Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? by Guy Consolmagno & Paul Mueller

Book – Lots of people have this idea that science and faith are inherently opposed, but the authors of this book – both astronomers with the Vatican Observatory, one a Jesuit priest and the other a Jesuit brother – are good evidence that doesn’t have to be the case. In six casual, chatty chapters, they discuss everything from the beginning of the universe to the end of it; the nature of Pluto, the Star of Bethlehem, and Galileo’s persecution; and, yes, if they (or rather, if Father Paul) would baptize an extraterrestrial.

The authors are Jesuits, so this is definitely a Catholic perspective on both the universe and on the Bible, but I think it’s illuminating for anyone. They argue that both of those vast and profound entities require you to choose how you’re going to go about understanding them, and that if you choose wrong, you’re just going to be more confused than you started – and they offer examples both from the history of science and from the history of theology.

My favorite chapter, though, was the chapter on Pluto. It turns out that both authors were part of the process of re-defining the elements of our solar system that removed Pluto from the list of planets, and they explain the complicated tangle of human categories, actual celestial bodies, and plain old human emotion that made that process so difficult and controversial.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

Book – Why is there something so irresistible about a really skillful crime?  Maybe we should be rooting against the antiheroes of Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, or Catch Me If You Can, but if you love any of those films, or if you’ve ever found yourself binge-watching episodes of Leverage on a Friday night, I bet you don’t spend those viewing hours riveted by the tenacious law enforcement officials on our criminals’ tails (sorry, Tom Hanks).  If you find any of the above titles as fascinating as I do, no matter the moral failings of their protagonists, your next read should be The Man in the Rockefeller Suit–which is every but as thrilling but with the added bonus, incredibly, of being true.

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was an ordinary young man from a small town in Germany, but his ambitions were exponentially bigger than that.  He came to America as a student, ingratiated himself among the rich and powerful, and changed his identity several times before settling on the ultimate last name: Rockefeller.  Under the new persona of Clark Rockefeller, he lied and schemed his way into a marriage with an ambitious businesswoman, memberships in elite clubs and an art forgery con, among other things, living the high life and then some.  It took over thirty years and the kidnapping of his own daughter before his secrets finally caught up with him (including a murder case which remains tantalizingly unresolved).

In short, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a fast-paced and exhilarating example of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction that will appeal even to the non-fiction skeptic.  The audiobook is also excellent.


The Knitter’s Book of Yarn by Clara Parkes

Book – As the weather turns colder (at last!), my fingers itch to be knitting again. When planning new projects, I always take a look at this book first. Parkes knows her stuff. The book goes into detail on everything from the microscopic structure of different fibers to the confusing technical terminology of how yarn is spun to help you pick out the perfect material for your project. (Something I learned the hard way before reading this book: cotton just is not good for socks.) Best of all, there’s a nice array of patterns in the latter part of the book, designed specifically to show off the best qualities of the yarn used.

If you’ve ever been intimidated by the selection in a knitting boutique, or if you’re reluctant to branch out from acrylics and superwash wool because you’re concerned about delicate care requirements, this is the perfect book for you. But even if you’re an expert knitter, or you know you don’t have the budget for angora or mohair or buffalo wool, The Knitter’s Book of Yarn is an interesting and informative way to spend an afternoon. Unless, of course, you could be knitting.

Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? by Lisa Scottoline & Francesca Serritella

Book – Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca share their witty observations and musings about the joys and trials of everyday modern life. They take on topics such as college reunions, leather loungers at the movie theater, diets, working out, family relationships, mice in the house, auctions, men and, as the title suggests, eating on the beach.

The collection of short essays kept me laughing out loud, but was also heartwarming and endearingly honest. I felt like the authors were sitting across the table from me, sharing their stories. Francesca writes “I feel like I’m the last of my friends to try two things: online dating and therapy. I think I need both. Or more specifically, I think I need one for the other. I’m just not sure in which order.” as she expounds on the challenges of being newly single. Lisa shares “I joke about getting older, but the truth is, I don’t feel old. On the contrary, at age fifty-nine, I feel as if I’m entering my prime. So I’m either delusional or insightful. I’ll leave the choice to you. But let me make my case.” in discussing the evolution of our lives.

The mother-daughter duo have written five other humor memoirs in this series. Lisa Scottoline is also the author of twenty-four novels, including her latest best-seller, Every Fifteen Minutes.

Molecules by Theodore Gray

thBook – A confession: I reached adulthood without ever studying chemistry.  Not in high school, not in college–nada.  Picking up Molecules by Theodore Gray was an attempt to remedy that ignorance to some small degree.  For those who may find themselves in a similar situation, those for whom chemistry classes have become a distant memory, or younger readers looking to Molecules as a first introduction, I can recommend it as both an enlightening and enjoyable experience.

Molecules has all the glossy, heavily photo-illustrated appeal of a coffee table book, but with a lot more authorial humor and charm.  Mr. Gray is a collector, both of elements (his first book, The Elements, is every bit as good as Molecules) and everything they combine to make, which amounts to… pretty much anything you can think of.  Much of the joy of Molecules lies in the jostling of unexpected photo-partners over each double-page spread, like one including a Victorian mourning bracelet, a hornbill’s beak and a bristle of fibers created by a clam.  By packing his pages with concrete, real-world examples, Gray provides a learning resource that will be unintimidating even for the science-phobic.  The book is also extremely browsable: open to any page and you can jump right in to learn just a little something about the inner workings of dyes, chili peppers, salt, aspirin or Kevlar, to name a few.  For a casual read that will teach you something along the way, it’s a fun and beautiful choice.  The only downside: a format too big for easy reading in bed!

