The Haunting of America – DNF @ pg. 105

The Haunting of AmericaThe Haunting of America
by Joel Martin, William J. Birnes
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 400
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Forge

In the tradition of their Haunting of the Presidents, national bestselling authors Joel Martin and William J. Birnes write The Haunting of America: From The Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini, the only book to tell the story of how paranormal events influenced and sometimes even drove political events. In a narrative retelling of American history that begins with the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, Martin and Birnes unearth the roots of America's fascination with the ghosts, goblins, and demons that possess our imaginations and nightmares. The authors examine the political history of the United States through the lens of the paranormal and investigate the spiritual events that inspired public policy: channelers and meduims who have advised presidents, UFOs that frightened the nation's military into launching nuclear bomber squadrons toward the Soviet Union, out-of-body experiencers deployed to gather sensitive intelligence on other countries, and even spirits summoned to communicate with living politicians.

The Haunting of America is a thrilling exploration of the often unexpected influences of the paranormal on science, medicine, law, government, the military, psychology, theology, death and dying, spirituality, and pop culture.


 

How do you ruin a book with a name like that?  Wrap a textbook in it.

It might not actually be a bad book if one is looking for an anthropological view of superstition and paranormal belief and their effect on the American political system, but I was just looking for some fun and slightly spooky stories about haunting in America.  You know, what it says on the tin.

Ah well, another one off the TBR; progress is progress.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You?

How about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in CartoonsHow about Never - Is Never Good For You? My Life in Cartoons
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250062420
Publication Date: December 8, 2015
Pages: 288
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Picador

 

My life waiting for Halloween Book Bingo to begin has been frustrating.  I’m in the tail end of a weird book slump that feels like it’s lasted forever (over a year to be sure), and my recovery still feels precarious, like it could go either way.  Because of this, I’m not doing any pre-planning for Bingo, but I still know there are a few books I’m waiting to read that will fit, so I’m trying to hold off.

Last night, I was sooo bored with this plan that I almost scrapped HB all together and just started in on the small stack I’m trying to wait on, and in a last ditch effort to find something else on my TBR to hold my attention, I found How About Never? Is Never Good for You? on a very small outlier of my TBR pile.  I’d forgotten all about it, and honestly can’t remember where I bought it, only that I did so because I like most of the New Yorker’s cartoons, and I’d read Mary Norris’ Between You and Me which I thoroughly enjoyed, leaving me with a positive feeling about the staff’s extracurricular writing.

How About Never? Is Never Good for You? turned out to be a very engaging, and very fast read.  I knew nothing about Bob Mankoff before reading it and therefore had no expectations.  The subtitle is My Life in Cartoons which is a nice double play on words, as this memoir covers almost exclusively his career as a cartoonist and cartoon editor for The New Yorker, and the book is liberally sprinkled with cartoons, both his and others’ works, which is, along with the engaging writing, the reason the read goes so fast.

He discusses the rise of the periodical cartoon as an art form, the genesis of The New Yorker’s cartoons, the process by which the magazine chooses the cartoons each week, and the advent of, and the fiendish difficulty of, the “add a caption” contest and how not to win it.  And he does it all with a charming brevity that is just long enough to be interesting and just thorough enough that the reader gets something out of it.

All in all, it turned out to be a delightful way to kill 3 hours or so last night.

This is Improbable

This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF ResearchThis is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF Research
by Marc Abrahams
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781851689316
Publication Date: September 6, 2012
Pages: 299
Genre: Non-fiction, Reference, Science
Publisher: Oneworld

 

I had high hopes for this book, coming from the founder of the Ig Noble Prizes, but alas it wan’t quite the chatty, easy to read format I’d expected.  This is, in fact, a collection of his columns from The Guardian, slightly expanded upon and cited out the wazoo.  This makes it an excellent reference for those times when you’re specifically looking for bizarre, twisted or otherwise outlandish research, but rather less excellent if you’re looking for an enjoyable sit-down read.

Still, it’s a comprehensive (one would hope) collection of some of the most head-scratching research being done out there in the name of science, and if you’re willing to read through the dry reportage, a few amusing facts.  My two favourites were the patent issued in the USA in 1977 for the comb-over – yes, the one you’re thinking of, that oh-so-sexy and not-at-all-obvious disguise for male pattern baldness.  And an Australian patent in 2001 for a “Circular Transportation Facilitation Device”.  Which is, you guessed it, the wheel.

