Category Archives: Books

A Trove of Excellent Books Cheap

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The intersection of STEM and equity; moving stories of overcoming racism and unfairness. Cheap on Kindle for most of you (YMMV).

I Never Had It Made:An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson*.

Before Barry Bonds, before Reggie Jackson, before Hank Aaron, baseball’s stars had one undeniable trait in common: they were all white. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke that barrier, striking a crucial blow for racial equality and changing the world of sports forever. I Never Had It Made is Robinson’s own candid, hard-hitting account of what it took to become the first black man in history to play in the major leagues.

I Never Had It Made recalls Robinson’s early years and influences: his time at UCLA, where he became the school’s first four-letter athlete; his army stint during World War II, when he challenged Jim Crow laws and narrowly escaped court martial; his years of frustration, on and off the field, with the Negro Leagues; and finally that fateful day when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers proposed what became known as the “Noble Experiment”—Robinson would step up to bat to integrate and revolutionize baseball.

More than a baseball story, I Never Had It Made also reveals the highs and lows of Robinson’s life after baseball. He recounts his political aspirations and civil rights activism; his friendships with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, William Buckley, Jr., and Nelson Rockefeller; and his troubled relationship with his son, Jackie, Jr.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope*

Now a Netflix Film, Starring and Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave

William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger. But William had read about windmills, and he dreamed of building one that would bring to his small village a set of luxuries that only 2 percent of Malawians could enjoy: electricity and running water. His neighbors called him misala—crazy—but William refused to let go of his dreams. With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forge an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a remarkable true story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. It will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.

My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir Kindle Edition*

In 2015, at the age of 97, Katherine Johnson became a global celebrity. President Barack Obama awarded her the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—for her pioneering work as a mathematician on NASA’s first flights into space. Her contributions to America’s space program were celebrated in a blockbuster and Academy-award nominated movie.

In this memoir, Katherine shares her personal journey from child prodigy in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia to NASA human computer. In her life after retirement, she served as a beacon of light for her family and community alike. Her story is centered around the basic tenets of her life—no one is better than you, education is paramount, and asking questions can break barriers. The memoir captures the many facets of this unique woman: the curious “daddy’s girl,” pioneering professional, and sage elder.

This multidimensional portrait is also the record of a century of racial history that reveals the influential role educators at segregated schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities played in nurturing the dreams of trailblazers like Katherine. The author pays homage to her mentor—the African American professor who inspired her to become a research mathematician despite having his own dream crushed by racism.

Infused with the uplifting wisdom of a woman who handled great fame with genuine humility and great tragedy with enduring hope, My Remarkable Journey ultimately brings into focus a determined woman who navigated tough racial terrain with soft-spoken grace—and the unrelenting grit required to make history and inspire future generations.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir*

Named One of the Best Books of the Year by: The Washington Post, NPR, Shelf Awareness, Esquire, Electric Literature, Slate, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and InStyle

A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy

At age nineteen, Natasha Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted the twin pulls of life and death in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma and now explores the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became.

With penetrating insight and a searing voice that moves from the wrenching to the elegiac, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey explores this profound experience of pain, loss, and grief as an entry point into understanding the tragic course of her mother’s life and the way her own life has been shaped by a legacy of fierce love and resilience. Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South and through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985.

Memorial Drive is a compelling and searching look at a shared human experience of sudden loss and absence but also a piercing glimpse at the enduring ripple effects of white racism and domestic abuse. Animated by unforgettable prose and inflected by a poet’s attention to language, this is a luminous, urgent, and visceral memoir from one of our most important contemporary writers and thinkers.

Hidden Figures Young Readers Edition*

The uplifting, amazing true story—a New York Times bestseller!

This edition of Margot Lee Shetterly’s acclaimed book is perfect for young readers. It’s the powerful story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in our space program.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

This book brings to life the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who lived through the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the movement for gender equality, and whose work forever changed the face of NASA and the country.


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Climate Change Action For Kids: The Tantrum That Saved The World

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The Tantrum That Saved the World* by Megan Herbert and Michael Mann is about a young girl who might be thought of as being on some sort of spectrum, but well at the rational end of the irrationality-rationality spectrum, who gets tired of the “bla bla bla” and forces the climate change issue.

