I See By My Outfit: From New York to San Francisco by Scooter

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I See By My Outfit by Peter S. Beagle

Published in 1965, Peter S. Beagle’s I See By My Outfit is an American motorscooter travelogue. Beagle and his friend, Phil, ride from New York to St. Louis and then head west to San Francisco.

I was often struck by how different the world was in the 1960s. In many ways, the absence of mass media and the Internet makes America seem smaller, like you truly could find people who would wonder about the mysteries of New York City. Beagle more than once mentions that cops especially monitor them because they look like two bearded menaces. To be honest, I often wondered if he was exaggerating these claims, but perhaps my view of people who ride scooters cross country has been unduly influenced by the movie Read More

Our Senses: An Immersive Experience

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Our Senses: An Immersive Experience by Rob DeSalle

Our Senses: An Immersive Experience (2018) is, perhaps appropriately given its topic, a dense and at times perhaps overwhelming exploration of how our minds take in information and make sense of it. While I found much of it utterly fascinating, and would recommend it, I have to confess there were times I was tempted to skim and felt the book became either a bit unfocused or, on the flip side, hyperfocused.  It didn’t help — and this is clearly no fault of author Rob DeSalle — that the formatting on the Kindle got confused by insets, so that it took a moment to track just where a sentence was going. Here’s hoping that gets fixed soon.

You might have expected DeSalle to have organized the book by the six basic senses: taste, touch, smell, ... Read More

Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation

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Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca

In Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Carolyn Cocca turns a sharp eye on gender (along with race and class) in the world of superheroes, looking through the lens of several female heroes in particular. These are, in order:

Wonder Woman
The women of Star Wars: Padem Amidala, Leia Organa, Jaina Solo
The X-Women (especially Jean Grey and Storm)
Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel

The structure allows a sort of best of both worlds exploration. Since Cocca moves chronologically, we get a sense of the grand sweep of change (or sadly, either the lack thereof or its glacial pace). But we also get to bore in on details thanks to the chapter-by-chapter focus on a single character, an aspect often lost in ... Read More

No Time to Spare: More LeGuin is always a pleasure

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No Time to Spare by Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve said for, well, what seems like forever now, that Ursula K. LeGuin is a national treasure. And so when she comes out with a collection drawn from her blog, I’m all in, even though normally I’d run like crazy from any such compendium. In fact, I’ve used the “sounds like a blog” line as criticism (the negative sort) of other collections of essays. And yes, there are several pieces about cats in No Time to Spare (2017), seemingly a required subject for anyone posting online. But I’ll accept the occasional cat essay if it comes stringing a bunch of other LeGuin essays along behind it.

LeGuin was inspired to begin her blog by reading Jose Saramago’s own, written when he was 85/86 and published as The Noteboo... Read More

The Year of the Geek: 365 Adventures from the Sci-Fi Universe

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The Year of the Geek by James Clarke

The Year of the Geek is a fact-a-day (sometimes more) calendar book filled with all types of sci-fi related information, frequently enhanced by or presented via a host of illustrations, charts, pictograms, and other sorts of infographics. What sort of facts? Birthdays (authors, directors, actors, fictional characters), death dates, release dates (films, books, TV shows), landmark moments, such as when The Doctor first met himself, and more. Many of the facts lead off into brief moments of exploration, either textually or graphically: which Spider-Man characters are heroes, villains or allies; which body parts were bionic on the Bionic Woman; how many King Kong movies there were, when they were released, and how they fared at the box office (the top grossing one sits atop the Empire State Building naturally), how the “kills” on Buffy the ... Read More

Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition

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Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition by Simon Guerrier

It’s impossible to deny the appeal of acquiring trivia relevant to one’s interests or chosen fandom; whether slinging obscure Star Wars minutiae across a family dining table or competing against teams at a local bar’s Harry Potter-themed trivia contest, it’s always fun to discover what fan is truly the most committed. To that end, I present Simon Guerrier’s Doctor Who: The Book of Whoniversal Records: Official Timey-Wimey Edition (2018).

