Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

Friday, February 15, 2019

Let's Celebrate Valentine's Day


Rating: WORTHY!

A day late, for which I apologize, but this apparently authorless book is full of interesting things for kids to make and do on Valentine's Day. It's full of of greetings and best wishes you can exchange with friends, parents, grandparents on this day, as well as hosting a few puzzles which curiously have nothing to do with Valentine's Day!

Of course you should express your love for your loved one(s) every day in one way or another, but there's nothing wrong with having a special day dedicated to it. I commend this book as a fun read for children who might wonder about this day and what to do on it!


A Kid's Guide to Global Warming by Glen Murphy


Rating: WORTHY!

This large format, illustrated-book is full of facts and observations about climate change - and no, contrary to the clueless comments of an appallingly and willfully ignorant president, it didn't get renamed because global warming is a lie. Global warming and climate extremes are all part of climate change and anyone who cannot see that is blind, period. People need to be educated, especially our children and grandchildren who are the ones who are unfortunately going to have to live with the worst of what we have done to this planet. This book is a good start.

There are four sections: What is global warming?; What does it mean for us?; What are we doing?; and What can you do? The book goes into some detail, with great illustrations, about the fact that the planet's atmosphere and oceans are heating up, about fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses, about melting ice and rising sea levels, spreading disease vectors, extreme weather and pollution, all of which we're already seeing. The book also talks about carbon footprints, saving energy and water, and reducing waste. In short it has everything a kid needs to know to arm themselves against what's coming, and I commend it as a worthy and essential read.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer by Emily Arnold McCully


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I really enjoyed this short biography of Ada Lovelace, a near contemporary of Jane Austen, who is commonly described as the world's first computer programmer. It goes into sufficient detail to give you a good picture of her life, but not so much that it gets bogged down. There are images of some of the main characters involved in her life to provide a visual, and the text is a swift and informative read.

Lovelace was beset by a matching pair of bad parents in that one was way too loose and the other way too strict - to puritanical levels. She never knew her father in any meaningful sense because she never really met him. Her mother took her from him at a very early age, got custody - which was unusual for a mother back then, and she never let Ada know who her father was until after he had died, by which time Ada had sort of figured it out for herself. That said her mother was very liberal in terms of getting her daughter an education, which was extremely unusual back then.

Ada had some flighty impulses, but constantly either had them reined in or reined them in of her own accord. She was an avid scholar of many disciplines and excelled at math, which brought her into Babbage's sphere when she became interested in his difference engine at the tender age of seventeen. The rest is quite literally history. Ada died quite young. I commend this story as a very worthy read about a strong female character who happens to have been real, not fictional!


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Unbelievable by Katy Tur


Rating: WARTY!

"Unbelievable" was a great title for this book because I could not believe how self-obsessed the author was. It was ostensibly about Trump's 2016 campaign for the White House, but the author (who read this audiobook herself, to her credit) was reporting more about herself than ever she was about Trump. I listened to about 20% of it before I lost patience with her.

She was one of, if not the, first to interview Trump before he ever became a serious candidate in the eyes of the media, and from that point on he took a dislike to her and would occasionally mention her name during his campaign speeches, knowing she would be there in the crowd somewhere, covering him. She felt at risk for her safety on at least one occasion after he'd called her out, and for no good reason other than that he carries a grudge to childish levels and doesn't care who he puts at risk in doing so.

So she pointed out a few of his inconsistencies and some of his dishonesty, double-speak, and disgraceful behavior, but because she made this account personal in a way that in some ways mirrored Trump's absurd habit of making it personal, we never got the objective and devastating coverage of his campaign of misinformation and disinformation that we would have, had more a more disinterested reporter written this. Like I said, I lost patience with her style of coverage, and I cannot commend this as a worthy read.


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Super Scientists by Anne Blanchard


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a very confusing book because Net Galley has it listed as "by Anne Blanchard," as does the cover (with illustrations by "Tito") but the book itself internally lists it as "by Hervé Guilleminot & Jérôme Masi." Those latter two have written at least one book in this series, and I wonder if their names somehow got in there by mistake? It's very confused and one of many problems I ran into.

This initially seemed to me to be a neat and useful book giving brief details about well-known (at least to me!) and some lesser-known scientists, but the more I read of it, the less enamored I became. I was pleased by the inclusion of several female scientists, less pleased by the lack of scientists of color. I think that the problem is that the book focuses more on scientists of yesteryear, and less on more modern scientists. Carl Sagan is excluded, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is included, and I got the impression this was done solely to include a lone African-American scientist in the list (Brahmagupta is included and is a person of color, note, but he's Indian).

There were also multiple problems of errors in spellings or grammar in the text on the pages covering Darwin, Mendeleev,
Hawking, Tyson, and some others. On the Tyson page, for example, the text mentions gravity, but that refers to a movie title, so it should have an initial capital: Gravity. Strictly speaking, Einstein did not invent E=mc2, BTW, nor did he discover it. In fact he never used it in any of the papers which made him famous! He only made the formula famous by association.

To my knowledge it was first used by JJ Thomson around 1881, when he derived it inaccurately as E = 4/3mc2. Olinto De Pretto, an Italian, also derived it independently and equally inaccurately, but used 'v' instead of 'c' for the speed of light. It was used (although again with an error in it) by Friedrich Hasenöhrl before Einstein, and these people derived their work from earlier discoveries by such as Max Abraham, Oliver Heaviside, and Henri Poincaré.

There are confusing errors too, such as having Thales be the first to determine that the Moon merely reflected the sun's light, and then five or so pages later, having a different scientist, Zhang Heng, be credited with this primacy. This book definitely needs a serious effort at editing and correction. Some of the wording, such as that on Darwin's page is nonsensical. This may be because of translation errors or may be just sloppiness. Either way there is no excuse for it.

