Virtual Unreality by Charles Seife

virtualBook - The subtitle on this book is “Just because the Internet told you, how do you know it’s true?” As anyone who’s ever spent much time on the Internet knows, a lot of what’s out there isn’t true at all, whether it’s from someone making a joke, someone who isn’t as informed as they thought they were, or from someone who’s actively trying to mislead you. Seife gives an overview of all these kinds of Internet-enabled misinformation as well as tips on how to spot tricks and scams.

While Seife’s writing style is entertaining, full of jokes and sarcasm, his hyperbole can be misleading itself. He mentions the immanent death of libraries at least twice, even though libraries are actually seeing more use now than they have in the past. That kind of thing makes me skeptical of the rest of the information he gives – just like he recommends that you be skeptical of a website when some of its information is wrong. Seife has a bias against online information in general, and that comes through loud and clear. Still, his advice for evaluating the things you find online is good, so readers can get practice by applying the same kind of critical reading skills to Seife’s own book before the venture onto the Web.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

funGraphic Novel- Fun Home is a graphic novel memoir depicting the childhood of author, Alison Bechdel, and her relationship with her father, Bruce. Bruce is obsessed with restoring their Victorian home, is a third generation funeral director, a high school English teacher, and a closeted homosexual. He has a wife, two other children, and several male lovers. This novel takes the reader on a journey through the last few years of his life, up until he dies because of a freak accident. Or was it suicide?

Bechdel inserts many literary references into her narrative, which, in my opinion, diminishes the story and the characters. I think the story had more potential than what was transcribed, and I would have liked it more if the writing wasn’t so erudite. I attempted her second graphic novel memoir, Are you my Mother?, but found it written in the same style, and quickly abandoned it. If you are intrigued by scholarly and intellectual writing, this novel is for you.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archdukeBook - On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?

Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.

Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.

How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

how notBook – Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is. We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. (Well, a little calculus.) What Ellenberg is talking about in this book is the way math works, the way math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change how we understand the world.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election results as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

This is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you may enjoy How Not to be Wrong more than you might think.

The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith

nestingBook – After reading this book, I wanted to buy a can of paint and get started on some of my decorating projects. Blogger Myquillyn Smith has lived in more than a dozen homes, most of them rentals. A self-taught decorator with limited funds, she shares her creative approach to reallocating her furnishings and painting and refurbishing thrift store finds. She stresses that good enough is better than doing nothing. This book is not a “how-to” book, although she does offer some DIY advice. It centers more on the author’s philosophy that people get stuck on seeking perfection, and that creating a home you love is more about finding your dwelling’s uniqueness and your own personal taste and celebrating it. Myquillyn is married and the mother of three boys and stresses to the reader that when you think about decorating a room, you need to consider the purposes of the room. The book ends with a page of decorating blogs that may be of interest to the reader. The Nesting Place is an inspiring, fun and approachable decorating book with tips that can be applied to any home.

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams

big tinyBook – Dee Williams lived in Portland in a 1927 three-bedroom bungalow she spent six years restoring. She began to reflect that most of her time was consumed with commuting, working as a State Hazardous Waste Inspector and maintaining her home and property. She didn’t have time to relax and do the things she enjoyed and she worried about juggling bills for her home, utilities, taxes and various other needs and wants. She was always tired and then, suddenly, she found herself confronted with a health issue. Waiting in the doctor’s office, she read an article featuring a man who’d built a tiny house on wheels and moved from his 1200 square foot home to live in it. She was drawn to the concept of planning and building her own tiny house and to live with only the essentials. She pursued her dream and, in this book, shares the process, her successes, her worries and the daily practicalities of living in a small dwelling. I was amazed by how resourceful and determined she was. She was passionate about her vision. She hauled lumber, learned (often by reading library books) how to analyze building codes, install electrical wires and plumbing and how to manage other projects related to building her home. She and her dog RooDee moved into her 84 square foot house in 2004. Its effect on her life was profound and she now writes and conducts workshops about small house living, green building and community design. This was an interesting book, written with candor and humor,  about establishing your own priorities and lifestyle and I enjoyed and was inspired by her journey.

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me by Ellen Forney

marblesGraphic Novel - In this graphic novel memoir, we follow Ellen Forney, an artist, free spirit and stoner who gets diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Readers experience her journey of manic episodes and severe depression, all the while, with the help of her psychiatrist, she struggles to find the right cocktail of medication to control her mood swings.

This is more than just a story about finding oneself. It’s a journey to discover one’s creativity, where it comes from, and if it can be suppressed. Forney constantly worries about losing her creative spark because of her mood stabilizing drugs, and persistently battles with the idea of being a crazy artist, which she admits is kind of romantic.

This novel will appeal to not only graphic novel fans, but also anyone who struggles with a personality disorder or anyone who is a creative soul. Forney is a very likeable character, readers will enter her psyche and experience a world that is often very hush-hush.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

worldBook – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.

I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.

Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea

ernestMovieErnest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.

Grain Brain by David Perlmutter

GrainbrainBook – This book’s popularity is likely due to Dr. Perlmutter’s assertion that one’s genetic predisposition to mental aging is not set in stone, and that by altering our diets we can reduce the neurological degeneration that our parents and grandparents may have exhibited. Gluten free, low-sugar diets have become increasingly prevalent for a variety of reasons. In Grain Brain, Dr. Perlmutter shares compelling research linking gluten and sugar consumption to neurological degeneration such as that which occurs within dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Dr. Perlmutter has the distinction of being both a neurologist and a nutritionist, and this book recounts incidences where a change in his patients’ diets alleviated symptoms from various neurological disorders. Grain Brain is also filled with references to other researchers’ studies on the impacts of elements such as “good fats” on the brain. His main premise is that all gluten sources are damaging to the brain, including whole grain sources. More easily digested is his confidence that the consumption of “healthy” fats found in fish, nuts, and eggs, will prolong the health of our brains. Grain Brain includes a 4-week plan of healthy eating and exercise. This book will obviously appeal to anyone who is already inclined to try a low-carb, or “Paleolithic” diet. However, proponents of a diet relying heavily on whole grains, as symbolized by the USDA Food Pyramid, have been less pleased with Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations.