Book – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know. Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel. Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space. Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.
As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.” Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space. From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one. The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.
Book – What do AIDS, malaria, the Spanish Flu, and Ebola all have in common? Aside from being some of the scariest diseases humanity has to face, they all originated in animals. In Spillover, David Quammen explores how diseases cross over from animals into humans, how researchers figure out where those diseases come from, and what that means for the future of human disease.
That sounds like a combination of boring and terrifying, but really, the book is neither – Quammen’s writing is incredibly clear and easy to follow. He doesn’t assume you know anything about biology, nevermind viral microbiology, and both his own explanations and his conversations with experts make the whole topic seem reasonable and comprehensible. I felt smarter after reading this book. And safer, too – as the conclusion describes, one of the biggest factors in how diseases spread is how infected hosts react to being sick, and as humans, with intelligence and forethought, we can do a lot from preventing the Next Big One from being as big as we fear.
This is a little outdated; published (to great acclaim) in 2012, the most recent epidemic it covers is SARS, missing the most recent Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. (Although there is a lengthy chapter on Ebola, in which he clarifies that it does not actually liquefy its victims, Richard Preston notwithstanding.) But it’s thorough enough to show light on those situations anyway. Pick this one up now, before next flu season comes around.
Book – The Lufthansa Heist reveals the details of one the biggest heists in history. It tells the story of how a group of thieves stole over $6 million from the Lufthansa air hanger vault at Kennedy Airport without anyone ever being charged for the crime until 2013. Henry Hill a known criminal who associated with New York Mafia figures tells the story of how it all happened. Most readers will remember him as the character Ray Liotta portrayed in the movie Goodfellas. In fact the heist is a major part of the movie and eventually leads to the downfall of Hill.
In the book Hill gives the reader a more in depth look into how the heist happened and its aftermath. There schemes included college basketball point shaving, drug trafficking, assault, robberies, and murders galore. The story is fast paced and will keep readers intrigued even though most will know the outcome, assuming they have seen Goodfellas. This book will give you what the movie mulled over for lack of time.
Listening to the audiobook made things a little difficult however. The narrator has a heavy New York accent which made it difficult to keep up. This is because the story is being told from various perspectives. Even with the difficulty keeping the characters straight, due to the heavy accent, I enjoyed the book immensely. He does a good job at keeping a fast pace as I feel one would have if they were reading the book. The book is for anyone who enjoys true crime, mafia stories, and are fans of Goodfellas and mob movies.
Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.
Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.
The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.
Movie – Amy Winehouse lived a short life. In the documentary Amy, the director, Asif Kapadia tries to tell a story of someone looking for help but not being able to help herself during good times.
The documentary follows the short life of Amy Winehouse as told through clips of personal home movies, pictures, performances, interviews, and backstage footage at the Grammys. Winehouse was a troubled soul trying to make it through a life that may have been more than she could handle. Her music came from the depths of emotional suffering. Her gift to transfer those emotions into song gave her the break she was looking for into the music scene. It was also the reason she could not continue.
Throughout the film, the director uses interviews with Amy’s parents, husband, and friends to narrate Amy’s story. They paint a picture of someone who was a free spirit, a good singer, and a troubled person looking for some guidance. The director paints her family as people who did not step in when Amy needed them the most. Her parents, mainly her father, did take offense to his portrayal in the film. Her mother did not object to her portrayal.
The film will cause you to analyze Amy’s life and those around her. Questions will arise about the role her loved ones played in her life. Finger pointing will definitely happen. In all the viewer will need to come to their own conclusions on why Amy’s life was cut short. Fans of the singer, and people who enjoy biographies of celebrities will enjoy this film. There is no speculation of who is to blame in the death, only a story being told of someone who was enduring deep sadness and how she coped with it.
Book – Kate Mulgrew, best known for playing the first female Star Trek captain on Voyager and as Red on Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black, has not published a typical celebrity memoir. It has no co-writer, no gossip, and very few references to any costars. She does not dwell on those who helped her, or how lucky she is. The emotional center of Mulgrew’s story is the difficult choice she made at the age of 22, at a crucial stage in her career, to give up a daughter for adoption, and her successful attempt to get in touch with her daughter many years later. Despite having many lovers (sometimes simultaneously), a successful career, and two sons, Mulgrew always felt a regret for this loss that haunted her. Mulgrew’s story ends before the present, just as she has reconnected with her daughter and come to an agreement with the man she (currently) loved, but I hope she will write another chronicling the rest of her career and providing closure that I felt this memoir lacked.
