Loving the Alien (or Not)

Spring has sprung. The earth renews itself and the grand cycle of life continues. And, oh yeah, the damn weeds are taking over the yard again. While definitely not rational (nature always wins after all) I’ve always thought there was a certain doomed nobility in taking up arms, in the form of spades and shovels, against the weedy invaders in my yard.

But does my relationship with weeds and other ‘undesirables’ need to be adversarial? Recent books about our relationship with nature have opened up a debate about the whole concept of defining species as desirable or undesirable, native or invasive. Maybe the problem isn’t in the yard, but in my head. Here are three newer titles that explore the line between good and bad in the animal and plant kingdoms.

Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction by Chris Thomas

This provocative work states that the widely accepted idea of human activities causing the destruction of the environment and the loss of species is actually looking at the situation incorrectly. Humans are altering the environment for sure, but, Thomas argues, this new environment actually benefits certain adaptable species. The end result?  More new species will be created than destroyed. The key to his argument lies in examining the animals and plants that are labeled invasive. For the author, these species are simply the ones that successfully exploit the new environment and survive. For Thomas, nature is ultimately more resilient and adaptable than we think.

The Aliens Among Us: How Invasive Species are Transforming the Planet—and Ourselves by Leslie Anthony

Anthony has little sympathy for those who refuse to see invasive species as a threat or who downplay their impact on the environment. Instead, he advocates for a vigorous defense of the native and an eradication of the invasive. To prove his point he goes on the frontline with the scientists and environmentalists battling undesirable species (such as Scotch Broom, Lampreys and Pythons) and celebrates their hard work and dedication to the cause. He also goes into an enlightening history of specific species and how they ended up in the wrong places: the Norway Rat owes its presence in 90 percent of the world to trade by sea for example. This book is an entertaining call to arms.

Where Do Camels Belong: the Story and Science of Invasive Species by Ken Thompson

Thompson argues that the real problem when it comes to invasive vs. native species lies in definitions. As the title suggests, he uses the camel as a prime example. We think of camels as native to the Middle East but in fact they evolved and lived in North America for millions of years, retain their greatest biological diversity in South America, and are currently only ‘wild’ in Australia. So where are they native exactly? He makes a convincing argument using other species as well. In the end he advocates for getting beyond the stark and illogical definitions of native and invasive and simply judging species by their impact on the environment as it currently exists.

So what is a conscientious gardener to do: take up arms against all that is invasive or let nature take its course? We all have to make our own choices, but as for me I choose to play favorites. The native Kinnikinnick is a great ground cover, but once it start encroaching on my beloved, and definitely introduced, Monkey Puzzle Tree the shears are coming out.

You Are an Obsession

Nowadays, openly proclaiming your obsessive allegiance to a beloved pop culture item is not only considered normal but celebrated. Be it a book, movie, TV show, graphic novel, album or almost anything, you can feel safe in declaring your intense admiration for it. As someone who in his youth had to hide his love of Star Trek (definitely team Spock), The Thing (the John Carpenter version thank you very much) and tactical board games (care for a game of Midway?) from the ‘norms,’ this is a welcome change.

But even today, some might argue that certain individuals take it a bit too far. While it is definitely subjective, since one person’s beloved hobby can be another person’s time wasting succubus, it is hard to deny that there is a line between really liking something and being obsessively, perhaps destructively, devoted to it. Here at the library, we have several newer books that examine both the objects of hyper devotion and the people who love them, and let you decide. Read on to learn more.

Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom by George Dohrmann

We’ve all seen them. In the panning shot of the spectators at a sporting event there is always at least one person in full body paint and no shirt screaming their support for the team. While many love the home team, some really, really, really love them. George Dohrmann sets out to discover what motivates a person to become a ‘superfan’ and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. While there definitely is a lot that is bizarre and funny here, the author does not exploit his subjects. Rather he genuinely tries to understand what motivates obsessive sports fans and conveys their humanity to the reader.

Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like and Why by Benjamin Errett

Rather than focusing on one object of pop culture desire, this work tries to create a framework for understanding why we like certain things so passionately. The author cleverly equates our cultural likes to the sense of taste, breaking our passions down into Sweet (ex. Cozy Murder Mysteries), Sour (ex. Mad Magazine), Salty (ex. True Detective), Bitter (ex. Tim and Eric) and Indescribable (ex. Gilmore Girls). While this might sound highly regimented, it is actually quite fluid and a fun way to look at the cultural artifacts we so adore.

