Monday, September 24, 2007

Clan of Book & Horselovers

Kasey Cox

Susan Williams’ novel Wind Rider garnered advance praise from two powerhouse names in contemporary literature – Jean Craighead George, best known as the author of the Newbery Medal-winning children’s classic, Julie of the Wolves; and Jean M. Auel, author of The Clan of the Cave Bear series. Both authors raved about Wind Rider, and for good reason.

Wind Rider takes place on the steppes of Stone Age Asia, although the exact place didn’t matter to me as I eagerly turned the pages of this beautiful and exciting story. I knew that the main character, pre-adolescent Fern, lived in an ancient world, with a group of people whose main focus must still be survival. Fern’s mother, Moss, had lost so many children during pregnancy, childbirth, and in their infancy, that their tribe allowed her to let both of her twins live – Fern, and her brother, Flint – to become the only set of twins among all their people. This immediately sets Fern a bit apart, but it is her personality, her desires, her gifts and longings that really make her unusual, much to the frustration of her mother.

Fern has an affinity for animals, whom she sees not just as food, but as friends. She cares for injured birds; has a dog who does not work as a hunting dog but is instead her pet and constant companion; and she is fascinated by horses. The difference between Fern and every other “girl who loves horses” book is this: no one in Fern’s tribe has ever tamed a horse. The exhilaration, the patience, the effort that is involved in the process, though, is a timeless story, one that echoes classics like The Black Stallion and My Friend Flicka. I also found some parallels to one of my favorites, The Little Prince, by St.-Exupery, in the process of taming something to become your friend, as well as your responsibility.

The voice that Susan Williams creates for Fern strikes in my head as both foreign and familiar. The rhythm and vocabulary of Fern’s first-person narrative reminds me of the speech of Native Americans, or the Maori of New Zealand, or other aboriginal peoples – beautiful but exotic to the ears of this WASP-y woman. Fern’s feelings, however, echo painful and true. Adolescents of both genders will sympathize with Fern’s frustrations and rebelliousness; women of all ages will appreciate her struggle to define herself as a person, both within and beyond gender roles. Fern chafes at the things that are expected of her as a young woman; though she loves her twin, she is jealous of the things he is allowed to do, and the opportunities his future seems to hold. Fern does not look forward to being a wife or a mother, dreads being tied down to caring for babies and men.

Kudos to the author for not leaving the story there, but showing how, as tragedy hits and as Fern nurtures her horse, Fern’s perspective grows on what it means to be a mother, a caregiver, and a member of a family and a tribe. Indeed, in many aspects, Williams creates a story that is simple on the surface, and truly enjoyable to read, but one which also addresses many deeper aspects of being human.

Spring Songs, or What a Bird in the Hand is Really Worth

Kasey Cox

Chur-REE! A couple of years ago, these plush, stuffed toy birds showed up in Dunham’s, each one with a real bird song inside, recorded by the Audubon Society. My mom and I picked one out as a Christmas present for my nephew, joked how my grandmother Laura would have gotten a kick out of these. I received the red-wing blackbird for Christmas, much to the dismay of the cat but to my endless fascination. For me, it’s not the robin who is the harbinger of spring in these parts. As someone who suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, and who doesn’t experience that, to some extent, living around here?), I know winter’s back is truly broken for another year when I see the red-wing blackbirds in the fields. And now, after freaking out the cat and annoying my boyfriend by pushing my stuffed bird’s button a hundred times, I will never forget what to listen for, as well.

As fun as the Audubon toys are, I can’t afford to buy one for every birdsong I’d like to learn. And although it’s amusing to open this article with my approximation of birdspeak, I think you’ll get more from the expert who will become birders’ – amateur and serious – new best friend. Stan Tekiela is an award-winning author, wildlife photographer, naturalist, columnist, and radio-show host from Minnesota. To date, Stan has published nearly sixty books, filled with gorgeous, close-up color photos, and well-organized information. His books include guides on birds in nearly forty states as well as regions like the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. He has also penned books on categories of birds, such as raptors or geese; family nature guides; a how-to begin mushroom hunting; and several guides to regional tree and wildflower identification.

With his bird guides for specific states, Stan has taken out the guesswork that comes with larger classics like Audubon, Stokes, Peterson or National Geographic – “does this bird even live in my area?” And best of all, almost every Stan Tekiela state bird book has a companion audio CD (or CDs). At the bottom of every information page in the bird books, there is a reference to the CD track number where one can hear the bird matching the description and photo from the book! The CDs can be purchased separately, or as part of a guidebook-and-CD set at very reasonable prices (suggested retail price of most guide books is around $13, and the CD is around $15). Now that’s birding for dummies or for idiots, without the name-calling! I’m thrilled with this new discovery, which will save me from drowning in a hundred of stuffed birds, keep me in good graces with Kevin and Hobo (not always an easy trick, between the two of them), and give me a gift option for last-minute or hard-to-buy-for folks. Plus, I’m hoping to look super-knowledgeable this coming spring and summer as I name birds everywhere I go. Too bad this wasn’t available to me when I was a camp counselor. But, it’s never too late to learn these heart-lifting songs and teach them to others. My grandmother, Laura, would be proud.

"Quality" Poetry

Kasey Cox

April is National Poetry Month. Yeah, I know: there’s a national month, or special week, or weird celebratory day, for every topic and group in the universe now. There’s even a book up at WNBT that lists, by month, everything from “National Dental Health Care Week” to “International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day”. (Although those two topics might not be so unrelated as they first appear, har har.)

But I actually look forward to National Poetry Month. I love poetry. Poetry challenges me, feeds me, shocks me, makes me giggle, soothes me in songs, comes to me from sacred texts and coffeeshops and in emails from friends. And, unlike many genres of literature, I believe there is a poetry book for everyone. There may not be a story from the thriller group that you’d like, or a biography, or a book on investing. But I’m fairly certain if we looked, and probably not even for that long, we could find a poem or two that you would love.

I told Kevin I was prepared to write two or three columns for National Poetry Month, or even do the entire month of reviews. He gave me a look. He thought one column would be enough. “People just don’t like poetry all that much,” he told me, gently but firmly – although he writes fine poetry himself.

So how do I choose one book to focus on? Actually, it was a clear and easy choice. There is one poetry book that fits all of us.

When I had to be in the hospital for a while during my college years, a friend brought me this special book – J. Ruth Gendler’s “The Book of Qualities”. Since then, I have turned around and given copies of this book to all different people in my life. I’ve shared this beautiful little book as a gift for graduations, wedding showers, birthdays, major illnesses, surgeries, and as a thank-you note. I’ve read selections from it at open mike nights, support groups, and memorial services.

In “The Book of Qualities”, poet and artist Ruth Gendler dedicates one page to each of almost one hundred human characteristics and feelings. These are the Qualities. With playful and insightful words, she describes each Quality as though he or she were a person you know. Change becomes your unwelcome houseguest; Honor could be your grandfather; Courage may be the woman who befriended you as you faced your divorce. Each of the Qualities has a favorite color, or a hobby. They have faces and hair and cars and clothes and jobs. And in those characteristics, in each Quality, you will recognize yourself and those you know – often in delightful and startling new ways. This little book is truly a classic: one of those books that you will find yourself revisiting time and again, once it has become a part of your life. Every time you re-read it, you’ll find something new.

A Father's Legacy: Fact or Fiction?

Kasey Cox

My dad reads history books for fun. I’m sure many of you can relate, but I, however, have often found my dad’s hobby perplexing. For Dad, the best books present the down-to-the-minute detail of battles, examine every word of a president’s letters to friends, follow the explorer each painful step of the journey. Yes, it’s interesting, but I’m talking 1,000 pages of details. A daunting task for even us dedicated readers.

When I was growing up, my dad, the lifelong history major, took us to battlefield memorials instead of to amusement parks. As a child, I drew pictures of civil war soldiers more than doodles of Mickey Mouse. I’m sure this pleased my dad, the way this interest in history soaked into me. What didn’t please him was my desire to read historical fiction. I was enamored of the TV mini-series “The Blue and the Gray”, and soon after, began reading John Jakes’ “The North and the South” trilogy. Dad frowned upon this. Too many Southern belles with bosoms heaving and laudanum addictions, I think. Not enough “hard” history, not enough fact. The fact of the matter is, I still prefer fiction. Ironically enough, to make history most real to me, I need it connected to the stories of individual people, and no one seems to do that better than novelists.

Enter Jeff Shaara. My dad introduced me to him by way of the author’s personal life history. Jeff’s father was Michael Shaara, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Killer Angels. Michael Shaara was at work on the second book in his trilogy on the American Civil War when he died. Not a writer or historian himself, Jeff vowed to finish his father’s work. And the books Jeff finished for his dad are excellent, critically-acclaimed. But when he spread his wings and started his own work, with books on the American Revolution, World Wars I and II, and the Mexican-American War, he surpassed his father. I have just recently finished To the Last Man, Jeff Shaara’s book on WWI. Mind you, it is, technically, historical fiction. But just barely. Bestselling history writer Joseph Persico praises Jeff Shaara’s “rarest of writing gifts, making literature read like history and history read like literature. He brings … [history] to pulsating life.” His books are “fiction” only in that Shaara creates thoughts and dialogue for these historical figures, based on impeccable research, but ultimately, on his imagination.

