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Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet
Across Many Mountains: Three Daughters of Tibet
by Yangzom Brauen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A personal history that tells a universal story, 22 Aug. 2011
This moving personal family history covering three generations of Tibetan women conveys the tragedy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet with more power than news reports or statistics. The details are different, but in a way it is a universal story not just of Tibet, but of every culture that has been purposely suppressed by another. Author Yangzom Brauen chronicles the lives of her grandmother, who has maintained the life of a Tibetan nun in all the years she's had to live abroad, her mother, who had to make a dangerous escape from Tibet as a young child, and herself, an actress and Tibetan activist. After her mother met and eventually married a Swiss man in India, Brauen was born in Switzerland, giving her a foot in both Tibet and the West and an ideal vantage point for writing this account. While in many ways Brauen has lived the life of a typical Westerner, she grew up celebrating Tibetan holidays, eating Tibetan food and listening to her grandmother's and mother's stories of life in Tibet and in exile. Across Many Mountains, which manages to be both heartbreaking and inspiring, begins when Brauen's grandmother was a young girl in a small, remote Tibetan village and continues through the 2008 Tibetan uprising and 2010 earthquake. I stayed up late reading this fascinating book, completely wrapped up in the lives of all three women.


Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission
Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission
by Andrew Kessler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A "you are there" reading experience, 16 Aug. 2011
So far no one has had a chance to walk around on Mars, but the scientists and engineers involved with the Phoenix Mars Lander mission lived as if they were there on the red planet during the summer of 2008, and Martian Summer takes its reader along for the ride. Since the length of Martian day is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day special watches were commissioned--it would be great to have one of those Mars adapted timepieces--and blackout curtains were deployed to keep everyone at the warehouse that served as Mission Control on Mars time. "Everyone" included "everyman" author Andrew Kessler, an ordinary, non-genius guy, who has written a mesmerizing behind the scenes account of the kind of passion and nonlinear problem solving that goes into a big, exciting, collaborative science venture. Phoenix was a partnership program under the direction of NASA, but led by Peter Smith of the University of Arizona and it was Peter's idea to give Kessler inside access so he could write a book about the mission for the general public. NASA has since canceled the Scout Program that Phoenix was a part of, so for the time being there will be no more citizen accounts of freelance-led missions to Mars or anywhere else. The next NASA mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, is scheduled to launch in late 2011.


What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be
What Language Is: And What It Isn't and What It Could Be
by John McWhorter
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A biological-like look at language, 9 Aug. 2011
Insightful, surprising and humorous, John McWhorter's latest book is a tour of human languages through time and around the world. He presents an almost biological view of language as a living, evolving organism, and does great job illustrating how languages proliferate, transform, and disperse, with fascinating examples of everyday speech from native tongues of the past and present.

If you are not familiar with his ideas this book may turn your unexamined assumptions about language upside down. For instance, he has an expanded view of what constitutes a "real" language, including speech commonly considered defective or improper even by the people using it, and he explains why a language is not primitive or lacking in clarity just because it does not have a written version. Most of the languages of the world are unwritten and it's actually the unwritten languages that tend to be especially complex, with intricate, hard to learn grammars and lots of micro-specific qualifiers, noun cases, genders and verb tenses. In contrast, some of our most familiar modern languages, Persian, Swahili, Mandarin and English, have been drastically simplified-- dumbed-down and streamlined though perfectly functional--because they long ago had to be learned by legions of adults who had already outgrown the childhood knack of language acquisition (for English these adults were the Vikings).

Among the corollaries to the idea that languages evolve like living creatures is that it is natural to expect that languages will change and silly to try to prevent it. The form of Modern English cherished and defended by language purists today developed from Old English through hundreds of "mistakes". Other topics covered in McWhorter's book are why it's natural for language to be filled with all kinds of illogical constructions that you just have to know, why Black English is more like nonstandard dialects of Great Britain than any African language, why the Navaho language could be used as an unbreakable code during WWII, and how languages can be used like DNA to track human migration.


Oh Mexico!: Love and Adventure in Mexico City
Oh Mexico!: Love and Adventure in Mexico City
by Lucy Neville
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lively, informative and fun, 16 Jun. 2011
I was so wrapped up reading this funny, fascinating memoir of life in Mexico that family and friends got neglected and hours flew by without me noticing. Oh, Mexico has almost everything--travel, history, culture, romance, and even show business.