It brings together a brief assessment of the progress of science and the scientists who enabled it over the years:

  1. Thales
  2. Pythagoras
  3. Aristotle
  4. Euclid
  5. Archimedes
  6. Zhang Heng
  7. Hypatia
  8. Brahmagupta
  9. Avicenna
  10. Alhayzen
  11. Roger Bacon
  12. Nicolas Copernicus
  13. Galileo Galilei
  14. Johannes Kepler
  15. Isaac Newton
  16. William Harvey
  17. Rene Descartes
  18. Antoine Lavoisier
  19. Mary Anning
  20. Michael Faraday
  21. James Clerk Maxwell
  22. Charles Darwin
  23. Gregor Mendel
  24. Louis Pasteur
  25. Dmitri Mendeleev
  26. Ada Lovelace
  27. David Hilbert
  28. Marie Curie
  29. Ernest Rutherford
  30. Albert Einstein
  31. Neils Bohr
  32. Alfred Wegener
  33. Alan Turing
  34. Rosalind Franklin
  35. Vera Rubin
  36. Franchise Barre-sinuossi
  37. Tim Berners-Lee
  38. Stephen Hawking
  39. Neil deGrasse Tyson

I confess I am not sure what order the list is in exactly! Yes, it's chronological, but Tim Berners-Lee, who codified the World Wide Web, was born over decade after theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, yet he precedes him in the text, so maybe some chronology other than birth order is employed. That's a minor issue. You will notice that there is only 39 names in the list. This is because the fortieth is, inexplicably, the human genome project!<\p>

The single name most closely associated with that is Craig Venter, but evidently because he was running a private genome scan in competition with the public one, he gets no credit here. There are a lot of scientists who do not, including many of color who have made major contributions to science. Women are represented, but could be more so. Emmy Noether gets a mention, but not a page to herself, and Lise Meitner gets no mention at all, for example.

While as of this writing, no black scientist has won a Nobel prize (although many people of color have won one for endeavors outside of science) there are women and people of color who could have been mentioned for their contributions such as Samia Al-Amoudi, Alice Ball, Benjamin Banneker, Satyendra Nath Bose, George Washington Carver, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Charles Drew, Joycelyn Elders, Ernest Everett, Sunetra Gupta, Indira Hinduja, Manahel Thabet, and so on.

I think this book could have done a lot better in its selection, and it certainly could have been a lot better edited. Given it is what it is, I cannot commend it as a worthy read.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Men Who Would be King by Nicole LaPorte


Rating: WORTHY!

Playing on the title The Man Who Would Be King which was published by Rudyard Kipling in 1888 and made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine in 1975, this audiobook was curiously read by Stephen Hoye. I say curiously because it was written by a woman, so why did the audiobook company choose a man to read it?

Nicole LaPorte is a former reporter for Variety who is well familiar with Hollywood, and if she didn't want to read it, or wasn't able, could they not have found another woman to read this? What, did Tantor Audio buy into the Hollywood paradigm where women and minorities can't carry it, so white men (in this case Stephen Hoye) must be called upon? Well guess what? His reading sucked. It was annoying, and the only reason I stayed with this book (I skipped very little of it, surprisingly!) was because of LaPorte's largely engaging writing.

The book tells the inside story (as reported by insiders to the author) of the 'SKG' of the movie studio Dreamworks SKG. These people are legendary in their own spheres, and the S: Steven Spielberg, is widely known outside of them. Jeffrey Katzenberg is known best as the magician who shepherded several highly-successful Disney animations to success, including The Lion King which I personally thought was laughable, but which was a huge success at the box office.

David Geffen made himself a billionaire in the music industry. The book is mainly about Katzenberg who, fired from Disney and with a grudge over his not-so-golden parachute (and yes, there was a lawsuit - which he won), wanted his own studio. He pulled onboard Spielberg and Geffen, and with backing from ex-Microsoft founder, billionaire Paul Allen, the company launched with great fanfare, proud claims, extravagant promises, and much cash on hand, and began to fritter it away as fast as it could.

DreamWorks was the launch-pad for movies such as "American Beauty," "Saving Private Ryan,", and "Shrek," and began life very boldly, but eventually through mismanagement resulting in an inability to get successful movies out the door in volume, kept on tripping and stumbling. The company slowly crumbled from its lofty perch into broken pieces, with the remainder of it eventually being sold to Paramount, which didn't really want it either in the end, and who themselves sold it off.

The thing which came across most powerfully to me in listening to this was how greedy and arrogant these three men are. Too much is never enough. Spielberg was earning hundreds of millions from the deals he made to direct movies such as Jurassic Park. In that particular case, he agreed to no money up front, but to take fifteen percent of the first dollar - and no, that's not just the fifteen cents! The first dollar is everything the movie earns up front before anyone else gets their hands on it, and Spielberg got fifteen cents from each and every one of those dollars: $300 million in all.

The thing is that we've heard of the successes of these legends, but no one dwells on their many failures, and there were lots of them at Dreamworks, This book does not shy away from that. From Katzenberg's inability to turn out a successful animation until the internally overlooked and neglected Shrek finally came to the screen - and took off big time. Spielberg's failures with multiple movies while having only a few successes, and his penchant for directing movies for any studio except Dreamworks are also examined.

I kind of liked Spielberg before I listened to this book. Now I don't. I had no feeling either way for the other two, but now consider them to be people I would not like if I met them (which is highly unlikely I am happy to report!). Katzenberg seems to come out of these tales with the least tarnish, although his finicky and meddling ways must have been annoying to anyone who worked under him, and while he did have flashes of brilliance in dictating how a movie should look and feel, his successes came few and far between several embarrassing disasters.

