Naked in Baghdad, by Anne Garrels

Central: DS79.76 .G373 2004

During the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the voice of Anne Garrels became a familiar friend to me. I found myself turning up the radio, and listening more intently, when I heard her voice on NPR. During the invasion, I held my breath, and prayed for her safety.

While reading this book, I heard her voice clearly in my head. I suspect that people who already know and love her work will find this book particularly meaningful, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it.

This is neither pro- nor anti-war; it is a very personal story—detailing the struggles and dangers she met with in attempting to cover the story. She was one of the few western journalists who stayed throughout the invasion, and her narrative conveys the deep sense of comeraderie that developed among this small band of holdouts.

The title refers to a tactic Garrels used to protect her precious (and contraband) broadcast equipment. Terrified that she would be relieved of this equipment, she discovered that when Iraqi police knocked on her door, she simply needed to tell them that she needed to get dressed before she could let them in. They would wait, more or less patiently, outside her door while she rushed around hiding the equipment and throwing on some clothes.

Maybe the manner of her broadcasting, in the dark and in the nude, at least partially influenced the intimate feel of her broadcasts.

Garrels has been home and back to Iraq several times since then. She’s covered Russia and several other countries. And still, her voice draws me in whenever I hear it.

Genome : The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley

SEL Books: QH431 .R475 1999

Science writer Matt Ridley hit upon a creative method for introducing lay readers to the human genome—to write its biography.

Each chapter focuses on a particular chromosome (Chromosomes 1 through 22, plus one chapter coupling X and Y together). For each chromosome, the author focusses on one or two genes, using it as a launching pad to explore a particular topic, such as fate, instinct, sex, conflict, or free will.

Of course, we learn a lot about the human genome, genetics, and evolution along the way, but it all leads to his central question: are we nothing more than the sum total of our genes? Ridley presents the Nature v. Nurture debate, and takes it further by introducing a third factor—free will.

Both “sides” of this age-old debate are on the side of determinism; our personalities are determined either by our genes or our environment. But do we have a say in this at all? Ridley presents compelling evidence that who we are is an amalgamation of all three influences, though not necessarily in equal measure.

This book was written more than eight years ago, so a greater body of knowledge on this subject has been amassed since then. The Human Genome Project completed its mapping in 2003, and scientists are using the information for a wide variety of research projects, including solving crimes, discovering relationships among all living things, mapping the evolutionary process, discovering more about our ancestors, following the movements of peoples across time and space (as in Mapping Human History, the “Pick” for September 2006), and, of course, disease treatment and prevention.

Yet, despite its age, I still recommend this book as a wonderful introduction to genetics. Its language is comprehensible and its tone inviting. This book is evidence that learning can be fun.

In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman

Central OVERSIZE: PN6727.S6 I5 2004

As the five year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, this book seemed an appropriate read. This collection of comic strips that appeared in the wake of the attacks is not for the squeamish or easily offended. It will move you, maybe disturb you, and maybe anger you.

Spiegelman is angry. He splatters his anger and grief like paint onto the canvas. Catharsis may have eventually mitigated his passion, but we meet it here before that mitigation. We meet him in all his fury—raw and bitter and intense. Some will find it offensive, especially as it takes aim at political figures and policies.

Spiegelman was there that day—he and his wife heard the first plane crash as they walked down the street, and turned to see the horror of smoke and fire pouring from the north tower. They ran, panicking, to retrieve their daughter from her school at the foot of the towers. They later outran the toxic cloud spewing from the towers as they collapsed into rubble.

This book brought home to me an idea that ought to be obvious, but hadn’t really struck me deeply; people in the vicinity of the crash (and this applies to those in D.C. and Pennsylvania, as well) were traumatized at a level beyond the understanding of those of us who watched it unfold on television. As Spiegelman points out, even uptown New Yorkers seemed to have recovered while he was still numbly attempting to piece together a semblance of normalcy.
This book is part of an attempt by someone intimately affected by the events to process his trauma, anger and terror. The last third or so of the book, I think, represents some of his healing. It seems, at first blush, to bear no relationship to the pages preceding it. It is a brief history of newspaper cartooning in America, followed by seven plates of original, turn-of-the-20th-Century cartoons.

I think the author explains the abrupt topic switch by using two callouts on the page titled “The Comic Supplement.”

“Right after 9/11/01, while waiting for some other terrorist shoe to drop, many found comfort in poetry. Others searched for solace in old newspaper comics.” —In the Shadow of No Towers, #10.

“The blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Park Row. They came back to haunt one denizen of the neighborhood, addled by all that’s happened since.” —In the Shadow of No Towers, #8.

