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.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

madnessBook – Jon Ronson started out investigating a hoax being played on a group of neurologists, but ends up exploring the depths of what he calls the “madness industry.” A top psychologist teaches him how to recognize the signs of psychopathy in others, and he sets out to explore his new knowledge in the corridors of power.

This a was fun, funny, casual read.  And therein lies the problem: I felt that the fun, funny parts of the book were distracting severely from the actual serious parts of the book. While the implications of psychopathy as a category (that is, deciding it’s a real thing and treating psychopaths as people different from the rest of humanity) range from interesting to downright scary, Ronson kind of mentions this in passing and then goes on to spend quite a lot of time with the weirdest people possible, from the criminal who insists he can’t be a psychopath to the psychiatrist who insists that that insistence proves that he is. (Confused yet?)

Maybe I’m just weird in not liking nonfiction that doesn’t seem to teach you anything. But Ronson seems to me to have caught the “objective journalism” disease – he doesn’t give away any opinions on anything. No opinions other than “these guys are weird,” that is, which is pretty much the only opinion I don’t like my authors to have. Okay, they’re weird, but nobody ever thinks of themselves as irredeemably weird, so what else is going on here? Ronson never gets to the what else.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

lost cityBook – Touted as a real-life Indiana Jones story, The Lost City of Z tells the adventures of Percy Fawcett. The last of the ‘amateur’ adventurers, Colonel Fawcett helped explore the Amazon and was instrumental in mapping the borders of Brazil and Argentina at the request of the Royal Geographic Society. He is most well-known for his exhaustive search for the ‘Lost City of Z,’ a city that he was convinced existed in the depths of the Amazon jungle. His expedition disappeared in 1925 and no verified account of what actually did happen exists. At least one hundred people have died in search of both the city and the fate of Fawcett’s party.

In addition to the story of what happened in Fawcett’s life, The Lost City of Z also tells the story of a writer in search of a story and how easily you can get caught up in a legend. David Grann undertook a trek of his own into the false paradise that is the Amazonian jungle and came out with a new understanding of what it meant to be an explorer in the golden era.

This book was a fascinating look at the Amazon through the eyes of anthropologists, archaeologists, and adventurers. The mystery still lingers and this book made me research so many things. I still want to know more about the events that led to the disappearance of Fawcett’s party and the subsequent discoveries made. This will be hours and hours of interesting reads.

I listened to this book and while the narrator had a dry almost monotone style, it worked for the topic.

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

dead endBook – This is the memoir of the great-great-great granddaughter of the industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Burden’s look back at her life contains very little warm sentiment. Perhaps her writing is catharsis for dealing with painful memories. She is the product of a dysfunctional family and a distinctly un-maternal mother, yet she recalls her past with acerbic humor. That sense of humor, and material drawn from the lifestyles of extremely privileged relatives combines for an interesting read.

Burden’s biography is populated with over-the-top characterizations of her family, servants, and numerous pets. These descriptions are often un-flattering, scandalous, and frequently successful in their aim to amuse. I admire the fact that she does not spare herself from this lampooning treatment. Burden begins her chronology at a point immediately after her father’s suicide, when she was approximately six years old. Her forthright portrait of her youthful self as a troublemaker who strove to emulate Wednesday from The Addams Family is disturbing and intriguing. Perhaps these traits are understandable for an individual who felt impoverished of family love.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

yes pleaseBookYes Please boldly presents personal stories and thoughts from the star of Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, and Baby Mama. Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, this autobiography humorously weaves through short chapters on topics such as being a teenager in the eighties, personal beauty, and her bond with her sons. Her passion for improvisational comedy is evident from several anecdotes relating to her starving artist days spent learning from “gurus” of the craft, co-founding The Upright Citizens Brigade, and working part-time at Chicago’s Second City.

It was refreshing to listen to this memoir narrated by a quick-to-laugh author and her assorted celebrity-friends that included: Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, Seth Meyers, and Poehler’s parents. Poehler’s levity obviously infected them as well. Utilizing humor she effectively communicates deeper emotions when describing the difficulties of divorce, traveling in a third-world country, and dealing with guilt. Another advantage of the audiobook is the final chapter, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.

Living With a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With a Wild GodBook – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.

Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.

I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

emptyBook – There is something about the extravagant mansions of the early industrialists that elicits morbid curiosity. In Empty Mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune true stories about some eccentric mansions and the people that lived in them are revealed. This bestselling book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dedman, and a cousin of the heiress Huguette Clark, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. The mystery of Hugette’s life required an extra bit of investigative work on the authors’ parts because Hugette was shy and very reclusive. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.

I found the story of Huguette’s father, W.A. Clark, impressive. He was a risk-taking pioneer in Montana that worked his way up to becoming wealthier than Rockefeller during his lifetime. Unfortunately, his copper mining business also began widespread damage upon the Montana ecosystem. The large fortune he left to Hugette provided her the opportunity to make some outrageous decisions in how she chose to spend it.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

no plotBook – Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s a no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing, an international challenge where thousands of people commit to an insane goal: to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. No Plot? No Problem! is NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s instructional manual for the project. It covers everything from why you might want to try such a crazy project in the first place to how to motivate yourself past the week two slump, as well as offering tips and suggestions for how to plan your attack on your novel. I re-read this every year, a week at a time, to help me through my novel writing. I like Baty’s irreverant style and the attitude he brings to the project: it’s a nice reminder that even an insane goal is fun and worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in joining NaNoWriMo, it’s not too late! You can still sign up for an account on the official site to track your progress and meet other writers. Join us on two Saturdays this month, November 15th and 22nd, for afternoon write-ins. Share the companionship of other writers, compete in Word Wars, earn an entry into the 2014 Naperville Region Library Crawl prize drawing, and, of course – write!