Sunday, April 28, 2013

Storm Kings

If you are interested in violent weather and its prediction, or enjoy watching The Weather Channel, then Lee Sandlin's Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers is worth a read. The author describes the history of weather forecasting and meteorology from Benjamin Franklin's electricity experiments to Fujita's classification scale. It is not necessary to know the definition of the Coriolis effect or how convection works; Sandlin keeps the science simple, focusing on interesting characters who were repeatedly stumped by the creation and behavior of tornadoes.

Today we take accurate weather reports and severe storm warnings for granted, but even 60 years ago there was hesitation in issuing a tornado warning. Storm Kings chronicles the early struggles in experimentation and the resulting, often flawed, theories. The conflicts between the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Weather Bureau regarding administration, data collection, and of course, funding force the reader to wonder how they found the time to issue even the most basic forecasts. The history of meteorologists and their ideas encompass a wide range of very colorful personalities and plans (starting huge fires to make it rain, using dynamite to collapse funnel clouds). Sandlin touches on tornadoes large and small whose damage and eyewitness accounts helped improve weather forecasting.

An "active, severe" storm season has been predicted for 2013...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Inherent Vice

Every once in awhile, when feeling bold, I make a half-hearted attempt to dive into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Unfortunately I get scared off by the 700+ page count of the National Book Award winner's epic works like Gravity's Rainbow and Against the Day, and my boldness quickly subsides. Thankfully, I stumbled across Inherent Vice, the author's shortest work and one that falls within the more accessible genre of detective fiction. Although this sprawling book with dozens of characters and numerous, challenging plot twists isn't light fare by any means, its sense of humor and creative take on classic mystery novel tropes makes for a fun and entertaining read.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Buddha in the Attic

 With The Buddha in the Attic, award-winning novelist Julie Otsuka  (When the Emperor was Divine) demonstrates her remarkable ability to relate a complex and emotionally-charged story in language that is at once beautifully lyrical and exquisitely precise.

The early 20th century saw the migration to California of “picture brides” – young women who left behind homes and families in Japan for a far-away land and an unknown way of life. They traveled in steerage, carrying little more with them than the photos of the dashing and prosperous young men who were their new husbands. Departing Japan was soul-wrenching, the passage to California was arduous, and the husbands who met them upon their arrival were usually not handsome and were very likely to be poor. 

Loveless marriages, back-breaking jobs, constant pregnancies and poverty were often the lot of these brides. Their children added to their heartbreak by Americanizing their names, refusing  to speak Japanese, and rejecting  the traditions of their ancestors. Still, the mail order brides struggled for decades to gain a toe-hold in a foreign country that never welcomed them and was intolerant of their alien ways. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

I'll let you in on a little secret...

I like to think of myself as still being young and at least a tiny bit cool, and because of that most of my reading is of the graphic novel, sci-fi, steampunk sort. But, dear readers, I have recently discovered a new guilty pleasure. I enjoy *looks around furtively* cozy mysteries featuring cheeky ladies of a Certain Age. Promise me you won't tell anyone, I have a reputation to maintain, after all.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Destiny of the Republic

What do you know about Garfield? I have to admit I didn't know much about James A. Garfield - scholar, Civil War hero, president of the United States. Garfield usually appears only as a brief entry in the history books. President for only a few short months, he was assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau. In Destiny of the Republic: a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president, Candice Millard does an excellent job of fleshing out the life of Garfield and state of the nation in the early 1880's.

The plot unfolds like a mystery with three threads weaving through the book. First, the story of Garfield. Then the life of the insane assassin, Charles Guiteau. And lastly, Alexander Graham Bell...wait...who? I couldn't imagine how Bell would fit in to the story, but I knew the characters would eventually cross paths in the future, just like in a well plotted murder mystery. It was fascinating to learn about the state of medicine in the 19th century and how germs and infection could be just as dangerous as a bullet.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Go Ride A Bike!

April is celebrate everything bicycle month here in Tucson and everyone is encouraged to dust off that helmet, pump up those flat tires and ride your bike to your destination instead of driving. As someone who is deeply (perhaps too deeply) involved in the Cyclovia celebrations this year, I have bikes on my brain. Here are a few titles to ring your bicycle bell - enjoy!
I don't know who the Bike Snob is, but I love him/her. The Bike Snob lives in New York and has just the right level of snarkiness to only slightly offend, but mostly just makes me laugh.  How can you argue with the theory of the Dachshund of Time, ranging from Biblical Times at the tail end, moving to Olden Day, Old School, Back in the Day and Right About Now by the eyes? How about those riding in Noah's Ark just out on a very long commute? Pick up The Enlightened Cyclist by BikeSnobNYC to add a moment of levity to your ride.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Old Wine, New Bottles

Like many longtime readers, I remember devouring fairy tales as a kid. Now that I've gotten older, I've discovered the literary phenomenon of the retold fairy tale. This is where an author takes a familiar tale and spins it out into a full-length novel. Sometimes they uphold the characters and events, sometimes they upend them. But it's always an interesting read.

Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is a harrowing version of "Snow White and Rose Red." After a childhood filled with sexual abuse, Liga escapes to a safe dream world with her two daughters, Urdda and Branza. But when they're almost grown, the walls between the world she lives in now and the world she left behind are breached, and her daughters must learn to live with pain as well as joy.

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst is based on "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." It's sort of a Beauty and the Beast tale, except the castle is made of ice and the beast is a giant polar bear. In Durst's version, eighteen-year-old Cassie is kidnapped from her father's Arctic research station by a giant polar bear, who holds out the promise of helping her find her long-missing mother.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Losing Your Marbles

They say what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger and in Ellen Forney's case, it also makes you funnier. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after turning 30, Forney charts her four-year journey seeking stability in an entertaining and enlightening graphic (as in cartoon) memoir Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me.   

Forney, a freelance cartoonist, credits her creativity with her mood disorder and initially resists medications. But as she continually slides off her manic highs and her head feels like a "cage of frantic rats" she reluctantly agrees to take lithium. Working with her psychiatrist (to whom she dedicates the book) she starts a steady stream of alternating drug cocktails seeking the right balance.

But balance can't be found in medications alone and Forney also credits her success to therapy sessions, journaling, yoga, nutrition and the support of her loving family and friends. In addition to her personal experiences, she lists common symptoms of bipolar disorder, drug reactions and treatment costs. Endnotes provide mental health resources and references. 

Forney is an accomplished cartoonist and her art expresses her turbulent ride with compassion and deadpan humor. Check out her illustrations in Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me as well as in the National Book Award winner, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Vicki Ann