RSS Feed

Staff Picks: Books

How We Got to Now

This 2014 book by Steven Johnson is subtitled Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Those six are each described in chapters which are entitled glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Various inventions are recalled under each heading. For example, the chapter on cold discusses the development of refrigeration and the chapter on clean covers advances in public health. The illustrations and photographs by themselves make this book worthy of examination. One of my favorites is the reproduction of the old Clorox ad on page 153. Available in four formats: e-book, digital audiobook, compact disc, and print.


I'm afraid you shouldn't read this Dave

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Philosophy Professor Nick Bostrom’s exploration of the complexity of potential consequences of introducing a machine with superhuman intelligence into our world. The book first defines and explores possible paths to an “artificial intelligence” that surpasses human capability, and then goes on to speculate on the, mostly catastrophic, consequences of doing so, and finally discusses ways that humanity could better orchestrate the inevitable development of a super intelligent technology that would not necessarily result in our total subservience to our new machine overlords or lead to a quick and utterly efficient snuffing out of humanity in toto. All of this, while sounding like a complete fantasy, is handled by Bostrom with a seriousness and rigor that forces it out of the realm of sci-fi and into a realization that this is exactly where technology is headed and we better hope that those who are pushing us toward better and better AI are taking heed. The stakes could not possibly be higher.


101 Two-Letter Words

For someone who loves books and reading, and is inflicted with an incurable case of curiosity, working in a library is often both a blessing and a curse. I read hundreds of book reviews every year, I see tons of books every day, and I talk about books with patrons, coworkers, and friends incessantly. On top of those sources, my love of bookstores and the existence of the internet means there are untold book discoveries to be made. All those books lead me to seek out even more books, and there's really no hope I'll ever get to all the titles that catch my eye. Earlier this week, while working in the 400 Dewey range of adult non-fiction (the section for language) I stumbled upon a newer book called 101 Two-Letter Words by musician Stephin Merritt, front man of pop band the Magnetic Fields. It's a little book of short poems, one for each of the two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. I recently started playing Scrabble again, so this book was a happy discovery. Merritt's poems make memorizing the two-letter words easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few poems:

AI
The ai, a threatened three-toed sloth
Found only in Brazil,
munches on leaves and sleeps in trees.
I hope it always will.

QI
Qi, in Chinese medicine:
vitality, or breath;
say it "chee," as in "Say cheese!"
Its opposite is death.

SH
"Sh," says the librarian,
"people are trying to read.
And turn that goddamn cellphone off,
before I make you bleed."

The book is illustrated by Roz Chast, whose graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, appeared on numerous best of 2014 lists and was a National Book Award finalist. 101 Two-Letter Words persuaded me to finally pick up her book and reminded me that the library's digital magazine service, Zinio, now offers access to the New Yorker, which Chast works for as a cartoonist. My to-read pile continues to grow!


Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful meditation on race from author Claudia Rankine. It adorned many ‘best of’ lists in 2014 and was nominated for several literary awards. The slender book is an intense yet lyrical portrait of American racism in 2015 that explores both the veiled and unambiguous manifestations of this most insidious fact of life. Rankine possesses a spirited voice and expresses audacious candor in linking everyday racism with its corrosive impact upon the marginalized and powerless. Rankine’s book, characterized by a hybrid form that mixes prose, essay, memoir, and the occasional image investigates the relationship between race, invisibility and the notion of citizenship. April is National Poetry Month and for those who have not read this powerful, timely book, place it on your future reading list.


The Collapse

I was in grade school when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and very clearly remember the crisis that this act by the Soviet Union and the regime in East Germany engendered. It was the subject of many class discussions over the next several years, and of course, it was all over the news. I also remember how elated the world was when the Wall came down in 1989 and the people of East Berlin could be free again. Author Mary Elise Sarotte, visiting professor of government and history at Harvard University, indicates in this 2014 book that the breach of the Wall was neither planned nor the result of negotiations, but was an accident. This is a dramatic account of the events that changed Berlin, Germany, Europe, and the world.


Good for Amy Poehler!