It sounds like a book based on Greta Thunberg, but in fact, the first edition of The Tantrum That Saved the World predated Greta.

The book starts out with the little girl inheriting a huge problem she didn’t ask for, reshaping her very strong emotions into positive and inspiring action. We then encounter information about climate change science presented in a way that is fully accessible to children. Finally, as all worthwhile things do, there is an action plan. My copy came with a nice poster.

Tantrums are bad. Except when they save the world.


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Kids: Would you save the planet please?

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Check out this new book by my friend and colleague, Paul Douglas: A Kid’s Guide to Saving the Planet It’s Not Hopeless and We’re Not Helpless*. Chelen Ecija is the illustrator.

Not hapless either!
This new book, targeted to kids 9-13 years of age (4-6th grade), addresses the climate crisis, and offers doable solutions and activities for kids to help address it.

Part of the book is a mini-course in earth system science, tarted to the specified age group. It is clear and detailed enough to be a good text in 6th grade, when many of these concepts are being covered. The authors outline pre-existing environmental disasters and how they have been fixed, to give hope to the kids, and describes what you can do. The readers are even encouraged to go into climate related fields whey the grow up!

If you are linked to a middle school (like, your kid goes to one) maybe give a copy to the science faculty there!

Highly recommended.


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A short list of banned books

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To Kill a Mockingbird*
The Hate U Give*
The Color Purple: A Novel*
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian*
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning*
The Catcher in the Rye*
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*
The Lord Of The Rings Illustrated Edition*
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon Graphic Library)*
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)*
The Handmaid’s Tale*
Hop on Pop (I Can Read It All By Myself)*
Lord of the Flies*
1984*
The Giver (Giver Quartet, 1)*
Lawn Boy*
The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition*
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone*
The Complete Maus*
Lolita*
The Glass Castle: A Memoir*
Fahrenheit 451*
Out of Darkness*
Critical Race Theory (Third Edition): An Introduction (Critical America, 20)*
And Tango Makes Three: Book and CD*
Assata An Autobiography*
The Kite Runner*
The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy*
The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War*
A Civic Biology: The Original 1914 Edition at the Heart of the “Scope’s Monkey Trial”*
The Bluest Eye*
Jack of Hearts (and other parts)*
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto*
Impending Crisis of the South “Annotated”*
Animal Farm*


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Excellent Critical Race Theory Novel: Tangerine

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It exposes white privilege. It indicts white supremacy. It problemetizes the cult of football. What’s not to love?

Tangerine* by Edward Bloor is written from the perspective of a sort of disabled (but not really? that’s part of the plot) middle school who is white, frail, very smart, repressed, and an excellent soccer player. He is forced to leave his white suburban school and either attend a nearby Catholic school, or alternatively, go to the “inner-city” tough kid not very white school. He readily picks the latter, for some very good reasons, and there he meets his first real fears, his first real friends, and sets about making and breaking heroes.

There are also tangerines, the fruit, which play a special role in the narrative.

This is a book that should totally be banned and burned if you don’t want kids to examine their own privilege, think about fairness and class, or confront racism. Or be mean to football. It is one of those books often assigned in middle school, and this is the time we are reading all the middle school books. Fits the bill as quick and entertaining, meaningful adult reading.


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On this terrible anniversary …

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… how about a little light reading?

We just finished this as part of our family reading (which is these days middle-grade fiction):  We Dream of Space*

Newbery Medalist and New York Times–bestselling author Erin Entrada Kelly transports readers to 1986 and introduces them to the unforgettable Cash, Fitch, and Bird Nelson Thomas in this pitch-perfect middle grade novel about family, friendship, science, and exploration. This acclaimed Newbery Honor Book is a great choice for readers of Kate DiCamillo, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Rebecca Stead.

Cash, Fitch, and Bird Nelson Thomas are three siblings in seventh grade together in Park, Delaware. In 1986, as the country waits expectantly for the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, they each struggle with their own personal anxieties. Cash, who loves basketball but has a newly broken wrist, is in danger of failing seventh grade for the second time. Fitch spends every afternoon playing Major Havoc at the arcade on Main and wrestles with an explosive temper that he doesn’t understand. And Bird, his twelve-year-old twin, dreams of being NASA’s first female shuttle commander, but feels like she’s disappearing.