Overall I consider this book to be very informative, and full of trade information. It's especially useful if you're looking to get a feel for Hollywood with a view to maybe, somewhere down the line, writing a novel about it! I commend it for interesting and informative reporting.


Monday, January 28, 2019

Through, Not Around by various authors


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Potential erratum:
"the abdomen twinges, back acne" - not sure if that really should be acne, or back ache. Maybe it’s acne, but I just thought I’d mention it! If it had been worded 'acne on your back' it would have been more clear!
“hormoneinduced” is two words, but Amazon's crappy Kindle conversion process once again screwed up this book every chance it got, introducing random new line insertions, running lines together when they should have been separate, and so on, Once again I recommend avoiding Amazon at all costs. Publish your book somewhere where they have w system that doe into mangle text, or output it as a PDF file.

Subtitled "Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss" this book, edited by Allison McDonald Ace, Caroline Starr, and Ariel Ng Bourbonnais, was a depressing but very informative read. It's probably the hardest book I've ever had to read and I had to read it. No one can know what it feels like to go through what these women (and their partners) have gone through unless you yourself have experienced it, but reading this certainly clues in the clueless to what a devastating and life-consuming 'affliction' this can be, especially if, as is the case in some of these stories, the excruciating efforts do not lead to any sort of success.

I requested this because I did want to understand even if the reading was painful, and at some points felt rather repetitive and even tedious to read because a lot of the stories here tell, in many ways, the same story - the lack of ability to reproduce and the heroic efforts made to overcome it. It’s hard to imagine how that can feel when we so often see a purposefully scary headline telling trumpeting what the teen pregnancy rate is; conversely, we never read of how someone never got pregnant. It’s like another world in some ways, and the pain and feelings of failure and inadequacy which pervade so many stories is hard to read, but I think necessary. That's not the only problem either. When a pregnancy does not go to term, it leaves a woman still pregnant in many regards as biochemistry continues to play havoc with a body that is no longer host to a new life.

As mentioned, there were many similarities between these stories: the inescapable sensation of loss, the feeling of never knowing what it's like to carry a child inside your womb, or worse, to carry one only to lose it prematurely, the cold indifference of far too many medical so-called professionals who see a woman on these straits as merely another client on a long line of faceless patients they pass through their charge. They too often deal with impatience, rather than a person who is hurting, upset, feeling depressed or feeling like she is failing her biological imperative, despite a quiet desperation to succeed.

But there is also a lot of variety, because not every person is the same, not every case of infertility has the same roots, and the stories were not just about infertility, but about devastating and multiple miscarriages, and fruitless if strenuous effort. I cannot imagine how that must feel but I know from reading this that it's not something anyone should ever have to feel. One of the hardest things tor had was how many of these prospective parents resorted to bullshit non-medicine - naturopaths, acupuncture, burning moxi sticks (I never knew what that was until I read this!).

Even going the competent medical route costs a fortune when it comes to fertility treatments. One infertility procedure mentioned in this book had cost upwards of $12,000. This is on top of all the mental anguish that couples seeking to have a child which nature would deny them must suffer. The asshats who purvey snake oil to people who are vulnerable need to be run out of town on a rail. I get the medical science doesn't know everything, and cannot guarantee results, but it has a far more solid track record than woo medicine, which has none at all. Quacks who offer alternative "medicine" are no more or less than child predators, period.

There was one scene in the Marvel superhero movie "Age of Ultron" featuring the character known as Black Widow which was quite controversial at the time. During a regrouping of the heroes after a setback, there was a moment between Black Widow in her Natasha Romanov guise, and Hulk in his Bruce Banner guise. Clearly Nat wants something more from their slowly developing relationship, but Bruce is so focused on the monster he becomes that he insists it cannot work. Nat then advises him: "In the Red Room, where I was trained, where I was raised, they have a graduation ceremony. They sterilize you. It’s efficient; one less thing to worry about; the one thing that might matter more than a mission. Makes everything easier, even killing. You still think you’re the only monster on the team?"

Clearly she's talking about pregnancy interfering with her mission objective, but as a woman with biological urges, she feels that loss in the same way someone who learns they are infertile or close to it, must feel it. The writer-director was chided severely by some people for writing this: for reducing, they claimed, Natasha to a reproductive unit and diminishing her in every other regard, but those people, who call themselves feminists, conveniently forget that it is a biological imperative for the majority of women, regardless of what profession they have. It is felt by some people not at all, by others overwhelmingly, and by all those in between to a greater or lesser extent particularly around the time she's ovulating. It is a part of who women are, and to deny that is clueless, even for a fictional bad-ass like Black Widow. Who are these people to dictate to another woman how she should feel?

Is she not allowed to experience natural compulsions, and to mourn the loss of them? I think it's her choice, just as it’s the choice of all these women who wrote here, to choose their own destiny - to have kids or not, to want kids or not, to have them with a permanent partner or not, to fight for their choice, and to choose to write about it if they want? It’s no one else's business, and it makes a woman no less a person, no less a career woman, no less an adventurer, no less a soldier, no less a firefighter, no less a school teacher, no less a librarian, no less a homemaker or whatever she has chosen to pursue - and no less a fictional assassin! - to have these feelings and to honestly acknowledge and address them. Black Widow did it in private to someone she trusted and loved, a circumstance which busybodies who loudly broadcast their judgment on her (and the writer director who had her say these things) tend to forget.

