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.

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.