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William Holmes "semloh2287" (Portland, OR USA)

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Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
by Donnie Eichar
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.19

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dark and the Cold, 23 Nov 2013
Eichar has written a gripping narrative of the Dyatlov Pass incident, a mountain disaster that killed nine young Russians in February 1959. The nine were students at Ural Polytechnic Institute, and they were embarked on a challenging cross-country winter expedition to Otorten Mountain under the leadership of Igor Dyatlov. They were experienced winter trekkers whose goal was to earn a coveted designation as Grade III Hikers.

Enroute to Otorten, the students pitched camp on a slope above the timber line at Holatchal Mountain, which translates roughly as Dead Mountain--this has more to do with the lack of vegetation than the sinister quality of the place, but the name nonetheless turns out to be tragically prophetic. Some time on the night of February 1/2, all nine students abruptly leave the shelter of their fairly large and well-pitched tent, all without clothing or boots sufficient to face the cold. There is evidence that those at the back of the tent cut their way out in their hurry to escape from something. All nine ended up scattered around the mountain in the subzero night, unable to return to the tent. Most succumbed to hypothermia, but three are found with severe injuries consistent with a fall from a height. No one can fathom what would cause nine accomplished hikers to abandon their tent in the middle of the night, and rumors soon spread that the hikers were murdered, or attacked by aliens, or that they otherwise met some sort of supernatural fate.

Eichar makes short shrift of the more bizarre explanations for the mystery and focuses on telling the story of the tragedy through three narratives that move in parallel: a tale of the hikers' experiences as they approached Dead Mountain, all of which are well-documented by photographs and diaries found in the tent; a story of the investigation and the aftermath of the tragedy in the Soviet Union of 1959; and a tale of the author's investigations in Russia, including an interview with a 10th hiker who turned back a couple of days before his friends met their fate.

Even though the reader knows from the outset what will happen to the hikers, the book is a page-turner--I couldn't put it down. At length, I marveled at the courage and skill of the young hikers and the tragedy of their deaths.

Eichar offers an intriguing and plausible solution to what happened to the nine students on that cold night in the Ural Mountains, one that has more to do with physics than fantasy. I doubt his explanation will be the last on the subject, but it doesn't really matter: the strength of this book is in the journey, not the destination.

The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy
The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy
by Jo Marchant
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.47

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Once and Future Pharaoh, 30 Jun 2013
Jo Marchant has done a wonderful job telling the story of King Tutankhamun, from the first tomb discoveries in the Valley of the Kings, to the famous discovery of King Tut's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, to the latest DNA tests on the famous pharaoh and the mummies thought to be his family members. Tutankahmun has assumed many guises in the ninety years since he emerged from his tomb, from a robust young warrior king who was murdered by devious courtiers, to a feeble youth who died of malaria or accumulated genetic infirmities, and then back to a young sportsman who died in an unfortunate hunting accident.

Marchant is comfortable with ambiguity, and she doesn't have an axe to grind for any particular theory about who King Tut was or what happened to him, although she confesses to a certain fondness for the hunting accident theory, for reasons she explains in Chapter 16. She recounts the many examinations and studies of Tut and the other mummies found with him in his tomb, the theories, both good and bad, that these studies have produced, and the waves of "Tutmania" that seem to sweep the world once every few decades. In her own words, she tells "the story of the people who have studied Tutankhamun and the other royal mummies--who the scientists were, where the came from, and most importantly, what they were trying to find. But more than that, [the story of King Tut] is about all of us--why we are so fascinated with Tut, why we love these stories so much, and why we care so intimately about the fate of a boy who lived millennia ago" (p. 238).

Marchant succeeds admirably in telling this story in clean, elegant prose, with a novelist's flair for pulling the reader into the next chapter of the story. I highly recommend this book, one of my favorites of 2013.

I Didn't Know That: From "Ants in the Pants" to "Wet Behind the Ears"--The Unusual Origins of the Things We Say
I Didn't Know That: From "Ants in the Pants" to "Wet Behind the Ears"--The Unusual Origins of the Things We Say
by Karlen Evins
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Etymology Lite, 24 Mar 2013
"I Didn't Know That" is a very lightweight book about the origins of words and phrases in the English language. Each entry is discussed in a breezy paragraph (two paragraphs per page). I've read enough about the topic to know that many entries are reasonably accurate, although some are just plain wrong--the origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards" is still hotly debated and essentially unresolved, but here it's treated as settled (the "nine yards" supposedly being the cubic contents of a cement truck). It's a fun read, and I enjoyed it for what it was, but take it with a grain of salt. It's a suitable book for your library in the smallest room in the house.

