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review 2018-01-21 00:39
Too Much Salt and Pepper (Living Forest #2)
Too Much Salt and Pepper: Two Porcupines with Prickly Spines Who Make You Laugh and Think - Sam Campbell

If one porcupine made for a good book then Sam Campbell thought that two would be even better.  In the second book of his Living Forest series, Too Much Salt and Pepper, Campbell describes the adventures and lessons surrounding the titular “porkies” Salt and Pepper along with wise ol’ Inky during a year at the Sanctuary of Wegimind.

 

The events of this book take place a few years after How’s Inky? as Sam and his wife Giny arrive at their animal sanctuary to discover the young porcupines Salt and Pepper eagerly awaiting them.  The two “porkies” are friendly, funny, and very mischievous especially when they want to play.  But as the year progresses, Pepper answers the call of the wild while Salt continued to want human companionship.  Most the book centers around the week-long visit of Carol, a young friend of the Campbells, who wants to experience the nature they describe in their lectures.  The experiences, stories, and lessons that Sam and Giny show Carol—along with a dose of porcupine mischievousness—as best they can in a week the lessons nature has taught them over the years.

 

With this book being twice as long as the previous Living Forest book, Sam Campbell fills it numerous stories of past adventures and misadventures while also detailing Carol’s weeklong stay during which occurs most of his famous philosophy.  Campbell uses an older Inky to be the mouthpiece of his lessons and teachings to the intended younger audience of the book, yet Inky’s “woodsy philosophy” can be very instructive to adults as well while not being preachy.

 

Though a longer read, Too Much Salt and Pepper is wonderful nature read and I highly recommend it readers of all ages.

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review 2018-01-19 13:39
How to Break Up With Your Phone
How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life - Catherine Price

How to Break Up With Your Phone

Author: Catherine Price

Rating: 4 stars

 

As someone who is always on their phone, I really enjoyed this book. My husband and I watched that segment on 60 Minutes about “Brain Hacking”. We were blown away by the tactics used by companies to keep you picking up your smartphone to check it and by how our attachment to our smartphones at times mirrors addictive behavior.

 

When this book appeared on Netgalley, I couldn’t request it fast enough as I wanted to learn more about this. I was pleasantly surprised to find this book cites that very 60 Minutes segment and expands on it. It was eye-opening to see what the studies gathered here had to say about how our smartphones affect our happiness and peace of mind.  While yes, it contains practical suggestions as to how to regain control of your life and stop being slaves to our phones, the strength of the book lies in the studies.

 

I also liked that this book did not tell you to break out your flip phones or to live like a monk. It just had a 30-day practical guide to reduce the time we spend on our phones and live in the moment. My husband and I decided to give it a go.

 

Overall I recommend.

 

I received this book free in exchange for an honest review.

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review 2018-01-17 18:00
Everything you've ever wanted to know about your toaster (and your afternoon cup of tea) but so far never even thought to ask.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

My high school physics teacher was a very nice gentleman who clearly loved his subject -- but who equally clearly lived in a very different world from that of us rowdy teenagers, and to whom it never even seemed to occur that his way of thinking might just be a tad too alien and abstract for most of us (or if it did occur to him, he didn't have the slightest clue how to bridge the gap).  It certainly also didn't help that he was teaching in what was to him a foreign language -- and that he had no clue how to police cheating: whatever method he came up with, we were always at least a step or two ahead of him.  (Which, back in the day, was virtually my only saving grace when it came to tests, though in the long run it of course didn't help at all.)  In short, he'd probably have made a stellar physics professor at university -- as a school teacher, however, he was entirely miscast.

 

Now, far be it from me to blame my own deficiencies on the deficiencies of my high school education: Though I've always loved biology (and been fascinated by the scientific / theoretical aspects of medicine), it's unlikely I would ever have chosen science as a career.  However, with the exception of optics, I've always struggled more to get a grip on physical concepts than on biological or chemical ones.  Even maths presented decidedly less of a challenge: I didn't particularly care for it, but it was never a subject apt to seriously endanger my grade point average.  That dubious honour always went to physics alone.  As a result, for the longest time and until I somewhat grudgingly decided to remedy that fact much later in life, my understanding of physics -- other than optics -- was essentially a "reflected" understanding, to the extent that the laws of physics were relevant to other subjects, such as biology and chemistry (e.g., in the composition and behaviour of cells and atoms).

 

Part of this, undoubtedly, was due to the fact that other areas (history, languages, music and literature) were far more of a focus of my early upbringing: Helen Czerski's afterword to Storm in a Teacup, where she recounts how both her family background and growing up in industrial Manchester helped shape and foster her interest in science and technology, spoke to me just because I can relate to precisely the opposite; notwithstanding the fact that both my grandmother and her twin sister studied medicine (they were among the earliest women to enroll in that field in Germany) and several of my aunts -- cousins of my mother -- are doctors as well.