If you’ve ever wondered what the “greatest potential threat to Gallifrey” was, when the very first Dalek appeared on screen, or which of the various Companions appeared in the most episodes, that information and much, much more will be found within these pages. Perhaps you want to know which of the Doctors was the longest-l... Read More

Raw Spirit: The search for Scotch

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Raw Spirit by Iain Banks

In Raw Spirit (2003), Iain Banks (Iain M. Banks to science fiction readers) and his friends journey in search of the perfect dram.

It would not be wise to approach this book for an overview of Scotch, how it’s made, and how to drink it. One part stunt memoir, one part travelogue, and one part wide ranging digressions, Raw Spirit is really held together by Banks’ love of Scotch and of hanging around with his buddies. In essence, this means that they tour around Scotland in fast cars, they travel to midge-infested islands to look at distilleries, and, generally speaking, eat until they’re stuffed and drink until they’re loaded. There’s a section of recommended books for further reading, the table of contents is quite... Read More

The Telescope in the Ice: Engineers, physicists, and bureaucrats, oh my

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The Telescope in the Ice: Inventing a New Astronomy at the South Pole by Mark Bowen

The Telescope in the Ice
(2017) by Mark Bowen doesn’t quite delve as much into the science as I was hoping, but it is still a solidly informative and highly engaging work that tells the story of how the Icecube Neutrino Observatory (set at the South Pole) was conceived and built and how it was immediately successful. The strong personalities (often outlandish ones) make for interesting reading, but it’s the incredibly difficult conditions and engineering problems that create a compelling story.

Unfortunately, my usually trustworthy Kindle lost all my notes, so I’m working solely from memory here and won’t be quoting any passages. The Telescope in the Ice opens with an introduction into basic particle physics with an appropriate fo... Read More

Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen: Building the World of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

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Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen by Daniel Falconer

Getting a glimpse behind the scenes of a favorite film is always exciting — it’s rather like pulling the curtain back and, rather than seeing a humdrum old snake oil salesman, actually discovering a great and powerful wizard. David Falconer’s Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen gives credit to the several hundred wizards hard at work re-creating and re-inventing J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS novels and The Hobbit into two sets of visual feasts.

Everything from aerial photography, to miniaturized or life-size sets and props, to CGI artistry went into those six films, and each page of this guide pays ... Read More

The Faerie Handbook: Lots of information and art, and a few crafts

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The Faerie Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon & the editors of Faerie Magazine

The editors of Faerie Magazine have compiled The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects (2017), and its eye-catching lavender-and-silver binding and satin ribbon bookmark certainly seem appealing, but do the contents match the cover?

Faerie appreciation is nothing new — there was a big craze in the middle of England’s Victorian era, justified thusly:
Real life was stark and challenging for most Victorians, who faced a rapidly changing and increasingly less romantic world due to urbanization and industrialization, and many felt like the world of old — and all the magic that went with it — was gone for good.
With that frame of reference in mind, it’s easy to see why certain periods and social groups... Read More

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places: Why we need haunted places

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If ghosts exist, we don’t know why, but ghost stories exist because the living make them up; and the living make them up because we need them. Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016) explores the US’s social conflicts and hidden histories as they play out in places that are publicly advertised as “haunted.” In the first chapter, Dickey says, “If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses. Look for the darkened graveyards, the derelict hotels, the empty and decaying old hospitals.”

That passage is also something of a roadmap to the book, which comprises a collection of Dickey’s essays. The chapters are divided by category: haunted houses; haunted offices; haunte... Read More

Superhero Comics: A detailed and insightful semi-academic work

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Superhero Comics by Chris Gavaler

Superhero Comics
(2017) is my second Chris Gavaler book looking at the genre (I read On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1), and considering how impressed I was with both of them, I will gladly pick up a third if there is one.

