Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Writing about the U.S. presidents has been a popular thing to do throughout most of the history of the country, but especially recently, whether individually or collectively. Here's a rather large volume that has two parts: 1) The Making of the President, 1787, and 2) Presidential Profiles. I found the profile section to be particularly enjoyable. For each president, author Davis gives biographical milestones, quotations, fast facts, a lively summary of the administration, online resources for further information, and a final analysis and grade. This latter item provides the capstone to each chapter. While I don't agree with all of the ratings, I was interested to note the rationale for each. Some are obvious and expected -- Washington and Lincoln get an A+. Three in a row get an F -- Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. But there are some surprises among the rest. This is a nice work of history presented with an entertaining flair.
Don't know much about the American presidents : everything you need to know about the most powerful office on Earth and the men who have occupied it
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts.”—Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives
“Facts are meaningless. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. Facts schmacts.” –Homer Simpson
Now, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Jesse Ventura). In fact, I recently watched a feature-length documentary that details all the crazy theories people have conjured up about secret meanings that Stanley Kubrick supposedly packed into his 1980 film The Shining. One of these notions is that Kubrick used the Stephen King adaptation to clandestinely confess that he helped NASA fake the moon landing in 1969. It would be generous to call the “evidence” these theorists use to make their case for this a stretch: a boy wears an Apollo 11 sweater; a key chain that reads “ROOM No. 237” contains the same letters that one could use to spell “moon room.” Of course, none of the theorists consider the thought that if they wanted to know if the moon landing happened or not, an old horror movie is probably not the place to go digging for evidence. But this is just another example of the human tendency to choose one’s beliefs first and selectively scavenge for support second. These folks are so convinced they are right, that they choose to ignore or deny any kind of actual, factual evidence that would contradict them.
This very conspiracy theory provides the title for the graphic nonfiction book How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial, in which author-illustrator Darryl Cunningham takes some of the most widespread—and often life-threatening—instances of science denial rampant in popular opinion today and presents the scientific evidence to refute them. Using comic book panels and concise, well-researched information, Cunningham tackles topics like homeopathy, climate change and fracking, debunking the myths surrounding these issues and presenting the science in an accessible manner for both teens and adults. It’s a quick read and I definitely recommend it to everyone, particularly if you are more likely to believe what Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy have to say about the vaccine-autism controversy than actual scientists.
How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial
Given the chance, would you pick the gender, eye color, height, athletic ability, intelligence of your baby? No you say? What if everybody else was? Perhaps a better question would be: given the chance, would you genetically prevent things like schizophrenia, alcoholism, autism, antisocial personality disorder, MS? None of these questions are rhetorical. They're inevitable. The technology is here and it's coming.
Michael Sandell, a moral philospher at Harvard, makes an interesting and well thought out argument against perfection. Genetic enhancement of children says more about the hubris, controlling nature, and hyperparenting of the parent more than anything else. Parenting involves two kinds of love: the love that accepts children for who they are and how they turned out, no matter what (unconditional love). And the love that helps them their goals, find themselves, perfect their abilities. This is the love that can get out of control with genetic engineering.
eugenic parenting [that's what he calls it] is objectionable because it expresses and entrenches a certain stance toward the world—a stance of mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements, and misses the part of freedom that consists in a persisting negotiation with the given (p. 83).
It's about "willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverance, of molding over beholding." Life should be a balance.
My opinion, after reading this book and thinking about it, is this: when it comes to preventing certain genetic diseases, every parent should be able to use genetic engeneering. No more babies born blind, or deaf, or with horrible predispositions that are not their fault. Think about it. Hitler and Stalin and Ted Bundy probabally had the inability to emotionally feel empathy. That's a genetic defect and it's a huge problem. I'm not saying this would cure war and murder (or Hitler or Stalin), but it would probably help a lot. It should be government run and free to all, paid for by taxes. It has to be. Leaving the market to decide would create a permanent underclass of poor, sick people like we've never seen before, discrimination based on genes. "You're resume? No thanks, we'll scan your genes...thanks for applying."
When it comes to enhancing intellegence, athletic ability, etc. I'm still undecided on how we should handle it. Yeah, sure, I would love to have a better memory. But the consequences writ large could be scary. It would change everything. And it's coming.
What do you think?
The Case Against Perfection
For most of my adult life my cooking repertoire has been severely hindered by both a lack of experience, and thus confidence, and by limiting myself to just a few very basic skills (think - boiling water, pushing down the toaster mechanism, or programming the microwave). But then just a couple years back, likely through a combination of my awareness of the seemingly endless supply of tantalizing cookbooks that KPL acquires for the collection and a growing interest in cooking that developed through the popularity of cooking shows on television and how easy they make things seem, I started to really read those cookbooks and began looking for things that I could actually attempt. It hasn’t taken me long to figure out that a good recipe makes all the difference. I can’t say that everything that I create would challenge Bobby Flay, but when it works it feels like nothing short of alchemy to me to be able to pull together a great meal from simple, healthy ingredients and with my limited culinary skillset. My favorite recipes and best results have come from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food, but I’ve had success with other cookbooks as well. The latest recipes that I’ve tried came from Simply Ming one-pot meals: quick, healthy & affordable recipes by Ming Tsai. I’ve made Chicken & tri-bell pepper chow mein (pg. 34), Wonton shrimp & noodle soup (pg. 156), and Asian sloppy joes with hoisin sauce (pg. 71) and they were all just as advertised – quick, healthy, and really good!