 

But I also would wish my high school teacher had taken a similar approach as Czerski in Storm in a Teacup, because the first of several things she achieves (and the importance of which my teacher missed entirely) is to make her readers understand why physics matters to each of us and what it has to do with our daily lives, above and beyond the puny truisms that we've all heard of.  ("Yeah, I know that there's such a thing as gravity, but what does it really mean and why does it matter to me except for -- literally -- keeping my feet on the ground and making things fall down if they're not securely resting on something else?")  That doesn't mean, of course, that from suddenly gaining a basic understanding how your toaster works -- or why popcorn pops, why buttered toast almost always lands on the floor with the buttered side down, why ketchup initially stays in the bottle (and how to get it out of there without spilling half the contents all over your plate, the table, and your clothes), or from devining the secrets behind the innumerable mysteries associated with a cup of tea (with or without milk in it) -- it's only a small step towards a full understanding of astrophysics, nuclear physics, or even just "ordinary" university level physics.  But as Czerski doesn't tire to point out, the laws of physics apply to our daily life in the same way as they apply to the universe at large; and I'm pretty sure if my teacher way back when had understood how to get us to make a connection with our everyday world, and understand how physics matters to each of us in a million different ways every single day of our lives, many of us would have found it fascinating -- instead of writing it off as unbearably dull, unattainably abstract, and / or totally irrelevant to our lives and even our potential career paths.  As Czerski puts it:

"There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets.  It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but of no real use to adults.  An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic.  But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere.  At toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself.  Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the ktichen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.  The advantage of looking at the toaster first is that even if you never get to worry about the temperature of the universe, you still know why your toast is hot.  But once you're familiar with the pattern, you will recognize it in many other places, and some of those other places will be the most impressive achievements of human society.  Learning the science of the everyday is a direct route to the background knowledge about the world that every citizen needs in order to participate fully in society."

The laws controlling the spin of the Hubble Telescope's gyroscopes are the same that make a raw egg spin.  The laws that make popcorn explode and that help create focaccia bread are the same laws that control the Santa Ana winds in California, move a steam engine, propel rockets, and which any sea-bound mammal, such as a whale, needs to cope with when hunting hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean.  Bubble baths form according the the same laws that are at play in the formation of a layer of cream on top of milk (and that are now used to get rid of that layer of cream in the process of homogenization), that make sponges and towels absorbent, that are used by every tree, from those in your back garden (if you have one) to the giant redwood in order to pull water up to its very top, and which modern medicine uses in order to be able to perform tests on the basis of a single drop of blood where a whole vial used to be necessary before.  The flow (or not) of ketchup out of a bottle and the sloshing of tea in a mug is dictated by the same laws that are at play in a lock gate and at the Hoover Dam ... etc., etc.

 

Czerski assumes virtually no understanding of the laws of physics (or anything related, such as mathematics) on the part of her readers going into each individual topic, and while that occasionally results in some talking down to the reader ("One nanometre really is tiny -- there are a million of them in one millimetre" ... thank you, Ma'am, I knew that much at least already!), most of the time she meets her readers at eye level -- and I really have to hand it to her; I'd never have thought there could be so much suspense associated with the details of heating popcorn, baking focaccia bread, or making a cup of tea.  And I just love her sense of humour:

"In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias detected waves from the sky at microwave wavelengths that shouldn't have been there.  They spent a long time trying to work out which bit of the sky on their telescope was messing up the mesurement, sure that something was generating extra microwave light.  They also cleared out some nesting pigeons from the telescope, along with their droppings (euphemistically described as 'white dielectric material' in the paper they wrote).  The unwanted background light persisted.  It eventually turned out to be the signature of the Big Bang, some of the most ancient light in the universe.  There is something special about an experiment that has to be very careful to distinguish between the after-effects of pigeon poo and the after-effects of the formation of the universe."

There possibly won't be much in here that is news to a trained physicist, or an enthusiast of the subject matter, but I'll gladly take Elentarri's word that even a scientifically trained reader may find this book enjoyable.  For many of the rest of us (even those who were able benefit from a somewhat more enlightened physics instruction in school than me), this is in many respects eye-opening in the best of all ways, in addition to being an engaging and well-written read.

 

 

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review 2018-01-16 19:49
In the Land of Invented Languages / Arika Okrent
In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language - Arika Okrent

Here is the captivating story of humankind’s enduring quest to build a better language—and overcome the curse of Babel. Just about everyone has heard of Esperanto, which was nothing less than one man’s attempt to bring about world peace by means of linguistic solidarity. And every Star Trek fan knows about Klingon. But few people have heard of Babm, Blissymbolics, Loglan (not to be confused with Lojban), and the nearly nine hundred other invented languages that represent the hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions of so many misguided souls over the centuries. With intelligence and humor, Arika Okrent has written a truly original and enlightening book for all word freaks, grammar geeks, and plain old language lovers.