The Nelson Thomas children exist in their own orbits, circling a tense and unpredictable household, with little in common except an enthusiastic science teacher named Ms. Salonga. As the launch of the Challenger approaches, Ms. Salonga gives her students a project—they are separated into spacecraft crews and must create and complete a mission. When the fated day finally arrives, it changes all of their lives and brings them together in unexpected ways.

Told in three alternating points of view, We Dream of Space is an unforgettable and thematically rich novel for middle grade readers.

We enjoyed it.


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Amazing science books

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You probably don’t get nature like I do.

And by that I don’t mean “get nature” but rather, “get Nature, the magazine.” I do get Nature, which is very expensive, so maybe you don’t have to. A recent newsletter from the Mother Mag includes a list of great new science books, and I was pretty impressed with the books, so I’m giving you the list*. Take the money you saved on not subscribing to Nature and get one! Continue reading Amazing science books


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Ray Bradbury Wants You To Read These 100 stories

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Ray Bradbury wrote an unknown number of stories, but over 400. Some say 600. Doesn’t matter. Back in 1980, Knopf published 100 of these stories, chosen by Bradbury himself to represent the rest. The Stories of Ray Bradbury is over 900 print pages. The stories date from 1943 to 1980. And now, for a presumably limited time and probably just in the United States, you can get this book* in futuristic electronic Kindle form for three bucks.

It is worth noting that a second book, “Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales“, was produced in 2003, and includes another 100 stories, with no overlap between the two books. As far as I know that book is not on sale at this time.


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Cranky Uncle Gets Crankier: Climate Change in the Classroom and on the Smart Phone!

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A while back I reviewed Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change by Dr. John “Skeptical Science” Cook.

Since then a lot has been happening on the Cranky Uncle front, and I thought I should catch you up.

John, in cooperation with Facebook and Yale Climate Connection, has created the Facebook Climate Science Information Center. It is HERE. There is an article about this effort HERE.

There is a Cranky Uncle game for your smart phone, which you can get HERE.

Teachers can use the Cranky Uncle game in their classroom (K12 through College) by filling out THIS HERE form.

Also, related, there is a new version of The Conspiracy Handbook by Lewandowsky and Cook, which you can get HERE.

John Cook, author of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers, is a George Mason University expert in climate communication working with Facebook, said research shows that simply saying information is wrong is not enough. “You also have to explain why or how it is wrong. That is important from a psychological point of view,” Cook said of the new “myth-busting” section of the climate portal.


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Can law keep up with runaway technology?

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Can the law keep up with technology?

Joshua Fairfield asks that question in his new book* Runaway Technology: Can Law Keep Up?, expected out on March 1st.

This is a well written and engaging academic treatment of the problem, looking at technologies as diverse as genetically engineered organisms, deep fakes, and the basic problem of robots taking over the world. Virtual reality is increasingly real (in a material as well as legal sense). Fairfield includes a well deserved (but in my mind too narrow) critique of science, and underscores how limitations in thinking about scientific process and technological advances complexifies the legal problems science and technology create.

Ultimately, he argues in favor of a new kind of law, and he situates law itself as part of the science and technology the law is trying to keep up with. This is also an examination of language and culture, and how technology and law are both embedded in, shaped by, and constraining of, basic humanity. You will find some interesting philosophy in these pages.

This is not escapist literature, and it is not a book by a good writer about a thing the writer found interesting. This is an expert treatment by an expert in a critically important area. This book will be assigned in law classes.

The answer addressed in Runaway Technology to the question “can the law keep up?” is really not so much “yes” or “no,” but rather, it will, but can society and democracy keep up the co-evolution of law, science, and technology, and do so in a way that protects society and democracy.

I’m sure most readers of this blog will want to read this book.


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Combating Specious Ideas: Review of How To Argue With A Racist

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I wrote a review of Adam Rutherford’s new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.” The review is published in American Scientist. American Scientist, by the way, is a great magazine that I highly recommend. A notch or two above all the others. Three notches in some cases.