For more probing examinations of the origins of words and phrases, try The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, The Horologicon, and The Story of English in 100 Words

Year Without Summer, The
Year Without Summer, The
by William K. Klingaman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.91

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Lost Summer of 1816, 17 Mar 2013
On April 5, 1815, the volcano Tambora on the island of Sumbawa began to erupt, culminating in a massive explosion on April 11-12. This event was the largest known volcanic eruption in the last 2,000 years, 100 times more powerful than Mt. St Helens in 1980, and 10 times as strong as the famous eruption of Krakatau in 1883. The blast pushed an estimated 55 million tons of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, producing a fine aerosol that blocked the sun and lowered temperatures around the world.

Europe and the Northeast United States began to feel the effects of Mt. Tambora's eruption almost a year later in 1816, when its impact on the atmosphere and the jet stream began to change the weather. The late spring and early summer of that year were extremely cold, with snow and ice appearing as late as June. The summer and the growing seasons were also very short, as the cold weather resumed in August and September. In that era, few people had any idea that a volcanic eruption could lower global temperatures, although Benjamin Franklin suspected as much after observing the effects that an eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki had on Europe in 1783. Speculation in America and Europe was rife as to whether the cold weather foretold a coming judgment day, or whether sunspots meant that the sun was radiating less heat, or whether perhaps the sun was simply burning out. Even those who did not fear an apocalypse did not know how long the bad weather would last.

Set against the cold weather that the volcano put in motion is the human story of 1816. "The Year Without a Summer" explains what happened in, among other countries, France, where the government of a newly restored King Louis XVIII tried to manage the unrest caused by crop failure; Britain, where the government declined to help the poor of England or the starving citizens of Ireland; New England and Virginia, where the cold weather and resulting crop failures triggered waves of emigration to the Ohio Valley and other points west; and Switzerland, the hardest hit European country, where starvation was rampant and 1816-17 became known as the "Hungerjahre."

William Klingaman is the author of several other well-received books about important years in history: 1919 The Year Our World Began, 1929: The Year of the Great Crash, and 1941: Our Lives in a World on the Edge. His co-author, Nicholas Klingaman, is a meteorologist at the University of Reading. The two authors have done an excellent job of combining their talents to produce a narrative that captures the life and times of 1816 and the years around it, as well as the volcano-induced weather catastrophe that turned those times upside down. The book offers a lot of interesting digressions along paths as diverse as the discovery and observation of sunspots, the final fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the career of future British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, the legacy of President James Madison, 19th century agriculture, the American presidential and congressional elections of 1816, and the genesis, on the dark, rainy shores of Lake Genevea, of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (the latter is less well known than Shelley's famous work, but utltimately inspired Bram Stoker's "Dracula")

All in all, "The Year Without Summer" was a very enjoyable and informative read that reminded me of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (though the story arc is a bit reversed: "The Year Without Summer" devotes only its opening chapter to the volcanic eruption that sets the events of 1816 in motion, while Winchester's work tends to build toward the volcanic eruption itself).

If the subject of "The Year Without Summer" interests you, you might also enjoy Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions, another excellent book that describes the remarkable and often surprising effects that volcanoes have had on human affairs.

Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived
Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived
by Chip Walter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When The Music Stopped, 17 Mar 2013
"Last Ape Standing" offers a readable, up-to-date overview of paleoanthropology, genetics, brains science, and human evolution. The story begins about seven million years ago, when the ancestors of modern homo sapiens split from our distant cousins, the chimpanzees and gorillas. Since then, upwards of 27 species of humans may have walked the earth, and many of these hominin species may have occupied the world stage at the same time. Other members of our family may be entirely lost to the mists of time, having left no surviving remains in the fossil record.

