Non-Fiction

 

First Templar Nation starstarstarstar

by Freddy Silva

This is a historical record of the rise of the Knights Templar, but the author tells us in his opening notes that he writes it in the form of a novel to make it more engaging than many historical accounts tend to be, and in this he largely succeeds, though it sometimes slips into academic treatise. Even then it holds interest. It gives a detailed history of a time before we had the European countries as we know them today, when they were small duchies that would eventually form the nations of Europe.

It is well researched and provides maps of the European continent as it was in the year 1080 A.D., when the Holy Roman Empire covered much of the land. One of them is a close-up of the county of Portucale, which will become the country of Portugal as a result of the history about to be told. This history begins with a decree from Pope Urban II in late 11th century that gathers various factions of rabble together and calls them Holy Knights, then sends them off to do a land grab in the Arabic countries because Christians believe certain locations to be theirs by God’s will.

There is more detail to the political situation with Turks killing pilgrims and access to sacred sites beset by Bedouin raiders as well as payments demanded since 1065. In just the first couple of chapters, the causes and reasoning behind the Crusades becomes clear and is told in a way that holds interest.

The book is professionally notated and would make a great reference source for anyone looking for information on the rise and background of the Templars or the history behind the Crusades. I personally found it fascinating and an enjoyable way to increase my knowledge of this area of history.

 

doorsThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell starstarstar

by Aldous Huxley

This is a well-known treatise on altered perceptions and is loosely categorized as Philosophy.

The Doors of Perception is largely about the author’s experience of mescaline and the altered mental perceptions of the world he experienced under the influence of the drug. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with the limited viewpoint as this could have been much more interesting with input by other people, especially native American people who have traditionally used Peyote for spiritual questing in their rituals.

The sequel, Heaven and Hell, goes more into the philosophical musings that I was interested to find. In this follow-up, Huxley discusses correlations between hallucinogenic drug experience, especially the heightened sense of color, and religious experience as well as the natural attraction our species has to gemstones and flowers with bright colors.

It made for dry reading, yet had some interesting points. The rock band, The Doors, named themselves for this book so curiosity made me want to read it. I wouldn’t recommend it for deep Philosophy, but it was interesting in parts and blissfully short. Reading a few pages at a time worked for me to keep from letting the boredom mask the worthwhile insights.

 

haunted-hotelsAmerica’s Most Haunted Hotels starstarstarhalf

by Jamie Davis Whitmer

This is a record of paranormal investigations at several hotels in the U.S. where significant ghostly activity has been reported, sometimes over hundreds of years.

The author acknowledges in the prologue that traveling to these places around the country can be expensive and their team has limitations on what they can actually do to investigate, but they are able to collect stories and legends and leave themselves open for possible experiences.

The first stop is a hotel in Louisiana called The Myrtles where paranormal activity is frequently reported. The various stories and investigations of living people who might account for what people have claimed to see was interesting, but the investigators personal experiences were auditory on this one. These were fairly significant.

We are then taken to the Queen Mary cruise ship which has many stories attached to it, followed by a visit to Brisbee Arizona which the author suggests is the most haunted town in America. A hotel in Arkansas provides some pretty chilling stories as do several of the other examples our armchair tour takes us through. Many of the stories are substantiated by multiple people interviewed and the authors do report a few experiences themselves, though they point out in the conclusion that ghosts don’t appear on command and ghost hunting is largely down to luck and random behavior of the subjects.

I liked that the addresses and contact information were given for the locations, so that interested readers can look into these places themselves if they have a mind to. It’s not a sensationalist book with pictures of apparitions at every location, though one mirror photograph is worthy of scrutiny. It would make a good starting book for someone who fancies the idea of doing some investigating themselves.

The background information of each location is thorough and prices at the time of writing are included in the contact information.

 

privateersPrivateers of the Revolution starstarstarstar

by Donald Grady Shomette

Subtitled War on the New Jersey Coast 1775-1783.

Non-fiction

From the introduction: “The story of Jersey and the many thousands of prison ship martyrs who expired within her dark, pestilential bowels, was once an iconic piece of American history: it is little remembered today. So, too, was the often swashbuckling trade that the majority of her unfortunate inmates had practiced, namely privateering – that is, governmentally sanctioned commerce raiding for profit by private ships of war – during the many long years of the American revolution.”

This is a historical book about legalized piracy. It’s a part of history that isn’t usually taught in schools, how supply lines to the American coast were interfered with by government sanctioned privateering and the horrendous conditions of prison ships that held those privateers who were captured, most notably the Jersey.