The review is here.


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The Dictionary Of Difficult Words: Great kids book for all ages

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The Dictionary of Difficult Words: With more than 400 perplexing words to test your wits! by Jane Solomon, illustrated by Louise Lockhart* is a grandiloquent lionization of lexicon, with a plethora of terms allowing you to emulate an egghead as you enunciate extemporaneously. No flapdoodle in this tome, a true juggernaut of of pithy cirumlocutious verbiage.

This is actually a really fun family read, coffee table in format, and I promise, it will be on my coffee table through the holiday seasons. I suppose it is a kids book, but my kid can have it when I’m done with it.

This dictionary has some helpful front matter to assist in understanding, learning, and pronouncing hard words.

The illustrations are charming and helpful. The definitions are engaging and accurate.


Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, California. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for different dictionaries and reference sites. She was at Dictionary.com for seven years, and she’s also worked on projects for Oxford, Cambridge, HarperCollins, Scholastic, Thinkmap, and K Dictionaries. She’s a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. She has a twin sister who is also a lexicographer. Louise Lockhart has illustrated about one gazijllian excellent children’s books.


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Histories and Historical Novels

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Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century North American history. In the very old days, I was a career historic archaeologist, so I have some professional background in history, but an archaeologist is not an historian by training or experience. As I went about reading this American history, I learned something that most non-historian Americans find unbelievable. So unbelievable that I won’t tell you now, other than that it has to do with Donald Trump and his followers. Maybe we can discuss it another time.

I’ve always liked historical fiction as well as history, and I’m starting to work on a project that puts the two together: a list of accessible histories (books written by historians who are good writers) and parallel (maybe even matched-up) novels that may be reasonable representations of the past. The novels are a challenge in this project. A book can be a good novel but a lousy history. Also, what do we do with historical science fiction or fantasy, that might involve a good description of some bygone era or culture, but that includes aliens or ghosts? (Time machines probably don’t present this problem, in and of themselves.)

By and large, I expect that most novels are not good representations of our past. I believe culture can vary dramatically across time and space. A 20th century account of the 17th century (anywhere) or a contemporary account of a very different region of the world (or neighborhood) is likely to be written to be understandable and relatable. That may require significant shifts in nuance and context, expectations and norms. By sticking with work covering time periods that are not too far in the past, and on the North American Continent, this problem is somewhat reduced. Or, made worse, because our own history, as quasi-scholarly work or as fiction, is bound to be biased in ways that get around our own BS filters. One way to pretend to avoid that is to include more work by women, non-white people, and stories about someone other than white men. That does not really remove all biases, but it makes us feel better, and that is what is important, right?

The following is a first draft of a list (with links*) of some of the fiction items in this project.

Colonial era

Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (author of one of my favorite novels, People of the Book). Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha’s vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Colonial Era and beyond

These novels start in the Colonial area then continue, epic fashion:

Chesapeake: A Novel by James Michener (a classic, needs no introduction) and New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd (also a classic).

Revolution and Federal Era

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel, originally published as The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is the story of an African woman who is abducted as a girl in her native village and sold in to American slavery. Her subsequent story is complex and fascinating. I think this book is underappreciated in the United States because Americans can’t handle the name. The author, who is Black and Canadian, explains the title: “”I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn’t escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out.”

I am putting these two novels I’ve not read (but plan to) here because they belong here and maybe you will tell ME about them.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott “In this beautifully written novel of historical fiction, bestselling author Susan Holloway Scott tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza—a fascinating, strong-willed heroine in her own right and a key figure in one of the most gripping periods in American history.”

and

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamole. From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton–a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. In this haunting, moving, and beautifully written novel, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before–not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal–but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.
Antebellum

Civil War, Mid-19th Century

There is approximately one gazillion novels set in the US that have something to do with the Civil War, so this is a very much narrowed down list. I won’t make it bigger until some of the other time periods are better covered. Ultimately, there are probably two or three dozen excellent novels in this era, which perhaps can be divided into categories like “the Civil War is actually in the novel” vs. “The Civil War just ended but the smoke still rises from the ashes,” and also, along gender or ethnic lines.