Those reading for insider details of her career on Voyager, as I initially was, will be disappointed, as only a chapter covered this entire time in her life, but fortunately, the details of Mulgrew’s personal life are just as satisfying. Born With Teeth is an entertaining and poignant read even if you’ve never heard of her before.
Book – Books of Hours are the most common book we have from medieval history – beautiful, elaborate manuscripts created for one (very wealthy) person, providing them with a list of holidays throughout the year and prayers throughout the day. Inspired by this format, Jenkins has created a kind of uber-trivia book, a collection of small historical stories and interesting bits of information that match up with the hours of the day and the months of the year.
The cherry-blossom festivals of Japan, duelists who dreaded getting up in the morning more than the upcoming duel, writers’ personal schedules and national holidays, recipes and recommendations (including a recipe for Nostradamus’s aphrodesiac jam, and a recommendation not to try it), historical snapshots of Renaissance Florence, 1930s Shanghai, and desserts that you set on fire before serving – this book has a little bit of everything. More in-depth than a usual trivia book, but without a wholly defining theme, other than the passage of time, I found this perfectly wonderful for curling up on a rainy day with a cup of tea.
Book – Composed of material gleaned from personal interviews, Edin’s account focuses on the most disadvantaged in our society: those who have heads of household who are not working and who do not receive welfare, with cash incomes of about $2 per person per day. For comparison, even those just below the poverty line have about $18 a day per person. While the very poor may have food stamps, and sometimes even rent assistance, what they lack is access to cash. Those Edin interviewed would report donating plasma, recycling cans, and even (illegally) selling food stamps for $0.60 on the dollar just to get some cash income, a necessity to buy clothes, school supplies, and other incidentals not covered by food stamps.
The very poor can be found all over the United States. Edin interviewed, for example, a large family in rural Appalachia, a single mother and daughter in Chicago, and an extended family living all under one roof in Cleveland. The events that triggered extreme poverty varied, but the constant that Edin observed is that it only takes a little bit of misfortune to go from poor to extreme poverty. Triggering events such as losing a job at Wal-Mart because of no gas in the car and getting fired because of a $10 cash register discrepancy were enough to catapult two of Edin’s subjects to extreme poverty.
$2.00 a Day will appeal to fans of Edin’s other works on poverty and, for a more personal take on poverty, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America will appeal.
Book – The One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money discusses overall strategies for setting up a personal financial plan. Richards emphasizes letting go of the past and the need for perfection that often paralyze the process. Your plans should fit your goals and lifestyles; there is no one-size-fits-all plan. He guides you through analyzing your spending values and gives examples from his own life and clients. I liked his focus on examining your personal motives and setting your goals to reflect them. One person may have travel as their primary financial expenditure, while another person may direct their finances toward saving for a college fund. Richards also asserts that analyzing your spending habits will help you determine if you need to to redirect your funds. He stresses that this exercise is not to make you reduce money toward what you enjoy doing, but to identify and reduce spending on items you deem non-essential. This book inspired me with its emphasis on setting up a financial plan that makes sense for today and that takes the ups-and-downs of life into account.
Book – After becoming very sick as a child, Cece began to lose her hearing. El Deafo chronicles Cece’s experiences, from going to school, making friends, and using a hearing aid device. El Deafo is the perfect mix of fiction and biography.
Inspired by real life experiences, this is a beautifully illustrated story told in graphic novel form. As someone who really hasn’t read a lot of comic books, I found the artwork to be very refreshing. The characters reminded me of my favorite childhood tv show, Arthur, with their animal likenesses. Each character has rabbit-like features, with a pink triangle nose, and tall ears.
One of my favorite things about this book is Cece’s description of her hearing aid, the Phonic Ear. Young Cece introduces the device as bulky, unattractive, and heavy; it makes her feel awkward and uncomfortable.
In school, her teacher wears a microphone that is connected to the device. With her earpieces Cece is able to hear every word her teacher is says, both in the classroom, and any other place in the building! With her newfound powers of hearing, Cece discovers her inner superhero, El Deafo. I adored the honest and charismatic narration of this little girl, and hope you will too.