The book tells the history of how the fledgling American government debated and eventually deployed privateers because their need for naval protection along the Atlantic coast was essential, but they did not have the finances to build sufficient warships. Concern over the possibility of privateering turning to piracy did arise in discussions, but in the end necessity demanded and the inevitable infractions led to a culture of piracy that has formed famous legends over the years.

This book reads like a history book in school with a lot of facts and relation of detailed events, so is recommended for the serious history buff rather than casual reading. A lot of research obviously went into it and I found it interesting to say the least. Anyone interested in American history will find a lot of revelations in this book.

 

heart seaThe Heart of the Sea starstarstarstarstar

by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is a seafaring story based on the records of a real whaling ship, The Essex, which was the basis of the story Moby Dick. It’s about a ship that actually was attacked by a whale, as recorded in the ship’s log and private notes written by a cabin boy.

My first impressions of the story were very positive. The narrative seemed to find the right balance between moving the story forward at a relaxed pace and filling in technical information that would allow the reader to appreciate the mechanics of operating an old style sailing ship and the value of an experienced crew. Unfortunately much of this crew lacked that experience and response time when they hit a storm made all the difference.

The quality held up all through and the trials and privations of shipwrecked sailors became disturbingly familiar, Even the difficulties the survivors had when they returned to civilization hit home in a way that only comes of very effective writing. I felt as if I had been there and gone through all that they had experienced.

Knowing that this is a true story and learning about the customs and daily lives of the sailors was fascinating to say the least. Despite the unpleasant situations, I really enjoyed the read. I came out of it feeling like I had lived in Nantucket in its glory days of the whaling industry, like I’d sailed on a whaling ship, and like I had experienced the horrors of living day to day, adrift at sea. You can ask for more from a story based on facts.

 

cat manHow My Cat Made Me A Better Man starstarstarstar

by Jeremy Feig

Non-fiction.

This is an amusing book. It’s not very long, about 100 pages in print, but filled with comparisons of how the attitude of the author’s cat can be applied to his own real life situations and philosophy. Things like owning your looks, whatever they are; taking control of what you can and learning to live with the things you can’t. The only thing I think he gets wrong is on the subject of perfume. The cat makes herself not stink by washing! She doesn’t splash on aftershave! Do you know how many women hate perfume on a man?

In places he seems to be forcing things to fit, but overall it’s a very good source of advice about life and how to be a good person as well as a happy one. Many of the stories about his little cat, Shelley, made me laugh and appreciate how co-operative my own cats are!

I might question some of his advice about relationships, but overall I would say it’s a good guidebook for how to get along in life with whatever hand you’ve been dealt. It’s targeted at male readers, but most of it could apply to anyone. And of course the comparisons to the attitude of most cats provides much food for thought!

 

american notesAmerican Notes starstarstarhalf

by Charles Dickens

Reading Dickens can be tedious at times and this has its moments, but overall I found it interesting to read the nineteenth century author’s impressions of his trip to America.

His experience of the long voyage across the Atlantic and the differences in culture when he lands in America are known to have contributed to his background knowledge for writing his novel, Martin Chuzzelwitt, which describes shipboard life and the discovery of American culture in similar terms.

One of the observations that stands out is his experience of train travel in America and the way that women are treated politely when traveling alone, even having women only coaches. He contrasts the clean dress and polite mannerisms of poorer women in America with the grottier poorer classes at home, perceiving a vast difference.

Not all of his observations of America are complimentary though. His commentaries about slavery and chewing tobacco paint Americans as little more than savages in a civilized world and his reaction to what he found in those early, inhumane prisons was scandalous. Towards the end, he quotes some newspaper ads for help in capturing runaway slaves that highlight just how badly these slaves had been treated.

The contrast between American culture and Dickens’ British experience is interesting in view of the fact that it had only been an independent country for a little over 50 years at the time, yet some of what he described sounds like a Western novel.

This is not the most riveting read, but it’s interesting in a historical context.

 

science paranormalThe New Science of the Paranormal starstarstarhalf

by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, Joe H. Slate

This book makes me think of the legendary Parapsychology Lab at UCLA in the 1970s. The qualifications of the authors are emphasized and the subject treated as serious study in the scientific realm.

A lot of what are considered ‘new age’ ideas are treated with a scientific approach, though it doesn’t always succeed in a way that would convince a sceptic. Assumptions of belief in things like reincarnation might lose a few readers. By a quarter through it began sounding a lot like a self-help book and openly admitted that it was effectively re-branding the term ‘parapsychology’ as ‘the science of the paranormal’.

Having said that, the book discusses aspects of what is considered paranormal in an unapologetic way that is refreshing and open. It oscillates between describing the methods and results of university studies to test for ESP, precognition and other abilities and defining those results in what might be called new age terms. As someone with an open mind in this area, I enjoyed the combined perspectives in a way that a serious sceptic might not.