There were some errors of fact in this, but that's understandable. For example, at one point I read, “gluten-free oatmeal,” but oatmeal is naturally gluten free! Of course it can become contaminated by association if it’s produced in processing facility that also handles gluten-containing cereals, but personally I've never had an issue eating oatmeal. People more sensitive than I might do so, though. Perhaps that's what the author meant.

One thing that bothered me was that pretty much all of the prospective parents here seemed to have a lot of financial resources to keep pursuing their aim. It would have been nice to have read some stories about people who were not professionals - who were less well-off. it felt like an opportunity had been missed - and gave the book a slightly elitist aura. There is no doubt that the emotional stress is common across all income groups, but it has to be of some comfort to know your options are not limited by your bank balance.

Overall, though, I commend this as a very worthy read, and something which will no doubt be of high value to others who are enduring these are circumstances. I'm glad these writers chose not to keep their pain private, but to share it with me and every other reader, because I'm a better person for knowing these things - for having a better understanding of this whole situation - than ever I had before. I commend this book for telling the story in the words of the very people it most directly affected, and for putting together a collection that opens eyes and hearts.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba by Robin Brown-Lowe


Rating: WARTY!

I picked this up because I thought it might have something interesting to say about the very enigmatic Queen of Sheba, which might perhaps lead to an idea for a future novel, but no! It had almost nothing to say about her because almost nothing is known about her. Solomon gets short shrift. It's tempting to say that the main thrust of the book is as its title suggests - the lost city of Ophir, but I can't say that because there is no thrust, and the names of Solomon and Sheba were obviously just tossed into the title merely to draw potential readers' interest. Well, shame on me!

This endlessly rambling book does recount a lot of history, but it's disjointed and disconnected and sways back and forth between time periods without ever making its case. The main problem with it is that, in the same manner employed by those morons who write books about Earth being visited by aliens from outer space, it builds tissue-thin claims upon non-existent foundations, with the author, who is not an archeologist but a journalist, making huge speculative leaps based on the flimsiest of 'evidence'.

Thus we have him categorically setting Ophir in Zimbabwe, based on the Great Zimbabwe, a beautiful monument which racists have traditionally tried to deny was built by native Africans. The author seems to be doing the same thing. His chapter titles are sensationalist: To Ophir Direct, Ophir Revealed, Ophir Spinning, and closing with Ophir Writ Large (there are many other chapters) yet not once does he fulfill the promise of the title by laying down a solid case for The Great Zimbabwe being Ophir. Nor doe she explain

He defeats his own claims because while the book does contain some photographs, none of them support the text our the claims he makes in it. In fact, some refute his claims. One of these claims is that bird effigies were found at Zimbabwe which had a design around their neck like a necklace or perhaps, it occurs to me, a pattern or tattoo, yet though he shows several pictures of the birds, not one of them has any of the features he claims for them. This alone defeats he 'thesis'.

Of these birds, wikipedia says, "They are unique to Great Zimbabwe; nothing like them has been discovered elsewhere." - something which the author seeks to muddy at best, and never once does he mention that certain birds were sacred to the people, more than adequately explaining why they would want to sculpt images of them. So once again we see a native culture being denigrated by a white writer, as though no native African could ever have an advanced thought in their head, and none could create or build anything beautiful. I call bullshit on that.

So after plodding through most of the book vainly searching for his supporting evidence, and skimming other repetitive areas, I concluded the guy doesn't know what he's talking about. As wikipedia puts it, "The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe." And the site is dated as originating In the Iron Age, long after Solomon. The stone structures were built in the eleventh century. It was half millennium after that before any white person came anywhere near them. QED.

The author is not wrong in asserting that there is a genetic link between the male line of the peoples known as Mwenye, and people of ancient Jewish descent, but he fails to mention that they could also be of South Arabian descent too. This is dishonest, in reporting only the evidence that can be deemed to support his claims and withholding that which might defeat or dilute them. Just because a lineage has certain DNA doesn't make the author's case at all. DNA is so dissipated around the world these days that no one group is really isolated from another, and we're talking many hundreds of years ago. One trader passing on his DNA to a local woman all that time ago could easily lead to a tribe later in history, and there were no doubt many traders. This doesn't prove the author's thesis though, especially not with the lack of evidence he has.

I disrecommend this book.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert


Rating: WARTY!
<\p>
I believe in giving credit where credit is due, but aside from the focus on Sullivan rather than Keller - and lets face it, without Sullivan there would be no Keller as we know her today - there really is very little due here.

This graphic novel is aimed at grades six through eight, but while I am far from those grades, I was not happy with it. The artwork is indifferent and appears in tiny panels (a rigid and plodding sixteen per page) such that the image is not only tiny, but the text is also small. I had a hard time reading it and an almost impossible time reading the narration, which is in script. There were parts I skipped rather than strain my eyes trying to read it. If the format of the book had been larger this would not have been such a problem, but as it was, it was really irritating to me and overwhelmed the story.

While the book does convey the magnitude of the task which faced a visually-impaired 20-year-old Sullivan trying to teach a willful and spoiled seven-year-old who was impaired in ways much greater than Anne herself was, it fails to make the impact it should because it is so choppy. An early flashback itself dissolves into an earlier flashback and this back-flashing keeps happening as we move back and forth between the 'present' where Anne is teaching Helen, and the past, where Anne had her own trials to go through, which were tough enough. Anne Sullivan was a strong woman.

This story is about Anne as opposed to Helen, which most stories are written about, and such a story is important and needs to be told, but I don't think this book gets it done. The 'Annie' of the title was better known as Anne, although her birth name was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan to which she added a 'Macy' when she married later in life. Her initial interactions with Helen were nightmarish because Helen was so spoiled and had no discipline. Anne was not only fighting her charge, but also Helen's parents who did not understand the huge amount of work which needed to be done to liberate Helen from the prison of her impaired senses.