Simply Ming one-pot meals: quick, healthy & affordable recipes
Hitler (see my latest blog) is a perfect example. Can science explain Hitler's evil? Imagine we look into the child-brain of Hitler and see a complete lack of empathy and a 70% probably of antisocial personality disorder, depending on environmenal triggers. Could we prevent it from happing? That's one thing: science can help predict and prevent. But here's another thing: Does "lack of empathy" really explain what Hitler did? Does that encapsulate his evil? Can psychology explain him by describing the relationship he had with his father? And what about historical explanatoins of Hitler and the Holocaust? Doesn't that count? Not to mention religious accounts of evil, or philosophical ones like Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil"?
Simon Baron-Cohen says enough is enough. We need to understand evil in scientific terms in order to prevent it. Evil is "zero-degrees of empathy," which can be measured in the "empathy circuits" of the brain. Simple as that.
Well, not so simple. There is an emotional side to empathy ("I feel your pain") and a more intellectual, "cognitive" side ("I make it a rule to treat people nice"). Some people have one, some have both, some (Hitler, Ted Bundy) have neither. Emotional is more genetic, cognitive is more learnable. People with autism, for example, have trouble with emotional empathy but not with cognitive empathy. Furthermore, "zero-degrees of empathy" isn't always necessarily bad; people with Aspergers, for example, have a brain that makes them genuis's and musical prodigies (and they can live perfectly moral lives).
Wait a minute. Not so simple, still! There is an attitude of scientific arrogance here, a "step aside centuries of theologians, philosophers, social theorists, Goethe, Stephen King...you had you're fun, now let the men in white lab coats explain everything for you." Yes, science can explain empathy. Yes, it can help to prevent and promote it (doesn't religion do that too?). Science cannot explain the whole concept of empathy or evil anymore than it can explain the whole concept of life, or pain, or death, or joy, or love.
Is that your reaction?
Either way I loved the book and highly recommend it; very readable.
The Science of Evil
This book is not a biography of Hitler; it’s a biography of the biographers of Hitler, it’s a story about the Hitler scholars, an all-you-can-eat buffet of the full gamut of explanations for the murder of 6 to 17 million people (depending on how you count). And by “explanation” we usually mean “whose fault”? Who’s to blame? Germany? Hitler’s one testicle? Judaism? Christianity? God? The Jewish doctor who treated Hitler’s mother with cancer? Nobody? Everybody? The Nazi Party? Abstract Historical Forces? Hitler’s incestuous past, secret Jewish blood, failed artistic striving, political ideology, psychosis? Or do we simply blame Hitler himself?
Take a deep breath. I had to. There is a level of absurdity to all of this. Why do some of these explanations sound ridiculous, narrow and short sighted? We have to remember historians are people too; they can be inaccurate, biased, and nasty. That’s the beauty of this book. It’s gossipy. We see the arrogant scholar, we see scholars tag-teaming and ridiculing each other, personal attacks, fame, red-faced, passionate, proud. Perhaps the competitive atmosphere of academic publishing is really to blame, where everything begins with disagreement instead of compatibility. Chapter 1: everybody is wrong. Chapter 2: I’m right and here’s why. Or, perhaps the historian was right that said there is no explanation for the Holocaust and never will be.
- Where do we draw the line between explanation (“he was crazy”) and culpability (“he was responsible”)?
- Did the Holocaust answer the question: is human nature more bad than good? Can there be “no more poetry” after the Holocaust?
- Is the hatred of Hitler a potentiality in us?
- What does this say about belief in God? Do we find God absent and uncaring or do we find God in the acts of heroism (the other half of the story)?
- Is history driven by abstract historical/socio-political forces, or by individual people?
Complex phenomena have complex explanations, but what really matters is the lessons that history gives us. The old adage “history repeats itself” is the whole point of doing history, in my opinion. Once we learn the patterns of hatred, we can predict them and stop them. How do you get people to hate? You separate them, call them “others,” you use the word “war,” as if to make them “enemies.” You call them “germs” or “cockroaches” or subhuman. You censor. You get rid of the media. Hitler pillaged the Munich Post. You dehumanize them and de-individualize them. Hitler passed a law that made all boy Jews have one name and all girls have another. You use esoteric, secretive, ambiguous language that hides your hatred as something “intellectual.” People eat it up. Hitler did that. So did Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way. You retell history in a way that fits with your hate story against the Jews. Hitler and the Nazis actually staged a fake battle to accomplish this.