In most of his books, Jeff Shaara focuses mostly on the events surrounding the major figures – the generals, the leaders of the countries involved. Shaara explains in his preface of To the Last Man how this book is different: he tells about WWI through the perspective of just four people. In this way, the story isn’t comprehensive or all-inclusive, but it is incredibly powerful. The four people are General John J. Pershing, THE commander of all U.S. forces when America finally enters the war; Baron Manfred von Richthofen, “the Red Baron”; Raoul Lufbery, of the Lafayette Escadrille; and Private Roscoe Temple, U.S. Marine Corps.

Well, if you’re like me, the only reference I have to “the Red Baron” is … Charles Schultz’s Snoopy fighting him from the Sopwith Camel. It turns out Richthofen’s life, just his personal history and career alone shed tremendous light on the war and the time period itself. And I had never heard of the Lafayette Escadrille – the Americans who went to France to fly the airplane, just in its infancy as a weapon of war, way before the U.S. reluctantly decided to join the fray. Now, I’m hooked on every word I can find about these guys. (Yeah, go ahead and rent the movie “Flyboys”; the fight scenes in the air are quite realistic, I think. But then do yourself a big favor and read about the REAL people. As far as I can find out, all the characters from the movie are fiction.)

And there it is: did you see that? I crossed over. Maybe historical fiction isn’t as engaging as fact, after all. Certainly, it depends some on who is conveying the story. I, obviously, give Jeff Shaara an enthusiastic recommendation. With him, Dad and I both win.

Alysa of the Fields

Kasey Cox

I believe strongly in promoting local authors, and Tina Field Howe makes this easy. Tina is located in Corning, NY, and has a beautiful website showcasing her many talents as artist, illustrator, graphic designer, writer, and editor. She works with media as diverse as stained glass to screenplays. Most recently, I have had the pleasure of becoming absorbed in Tina’s novel, “Alysa of the Fields”. The first in a series, Alysa’s story tells of life on Xunar-kun, a planet with many similarities to Earth, with a history that is a cautionary “what-if” parallel to our own. Howe smoothly combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, anthropology, survival stories, spirituality, nature studies, and young adult fiction. I found “Alysa of the Fields” to be a compelling, though not heavy-handed read, one that should be engaging for teens and adults alike.

I like some science fiction and fantasy, but I tend to be picky. When I started out with “Alysa of the Fields”, I was a little leery, afraid that it would be one more science fiction story where the author indulges in creating a different planet with beings that have exotic fur or colors or brow ridges, but are otherwise humanoid. That’s one thing I personally don’t like about many sci-fi series on TV: I get bored with the “planet- and new-alien-culture-of-the-week” approach. This, however, is exactly where Tina Howe triumphs. Her background in anthropology and her creative interest in people shine through in her descriptions of life among the Field-Folk and the Trailmen. Tina includes explanations of how people in these two separate tribes have adapted to daily life these 3,000 years “A.C.” (After Cataclysm). Included are details about how they cook their food, what they eat, their style of dress, their matrimonial ceremonies, their division of labor, their pets, and so much more. None of this is boring, since it is well-incorporated into the storyline. I never felt I was reading description for descriptions’ sake.

Like any society, stories and skills, beliefs and traditions are taught, practiced, and passed on to insure the survival of Alysa’s people, the Field-Folk. Besides twice-yearly meetings for trade, during which a form of sign language is used, the “Folk” do not interact with the Trailmen, whom they believe to be a fierce, aggressive, dangerous people. But the Folk and the Trailmen are on the cusp of tremendous, far-reaching changes. Alysa, quite unintentionally at first, is the catalyst.

Alysa is a likeable character, perhaps made all the more so by the fact that she is a somewhat unlikely heroine. She displays no unusual talents, has felt no calling to special work in her young life. She has been content to work in the fields, and keep house with her family. Alysa is genuine, caring, and loyal; she is firmly dedicated to those she loves. Following her strength of heart has never caused her problems, until the sudden death of her father changes the plans made for her adult life. Having no knowledge of the events she will set in motion, or of the consequences for all the inhabitants of the planet, she begins to question the traditions of her people, their beliefs about the strange Trailmen, the history they have always taught. With these events, and with Alysa’s actions, we the readers find many ways to connect with and learn from this book. Tina Howe has created a story that celebrates following your convictions and that encourages us to look at people who are different from us with respectful curiosity, openness, tolerance, and a desire to learn.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

2006 Book Diary: Year-in-Review

Kasey Cox

Somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s, I usually get a new journal. One year, my brother gave me “A Book Lover’s Diary” for Christmas. The trick is to jot down a few reflections on the various books you read as the months go by. Reading over the journal later shows you a wonderful slice of your life in any given season. This little record also serves to answer the question that inevitably arises for great minds whose bookcases are overflowing: “Did I already read this book?”

Although I didn’t keep such a journal this year, I thought I’d share a few highlights from my Book-Year-in-Review. Hopefully, a few of these treasures will go on your reading list for 2007.

For January, I’d recommend John Updike’s “A Child’s Calendar”. Many readers associate Updike with his award-winning “Rabbit” series, which is not about cute little bunnies. Nevertheless, Updike scores big with this lovely collection of poems for children. Each month has a beautiful illustration and a timely poem.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Kevin and I discovered a copy of “Oriental Love Poems”. Three-dimensional origami fold-outs which accent the poems make this a book to delight your eyes and your heart. In March, I took the lighter side of love and laughed my way through Christopher Moore’s “The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove.” Good thing I read about amorous sea monsters first, because next I read Jodi Picoult’s intense, haunting, but incredible first book, “Songs of the Humpback Whale”. A story told alternately through the voices of several of the main characters, Picoult stunned me with her writing craft and powerful story. This book, too, is a love story – one that weaves many kinds of love together but allows the reader to see each strand.

As May came to Wellsboro, I longed for the smell of fresh air and the feel of my hands in the dirt. Reading Richard Goodman’s “French Dirt” satisfied me when my garden efforts were stymied. An account of an American who eventually gets to know his new neighbors in a small village in France, I think “French Dirt” is better than the more well-known books by Peter Mayle.

I spent a lot of the summer reading “Eragon” and its sequel “Eldest”. If you haven’t heard of the phenomenon of Christopher Paolini, wunderkind author of these popular books about dragons, just remember: the book is always better than the movie.

As fall approached, I chose to honor September 11 by reading one of the first authors to deal with 9/11 through fiction. Jonathan Safran Foer, also hailed as something of a wunderkind for his first novel “Everything is Illuminated”, maintains his unique style in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” The title alone speaks volumes. The narration belongs to precocious Oskar Schell who lost his father in the Twin Towers.

For Halloween, I re-discovered a childhood favorite by Judith Viorst. Many people know her from “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day”, but my brother and I also loved one we found at the Green Free as kids. It’s another long title which is just as much fun as the book – “My Mama Says There Aren’t Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things.”

In November, I saw an interview with Stephen King about his newest book, “Lisey’s Story.” He drew a parallel between writing novels and playing baseball – sometimes it’s a base hit, sometimes a homerun. He felt “Lisey’s Story” is the best he’s done in years. I agree.

Currently, I’m thrilled that Jeff Shaara’s detailed historical fiction, “To the Last Man”, about World War I, is out in paperback. As I’m reading, certain names and facts jump out at me as things I had to memorize in school, but now the pieces of the war I know so little about are coming together.

Here’s hoping Santa filled your stocking with some great books, and that you find time to read in the coming year. Happy holidays!

Young Elizabeth Had A Farm ....

Kasey Cox

Elizabeth Angier is a fourth-grader who lives on a farm. She helps her parents weed the large vegetable garden, dye skeins of wool from their sheep, arrange wildflowers into bouquets to be sold at the farmers’ market, and water the saplings that landscapers buy. Will, the high school boy from the dairy farm over the hill, comes over to help her dad on occasion. Elizabeth loves everything about growing up on the farm that has been in her father’s family for many generations. But all this threatens to change: a company that runs “CAFO” (Concentrated Feeding Animal Organizations) pig farms arrives to woo struggling farmers into selling their farms and taking jobs with the large corporation. As Elizabeth’s parents desperately research the effects of existing CAFO’s on a community’s air, water, commerce, and quality of life, Elizabeth herself discovers her own connection to the earth and the powers that gives her. Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, appears to her as an otter, and begins to teach her.

That’s just a brief synopsis of Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth, recent winner of the 2006 National Outdoor Book Award, children’s division. Although this is a fantastical novel that author Lee Welles has written for children (“ages 9 and up”), many parts of the story ring true for communities like ours. Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth takes place on a farm in upstate New York, near the Finger Lakes. Much of it reads like home, the beauty as well as the struggles.