Much as I'd like to recommend a book like this, I cannot. I've read other books about Helen Keller and the one I commend so far is Helen Keller by Jane Sutcliffe. This might not be quite as appealing as a graphic novel to children in this age range, but it isn't something they could not handle, and I'd prefer it to this graphic novel. However, if this novel gets kids interested enough to read something on this topic that's more grown up and less picture-y, then all well and good, but I have doubts it will do that.


HP Lovecraft He Who Wrote in the Darkness by Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aon, Lara Lee


Rating: WARTY!

I'm always interested in reading about other writers if they have anything interesting to say but for me, this graphic novel about Lovecraft was a fail. He wrote over sixty stories - most of them short stories, during his short lifetime (he died at 46 from cancer), but this didn't really delve into many of them or even keep track of his writing them, which seemed very odd to me for a book about a writer.

It did highlight some of his quirks and made a passing mention of his racism, but it seemed more focused on his inabilities rather than his abilities - his inability to live with his wife (a curiosity for someone whose name is love craft!) and his inability to focus on writing stories while effortlessly penning thousands of long letters - than it ever did in discussing his work or even mentioning it.

That said it is a graphic novel, not a biography, so some things inevitably get left out. It just felt to me that writer Nikolavitch left out the wrong things, and the art by Gervasio, Aon, and Lee was average at best, so I cannot commend this as a worthy read.


Relentless by Wudasie Nayzgi, Kenneth James Howe


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Subtitled "An Immigrant Story," this book tells of how an Eritrean woman, writing under the pseudonym of Wudasie Nayzgi, single-handedly took on the challenge of bringing her family to the USA. The thing is that this isn't what her initial plan was. She had only wanted treatment for her daughter, 'Titi', who had a heart defect, and her mother had not the first inkling back then, that this would embark her entire family upon a journey that would, all told, take ten years and thousands of dollars to finally get her daughter treatment and knit her family back together again. I don't doubt though, that had she known this from the beginning, she would still have undertaken this journey. There is a companion book to this, Dreams of Freedom, written by her husband 'Yikealo', describing his own experiences during this time.

This is simultaneously a heart-breaking, nightmarish, horror-story and the ever-hopeful narration of an exceptional and strong woman who would not let anything get in the way of doing what needed to be done for the health and integrity of her family. I am not sure, I confess, why the author needed a co-author. By the time this book was written she was perfectly fluent in English, a language she already spoke before she ever had any idea of leaving Eritrea. But speaking English well is by no means a guarantee that the speaker can writer it engagingly.

The problem with that is that while I do commend this story as a worthy read, it was not written well despite having another author onboard. The use of English was perfectly fine, but the flow of the story was another matter. At times it was so vague that it was hard to tell what was going on. There seemed to be gaps where things happened without them being related, and so they became a surprise when I read of them later. For example, one of the problems she had to contend with was losing her job, then a lot of time passed with no mention of her working, and suddenly she apparently has another job, but I don't recall ever reading how, where or when she got it. It felt like part of the story was missing. On that topic, note that the cover picture is not the author - its a misleading stock photo and probably not even an Eritrean.

There were large gaps in the narration when an amount of time, often quite large, passes within the space of a few words, which makes it hard to keep track of how much time is passing in the story overall, so although it took ten years to get this accomplished, the narration makes it seem like it was much shorter. On top of this, there is a lot of detail about life in Eritrea, but much of it seems superficial, while other things that appear to be customary in Eritrea aren't mentioned, leaving questions. I'd like to have learned more and in greater depth.

A lot of the story is about 'Wudasie's' worrying over what was going to happen, and it occupied so much of the story. While this is in a way understandable, it is also something that anyone who has had such problems, even if they were nowhere near as critical as 'Wudasie's' were, can readily understand. It's something with which we are familiar, and became a little tedious to read repeatedly. Life in Eritrea, on the other hand, is something that was worth learning about, and it's something which few people - including most everyone who hasn't lived there, can grasp. It would have been nice to see more of the latter, and a little less of the former.

One thing which was confusing was the names. I understand there may be a need or at least a desire to protect family, but it was unnecessarily confusing. The youngest of her two daughters was named 'Natsanet', but when in an afterword we see her graduate from high school, her name is given as 'Natsanet Yikealo', not 'Natsanet Nayzgi'.

Her husband's name is consistently given as 'Yikealo', so I had assumed this was his first name; then why is their daughter named so? The companion book is attributed to Yikealo Neab. That latter name is never mentioned in the book except as the author of the companion novel, so why isn't the daughter named 'Natsanet Neab'? Is 'Yikealo' a last name? if so why does she call her husband by his last name all he time and why isn't the author named 'Wudasie Neab'?

If 'Wudasie' is married why is her last name different from both her daughter's and her husband's? I later learned the these are pseudonyms, presumably aimed at protecting the privacy of the the author and her family, which is perfectly fine, but it lacked consistency. If the explanation for all of this is through some sort of Eritrean custom, it would have been interesting to hear of that, but as it was, it looked like this was really sloppy writing, and it leeches credibility from the story.

It just felt strange that something like that had never been gone into, especially given how much talk there is about filling out forms and verifying marital status and listing children and so on. You'd think at some point during that, this would have come up, but I don't recall it ever being addressed. You'd think a co-author would have asked these questions and offered explanations, which is why it begs the question as to why a co-author was used here. Maybe others will not be concerned at all over things like this, but for me, when I read about another country in a book like this, I really like to really learn about that country as part of the author's experience, otherwise why bother reading a story like this?

