Archives for posts with tag: nonfiction

What are you wearing? Plaid (tartan)? Paisley? How about stripes or polka dots? Perhaps a fleur-de-lis pin graces your lapel? Regardless, these motifs and patterns and more have fascinating associations and histories as told by Jude Stewart in his book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, and Other Graphic Patterns.

In addition to content, the book itself is somewhat unconventional by design, both physically and stylistically. Titles found in the adult nonfiction collection tend to be large and heavy, whereas Patternalia is small and lightweight. Stylistically, Patternalia defies the typical beginning, middle, end formula for telling such stories. The text is dotted with cross-references so readers may develop an alternate storyline. It’s also embellished with quotes and bold graphics throughout.

Stewart starts us on our journey with a crash course in patterns and pattern lingo as well as an explanation of how our brains perceive “symmetry, orderliness, and simplicity”–basically, a pattern–and how we define and process this into what we see. He discusses ‘pareidolia,’ “the process of seeing imaginary forms, especially faces, in random stimuli,” such as outlets, and ‘apophenia,’ which is the perception of pattern where there is none, which may be either visual or conceptual. A conceptual example of apophenia is that of “gambler’s fallacy.”

Before we delve into particular patterns proper, we learn a bit about the history of patterns and the textile industry. The gist is that as production became increasingly industrialized, patterned textiles became cheaper, easily portable, and shareable across cultures. As patterns and patterned textiles crossed national borders, their meanings could change or evolve, such as with popular “African print” textiles. (Why? Read the book!)

As pattern and textile technology continued to advance, patterns were able to be printed directly onto textiles, which led to disposable fashions. Think Paper Caper dresses and such. Imagine wearing your clothes a few times and throwing them into the trash can rather than the laundry basket. These sorts of disposable fashions didn’t fall out of fashion until the rise of environmental consciousness. (Thank goodness for environmental consciousness!)  

But what about the patterns? I dare say we take them for granted, no doubt due to their ubiquitousness–they’re everywhere! Patterns hold histories and connotations, whether we realize it or not. Take polka dots, for example. According to Stewart, dots and spots–polka dots–gained popularity “from an extended craze for polka music” that overtook Europe in the mid-1800s. But in Medieval Europe, polka dots were reminiscent of disease and death. Specifically, syphilis, bubonic plague, measles, and more. Yet we enjoy polka dot patterns on an array of items, from notebooks to scrapbooking paper, t-shirts to bathing suits, bedding to curtains, and so on, without considering their history. Not to mention the parallel Stewart draws between dot art and activism–bravo!

Overall, Stewart’s Patternalia is as charming as it is interesting. My only criticism is that it ends rather abruptly, not unlike this review. As for the other patterns–plaid, paisley, stripes, fleur-de-lis, checkered, houndstooth, etc.–you’ll have to check it out for yourself. I leave you with this anonymous quote: “Even a small dot can stop a big sentence, but a few more dots can give a continuity…”

As always, happy reading.

begone I don’t usually read true-crime books. The genre has never really appealed to me. The ways in which human beings can be awful leaves me lying awake at night as it is. But, as the internet makes the world ever more connected, it seems like these sorts of stories pop up on every form of social media I use. So, of course I heard about Michelle McNamara’s book. With rave reviews from the likes of Stephen King and an introduction written by Gillian Flynn, I decided to brave I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK.

There are two stories in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. One is the story of the Golden State Killer. The second, the story of Michelle McNamara. When she was a teenager, a girl in her neighborhood was killed. The murder went unsolved and McNamara was troubled by the idea that the killer was somewhere out there, unpunished. McNamara became a crime blogger, using TrueCrimeDiary.com to explore cold cases alongside other online amateur sleuths. When she came upon the story of the Golden State Killer, an obsession was born.

From 1974 through 1986, the Golden State Killer (GSK; the term was coined by McNamara) terrorized neighborhoods in Northern California, primarily Sacramento county. For years, law enforcement believed that there were three distinct criminals operating in the area: the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker (not to be confused with Night Stalker Richard Ramirez). The truth, however, was that these were all the crimes of one man: the Golden State Killer.

The connection between these crimes would not be discovered until the invention of DNA testing. When samples from the seemingly unconnected offenses were entered into CODIS, the federal DNA database, the full range of GSK’s crimes became apparent. A particular genetic peculiarity made the DNA samples easy to connect. His offenses had, over the years, escalated from mere break-ins to rape and murder.