Somehow or other, those 27 species, give or take, were whittled down to just us. Walter's book tries to address the inevitable question, why did we homo sapiens end up as the "last ape standing" while the rest of our close cousins seemingly disappeared? Did we outcompete the others? Wage wars of extermination on them? Interbreed with them? All of the above? The answers are far from settled, but Walter makes a game attempt to summarize some of the latest thinking on the subject. His book recounts developments in paleonthropology, which focuses on the study of the physical and cultural remains of ancestral humans, and also surveys human genetics, brain science and behavior. The result is a fascinating tale of species separating and merging, of evolutionary dead ends, and of the forces that ultimately made us who we are--and that may determine what, if anything, we will become.

Walter is a good writer, and I enjoyed reading his book. It's an engrossing survey of a very interesting subject, and the pages are easy to turn. That said, William Shatner's over-the-top blurb on the back cover--"I read Last Ape Standing while sitting, then I jumped up and cheered"--is a but much, although it sounds like something Shatner might do (perhaps while shouting "Kaaaaaahnnn!").

Germs, Genes, and Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We are Today (Ft Press Science Series)
Germs, Genes, and Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We are Today (Ft Press Science Series)
by David P. Clark
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Things Unseen, 3 Mar 2013
"Germs, Genes and Civilization" is a fascinating, thought-provoking survey of "how epidemics shaped who we are today" (in the words of the subtitle). It is not as heavy-duty or original as the similarly titled "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond, but it is worth a read nonetheless.

The "shaping" that Clark refers to happens on two levels: first, bacteria, viruses, prions, fungi and other sources of nasty epidemics change the human population itself, right down to the genes we carry today. Diseases like tuberculosis, influenza, measles and even smallpox became much less virulent over time. The people who were vulnerable to the diseases died without children, while the lucky ones with some degree of immunity passed their genetic good fortune on to future generations, thus increasing widespread resistance to the disease over the centuries. On the other side of the table, pathogens tended gradually to become less deadly: those that promptly killed their hosts didn't spread far and soon burned out. The surviving pathogens tended to be those that made the human host sick but not so sick that he or she didn't survive for awhile to spread the disease. The defenses that our bodies have evolved sometime become problems on their own--the genes that offer some protection from malaria can cause sickle-cell anemia, and those that confer protection from deadly diarrheal diseases can result in cystic fibrosis.

The second kind of shaping occurs on the macro level. The Black Death that ravaged Western Europe beginning around 1350 laid the groundwork for the Reformation, the Enlightenment and capitalism, albeit at a horrific cost in human life. Columbus' "discovery" of the New World brought syphilis and possibly typhus to the Old World, but the exchange was catastrophically uneven: Old World diseases wiped out 95% of the per-Columbian America's population, making the New World relatively easy to conquer while at the same time creating a huge demand for imported labor. That, in turn, led to the growth of the African slave trade. Even today, the spread of AIDs in Africa is creating fertile ground for the expansion of a puritanical version of Islam, as pathogens continue to influence geopolitics.

Clark is a bit dry at times, but his explanations are clear and his book is filled with interesting revelations. It's sobering to realize that the Humble Microbe has had far more influence on the course of human history than any Great Man or Woman.

THE BEAST OF BOGGY CREEK: The True Story of the Fouke Monster
THE BEAST OF BOGGY CREEK: The True Story of the Fouke Monster
by Lyle Blackburn
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.00

4.0 out of 5 stars The Legend of the Film, The Film of the Legend, 3 Mar 2013
I'm pretty skeptical about all things Bigfoot, but I enjoy the stories nonetheless. And one of my favorite scary movies is Legend of Boggy Creek [DVD] [1975] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC], a low-budget film about the Fouke Monster, also known as the "Boggy Creek Monster." This unlikely three-toed, hairy man-beast is said to haunt the swamps and forests near Texarkana, Arkansas.

Lyle Blackburn tells two stories, the first of which is about the making and impact of "The Legend of Boggy Creek," directed by the late Charles B. Pierce. The film's quirky, quasi-documentary style inspired later films like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity." It moved quite a few people to take up the hunt for Bigfoot, either as a hobby or a vocation. And the movie scared the socks off of middle-school kids like me who sat in the front row to watch matinee showings back in 1972.