A more timely and relevant invention for us in these pandemic days is the US patent awarded in 2007 for a “Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks”.  A/K/A a bra, that in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks.  It was awarded an Ig Noble prize in 2009 for Public Health, but one has to wonder just how Ig Noble the invention remains?

What Cats Want

What Cats Want: An Illustrated Guide for Truly Understanding Your CatWhat Cats Want: An Illustrated Guide for Truly Understanding Your Cat
by Yuki Hattori
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781526623065
Publication Date: November 3, 2020
Pages: 160
Genre: Non-fiction, Reference
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

 

MT found this last year and bought it for our nieces who were adopting a couple of kittens.  He liked it so much he bought a copy for our library too.  It’s a very easy read, with small bits of information about every facet of raising happy cats.

I’d say the book is far more suited to those like my nieces, for whom having cats in the family is a wholly new experience.  Veteran cat-slaves will find a lot of what they already know here, although I really appreciated the charts showing the different meanings of cat expressions and tail positions.  The chart of differing meows was harder to interpret.  I’d also have liked the book to address more pragmatically the issue of different foods for different stages of life (we have two “senior” cats and one kitten, all of whom think they should be eating out of all the bowls – how to seperate diets?).

But for anyone I knew who was getting their first cat companion, or even their second or third, this is the book I’d give them as an excellent introduction.  Lots of information easily and attractively presented.

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World

Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made WorldStuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World
by Mark Miodownik
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780544236042
Publication Date: November 6, 2014
Pages: 252
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I have this in hardcover, but I listened to the audiobook from the library.  So I’m not sure if my feelings about the book are because I listened to it, or if I’d have felt the same reading it.  I do know that Storm in a Teacup is a much better read about slightly similar subjects.

Stuff Matters is a relatively slim tome covering some of the marvelous ‘stuff’ we live with, and the selection is quite varied: concrete, stainless steel, chocolate, plastics (the most irritating of the chapters), glass, graphite.  There was good information about said stuff in here, but I admit it didn’t hold my attention in nearly the same way as Storm in a Teacup.

The narrator’s voice reminded me strongly of an actor, whose character I can clearly see but can’t place.  Very, very British, balding, bow tie, condescending and misanthropic in a humorous way.  This might have had something to do with my impressions of the book, too, though I’d have to read the print version to be sure.  And someday, I likely will.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for OccupantsThe Body: A Guide for Occupants
by Bill Bryson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780857522405
Publication Date: October 3, 2019
Pages: 455
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Penguin Books

Bill Bryson sets off to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.


Another book I own but borrowed in audio from the library.  Also another read by the author, though Bryson does almost all of his own books and I’ve always enjoyed his readings.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an overview of the human body, taking it system by system.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but looking through my hard copy, I can see it includes photos, making me think this is yet another book destined to be re-visited as a read, rather than a listen.  No hardship, as Bryson is an excellent writer, and The Body is no exception.  He covers the basics, plus just that little bit more, offering what might perhaps be new information, or a different perspective, or a fresh historical anecdote.  He also doesn’t pull any punches about humanity’s propensity to overeat and under exercise, something that in (what is for me) these post-lockdown days had a more pronounced effect than they might otherwise have had pre-covid.

I don’t think fans of Bryson will be disappointed.

Caesar’s Last Breath (Audio)

Caesar's Last BreathCaesar's Last Breath
by Sam Kean
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780316381642
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 375
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group

A round-the-globe journey through the periodic table explains how the air people breathe reflects the world's history, tracing the origins and ingredients of the atmosphere to explain air's role in reshaping continents, steering human progress, and powering revolutions.


I listened to this back in December-February, and forgot all about posting a review; this happens frequently with my audiobooks since I borrow them from the library and they’re not physical objects, sitting around mutely mocking me for my slack ways.

I like Sam Kean’s books, and I always have.  They’re popular science books and I enjoy his way of attaching science to everyday anecdotes; for me it’s a nice reinforce how science is at the very core of life.

Caesar’s Last Breath is about the air we all breathe and which parts of the periodic table we’re breathing at any given moment.  I own the book, but it was available from the library as audio and I needed something for the car.  It’s narrated by Kean himself, which can often not be a good thing, but I think he made a fair performance of it.  But this book also uses visuals, so while I enjoyed it, I think I’d have gotten more out of it had I read my hard copy.  Something I’ll probably do soon.

