Friday, October 30, 2009

What's that in the sky? A bird? A plane? A Shooting Star!

The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars

By Christopher Cokinos

Why do we remain obsessed with falling stars? Historians, scientists and religious seekers have all wondered about them and fought over their meaning. In The Fallen Sky, author Christopher Cokinos indulges readers with a wild tale of science, history and human passion. He crisscrosses the planet, from the South Pole to Greenland, hitting every continent while meeting some characters so quirky they’d be laughed out of a novel. This gorgeous story is about the history of meteorites in the human imagination and an old-fashioned adventure tale.

In this broad examination of shooting stars, Cokinos addresses the spiritual beliefs of aboriginal tribes as well as the “entrepreneurial” spirit of the men who stole a fifteen ton (fifteen TON!) meteorite simply to possess it. Meteorites have been seen as portents of doom, used to predict the fall of kings and blamed for the extinction of the dinosaurs. But that doesn’t mean they are not sought after. Remember Excalibur? Cokinos traces myths across the world where a great hero’s sword is made from nothing less than a fallen star.

Even in the rational sphere of science, we find eccentric (or mad) folks convinced that meteorites hold the answers to their questions. Cokinos meets biologists, cosmologists, physicists, and adventurers as they chase down these priceless bits of stardust in remote corners of the earth. A naturalist at heart, Cokinos renders the grandeur of these places with an eye for detail that every reader will appreciate.

Well-researched and lovingly written, this book is a beautiful presentation of an offbeat topic. It was my favorite book of 2009, and I highly recommend it for anyone with an interest in either the science or the romance of shooting stars, people who love to read about the last wild places on earth, or those who just want a rousing adventure for a cold winter night.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

They’re Here! Zombies in Popular Fiction

If you’ve been to a book store lately (and shame on you if you haven’t) you have probably noticed that vampires are all the rage in popular fiction, including romance novels and books targeted at teens. Second to vampires are werewolves. A number of authors have featured creatures of the night as their protagonists (and antagonists) such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series to name a few.

These are not the only night stalkers that are featured heavily in current fiction. If you look carefully you will notice a growing variety of books featuring zombies. “Zombies?” you say? Yes, Zombies! The dead that cannot die, but rather roam the earth as decaying, shambling ghouls propelled by a relentless hunger for living human flesh!

Admittedly, the sensual, romantic vampires and the tortured souls that bay at the moon are the girls’ favorites. The zombies are for the boys, as evidenced by the popularity of Max Brook’s books, The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. There has also been Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, in an attempt to get guys to read Jane Austen.

I can understand the popularity of vampires and werewolves. Vampires are cool and stylish; werewolves are wild, party animals. Zombies? What is so interesting about them? They’re crude, uncouth, messy, smelly, no sense of style. They roam around with their mouths open and their eyes rolled back in their heads, leaving a trail of fetid viscera wherever they go. Where’s the mystique? What’s the point of eating the flesh of the living? They can’t digest anything; their innards are putrefying by the hour.

In an attempt to learn more, I picked up a handy guide called The Zombie Handbook by Rob Sacchetto. This book will tell you all you need to know, along with illustrations so gruesome that it’s like homage to the EC Comics’ Vault of Horror.

As I perused this ghastly, nauseating tome, I came upon a section devoted to a special variety of zombie; namely, the ‘alien-possessed’. Now we’re talking! A human as host to an alien parasite, an alien-produced human replica, or even an artificial human. Certainly, a marauding, flesh-eating zombie is no trip to Disneyland (or maybe it is), but even more frightening is to be face to face with someone, something that you completely accept as a human being (and why would you think anything else?), but is really not human, or is no longer human. You would never know, or perhaps you have a sense or feeling that something is not quite right about the person in front of you, but you can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong with him or her. A rotting corpse meandering around is fairly easy to spot, but what if the ‘zombie’ appears to be just like everyone else?

Maybe you have just met someone, a new business acquaintance perhaps, and they seem normal enough, but suppose, just suppose that what they really are is a poor hapless drone that has been hijacked by a slug-like alien intelligence as in The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein, or The Host by Stephanie Meyer? You and your new ‘friend’ sit down to enjoy a latte and some scones, and you begin to become aware that there is something odd about this person, perhaps this person is not really a person, but rather a facsimile produced by an extraterrestrial seed pod like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, or an alien that has the ability to completely absorb another life form and produce an exact duplicate like in Who Goes There by John W. Campbell Jr.?

What if this person smiling pleasantly at you is just a synthetic construct made to duplicate human expression, like the characters in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, or as in Solaris by Stanislaw Lem?

Of course this is all in fun, just fodder for popular pulp fiction. And yet, if we were being infiltrated by an alien life form such as suggested in these various works of fiction, how would we ever know, until it’s too late? Eventually we would be them. Look around you; perhaps you are the only one in the room that is still human. Maybe you should read the books that I mentioned. While you still have time.
Posted by Mark Paprocki

Monday, October 19, 2009

Look at the Birdie by Vonnegut is out Today!!

I remember the first book I read of Kurt Vonnegut, it was Sirens of Titan. I was 16 and mainly reading fantasy books at the time. Reading that book was the beginning of the end for me. I blew through most of Vonnegut's library of books in a summer.

