Monday, December 27, 2010

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A. J. Jacobs

A. J. Jacobs is the editor at large at Esquire magazine.  He is a man on a mission.  He practices "participatory journalism"--which means that he feels that if you really want to learn about a topic, you should dive in and try to live that topic.  So his life has in essence become a series of "experiments" that he in turn writes about.

In 2004, he wrote a book called The Know-It-All, after he decided to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z (all 44 million words of it, which took him about a year).  This was my first taste of A. J. and his writing, and quite frankly I was hooked and have loved him ever since.

In 2007, The Year of Living Biblically was published.  I loved this book as well.  He tried to follow every single rule in the Bible , as literally as possible.  As Jacobs himself said, "I tried not to covet, gossip, or lie for a year. I’m a journalist in New York. This was not easy."

This book is his latest, and chronicles several of his life experiments.  It contains some previously published experiments (including “My Outsourced Life,” Jacobs’ quest to delegate every task in his life to India). It also has new experiments -- including life-changing quests featuring George Washington’s rules of life, marital harmony/disharmony, multitasking, and Chaper Six, "The Truth About Nakedness".
This book is fearless, hilarious, and thought provoking.  Along with A.J.'s trademark humor, we actually receive a little insight.  Most women will love the chapter about the month he spent catering to his wife's every whim (the same wife that many of his readers have said for years is a saint).

He's now working on a book called The Healthiest Human Being in the World, as he tries to perfect his physical condition while simultaneously dissecting the meaning of the word “healthiest.”   I can't wait to read it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Let's Bring Back: An encyclopedia of forgotten-yet-delightful, chic, useful, curious, and otherwise commendable things from times gone Lesley M. M. Blume

This encyclopedia of nostalgia honors the timeless tradition of artful living.  It is based on the author's popular Huffington Post column of the same name and features entries from many contemporary icons like Nora Ephron and Arianna Huffington.  It celebrates hundreds of discarded or forgotten objects, pastimes, curiosities, recipes, words, architectural works, etc. from bygone eras that the author believes should be reintroduced today.

Blume warns us, lest we get the wrong idea, that this book is not about stopping the clock or extolling the virtues of simpler times.  Times have never been simple.  And it's not just about nostalgia for nostalgia's sake alone.  Looking back in the right way can help us to intelligently look forward as well.  It makes us preservation-minded, astute observers of contemporary culture and helps us evaluate what traditions, heirlooms, and elements of our own lifestyles and households we want to pass on to the next generation.  It makes us consider why we value an object or ritual one day and forsake it the next.

I love the humor inherent in her entries.  For example, DRAWBRIDGES AND MOATS, is one entry...followed by "For the privacy-minded homeowner:  These features are much more creative than the been-there-done-that two-story hedge."  Here's another one, LONG HAIR ON WOMEN OF ADVANCED YEARS "There seems to be a mandate that women must crop their hair into short, frumpola styles when they reach a certain age.  I'd hate to think that this was an implicit social commentary about older women losing their feminity and sensuality, requiring them to craft themselves into sexless objects.  My grandmother had waist-length hair for her entire adult life, and even in her nineties, she still wore it up in an elegant, dignified French twist; sometimes she'd cross two long braids over the crown of her head, or wind them into a bun at the base of her neck.  Nothing is more beautiful than torrents of silver or ghost-white hair; it reminds me of unicorn manes."

A fast, easy, and delightful read with passages that you will linger over.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

"You be good.  I love you," were Alex's final words to his owner, Irene Pepperberg, before he died at age 31.  Alex was an Afridan Grey parrot with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, yet he could sound out words, understand concepts, and do other things comparable to human intelligence.  This book is the true account of an amazing parrot and his best friend who worked together for 30 years.

Dr. Pepperberg's training of Alex differed from accepted standards of the time.  Under the prevailing psychological dogma of the time, known as behaviorism, animals were seen as automatons, with little or no capacity for cognition, or thought.  It was claimed that much of animal behavior was innately programmed.  When you worked with animals, they were actually supposed to be starved to 80 percent of their body weight so they would be eager for the food given for a "correct" response.  They were also supposed to be placed in a box so that the appropriate "stimuli" could be very tightly controlled and their responses precisely monitored.  This technique was known as "operant conditioning".