Furry Nation: the True Story of America’s Most Misunderstood Subculture by Joe Strike

This is not a critical examination of ‘furry fandom’, a fascination with anthropomorphic animal characters, but a celebration of the culture itself. The author is a longtime participant and well placed to report on its history and the many forms it takes: from well-known cartoon characters and sports mascots to individuals creating their own works. He also argues that the desire to emulate animals, and see them as equals, can be seen in the human species from early on in the form of cave paintings and ancient rituals.

Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life by Steven Hyden

The interesting premise of this book is simple but effective: a person’s true devotion comes out when threatened. Steven Hyden demonstrates this by exploring nineteen musical rivalries that prompt fans to defend ‘their band’ to the bitter end. All the classics, and some you may not know about, are here: David Lee Roth vs. the Van Halen brothers, Oasis vs. Blur, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, Dr. Dre vs. Eazy-E and many more. Hyden does not try to declare any winners, however.  He is more interested in the choices fans make and what that says about ourselves and what we choose to love.

People Like Us: the Cult of the Rocky Horror Picture Show by Lauren Everett

Perhaps one of the first groups that could be considered superfans, as well as cosplayers, devotees of the Rocky Horror Picture Show get the lovingly crafted photo-essay book that they deserve here. This work is a celebration of those who like to dress up as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, Brad, Janet and, who could forget, Magenta as well as other characters and attend midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show all while shouting back at the screen. While primarily made up of photographs of the participants, this work also touches on why people choose to participate and what they get out of it.

Not only will you get an appreciation for other people’s passions after reading these books, you just might feel better about embracing your own.  Don’t dream it, be it, as they say.

Skin Deep

When it comes to animals, everyone loves cute. If you need proof just visit your local zoo. People will be lining up and jostling each other to see the bears, lions, elephants and monkeys but you will have no trouble getting into the reptile house. This phenomenon is reflected in the book world as well. The majority of titles seem to be dedicated to animals we can relate to and that many see as cute or lovable. But there are exceptions. A dedicated few choose to write about, and often champion, the animals that we find odd, frightening and sometimes disturbing. While I would hesitate to call it a trend, I have noticed a number of new books that seek to appreciate the animals many find unlovable. Read on for a few recent examples.

Vulture: the Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Often seen in films circling a dead or dying victim and, let’s be honest, not being the most photogenic of birds, vultures are definitely in need of some good PR. Luckily, author Katie Fallon is up to the task. She creates a sense of empathy by following a typical North American turkey vulture throughout the year. Along the way the reader learns of the crucial role turkey vultures play in cleansing the landscape of carrion and the dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, rabies and botulism that carcasses can harbor. You will also come to appreciate the vultures’ keen sense of smell and its ability to soar on six-foot wings for extended periods of time. While few will ever consider the vulture cute, this work will make you appreciate them and reconsider their negative stereotype.

The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Getting readers to appreciate a creature that many swat without a moment’s hesitation is a tall order but Erica McAlister manages to do just that. While there is plenty here to make you a tad nauseous, with a whole chapter dedicated to ‘the coprophages,’ you will also learn of the important role flies play in pollination and as a food source. Most importantly, the author realizes that many see those who study flies, a dipterist for those in the know, as rather odd and the flies themselves as, well, pretty disgusting. She counters this with a healthy sense of humor and curious fly related facts: Flies were the first creatures sent into space and are still being studied on the International Space station; vinegar flies enjoy alcohol and when imbibing they become more amorous and less able to choose an appropriate mate; there is such a thing as the The Society for the Study of Flies. In the end, you can’t help but be interested.

Squid Empire: the Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf

Perhaps it is the tentacles or maybe the large, sometimes saucer size eyes that put people off, but squid, and cephalopods in general, don’t get a lot of love from humans. But as the bold title of this work implies, squid don’t need your love. You see, they have been around a long time and I mean a long time: before the mammals, before the dinosaurs, and even before the fishes. Sure there are fewer of them around today, but they had a glorious 400 million year run as the ruling class on the planet. Danna Staaf charts their rise, dominance, fall and comeback in this fascinating work with humor and narrative skill. The key to their survival turns out to be an amazing ability to adapt. Starting out in shells, the cephalopods went on to develop tentacles, beaks, ink, and a masterful camouflage ability all to keep one step ahead of the competition. Long live the Empire!

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald

While beautiful when seen floating behind plexiglas in a tank, getting close to a jellyfish in the wild can be a harrowing experience, especially while swimming. In this mixture of scientific inquiry, travelogue, and memoir Juli Berwald examines the prolific and ancient jellyfish and tries to allay some of those fears while describing its role in the ecosystem today. While this book is definitely packed with fascinating jellyfish facts, they are made of 95% water and have barbs that pierce with five million times the acceleration of gravity, it is also about the jellyfish as a bellwether of a changing planet. Their incredible success, with huge ‘blooms’ of billions of jellyfish causing damage to fisheries and infrastructure, says much about the acidification of the oceans and a warming climate. Finally, this book is also a tale of the author’s rediscovery of her love of science, and jellyfish in particular, after raising a family.