Although I consider myself sympathetic to environmental activists, I am leary of being lumped in with folks who wear hemp and eat vegetarian because it’s trendy. In sitting down to read Gaia Girls, I was a little afraid that the story would be heavy-handed on earth goddesses but skim over the true difficulties of living environmentally-aware. I am pleased to report I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Three Oaks Farm” is an organic farm, but Welles makes it clear that this makes the Angier family and their products unusual for their community. They need to be very creative to be successful: they advertise their organic produce to upscale restaurants, who pre-order from the farm. Another way they make money is by selling many different products: wool, vegetables, flowers, young trees, honey. Though Elizabeth and her parents feel they live a happy life in a corner of paradise, Welles doesn’t flinch from showing how fragile that existence is, and how much work it takes to maintain it.

Welles’ writing is strong. At the beginning, I was reminded of Charlotte’s Web. As I continued to read Gaia Girls, I realized I was in the middle of a wonderful new literary phenomenon. I see this book, and the series to follow, touching many as it touched me. Enter the Earth reminded me of environmental issues and earth science facts that I already know about, but made me feel more attached to them. Without being preachy, Gaia Girls helps the reader see the science behind farming methods that are good for the earth, and how it is healthy for the people who live there and those of us who eat the food grown there. With Elizabeth, we can connect to the farm, as she and the farm connect to the earth. I raced through the book, loved the story, and can’t wait for more.

The Gift of Gilbert

Let me tell you a feel-good story. It involves love – the love of a mother for her daughter, and a child’s passionate, exhilarated, uncomplicated love for books. This is the true story of Deb Raymer, and her daughter Sabrina, and how I came to know them. This holiday season, I am grateful that Deb has shared parts of her story, and that through her mom, Sabrina has shared a wonderful cast of characters previously unknown to me.

A couple of months ago, Deb asked me to help her find a series of books. All Sabrina wants for Christmas is “Gilbert”. Deb needed to order multiple copies of each book in the collection, she explained. Sabrina loves the “Gilbert” books so much, that she reads them to pieces. Literally. While I am always thrilled to see someone who loves books that much, that’s not even the best part of the story. Sabrina is mentally and physically handicapped. She has a job at Partners in Progress that she enjoys. Whenever she rides to work on the bus, she has a “Gilbert” book – or two, or three – in her bag, and she “reads” them to the other passengers. Sabrina has memorized her favorite books. Her mother needs to keep buying new copies of them because Sabrina pages through them so much and so often that they fall apart.

Gilbert, the hedgehog, and his sister Lola, are creations from the paintbrush and pen of Diane de Groat. This author/illustrator started working in children’s literature by doing the artwork for some well-known children’s authors, such as Lois Lowry and Eve Bunting. De Groat started on her Gilbert series in 1996 with “Roses are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink”, which is still Sabrina’s favorite.

I hadn’t heard of de Groat, and Deb gave my literary ego a boost by reassuring me that I’m not alone. Often, when Deb and Sabrina have searched for Gilbert in libraries and bookstores, he is nowhere to be found. So, it’s time to spread the word. Diane de Groat has created a fun, inexpensive series with sympathetic characters, situations that kids can relate to, and a little lesson that doesn’t come across like a 2”x 4” to the forehead. The titles themselves produce a smile for kids and adults alike. Now there’s a Gilbert for every season in a child’s life. A reader can start school with Gilbert in “Brand New Pencils, Brand New Books” and end the school year with the companion volume, “No More Pencils, No More Books! No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks!” In these final months of the year, we have been enjoying “We Gather Together, Now Please Get Lost” for Thanksgiving, and “Jingle Bells, Homework Smells” for Christmas.

The Gilbert books have been so successful that now his sister Lola has her own series, books for slightly younger children, that often include Gilbert, but from Lola’s point-of-view. When Lola can’t decide what to be for Halloween, she finally decides to be “a Gilbert”, because she knows he’s an original. I think Sabrina and Lola are on to something good.

Quality Zombie Literature? Inquiring Readers Want to Know!

Kasey Cox

The road to zombies is, evidently, a more slippery slope than I’d realized. Recently, I was in a Hamilton-Gibson ten-minute piece in which I played a dead person. The character opposite me was a bloody dead guy. At the opening night party, several of us got to laughing about how there just aren’t enough plays where an actor gets to be a bloody dead guy. How we need some quality theater written about zombies. Imagine the witty dialogue-- Zombie #1: Mmmnnnggghhh! Zombie #2: Gnnrrrrrrr! There’s some quality literature! Ha ha ha ha ha ….

Who knew how soon I would have to eat those sarcastic words (better than eating flesh, giggle-snort). On September 6, Max Brooks published his novel World War Z. “Z” in this case, is short for “Zombie”. I started reading it soon after, thinking it’d be funny. I mean, zombie movies are mostly pretty cheesy, right?

I’ve never seen Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, or any of the films that followed. Certainly, I’ve read my share of Stephen King, and watched my share of slasher flicks. As a teen, I have to being somewhat scared by Freddie Kruger. But I was never a Goth girl, never into Anne Rice, and only watched “Resident Evil” because my boyfriend at the time had played the video game and wanted to see the film.

I picked up this novel because I thought it ironic to have just been joking about “zombie literature”, and because I like survival stories. There are two post-apocalyptic, society-is-utterly-changed-by-sudden-catastrophe books that moved me and stayed with me over time. One is Stephen King’s novel, The Stand (and for goodness’ sake, read the book; don’t see the mediocre movie!). The other was Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day. Both amazing stories came from sources I’d not expected. Third time’s a charm, I guess.

World War Z surprised me. The writing grabbed me, and not the cheesy way a ghoulish hand from under the bed grabs the stupid heroine in a horror movie. I found the structure of the novel intriguing: Brooks shares the story of World War Z by “interviewing” the survivors ten years after “the Crisis” has passed. The interviewees are people who were, at the time, doctors, children, government officials, military grunts, cyberpunks, pilots, gardeners at fancy international resorts. They are Americans, Chinese, Russian, Mexican, Korean, British, French, Australian. While this style of storytelling is not completely original, it is compelling. I stopped chortling about reading about zombies (of all things! not serious literature, of course!), and started hearing what Max Brooks understands about humanity – as a whole, and as individuals.

I thought he had some profound insights about resilience and depravity, about the bald cruelty of survival tactics and the ridiculous amount of luxury we think of as necessity. Most of all, as someone who has fought my own version of life-or-death demons, I really agreed with what Brooks says about hope. Pick the book up yourself, and see if you don’t find it hard to put down. Max Brooks may be a bit odd – he is the son of Mel Brooks, the director of many tongue-in-cheek films – but the writing here hits many issues right on the head. That’s the only way to kill the undead, or the critics, if you can tell them apart.

What's Lurking in PA on any given Dark Haunted Day....

Kasey Cox

What is it about Halloween and ghost stories that turns us all into kids? Just looking at the covers of local author William Robertson’s two spooky story collections makes me want to grin like a jack o’lantern and cackle like a witch. Lurking in Pennsylvania features a cover photo of two fawns in a patch of trees – a photo that was probably high in the “awwwww….” factor (as in, “awww, aren’t they sweet?) before the addition of a demonic glow in the eyes of the Bambi twins. (This is probably a much more accurate portrayal, many gardeners will be happy to let you know.)

Robertson’s newest collection, Dark Haunted Day, displays another familiar northern Pennsylvania scene, that of the weathered farmhouse surrounded by stark trees. This cover is in black and white, as are the rest of the photos scattered throughout the book to accompany various stories. Not that it would matter much if the photos were in color, because for many months of the year, and at several times of the day, this is the way our landscapes look. In both his introduction and with the tone of his stories, this Potter County author speaks to the way the atmosphere affects those of us who call this area home. The author remarks that although this climate causes bouts of depression in some people, for him it has inspired the creative spark that allows him to present us with stories, poems and pictures that bring that childlike pleasure in scaring yourself.

Indeed, as I read through the offerings of these two books, I connected most with the stories about kids. The very first one I read was “Rescue at the Devil’s Den”, which combines Robertson’s two greatest strengths – his knowledge about the Pennsylvania Civil War unit known as the Bucktails, and his writing for children. Bill Robertson marches with the local re-enactment unit of the Bucktails, and has penned five wonderful books on the subject. With co-author David Rimer, Robertson writes about the experiences the young men of northern Pennsylvania had while fighting with the Bucktails. Obviously, Robertson draws on these writings, and adds a supernatural twist in creating some of his horror stories. The Boy Scout who is stranded up in Devil’s Den on a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield makes out far better in his encounter with the spirit of a soldier than does the photographer who hasn’t been paying child support in the appropriately titled, “Bad Things Happen to Bad Men.”

Another thrill came from hearing Rob Kathcart give an animated reading of “Mrs. Babcock’s ABC’s” to a young audience who shrieked in delight as second-grader Perry finds at the truth about his “evil” teacher and principal. And children as well as adults should enjoy the fact that in many stories, ghosts get their revenge on people who deserve it – hunters who needlessly and brutally kill over their legal limit of deer; a home repairman taking advantage of an old widow; the editor of a magazine who enjoys sending rejection letters. Although occasionally Robertson’s dialogue or style is a little stilted, these two books on the whole offer countless nuggets of enjoyment. I encourage Gazette readers who are looking to share a thrill: support a local author, turn off the lights and read aloud by firelight what’s Lurking in Pennsylvania on any given Dark Haunted Day.