I found the detailed accounts of studies performed rather tedious and repetitive to read, yet it was relevant to the objective study of psychic abilities. I did find the results of the dowsing experiments especially interesting.

The second half of the book progresses through discussing beliefs and how they affect results, religion and self affirmations. A glossary that covers both scientific and new age terms over about 30% of the page count.

An interesting resource for those who delve into alternative therapies and subjects and who wish to see results of scientific examination of these areas.

 

NaplesOnly in Naples starstarstarstarstar

by Katherine Wilson

This story is non-fiction and is the personal experiences of the author when she visited Naples and ended up marrying an Italian man. She comes from a well-off family and found herself at that crossroad where one decides what to do with their life, and against all convention for her ‘set’ chose Naples as her destination for a holiday before going to college.

She takes us through her discovery of Italian culture and a very different attitude towards food than she grew up with in a part of American society where eating disorders are far too common. I found her comments on the Italian women’s awareness of their physicality very interesting from a cross cultural point of view, as well as her observations of how regular eating schedules left her feeling satisfied after meals and no longer binge eating.

Other aspects of the differences between American and Italian culture were also interesting to read, as she had a familiar intolerance with some of the different customs. There seemed to always be something to upset or confuse her, or she would blunder in ways that upset the natives and taught her an ever expanding set of customs in a culture very different from what she had known.

I found the writing very engaging and although I don’t come from the same sort of background the author did, I could identify with her bewilderment in some situations and the juggle of trying to fit into a different culture while still learning the rules. I was also pleasantly surprised at the end because she gave detailed recipes for some of the more popular food she told of in the story. I now know how to make authentic Neapolitan Ragu! I’ll leave the octopus for others though.

Altogether a very satisfying read that left me feeling like I had experienced Naples from the inside, among the natives.

 

SynchronicitySynchronicity starstarstar

by Chris Mackey

Synchronicity was defined by Carl Jung as, “an uncanny timing of events that seems to go beyond pure chance, in a compelling way that seems mysteriously meaningful, or numinous.” An Acausal Connecting Principle

In the early chapters of this book we learn what Carl Jung meant when he coined term, read some conversations with Einstein, and see why the idea got encouragement from Wolfgang Paulo, one of the fathers of quantum theory. We learn how advanced intuitive thought processes can serve as explanation for simultaneous occurrence of two meaningfully but not causally connected events and the term Kairos, which basically means the right or opportune moment.

I had mixed feelings about the book. Some of it is really good, explaining how meaningful coincidence can lead to a sense of wonder and even a spiritual perception of science and quantum physics. It explains how logical reasoning and intuitive insight, plus a little uncertainty, can make it seem as if things just fall in place by themselves when you’re on the right path.

Then the book takes a turn towards the personal experiences of the author in a way that I felt was not likely to convince a sceptic and at times seemed perhaps too personal. There were good examples of coincidental events that the author saw as transcendent and spiritual, and several citations from the book, The Aquarian Conspiracy.

When it got into Numerology lessons and dream interpretation, I felt the book had wandered too far away from speaking about a scientific principle. There were good references given and I can see the connection, but the tone had changed by then and was followed by a lot of information about the author’s personal battle with clinical depression and dealing with the death of his mother. While I’m sure this was valuable and cathartic for the author, I don’t feel it had much relevance to the subject of the book.

There is a lot about Psychology, which is not surprising when the author became a Psychologist, but I didn’t feel this content actually related to the subject at hand as much as it could have. Some of it did point out how synchronicity could be partly perception, seeing relevance in things that could relate to something else in a person’s life, but if anything I thought this reduced the idea to an imaginary connection and didn’t explain external events in the way that the book was intended to.

I learned a lot about Positive Psychology and mystical connections, but basically I didn’t feel this added much to Jung’s original writings on the subject.

On the WingOn the Wing starstarstarstarstar

by David E. Alexander

Non-fiction

This is a very interesting book about animal flight. It divides flying creatures into four types, covering birds, insects and even extinct pterosaurs and explains the mechanisms behind their abilities to fly and in some cases, even to hover.

The book covers how far, how high and how fast various flyers are able to accomplish and discusses hunting habits, food gathering and other reasons for developing the ability to fly.

There is a lot of straight forward scientific information, including the naming conventions for genus and species that we all learned in school, but with some inside humor regarding naming explained. It also goes into the engineering behind flight and especially hovering.