Because she's not motivated to package herself for difficult to get corporate jobs she's uninterested in anyway, author Lucy Neville is determined to take a different path after graduating from college in Australia. Ever since childhood she's been fantasizing about colorful, vibrant Latin America with its salsa music, its literary tradition of magical realism, and its recurring revolutions against oppressive dictators. Instead of jumping onto the career treadmill Lucy decides to move to Mexico for a few years where, she reasons, she could take her time absorbing all she learned in school while improving her Spanish. Plus it's one of the few places her widely traveled hippie parents had never been.

Lucy lands in Mexico City with little money and no safety net, but immediately finds the people friendly and helpful. Though she'd been warned about taxi driver kidnappings, the unnervingly young looking cabbie who escorts her to a cheap hotel acts more like a concerned family member. Her problem of how to earn a living in a country where people risk their lives hiking through deserts or swimming across rivers to get a job in the United States is solved by teaching English. Though inexperienced she's quickly hired by a rather disorganized language school, which secures her visa, but since getting paid is another matter she also takes on private students. Later, when she needs extra cash for her cat's operation, she's forced into the ridiculous situation of taking a role in the series finale of a popular Mexican soap opera without having any acting aptitude.

She finds a beautiful apartment that's easily located because it's a few doors down from where William Burroughs shot his wife. The only difficulty is that her roommate Octavio is so attractive she vows to never let him see her before her morning shower. Lucy goes with him to see the icon of the Virgin Mary at the church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, which is built on the ruins of a native temple for the goddess of earth and fertility. Later she travels into the slums to see the shrine of La Santa Muerte, a skeleton in a bridal gown representing the virgin saint of death, who is often worshipped by people who feel excluded or need protection, including the poor, gays, lesbians, drag queens and those engaged in criminal activities.

Lucy is adamant about not becoming part of the expat community. She makes friends across the spectrum of Mexican society and this enriches her experiences and this book. Her roommate and several of her students consider themselves upper class--a label that disconcerts her--and they have lots of money, speak several languages and travel widely. The working women in her First Wives Club English class got married at a time when it is acceptable and necessary that they labor long hours, but their husbands' attitudes haven't caught up so they refuse to help with cooking or household chores. Lucy has a totally positive relationship with a tattooed family of gold-toothed "viene-vienes", illegal street-parking enforcers who protect cars for a price. They watch out for Lucy when she comes home late from class. Lucy is invited to parties and weddings and family dinners. Coworkers convince her to try recreational group electric shocks. Her fellow teachers include Edgar, who takes her to political demonstrations, and Ricardo, who is so sweet she falls for him even though that involves her in an awkward love triangle.

Oh, Mexico manages to be informative without interrupting the pace of the story. History lessons, explanations of economic situations, and cultural background material flow naturally from events in the book. Lively and highly entertaining.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2015 10:43 AM GMT


First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth
First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth
by Marc Kaufman
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Irresistibly fascinating, 31 May 2011
Author Mark Kaufman believes that before the end of the century, maybe well before, scientists will have determined that life exists elsewhere in the universe, and his book makes a fascinating and compelling case for it. Before they can do that however, scientists will have to determine exactly what life is, a question that is surprisingly hard to answer because it is not always clear what is alive and what is not. One example is the case of desert varnish, an extremely slow growing patina found on desert rocks that may be showing properties of life. Or maybe not, that's still being researched.

The more scientists learn about life on Earth, the stranger it seems. It used to be taken as scientific gospel that all forms of life reproduce regularly, need an energy source, and depend on having an environment that isn't exceedingly hot, cold, acidic, alkaline, or salty, and isn't under crushingly high pressure or full of radiation, but living things have been found in all of these circumstances. Extremophile life forms manage just fine in scalding hot hydrothermal ocean vents, highly acidic rivers, arsenic filled lakes, glacial ice, clouds high in the sky, and rocks that are miles underground. Finding life in these almost other worldly places may mean life can exist in other harsh seeming environments, like under the Martian surface or in the icy oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa.

It turns out that Mars was much more habitable than Earth in the long ago days when the Earth was recovering from a collision with another planet that broke off what is now our moon. Mars became the barren landscape it is now after it somehow lost its magnetic field and atmosphere, but if some form of life was already established it may still survive deep underground, since scientists have found that life exists in similar conditions on Earth.

The elements that are needed for life on Earth, which include carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, are found all over the universe, so scientists are aiming strong telescopes at distant stars looking for planets that might be able to support life as we know it, or maybe life as we've never conceived of it. The nebulas that form stars produce complex carbon molecules and these may be seeding any nearby planets with the building blocks of carbon based life.