Duncan Does Deliver

Kasey Cox

Let me tell you about a fantastic writer you’re probably not reading. If you’re a librarian or a high school teacher, then I know you’re familiar with her. She’s been nominated for hundreds of awards for Young Adult fiction, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award for a Distinguished Body of Work for Young Adults, from the American Library Association and the School Library Journal. Unfortunately, those accolades are not something most of us hear about. The books that get the big press are often those adapted for TV or film. As many parents, grandparents, teachers and teens themselves will tell you, Young Adult fiction has lately become an exciting and bewildering mix of Manga, dragons, young wizards, unfortunate orphans and catchy series.

All the while, Lois Duncan keeps publishing great stories. They’re not as flashy as Eragon or Harry Potter, but they often incorporate the supernatural. Duncan’s writing has a lot more substance than the Goosebumps or Animorphs series, but her books will more than meet the quota for chills or thrills. Many kids who like to read end up with a reading level that is several school-grade levels above their age experience or emotional development, and are left with few books that will really satisfy them. My dad frowned as I began taking Mom’s Stephen King books off the shelf in third grade. Then, the summer I turned eleven, I was lucky to discover an entire shelf of Lois Duncan books at the Green Free Library. I’m sure my parents were relieved.

Since the 1970’s, Lois Duncan has been turning out thrillers that fit the bill for younger readers craving suspense, a little spookiness, and sympathetic characters. Every few years, the publishers change the covers, giving them something more stylish to wear so they can catch the eye of the latest generation of teens. But I’d recommend Duncan to any mystery fan, no matter how many years-young. Her books accomplish what so many other books of the same genre only promise. Look on the covers of any contemporary thriller or mystery and you’ll find critics raving about “taut prose” with “engaging, plausible characters” and a “fast-paced, page-turning plot”. Duncan delivers all this and more. There’s no need to figure out which one to read first, and there’s not much difficulty figuring out if you’ve already read it, which happens to most of us with our favorite mystery authors. Duncan’s books are not part of a series, nor are they formulaic.

If you need a place to start, my personal favorites are “Down a Dark Hall” and “The Third Eye”. Both of these stories have a high school girl as their central character, and both of these girls have a psychic ability that neither realized she had. In “The Third Eye”, Karen decides to help local police find kidnapped children and finds herself quickly ensnared in dangerous case involving “serial” kidnappers who strike nursery schools. The chapters reveal one surprise after another about Karen’s family, her current boyfriend and her future. “Down A Dark Hall”, on the other hand, does not appear to have anything supernatural about it – at first. Kit has been selected to be one of only four students at a private boarding school whose atmosphere is creepier than she’d like, but otherwise seems fairly normal. The reason she and the other girls are selected, though, is anything but educational. This story, too, eventually reveals things to Kit, not just about the school and the few other people there, but also about memories she couldn’t quite figure out.

Picking up one of these books the other day, I thought I’d glance over it and ended up re-reading the whole thing. People who love to read often joke that once they start a book, the rest of the world goes away – or they wish it would. With Duncan’s stories, that’s not an idle joke or wish: it’s a guarantee.

I read it first!

Kasey Cox

I don’t know how many people share my secret desire, but I hope I’m not alone in my stubborn pride. Here is my confession: I often want to be THE biggest fan. The one who liked it BEFORE it became a popular trend. I’d like to pride myself as a reader who knew about a book long before Oprah chose it, or someone in Hollywood decided it would make a great movie. I struggle between being glad that someone of prestige would validate my choice in favorite books, and being disappointed that my choice in favorites seems no more than jumping on the bandwagon.

So it is with the book and the author for this column. When I started thinking about books I’d like to review, Jennifer Egan’s novel “The Invisible Circus” came to mind immediately. I found this novel in a used bookstore in the summer of 2001. Pat Conroy was one of my favorite authors, and his praise for this book intrigued me: “If there were any justice in the world, no one would be allowed to write a first novel of such beauty and accomplishment.” I had just read two other novels -- Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain”, and Susan Vreeland’s “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” -- about which I was saying the same thing. Of course, now, these books have been made into movies and these authors have received huge critical acclaim.

Although I still love Conroy, Frazier, and Vreeland, I believe “The Invisible Circus” surpasses them. The story follows Phoebe, a recent graduate of high school in the late 1970’s, who is still trying to resolve her feelings about the life and death of her older sister, Faith. Growing up in San Francisco, Faith came of age in “the ‘60’s”, at the epicenter of the counterculture, the Beat poets, excitement about changes, talk of revolution. Since Phoebe was only a child at the time, she sees herself, Faith, and those times through the distorted mirror of a little sister’s awe. To find herself and find out what happened to Faith, Phoebe impulsively leaves on a trip, following Faith’s old postcards from her travels, like a treasure map. Phoebe’s discoveries – in her own memories and in the stories of people who knew Faith in her last days – are touching, mesmerizing, shocking, and ultimately, healing.

This is a story where the characters give us the chance to ask the question they themselves struggle with – do we love the people in our lives for who they truly are, or who we imagine them to be? And how will we deal with the disparity between our beliefs and the reality of a person we love, especially if that truth is a sudden and unwelcome revelation? There are many books written about sisters, about the effect a death has on a family and the survivors, and on the experiences of people during the 1960’s. For me, “The Invisible Circus” handles these intricate matters with an unparalled grace and clarity. Although Egan tackles complex emotions across a web of interconnected characters, the situations never feel contrived, and the resolution is satisfying and real – unforced.

Since “The Invisible Circus”, Jennifer Egan wrote a second novel, “Look at Me”, that was a finalist for the National Book Award. With her third novel – “The Keep”— just released last month, she’s again receiving national attention. Just remember, I read her first.

Dr Tatiana's Banned Book Review

Kasey Cox

What do you get when you cross a biology textbook, a Dr. Ruth show, a Dear Abby column, and a “Far Side” cartoon? Well, the offspring might be a brilliantly original book named Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. This collection answers the desperate questions from species as varied as the Australian redback spider to the Louisiana black vulture with Dr. Tatiana’s practical, reassuring, detailed explanations. It seems the worry on everyone’s mind is, “Am I normal?”

Move over, Dr. Phil. Author Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist, award-winning science journalist, graduate of Stanford, and doctorate of Oxford University. Writing as Dr. Tatiana, Judson transforms both difficult scientific ideas and the sometimes-awkward discussion of the (ah-hem!) birds and the bees into accessible, often hilarious reading material. Evidently, virgin births, homosexuality, variety in size and shape of genitalia, elaborate courtship rituals, and cannibalism are not so unusual in nature as one may think. Dr. Tatiana gives her readers – be they insect, animal or human – a sigh of relief along with a much-needed chuckle at our own foibles as she explains, from her expert but kind perspective, why we do the things we do.

And herein lies the rub. While I see Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice …as a clever way to teach a wealth of knowledge about natural science, biology, animal behavior, and genetics, I know there are many folks who would balk. The first time I read this book, I wished it could have been included in my high school science class, and fondly remembered time spent in the classrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Puskar, where quirky often served as mnemonic. But I know, especially now, that eyebrows would go way up, and corners of mouths would go way down, at the words “SEX ADVICE”, let alone that the subtitle, which announces this little volume as “The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.” If “sex advice” in any classroom context is murky ground, then “evolutionary” anything these days is a cause for all-out war.

At the end of September of each year, the American Library Association reminds us to celebrate our freedom to read by marking “Banned Book Week.” If Dr. Tatiana isn’t on the list of banned books, I’m sure it easily could be. That makes me sad, because I don’t like that learning details about the stunning array of life on earth could be seen as bad, harmful, or sinful. Whether you believe it’s God’s creation or just critters, they still do the things so deliciously described here. Few people have a problem with their kids watching a Discovery channel special about the Lamprologus ocellatus, a fish that lives in one of the Great Lakes of tropical Africa? Somehow, this is different. I guess the real debate comes when Dr. Tatiana (or any biology professor) starts explaining the WHY behind behavior in terms of evolution. Then, the main “worry” of living beings is not, as the cute letters of bugs and fish may suggest, about being normal, but about reproducing and spreading your genes. That does shoot a big hole in the theories espoused in Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life”. Not to mention some religious texts, like the best-selling book of all time.

I’m not going to provide a neat little resolution to this debate, not that I could even if I wrote a dissertation instead of a book review. I’m just going to recommend that you grab a copy of Dr. Tatiana and take yourself, the whimsical and weird of nature, and the evolutionary debate on the light side for a few hours. Learn a lot, laugh a lot, and celebrate the fact that in the United States, you can read about a subject from all different angles.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

"Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About"

Kevin Coolidge

A voice drifts up from below. ”What are you doing?” My girlfriend asks.
“Nothing.” I reply.
“Then you can help me with the dishes,” she says.
“I’m busy.” I yell downstairs.
I’m sitting in front of a blank computer screen, thinking and writing about nothing. I stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back. It’s ok. I’m a man and we do that sometimes. It’s Zen in the art of being a guy. I am a whirlwind at rest, serenity in action. I am in the zone. I am zenned. Sure, I could be striving for that cherished Pulitzer. Writing about world hunger, of mans inhumanity to man, of kinder and gentler political regimes, even how to grill the perfect steak, but I’m in the moment, at one with the keyboard. The perfect lead into my next column will come, because you can’t step into the same river twice, and my fuzzy bunny slippers are still dry.
“Take out the trash, if you aren’t doing anything!” hollers my girlfriend.
Damn, my bubble of tranquility has burst, and I have nothing, nothing at all…

Nothing keeps a relationship on its toes so much as lively debate. Fortunately, my girlfriend and I agree on nothing, nothing at all. Nobody knows the dynamics of long-term relationships better than Mil Millington, author of Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About.