What really strikes me about this book is that despite being information rich, it is presented in a way that keeps it interesting. The same information that our high school science teachers might have struggled to convey to a classroom full of disinterested students is suddenly infinitely fascinating. There are even some amusing pieces of information and I couldn’t help smiling when I was reading about gliding lizards and the book described a Draco having been seen doing barrel rolls.

A thoroughly enjoyable and educational book which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in flight of any kind.

unexplainedChronicles of the Unexplained starstarstarhalf

by Gary Gillespie

Reportedly true stories of unexplained phenomena, much of it ghostly. I enjoy books like this, although the sceptic in me wonders how much really is true. At the same time, I’ve had enough weird experiences of my own to keep an open mind.

The book reads quickly with 216 pages according to Goodreads. Part of the reason is that it does hold interest. There were a few incidences that were a little hard to accept as true without a healthy dose of scepticism, but they made for good reading as this sort of thing generally does.

The book is divided into sections which include stories about specific places or types of hauntings or other strange phenomena. I can’t say that it’s very different from other books of this kind, but the author has obviously done a lot of research and the stories come across as told by a person rather than as sensationalist exaggerations that you might find in tabloids.

There are chapters on haunted houses, factories, towns that have regular ghosts that the residents accommodate, and real monsters, or at least Bigfoot. I’m still undecided about that one, but part of the enjoyment of this kind of book is speculating on the ‘what if’ factor.

knifeGuide to Knife & Axe Throwing starstarstarstarstar

by Dieter Führer

This is a practical guide to teach the art of professional knife throwing, which is apparently re-becoming a popular sport. As you would expect, the very first chapter is about safety, which is made simple with a list of things that you must abide by to practice this activity in a safe manner.

This is followed by a well-expressed educational segment that includes learning parts of knives, different materials for both knives and sheaths, basic shapes and instructions of how to construct a basic blade to use to learn to throw. It also gives suggestions for good targets and how to set them up properly, having already advised against damaging innocent trees for your practice.

The instructions are accompanied by plenty of full color pictures to make everything clear. Then the reader is taught basic handling and handles for the throwing knife and some good tips on stance and movements. Again, both photographs and diagrams make everything easy to understand. Trouble shooting common problems is covered, followed by variations in throws after the basic throw has become natural.

Distance and velocity variations are also dealt with, ten the beginning knife thrower is given information on how to choose a knife that is right for their purpose and inclinations. Size, types, sources, single blade or double-edged are all compared for a broad spectrum of details to consider. The importance of balance is included.

After learning variations of military knives and throws, how to best carry your chosen knives is addressed. This is followed by trick throws and how to compensate for throwing from sitting or lying down positions. Combat and defence are not left out. The aspiring Ninja assassin can glean as much value as the showman or sportsman!

Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know about knife throwing in this concise book, the sport of axe throwing is also explained. This is as detailed in information as the knife throwing chapters, giving sizes and types, related items like the tomahawk, etc. A little extra information in motion Physics is included in this section.

Overall the book is very complete and to the point. In 104 pages, a wealth of information is conveyed without any filler, yet still has the right amount of safety information to make the nature of the information useful without being hazardous. I have to say that I’m very impressed, and ready to dig out the pair of throwing knives that I bought at a military show a few years ago and learn to use them properly.

QuantumQuantum Theory: A Graphic Guide starstarstarstarstar

by J.P. McEvoy & Oscar Zarate

This is a short book with information bites that make some of the concepts of Physics easy to follow. It is illustrated in comic book fashion, but the text explains things simply so that any average person can follow it.

It tells the story of where Quantum Theory originated and the obstacles to its acceptance in the scientific community. This would be a great book for someone studying beginning Physics, because it gives the relevant names and dates of the scientists and their theories that would be likely to come up on tests. It gives a good overview of the rise of modern scientific thought and where the ideas came from.

There is information on such basic concepts as Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics which are explained so simply that a child could grasp it, as well as more complicated information which is presented in the easiest form possible. I found explanations about things like the Photoelectric Effect and astrophysical spectroscopy really fascinating and relatively easy to follow.

One thing I noticed is that it’s worth reading what’s said in the cartoons. A lot of information is put into a simple conversational formula in the speech bubbles, some of it essential to anyone learning Physics. The equations start to sneak up on you about halfway and this is where a lot of people tend to tune out on Physics, but with a little application, these can be conquered. You just can’t have Physics without equations.

Overall this book takes a complicated subject and makes it as simple as it can be. I would give this to a child just starting school, in hopes that they would learn the concepts before they get old enough to fear the more abstract ideas and equations, which I think would give them a strong advantage later in school.

Amazon

How to Sell Books by the Truckload on Amazon – Power Pack! starstarstarstar

by Penny C. Sansevieri

I requested this book for review out of curiosity, because a lot of books claim to have the magic secret to book sales and most of them have similar advice, so I wanted to see if the grand claims in the title had anything different to offer.