The March: A Novel by E.L. Dostorow. In 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched his sixty thousand troops through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces, demolished cities, and accumulated a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the dispossessed and the triumphant. In E. L. Doctorow’s hands the great march becomes a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

Late 19th Century, Turn of the Century

Little Big Man: A Novel by Thomas Berger is said by some to be one of the most underappreciated American novels. One reason may be that the literati saw no need to appreciate a Western. Another may be that Berger eschewed the establishment in the publishing world. It is, of course, the story that is told by a very old man who may or may not be an unreliable narrator of his life wafting back and forth between being a white settler/cowboy/gambler/gun slinger/guide vs. a Native warrior, husband, and student of a great shaman. This book was made into what may be one of the great movies of the 20th century. It is also, sadly, the only contribution I can find that involves Native Americans that I’d recommend. Still looking.

A Study in Scarlet: A 1887 detective novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would … most famous detective duo in popular fiction. by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not think of a Sherlock Holmes story as an historical novel. Well, it really isn’t because it is a bit more of a contemporary novel. But that was then, and it was set in the American West. I have to add this caveat: I’m not sure if this book is the sort of insightful and real look at a particular historcial time period as the other novels discussed here. But it is a classic, and I wanted to include it simply because if you nave not read it, you now must do so! Wikipedia actually has a nice summary of the conversation over Doyle’s coverage of the Mormons. Do not, that he was an historian as much as he was a detective story writer. But not of that time or subject necessarily.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.

Ultimately I want this list to go up to and include World War II. I am not short of entries for that period, but I’ll get to that later.


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Read These Books and Be Smarter

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With Covid-19 limitations on so many activities, we are doing so much reading there is a threat that we will wear out all the books!

I have four items here that are deep, and intellectually engaging. A scholarly look at literature by one of the great living American authors, two addressing the history of science in Victorian England by two of the leading experts, and an engaging deep dive into the way the human brain comes to grip with mathematics and numbers in general.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley consists of 279 pages with narrow margins and small type providing 13 different views of novels as a phenomenon. This is the best modern dissection of the art I’ve seen. These rich and engaging pages are then followed by almost the same exact number of pages of commentary and (to a lesser extent) synopsis of 100 novels. If you ever want a list of the great novels over time, from which to chose new material to read, this list is excellent, but be warned: It is a fairly uniform sampling, and you know what that means.

An essential guide for writers and readers alike, here is Smiley’s great celebration of the novel. As she embarks on an exhilarating tour through one hundred titles—from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith and Alice Munro—she explores the power of the form, looking at its history and variety, its cultural impact, and just how it works its magic. She invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft, and offering priceless advice to aspiring authors. Every page infects us anew with the passion for reading that is the governing spirit of this gift to book lovers everywhere.

If you don’t know Jane Smiley as an author (and academic) you should. One of my favorite novels of all time is by her: JANE SMILEY: MOO* (That is the Amazon link, but it is been around a long time, so look for a used copy. This version on Amazon is just under one thousand dollars. Must be some kind of mistake!)

A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct (The MIT Press) by Andreas Nieder* “Nieder explores how the workings of the brain give rise to numerical competence, tracing flair for numbers to dedicated “number neurons” in the brain. Drawing on a range of methods including brain imaging techniques, behavioral experiments, and twin studies, he outlines a new, integrated understanding of the talent for numbers. Along the way, he compares the numerical capabilities of humans and animals, and discusses the benefits animals reap from such a capability. He shows how the neurobiological roots of the brain’s nonverbal quantification capacity are the evolutionary foundation of more elaborate numerical skills. He discusses how number signs and symbols are represented in the brain; calculation capability and the “neuromythology” of mathematical genius; the “start-up tools” for counting and developmental of dyscalculia (a number disorder analogous to the reading disorder dyslexia); and how the brain processes the abstract concept of zero.

This blog,for a while, was called “The X Blog” in celebration of “The X Club,” which was a thing of the Darwin-Huxley ilk. Turns out there is a book about The X Club, and this is it: The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science by Ruth Barton. Those of you who know this blog, and my Facebook community, well know Ruth’s husband. Anyway, do not google “The X Club” in mixed company, but do read the book.