If you want to dive into the life of Hitler, try a different biography. If you want to dive into the sea of Hitler scholarship, I recommend this book.
The book A summer to die is one of KPL’s oldest titles by popular young adult author Lois Lowry. I read this book as a teen in the 80s, re-read when I worked in a school library, and now read for a 3rd time before I placed it on KPL’s new “I geek teen books” display, geared for not just teens. This book follows an unforgettable year in the life of 13 year old Meg, beginning when her family moves to the country so her college professor father can finish the book he’s been working on. As the harsh Maine winter turns into spring and then a flower-filled summer at their 1840s country rental house, Meg watches her beautiful older sister, Molly, wither away and eventually succumb to a mysterious disease that causes frequent nosebleeds. With Molly’s illness never fading from the foreground, Meg develops friendships with her few neighbors while following her passion for photography…photographing her elderly neighbor, Will, the home childbirth of her neighbors Ben and Maria, and the last pictures of her sister Molly.
Look for this book and lots of other great teen/adult crossover books in our new “I geek teen books” display – located near the self-checkouts at Central library.
A summer to die
Caution: This blog contains information that just may be too cute for your reading pleasure. If you are disturbed or irritated by anything cute, STOP IMMEDIATELY and avoid any potential future exposure.
Even though I don’t watch much television, one of my favorite shows is Too Cute! on the Animal Planet channel. This program showcases mostly puppies and kittens, (but also occasionally exotic pets), as they are born and develop for the first two to three months of life in various, usually for-profit husbandry households. Each show culminates in the members of the new generation being adopted by their “forever” families. Even though I have watched some episodes numerous times and know that they are slanted toward the “And they lived happily ever after” ending, I still can’t help myself. There’s something about the newborn, no mater what species (well maybe not snakes), that draws me in. Especially so if the producers contrive and manipulate the action to hyper boost the cloyingly sweet “cute quotient.”
But then, a little over one month ago I came upon a book that was “too cute” without the hype. I’m referring to A Little Book of Sloth, written and photographed by Lucy Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society. It documents the activities of the real-life sanctuary of Slothville, located in the wilds of Costa Rica, which is devoted to saving these sleepy-looking, engaging, and mellow creatures. The book features some of the “cutest” inhabitants of Slothville, from the orphan Buttercup to Mateo, Sunshine and Sammy, Ubu, as well as numerous other endearing two and three fingered sloths.
Thanks to a uniquely slow nervous system, sloths are known for their lethargic, unhurried movements. They epitomize a lazy, laid back, and ultra chilled lifestyle. But while sloths may look sluggish, they are also quite acrobatic and have the ability to turn their heads around up to 270 degrees, due to an extra neck vertebrae.
Although they appear to be huggable cuddle-bugs as depicted in this volume, sloths do not make good pets and definitely belong in the wild. In captivity, they require special care. For instance, at the Sanctuary, the sloths are given regular baths in a specifically formulated, green leaf tea solution to keep their skin in good physical condition. They also appreciate hibiscus flowers being part of their standard diet.
But don’t despair at your inability to have one of these creatures hang around your home. You can always visit slothsanctuary.com to help an orphaned sloth in need by making a donation, or go to slothville.com to join the Sloth Appreciation Society.
And don’t forget to check out this book. The pictures alone are adorable, precious and may very well lead to you having an absolutely slothful “too cute” day!
A Little Book of Sloth
Calling all Gatsby fans! If you love the romance, mystery and decadence of The Great Gatsby, then you will be delighted with Starstruck, by Rachel Shukert. This is old Hollywood with screen legends, child stars, intrigue, and enough glitz to bedazzle one and all.
Olympus Studio has an Olympic sized problem, their biggest star, Diana Chesterfield, has gone missing and no one seems to have any answers. While the studio scrambles to find the right spin to put on this mystery, trouble is also brewing for showbiz veteran Gabby Preston and all of the little magic pills that help aid her climb to the top.
In Starstruck, Rachel Shukert has nailed the language, music and essence of the 1930s while spinning a story of deceit, Hollywood magic and teenage dreams. This is a must read if you love old Hollywood. Enjoy!
A new book by Mary Roach is always a treat, and her latest volume is no exception. This weekend I Gulped it down with great pleasure. Previous books have focused on death, sex, the afterlife, and space travel. This time she examines digestion, with all the glee of the 19th century doctor she describes who seemed to take unprofessional pleasure in igniting stomach gases (p227).
My favorite part of this book is getting to know her “favorite snake digestion expert” (p172), who pops up throughout the book with, among other interesting and sometimes gross tidbits, a biological explanation of dragons (p230). If you are familiar with Mary Roach’s work, you are likely a fan, and may already be on the holds list for Gulp. If not, why not grab one of her earlier works and dig in.