A lot of the familiar advice about building an author platform was there, but what was different about this book was that instead of just advising authors about tagging their books, it gave some good advice about HOW to tag their books effectively. I got an author friend to test some of the theory and at first, it worked. Her books came up within the first few pages of chosen search terms.

Of course the real trick to that is determining what words people are likely to search on to find your kind of book, but advice for that is given too.

Accompanying the book is a companion book about getting reviews. This was mostly familiar techniques; asking appropriate Amazon reviewers, joining review sites on reader sites, etc. My one niggle was the emphasis on Goodreads, which I would personally tell any author to avoid, or at least to tread very carefully on.

Overall a good choice if you’re going to buy just one book on indie book marketing. It has all the advice the others do plus results of the author’s own experiments, and a link to her blog where you can keep up on changes in algorithms.

upside darksideThe Upside of Your Dark Side starstarhalf

by Todd Kashdan, Robert Biswas-Diener

This is a Self-help/Psychology book about embracing your ‘negative’ emotions and living in balance with yourself.

It starts with a great example of how to test how people deal with uncertainty and the role that primal anger plays in competition sports. It challenges Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs and postulates that our expectations of what will make us happy are often wrong, a theory which appears very plausible.

The book focuses a lot on the idea that those who are most able to deal with negative feelings are most happy, live longest and are most creative. On the surface I would agree with this idea, but some of the specifics in the theory as put forward in this book didn’t quite fit with my own experience.

The book suggested that we as a species have become easily stressed because we have come to rely on comforts. It also had some interesting insights about how being comfortable externally can lead to discomfort internally. The problem was that it was presented as a universal condition and didn’t allow for naturally happy people to roll with the punches when they come, while still enjoying all the comforts of modern life on a more regular basis.

One complaint I had was that it was very American centric, using phrases like “We as Americans” in an assumption that the book’s readership would be exclusively American and not acknowledging that the theories would apply to most of the Western world until much later on. Even then there were only passing mention of countries “closest to American”.

It did go into more diverse cultural differences and made some interesting observations of expectation of ’emotional state’ between individualists and collectivists.

I have to say that I don’t accept their justification for temper tantrums or the way they all but glorify anxiety. In my experience, people who are angry are not more efficient or creative, but miss things because they are too wrapped up in their emotional state to think as clearly as they need to in a crisis situation. Even in sewing lessons I learned long ago that if you’re feeling angry, put the creative project away until later because you’re going to make mistakes.

I also felt at times that they were mixing up definitions of happiness with goal achievements. Yes, achieving a goal is one road to happiness, but it is not happiness itself. Some of the phrases used like “Happy people can be too trusting” in regard to politics and detecting deceit and “Happy people are lazy thinkers” in regard to “paying greater attention to the gist, not the details” really made me question the authors’ qualifications. Have they never been happy? Do they really believe that feeling happy makes someone go stupid and unobservant?

Perhaps in general, some of these ideas may have some truth behind them, but as a generally happy person who will become very alert the minute someone tries to tell me a lie and someone who experiences happiness most when working on creative things, I found the theories seriously flawed. Still, there were some interesting ideas and if nothing else, food for thought as to what really constitutes happiness and the way that differences in attitude affect how any given person responds to the bumps in life.

It’s an interesting read, but I recommend maintaining objectivity while reading and questioning rather than taking it all at face value.

Once Upon A TimeOnce Upon a Time starstarstarstar

by Marina Warner

Once upon a Time is about the metaphor and analogy in fairytales. I found it rather wordy, though it gives some good information about history and cultural influences of various folktales. In some parts it seems to explain metaphor in metaphorical analogy as if the author is intentionally using flowery language, but it gives some good food for thought and I actually found it quite interesting.

The explains that not so long ago people believed in fairies and demons, but supposedly not as much now. It goes into the language of fairy tales and the symbolic landscape used in this form of storytelling.

There is some interesting history of well known tales and authors. Some of the tales mentioned included stories about Queen Mab, Robin Goodfellow and Puck. The book explains how fairies were prettified and the roles of magic and anthropomophised animals in fairy tales.

It also goes into the magic of words and the place of fairytales in culture, and how many original fairytales often had sinister elements, like Cinderella planning to murder her stepmother.

The book postulates that there is effectively a template of fairytale structure and that things don’t always have to make sense. I particularly found it interesting to read about the history behind such recognizable names as Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm, especially how many tales by the Grimm brothers were gathered with substantial effort or based on real life events.

Overall I found it a very interesting book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this story form.