Anyway, 'Wudasie' was planning on getting treatment for her daughter's condition in Ethiopia since her own country, Eritrea, did not have the medical facilities to accomplish what needed to be done. The problem was that Eritrea had claimed its independence from Ethiopa only a few years previously, and not every abrasive surface had been sanded smooth between the two nations, both of which had seemed to become more radicalized and authoritarian since the breakup. The situation deteriorated when a new war broke out between the two nations, and deteriorated further still when her husband was forcibly-conscripted into the Eritrean army during a business trip he was making.

'Wudasie' didn't see him for six months until his basic training was over and wasn't even officially notified what had happened to him. She had to dog for that information herself. He was luckily re-assigned to a military base in the town where they both lived. All this time she was fighting to get her daughter's condition treated, and failing or being stone-walled every step of the way, through no fault of her own. The thing is that Eritrea is an oppressive, authoritarian government - or it was back then - and seemed completely indifferent to the suffering of its citizens, even if they were children. This book will really put your own problems into perspective: every step of the way it was like two steps forward and one step back for this mom.

Your daughter can be treated by visiting surgeons from abroad - but they find other children that have crowded into the waiting room for treatment to be more needy than your daughter. You can get her treated in the USA, but doctors there discover she has three conditions, not one, and are willing at her age to treat only two. You can leave the country to take your daughter to the USA for treatment, but you must leave your other daughter behind in Eritrea. You can bring your other daughter to the USA, but you cannot also bring your husband, even though travel regulations require an adult to accompany a child so young. Your daughter finally arrives in the US, but looks painfully thin and it has been so long since you saw her that she is unbearably shy around you, and stand-offish, treating you like you're a stranger, not like a mother. You can bring your husband over, but it's going to cost and take a year to do it.

Every single step involved the massive weight of indifference, bureaucracy, and the need to supply little (or a lot) of cash - to grease the wheels, some of which disappeared without bringing a thing in return. Everything involved almost interminably long waits which were often followed by setbacks because some more paperwork was needed, and the wait for that paperwork meant a deadline was missed on some other process, which then needed to be restarted as well. This wasn't just on the Eritrean side, but also on the American side.

It was depressing to read how often she fell back on her faith, which didn't do a thing for her. No god helped 'Wudasie', yet she often ascribed 'miracles' to the work of a god, denying herself credit for what was solely her own tireless and unstinting efforts. The fact is that everything she did was through her own strength, grit, determination, and a flat refusal to let anything stand in her way of getting treatment for her daughter and reuniting her family. The author, it would seem, despite appeals to her god, would agree with me. She wrote:

No one is going to hand you what you think you deserve just because you won the right. You have to go get it if you can. You have to grasp it and hold onto it, and then wield it like a sword. And you can't let it go if someone tries to wrestle it away from you.”

A miracle would have been if her family had gone to bed the night after her daughter's initial diagnosis, and awoken the next morning in the USA, as full citizens, with her daughter cured. That's what a miracle is. Fighting tooth and nail for ten years, suffering endless delays and setbacks, and spending a fortune on corrupt officials isn't a miracle. Nothing happened that she did not go out there and wrestle into submission with her own two hands, and make happen for herself. She is heroic, and everyone who thinks their own petty problems are insurmountable needs to read this book and find out what real problems are like.

She is immensely lucky too, to have gone through this before the current president got into the White House on the coat-tails of Russian hackers. Had she tried all this now, she would never have left her (and I quote that same president) "shithole [African] country" and been accepted here. She would have been written-off as a rapist and a drug smuggler, faced a flat denial that these children were really hers, been accused of being an actress purveying fake news, and she and her family deported back to the nightmare she left behind her, assuming her kids didn't die in the custody of the ICE, that is. That's where huddled masses are re-directed these days from one of the most wealthy, best-off, and most pampered countries on the planet.

Despite these problems, I commend this book. I think it should be required reading.


Friday, January 11, 2019

An American Plague by Jim Murphy


Rating: WORTHY!

The attribution of this audiobook is rather misleading in more than one way. Jim Murphy was really the editor, not the writer. I had initially thought that this would be a dramatization, but it was the dry reading (very dry and pedantic delivery by reader Pat Bottino) of a bunch of diary and journal entries, medical reports and newspaper articles (such as they were back then) about the epidemic of Yellow Fever that laid Philadelphia low in 1793. These were strung together with some narrative from the author.

The book was listed in the local library among the children's books, but I cannot imagine for a minute that very many children, especially not younger children, would find this remotely entertaining, or even educational because they wouldn't sit through it, or they would tune it out.

For me it gave me two different ideas which I can use in future novels, and it was interesting. It's a very graphic story which pulls no punches in describing bodily emissions under duress from this nasty disease caused by a virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Today we can vaccinate against this, and treat it for those who become infected, but with climate change already rampaging across the globe, this is one of many thoroughly noxious diseases that will doubtlessly spread.

Back in 1793, when Pennsylvania had an appreciable amount of skeeter-breeding swamp, and when the disease process wasn't remotely understood, this thing got out of control and eventually killed one in ten of the original population of the city. That's nowhere near the death toll exacted by the 'Great Plague' of medieval Europe, nor is it even a match for the same plague which struck the USA in 2015 killing one in four victims, although the death toll there was considerably smaller despite the higher rate.

Why Murphy chose to title this 'An American Plague', as though it affects no one else is a mystery smacking of self-importance and pretension. Not everything is about the USA! This book isn't even about the USA as such, it's about one city; although Philly was the seat of government, and relations between it and other cities are mentioned towards the end, including some shameful as well as generous conduct.