I recently started listening to the audiobook of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and I love it. Amy Poehler is a modern feminist heroine to me; she’s funny, passionate, and confident, not to mention extremely successful and hard-working. Her book offers a glimpse into her life--relationships, career, and motherhood—and exudes all the happy humor you’d expect from the SNL alumni and Parks and Recreation star. Her motto, “Good for her! Not for me,” has really stuck with me; it’s a great way of admiring and encouraging other women while still being kind and confident with one’s self.
If you’re a fan of Amy Poehler’s television shows or movies, or enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants, give Yes Please a try. I highly recommend listening to it, as born-performer Amy Poehler reads it herself, along with guest stars such as Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, and Carol Burnett.


How Rich People Roll

If you are expecting a book about how evil the new global rich are, then you will be sorely disappointed. Well, not quite. The book basically takes a middle-path. It's a fascinating in depth look at the lives and, more importantly, the worldviews of the new global rich (the .1% of the 1%). Do they fly around the world in private jets? Yes. Do they care about profit, expansion, the bottom line, global markets, and moving companies to India for cheaper work? Well, yes.

But the book does a good job trying to humanize these people. For example, how they think of themselves as "world citizens," not just "Americans." And how we can hate them for shipping jobs to India, but the fact remains that people are being pulled out of poverty because of it. And how many of them did not "come from wealth" - they earned it. And how all of them are workaholics (sure, from their private jet, but still).


Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk

All great rock n roll is about more than just the music. Think of any great rock band and you think about their “look” as a component of the overall feeling you get from them. The band that first illustrated this for me was Blondie. I remember my dad receiving the album Parallel Lines (yes, original vinyl from 1978) as part of one of those mail order record deals that were big at the time, and before the shrink wrap was even off I remember looking at that album cover and thinking “Wow, those guys look so cool in their black suits and who is that woman?” Since that day the notion that a band or artist looking cool adding something to the way you feel about the music has stuck. So when I saw that Blondie founding member Chris Stein had a new book of photographs taken mostly during the late seventies and early eighties – which is visually and musically an era that fascinates me – I was thrilled. The photographs do not disappoint and directly illustrates that visual element in rock n roll that I first felt when I saw the Parallel Lines cover.


Nothing to Envy

“A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens.”

As one of the most eye-opening accounts I’ve ever read, Nothing to Envy follows the very personal narratives of six people who defect to South Korea after living in the most repressive totalitarian country in the 21st century. The time during the supreme communist leadership of Kim Jong-il from 1994 to 2011 brought much political, social, and economic devastation and complete isolation to the citizens of North Korea. The characters are under slightly different circumstances from each other, yet there is a shared theme in each story which displays the grim reality of the hostile regime that is their home state.

This powerful non-fiction work is as haunting as it is inspiring. It requires you to see things that cannot be unseen and prompts an active contemplation on the realities of the vastly different lives people share in the world we live in. The strength of the individuals revealed through their heartbreaking circumstances is truly affecting. This combined with its absorbing and brilliant form of storytelling, Nothing to Envy is a must-read for anyone interested in the human condition.


Monopoly and Musicals and Mysteries Oh My

Here are some books that have caught my eye over the past two months as I read reviews to decide what to purchase for the library:

The Monopolists by Mary Pilon
When an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, in the 1970s invented an anti-monopoly game, he is threatened by Parker Brothers, which leads to a lawsuit and research into the origins of the game. Anspach uncovers that the game goes back to the early 1900s and that it was invented by a woman, not the traditional story of the inventor being an unemployed man during the Great Depression. The reviewer in Booklist states, “The book abounds with interesting tidbits for board-game buffs but treats its subject seriously. After reading The Monopolists —part parable on the perils facing inventors, part legal odyssey, and part detective story —you'll never look at spry Mr. Monopoly in the same way again.”

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil
Kurzweil was bullied while at a Swiss boarding school by a twelve year old native of Manila named Cesar Augustus; once being whipped to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. The reviewer in Library Journal wrote, “It moves like a thriller, is very funny, and in the right hands, would make a great movie.”

By Book or By Crook by Eva Gates
Former Harvard librarian, Lucy, finds her dream job in a lighthouse library on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and can’t believe her luck, until a priceless Jane Austen first edition is stolen and people start getting murdered. For some, I’m sure combining libraries and lighthouses in a mystery is like combining horses and mermaids in an adventure tale for my daughter. Can it get any better?