Sunday, August 31, 2014

Letters of Note

Forget the totally dull cover; the promise of the subtitle, "An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience" rings refreshingly true. Spanning a wide range of centuries and cultures, Letters of Note delivers a fascinating mix of politics, art, science, history and human emotion expressed through letters, faxes, postcards, and even a message carved on a layer of birch bark circa 1400 B.C.

Paradoxically - in a culture of instant everything and e-mail ephemera, where letters may be relegated to Paleolithic artifact status - former copywriter Usher (master of the widely popular blog, Letters of Note) proudly admits his love for purchasing, studying, collecting and treasuring this form of expression. These letters are culled from his vast resources. They are often presented in facsimile, and then transcribed so that the penmanship is perfectly intelligible. Sidebars feature background information on the letter writer and recipient, and place the letter within historical context. Writers include both celebrities as well as many unknown correspondents.

A few of my favorites -

A letter from Queen Elizabeth to President Eisenhower, which includes her recipes for drop scones (serves 16.)

Iggy Pop's life-changing advice to a young fan.

Clyde Barrow's praise to Henry Ford - "I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one."

Annie Oakley's letter to President William McKinley as the Spanish-American War loomed, promising "a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal."

Correspondence between 12 year old Jim Berger and Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had designed a home for Jim's father and Jim asked Wright to design a dog house for Eddie - his Labrador Retriever. He proposed paying for the architectural plans from money earned from his paper route.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review: The Wolf

In a typical good guy/bad guy situation, you hardly expect to find yourself rooting for the organized crime families of the world. In The Wolf by Lorenzo Carcaterra, it's organized crime vs. terrorists. Vincent Marelli, head of US operations and our "hero", is the leader of the organized crime council, a group of international crime bosses. When his wife and daughters are killed in an airplane hijacking, Marelli convenes a meeting of the council to declare war. While there is a personal stake in discovering the perpetrators behind his family's deaths, he is also convinced that the chaos of worldwide terrorism threatens the financial stability of the organized crime empire.

Back and forth go the bad guys and the really bad guys with hardly a single policeman or anti-terror official to be found. It is quite entertaining to see the vast amounts of information Marelli and his gang can dig up with their unlimited funds. There is certainly no red tape and the bureaucracy is of an entirely different nature. The Wolf is a quick and easy read, unique in that the author pits two criminal enterprises against each other. You don't have to care about law enforcement, governments, or regular people. Just embrace la famiglia.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Great Geek Reads

Looking for some fiction that's not just literate, but also 1337? Try these! 

Book CoverReady Player One by Ernest Cline is the great American video game novel. Its plot is basically a cheesy video game plot: will the main character dodge obstacles, evade the nefarious supervillain, escape dungeons, and save (well, okay, meet) the princess? But then its setting is a meta-commentary on video games: the world plays a giant virtual reality game. That's where the schools, jobs, and fun are now, leaving a bleak wasteland of "meatspace" behind. Hidden within this game are Easter eggs and challenges (some of which involve meticulous recreations of classic video games themselves) that the hero has to find and solve. And yes, the audiobook is totally read by Wil Wheaton.

Book Cover
Book CoverYou by Austin Grossman and Codex by Lev Grossman are by pop-culture savvy twin brothers who perfectly capture the rarely-delivered promise of infinite possibility in gaming culture. You draws on years of real-world video game design experience, while Codex boasts the Da Vinci Code-esque appeal of delving into a secret world's mysterious ancient texts.

Book CoverMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan takes Codex and raises it one: what if Google got its hands on one of those ancient mysteries? Throw in some great bookstore-employee anecdotes, references to geek arcana from ancient Apple hardware to Ruby data visualization to typography, and you've got a perfect e-Read.

Book CoverDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (also available as a free download on the author's website) takes you on a hilarious and mind-bending adventure in a post-capitalist Disneyworld, where reputation is everything.

Book CoverRedshirts by John Scalzi is fun for Trekk[er|ie]s who always wondered about the inner lives of the semi-interchangeable, frequently disposable "Redshirts." It will also appeal to the better-socialized (I kid, I kid!) who can gloss over the in-jokes for a lightweight sci-fi caper.

And let's throw one more bonus mention to Andy Weir's addictive debut The Martian, which Elizabeth reviewed recently. It's basically Island of the Blue Dolphins meets Gravity. Does it have geek cred, you wonder? Let's just say that an ASCII chart is of pivotal plot importance, and leave it at that.

Are any of your favorites missing? Nerd rants welcome in the comments!

Happy reading,

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review: Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead is the first book in a new series by Harry Bingham.  Fiona Griffiths is a policewoman in Cardiff, Wales.  As the most junior member of her investigative unit, her job is to do what she is told.  Fiona is intelligent, efficient, and intense.  She also has a problem with following orders.

When Janet Mancini, a former prostitute, and her six year old daughter, April, are found murdered in a squalid drug house, Fiona is determined to solve the crime.  Janet has definitely been trying to make a better life for herself and her daughter.  She has a job, a nice apartment and is described as a loving and caring mother. Why were they even at the drug house? Things just do not add up in Fiona’s mind, especially when a credit card belonging to a missing billionaire is found with their bodies.  Although Fiona has been assigned to another case, she ignores orders and investigates the murders. She feels close to little April and wants to solve her murder. After all, Fiona, like April, knows what it is like to be dead.

The heroine in this book is as intriguing as the mystery she solves. Fiona has many secrets and the reader will enjoy the twists and turns in this tale. Talking to the Dead is recommended by the Mystery Book Club at Wheeler Taft Abbett, Sr. Library.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places

“You don’t know jack about heat.” (My patience with northern friends wears thin in the summer when they complain about steamy temperatures). “There’s nothing you can tell me about heat. I live in Tucson-- I wrote the book.

Well, maybe I didn't actually write it—but biologist Bill Streever did. It's called Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places and it’s well worth reading. Streever comes at the subject of heat from every angle you can imagine--and some that you probably can’t--including science, geography, history, physiology, and culture, and he has something intriguing to say about everything. In a style reminiscent of Bill Bryson he moves seamlessly from one hot topic to the next, and I found myself following eagerly. Factoids abound, and they are endlessly fascinating! A hike through Death Valley leads to ruminations on the effects on the human body of heat exhaustion and dehydration (the eyelids and lips disappear, the nose shrinks but the tongue hardens and swells. Don’t leave home without your water bottle). This naturally reminds him of the story of Pedro, who 100 years ago was lost in the deserts of southern Nevada and wandered eight days without water, surviving by chewing on cactus and pulling the stingers off scorpions so he could suck out their moisture.

With an easy narrative voice Streever takes us from peat bog people to Charles Dickens in a coal mine, from firebombs in Dresden to volcanoes in Hawaii, from the invention of matches to the invention of microwaves. It's all a tasty gumbo of science, anecdotes, radical travelogs and Streever's own, personal (and sometimes  jaw-dropping) heat-oriented experiments, like drinking crude oil and  fire walking.

It seems odd that the last word on heat should come from an Alaska resident (Streever lives in Anchorage) but he comes by his interest honestly. His previous book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, was a NYT bestseller.