I believe that was around the time when Bagombo Snuff Box came out, and a fellow bookseller at the time, John, bought the book on the same day I did. The next time I worked with him I was done with it, John was not. He was savoring the stories and the books, in fact he had not read the previous book at all. Now, years later, I understand exactly why he did what he did, though I still have not learned from it. Armageddon in Retrospect was fantastic, but I read that one too quickly. I should have savored them as well, but there is something in Vonnegut's style that propels the reader onward.

I have done it once again with Look at the Birdie, which is out today. Now, I am not one these blind fans that will tell you that every story in this book is a gem. No, most of them are not on the same level as the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House, but they are pure Vonnegut genius nonetheless. A lot of these stories were written a long time ago, almost all of them before he became the famous Kurt Vonnegut. They are marvelous in the way they hint at how Vonnegut's style was emerging to the stories of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle. My favorite story, if such a thing were possible, would be Ed Luby's Key Clubs. Where a misunderstanding leads a couple, who are out for a romantic evening, on the run from the law. In Nice Little People, the main character gets advice from aliens to help him deal with his personal problems, and not for the better.

If you read and liked Armageddon in Retrospect, you will like Look at the Birdie. It is not the same type of short fiction, but it is all Vonnegut and it is simply fantastic. It is also full of Vonnegut's own drawings that litter the book and complement the stories. It is on Boswell's Best for the month at $20.80."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Logicomix: A (really) new way of looking at logic

Fred and Ginger, peanut butter and jelly...mathematics and graphic novels? Okay, so it doesn't sound like a natural pairing, but Logicomix, an illustrated guide to the life and work of Bertrand Russell by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, works well. It is part biography and part philosophy road-trip. The authors take some extremely dense ideas and use the format of the graphic novel to present them in a way that grabs your attention without oversimplifying the topic. They use the character of the mathematician and logician Bertrand Russell as a frame for exploring the evolution of mathematical theory in the first half of the 20th century, a period when the philosopy of mathematics was undergoing some radical transformations. The complication of the growing power of Hitler's Reich adds yet another componant to the story, as our academic characters learn to confront the political reality of Europe as they work.

Bertrand Russell, who wrote the Principia Mathematica and who influenced Wittgenstein's later work in the field, is a perfect character for readers to get introduced to the complexites of the ideas in the book. The authors (who are also characters in the book) start out simply enough -- they show us a young "Bertie" Russell, the orphaned boy. Ruled by a domineering grandmother who uses faith as a bludgeon to keep the boy in line, Russell spends much of his early life looking for some kind of certainty in his lonely life. The precision of mathematics and logic seem to provide this certainty, although Russell is soon plagued by gaps in what is known about the field. The reader follows the maturing Russell as he collaborates (and occasionally confronts) the best minds in Europe on issues like set theory, infinity, and the limits of logic. At the same time, we see parts of Russell's life, and watch as he slowly realizes that logic cannot solve his own problems or those of a world that is hurtling toward another war.

The story covers decades on Russell's life, and introduces a host of characters. This is where the graphic novel format really shines -- despite the density of the subject, the format of the book keeps you engaged (and the handy appendix in the back keeps you from forgetting who's who). This book is great for anyone who's interested in the history of math, the life of Russell, or who just wants something different. Logicomix is a nonfiction tale that is like nothing else out there.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fall Fiction for Kids

There is a barrage of new children's fiction this fall, but a few really stood out from the rest. Let's go from youngest to oldest, shall we?

Lois Lowry (who normally writes for older readers) has new picture book, Crow Call, which is quietly dazzling.

The watercolor art, by illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline, shows the soft autumn landscape of rural Pennsylvania and the small-town life of the 1940s. It is the perfect backround for a complex story of a young girl who must become reacquainted with her father, just returned from the war in Europe. Simple events -- a walk through the woods, eating cherry pie -- highlight the family's efforts to return to "normal" even after the difficulties of the past years. This is definitely a book to read together, because the themes and language will be challenging for young readers. But it is worth the effort!

If all that sounds too serious, go with Wag!, by Patrick McDonnell. You'll recognize the style from the creator of the comic strip MUTTS, with Mooch, Earl, and Jules making an appearance. They're all trying to figure out just what makes Earl's tail wag so much. The answer, it turns out, is simple -- LOVE. The fun illustrations and sweet antics of the dog and his friends make for a charming story.

For older readers, we have great new books just in time for Halloween. I loved The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children (Keith McGowan), a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. McGowan's update is both dark and unapologetically clever. Sol and Connie, children with less-than-parental parental figures, find themselves in danger of becoming the next meal of the neighborhood witch. Only their wits will save them! Intermediate readers will love the fast-paced, slightly scary plot.

Don't have time for a whole book? How about 30 seconds? Half-Minute Horrors, a collection of nearly one hundred supershort tales by well-known authors, will get even reluctant readers going. The contributors know their horror: Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, R.L. Stine, and Lemony Snicket are among the writers.

Vampires are taking over the teen section, but not all of them glitter. Catherine Jinks gives a fun twist on the teen vampire trope with The Reformed Vampire Support Group. Join Nina, reluctant vampire and eternal highschooler, as she tries to figure out who might be behind the mysterious "ashings" of her fellow reformed vampires. Witty dialogue, along with a decidedly unromantic view of vampirism, makes this a fun read for young adults who need a reprieve from certain other series full of moping, sighing vamps.