Electric History

I’ve always been a big fan of science, but to be honest I don’t always get it. Perhaps it comes from being a humanities major, or simply the limits of this Homo sapiens brain capacity, but after a certain threshold I have serious trouble comprehending certain concepts. Newtonian physics seems to be my limit: Force equals mass time acceleration? Got it. Once you start talking quantum mechanics things start to go off the rails: An object can be in two places at the same time? Sorry, my mind just exploded. In Star Trek terms, I suffer from Khan’s weakness for two-dimensional thinking and share Captain Janeway’s dislike of time travel.

One of the scientific ideas that I can actually comprehend and enjoy is electricity. While it might seem basic and thoroughly rational today, when electricity was first discovered it had a whiff of the magical about it. Eccentric inventors harnessing an unseen force that traveled through wires generating light, power and a potentially lethal charge was hard to resist. To judge by the number of books still being written about the discovery and harnessing of electricity, the interest continues to this day. Here are a few titles that you might also find enlightening as well as entertaining:

Making the Monster: the Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup

Can an electrical current actually reanimate a corpse? Well, no, but a defibrillator sure comes in handy when someone is having a heart attack. While the science reflected in Mary Shelley’s classic work may not stand up to modern scrutiny, the core concepts are surprisingly sound. It is clear that Shelley had an excellent knowledge of the scientific ideas percolating in 1818 relating to electricity and physiology. In this work, Harkup gives the reader an intriguing and entertaining overview of the often gruesome and peculiar scientific endeavors that Shelley drew on for her famous novel. Just in time for its 200-year anniversary.

Simply Electrifying: the Technology that Transformed the World by Craig Roach

Providing a well-written overview, Roach tells the story of the discovery, harnessing and regulation of electricity in its 200 plus year history. It is a story that involves many different aspects including science, technology, history, recreation and business but is all brought together here. The author primarily takes the ‘great person’ view introducing the reader to luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla emphasizing their impact on how electricity was discovered and distributed. It is a story that is surprisingly fraught with controversy and competition and full of unsung heroes and bitter rivalry.

Tesla: Inventor of the Modern by Richard Munson

When it comes to scientific geniuses that many considered wronged by posterity, Nikola Tesla is one of the greats. We have many books about him, but Munson’s is the most recent and an excellent addition to the collection. An inventor of all things electrical including motors, radios, and phones, one of Tesla’s incredible discoveries was AC electrical current. AC current was far superior at delivering electricity to people over long distances, especially compared to the DC current promoted by Thomas Edison. Despite this, and in combination with a poor business sense, Tesla ended up penniless during his later years. This book gives Tesla his proper due and provides insight into his genius and life.

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes

If you want all the gory details, and they do get gory, about the brutal competition to capitalize on the invention of electricity and control its distribution to the masses, Jonnes’ book is the one for you. In the last decades of the 19th century, Edison, Tesla and George Westinghouse all tried to forge their own business empires by cornering the market on the production and distribution of electricity. The author argues that all three started out with good intentions, wanting to harness electricity for the betterment of humanity, but greed eventually won out. The invention and use of the electric chair as a way to ‘demonstrate’ the danger or advantage of AC current being a prime example of this slide to the bottom.

Edison vs. Tesla: the Battle over their Last Invention by Joel Martin and William Birnes

Leave the scientific realm and enter the spiritual plane by reading this work about the purported battle to create the ‘spirit phone.’ (Librarian pro tip: when a scientific sounding book is in the 133 Dewey range something mystical is afoot) As you might guess from the name, the spirit phone was designed to allow you to talk with the dearly departed. The authors do their due diligence to prove that both men actually worked on such a device by researching the later journals of both men and demonstrating the thin line between spiritualism and science in some circles at the time. They also make some educated guesses as to how the device might have worked and which spirits it was meant to contact.

Empire’s Edge

Historical borders, and the walls that often accompany them, have always been fascinating to me. They pose so many interesting questions: Why were they built?  What was their purpose?  And what was it like to live along them? Plus, for those of us who like order and method, they always look pretty cool on a map. A seemingly clean and simple separation of different entities. Of course, as with most things, when you look a little closer it is way more complicated than that.

One of my favorite historical boundaries is Hadrian’s Wall, built during the Roman occupation of Britain and situated in the borderlands between present day England and Scotland. Chock it up to reading a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff in my youth, but I’ve always found Roman Britain fascinating and the idea of its northern boundary wall is just one of its intriguing mysteries. While you might think that all has been said and done concerning Hadrian’s Wall, nothing could be further from the truth. Three recent books about the wall, and Roman Britain, prove the point.

Hadrian’s Wall by Adrian Goldsworthy

If you fear lengthy historical tomes, this is the book for you. Clocking in at a mere 169 pages, plus illustrations, this is a quick and enlightening read. While this work is loosely chronological, the main emphasis is on social history: trying to discover the motives, experiences and daily life of those who lived and worked on the wall. While there is very little that survives from the written historical record concerning the Wall there is a lot of excellent archaeological evidence. One example is the dig site at the Roman auxiliary fort of Vindolanda. In addition to extensive structural remains there are actual letters, written on wooden leaf tablets, which have been preserved in the muddy soil. It is with evidence such as this that the author is able to make some credible guesses as to what life was actually like at the fort and beyond. While this book reveals that there is a lot that is unknown about Hadrian’s Wall, that just adds to the mystery.

The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia by Bronwen Riley

This creative and entertaining work gives you the closest thing to a travel guide for the Roman Empire, circa 130 C.E., that you will come across. Riley admits up front that while grounded in the historical facts we have, many of the events and descriptions she provides are along the lines of an educated guess. That does not dissuade her from giving the reader a grounds eye view of Sextus Julius Serverus’s journey from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall to assume his post as the Governor of Britannia. While you might think such a high status person would have a smooth and luxurious trip, there are perils and indignities aplenty. Shipboard life is far from ideal: camping out on the deck for the entire trip with no restroom facilities does not make for happy passengers. In addition, the inns and taverns offer dubious food and the bedding can be crawling with many unwanted guests. But hey, the roads are good and there is almost always a bathhouse around. The author’s creativity and attention to detail make you feel like you are actually on the road with Severus. Admittedly, a dubious honor at times but never boring.

Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins

One of the undeniable facts about Roman Britain, and Ancient Rome in general, is that only a small fraction of the written sources and physical evidence survives to this day. While this is frustrating, it also produces endless speculation and a sense of mystery that is quite irresistible. Part travelogue and part analysis of this sense of mystery, Higgins’ work is as much about how we create the past as it is about the physical remains of Roman Britain. Setting out in a VW Camper van over the course of several years, she visits both the major and minor archeological sites of Roman Britain. While at times this is only a few stones and, lucky day, possibly an inscription, they still generate wonder and enthusiasm among historians and the local population. Long after the Romans have left, people find their lives entwined with an imagined past. While walking along Hadrian’s Wall the author encounters Marcus Aufidius Macimus:

He had borrowed the name of a real Roman, who had dedicated alters at Bath. When in civvies he was Steve Richardson, from Newcastle: he was he said, ‘a full-time Roman centurion.’ The souvenir stall was just for the summer; usually, he said, his work was school visits and events at archaeological sites and museums. At primary schools, he and his wife Lesley kitted out the children in uniforms and then ‘I take them out on drills.’

With many examples such as this, both current and historical, Higgins maps out the remains of Roman Britain as cultural artifacts that are very much alive.

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.