Spiegelman resurrects these comic “ghosts” (Katzenjammer Kids, Kinder Kids, Happy Hooligan, etc.), and they appear throughout the No Towers comic series. I believe the beauty, clarity, and intelligence of these comics comforted and soothed the author during a chaotic and fearful time.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2006)

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, by Steve Olson

SEL Books: QH455 .O474 2002

In Mapping Human History, geneticist Steve Olson follows the migration of humans from Africa out into the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He does not use the traditional “bones and stones” archeological approach. He looks one place for his evidence—inside our DNA.

Along the way, Olson takes great care to discourage those who might desire to use DNA testing to justify racial distinctions between groups. The human race has interbred among groups for thousands of years, and attempting to determine genetic markers that represent distinct races is virtually impossible.  We are so inbred that it is likely that every person on earth today has DNA from Julius Caesar, Confucius, and Nefertiti.

The book is broken down into sections representing different continents, and ending with one called “The End of Race,” which looks at Hawaii as a case study. The author also looks at connections between genetic studies of human connections and the evidence found in the archeological record and with linguistic studies of human connections. Languages apparently evolve in a similar manner, though there are not exact correlations, as one can easily adopt a particular language and culture independent of one’s genetic makeup. The evidence accumulated among these various disciplines can work together to provide a clearer picture of human movements over time.

I have long been fascinated by connections among cultural groups, and this book provided exactly the kind of information I’ve been seeking.

(Originally published in Connections, September 2006)

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Central Books: PS3608.O525 K58 2003

This recommendation originally appeared in the June 2005 Connections issue. I’m re-printing it to encourage library staff to participate in the UT Arlington Conversations program. It would be fantastic if all library staff (even better, all staff on campus) reads the book. Even if you never discuss it with a student, reading it could prove to be a meaningful experience. If nothing else, it may give you some insight about a culture new to you. See page 5 to read about the UT Arlington Conversations program.

The Kite Runner provides compelling and enjoyable reading. I read late into the early morning on several occasions. This book is hard to put down.

Set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States, The Kite Runner tells a story of fathers and sons, friendship, betrayal, secrets, bravery and cowardice, freedom and the prison of the self, love, redemption, and kite flying. The skill of this doctor turned first-time novelist is attested to by his ability to communicate epic themes using such a microscopic story, a story full of the fragility and strength of humanity.

“There is a way to be good again.” This statement, uttered by one of the book’s wisest characters, resonates with me whenever I think of this book.

Sometimes, the most traumatic experiences that haunt our memories are not the terrible situations we have encountered, but our own actions—the ways we damage or fail our closest companions. The Kite Runner captures both the horror of these actions and the sweetness of finding ways to heal.

(Originally published in Connections, August 2006)

The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know about the Past, by Jane McIntosh

Central Books: GN 31.2 .M35 1986

This book is a wonderful introduction to archeology, well illustrated and well-written. This makes it sound dry as dirt (forgive the pun), but the book is riveting.

It is a very well organized work. The colorfully illustrated chapters are small (one or two pages each), which divides a large topic into digestible chunks.

McIntosh approaches the topic from many different perspectives. First she defines the discipline of archeology, covers its history as a profession, describes how it has changed over the years, and explores current movements and debates.

Then she gets into the nitty gritty (again, please forgive the pun) of the “bones and stones” portion of archeology. She explains how sites are located, details the thorough and painstaking process of excavation in various environments (such as under water, in bogs, and in deserts), and then describes how the found items are processed.

Throughout these sections, we discover how sites and items are dated, including details about various dating techniques. Each little “article” focuses on a particular site to illustrate its points.

Finally, she closes with a section called “Understanding the Past,” which describes the process of evaluating and analyzing the results of a dig. This section provides a glimpse of current scholarly views and techniques for evaluating data, as well as the processes archeologists use to make sense of sometimes exhaustive amounts of data.

This book is a very good introduction to a fascinating topic.

(Originally published in Connections, August 2006)

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Central: MultiCultural Collection: PS 3563 .O8749 B4 1987

Last month, the New York Times Book Review asked 124 writers, critics, and editors to select the best American work of fiction published in the last twenty-five years. Beloved was selected.

The narrative haunts the reader, evoking scenes of horror, terror, trauma and eventually freedom, strength, and endurance.

The fact that escaped slave Sethe and her loved ones still live in my memory after a decade is testament to the enduring nature of this story, of these characters. Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, provides comfort and healing through a new kind of spirituality that transcends the slavers’ imprisoning religion. Denver, her daughter, is haunted by memories of a long-dead sister. They find it impossible to move on as long as their past lingers.

Paul D provides Sethe a momentary safe harbor, but in the end he represents a return to the past, which Sethe must surpass. And there is Beloved; who is she? The answer to that question is one of the central mysteries of the narrative. Whoever she is, in the end she proves to be a catalyst, someone who resurrects the past so that Sethe can choose to embrace or transcend it.