If you’ve read his other books and didn’t care for them, don’t bother with this one, but if you enjoy accessible science tied to historical events or everyday living, you might enjoy this one.

Extraordinary Insects

Format: Paperback
Extraordinary InsectsExtraordinary Insects
by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780008316372
Publication Date: April 2, 2020
Pages: 294
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Mudlark

A Sunday TimesNature Book of the Year 2019

A journey into the weird, wonderful and truly astonishing lives of the small but mighty creatures we can't live without.

Insects influence our ecosystem like a ripple effect on water. They arrived when life first moved to dry land, they preceded - and survived - the dinosaurs, they outnumber the grains of sand on all the world's beaches, and they will be here long after us.

Working quietly but tirelessly, they give us food, uphold our ecosystems, can heal our wounds and even digest plastic. They could also provide us with new solutions to the antibiotics crisis, assist in disaster zones and inspire airforce engineers with their flying techniques.

But their private lives are also full of fun, intrigue and wonder. Here, we will discover life and death, drama and dreams, all on a millimetric scale. Like it or not, Earth is the planet of insects, and this is their extraordinary story.


Either something was lost in translation, or this book is a much better fit for middle grade readers.  Given the excellent english of absolutely everybody I’ve ever met from Norway (and I worked for a Norwegian company for years), I’m going with this is a great Middle grade read.

Extraordinary Insects is a brief introduction to most of the broad families of Insects, written by an enthusiastic scientist who obviously loves her work.  It’s a fun book, engagingly written, but at a level that would appeal to strong readers in the, say, 10-13 year old range.  That’s not an insult to this book in the slightest, but those who are looking for a deeper overview of the insect world and their importance on Earth (life as we know it can’t exist without insects, but nothing but the rats and cockroaches would even notice our absence), might find this book a little frustrating for its lack of depth, and its very enthusiastic tone.  It’s a good book, but I kept thinking it would be a better fit for my niece (who just turned 11).

A great book for a budding young insect enthusiast or for anyone who has avoided ‘bugs’ but would like to dip a toe into learning more about them.

Wilding: The return of nature to a British Farm

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British FarmWilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
by Isabella Tree
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781509805105
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 362
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Picador

Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer - proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain - the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.

Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells' degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life - all by itself.


This is one of those books where the content overcomes the writing.  The writing isn’t bad by any means, but it definitely lacks the spark of personality.  Either Isabella Tree lacks anything resembling charisma, or she was holding herself back.  I choose to believe the latter, because I believe anyone willing to embrace the project she and her husband embarked on has to be inherently likeable and not a little bit charismatic.

In spite of what was often bland writing, the book is a brilliant record of the amazing achievements Tree and her husband managed on what was poorly producing farmland that was losing money.  By allowing it to revert back to its natural state, with as little human interference as possible, they accomplished so much on so many fronts.  The wildlife recovery, the flood mitigation, the general health of the land itself – all of it happening at speeds that make me optimistic that humanity hasn’t completely destroyed our planet just yet.  Lest I got too optimistic though, Tree’s documentation of the uphill battle they had to fight with government agencies who nominally existed to protect the environment put me right back into my proper, cynical, place.

Wilding is a thoroughly well researched, excellently laid out recounting of one couple’s determined efforts to restore their patch of British soil to what it was meant to be, and all the excellent rewards that came with it.  The writing may be less than enthralling but the content more than makes up for any missing sparkle or wit.  If you’re interested in the natural state of things, this is definitely worth the time and effort.

The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Format: Paperback
The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of SicilyThe Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily
by Theresa Maggio
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780738208008
Publication Date: April 4, 2003
Pages: 246
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Perseus Publishing

Thoroughly average.  While Maggio had moments in the book where she really brought the villages to life, overall the narrative fell flat and failed to do justice to what I’m sure is a beautiful and rapidly disappearing way of life.  It was one of those books that was interesting enough to keep reading, but not so interesting as to make it hard to put the book down.

I suppose it’s for the best, as the book hasn’t dampened my desire to go to Sicily, but neither did it light a fire of “must plan a trip NOW” magnitude, which given current conditions might have proved more frustrating that reading a bland book.