Deadly Titles

Reader’s advisory questions, basically finding a book for a person to read that matches their interests, can be one of the more difficult questions we try to answer here at the library. Everyone has different tastes so matching a person to a specific book can definitely be tricky, especially when you don’t know them well. One of the go-to methods I’ve found that gets results is asking a person what they have enjoyed reading recently. This came to mind as I looked back at the last three books I have read and realized they all had a variant of death or dying in the title. Yes gentle reader, I would make for one morbid Reader’s Advisory patron. But the thing is, all three books are excellent and well worth your attention despite the deadly titles. Read on to decide for yourself.

To Die in Spring: A Novel by Ralf Rothmann

Admittedly the set up for this book does not sound cheery: A son’s creative retelling of his father’s experiences after being drafted by the German army as a teenager in the final months of World War II. While the circumstances are indeed bleak, the author takes great pains to emphasize both the humanity of many of the people his father encounters and the cycles of the natural world that are all-around despite the devastation. The end result is a feeling of the primacy of nature and its ability to endure over horrific ideologies and the desire for extinction. The author’s sparse but incredibly moving prose conveys this feeling throughout without a word wasted. This is an excellent and strangely hopeful novel.

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

The title of this book should clue you in to the author’s attitude when it comes to discussing the dreaded topic of death: straight and to the point. This slim volume records Taylor’s thoughts and feelings in the last months of her life before dying of brain cancer in 2016. She remains clear eyed throughout whether discussing how to face the inevitability of death, pain and the possibility of suicide, or her understandable feelings of grief and anger. The last two thirds of the book are meditations on her childhood, family, career, and the odd role that chance plays in how you develop, make choices and ultimately expire. This work is a refreshingly straightforward and honest approach to an often avoided topic.

Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy

If you aren’t familiar with this classic, well classic to those who have spent some time in the Dairy State, it is high time to take a look. The concept for this work of local history seems innocent enough: A combination of historical photographs and newspaper articles depicting rural Wisconsin, Black River Falls for the most part, from the 1880s to the 1910s. But, oh my, the results are eerie, disturbing, and impossible to look away from. Strange tales of madness, murder and supernatural sightings are told in brief, matter of fact newspaper articles. When combined with the large detailed photographs of individuals and landscapes, the effect is both mesmerizing and very unsettling. Think of it as Twin Peaks without the huge trees.

So if you can overcome your fear of death, well in a book title at least, and choose one of these titles you will be pleasantly surprised. Don’t fear the reaper, man.

An Atlas of….

I’ve always been fascinated by atlases. So much so that if a book has the phrase ‘atlas of’ somewhere in the title my interest is instantly piqued. ‘The History of Paperclips’ sounds like a snooze fest. ‘An Atlas of Paperclips’ on the other hand just might be the ticket. If you haven’t looked at an atlas since high school and perhaps think of them as antiquated and stodgy, now is a great time to get back in the atlas game. You see long gone are the days when atlases simply depicted the geography of countries and continents. They have now branched out to cover a diverse number of really interesting topics. Still skeptical? Take a look at these new and on order titles here at the library and prepare to expand your definition of the atlas.

An Atlas of Countries that Don’t Exist
In addition to having one of the greatest titles for an atlas that I’ve ever come across, this book is practically a work of art. Each map is die-cut out of the page and beautifully illustrated making this work more akin to an adult picture book than an atlas. Fascinating information about the history and claims to statehood of each country is included, however, making this work no fairy tale.

National Geographic Atlas of Beer
This is definitely an atlas with a singular theme and that theme is beer. Breaking down beers by country and region is the order of the day with graphs, charts and lots of detailed definitions that beer lovers are sure to appreciate. In addition, each geographical entry has a Beer Guide which points you to the best places to sample the suds of your dreams in each area.

Family Tree Historical Atlas of American Cities
Officially conceived as an aid to genealogical research, this atlas turns out to be much more. Maps for sixteen major American cities are produced in different historical periods so you can see how the cities changed over time and get a sense of the physical space the residents lived in. Though heavily east coast centric, with only San Francisco and Los Angeles representing the west, it is still a fascinating walk back through time.