The Golden State Killer was meticulous in his planning. He would survey not just individuals, but entire neighborhoods for weeks at a time before striking. Often, he would call potential victims in what were assumed to be prank calls. He operated on terror, often taking hours to complete his intrusions. Even years later, he would call his living victims and whisper threats to them. Police had very few clues to go on.

I don’t want to write too much about the individual events described in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In many ways, the actions of the Golden State Killer aren’t the focus of the story that McNamara tells. McNamara’s writing breathes life into the places and people associated with GSK. She spends more time discussing the lives of the victims than the actual crimes, which makes them feel less like characters in a gruesome play and more like the people they were.

While McNamara doesn’t go into extreme detail about the offenses committed by GSK, the overall tone of the book is haunting. In fact, one night after I had gone to bed, one of my cats shoved open the bedroom door to join me. A fairly common occurrence, to be sure, but this time I had to choke back a scream. For an instant, I was sure that the Golden State Killer had burst into the room. I laid awake for a long while.

McNamara shares the histories of the places and people involved, building the world of Northern California so that it almost becomes a character on its own. As with many true-crime books, there are pictures included. But these are not grisly procedural shots. Instead, McNamara included pictures of some of the GSK victims and law enforcement professionals associated with the case. These portraits help preserve the dignity of those affected by these horrific crimes.

On April 24, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Joseph James DeAngelo for the GSK CRIMEs. You can find plenty of news stories about him with a quick Internet search. The most shocking aspect of DeAngelo’s arrest? He had worked as a police officer. More details will surely be forthcoming, but it seems likely that GSK has in fact been caught.

Sadly, McNamara passed away before her book was published, but her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, helped see her dream come true. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is masterfully written, tying together the author’s life and the series of horrific crimes committed by the Golden State Killer. Gripping but not gruesome, McNamara’s book is one I would recommend for true-crime lightweights like myself.

jacket  A. J. Jacobs has amused and informed us by living for a year following the tenets of the Bible, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica to become the smartest person in the world, becoming a human guinea pig, and attempting to become the healthiest person in the world. He now tackles genealogy and what is means to be family in It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.

What started his quest to help build the World Family Tree was an email from Jules Feldman. Feldman is a dairy farmer in Israel who in his spare time is building a family tree. A huge family tree consisting of 80,000 relatives including Jacobs who is the eighth cousin of Mrs. Feldman.

Skeptical but intrigued Jacobs follows the suggestion of his brother-in-law and contacts Randy Schoenberg. Randy is a lawyer of some repute (see the film Woman in Gold) and a genealogist.  According to Randy genealogy in undergoing two revolutions, DNA and Internet family trees.

He introduces Jacobs to the collaborative genealogy site (Internet family tree) Geni.com. There are others like WikiTree and FamilySearch where you find an ancestor on your tree who is on another family’s tree and soon you are connected to thousands (or more) new relatives. A check of Geni at the time showed over 70 million people in 160+ countries listed on the site.

Geni also has an interesting feature you can use to find your connection to famous people. He describes it as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where everyone is Kevin Bacon. Jacobs finds he has connections to Dr. Ruth, Jackson Pollock, Rachel Weisz and Barack Obama who is his fifth-great aunt’s husband’s father’s wife’s seventh-great nephew.

Geni has his interest; next for Jacobs is DNA testing. His DNA test matches him with 1009 presumed cousins including his wife Julie, his seventh cousin. Julie is less than thrilled but as Jacobs finds marriage between distant cousins is not that unusual.

With all these cousins and the potential to uncover more Jacobs comes up with the idea to hold a family reunion – a worldwide family reunion. Bringing all these people together he can make even more connections plus he might get in the Guinness Book of World Records. Now all he needs is a place, money and plenty of help.

The reunion is the conclusion of the book and its progress is remarked upon at the end of most chapters but most of the book is about family. What family is, all its different forms, and how would your worldview and prejudice’s change if you thought of people of different nationalities and ethnic background or even the guy who cut in front of you in line as your cousins.

The author talks about Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, evolution, and the DNA humans share with animals. Jacobs explores many aspects of genealogical research including privacy, the emphasis on celebrity connections, how some cultures and ethnicities are not represented, and the significance of names. He even includes an appendix with a guide to getting started on your family tree.

He made connections with a lot of people gathering information, promoting his family reunion and lining up speakers for his event. Most had a story to tell and Jacobs does a wonderful job using them to highlight his chapters.