In 1793, Washington was president and the government was located in Philly, but heroic George wasted little time vacating the city. He fled so hastily that he left behind essential papers which would have enabled him to do his job. He wasn't so heroic either, when a foreign envoy arrived soliciting his help in siding with France, which had been instrumental in aiding the fledgling USA against Britain. He cold-shouldered the very people who had facilitated the very existence of the USA! He tried to blame this on not having his paperwork with him.

The contribution of African-Americans at least gets its fair due here, which is nice to see. Black nurses were of critical value in a disease-ridden city where everyone was panicking, those who could afford to were leaving in droves. Very few dared come near to others in this highly-religious society for fear of 'contracting' this disease. Germ theory wasn't even a remote twinkle in anyone's eye, and the so-called doctors of the period were obsessed with blood-letting and poisonous purges which did nothing to save lives despite dishonest claims to the contrary. More than likely such dire stratagems actually hastened many a shuffle off this mortal coil. (How is earth a coil? Anyone know? LOL!).

Given that they had some immunity to malaria, it was considered that slaves and free people of color would also be immune to Yellow Fever, but they were not. They died at the same rate as whites, but nonetheless they willingly acted as nurses. So popular were they that people tried to outbid each other for their assistance, and then these same assistants were maliciously accused of callous price-gouging by jackass racists.

It was interesting to read of the problems that people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams encountered in trying to attend to their duties. Government was moved (illegally as it happened!) to Germantown ten miles away and Jefferson could not get a decent room. The other two were forced to sleep on benches in a common area. Of course this was before any of them had become president, although they were each men of high importance even then. Another interesting aside was that Dolley would never have become first lady had not the Yellow Fever taken away her first husband, freeing her to marry James Madison later. The plague made a difference to a lot of things and in ways you might not consider at first blush.

As I said, I have grave doubts about both the suitability and utility of this for children, but I consider it a worthy read.


Friday, January 4, 2019

The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled 'How the Bicycle Shaped American Life', this book made for an informative and at times fascinating read and even gave me an idea for a novel - you never know where your next inspiration will come from!

It details the growth, retrenchment and regrowth of the bicycle (and it went through that...cycle...several times) from the earliest bike to modern times, discussing how it impacted not only the obvious - roads - but also other things, such as women's independence and military activities. It tells some great stories and makes for an engrossing book, and I commend it as a worthy read.


Monday, December 31, 2018

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls by various authors


Rating: WARTY!

I picked this up knowing it wasn't a graphic novel (although there is some graphic content), but hoping it might tell interesting stories of how various female graphic novel artists and writers got into the business, but it wasn't that at all. It was a rambling collection of disparate autobiographical (after a fashion) stories, only some of which were what I'd hoped for. The rest was a mashup of topics, few of which were of interest to me, and some of which were downright boring, so I gave up on this DNF. To different audience, obviously this will have different meaning, so you can take your chance with it if you wish, but for me, I cannot commend it as a worthy read!


The New Color Mixing Companion by Josie Lewis


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a useful book for artists, going into some interesting and practical detail about color mixing, gradation, shading and tinting. It's patently evident that the author has put in some serious work here. It covers collage, mixed media, and pure paint, and works through examples you can follow practically, exploring various aspects of color mixing as you go.

The book includes a glossary of terms and goes above and beyond color wheels and simple paint-matching and contrasting into a more advanced appreciation of just what color can do and how it can impact the eye. It offers inexpensive solutions and provides a series of printed templates for the practical experimentation and emulation of the examples the author sets. Obviously it's intended as a print book, and presumably using photocopies of these images rather than paint directly in the book(!), but it would be no problem to take a screen-shot of the images in your ebook version, bring them into a computer so they can be printed out to work with them that way.

I found this to be a comprehensive, detailed, and eminently useful contribution to painting, and I commend it as a worthy read.


Creative Coding in Python by Sheena Vaidyanathan


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
On page 57, the second text box has 'reminder' instead of 'remainder'.

Sheena Vaidyanathan, a computer science teacher in California, is a respected name in programming education, and this was a fun and easy-to-follow book that introduces anyone to the Python programming language. Python - named after Monty Python - was created by Dutch programmer Guido van Rossum in 1991 and version 3.0 was released in December 2008. It was designed to be sensible, simple in concept although powerful in execution, and very easy to read and understand.

Although I'm not a professional programmer by any means, I have a long programming experience in a variety of languages, so please keep that in mind when I talk about how simple and straight-forward this is! Your mileage may differ, especially if you have no experience, but that won't make any difference to your ability to learn this language if you're willing to apply yourself. As the author explains, the language and the development environment are free, so there is no outlay. It won't cost you a thing to play with it for a couple of weeks and see if you take to it - except for the time you spend on it of course. It's inspired me to try it out even though my main focus and the bulk of my free time these days is devoted to writing fiction.

This book explains simple concepts to begin with, to get you up and running, and expands on these until you're producing much more complex programs without feeling like it's been a pile of hard work to get there. It includes over thirty Projects in art, games, math, and other endeavors, but it doesn't simply tell you to do this and get that result, it opens up creative options whereby you can change the code to achieve new objectives. You can build a chatbot! The book references the first convincing chatbot, ELIZA, named after Eliza Doolittle of Pygmalion (and the better-known My Fair Lady) and created by at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum, and which I remember tinkering with when I first started learning basic.

One of the benefits of Python is that it can import modules that expand the range of things it can do, so by importing what's known as the Turtle module, you can get it to create some amazing geometric designs and change those designs just be tweaking the code that you write. That's one of the nicest things about this book. In process of teaching, the book enables you to both learn the concepts and take advantage of them, and in tinkering with them, learn them more thoroughly. In the section on using Boolean logic (named after George Boole, a self-taught English mathematician who nevertheless became a professor of mathematics, and who wrote a book The Laws of Thought, which prepared the ground, a century later, for the information age. Here you can use his discoveries to create an adventure game! The book also covers arcade style games.