The World Atlas of Street Fashion
Miles away from the world of haute couture, this atlas documents the clothes worn by everyday people trying to make a statement. Divided by continent, country and city you can learn about diverse clothing movements such as Modern Primitive, Normcore, Goth, Italo-Disco, K-Pop and many more. Particularly interesting is the way you can trace a style across continents, such as Punk, and see how it is interpreted by many different cultures.

Cinemaps: An Atlas of Great Movies
This unique and beautifully illustrated atlas creatively represents the plot lines and characters of key scenes in 35 beloved films. While a classic film or two is represented, including Metropolis and North by Northwest, most are thankfully on the popular side with maps for the likes of The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, several Star Wars and Star Trek incarnations, and even Shaun of the Dead. Each map is quite detailed so it is a help to have essays from film critic A.D. Jameson to help refresh your memory.

Lonely Planet’s Atlas of Adventure
Definitely not for the faint of heart, this atlas sets out to list the best places around the world for outdoor adventure. ‘Adventure’ can mean relatively benign activities such as hiking and biking, but also includes the rather terrifying, to this old man, activities of gorge scrambling, freeriding and skyrunning. With over 150 countries listed there is clearly plenty to do. Just be careful man.

So I hope this brief tour of new atlases has piqued your interest and shown you just how cool they can be. If not, I’m still fine with the label of atlas nerd. Though atlas aficionado does sound classier.

Listening in the Rain

Looking up at the sky it is hard to deny that fall has arrived. While those who worship the sun may start to mourn, and those who secretly welcome the return of the big dark rejoice, one thing is certain: yard work abounds. The no longer dormant grass is making a comeback, trees and bushes are in need of trimming, and the weeds just keep coming. For me, one of the side benefits of spending all that time in the yard maintaining order is the added hours I have for listening to audiobooks. The only downside is that if the audiobook is really good, I find myself getting drenched as I stubbornly refuse to come in from the rain since I have to know what happens next.

The library still has a fine collection of audiobooks on CD, but I’ve been getting into the digital eAudiobooks lately. Basically it comes down to ease of use, a.k.a I’m lazy. The idea of actually having to put in another CD to continue listing seems like way too much work. This from a man who used to happily flip audio cassettes in his Walkman back in the day. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the process for downloading eAudiobooks from the library has actually gotten much easier. Both cloudLibrary and OverDrive have apps that are pretty simple to download to your device. I usually use my phone to listen and I’ve found that OverDrive’s new Libby app works quite well.

So if you want to take the plunge and start listening to eAudiobooks, here are four that I have enjoyed and are well worth your listening time:

Malice by Keigo Higashino
While showing clear influences of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring an impossible to explain murder of a man in a locked room no less, this mystery is in a class by itself. The how of the crime is important, but the why is what really piques the listener’s interest. It is essentially a game of cat and mouse between the suspect, author Osamu Nonoguchi, and intrepid police detective Kyochiro Kaga. The story is told from both men’s perspective and the narrator, Jeff Woodman, expertly gives each character a distinctive voice and tone.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Jason Dessen is content with his seemingly average life as a husband, father and physics professor at a small college in Chicago. One night he is kidnapped and drugged by a mysterious individual. He wakes up to find himself in a place that is familiar but just not quite right. Thus begins a long strange trip into the quantum multiverse, with alternative versions of the present and all that could have been. The one constant is Jason’s desperate attempt to get back to the wife and child he loves. The story is expertly narrated in a style akin to a film noir voiceover by Jon Lindstrom who draws you into the story and keeps you grounded.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
While a book describing the elements of the periodical table might seem off-putting to some, you would be making a mistake to dismiss this work as a dry academic tome. Instead it is a series of curious, exciting and dangerous tales of the elements and those who discovered them. Give this eAudio a listen and you will hear stories about the manic quest for absolute zero, the dangerous fashion for ingesting mercury capsules, and why Godzilla was vanquished by a cadmium tipped missile. The narrator, Sean Runnette, brings all this rich scientific history to life with impeccable pronunciation and a nice dollop of irony.

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
Set in the same dystopian future as The Girl With All the Gifts, where a mutant fungus has turned most of the population of the United Kingdom into ‘hungries’, this novel is a prequel of sorts. It follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, a mobile research vehicle, whose mission is to try to find a vaccine or cure for the dreaded disease plaguing humanity. While the plot may seem somewhat familiar, it is the character development that really stands out in this series. Each character is well crafted to the point where you actually care if a bite gets taken out of them. Finty Williams’ narration brings the characters to life (with their varying accents, ages and genders) and makes this work a great listening experience.

So in the brief periods between rain showers, get out there and weed with a good eAudio book. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting wet though.

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.