Kaufman is confident that there is life elsewhere in the universe, but he does a thorough job presenting the conflicting opinions and many unsolved issues of the extraterrestrial life question, including the controversies surrounding the 1976 Viking mission to Mars and whether the Muchison meteorite from Austraila shows evidence of otherworldly organic carbon. The last chapter covers the moral, religious and ethical implications of discovering that we may be sharing the universe with other, possibly intelligent, living beings. What obligations would we have to such creatures? What would they mean for the world's religious beliefs? These issues are part of an ongoing discussion by ethicists, philosophers, and religious leaders, including the Vatican.

If you follow news reportage about extremophiles, exoplanets and the search for life, this book will connect the dots and provide context to stories as recent as the "Goldilocks" planet, the new revelations about the famous "primordial soup" experiments, and the microbes found with high levels of arsenic in Mono Lake, California. First Contact is so irresistibly interesting I found myself reading the best parts aloud to whoever happened to be around me at the time.


Amore and Amaretti: A Tale of Love and Food in Italy
Amore and Amaretti: A Tale of Love and Food in Italy
by Victoria Cosford
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing and transporting, 25 April 2011
Food, romance and Italy are center stage in Victoria Cosford's memoir Amore and Amaretti. Though she comes to Italy to study its language and culture at the Michelangelo Institute, Vicky quickly abandons her classwork when she meets the charming, volatile Gianfranco, a chef who teaches her the arts of Italian living, loving and cooking. When he is working she hangs out in the cool stone rooms of his restaurant; when he is free they travel the back roads of Italy to see tiny shops in sunny alleys and ancient villages set by the sea or atop grassy hills. Within six months they are living together and Vicky is running the kitchen of his restaurant, but though Gianfranco brings her more joy than she ever thought possible, her great love brings her great pain too, which means this memoir is not just a light-hearted frolic of travel and delicious meals.

Gianfranco and Italy become centers of her life that she keeps circling back to, feeling not completely whole in either Italy or her native Australia, where she works in advertising and journalism. After her initial four year visit in her twenties, by the age of fifty Vicky has returned to Italy more three times, usually brought back by a call from the irresistible Gianfranco who wants her to work in whatever restaurant venture he is involved in at the time. In trying to find the right balance of life, work, love and joy, she eats too much food and makes some cringe-worthy decisions about men, then vows again to live the better, fuller life she imagines for herself.

Packed with aromatic descriptions of Italian sights and mouthwatering food, this is a great book for armchair travel and cooking inspiration. Twenty enticing Italian recipes are layered throughout the text.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer
Edition: Hardcover

30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing and entertaining, 15 April 2011
Our memory skills, just like our food cravings for fat and sugar, were better suited to our days as hunter gatherers, according to Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein. Back then, what our ancestors needed to remember was where to find food, what plants are poisonous, and how to get home. This makes us great at remembering visual imagery, and not so good at remembering multiple passwords, numerous phone numbers or detailed verbal instructions.

The trick to memory techniques is changing the tedious data you want to remember into something so flamboyant and sensational that you can't forget it. It works. With the help of images like the three Petticoat Junction sisters hula hooping in my living room I can still remember the fifteen item "to do" list Foer's memory coach used as an example more than a week after I read that section of the book.

Moonwalking with Einstein is part a history of mnemonic practices beginning long before the advent of writing, part a cursory introduction to some memory tricks including the memory palace, and part a chronicle of the year or so Foer spent developing his memory skills in preparation for the U.S. Memory Championship--this aspect of the book reminded me of Word Freak, a Scrabble championship account by Stefan Fatsis. Foer also covers the phenomenon of savants, what techniques you can use to push yourself past being just okay at any given skill and how memorizing can help you be more aware and maybe even a little wiser. Unfortunately, even after all his training Foer reports that he still sometimes misplaces his keys. This is an absorbing and entertaining book.