Return to LondonReturn to London starstarstarstar

by Terrence Jenkins

The enthusiasm of the author is immediately apparent in the way he launches right into the history of the area of London from The Elephant and Castle to Clapham Common with little introduction. Almost too much information comes at the reader rapid fire before getting a chance to settle into the narrative and the feel of the book.

Despite this exhausting barrage of history and facts, the reader is drawn into the world of 1940 London and a little known bombing incident in a trench on the Common. From there we learn about the embankment and the film and other associations with some of the buildings there.

The book goes on to explain the difference and origins of Kennington and Kensington, how the Black prince got his epithet, and several facts about Croydon that I hadn’t known.

The book is entertaining and what it lacks in delivery is made up for in pure facts and detailed information.

The tour carries on in Bermondsey and to Jacob street where Nancy from Oliver Twist met her death and other literary associations with the area. There are detailed descriptions of monuments and churches, as well as some very good pictures of the areas covered.

This is not a book to sit and read in one sitting, but one to savor and assimilate the information over several reading sessions. We are regaled with the notoriety of Blackfriars Bridge, told the origins of the word ‘piccadilly’, which I’ve often wondered about, and learn about King John’s menagerie of exotic beasts which were once kept in the Tower of London.

Apart from the Dickensian associations, we learn other literary facts such as that the original print run for Moby Dick was only 3000 copies, most of which never sold. It rather puts today’s independent book sales into perspective!

This is a book I will read again, especially just before any trips to London when I might want to visit significant places. There’s a wealth of information about London’s history with many little known details that make the book particularly fascinating. Highly recommended for History buffs especially.

beat interviewsThe Beat Interviews starstarstarstarstar
by John Tytell

As the title suggests, the book is a series of actual interviews with or about people who were a part of what is known as The Beat Generation. The original members of this elite company include Herbert Huncke, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

In the first interview, Huncke explains that the word ‘Beat’ refers to being exhausted, beaten down. Those of us who see this 1950s term as a reference to bongos and Maynard G. Krebs have a lot of enlightenment to catch up on and this book provides the facts. Huncke speaks candidly about his experiences in prison and the drug underworld and refers to the “terrifying honesty” often found in these counter cultures. He also relates his adventures on a tanker ship and about his pet monkey while working on the ship.

He speaks of known figures wanting to be gangsters in the criminal underworld and of circus people and how their associations are similar to these societies. He goes on to tell us about Chicago hipsters and the ‘hip’ element of the early 1930s, as well as meeting Doctor Kinsey and his contributions to the Kinsey report.

Some of the history and relevance of the book, The Cool World by Glenn O’Brien is explained and ideas about what it is to be hip. The early beatniks, dubbed by a journalist in parody of the Sputnik space exploration happening at the time, embraced the idea of being beaten down, the drug culture and the effects of becoming a social pariah.

This counter-altruism was sometimes poetic in its romanticist ideals.

The next interview with John Clellon Holmes mostly talks about Jack Kerouac and his book, On The Road, which according to Holmes brought a certain celebrity status to Kerouac and began to affect how the author related to people.

The book as a whole is very informative and tells much about the lives of legendary figured from a generation that is frequently misunderstood. It is sometimes poignant, telling how Burroughs became a recluse and fell into alcoholism, detailing relevant histories of names you don’t hear much about in history class.

There is an actual interview with William Burroughs, who among other things, studied Archaeology much to my surprise. Between morphine addiction and associating with other names from the beat generation, we learn that Burroughs was once a farmer and the legend begins to look like a real person behind the public perception of him. The Holmes interview tells how the cult around Burroughs came to be and is followed by an interview with Carl Solomon, the man whom the poem, Howl was dedicated to.

There is also an interview with Alan Ginsberg and a touching tribute at the end that could almost make me feel nostalgic for an era that happened long before I was born. Overall an excellent look inside a significant subculture that helped to shape the counter-culture of the 1960s that would follow and mark a place in history when Western culture was forever changed.

OpticalOptical Illusions starstarstarstar

An Eye-popping Extravaganza of Visual Tricks

by Gianni A. Sarcone, Marie-Jo Waeber

This is a book of optical illusions with explanations as to how they work. We’ve all seen them and been fascinated as kids (some older kids than others), but what makes this book different is the detailed information about how brain perception works to fool the eyes. An example that I at first thought was a typo illustrates the power of the brain to read even when letters are transposed, but most of the book is about visual illusions. How we are affected by color also features, although some of this was lost on me because my Kindle only reads black and white. I dealt with this by getting a desktop application and it was well worth the trouble.