Jacobs also uses a lot of his own family history which is by turns amusing, touching, and surprising. The story of his great grandmother Gertrude Sunstein emphasizes the point that women are not well represented in the historical documents. Gertrude was a suffragist and very active. When she died in her obituary her suffrage work was noted but she was identified only as Mrs. Elias Sunstein, no first name.

As word of the reunion spreads he hears about other reunions.  One is the Hatfield-McCoy event. Yes, the famous feuding Hatfields and McCoys.  He also explores black sheep in your family tree and that for every connection you get to Isaac Newton or Malala Yousafzai you get one for John Wayne Gacy or Joseph Stalin.

The global family reunion does happen, in fact 44 simultaneous reunions were held around the world. As Jacobs points out success or failure depended on point of view and I’ll let you be the judge.

Jacobs is an amusing writer and his style is engaging but he also makes you think. How differently would you react and how would your views change if you think of everyone as family?

Maybe it’s the boost of energy that comes along with Spring, but I’ve really been on a reading kick lately. That probably sounds silly coming from a librarian, but most of us wax and wane in our hobbies. I’ve also found myself reading a few things I wouldn’t normally pick up. And since all of these books have been so entertaining, I decided to share several short reviews covering a range of recent additions to the Library’s collection.

futureFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich — Set in the not too distant future, or maybe just an alternative present, Erdich explores what might happen in a world where humans seem to be devolving. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is a Native American who has been adopted by a white family. And she has a secret: she’s pregnant. In an increasingly dystopian world, can she ensure the safety of herself, her child, and her families? I spent a lot of time frightened for Cedar and she journeys between worlds, both literal and spiritual. Erdich’s story is firmly within the realm of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The One by John Marrs — What if, with a simple DNA sample, you could find your genetic soulmate? The one for whom you are literally perfect? In THE ONE, Marrs explores what might happen if this were possible. Six stories unfold as people learn the identities of their perfect genetic matches. Ranging from your everyday businessman to a serial killer, these characters discover that love is complex and can lead to results no one could expect. Though, I did find a couple of the plot points predictable, it was certainly a fun read. Fans of “Black Mirror” will likely enjoy this sordid set of tales.

fridgeThe Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente — In the world of comic books, there is a term for a select group of characters: Women in Refrigerators. This refers to the disproportionate amount of female characters that are killed in the name of furthering storylines. Valente tells the stories of a series of women characters — no one directly from comics, but recognizable if you’re familiar with many of the big name series — who have been written out of the comics world and spend their time in the afterworld. The characters cover the gamut of emotions associated with such deaths, but also speak to the strength of female friendships. A quick read for anyone who wants a different perspective on the world of comics.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas — In Zumas’ story, only married, heterosexual couples can adopt children. Abortion is flat out illegal. And in this world, women are dealing with what these regulations mean for their everyday lives. Each woman copes in her own way, with longing, fear, or even rebellion. These characters are very real, and likely will remind you of someone you know. And some women, like a fictional explorer named Eivør Minervudottir, are out of place in their own time. This is another work that is spiritually and topically akin to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

mojo.jpgTotal Cat Mojo by Jackson Galaxy — Let’s be honest: I’m a crazy cat lady. I grew up a dog person, but years ago, my husband introduced me to cats and it’s been all downhill from there. Like any responsible pet owner, I want to make sure my cats are living their best lives. And that means Jackson Galaxy. He’s pretty much the go-to guy for cat people. And TOTAL CAT MOJO is a wonderful resource for all stages of a cat’s life. Plus, he gives great advice for troubleshooting common cat problems like litter box struggles, dealing with stressed kitties, and introducing new family members – from feline to human.

Though there are some common themes in these books, I think they’ll speak to a variety of readers. We add hundreds of items every month; be sure to explore the new books and to find something that appeals to you!

The First Day of Spring is but two days away: Easter Lilies, jonquils, irises, and daffodils push up through soil; buds return to trees; avid gardeners start seeds; and cats pounce Springtime prey. Indeed, Spring is upon us. As are the allergies, the thunderstorms, and the bugs. I thought I would try to appreciate these creepy-crawlies by reading David MacNeal’s “Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them.”

We’re introduced to bugs with a staggering statistic: “for every one of us [humans] there are roughly 1.4 billion insects.” According to MacNeal, that’s 10 quintillion bugs, approximately 7,400,000,000 humans and 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects. In other words, it’s a bug’s world and we’re all just living in it. It makes sense, then, that we learn about the who, what, when, where, and whys of bugs and the influence they have.