Blackburn's other story is about the legendary monster itself, which burst onto the scene in 1971 in a series of sightings and an alleged attack. Blackburn's research has turned up earlier encounters that might have something to do with the story, but the beast didn't hit the big time until 1971 and the release of the movie in 1972. Blackburn does a good job of recounting the pre-movie lore, as well as various sightings that have occurred since 1972.

Blackburn is a fair story teller. He's suitably balanced and not credulous, though he leans in the direction of accepting the monster's existence. His writing reveals a lot of respect for Pierce, the citizens of Fouke, Arkansas, and the charm of the legend. His book brought back some fond memories of seeing the movie and talking with my friends about it, hearing the monster's terrifying roar (you can listen to it on YouTube), and feeling that tingling sense of "well . . . maybe."

Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters
Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters
by Matt Kaplan
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Engaging Survey of Things that Go Bump in the Mind, 10 Feb 2013
Matt Kaplan's "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters" is an engaging, lightweight survey of the origins of various mythical monsters like the Minotaur, Rok, Medusa, dragons, demons, vampires, ghosts, spirits and others. This is not a book about crytpozoology, and scarcely a word is said of Nessie, Bigfoor, Yeti or other modern legends. Instead, Kaplan's book is a fun romp with lots of speculation about how beasts as diverse as fire-breathing dragons and Frankenstein's Monster came to occupy a place in the mythic imagination. For better or worse, the book is a bit like a long and informative magazine article, not a scholarly work.

For meatier entries in the same genre, you might want to take a look at Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend (a thorough explanation of the origins of various vampire legends); When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (a fascinating book about the origins and uses of myths); and The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (New in Paper) (how fossils inspired the Greek and Roman myths of mighty monsters).

Oh Myyy! - There Goes The Internet (Life, the Internet and Everything Book 1)
Oh Myyy! - There Goes The Internet (Life, the Internet and Everything Book 1)
Price: 4.20

5.0 out of 5 stars Takei--Very Takei!, 22 Dec 2012
As at least 3.1 million people know, George Takei played the character of Lt. Sulu on the original Star Trek (1966-69), and he now manages one of the most popular pages on FaceBook. "Oh, Myyy" explains how a busy 75 year old gay actor and activist mastered the world of Facebook and created a new icon for millions of people.

Takei is a witty and charming raconteur, and he offers a lot of engaging stories about what he has learned about FaceBook and its arcana, such as Edge Rank--he is both an advocate and a critic of the company, taking FB to task for certain things but giving its employees (many of whom are among his fans) the chance to tell the company's side of the story. Sprinkled throughout the book are examples of the hilarious memes that have made Takei's page so popular, as well as discussions of his efforts as an activist. He comes across as a thoughtful, conscientious and courteous fellow who hasn't let fame go to his head,

The book is also very up to date--one of the virtues of e-publishing is that the author can keep updating the text right up until the book is released--so the narrative covers events like the presidential election and Curiosity's landing on Mars. All in all, a quick, enlightening and enjoyable read. It's a must for fans of Takei's page, and well worth reading for its engaging insights about FaceBook and social media.

Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End...
Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End...
by Philip Plait
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.36

5.0 out of 5 stars These Are the Ways the World Ends--Sometimes a Bang, Sometimes a Whimper, 22 Dec 2012
Despite the sensational title, "Death from the Skies!" is actually a witty and authoritative introduction to astronomy, cosmology and eschatology (the way it all ends). Potential sources of doom range from threats that we can avoid or mitigate (asteroids, comets, solar flares) to "not very likely to happen, but we're toast if it does" (a nearby supernova, a gamma ray burst, a black hole) to "inevitable, but not in the lifetime of our species" (death of the sun, death of the galaxies, death of the universe).

Dr. Plait is a knowledgeable and witty writer (famous for the "Bad Astronomy" blog and book), and "Death from the Skies!" is filled with remarkable revelations and clever asides. The chapter on the eventual death of the universe--countless trillions upon trillions of years from now--helped me grasp that the 13.4 billion year old universe is actually quite young in the grand scheme of things, and that the stellariferous ("star filled") phase that we are now passing through is just a brief infancy before the universe enters a long, dark dotage.

All in all, another book that reminds me of Stephen Crane's blank verse:

A man said to the universe
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the Universe
"The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation."

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