Nonfiction

Detroit: An American Autopsy

DetroitLeading the news today is the announcement that Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They aren’t the first municipality to file, but they are the largest. What this means for residents, city workers, retirees and the state of Michigan remains to be seen. 20 billion dollars is hard to wrap my mind around, and is a figure without names and faces.

Hoping to personalize this story is native son Charlie LeDuff. His recent nonfiction work is called Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a journalist who left Detroit at an early age and traveled the world covering international conflicts and won a Pulitzer for his contributions at the New York Times. He returns to Detroit to work for The Detroit News.

This book covers a variety of stories, including the fall of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, city council corruption, the crumbling auto industry implications, and the struggles of a local fire station. You also meet LeDuff’s family and follow them while they are coping (or not) with living in and near Detroit. Read more »

America's First Tornado Scientists and What They Taught Us

ISBN: 
9780307378521

I was afraid this would be another macho book about reckless men roaming the plains chasing tornadoes during storm season. Instead it turned out to be a wonderful compendium of tornado lore through the centuries. Also included are biographies of some of our most  important weather scientists.    

Storm Kings begins with a description of how during the 1600s New England settlers called any phenomenon that happened in the sky meteors including: meteors (of course), lightning, thunder, rainbows, comets, clouds in the shape of hands and faces, etc.  Although the science behind tornadoes was not understood and barely documented then, many colonists recognized that the weather in America was much more violent than in their home countries.

When a tornado swooped down near Cambridge, MA in 1680, two farming families were shocked when one lost a servant and another a barn during the storm.  They were so frightened by this event that one wrote to Increase Mather (the father of Cotton) asking about it. Increase, who was a self-educated weather expert, had no answers so he wrote to a scientific association in Europe. No one replied to his inquiry, but Benjamin Franklin found this letter seventy years later when he became interested in the study of weather and electricity. Read more »

The Kingdom of Rarities

ISBN: 
9781610911955

In another life, I would love to become a wildlife biologist; it combines things I loves such as working with animals, walking, observing deeply, and travel. This book does all of the above plus makes you more curious about the flora and fauna around us. Why are robins common and not Kirtland’s warblers? Why are deer abundant and not jaguars? Eric Dinerstein, the author, started his scientific career studying tigers and later rhinoceroses. He is now Chief Scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. In The Kingdom of Rarities, he travels to many continents to explore the rare creatures and plants living there.

One of the places he and his scientific team visit is Irian Jaya, a remote island on the Indonesian archipelago. It combines two aspects of places that often give homes to rare creatures: remoteness, and being situated on an island. Another factor that makes Irian Jaya home to rarities is its geology—its steep mountains and gorges serve as barriers to invasive species which have become common on many other islands. The description of Dinerstein’s flight to this research spot is compelling; it was incredibly risky just to land a plane there. But well worth it because the scientists found many rare creatures quite close to them and not shy at all with humans. The scientists were amazed by how many species divided their habitats vertically. Read more »

Photographing Loss

ISBN: 
9788857215570

Some books break your heart with their beauty; others break your heart with their sadness. Mighty Silence: Images of Destruction does the latter. In these days immediately following the highly destructive Oklahoma tornadoes of 2013, ripped homes, buildings, and schools are on our minds. This beautifully-produced book showcases many striking photographs of the Tohoku region of Japan where the massive tsunami struck two years ago.

The photos are large, some even opening into more than a two page spread. But the main thing that struck me about them is how seldom they include any people. I noticed only one person in the whole collection, a solitary utility repairman high in a crane over demolished houses and smashed cars. Animals are mostly missing also, except for one murder of crows crisscrossing the wires of one empty city, and a strange cat with radioactive-mutated whiskers near Fukushima. Read more »

Garbage! Water! Or Why I Love Non-fiction

GarbologyI read a lot of narrative non-fiction - historical, microhistory, natural sciences, travel, and environmental. I read these to be better informed, but also for pleasure so my ultimate test for a narrative non-fiction book is whether it would have made a better magazine article. I hate finishing something that I think was interesting, but could have been boiled down into a 20 page magazine article with the same impact. I've recently read two non-fiction books passed the magazine article test and then some. 

The Big Thirst: The Marvels, Mysteries & Madness Shaping the New Era of Water by Charles Fishman isn't about how to make changes in your lifestyle with regards to water conservation. It isn't a how-to book for urban or rural planners. It is a book that will challenge what you think you know about water from the big picture including where it comes from and what do we really mean by "clean". This book will also identify our emotional connection with water and will put those assumptions to the test. Near the end of the book, an economist presents a model for future water use that makes sense for both dry places like Las Vegas and Australia should also be considered for wetter places like Atlanta and even Bloomington. There are pages and pages of research, calculations and notes at the end, but the book was captivating, accessible and provides much food for thought. Read more »

How Gutenberg Changed the World

ISBN: 
9781596435421

While some predict the imminent demise of the printed book, some profess that the printed book will continue on in perpetuity. I stand with the second group. As much as I enjoy the convenience of ebooks, there is a majesty to a beautifully illustrated and bound printed book that not even the most colorfully animated ebooks can equal. There is so much ephemeral electronic correspondence today that a printed book, by its sheer mass and substance commands a certain amount of respect. Or, perhaps it's simply the history of the printed book that I revere.