Mil started out writing his column for the British paper, The Guardian. The column, it turns out, is about things that Mil and his girlfriend Margaret argue about. They argue about the remote, the proper way to cut a kiwi, and even argue about arguments.

Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, the novel, begins with our protagonist, Pel, his German girlfriend Ursula, and their two children. Pel works in the IT department of a university library (or "Learning Centre"-- he is a British writer after all). Pel receives an odd call from his boss, TSR, who quizzes him about extradition treaties; within a week he has vanished without a trace, and Pel is promoted to TSR's former position, CTASATM- "Computer Team Administration, Software Acquisition and Training Manager". Have to love those acronyms.
The story follows both Pel's home and work lives. At home, there are the arguments with Ursula over the search for a new home, after the latest burglary of their current home; defrosting the fridge during the moving preparations; Ursula terrifying the builders working on the repairs of the new house; a skiing accident, leaving Ursula with a torn tendon in her shoulder.
At work, Pel finds that taking on TSR's job involves more than it seemed at first; he has to pay off student recruiters from the Pacific Rim, who happen to be members of The Triads, the oriental version of organized crime. He has to take care of the details of the building of a new Learning Centre building, which involves hiding the fact that skeletons from an ancient burial ground have been illegally moved from the site, and a dangerous neurotoxin is to be buried under the new addition--a dual semester science project by an unsupervised student.
These details lead him to become closely involved with the permanently hung over Vice Chancellor of the university, which leads to his receiving another promotion, to Learning Centre Manager. The previous holder of that position having left to pursue his fetish website, and well things just get stranger from there.
This is Mil’s first novel and he does tend to hang a more-or-less useless plot on the concept of “things”. In many places in seems to be a collection of his columns inserted into a novel. But he has great comic timing and his turn of phrasing will keep you entertained. He’s so deft and downright funny that it’ll get you kicked out of bed and probably start another one of those “arguments”. His humor is distinctly English.
If you don't mind your humor peppered with bollocks, tossers, and the odd wanker, than Mil Millington is your man. Check him out…

Comments, questions, squeeze the toothpaste in the middle or roll it up? Email me at frommyshelf@epix.net

Kevin Coolidge

"Don't Fry Bacon with Your Shirt Off!!"

Kevin Coolidge

A slight breeze whispers through the trees. Fortune favors me this misty morning, for the wind hides my scent, carrying it away from my intended prey. All morning I’ve tracked this fearsome beast. Waiting for that one perfect moment, that split second, frozen in time. I let fly my spear, giving a silent prayer to the Gods of the hunt. The animal screams, and falls dead. Today is a good day, because I eat. A voice from the heavens booms, “Clean up in Aisle 7.” The manager starts screaming “Get Out! I’m calling the cops!”

It’s not my fault. I told my girlfriend that guys don’t shop. We hunt. Sure you can send us to the grocery store, but make sure we have a list. We hunt for the milk. We hunt for the bread, we make the kill and then we’re out of there, and as for the tampons…

A lot of us also don’t cook, and that’s why Don’t Fry Bacon with Your Shirt Off: A Single Man’s Guide to the Kitchen by Bob Woodley is going to come in handy. Not frying bacon with your shirt off is the first rule for the single man for a number of reasons. You don’t want to burn the skin off your chest, and you want to be able to eat your BLT without burning down the house.

The great thing about this book is that Bob breaks it down in guy-like instructions. Just like with any basic skill, there are levels of competence. You might feel comfortable rewiring your house or your level of handiness might be changing a light bulb. If you are eating cereal for dinner, and think that the refrigerator is just for keeping your beer cold, then this book is for you.

The book starts with the basics--a list of all the pots, pans, utensils and other stuff you may eventually want to have. Don’t worry about having to run out and buy that fondue pot. He lists the stuff you will need most first, and just like buying any tool, whether a power drill or a frying pan, quality counts.

One of the few things that modern man has over Neanderthals is the ability to store food for later consumption. This handy book covers some of the basics. There’s more to storage than Tupperware. What’s the sense of buying the econopack of chicken wings only to have to throw half of them away?

This isn’t a cookbook full of recipes, though he does manage to sneak in a couple. If you are a typical guy, a recipe is just like a set of directions for putting together a BBQ grill. First you read it thoroughly, drink a cold beer, and then throw it away, because you’re a guy and you don’t need directions. Bob does cover where to find recipes and how to follow a recipe, and you know Aunt Martha is just dying to give you her famous meat-loaf secret.

The book also covers Mexican and Italian food, pasta, ground beef, the amazing egg (it’s not just for breakfast anymore), and how to cook for a party. The important survival mode chapter is for those who just need to get by, whether the end of the semester is coming or you’re recently divorced, but you don’t want to starve, live on fast food or microwave popcorn, and pizza. The best way to reheat cold pizza by the way is to use a toaster oven, not a microwave.

This book is a great gift for your friend who just got his first bachelor pad, or for the recently divorced buddy. Grab a six-pack, drop by and leave the book on the kitchen counter. Just don’t consume alcohol and decide to cook up something. It may seem like a great idea, but jalapeno poppers are not for the uninitiated and grease fires can be nasty. (Note: do not use water, or beer to put out a grease fire. Smother it was a pan lid, use a LOT of baking soda, or a chemical fire extinguisher, and when it doubt, get out) So, do the single man you know a favor. This book won’t make him a chef, but it can make him a cook. Grab this book, serve, and enjoy…

Kevin Coolidge.

Comments, questions, what to serve with a BLT, red or white wine? Email me at frommyshelf@epix.net Be sure to check out my cat’s new book Hobo Finds a Home-A children’s book about a barn cat, who wanted more out of life, illustrated by Susan M.Gage.

"The Pen and the Sword"

Kevin Coolidge

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I much prefer my Swiss army knife. Still, I could not help but be fascinated by a class called “The Pen and the Sword” taught by an Aikido master. Truly, now was my chance to learn to kill a man with a ballpoint pen, and land that job with the CIA. If he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, then he who lives by the pen…? Writing is not for the weak. I must be strong. I must be prepared. I must be ready.

I was ready to become both master of the pen and the sword. Anxiously I awaited the sensei’s (Japanese for teacher) arrival. The room filled with gymnastic mats-also called tatami-and nervous energy. Here I would forge the weapon of my mind, the strength of my spirit, the tool of my will.

A stout man came waddling into the room with a Grizzly Adams beard and blazing blue eyes, like a half-crazed Viking warrior who forgot where he put his bearskin. This could not be the teacher? Surely such a man was born to wield an ungainly battle-axe, not the eloquently crafted katana. Lost? Searching for a Wagner opera? A drumming circle?

His voice boomed, “You have to write a poem. You have one minute. Go!”

A mad rush of students surged to the back wall where a table sat loaded with clean, white paper and pencils. Quickly, I grabbed a pencil. “Only a minute to craft a poem of truth and beauty, and it has to be great!” I looked to the heavens for inspiration; I pleaded to my muse for guidance. I looked within myself, and found me.

There’s a saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And there I was. There’s some that might say I’m bull-headed, or have a blatant disregard for authority figures. Maybe, maybe not. But I was in the moment, and that rebel in me grabbed that pencil and wrote four quick lines that spilled out of me.

I have to write a poem.
It has to be good.
No, I don’t.
No, it doesn’t.

I put my pencil down and smiled smugly like that smart-ass kid in geometry class that always finishes his test before anyone else. Don’t you just hate that? The berserker glared at me and snarled, “Are you done?”

“Yep.” I arrogantly replied.

“You now have thirty seconds!” roared the madman...

Aikido (aikidō) is translated as the “way of harmonious spirit,” and emphasizes joining with an attack and redirecting the attacker's energy. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So this class was not to turn me into a lethal weapon, but it did make the art of poetry more accessible to me. The arts of war have strong traditions in many art forms, from poetry to calligraphy to flower arranging.

Martial arts are more than what you do, or do to someone. Martial arts can help build confidence, fitness, discipline and awareness of one’s surroundings. It is something that you feel. Being what you are. Being in the moment and it ain’t always pretty.

What is poetry? Is it more than just words? If it has no structure, is it poetry? If it doesn’t rhyme, is it poetry? If it’s in free form, or freestyle, is that a poem? Poetry, and discussions of it, have a long history, and poets and scholars will never agree on a definition. For me, poetry is a means of expressing an idea, emotion, feeling or memory in a concise way. It may be graceful, beautifully expressed, or even brutal-an elegant arc of a well-honed blade or a swift body blow to the breadbasket.