Some of the illusions deal with sizes and shapes, showing how lines can look wavy when in fact they are straight or things can appear larger or smaller than they are because of other elements of a picture. There are illusions that appear to move when you move your head forwards or backwards.

One of the more fascinating illusions (in my opinion) involves color. It’s a grid of squares with dots at the corner that look green… or yellow, to some people. I saw yellow in my peripheral vision but green when looking direct at the spots.

The chapter on ambiguous impossible pictures is great fun. This is the sort of thing where you look at a picture one way and see one image, or you might see a completely different image with a change in perception. It also has images where lines become ambiguous and trying to count how many of something are in the picture becomes impossible. The sort of impossible Physics in Escher drawings are much like some of these examples.

The chapter on tests and experiments could be good for hours of fun. Some cryptic uses of letters are also included to challenge our perception of writing. Mirror images and hidden object in pictures are included along with puzzles t work out. The answers to everything are in the back of course. The book is great fun and will keep kids especially entertained in a way that makes them think about their perception of the world. It’s fun for adults too.

spinnerThe Spinner’s Book of Fleece starstarstarstarstar

by Beth Smith

This is a very practical book about spinning which gives a little background, but focuses mostly on types of fleece and their respective purposes.

The author explains the value of raw fleece and the differences in different types such as longwools, downs and multicoated breeds. Relative strengths and advantages to different breeds are covered as well as the options to buy raw or processed wool, how to find sources, how to get consistent yarn and what wools take dye best.

There is a chapter on buying fleece dos and don’ts that contains a lot of valuable information. Cleaning, storing and tools are all discussed in detail and spinning basics are included for noobs like myself. The information about different fibers and how much to buy for specific projects was something I found very valuable. How to keep bugs out of your wool was also of great value.

There are chapters that go into detail about each type of wool, how to wash and comb it and just about anything you might want to know about how to prepare your wool for spinning.

This is the most thorough book about spinning and choosing/preparing yarn that I have come across. It finishes with a glossary of terms plus charts and resources that make the idea of taking up this craft feel much less daunting.

Listening to ScentListening to Scent starstarstarstarstar

by Jennifer Peace Rhind

This is a lovely and practical book about using the sense of smell in a mood enhancing or even spiritual context. There is practical information about ‘educating the nose’ and the assertion that this skill is not just for the perfumer.

The book is written by an author who understands the science of scent and is able to explain it in easily digestible language so that the complete beginner can understand the information. It goes into the Japanese art of koh-do; the way of incense, as well as a variant called kumikoh.

The vocabulary of the perfumer is explained in simple terms with the similarity of terms that come from music, even suggesting that some combinations of odours equate with chords. We are told how scents can be associated with other sensory perceptions or memories and the different types of ‘notes’.

There is some very interesting information on how odours interact with the brain and the text discusses the effects of certain combinations and the art of learning to discriminate between individual odorants. The importance of olfactory memory is also covered as well as the basics of the perfumer’s ingredients.

There is a chapter on sensory exercises and a large, encyclopaedic section with detailed info on each scent within the separate odour families. This would be an excellent reference book for someone who practices the perfumer’s art. Creative blending and how three or more scents combined will create a new aroma is clearly explained and in the third part of the book, exercises are suggested for how to study scent in its natural environment, such as walking in the woods.

There are several color plates and a chapter on teaching yourself to differentiate scents through cooking with herbs and spices. The extensive appendices provide more information on terms used throughout the book and on chemistry as well as building ‘accords’ and a glossary.

There is even a section in the back for suppliers in different countries and a scent index separate from the subject index as well as an author index.

Overall this is a very thorough and well-researched book that is also well presented. I would recommend it to anyone taking up the art of perfumery and it has much for the experienced perfumer as well. Easy 5 out of 5 stars.

Einstein

What Einstein Didn’t Know: starstarstarstarhalf

Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions

by Robert L. Wolke

What Einstein Didn’t Know is not just a book filled with trivial facts about science and nature, but explanations for why things happen as they do. The fun starts right away in the table of contents where you can see the interesting selection of pieces of information that comprise this most fascinating book.

Examples include; chemicals that make water hot or cold and why, how dry ice works, what the term ‘proof’ means on an alcohol bottle and where the term came from, what is used to fortify cereals with iron in a non-toxic form, what makes the foam on your Starbucks coffee, the difference between incandescent and fluorescent lights as well as LEDs, how to read bulb packages and a nifty conversion for those who remember incandescent bulbs in watts (for example, an old 40 watt bulb is 500 lumens) and how to tell if a crab is male or female. And that’s just the first chapter!