MacNeal opens his self-proclaimed cabinet of curiosities with those who breathe life into dead bugs. That is, bug taxidermists. In an Entomology Department (of a boutique) in Lower Manhattan, we learn that pinning bugs isn’t as simple as catching one and shoving a pin through its thorax. Meet Lorenzo, who’s pinned and mounted bugs for twenty-plus years. He pulls a water bug (cockroach, really) out of an overnight-soak solution. Equally appalling and interesting is that the bug was dried, packaged, and shipped from Thailand to be mounted and purchased in NYC. Lorenzo further prepares this cockroach, I mean water bug, by carefully removing its innards and otherwise making it suitable for mounting and selling. In short, it must look good—collectors like a pretty bug. And, oh, the amounts of money they’ll spend to get one.

Vanity collections and collectors aside, MacNeal illustrates that all sorts of people study all sorts of bugs for all sorts of reasons. Leaving Lower Manhattan’s buggy boutique, we go underground with entomologists who study ants. We discover that their studies and modeling of ant behavior may lead to a better understanding of our own interactions with and impacts on the world. We learn how ants have influenced algorithms, specifically that of the Internet’s transmission-control protocol (TCP).

We come up for air in Colorado, where a woman works with tarantulas in a “Rearing Room” and we head to a “Mosquito Factory” in Brazil. In Brazil, we dig into the seemingly useless lives of mosquitoes not unlike the way they will soon dig into us. Fun fact: Half of human deaths, since the history of humans, are attributed to mosquitoes. Another fun fact: Beetles have destroyed over 60 acres of North American forests since 1994. Yet another: Because of bugs, wallpaper was once infused with DDT (which wasn’t banned until 1972).

Yet, in spite of death and decimation, bugs are, in fact, beneficial. Well, maybe not mosquitoes (or fleas), but bugs spur innovation. Insects can help us become healthier, fight disease, and, according to the author, perhaps help us “end our antibacterial plight.” Not to mention the increasingly apparent health benefits of eating bugs. Seriously! ‘Micro-livestock,’ as those within the field call them, contain significantly more calcium and iron than meats commonly consumed in the Western world. Other bug benefits include “first responders” that gnaw through decay, pest-controlling insects that save billions of dollars per year in the US alone, and the positive affects bugs have had on 21st century medicine.

What I took away from this book is for every bad bug, there is a good bug. Do I have a greater appreciation for these creepy-crawlies? Uh, sure. Other than mosquitoes. Lastly, I might mention that this book is not for the weak-stomached, as the author describes exterminators who allow bed-bugs to feed on their arms (and he tries it himself), the horrific symptoms of those with yellow fever, and other gut-wrenching, stomach-churning matter. Overall, the content of this book was fascinating, if at times appalling, and the writing good, if at times dense. You know, dense like the jungle. Where there are lots of bugs.

As always, happy reading.

studs-terkel-chicagothe-world-series-curse

One of the things I love about libraries is their propensity for serendipity.  There’s just something marvelous about browsing the shelves and running across an unexpected delight or clicking links in the electronic catalog and falling down a rabbit hole of an interesting tidbits only to climb out and tumble into another one.  That’s exactly what happened when I ran across this week’s titles.

By the time this review appears in the paper, autumn will have truly arrived and the 2016 World Series will have receded behind other headlines.  Even so, the Cubs’ victory remains memorable, and the entire series offered some outstanding baseball.  I was riding the wave of excitement after Game 7 when I started combing the library’s catalog for books about baseball, curses, Cleveland, and Chicago.  Forty-five minutes later I climbed out of the rabbit hole with two widely different reads tied together by happenstance.

First item up to bat is The World Series Curse by David A. Kelly which popped up while looking at books about baseball curses and the Cubs.  Written for children, The World Series Curse is the first in a spinoff series of baseball mysteries featuring major league teams and their stadiums.  Cousins Kate and Mike are baseball fans and accidental, amateur detectives—the perfect mix for sniffing out and solving predicaments at the ballpark.  Here they find themselves in the midst of a potential scandal affecting the outcome of a hotly contested World Series between the Cubs and the Red Sox.  Cubs players have been accused of cheating on the road and at home, including corking a bat.  Kate and Mike happen to know the right people and be in the right place at the right time to solve the mystery and prove the Cubs’ fair play.  Throw in lively illustrations, a bitter sportswriter, and a red herring disguised as a goat, and you have an interesting, light read for elementary-age readers.  Give this one to reluctant readers who enjoy sports stories or to mystery fans seeking a less-than-intense book.

