Reviews by Ultra Violet
One hundred thousand years ago, at least six distinct human species coexisted on this planet. So why has Homo sapiens come to be the sole heir of our biological heritage?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is an amazing undertaking, covering the entire history of humans on Earth. Harari starts with our earliest evolutions and poses some interesting questions about why we ended up dominating the evolutionary landscape. Examining biological changes, social changes and the advent of technology, he explains what makes us so good at surviving.
The part of the book that I found most compelling was his analysis of the role of story and religion in our civilization. The idea that money, nations, religion, law and, in fact, most things that drive our society, are “fictions” that we have collectively developed over time to maintain order was fascinating. Harari goes on to speculate about our future evolutions and how we will almost certainly have a role in determining those changes.
Sapiens combines anthropology, sociology, history, economics and science to explain where we came from and where we are possibly heading.
XKCD is 'a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language' that has grown in popularity even with non-science types. It is sometimes too technical for me, but the iconic stick-figure drawings are always a delight and creator, Randall Munroe, manages to throw in enough easy ones to keep me interested.
XKCD has a section called, “What If?” to address crazy wonder questions. This book is a compilation of some of those questions and Munroe’s perfectly scientific answers along with some adorable stick-figure comics. Some of the pressing questions answered by this book are:
If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?
What would happen if the moon went away?
What would happen if the Earth stopped turning but the atmosphere didn’t?
If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?
And my personal favorite:
What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?
If you already follow “What If?” on the web, there are new questions in the book so it is still worth a read. It’s a fun one to read with curious older kids, too. They aren’t going to want to read the former NASA scientist’s answers in great detail, but they will enjoy the cartoons and a condensed version of the answer.
The Birds of Pandemonium is the story of the Pandemonium Aviaries in Northern California. The founder, Michele Raffin, started by one act of kindness to an injured dove and ended up becoming one of the world’s leading experts on aviculture and the care and breeding of rare and exotic bird species.
Throughout the narration, the personalities of the individual birds shine through. They are delightful “people” with rich relationships with each other and the humans in their lives. The tales of the challenges to the safety of birds caused by environmental issues, abuse, neglect and harm caused by human ignorance are eye-opening. I never thought about the fate of the white doves released at many wedding ceremonies. They are bred to be pure white, but that makes them more noticeable to predators, not to mention that they are not prepared for life in the wild.
Raffin’s enjoyable prose reads like a chat with a friend rather than a preachy book about the importance of protecting endangered species. The photos of the birds are fantastic. It makes it all come alive. This is a great choice for animal lovers and memoir readers.
A witty, fun, surprising detective story. What at first seems to be a bit of a Sherlock knock-off, quickly takes an original turn. R.F. Jackaby is a detective in 19th Century New England, but he isn't a classic detective. In fact, he misses many obvious clues that his sharp assistant, Abigail Rook, picks up on. Jackaby can see magical creatures. Not so useful in run of the mill cases, but invaluable when the murders being investigated are being perpetrated by an ancient paranormal creature. Jackaby's ability to recognize a banshee and elicit help from a ghost make up for his awkward ways.
This would be a great light read for fans of Doctor Who. There is a lovable, unflappable quirkiness about Jackaby and Abagail is a worthy assistant. Even though this book is in Kids' World (no foul language, sweet romance, light on the gore) it is suitably intelligent for teen or adult readers as well.
Imagine losing one of your senses. Now imagine losing all except one. Now imagine that you lost all but the sense of touch when you were only two years old.
That was the unimaginable circumstance of the life of Laura Bridgman. What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins is a heart-rending, thought-provoking novel based on Laura Bridgman’s life and the lives of the many fascinating people who surrounded her. Laura Bridgman was taught to communicate at the age of seven by the use of alphabetical sign language pressed into the palm of the other person. Her teacher was Samuel Gridley Howe, husband of the poet and activist, Julia Ward Howe. Charles Dickens was a personal friend of the Howe’s along with Longfellow and Senator Charles Sumner.
Laura Bridgman was world-famous in her lifetime and was the teacher of Annie Sullivan. And although her fame for having no sense of sight, sound, taste or smell was soon eclipsed by Helen Keller learning to speak, Bridgman was no less an amazing woman for her lack of speech.
Elkins uses this phenomenal historical figure to craft a novel that is much more about isolation, love, and communication than it is about the individual in question. Her writing is lyrical but also a bit stark at times.
As Laura muses over her relationships she says, “Love, I think, is by necessity constructed of a ladder of lies you climb together.”
To learn more about the true Laura Bridgman visit the Perkins Institute’s website.
And to read about Laura Bridgman and Dickens’ other impressions of the United States check out American Notes: And, Picture from Italy by Charles Dickens.