Further chapters cover information about how things work in the kitchen or around the house, the infernal combustion engine, the great outdoors, water, and the basic laws of nature. Do you know how infrared radiation works to allow thermo-imaging devices to make it possible for us to see in the dark? I do now, because I’ve read this book. Everything from ocean breezes to the reason for optimum hours to get sunburn is explained in easy and often amusing terms. There is even a section in the back to explain buzzwords, those scientific terms that build your vocabulary and comprise part of the language of science.

This is a book to read in segments, at least for me. Too much information at once can get lost in the assimilation, but the pieces of information are fascinating and would make great fodder for pub quizzes. This is one I am likely to go back to for references many times and to read through again to remind myself of all the fascinating facts that I might have forgotten after the first reading.

Highly recommended!

Big Cat

Discovering Big Cat Country: starstarstarstarstar

On the trail of tigers and snow leopards

by Eric Dinerstein

This is a rather fascinating book that tells the true story of not one, but two adventures in Nepal by a research Biologist in the study of big cats.

The first part of the book tells the tale of an excursion as a survey biologist in the author’s young days as a Peace Corp volunteer in the 1970’s. He is sent to a place called Bardiya (Bardia), a National Park in Nepal which is now a protected area, ostensibly to count endangered tigers.

The story is told in a conversational manner that draws the reader in thoroughly, as if we are personally dealing with government bureaucracy, then riding an elephant along with the author and almost get washed down the river and experience the excitement of finding tracks and almost stumbling on a sleeping tiger.

Though it is written by a scientist, the tale becomes a spiritual journey, looking through his eyes at an unspoiled place, getting to know the local people and their very different way of life and becoming a jungle guardian. His desire to contribute something meaningful to conservation brings the reader’s awareness of species preservation to a personal level, away from the television adverts asking us to contribute money to one cause or another into a realm where people have done real work and made personal sacrifices to care for the animals of the planet.

The book is very moving, as well as educational. There are amusing moments, such as the explanation of the term ‘turdology’ which is applied to the practice of collecting droppings of local prey species to ascertain their populations and movements in relation to those of the tigers. Many interesting facts filter into the narrative over the two years the author spent on this assignment. I had no idea that there were fresh water dolphins, for example, and now I know that there are six species of them world wide and something about their distribution.

I was also a little amused by the Nepalese word for tiger, (baagh) and for sloth bear (bhalu) as I had recently read Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and could see the connection to how he named his characters.

The second part of the book is titled Kingdom of the Snow Leopard. This adventure, several years and a Ph.D later, takes us up a Himalayan mountain to study Snow Leopards. The important research on these beautiful cats was scarce before this excursion and much of what we now know about their habits and movements came from this study and others that built on what these scientists recorded. Several known scientists were involved this time, including a lady the snow leopards owe much to, Helen Freeman. Despite contracting pneumonia, this brave woman went up the side of a Himalayan mountain in whiteout blizzard conditions to study these animals and work towards their continued existence.

Again, the true to life story is related in an engaging tone that takes the reader through the adventure from the comfort of their home. I could see the magnificent vistas of the snowy mountains and feel the excitement when paw prints were found. We even get a recipe for Kasmiri tea! Again, I learned many facts about these lovely creatures that I did not know before reading the book and although these were already my personal favourite big cats, sharing in this study through the written medium allowed me to develop an even greater appreciation for their nature, for the reasons for some of their distinctive qualities (like jumping), and for the importance of preserving the species.

This wasn’t a long book, but enough emotion and adventure was packed into it to stay with me for some time to come, probably forever. It will have a lasting impact on me, and I expect on any big cat lover who reads it.

HistoryWorldSisGlassesThe History of the World in Six Glasses starstarstarstarstar

by Tom Standage

This is a fascinating book that covers the effects that six significant beverages have had on the shaping of history; beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola.

I had already known about the ancient origins of beer, but learning that wine was originally distilled by the Arabs was both enlightening and ironic. The connections to Alchemy were interesting as well.

The convolutions of how the discovery of spirits tied in with international trade in slaves, sugar and tobacco filled in some blanks in history for me as well as clarifying the origins of rum and the connection to lime juice that saved the British fleet.

The book is written in an engaging and interesting style that keeps attention and brought a few exclamations of surprise out of me at various salient points. This is the sort of history books they should have given me in school!

I had no idea that England had a culture of coffee houses in the seventeenth century. One thinks of tea in relation to England usually, so the extent to which coffee helped to shape political events was very enlightening. My one complaint is that the chapters on coffee didn’t include more recent history about coffee houses in the 1950’s.

I was pretty familiar with the history of the tea trade, but still the book held my attention and might have filled in some extra details.

It isn’t often that I give out 5 stars, especially for non-fiction, but this is one of those rare cases where it is richly deserved.

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