 

  I think I would really enjoy sitting down for a cup of coffee and a discussion with this author! She is a linguist and linguistics is a favourite subject of mine. She knows a thing or two about the Library of Congress classification schedules too (or at least the P section of them, linguistics & languages), which appeals to my inner cataloguing nerd. Plus, she is just interested in words and their history and in the psychology of people who strive to build better languages.

I was absolutely gobsmacked at how many artificial languages are lurking out there and how often that particular bee seems to get into someone’s bonnet! Mostly, the creators seems to be altruists—Esperanto was going to be the language that allowed us all to understand one another and prevent future wars. Many of these language developers were hoping to express “pure” concepts and keep prejudice and politics out of things. Unfortunately for them, language just doesn’t work that way! One of the best uses of language is politicking! Also unfortunate is the tendency of these men (and I think we can say that it’s mostly men who attempt this) to be unable to let go and let their languages run free, to change during regular use. Their rigid attempts to control the people using their languages seemed to negate any positive uses for their creations.

I was amused as the author’s type-A, gung-ho attempt to learn Klingon. If I had been at that particular conference, I would have been right at her side competing to my heart’s content! I loved that in her author note at the end of the volume, she listed both PhDs and her Klingon 1st level pin as her accomplishments.

What I found a bit freaky: I returned to work on Monday (having read the book on the weekend) and the very first volume that I picked up to catalogue was written in Esperanto! (I’ve been working on a big collection of materials by and about H.G. Wells and am busy with translations right now.) That little piece of synchronicity was amusing.

 

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review 2018-01-15 19:36
A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo
A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa - Alexis Okeowo

This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural northern Uganda when she is kidnapped by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army while visiting her sister at boarding school. Once in the bush, she is forced to marry Bosco, a young man also kidnapped as a teenager, and both are forced to participate in acts of violence. By the time both eventually escape, they have children together, and Eunice, like many young women whose futures are circumscribed by LRA kidnapping, decides to return to Bosco. Former rebels are given amnesty to encourage defection, but the couple faces ostracism from their community and seems to be passing on their trauma to their children.

Biram is a Mauritanian activist, growing up in a socially conscious family in the last country in the world to outlaw slavery (it became illegal in 1981, but not a criminal offense until 2007), and one where the police remain uninterested in bringing wealthy slaveowners to justice. He starts an organization dedicated to eradicating slavery, rescues slaves directly and draws attention to the cause by risky acts like publicly burning the books used to justify slavery under Muslim law (though he is Muslim himself). Later he expands his focus to other racial justice issues and runs for president of Mauritania.

Abba, aka Elder, is an auditor and patriarch of a large family in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram gains traction in the area. Frustrated by the lack of government response to the attacks, he joins a local vigilante group that captures militants and hands them over to security forces, proving far more effective than the actual military. He becomes a leader in the group and moves into politics as well. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a teenage boarding school student in nearby Chibok when she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with 300 classmates. Fortunately, she is one of the 50-odd with the courage and presence of mind to quickly escape, and gradually overcomes her trauma while returning to school in a distant city.

Finally, Aisha is a teenage girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, who refuses to let al-Shabaab terrorists intimidate her out of playing basketball. They certainly try – she receives regular death threats by phone, is nearly kidnapped and has a gun pointed at her on a bus – and another female player is brutally murdered. But Aisha is determined to live her own life, and she and her teammates find joy in the game and treasure rare opportunities to participate in tournaments, despite the lack of government support.

These are all fascinating stories, though the subtitle doesn’t quite fit anyone other than perhaps Aisha: Biram and Elder are leaders, not ordinary people, while Rebecca is a survivor but not exactly fighting extremism, and Eunice and Bosco remain victims. Each story is told in two chapters, one in the first half of the book and the other in the second, and the second half provides much of the emotional consequences and complexity that seemed to be missing from the first half. Of course the circumstances of these people’s lives, and the strength required to keep going, is extraordinary to the Western reader. This book tells very compelling stories in a quick and accessible way; for me it is too quick (each of these stories deserves its own book), but it provides a great introduction while telling human stories behind events in the headlines.

My other reservation is the fact that the book cites no sources, and the author tells us nothing about her research other than what happens to come out in the text as she relates her experiences in meeting these folks. She generally applies critical thought to the stories people tell her – for instance, she includes the accusations of brutality against Elder’s group – but sometimes seems to accept simplistic stories, as in the 9-page life story of a Mauritanian slave that seems to be a chronicle of constant abuse. Though the author seems to do her research, it’s never clear how well the stories are corroborated.

Despite that, I think this is a great premise for a book and these stories are engaging, emotional, and well-told, with enough background information included for readers unfamiliar with these countries to understand their contexts. I recommend it.

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