From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World lavishly presents the early history of the printed book as pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.  Categorized as a biography, this new picturebook by James Rumford focuses more on Gutenberg's revolutionary invention of the printing press, than on the life of Gutenberg himself. Each richly illustrated double-page spread describes the process of creating a book as a mystery of sorts, asking the reader to guess the elements that formed the finished product: "What was this thing made of rags and bones?" and answering on the next page: "It was paper, and it was ready."

The epilogue to this book notes that Gutenberg's invention remains a bit of a mystery, as no one knows for sure how he was able to produce such beautifully crisp and clear letters in the 1400s. But some of the books he produced more than 500 years ago endure to this day. In fact a copy of one of those books resides in Bloomington at the Lily Library on the campus of Indiana University. The Gutenberg Bible rests in a glass case on display in the Lily Library, open for anyone to visit. 

From the Good Mountain concludes with an illustration of computer circuitry, suggesting that as hand copied books gave way to printed ones, and printed books give way to ebooks, perhaps it doesn't matter at all what books look like -- what form they take -- as long as people keep writing and reading them. What are you reading today?

Photographing a Vanishing America

ISBN: 
9780618969029

If you've ever seen any of Edward Curtis's photos of Native Americans, you cannot forget them. Not only did Curtis capture members of various tribes with respect but their individuality and humanity stares at you from the page. He also recorded many spiritual ceremonies and active shots that give us some insight into what daily life was like for these people.

This excellent biography tells the story of the famous photographer's life, how he came from utter poverty in Wisconsin, then provided for his entire family as a young teen-ager, to a hardscrabble existence fishing and crabbing near Seattle. But in his late teens, he buys something for himself - a rare occurrence. He purchases a lens for his dad's old camera. 

Soon he manages to round up $150 - a large sum for a young man supporting an entire family in those days--and buys into a photography business in downtown Seattle. In a mere two years, he becomes the most famous photographer in the Northwest, in high demand to immortalize society and business leaders. But though the work makes him rich and feted by society, it's the Native American culture that draws him. He realizes that the country has finished expanding, that the westward migration has ended, and that the native tribes will have less and less space to call their own. Curtis understood that their way of life-- the clothing, the hunting, and especially the spiritual ceremonies--will mostly cease to exist. Read more »

The Oxford English Dictionary

Meaning of EverythingThe Oxford English Dictionary is the premier dictionary of the English language.  It is famous for its easy-to-understand definitions and word etymology, which strives to record the earliest known usage.  The seemingly simple verbs set, make and put vie with each other for the longest entries - over 60,000 words each to describe all of the uses and senses!

The current editor of the OED, as it is commonly known, is set to retire later this year.  John Simpson was briefly interviewed on Morning Edition on NPR yesterday.  What makes his position newsworthy is that he is only the seventh editor of the dictionary since the project's beginning in 1879 and has been working in this high profile position of the world's most famous dictionary for more than 35 years.   

In addition to some specialized copies of the Oxford dictionaries for foreign languages and picture dictionaries, MCPL owns a compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary.  The print is so tiny, you need a zoom text reading machine (which MCPL also owns!) to really read any parts of this mammoth book. Read more »

Our Changing Planet

ISBN: 
9780199933877

It's Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson was the driving force behind the first one which occurred in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues. As I scanned the new releases in the environmental section, this book caught my eye. It was a sobering read but one that was very thought-provoking. World-renowned legal scholar, Andrew Guzman, wrote Overheated. In it, he examines the political and sociological changes from climate change that the author reports have already started to occur.  Not just flooding and mega-storms, but also droughts, food scarcity, refugees forced from their land, lack of water for agriculture, etc. In his preface, the author states that "climate change will affect nearly everyone on this planet."

The chapter topics reveal his major concerns: one on flooding shows how some island nations will disappear, and  that at least one very populated one - Bangladesh - will suffer massive flooding that will lead to migrations of millions of refugees. The chapter entitled "A Thirsty World" depicts how the melting of glaciers will affect the water supply of many people on earth, not only in India, Pakistan, Argentina, and Chile, but also in our American West. He predicts that this will impact both our food supply and the prices of commodities.

In "Climate Wars: A Shower of Sparks" he hypothesizes how the conflict in Darfur in the 1990s may have been the first war sparked by climate change. Guzman also says that more wars will be caused by a scarcity of resources. He is very concerned about the Middle East, already one of the most arid areas in the world. Read more »

2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Orphan Master's SonThe Pulitzer Prize is an annual awards given to excellence in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition and are administered by Columbia University in New York City.  The 2013 awards were announced yesterday.  For books, the following awards were given.

Fiction - The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Ambitious and inventive, this novel is set in an orphanage in North Korea.  Protagonist Pak Jun Do is forced to become a fighting tunnel expert and a kidnapper before he takes his fate into his own hands. Johnson is able to tell the tale of touching humanity set within the backdrop of a brutal regime. Read more »

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