Information, Answers & Reviews

Stars, Planets, Moon

ISBN: 
9781770853256

I know the title sounds like an oxymoron, but if astronomy excites you, don't let living in the heart of town make you give up exploring the night skies.

I myself have seen countless meteors and conjunctions, a changing panoply of shining planets, and many constellations right from town. There was also the night of the bright red aurora borealis that I first mistook for a major fire when I was biking home from work. To say nothing of lunar eclipses and "super" full moons.

Written by the vice-president of Britain's Society of Popular Astronomy, this handy guide  is very applicable in the states. What I like best about it is, Scagell's can-do philosophy, not only can you feel awe when looking at planetary bodies, but he invites the reader to do actual astronomical research and to participate as a citizen-scientist.

And don't think you need to spend massive amounts of money for the highest tech equipment.  He recommends a good pair of binoculars for sky-viewing and reports that they even have many advantages over telescopes. He does recommend telescopes too--aperture and field of view should be the deciding factors.

He also advises the city astronomer on things and props he can use to cut or eliminate light pollution, such simple things as simple as a black cape to wear over you and your telescope to cut out glare.

In eight well-researched chapters, Scagell pours his passion for the least earthbound of sciences. Chapter 4 covers the targets of star search. All the usual ones: sun, moon, the near and far planets, the constellations but also other astronomical phenomena such as zodiacal light, noctilucent clouds, artificial satellites, double stars, clusters, nebulae, and deep sky objects.

Although not necessarily geared for the beginner, all terms are so well explained that the guide can work for both the 25-year amateur astronomer and the neophyte. A four page table at the end lists many deep sky objects that can be seen even from cities.

So, on these dark, clear nights, grab your black cape, your binoculars or telescope, and delve into this fascinating science that connects us to other mysterious worlds.

The Invention of Wings

ISBN: 
9780670024780

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure. Read more »

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write

ISBN: 
9780865478145

This collection of mostly mini-essays is a great find for anyone interested in either writing or theatre. Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play “In the Next Room,” displays her skills at language, views of playwriting, and her both playful and utterly serious response to the stage.

Several titles display her marvelous sense of humor: “Bad Plays and Original Sin,” “On Nakedness and Sight Lines,” and “Watching My Mother Die on Stage.” (Her mother is an actress.)  Others are more philosophical: “God as Audience: A Non-syllogism,” “Is There an Ethics of Comedy, and Is It Bad When Comedies Make People Laugh?” “On Knowing,” and “On Lice.”  Whoops, the last one isn’t philosophical, but very practical.

The smallest essay is three words not including the title. I quote in full from “An Essay in Praise of Smallness”: “I admire minimalism.” Read more »

Thinking in Numbers: on Life, Love, Meaning and Math

ISBN: 
9780316187374

It's a cliche, but people often say that if you excel at math, you'll have little talent for language and vice versa. Transplanted Londoner and Parisian resident, Daniel Tammet proves the falsehood of this statement.

In 25 essays that examine life from a mathematical perspective, Tammet enthralls and enlightens the reader on many things especially the beauty of mathematics. Einstein's son Hans Albert said that his father's character was more like an artist than that of a scientist because his highest praise for a theory "was not that it was correct nor that it was exact but that it was beautiful."

Tammet begins this collection with an essay describing his family and numbers theory. In fact, he attributes his first interest in math due to the fact that his neighbors' great interest in his family occurred because there were nine children.  And as he explains it, there were 512 possible ways to spot him or his siblings around town in various combinations. Read more »

Monuments Men

ISBN: 
043396424883

It’s not often that a World War II film comes my way that stirs my soul.  It’s even rarer that what stirs my soul is not the personal story of an individual or a small group  of people standing up for what is right against the Nazi’s or an escape from a German internment camp despite impossible odds.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good war film, but most war films have the same basic features, Read more »

Lucky Us

ISBN: 
9781400067244

This intriguing 1940s novel opens with a mother announcing that someone has died and they better hustle over to the house and "see what might be in it for us."  The house belongs to Eva's dad and his recently deceased wife.

A week later Eva's Mom deposits her on the doorstep with a suitcase then disappears from her life. Upstairs is Eva's half-sister, Iris. Until this day, neither sister knew the other existed. 

Iris, four years older and in high school, enters and wins many talent contests (elocution, dramatic readings, poetry, patriotic essays, and dance) in their small Ohio town and bergs like it within fifty miles. However, she must hide her earnings from her father, Edgar, a college professor of elocution, who has no qualms about stealing from his children.