This was contrary to all of Dr. Pepperberg's gut instincts.  She adopted instead a model/rival program of training having two trainers, trainer B being the "model" for the animal subject and its "rival" for the attention of trainer A.

In the process she taught all of us that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believe.  They are far more than the mindless automatons that mainstream science held them to be for so long.  Alex taught us how little we know about animal minds and how much more there is to discover.  Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.  Our vanity has blinded us to the true nature of minds, animal and human.

This is the story of a landmark scientific achievement and a beautiful relationship.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee

Just finished a class in "Human Ecology" that I found very intriguing.  Got me to thinking about a lot of environmental issues again.  Then I came across this book.  I think I'm going to add it to my Christmas wish list.  Here's the product description lifted from Amazon.  See if you might want to add it to your Christmas list.

"Is it more environmentally friendly to ride the bus or drive a hybrid car? In a public washroom, should you dry your hands with paper towel or use the air dryer? And how bad is it really to eat bananas shipped from South America?

Climate change is upon us whether we like it or not. Managing our carbon usage has become a part of everyday life and we have no choice but to live in a carbon-careful world. The seriousness of the challenge is getting stronger, demanding that we have a proper understanding of the carbon implications of our everyday lifestyle decisions. However most of us don't have sufficient understanding of carbon emissions to be able to engage in this intelligently.

Part green-lifestyle guide, part popular science, How Bad Are Bananas? is the first book to provide the information we need to make carbon-savvy purchases and informed lifestyle choices, and to build carbon considerations into our everyday thinking. It also helps put our decisions into perspective with entries for the big things (the World Cup, volcanic eruptions, and the Iraq war) as well as the small (email, ironing a shirt, a glass of beer). And it covers the range from birth (the carbon footprint of having a child) to death (the carbon impact of cremation). Packed full of surprises-a plastic bag has the smallest footprint of any item listed, while a block of cheese is bad news-the book continuously informs, delights, and engages the reader.
Highly accessible and entertaining, solidly researched and referenced, packed full of easily digestible figures, catchy statistics, and informative charts and graphs, How Bad Are Bananas? is doesn't tell people what to do, but it will raise awareness, encourage discussion, and help people to make up their own minds based on their own priorities. "

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

Janis Joplin was born January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas and died on October 4, 1970 (at the age of 27) from a drug overdose.  She lived fast and died young.

She was a white girl who sang the blues and captured the attention of the world after her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

When she was growing up she was a misfit and shunned by most of her peers.  She kept to herself, read and painted, and waited for her opportunity to escape.

This book is based on interviews with Joplin's friends and colleagues.  It's the portrait of a complicated, talented young woman who was powerful and yet completely insecure at the same time.  She was a wild child, unable to follow her parent's rules, or anybody else's.

Dozens of photos capture the singer and frame the decade that she so dominated.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen

This handy little book is on my desk at the moment.  I have really enjoyed looking through it.  It has a wealth of dandy information and would be a good choice for that person on your Christmas list that is obsessed with cookbooks or anything food related. 

The interesting thing about this book though is that when it was first published, the response wasn't exactly overwhelming.  Then actress Gwyneth Paltrow took notice of it (mentioning it on her blog), and it was like receiving Oprah's blessing.  All of a sudden there was a lot of media attention (including a mention in Bon Appetit), and the next thing you know the book has sold nearly 10,000 copies. 

There are a lot of wonderful little books published quietly with not much fanfare by small presses that actually really deserve this kind of attention, but in today's publishing climate, it's not very likely they will get it.  Not unless Oprah or Gwyneth mention them.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I first saw this picture in the terrific blog of a special lady (if you are curious, click here), but this recent version from TwistedSifter finally ID'd it.  And the title says it all.  Coolest.  Stage.  Ever.  Indeed.  It's an incredible floating stage on Lake Constance in Bregenz, Austria. The Bregenzer Festspiele (Bregenz Festival) has become renowned for its unconventional staging of shows. Verdi’s opera, “A Masked Ball” in 1999, featured a giant book being read by a skeleton.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Picture of the day

I'd say the occult section of this Boston bookstore is pretty well stocked.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Have a Problem

Grant Snider's "Confessions of a Book Fiend" is a problem I can certainly relate to.
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