This is a fun, useful and educational book which will, in easy ways, introduce children and other novices to computer programming. I think it was wonderful; it teaches an important skill and sets up the mind for critical thinking, I commend it highly.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Becoming Unbecoming by Una


Rating: WORTHY!

Most people outside of Britain have never heard of the Yorkshire Ripper aka Peter Sutcliffe, who attacked women over the decade from 1969 to 1980. He was stopped only when arrested for using false license plates on his car. The entire inquiry was a farce of incompetent British policing. Sutcliffe had been interviewed some nine times during the lengthy inquiry and not once actually suspected of being the perp. Even after his arrest, he was able to slip away from police and hide incriminating evidence under pretence of having to take a leak!

The fact that many of his victims were prostitutes meant that police did not give this murderer the attention required to catch him. This is all disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as the fact that he somehow got to be that way in the first place. Unfortunately, that critical factor is not explored in this story - not for him, nor for the perps who assaulted the author.

This autobiographic novel is set in 1977 after Sutcliffe had assaulted several women and murdered at least two, and yet was still several years away from being caught. The author was twelve and became herself the victim of assaults. Though fortunately not fatal, they nevertheless left an indelible mark. These parallel stories build slowly, and sometimes the reading was frankly boring. Other times it was highly disturbing in a way that complacent people need to be disturbed if this continuing abuse of women is to be stopped, so this is an uncomfortable read, as it ought to be, but one that also ought to be required reading. I commend it.


We Build Our Homes by Laura Knowles, Chris Madden


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a fun and educational story about animals that build. Be it homes or a means to attract a mate, they do a workmanlike and wonderful job, and they live all over the world.

In a series of colorful and beautifully-done illustrations by Chris Madden, and with some rather poetic prose from Laura Knowles, the story is told from the animal's perspective and describes (from the blurb): "mammals, birds, and insects [which] can be found building incredible things. From biggest beaver dams to tinniest caddisfly cases...." There are the exotic, such as ovenbirds, which build adobe huts on tree branches, and the amazing Darwin's bark spiders, which build gigantic webs, to the more mundane, such as moles, to the highly endangered by human stupidity and lethargy: polar bears, who can build a toasty home out of icy snow in bitterly cold weather, and then starve themselves for five months while their cubs almost literally suck them dry!

The book doesn't focus solely on fluffy mammals like too many children's books do, but covers some insects, reptiles, as well as birds, and features some more grown-up details in the back for interested adults - and every adult should be interested in what we're doing to our home even as these animals struggle to continue to build their own. Every kid needs to be raised with a deep appreciation for nature and for the damage humans can do when we think only of ourselves and not of our home - Planet Earth, Anything which can bring kids a keener awareness of nature, and how it works, and how delicate some of it is, is to be welcomed, and I commend this for being an important part of that education.


Colorways: Watercolor Flowers by Bley Hack


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I've been posting several reviews on various art forms, and here's another to add to the collection, which will doubtlessly be my last art book review this year. This one, part of a 'Colorways' art series, focuses on the delicate art of watercolor flowers and how to achieve various looks and effects with this ethereal medium.

The author offers hints and tips from her own personal experience, including useful techniques such as wet-into-wet painting, washes, gradations, and glazing, as well as step-by-step instruction on achieving certain effects such as capturing a rose bloom for example, which by any other name still looks as sweet! The book includes advice on how to keep a painting frame of mind when your tools are not to hand - or better yet, when you have a camera to hand to capture ideas for future paintings, and in this day and age, who doesn't have a cellphone camera? Hey if you don't, go get one for art's sake!

The book goes beyond just watercolors and into collage with a step-by-step on creating a picture frame made from a watercolor, and I enjoyed reading this and adding to my stock of general knowledge even though I don't have any immediate plans to immerse myself in this demanding medium. I commend this as a worthy read, and a useful tool for anyone interested in improving their watercolor technique.


Calligraphic Drawing by Schin Loong


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I've been reviewing several books on art recently, including one on calligraphy, and this one adds to the collection of those I commend both for their artistry and their teaching.

This one particularly intrigued me because I've never seen a calligraphy book which really talks about art as opposed to writing. The closest most calligraphy books get to art (although arguably, calligraphy itself is art, but you know what I mean - I hope!) is in the flourishes and embellishments added to the written word, but this one goes a step further and is solely about art, with writing added here and there as a kind of embellishment!

Clearly the author is a master of this form, at least as judged through my amateur eyes. The creations she has on display here are charming, inventive, accomplished, and beautiful to behold, but this is not an art gallery, it's an instructional book which takes you through the steps she followed to make these images of (from the book blurb) "pigeon, swan, crane, rooster, jellyfish, goldfish, peacock, parrot, owl, raccoon, elephant, puppy, rabbit, fox, and zebra." That list doesn't do the book justice though, because the real art is in the hints and tips of how to get these ideas from your mind onto the page via your pen, and there are plenty of those, provided by someone who has clearly, been there, done that, and got the calligraphy art to prove it!

I was inspired by this and with the timely help of a Christmas gift card and the untiring assistance of a Barnes and Noble employee (you don't get this at Amazon!) was able to find and buy a modest calligraphy set myself, to start my own practice which will probably not make perfect, but which will give me a great deal of satisfaction, I don't doubt! Who knows, maybe a future book in The Little Rattuses series will have a calligraphic element? I doubt very much it will be to the standard exhibited by this author, but hope springs eternal in rats, you know! I commend this book highly, and not only for being a thing of beauty, but also being a thing of great utility. It'll be a joy to be holding this book in your hands!