Beloved is not a light, fun read. It will challenge you—emotionally and intellectually. It will challenge cherished notions and fundamental beliefs. It forces readers to face historical grievances that we may want to bury, but that will continue to rise from the grave and haunt us until we face them.

Reading this book could change your life.

(Originally published in Connections, July 2006)

Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, by John Theodore Houghton

SEL Books: QC981.8 .G56 H68 2004

Given the buzz about Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth, this book seems to be a timely recommendation. I can’t comment on the film, as I haven’t seen it, but this book is a wonderful report on current scientific thought among climatologists from all over the world (as of 2004).

The author is a climate scientist who has been studying greenhouse gases since the early 1970’s, most recently as part of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a joint venture of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Houghton’s prose is clear and accessible, transforming a complex issue into understandable language. According to his preface, his goal was to avoid jargon and complex mathematics, though the book contains a lot of data, presented comprehensibly in the form of graphs and tables.

If reading the entire book seems to be a daunting task, I recommend that everyone read the chapter called “Why should we be concerned?” In this chapter, Houghton takes a step back from his scientist role and addresses the issue from ethical, moral and religious perspectives.

It is an unusual approach for a scientific text, but I think (and according to the author, his scientific colleagues agree) that it is a justified approach. Discussions on global warming can generate strong emotions precisely because it affects all aspects of society. In what may be considered by some to be an unusual perspective, it is the author’s Christianity that persuades him that we must all consider ourselves stewards of the earth.

I highly recommend that everyone who is concerned about the future of our children and grandchildren read this book. Whatever your beliefs about this controversial issue, gathering as many facts as possible will aid in making decisions that may have repercussions far into the future.

(Originally published in Connections, July 2006)

Old School, by Tobias Wolff

Central Books: PS3573.O558 O43 2003

The title of this book did not interest me; I certainly wouldn’t have picked it up at the book store. Haven’t we read enough about mid-century New England boy’s prep schools? But the story moved me in a way that few fiction works have for many years.

I suppose it appealed to the writer in me, as the protagonist is a young writer. But I also identify with many of his other faces—the hider, the competitor, the mask-wearer and the one terrified, above all things, of not fitting in, of not being accepted.

The story pivots around the school’s practice of inviting great writers to speak at the school. Surrounding this visit is a writing contest, the prize consisting of a personal interview with the writer. The boys work furiously before each of these visits, intent to be the chosen one.

Our unnamed narrator’s desire to win reaches a feverish pitch when it’s announced that the next visitor will be his hero, Ernest Hemingway. How he handles this, and what follows, changes him forever.

I enjoyed the book all the way through, but the final chapter brings it home, in more than one way. It seems as though the protagonist changes, or possibly that the real protagonist was finally identified. The shifting works because the story of the student is the story of the teacher, just as the story of the young man is the story of the established writer.

The story is also the reader’s as well as the author’s. In a sense, we are all the prodigal.

(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)

(Six Easy Pieces from) The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Phillips Feynman

SEL Books: QC21.2 .F49 1989

I just finished Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and to my surprise and consternation, our library doesn’t carry it. But don’t despair. The six lectures presented in the book I wish to recommend are contained in the SEL book listed above.

You may remember Feynman from his role in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was the one who succinctly illustrated the problem by dropping the O-ring in the glass of ice water to demonstrate how brittle they become in the cold.

In these Six Easy Pieces, Feynman presents some of the most basic ideas of physics in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand. As someone who began my academic career as an engineering major, most of what I read was review, with the exception of the lecture on quantum theory. But it brought back that sense of excitement I had when I first began studying the physical world, and how awe-inspiring it was for me. With a bit of imagination, studying physics opens up new worlds of ideas.

I remember how amazed I felt when I understood that most of what we understand as the material world is really vacuum, that solidity is an illusion, and that the subatomic world is nothing like what we understand as “reality.” These ideas challenged many of my cherished notions of reality, and so changed utterly my entire world-view. It takes one’s breath away.

If you get The Feynman Lectures on Physics and want to read the six lectures I’m recommending, here is a list of the six easy pieces: Atoms in Motion, Basic Physics, The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, Conservation of Energy, The Theory of Gravitation, and Quantum Behavior. The book also contains many other lectures, including six that were collected in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time (SEL Books: QC 793.3 .S9 F49 1997), which I have not yet read.

For those interested in this fascinating, brilliant, and well-loved physicist, but don’t want to read about physics itself, I recommend you pick up two delightful autobiographical works Feynman wrote with Ralph Leighton: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” : Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A37 1986) and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A3 1988).

(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)