One of our Thursdays is Missing: Thursday Next Book 6
One of our Thursdays is Missing: Thursday Next Book 6
by Jasper Fforde
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Ingeniously funny of course, but also surprisingly moving, 15 April 2011
As in the rest of the series, the latest volume in the Thursday Next oeuvre is fast moving, hysterically funny, and amazingly clever, but this time it's also surprisingly moving. The fictional Thursday Next from the previous sequel is the lead, and in her struggles to save the intrepid real world Thursday Next by trying to figure out what her real world self would do, the fictional Thursday Next is oddly more sympathetic than her living, breathing counterpart.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is set almost completely in Book World--the place where all the books we read are acted out, where Jane Eyre can cavort with Harry Potter or Hamlet or geologist Charles Lyell, where Rubik's Cubes cannot be scrambled, where fan fiction versions of popular characters walk around as thin as paper, and where Mediocre Gatsby, Rupert Bond, and Tracy Capulet resent their more famous siblings. It's a ridiculously fun alternate reality for book lovers.

All of the Thursday Next books are real treats, and so densely ingenious that I never want to read more than a chapter at a time. That means they spend a long time on my night stand, and now that this one is finished I feel bereft. The Thursday Next series is my favorite of Fforde's books. Shades of Grey with its thoroughly imagined culture based on color perception was enticing enough to keep me reading, and the Nursery Crimes series is almost as clever and funny as Thursday Next, but in both cases I missed the literary illusions and of course the quick-witted, resourceful character of the fictional and real world Thursday Next.


Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books
Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books
by William Kuhn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars American Royalty Deconstructed, 2 Jan. 2011
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is a captivating and iconic figure which makes her a great subject for a book. Known mainly for her role as wife to the powerful (JFK) and rich (Onassis) it's refreshing to read about her later life as an independent woman who supported herself by working as an editor. It's always a plus when a book gives you new ideas for reading possibilities and Kuhn's Reading Jackie added at least a page of Jackie-edited volumes to my Amazon wish list. A further bonus of this career centered biography are the fascinating portraits of many of the authors and subjects of those books, including photographers, politicians, cultural historians, and media stars like John Lennon, Michael Jackson, former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, mythologist Joseph Campbell and ballerina Gelsey Kirkland.

Also profiled is Greg Lawrence, who was Gelsey Kirkland's boyfriend at the time Jackie was editing Kirkland's book Dancing on My Grave. Lawrence has just published his own book about Jackie's life as an editor which is maybe why Kuhn is almost comically dismissive and writes particularly harshly about him.

Detracting from the reading experience for me is that Kuhn has a jarring tendency to quote someone or describe something and then interrupt the flow of his narrative with an, "in other words," to explain what is already clear. Also, Kuhn has written too much of the book in an expanded version of the five paragraph essay style that is taught to middle school students, stating and restating what he would like to prove and making sometimes improbable connections to support his thesis. Kuhn has written this book with the idea that there is a lot to be learned about Jackie's private feelings by looking at the list of books she edited, but sometimes he seems to be reaching too far. Editing a book on Sally Hemmings is supposed to show Jackie is sympathetic to presidential mistresses. Her books on ballet are held up to prove she has issues with her body.

Still, Reading Jackie is full of talented and sophisticated people and Kuhn has done his research, treating Jackie like a queen without ignoring her flaws, so this book is both moving and entertaining.


The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen
The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen
by Kwame Anthony Appiah
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How do moral revolutions happen?, 27 Dec. 2010
Dueling, foot-binding, slavery and "honor" killings were once considered honorable practices but today most people find them repellent. In THE HONOR CODE Appiah analyzes these four examples to illustrate how traditional beliefs about honor came to be in sharp contrast with evolving views of morality. In each case, arguments against the practices were well known long before they were given up, but knowledge alone wasn't enough. "Honor" killing has not been completely eliminated, but for each of the other practices Appiah details how the development of an expanded, less insular world view or "honor world" changed cultural beliefs and overthrew these long held customs. With this book Appiah is hoping to help spark modern moral revolutions.

Appiah talks about what these modern revolutions might be in an excellent September 2010 article in the Washington Post. Just as we look back with horror at slavery and foot binding, people in the future may condemn one or more of our current practices. To determine what might cause our descendants to wonder "What were they thinking?!" Appiah provides three guidelines: first, arguments against the practice have long been in place, second, defenders of the practice cite tradition, human nature or necessity as reasons to continue (How could we grow cotton without slaves?), and third, supporters of the practice engage in strategic ignorance, for instance wearing slave-grown cotton without considering where it comes from. Appiah's contemporary candidates for moral revolutions include industrial meat production, the current prison system, the institutionalization and isolation of the elderly, and the devastation of the environment.

Appiah is a philosophy professor at Princeton and his writing is sometimes a little choppy in a logician's proof solving style, but the material is well thought out, timely and fascinating.


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