No, my aikido teacher was not a tyrant, or a bully, but a kind, gentle man with lessons to teach and wicked sense of humor. The real power and truth of a poem is the honesty and truth to it. You can dress it up, flesh it out, or make it dance the salsa, but if it isn’t real it really isn’t anything at all. What is poetry? All I can say is, “You’ll know it when you feel it…”

For further reading check out, Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry: The way of the brush reflects the strategic principles of the sword, Lowry is master of both.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: A celebration of the act of writing, by a master storyteller. I am unaware of his prowess in the deadly arts, but I don’t recommend meeting him in a dark alleyway.

"Flatlanders and Ridgerunners"

Kevin Coolidge

Two flatlanders are hiking in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon when they find themselves trapped between a mother bear and her two cubs. The bear roars and starts to charge towards them. One of them stands rooted to the spot, while the other bends down, calmly takes off his fancy hiking boots, and starts to lace up his running shoes. The first flatlander looks over and says to his friend, "Why bother? No one can outrun a bear." His friend looks up and says, "I know that. But all I have to do is outrun you..."
I’m a ridgerunner and thus a natural storyteller and I love flatlander jokes. Just what is a flatlander? If you have to ask, you probably are one. Natives, also known as ridgerunners, use flatlander as a term for people from “down state”, especially people from Southern Pennsylvania around Philadelphia area and especially folks from New Jersey. Really though, it can stand for anyone from outside the endless mountains of North Central Pennsylvania. The term can be used jokingly, but also with a fair amount of contempt. The common understanding, as represented in the book Flatlanders and Ridgerunners by James York Glimm, is that the flatlanders lack the knowledge of the hills and the means of basic survival and should go home.
Unfortunately, this collection of folktales has gone the way of the Sidehill Mootie. Well, being that I’m made of earth and stone, and pure mountain spring water flows through my veins, that answer wasn’t good enough for me.
I decided to track down the publisher and find out who owned the rights and see if I couldn’t use some of that old country charm to get it reprinted. I have a copy of my own that I’ve perused so much that it’s only held together with spit and spider webs. I’ve found several of the out of print editions, but these sell upwards of eighty dollars for the hardcover edition, and close to fifty for the paperback, and that’s money I need for the still.
It seems I’m not the only one who knows their “ass from a hole in the ground”. Margie Bachman of University of Pittsburgh Press has been instrumental in this book seeing the light of day, and bringing it back into print. Margie says of the book, “First published in 1983, and continues to be in high demand…a must read.” It’s been a process for Margie, and she’s run into a number of snags along the way, but this tome of local folktales is available once again.
James York Glimm was born a city boy. So when he took a position at Mansfield University in the heart of the mountains of Northern Pennsylvania in 1968. He was unprepared for the weather, the animals, and getting only three television stations, two of which didn’t come in. He was ignorant, an outsider--yep, a flatlander. As he explains in the introduction to his now beloved book.
How does one become a ridgerunner? Well, most locals say you have to be born one, and there’s some truth to that. But with the passage of time, people might just forget that you “aint from these parts”, at least most of the time. One of the first things to remember is that this isn’t the big city, and that’s one reason we live here. There’s a natural, scenic beauty, and it doesn’t come with a opera house, stores lit with neon signs that stay open 24/7. There also isn’t a lot of impersonal, violent crime. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Sure, you might get an rear end full of rock salt for skinny dipping in a farmer’s pond, but he knows who you are--especially, the next day when he sees you limping around.
We like it this way, and attempting to recreate that little part of the city you left behind is universally resented. I don’t care if you are a hard-core tree hugger, vegetarian, activist, or flesh eating zombie—that’s just dandy. Just don’t stick it in my craw and expect me to chew on it. Most ridgerunners don’t care who you are or what you do as long as you extend the same courtesy to them.
Plain old good manners and common sense will see you through most situations and help you adjust to the ridgerunner way, but since there’s a book for damn near everything, I recommend, Starting A New Life In Rural America: 21 Things You Need to Know Before You Make Your Move by Ragnar Benson. Benson grew up on a farm and has lived in the sticks most of his life. He’s gathered his advice in this handy manual. Hey, why learn things the hard way? He covers topics from septic tanks, to snow storms to bears in your garbage. Blending into your natural surroundings is just part of your new life in the country. Unfortunately, many city people think about nature and forget about social blending. Ragnar covers driving protocol in the country, how to borrow tools, and rural churches and their role in local affairs.
There’s much more to blending into a rural community than what these two books or any column can cover, but it’s a start. Talking to folks, driving rural roads correctly and helping pull a neighbor out of a ditch in winter are much more valuable in terms of community relations than holding an open house. As I said, plain, good old manners and common sense will see you through most situations. So, take a load off, buy me a cold beer, and let me tell you about these two flatlanders that went huntin’…
Comments, questions, your favorite folktale, email me at frommyshelf@epix.net

"Book Clubs"

Kevin Coolidge

Have you always loved books? When other kids were playing baseball and blowing up frogs, were you reading, exploring the wonderful world of your imagination, stretching your synapses? Could you get lost for hours in the tales of Tarzan, the conquests of Conan, slaying foes and saving fair maidens? Have you ever read a book so good, so riveting, that it demanded to be read? You stayed up to the wee hours of the morning devouring page after page until the batteries in your flashlight died? A book that was so good that you just had to share it with others-reading passages to your wife, to your friends, to strangers on the street?

Do you insist on re-arranging your personal library by the Dewey Decimal System? Is your local library threatening to cut you off? Before the gentlemen in the clean, white coats come to take you away, perhaps you should consider joining a book club. A book club, you say? “I won’t have to serve those damn tasteless cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, or weak tea like a lame garden party, will I? And tests, there won’t be any tests, will there? I forgot to bring my pencil.”

Relax, there are as many types of book clubs as there are books, and the types of people who read them. I’m going to give you a couple tips for starting your own book club, and as a bonus, I’m going to share the recipe for my world-famous scones.

The process can begin by simply asking around for like-minded people and having them help organize the first gathering. You could check within a group that you are affiliated with-such as MOPS, or your poker buddies, or check places where book lovers gather-such as the library or bookstore. You’ll want to take into consideration the idea size of your group, if you need to recruit, and how you will extend those invitations.

Consider the atmosphere and logistics when you are starting to organize. Once you assault the beach, overrun the pill boxes form a spearhead and. Excuse me, I mean, what type of atmosphere are you looking for? Serious, academic, social, or just plain fun? What types of books do you want to read? Do you want to focus on specific topics or genres? Where will you meet and what time slot? Will there be refreshments? Beer? What time will be specifically designated for socializing? It may help to consciously separate the socializing from the discussion. For example, house opens at 7pm for coffee, desert and conversation. Discussion starts at 7:30pm.

Other questions to consider include-how will you choose your books? How far ahead will you plan? How will your members obtain copies of books? Try to choose titles that will take you places where you’ve never been before and will warrant a collaborative and interesting discussion. It is a good idea to choose a selection process. There are several methods: mutual vote (democracy); having a member make three selections and then vote one those (republic);or having the host choose the book (dictatorship). If you are having trouble choosing (bureaucracy), a good places to start is with award winners like the Pulitzer Prize, National Book award, Nebula and Hugo awards (science fiction), or try reading from the list of commonly banned books. You should plan far enough ahead that members have time to read and find the book. Consider putting one member in charge of obtaining copies of the book.

How will each discussion be lead? Will you designate a leader? Can members who haven’t read the book attend? Be spontaneous in your discussions. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak his or her mind. Don’t be afraid to speak up, but be courteous and listen to others. To avoid a lapse or total collapse of the regime-er, discussion-you may want to have everyone formulate three questions, or passages to discuss. Read passages out loud to hear the voices and the language as this can be revealing. Formulate questions that do not have “yes” or “no” answers. Turn statements into provocative questions that probe and stimulate conversation.
Life is full of questions, such as what is the meaning of existence? Yep, grab those pencils. It’s time for the essay question portion of the column. Just kidding: if I gave you a quiz, it’d be true/false. This column can’t give you all the answers. For further reading, I recommend The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience by Diana Loevy. Remember that there is no right and wrong in the art of literary interpretation. Read the book, but don’t be afraid to be yourself. Share your thoughts and insights, have fun in discussing the process of shared exploration, and grab your pencil for my famous scone recipe….

Kevin Coolidge
Comments, questions, one lump or two? Email me at frommyshelf@epix.net

"The Harry Potter Effect"

Kevin Coolidge

As you probably know by now, I love to read. I was the kid who sat on Santa’s lap and asked him to bring me Tunnel in the Sky by Heinlein, or more books in the exciting saga of John Carter, the fighting man of Mars. I still ask for books for Christmas, but Santa doesn’t let me sit on his lap any more.

You’d think I’d be one of the first muggles to jump on the Harry Potter train, but like any avid reader, I always have a pile of books perching. As well as the three or four books I’m currently reading. You can never have too many books—just not enough bookshelves. A few years ago, my sister told me of this magical new series with a boy wizard with a lightning shaped scar, and she insisted that I had to read it. Sound familiar???