Second in the lineup is a book by one of my favorite authors, Studs Terkel.  A true son of Chicago, Terkel spent the bulk of his life and his career immersed in the city.  Although known for his radio interviews and oral histories, Terkel’s own voice is front-and-center in this title.  Studs Terkel’s Chicago (a no-nonsense name reflecting a no-nonsense author) is a love letter to his hometown.  It’s a loose, almost sloppy love letter though—more stream-of-consciousness conversation or storytelling than formal declaration.  That’s part of its charm.  Terkel travels his own path through the streets of Chicago, linking historical events and figures, personalities from the varied neighborhoods, and vignettes from his youth.  He strings together these gems as he meanders through the physical landscape and his mental path.  Terkel’s voice is all but literally present—if you’ve ever heard an interview with him, you can hear his gravelly voice as you read the book.  In fact, it would be just as good or better as an audiobook; the downside would be the loss of the fantastic black and white photographs depicting life on the streets of Chicago.  Studs Terkel’s Chicago is a fantastic journey through one man’s experience with one of the great cities of the world.  It’s charming and gritty and delightful, but it’s not the easiest read out there.  If you are unfamiliar with Studs Terkel or passingly familiar with his well-known works, this is not the place to get acquainted.  Try one of his books of oral histories first—the library has several.

Both of the books I’ve mentioned happen to be available in electronic book format from the library’s Overdrive service.  You can access hundreds of e-books and electronic audio books at no extra charge with a Joplin Public Library card.  Overdrive is available on home computers or as an app for cell phones, tablets, and other electronic devices.  These electronic titles can be checked out and put on hold just like physical versions although borrowing times may differ.  The titles disappear when they are due, so there aren’t any overdue fines.  The Overdrive app also includes features which help ease eye fatigue while reading on a screen.  If you would like to know more about Overdrive and how to access it, stop by or call the library at (417) 623-7953.  Our staff at the Reference, Children’s, and Teen Departments are happy to answer questions about Overdrive or to help you use this handy resource.  Give it a try!

bhbFormed when stars collapse, black holes are a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists since they were predicted in 1915 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Black holes have infiltrated pop culture as well, appearing as plot points in dozens of books, tv shows, movies, and even video games. Difficult to study because they are so far away and because they so powerful they can literally suck in light, black holes are a great mystery of science.

Janna Levin introduces these phenomena with the fact that, if two black holes were to collide, they would produce a sound. The universe is full of sound, she tells us, we just can’t hear it. But what if, science asks, we could? This question led to a quest over two decades old.

Officially begun in 1994 by the National Science Foundation, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually two observatories working together to seek out whatever sounds the universe might be making. The research that led to the foundation of LIGO came from an international team of dynamic scientists.

Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, Rochus E. Vogt, and Barry Barish are not household names. They are, however, some of the scientists whose research created the basis for LIGO. Drever, for instance, used mirrors in his Scottish backyard to detect Earth’s movements, leading to the mirrors used at the LIGO institutes. They are, if you’ll indulge me, the bad boys of astrophysics. Strong personalities and fighting fueled by mistrust and lack of scientific progress nearly ended LIGO before it began.

Levin provides intimate biographies of the major players in this quest to hear the sounds made by the universe. These biographies serve not only to provide a look at who is involved, but they also give depth to the story, showing how these scientists are connected to the likes of Galileo, Einstein, and Oppenheimer. Each of the LIGO scientists were independently brilliant, all unknowingly working on the same problem from their locations around the world.

Perseverance has proved a powerful force for LIGO. The team, plus or minus founding members, survived and has been listening to the universe since the mid 1990s. Upgrades were made to the stations over the years. Most recently, upgrades were completed in 2015, making the observatories more sensitive than ever before. Future upgrades are planned, and a there is talk of building a third observatory in India.

The punchline to “Black Hole Blues” is that in February of this year, LIGO announced that they had detected the waves created by the collision of two black holes. There are strict guidelines in place for analyzing any data collected by the observatories. The discovery was actually made shortly after the most recent upgrades were made, but the results had to be confirmed. Goal achieved, the team has helped prove Einstein’s 101 year-old theory about what happens when black holes merge.

Levin’s book is less about black holes than humankind’s quest for answers about them. Black holes were only recently proven to be real. They are thousands of lightyears away from us and we’ll most likely never be able to study them up close. What drives a person to devote their life to research this unknowable phenomena? Like black holes, we may never have all the answers to the questions that surround them.