The book is part of the Bloomsbury Comics Study Series, which aims for the sweet spot between the academic and the lay reader in creating a text that can especially be used in the college classroom, one that can “satisfy the needs of novices and experts alike.” The end may push the boundaries of that “novice” more than a little, but until that point Gavaler does a nice job of keeping to that directive; Superhero ... Read More

Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC

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Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC by Reed Tucker

Once upon a time, Reed Tucker reminds us in Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle Between Marvel and DC, comic book fans might come to blows over the great dividing question of their time: Are you Marvel or DC? This may seem a strange debate for those who are now living through what could easily be called the Age of Marvel, as their ubiquitous heroes dominate our screens both large or small. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to go to the theater or turn on a network/cable/streaming TV channel and not come across some Marvel character flying, tromping, or speeding across the screen. Nor was Marvel-DC much of a debate in my own youth, as I grew up reading comics in the late 60s/early 70s, when upstart Marvel had beaten the staid DC almost to its knees. I didn’t know anybody wh... Read More

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young: Selected graduation speeches

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If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young by Kurt Vonnegut

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young collects nine graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in 2013, this posthumous collection is introduced by the writer Dan Wakefield. The earliest speech was delivered in 1978, while the latest was given in 2004.

These speeches are almost exactly what Vonnegut’s fans would expect of him — so much so that I wish I’d attempted to write a speech from the point of view of Kurt Vonnegut before beginning this book. The speeches feature his darkly humorous assessment of the human condition, as well as his deeply felt esteem for mercy, compassion, and contributing in spite of it all to make the world a slightly better place. He is also ha... Read More

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: An excellent exploration of the human genome

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (UK 2016, US 2017), by Adam Rutherford, is a nicely measured work of popular science that, unlike far too many popular science books/articles, doesn’t overhype its subject matter — advances in deciphering the human genome and how such advances can be applied. Always seeking to inform rather than sell, Rutherford makes for a trustworthy guide whose down-to-earth, realistic perspective doesn’t at all detract from the inherent wonder of science.

He divides the work into two large segments: “the rewriting of the past using genetics, from a time when there were at least four human species on Earth right up to the kings of Europe in the eighteenth century” and an exploration of “who we are today, and what the study of DNA in the 21st century says about families, ... Read More

Robot Universe: A quick and fun tour through the world of robots real and imagined

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Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future by Ana Matronic

Ana Matronic is a huge fan of robots: “I love robots ... The reflection off highly polished metal, the red glow of a light-emitting diode, the sound of a vocoder: these are a few of my favorite things ... doesn’t everybody love robots?” Just in case some don’t, or aren’t sure if they do, she’s gathered together over a hundred of her personal favorites in a lavishly illustrated compendium titled Robot Universe: Legendary Automatons and Androids from the Ancient World to the Distant Future. It’s a pretty thorough gathering even if, as she readily admits, some might disagree with a few of her omissions.

Matronic divides the book into two sections — fictional and real-world robots. The fictional she further divides into the followin... Read More

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield

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Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield by Falynn Christine Koch

Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (2017) by Falynn Christine Koch is part of the SCIENCE COMICS series, a graphic series of books each of which explores a single scientific topic. In this case, as the title might indicate, it’s plague, but more broadly it’s an examination of how pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites) infect and damage the human body, how the body (sometimes with medical help) tries to fight them off, and, to a lesser degree, how such illnesses have affected human history.

Plagues begins a bit roughly. The frame story is an unnecessarily confusing bit involving conversations inside a virtual body (that somehow still gets sick from virtual germs?) between the scientist whose virtual body it is, a T-cell, and two plagues — yell... Read More

Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light

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Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light by Bob Berman

Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light is a wonderfully smooth and lucid tour of the electromagnetic spectrum by Bob Berman, whose engagingly accessible prose makes this an excellent introduction to the topic for non-scientists.

Berman divides his exploration into two basic parts: how were the various types of light waves discovered and how do they impact our daily lives. Why light? Because, as Berman says, “photons constitute 99.9999999 percent of everything. The universe is literally made of light.” Seems kind of important then, and it’s hard to imagine a better guide to its ins and outs than Berman here.