Needless to say, I’m a fan of the series, and a little sad to see it conclude. I’m going to savor this last volume. Who am I kidding? I’m going to rush through it in an all-night bender of cellulose and glue, and then read it all over again. What I am elated to see is so many people excited about a book--any book--especially children.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, 89 to 94 million American adults—nearly half of the U.S. adult population—are functionally illiterate. They “lack a sufficient foundation of basic [literacy] skills to function successfully in our society.” Of these, 17% to 20% can read just a little. That means they cannot fill out a job application, understand food labels, read basic instructions or read simple stories to their children. Another 25% can read, but not well enough to follow five consecutive paragraphs of text or documents--such as sales contracts.

In fact, many college bound students haven’t developed an effective vocabulary. Kaplan, which sells prep courses to subvert the SATs--vocabulary lists, drills, that kind of thing--peddles comic books. Only now called “graphic novels” so you can’t tell they’re comic books. Hoping to fertilize the vocabularies of the borderline literate.

I love comic books and books of all genres. I read voraciously, omnivorously and without discrimination. Sometimes without aim or plan or a good reason. eyHHey, it’s a book. Books are to read. I learned to read at an early age, and there wasn’t a darn thing that the school system could do to stop it.

So what of the “Harry Potter Effect”, when this kind of reading urge rises in a child, it’s great news! Smart parents will rejoice and foster it. So, what do you do when your child asks what to read after all the Harry Potter books? You may enjoy science fiction or “gonzo journalism”, but are they right for your child?

Before offering reading advice, ask a few questions and listen carefully. Why did they enjoy reading Harry Potter, or the Hobbit, or ‘Goosebumps’ books? Maybe it’s the magical world? Is it the characters or the adventure or maybe the quest against dark forces? You can recommend books with similar elements once you know why they enjoyed their favorites. Beyond the enchanted world of Harry Potter, what are your child’s interests? Movies? Sports? Music?

Does your child’s enjoy comic books? Suggest, Soon I will be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Loves Harry Potter? Propose The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Does your child enjoy spooky stories? Then recommend tales by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft.

Whatever the direction, the two most accessible browsing places are the library and the bookstore. Booksellers these days have their youth sections organized with picture books, classics, teen fiction and displays for literary super series like Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter. Some shops have a shelf devoted to Newberry Prize winners, where you’ll find titles like Island of the Blue Dolphins or The Giver.

Finally, you may find your child pleading to stay up that extra half hour to read. You may find yourself reluctantly agreeing, only to have the voices inside your heading yelling, “Hooray!” because you know that books may be the only real magic left…

Kevin Coolidge

Comments, questions, your favorite Harry Potter book, email me at frommyshelf@epix.net

"You Can't Judge A Book..."

Kevin Coolidge

Yep, I love books always have. New books, used books, books protected by mysterious, dark guardians. Books with titles that jump out and bite you in the ankle, and titles that make you wonder what the author is trying to hide. I picked some titles that are good reads, but might make your librarian raise a scornful eyebrow….

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant: Like a rage in heaven, Joe writes like an avenging angel of working class America. A raucous mix of down- home storytelling and political commentary reminiscent of Will Rogers mixed with Hunter S. Thompson- brutal, funny and at times tender. You ever wake up on the wrong side of the cave, and want a good reason to deep-fry a politician? Wake up and smell the coffee, read this book.

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore: I could pick almost any of Christopher Moore’s books for strange names. He could win a Pulitzer with his titles alone. But any book with sequined and nun in the title has to make the list. Take Tucker Case, a disgraced airline pilot and a nerd in a cool guy’s body, a talking fruit bat, and a greedy missionary in Micronesia and you have the basis for a seriously funny book. Think Kurt Vonnegut mixed with Douglas Adams.

Plato and A Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes: A not-so-reverent crash course in philosophy 101. Are you are philosophy major and tired of asking if your customer wants fries with that? Maybe you should polish that act and take it on the road. After all, the best comics are philosophers of life, and that Nietzsche is one comical thinker.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill: A man bull needs to get out and see the world. Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur finds himself living in a trailer park and working as a line cook in the American South. An understated book about the quest for acceptance, and it’s not a one trick pony. Hey, there’s a little monster in all of us, but not all of us can grill.

How to Sh*t in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art by Kathleen Meyer: Despite the vulgarism in the title there’s a load of good information here. The boy scouts are always supposed to be prepared, but the Boy Scout manual is deficient when it comes to defecation. Kathleen not only introduces techniques for privacy, but also the environmental consequences, precautions to take for drinking water in the backcountry, and heaps of anecdotes and funny stories.

Who Cut the Cheese: A Cultural History of the Fart by Jim Dawson: This makes the list because it’s so fun to go to the library and ask if they have it in, even if you own a copy. This book is actually well researched though there is some “potty humor”. A distasteful subject presented in such a way to make the topic culturally/historically interesting. Did you know the Arab word for “silent fart” and “death sentence” are only one letter different? And Benjamin Franklin wrote an essay called “Fart Proudly”? If you keep blaming the dog, buy this book.

Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley: I picked this title because it’s basically an oxymoron, and it’s another title with nun in it, and I can’t finish with a book about farts. It’s about a woman born at the dawning of the Christian era in Ireland. She was a druid before her conversion to Christianity. The book is poetically written and well researched with some interesting theological arguments wrapped in a compelling story.

Yep, you can’t judge a book by its cover or it’s title. Until you’ve read what’s written on each page. So grab your spectacles, testicles, wallet and a nice chunk of red meat for the dark, mysterious guardians and let the adventures begin…

Kevin Coolidge

Comments, questions, your favorite fart joke email me at frommyshelf@epix.net

"Soon I Shall Be Invincible!!!"

Kevin Coolidge

Have you ever noticed how history so often ends with naked men in the desert? Alexander the Great died stark, raving mad, at the age of 30, in the desert. General George A. Custer was found after Little Big Horn, naked, except for one sock, one boot, and an arrow through his penis[It's true, ask your history teacher]. Maybe, it is only men who seek to change the flow of destiny that end up naked in the desert? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning….

I grew up loving comic books and it’s obvious that Austin Grossman author of, Soon I Will Be Invincible, did too. The realm of heroes and villains gets an irradiated dose of angst and realism in this quirky debut novel from Grossman, who also works as a video-game design consultant

"Mything in Action"

Kevin Coolidge

A long time ago, in a memory far, far away, I was in a darkened movie theater watching the birth of an epic, but I didn’t know that. I was eight years old and watching starships and Wookies and light sabers and things exploding in a fairy-tale made larger than life. It was good battling evil and a grand call to adventure in what was to be the birth of the Star Wars saga, truly a hero’s journey.

The monomyth, often referred to as the hero’s journey, is a description of a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world. This universal pattern was described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a comparative mythologist. In this text Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies and religions.

In case you’ve spent the last thirty years in solitary confinement, Star Wars is an epic science fiction saga and fictional universe created by George Lucas. Lucas’s deliberate use of the monomyth is quite evident. Star Wars resonates with the best of literary classics--Beowulf, the Iliad ,Oedipus Rex, Le Morte D’Arthur, not to mention the story of Moses and the Old Testament. Star Wars has a strong mythic quality alongside its political and scientific elements, and has spawned dozens of books.

Star Wars-based fiction actually predates the release of the movie, with the novelization of A New Hope, written by Alan Dean Foster. The novel was released a couple months before the movie. In 1978, Foster wrote the first original Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and thus began a very successful literary spin-off franchise.

The stories told through these books extend from a time long before The Phantom Menace to a time long after Return of the Jedi. Books authorized by Lucas are written by fans of the films, and are part of a collection known as the Expanded Universe. The first books considered to be part of the Expanded Universe began to appear in the late 1970s. There are several books dealing with the lives of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian just before the movies.

Many of the books that have been written also take place during the events of the film. For fans, these can be more exciting stories, as it opens up the narrative for many characters who only have a minor role, or are even just briefly seen, in the movies. Also, many elements first introduced in the Expanded Universe were later included in the films-such as Boba Fett and Coruscant. Other books include such titles as The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, and Inside the Worlds of Star Wars, which detail things about the Star Wars universe and the films in a "non-fiction" style and reveal many details that cannot fit into a story.

Since the release of A New Hope in 1977, the Star Wars saga has become a passion bordering on religion for millions the world over. It’s not just the adventurous plots, the likable characters, high-tech props, and dazzling visual effects that keep fans begging for more. Behind the light-saber duels and screaming dog fights, there is a mythology that reaches to the core of the human psyche that shows the need for and the power of myth. Good and bad, light and dark-a hero embarks on a journey of self-discovery…



"Think Outside The Box"

Kevin Coolidge

You ever take one of those personality/psychology tests online? They’re fun and a great time killer. Me? My psychological profile came back “resourceful independent”. It makes me think I’d have been better off in the CIA, but hey, even writers have ethics. But I’m from a small town in rural Pennsylvania and being independent and resourceful kind of goes with the territory. I guess that’s why I like the small businesses of Wellsboro so much, because to operate a small business, you have to be resourceful and independent by nature.

That’s why my stomach did a flip-flop when I heard about the proposed Lowe’s coming to Mansfield. Mansfield has already experienced the “Wal-Mart Effect” and you can see for yourself what it has done to the downtown. That’s why I finally got around to reading Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses by Stacy Mitchell. So, I could see what may be in store for Tioga County.