Before long, Iris graduates from school and heads out to Hollywood. Because their dad basically abandons Eva to her own care, she soon drops out of school to join her older sister in Hollywood. They move into a rooming house and Iris shares her adventures with Eva as she holes up in their room until school is out each day.

Iris scores a few speaking roles in movies, but soon becomes involved in a gay sex scandal and gets blacklisted in Hollywood. The older more famous actress marries immediately and her career zooms on.

Soon Edgar reappears and along with a helpful make-up artist, Francisco, they decide to drive across country to find possible jobs in New York. Edgar thinks he can pass as a butler and with some training, Iris, can be a governess. As they drive through the west, Iris memories facts from The Little Blue Books, and the party grills her on Shakespeare. Luckily, father and daughter land jobs with an Italian nouveau riche family, the Torellis.

Eva grows up to become a fortune teller. As Iris advised Eva, "It's the great thing about the war.... Anyone can be anyone." Iris adopts a son (somewhat illegally--they actually steal him from the orphanage) and falls in love with the Torellis' cook, Reenie, whom she convinces to leave her husband and move in with them.

To this crazy disfunctional family, Bloom brings her insight as a former psychotherapist. The 40s time period is captured well and a series of letters from a dear family friend, who was thrown out of the country for being Jewish describe some of the hardships of Europe including the Dresden bombings.

In no sense is this a light, hopeful book, yet it is very well-written and captures the complex relationships and dynamics of a modern American family in the midst of a rapidly changing world.

For a book about another family surviving WW II on the other side of the pond, try Amanda Hodginkson's 22 Britannia Road.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: 50 Years

ISBN: 
9781770854628

Have a soft spot in your heart for animals? Love unexpected and mesmerizing nature photographs? If so, this coffee table book is for you.

This book features the best of the best: a sampling of fifty years of winners from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest as well as an essay describing and presenting the history of the art.

It also includes some early nature photography, photographs that inspired later nature artists including Ansel Adams' 1941 photo "Snake River, the Tetons" with its magnificent play of light and shadows, curvilinear boulders and twin mountain peaks. Another great find is Eric Hosking's 1938 weirdly titled "The Tawny Owl that Robbed Me of an Eye" which turns out to a true story.  Be careful while taking pictures of owls! Read more »

Let Me Be Frank With You

ISBN: 
9780062344311

I’m not from Jersey, but Philly, which is a short bridge- or boat-ride away, but boy has Ford captured the Jersey patois, sense of alienation, and its ironic humor. Plus that reverence Jerseyites feel for what they call The Shore, a kind of mythical Fun Paradise with nature in the otherwise cemented-over Northeast.

Realtor and ex-sportswriter, Frank Bascombe returns in these four intertwined tales.  Ford has stuck with the sensitive, observing hero from three of his novels The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, two of which won major awards.

Something bad, really bad, has happened to The Shore. Houses and lives have been ripped apart and most everyone is in a bad mood. Hurricane Sandy recently ripped through and most people have lost not only their homes, their finances, but also confidence in the future. Read more »

2014 National Book Award Winners Announced

ISBN: 
9781594204999

In a year with many excellent books published, I'm sure the judges of this prestigious award had many hard choices to make. But the winners were recently announced. They include:

Fiction:    Redeployment by Phil Kay

This collection of stories by an ex-Marine takes us to the front lines of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and in the best tradition of battle writing, the stories describe what it feels like to be on the front line. Klay also makes vivid the experience of coming home again after living through the loss of many comrades. 

His inspiration to write came from reading Roald Dahl and Shil Silverstein as a child and Edgar Allen Poe and Shusaku Endo as a young adult.

Nonfiction: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Osnos spent many years in China and was thunderstruck by the rapid onslaught of many changes in work, family, culture and politics. He compares it to America’s Gilded Age but perhaps our Gilded Age on steroids. While writing this book, he was inspired by Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. He found it overwhelming to record a country's experience with such depth as Boo did with India. Read more »

Adjustment Bureau

ISBN: 
025192060571

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) stars Matt Damon as Senate candidate David Norris.  He has been tapped by an unseen group to win a seat in the Senate . . . just not this election year.  If you were to read the basic plot of the movie it would sound like a typical political thriller.  An unseen group is grooming its candidate for a high office.  Suddenly this candidate becomes enthralled with a woman who they believe will be detrimental to his career and the group’s agenda.  This unknown organization begins to exert every effort to keep their candidate away from the woman and focused on the job at hand.  As the candidate continues to try to find the woman he loves he begins to find out more about this hidden organization and begins to fight against their control and seek his own way. Read more »

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