parrots, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many other species all have their supporters. Recently, there have been studies that champion a somewhat less relatable animal: the octopus. Unlike some of the other nominees, the octopus is truly an alien-looking creature that lives for only a few years. How then can it be intelligent? Luckily for those wanting to understand, a few great new books have come out that answer that question and raise even more interesting ones about the nature of intelligence, consciousness and the limits of human understanding.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

soulofoctopusSy Montgomery really loves octopuses. Specifically she develops an admiration and affection for Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, the four individual cephalopods she interacts with at the New England Aquarium. She also expands her quest beyond the aquarium and goes out into the wild to encounter more octopuses in their natural habitat. She becomes convinced of their intelligence: An intelligence that goes beyond the scientifically measurable, such as puzzle solving and the like, to also include feelings of playfulness, friendship, happiness and tenderness on their part. While Montgomery’s utter devotion can produce a risk of ascribing human traits to her subjects a little too easily, it is hard to deny that there seems to be some sort of consciousness in the octopus mind after reading this book.

Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

othermindsWhile no less a devotee of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith takes the long view when examining the intelligence of this fascinating creature. As a philosopher of science, he is well placed to delve into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the octopus in particular. While mammals and birds are closely related on the tree of life, the cephalopods deviated very early on in our evolutionary history, so much so that they are almost a separate evolutionary ‘experiment’ in intelligence. The author isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions: What kind of intelligence do octopuses possess? Is it alien from our own? Can we understand it? While doing this, Godfrey-Smith is no armchair philosopher, however. The book is also full of real world examples of his dives and encounters with these intelligent creatures that drive home his arguments.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By F.B.M. de Waal

smartenoughDe Waal’s goal, in this well written and engaging book, is nothing short of toppling humankind from its lofty, and self-appointed perch at the top of the intelligence and cognition scale. In fact, he argues we shouldn’t think of intelligence as a scale at all, but rather as a bush with cognition taking different forms in each branch, none necessarily higher than the other but always unique. It is an intriguing argument, which he backs up with many observations of the animal world that he has gleaned in his role as an animal behaviorist at Emory University. He is quick to point out the cases of wishful thinking and pure chance (Paul the octopus did not actually know anything about soccer despite his correct predictions during the 2010 World Cup alas) but he does provide convincing examples of animal intelligence using scientific and rational methods.

So is the mysterious and alien looking octopus conscious and intelligent? Based on these excellent books and in the words of the Magic 8-Ball: As I see it, yes.

Titles of Intrigue

Here at the library, we really appreciate a good book title. Whether we are selecting, shelving, weeding or checking them out, we deal with a lot of library items throughout our careers. When you come across a title that you find intriguing, it is hard not to have admiration for its ability to stand out in a very large crowd. This is especially true when it comes to ordering books. While selecting, I scan many lists of books from several sources and have to admit that sometimes it is hard to keep my eyes from glazing over while trying to determine if titles like Algebra I for Dummies are a good fit for the collection.

But thankfully there are exceptions. Here are a number of new and on-order books with titles that might pique your interest as they have mine. While I can’t guarantee they will deliver on the promise of their intriguing titles, they are definitely worth a look. I’ve also taken a page from our Spot-Lit posts and have presented the covers in a slideshow so you can enjoy the titles in all their glory. Simply click on a book cover to view the show. Enjoy!

Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif

The Aliens Are Coming!: The Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe by Ben Miller

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolutions Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems by Matt Simon

Void: The Strange Physics of Nothing by James Weatherall

The Thieves of Threadneedle Street: the Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England by Nicholas Booth

Star Wars Propaganda : A History of Persuasive Art in the Galaxy by Pablo Hidalgo

Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker

Not Dead Yet: the Memoir by Phil Collins

Murder & Mayhem in Seattle by Teresa Nordheim

Grizzlyshark by Ryan Ottley

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: the Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants by Tammi Hartung

Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond by Tim Rayborn