Non-fiction


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

Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew

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Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew by John Pickrell

I don’t know if I’d call the creatures detailed in John Pickrell’s Weird Dinosaurs all that “weird,” to be honest. One gets the sense that the main title is more marketing than description. But the subtitle — The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew — is nearer to the mark with regard to the book’s contents, even allowing for perhaps a bit of hyperbole.

Really, what we have here is a mostly excellent up-to-date rundown of new discoveries in the field and how those new discoveries confirm current theories or, just as often, either overturn them or, at the least, force some careful reconsideration/modification. This should come as no surprise, given how rare fossilization is and thus ... Read More

The British Superhero: More heroes than you can shake a cape at!

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The British Superhero
by Chris Murray

One certainly cannot fault Chris Murray on his research for The British Superhero (2017), and one’s reaction to it will probably depend on just how exhaustive a look at the topic one desires. I’ll confess that at times my eyes glazed a bit at some of the summaries of the more obscure storylines, especially those that lasted only a single issue or two, but despite those occasional moments, the book is an informative exploration of an often over-looked realm of superhero comics.

Murray moves in chronological order for the most part, beginning not with superheroes but with their precursors in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, after a quick little skim of the usual basic introductory sort of material every comic non-fiction work is oblig... Read More

I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

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I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrère

Anyone familiar with the SF novels of Philip K. Dick and the many films inspired by his works knows that he was one strange and visionary guy. Certainly the SF genre is filled with works of bizarre worlds, aliens, characters, and slippery reality. But it’s generally accepted by authors and readers alike that these fictional creations are just that — works of the imagination by writers who are generally considered sane and share the consensus view of reality. In the case of PKD, however, the line between reality and fiction, sanity and madness, redemption and damnation, revelation and delusion is very blurred indeed. In fact, the pers... Read More

David Rowe chats PROVERBS OF MIDDLE-EARTH. Win an autographed copy!

David Rowe is the Director of Contemporary Music, Social Media and Communications at St. John's Parish in Johns Island, South Carolina. From Sheffield, England David has a degree in Biblical Studies and cultivates his passion for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien on his popular Twitter feed: @TolkienProverbs. The Proverbs of Middle-earth is his first book.

One random U.S. commenter will receive an autographed copy of The Proverbs of Middle-earth. See below for details.

Jason Golomb: In addition to your job at St. John's, you've worked internationally for Christian missions. Religion is clearly integral to your life. J.R.R. Tolkien was a deeply Christian person and religion is embedded within his writings (though one could argue he handles it r... Read More

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth: The wise speak only of what they know

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The Proverbs of Middle-Earth by David Rowe

The Proverbs of Middle-Earth is a smart, readable literary analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s use of proverbs in his worlds of Middle-Earth, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and (less so) The Silmarillion. If you’re a passionate fan of Tolkien, you’ll absolutely adore this book. Period. If you love the Peter Jackson films, this book will provide an enjoyable ... Read More

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

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The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz is one of my favorite “slice of life” comics, and it is one I’ve taught several times in my course on comics. A memoir in three parts, The Infinite Wait and Other Stories is memorable for the reader because of Wertz’s strong voice as presented in two ways: through the drawn character we see — the “Julia” we watch living through the events recounted — and through the voice of the narrator, a future Wertz we “hear” but do not see, as she looks back and comments on the Julia in each panel as she lives ... Read More

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (2016) is an edited transcript of several conversations between Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and Seiji Ozawa, the conductor.

I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of m... Read More

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: A companion book from the series’ halfway point

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The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a companion for readers of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME novels. Although I enjoyed the ~14 (15, if New Spring is included or fewer if the final three novels are counted as one, the way Jordan intended) WOT novels, I don’t recommend this companion. Here’s why.

The book is written from the point of view of fictional historians from within Randland, but the device doesn’t work. It seems odd that many characters of little renown are mentioned in a history of Randland. Prominent characters from the se... Read More

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.

The unique relationship betwee... Read More

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has long done great work in giving major events and people in science a compelling and engaging narrative, whether it be Nicolaus Copernicus in A More Perfect Heaven, Galileo and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste in Galileo’s Daughter, or John Harrison in Longitude. In her newest work, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, her focus shifts slightly from the singular to the plural, telling the story of the group of women who worked as “human computers” at Harvard analyzing the Observatory’s glass plates — a massive photographic record of the stars’ movements in the skies. Their work led to some of the most ... Read More

Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins: Sometimes convoluted, thoroughly informative

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Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins by Charles R. Ault, Jr

In Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (2016), Charles R. Ault, Jr. takes a unique path to explaining the complexities of evolution, using children’s books such as Morris the Moose, Treasure Island, Diary of a Worm and others as springboards to discussing Charles Darwin’s path to discovery, from his time as an insatiably curious child to his adventure-filled twenties to the twilight years he spent focused on the lowly (though not to him) earthworm.

The focus is, as the title notes, on origins, and so we learn about the early ancestors and evolutionary route to those elephants (yes, by the way, they do have knees), whales, tetrapods, and p... Read More