Zapped opens with a general overview of optics — how we perceive light — and light’s form (both wave and particle)... Read More

The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day

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The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day by James Kakalios

James Kakalios structures his popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day (2017), around following a person through a typical day and stopping periodically to explain the science (particularly obviously, the physics) behind the technology the person uses and/or engages with, such as a hotel keycard, a toaster, an LED TV, a copier machine and so forth. Both the explanations and the structure succeed to a mixed degree, and while I found at the end the book to be informative and generally rewarding, its style and structure seemed to work against its task of popularizing science/tech for the masses.

The structure’s issues tend to be that following a person progressively throug... Read More

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us

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Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

Informative, witty, vivid, often compelling, sometimes juvenile, knowledgeable, clear, and written throughout with verve and panache via what feels like a wholly singular voice, Sam Kean’s Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us (2017) is what every non-fiction book should aspire to. It’s been a while since I’ve so enjoyed a work of non-fiction so thoroughly and consistently.

Kean divides his exploration of air into three large sections, the first dealing with the origin of our current atmosphere, one of many our planet (if not humanity) has seen. The second explains how various natural philosophers/scientists discovered the gases that make up the air surrounding us, and also how those gases were harnessed to do various types of work, suc... Read More

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a celebrated novelist, but Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a work of non-fiction about the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five separate locations, cultists simultaneously carried packets of sarin onto a subway. They each pierced their packet with the sharpened end of an umbrella and then left the subway. Twelve people died, and thousands more were harmed by the toxin.

Fans of Murakami’s novels may not be interested in this work, but they should hesitate before dismis... Read More

A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life

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A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life by Ben McFarland

A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life
(2016), by Ben McFarland, can at times be a difficult read, but despite that, and regardless of some writing/structural issues, it’s an often engaging and always confidently informative exploration of how life was driven down certain paths by the implacable requirements of chemistry.

McFarland’s perspective contrasts directly, as he describes on several occasions, with Stephen J. Gould’s pronouncement that if the “tape of life” were rerun from the beginning, the end result would be wildly different (meaning we humans most likely wouldn’t be around to notice that). McFarland argues that Gould may have a point in a very narrow sense, but is incorrec... Read More

The Vacation Guide to the Solar System: An excellent introduction

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The Vacation Guide to the Solar System by Olivia Koski & Jana Grcevich

The Vacation Guide to the Solar System is an engagingly informative non-fiction tour of our nearest planets in a unique format by Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich, though one better suited (or perhaps, space-suited) for younger readers or those with only a cursory knowledge of the planets and moons.

Koski and Grcevich present their information just as the title implies, as a Fodors/AAA-guide to each of the planets as well as several of their respective moons. Each planet/moon system gets its own chapter, which opens with a single page of quick facts, such as diameter, mass, gravity, average temperature, distance from Earth, etc. The text part is divided up into several segments: Weather and Climate, When to Go, Getting There, When You Arrive, Getti... Read More

In the Shadow of the Moon: A somewhat disappointing look at solar eclipses

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In the Shadow of the Moon by Anthony Aveni

I really wanted to like In the Shadow of the Moon (2017), Anthony Aveni’s look at eclipses across time and culture, but while it had its moments, it never really compelled for any length of time and its sometimes abrupt shifts and almost random approach created a sense of distance between reader and subject.

Aveni mostly handles the scientific aspects fine, whether it has to do with the main focus of the book (such as explaining what causes an eclipse and why they repeat in the patterns they do) or with one of his many digressions (a concise explanation of a bee’s communication dance, a brief look at the craze to find the planet Vulcan). Sometimes the numbers get a little overwhelming, mostly in the section dealing with the various ecl... Read More

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Hard as it may be to fathom, once upon a time (the early 1900s), radium was thought of as a miracle substance, enhancing all it touched. And so companies flooded the market with products like radium makeup, radium water, radium butter, radium toothpaste, and radium paint. The last was used by the young women who painted luminescent numerals on watch dials (a tool that became all-important to the war effort), though they also snuck some paint now and then to paint their nails, their dresses, even sometimes in sillier moments their teeth and faces. They had no idea, of course, that they were poisoning themselves, and the story of the devastation that poison wreaked on their bodies, and their subsequent fight for compensation from the companies who knew of the substance’s danger makes for compelling, infuriating, heartbreaking re... Read More