The Other Side: a Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson

other sideBook – Lacy M. Johnson shares her haunting experience with readers in The Other Side: A Memoir.  Within these pages is the terrifying account of Lacy’s kidnapping and rape by her abusive ex-boyfriend.  It details the events leading up to, and following her escape from the brutal imprisonment.  The book begins in the middle of the night, where a beaten and bloody Lacy bangs on the door of a police station, finally free from her abuser.  Lacy shares her story with startling honesty, revealing the raw, horrifying details of her kidnapping and rape.

Something I thought was simple yet very well done in the memoir was the use of anonymity.  Lacy addresses no one by name instead calling the array of characters by their roles/titles, such as: The Detective, My Older Sister, My Handsome Friend, and My Good Friend.  I haven’t encountered an author who does this and I think it works exceptionally well.  I am curious to know why Lacy chose this method to identify her characters, perhaps to put distance between herself and the characters, or to simply give anonymity to the real people she writes about.

I also felt that this memoir was highly relevant in our society today.  Violence against women is so prolific in this day and age; it’s crucial to raise awareness of the issue in order to fight against it.  Lacy is one of many victims, who has bravely come forth with her story.  One voice, of many, giving more women the courage to tell their own experiences.  However, there are still many obstacles in the fight against violence against women.  Rape Culture shows how society has normalized the occurrence of violence and rape against women. On the Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) website, rape culture is described as a “term..designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.” This view of rape as inevitable, something women deserve to happen to them still exists today, and voices like Lacy’s raise awareness to the reality of violence against women to readers.

The Other Side: A Memoir, is in no way an easy read, nor an easy story for anyone to write but Lacy’s story deserves to be heard




Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch

becoming shakespeareBook – At the turn of the seventeenth century, Will Shakespeare was one of a number of popular playwrights, hacking out a living in London’s theaters and competing for patrons, but he wasn’t considered the very best. What happened, then, to turn this one early modern writer into The Bard, the greatest genius of English literature?

I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare ever since I got out of high school and had a chance to read and see the plays for fun instead of for the test, but Lynch offers an entirely new perspective. Shakespeare’s exalted position, he argues, is as much an accident of history as anything; there were plenty of other writers not only of Shakespeare’s time but of many others who could have taken the same place, but didn’t. He traces the history of Shakespeare’s afterlife through the Restoration (when plays written for the last kings of England were brought back to the stage following the English Civil War) and the following centuries where, it seemed, Shakespeare just kept getting more famous for being famous. It didn’t hurt that he was also a great writer, but that definitely wasn’t all that was going on.

This would be a fun book for anyone interested in English history, the nature of fame, and of course for anyone who’s ever seen a Shakespeare play and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

harkBookCalvin and Hobbes meets A Short History of Nearly Everything in this hilariously quirky anthology from webcomic artist Kate Beaton.  Beaton’s comics draw their themes heavily from history and literature, with subjects ranging from Sherlock Holmes (and the Case of the Two Watsons) to the French Revolution (traitor baby!) to St. Francis of Assisi (the birds are his brothers).  While that may not sound like a recipe for comedic brilliance, Beaton has a keen eye for history’s absurdities and a playful sense of humor that has spawned many an internet meme.  Her art style–charmingly boneless and wide-eyed people abound–is instantly recognizable and easy to love.

Fortunately for those of us who may not be as well-informed on Canadian History, Ancient Rome or the Bronte Sisters as Beaton herself, she provides brief notes along with most strips that offer background knowledge and further information (and the occasional wisecrack).  Between these and the comics themselves, it’s easy to come for the humor and learn a little something by accident.  As a bonus, parents who fall under the spell of Hark! A Vagrant can look forward to Beaton’s first picture book, The Princess and the Pony, due to arrive at the end of June.  And, of course, fans can always find more Hark! A Vagrant at http://www.harkavagrant.com/.

Naming Nature by Carol K. Yoon

naming natureBook – Why do we group some species of animals together, to say these are more like each other than they are like something else? And how do we know we’re right? Carol K. Yoon, a biologist turned science writer, argues that the “right” way to classify things depends on what we’re organizing them for, and in this case, the scientifically “right” way may actually be entirely wrong for the rest of us. Naming Nature is structured around the idea of the umwelt, the natural human sense of the living world around us. Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, worked almost entirely out of his own well-developed umwelt.

Unfortunately, the umwelt does not match up at all with the distinctions important to science – the evolutionary history of species. So the history of modern taxonomy has been a history of ever-more precise definitions of evolutionary relationships which are also ever-more distant from the way humans actually see the world. (For instance: scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as fish, as a category.) Yoon concludes that, given that humans seem to be more and more disconnected from the natural world, we should leave scientific taxonomy to science and re-take folk taxonomy for the rest of us. For most people fish exist, and unless you’re a scientist that’s all that matters.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.