“In 1864, amid headline-grabbing heresy trials, members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science were asked to sign a declaration affirming that science and scripture were in agreement. Many criticized the new test of orthodoxy; nine decided that collaborative action was required. The X Club tells their story.*

These six ambitious professionals and three wealthy amateurs—J. D. Hooker, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, George Busk, T. A. Hirst, and Herbert Spencer—wanted to guide the development of science and public opinion on issues where science impinged on daily life, religious belief, and politics. They formed a private dining club, which they named the X Club, to discuss and further their plans. As Ruth Barton shows, they had a clear objective: they wanted to promote “scientific habits of mind,” which they sought to do through lectures, journalism, and science education. They devoted enormous effort to the expansion of science education, with real, but mixed, success.

?For twenty years, the X Club was the most powerful network in Victorian science—the men succeeded each other in the presidency of the Royal Society for a dozen years. Barton’s group biography traces the roots of their success and the lasting effects of their championing of science against those who attempted to limit or control it, along the way shedding light on the social organization of science, the interactions of science and the state, and the places of science and scientific men in elite culture in the Victorian era.”

And, in the spirit of inquiry, consider The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science by Susannah Gibson*. “Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn’t always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology – conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island’s rocks – they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society “to keep alive the spirit of inquiry”.

Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin’s scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg – a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber – a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society’s foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a “death-like stagnation” (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.”

That should cover you for the rest of the month.


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Be a better communicator

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How well we communicate determines success or failure in every aspect of life. The ability to effectively get a message across is learned, even if the person learning is unaware of that learning. We are not born as linguistic beings, but acquire that ability after birth, during early childhood. We hone that ability subconsciously as we engage in our social interactions, our inner dialogue typically running ahead of our overt patter by about a mile. Every now and then the message that the message is important gets out. Lately that has been in the form of memish** aphorisms, like “don’t repeat the falsehood” or “stop using their talking points” or “get a better frame!”

These bits of advice often do more damage then good. They are potentially sharp knives, or meaty mallets, or highly useful duct tape, in the tool kit of novices, but just as likely to cut or pound a finger or gum something up as to help. These bits of advice are like the tricks surgeons used to close off a bleeder or work around a key nerve without harming it. They are nice to know if you are a trained surgeon, but really not that useful if you are not. They serve mainly to make people think they are suddenly good communicators.

My advice is to either let other people do it, or to ramp it up. By ramp it up I mean don’t attend one seminar on how to communicate, but ten. Not three or four, but ten. Don’t read the first four paragraphs of a commentary on communication in The Atlantic, but read five books. Not one or two books, but five books. Or seven,even.

You need to do enough study of the matter to go through the phase when you realize you know way less than you thought.

Pursuant to this effort, I hereby recommend a few items. These are not new, but they are current. Newness is not the key to success. One of the best references in how we communicate with words is well over 2,000 years old.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath*. Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.

How To Go Viral and Reach Millions: Top Persuasion Secrets from Social Media Superstars, Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Even Donald Trump by Joe Romm*. How To Go Viral And Reach Millions is the first book to reveal all the latest secrets for consistently generating viral online content—words, images, or videos that are seen and shared by hundreds of thousands and eventually even millions of people, something Romm and his colleagues in three different organizations achieve routinely.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff.* Ten years after writing the definitive, international bestselling book on political debate and messaging, George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.

Called the “father of framing” by The New York Times, Lakoff explains how framing is about ideas?ideas that come before policy, ideas that make sense of facts, ideas that are proactive not reactive, positive not negative, ideas that need to be communicated out loud every day in public.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! picks up where the original book left off?delving deeper into how framing works, how framing has evolved in the past decade, how to speak to people who harbor elements of both progressive and conservative worldviews, how to counter propaganda and slogans, and more.

In this updated and expanded edition, Lakoff, urges progressives to go beyond the typical laundry list of facts, policies, and programs and present a clear moral vision to the country?one that is traditionally American and can become a guidepost for developing compassionate, effective policy that upholds citizens’ well-being and freedom. (NB: “All New” here does not mean all new now. It was all new a few years ago.)


** Pronoiunced “meem-ish” not “mem ish”.


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