In less than two decades, large retail chains have become the most powerful corporations in America. Mitchell traces the dramatic growth of mega-retailers--from big boxes like Home Depot, Borders, Costco and Staples to chains like Starbucks and Blockbuster—and the decline of independent businesses. She draws examples from virtually every state in the Union.

The big chains appear to bring communities economic growth, new jobs and tax revenue. This book argues that these apparent gains are illusory, and shows how mega-retailers impose a variety of hidden costs on society and contributing far less to our economic well being than it appears. Although a new big-box store on the edge of town may appear to be growth, it is not. The vast majority of these stores are built not to satisfy increased consumer demand, but because a chain sees a predatory opportunity to displace sales at other businesses. As local stores close, many communities end up losing as many or more retail jobs as they gain from the new superstore.

The impact on the local economy does not end there according to Mitchell. When chains displace local business, dollars that circulated locally cease to do so. Independent retailers bank at local banks, advertise in local newspapers, shop at local shops. Corporate chains require very little in the way of local goods or services. Instead, most of the money that consumers spend at a big-box store is siphoned out of the community’s economy.

Many of the big-box stores and shopping centers that open each year are built with the help of public subsidies. These giveaways take many forms: free or reduced-price land; property tax breaks; sales tax rebates, and tax abatement. Most of these subsidies are provided locally by cities and towns, and occasionally even counties, though state and even federal tax dollars may be involved. The logic behind these giveaways is that the new stores will generate enough new tax revenue to more than cover the subsidy. But such cost-benefit calculation only works if one ignores the full range of costs, notably lost sales and property tax revenue from local business that go out.

So, just what can I do about “Goliath”? Mitchell catalogues diverse ways indie-minded consumers can fight back, by campaigning against government subsidies to big-box stores, advocating for sales tax collection on Internet sales as well as stronger antitrust enforcement. Visible citizens' coalitions can fight big-box expansion, especially if communities fine-tune their land use policies. The big-box trend, she suggests, can be countered by increasing public awareness.

This book increased my awareness. Many of these things I all ready suspected, but the easy to read format, made it very clear. Me? I’m voting with my dollar. I’m going to The Hornet’s Nest where they already know that I don’t want lettuce on my BLT, and I’m going to the local building centers that let me take back any extra hardware after I finish those book shelves, or to Garrison’s who knows I don’t wear a tie often enough to remember that Windsor knot. Hmmm, maybe I can’t slay “Goliath”, but I can give him a black eye…

Comments, questions, your favorite sandwich, drop me an email at frommyshelf@epix.net

Kevin Coolidge

"Father's Day"

Kevin Coolidge

I love June in Tioga County. Everything is awake. The hills are green and fresh. The wind feels alive, and people are enjoying the weather and anticipating the upcoming summer season. Wellsboro pays homage to our state flora with the Laurel Festival, which also reminds me that it’s time to remember dear old Dad and Father’s Day.

The 3rd Sunday in June which children and Moms celebrate each year by buying Dad socks, chocolate, beer, slippers, or maybe a tie he won’t wear. You can get your Dad an extra-special gift that he can really enjoy by taking account of a combination of his interests, history, and your relationship with your father. That’s one of the many things I love about books, no matter what your interest, specialty, or type of person you are, there’s a book for you:

We live in rural Pennsylvania and enjoying the out-of-doors just goes with the territory. Here are some great choices for that rugged, outdoor type guy, or the one who loves to read about it.

The Best of Zane Grey, Outdoorsman by Zane Grey: Zane Grey shows he’s not just a cowboy-his best hunting and fishing tales.

Of Woods and Wild Things by Don Knaus: Don’s a local guy writing about hunting and fishing and growing up in Tioga County.

Pioneer Life or Thirty Years a Hunter by Philip Tome: An American classic recently reprinted by Stackpole Books.

Birds of Pennsylvania Field Guide by Stan Tekiela: Maybe your Dad doesn’t get into the woods as much as he used to, but he still loves sitting by the window with that pair of binoculars you gave him for Christmas. There’s also a companion CD so he can learn the songs and sounds of our feathered friends.

If Dad is the scholarly type, or enjoys reading about history-These books are for him.

Elmira, Death Camp of the North by Michael Horigan: Far from the front line, this Union prison compound had a death rate almost equal to Andersonville.

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard: After his humiliating election defeat in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt set his sights on the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. This is a powerful nonfiction narrative of one of the most famous Americans.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan: Winner of the National Book in 2006, and the untold story of those who survived the great American dust bowl. John Steinbeck gave voice to those who fled in The Grapes of Wrath. This is the story of those who stayed and survived.
Railroads of Pennsylvania by Lorett Treese: Pennsylvania and Tioga county have a strong railroad past. This book profiles the great railroads that crossed the Keystone state, tells the stories of the individuals and events that shaped railroad history.

Maybe your Dad is the tinkering around type, and likes books that are practical.

Let it Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell: The classic guide to turning household waste into gardener’s gold.

Medieval Furniture: Plans & Instructions by Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly: These projects aren't for beginners, and the pieces themselves aren't what one would see in a typical modern home but if your Dad is looking to out do his woodworking pals, this will do the job.

Backyard Catapults: How To Build Your Own by Bill Wilson: You might think your Dad is old, but it doesn’t mean he’s grown up. It might be a guy thing, but there’s just something about launching projectiles with mechanical force-building permit not included.

One of the great things about Dads is that they seem to be happy with just about anything you give them. He may not always show exuberant emotion, but he appreciates the thought and time. Gifts for a Father are ritual, something regal to accept, and that takes a special type of guy, especially if you are gonna get him another tie shaped like a fish…

Kevin Coolidge

Comment, questions, extra fish ties drop me an email at frommyshelf@epix.net

"What's Weird Around Here?"

Kevin Coolidge

Sleep, I never seem to get enough of it. The world looks and feels different at 4am. It looks surreal, gloomy, and the shadows mess with my head. I am edgy and nervous from too much caffeine and nicotine. I jump at creeping shadows and am startled by noises. My overactive imagination whispers in the darkness of things ancient and eldritch <>, and every spooky story I’ve ever read slithers into my thoughts and gnaws at my memories.

Yep, nights can be strange, even eerie. You’ve had that creepy shiver scamper down your spine like someone was watching you, or seen something flitter on the edge of vision? Of course you have, and what’s more, I like to read about other people who have. Whether it’s haints, spooks, oddities or stuff that’s just plain freakin’ weird?

Obviously, I’m not alone, because the series Weird U.S. by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran is a national phenomenon. These guys love to ask, “What’s weird around here?” Did they ever get that question answered? Actually, they had so many responses that they are working on a “Weird” book for every state in the union. They started with Weird New Jersey and yes, there’s a Weird Pennsylvania.

This strange travel guide is filled with roadside oddities, ancient mysteries, ghosts and bizarre beasts from the Keystone State. You can read about the “Devil’s Road” in southeastern PA, whose twisted trees have already been on the silver screen in M.Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and home of the infamous “Skull Tree”. There’s the “Ape boy” of the Chester Swamps, and the bizarre beast of Helltown, and don’t forget the big alien cats and the ghosts…

If you love reading about ghosts, spirits and strange phenomena in Pennsylvania, then be sure to check out Haunted Pennsylvania by Mark Nesbitt and Patty A. Wilson. This entire book is devoted to hauntings and spooks with ghosts from Penn State, Civil War battlefields, the hand print from beyond the grave in Jim Thorpe PA, and the fiddling phantom of Potter county. Yes, Pennsylvania is a state with a haunted history. So, if you are looking to take a different type of vacation this summer, or just love reading about the bizarre and supernatural, you’ll want to read these titles.

The only disappointment for me was a lack of tales from our own geographical area, and no tales at all from Tioga County. Weird Pennsylvania could very well be titled Weird Eastern Pennsylvania. There is a lot of information from the eastern part of the state, but not much from the western or northern reaches. Haunted Pennsylvania has a broader spectrum of specters, but still none from Tioga County. I was born here and I know different. What about the ghost of Sara in North Hall at Mansfield University? The deserted village of Leetonia? And don’t forget Wellsboro’s very own “Mad Hatter”. So, I feel compelled to ask, “What’s weird around here???”

Have you had something peculiar happen to you? Have a ghost story, or personal experience with the paranormal? Is your house haunted? Have you met the “walker in the woods”? Had a brush with the occult? Been probed by aliens? Would you like to share your strange tale with the world? Your neighbors? Then email me at frommyshelf@epix.net .I’m thinking it’s time that the world saw another side of Tioga County, the strange side…

"The Science of Harry Potter"

Kevin Coolidge

Magic, science, transmogrification, techno-organic mutation- the magic of the double helix or the science of the Spirit, does it really matter? I guess not, but as the moon wanes, I tend to wax philosophical. Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke, a master of speculative fiction, said it best: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And the best- selling series involving the boy wizard, Harry Potter, has a magic all its own.

Have you ever wondered if Fluffy, the three-headed dog, could be explained by molecular genetics? Is Harry’s invisibility cloak a scientific possibility? If you have, then The Science of Harry Potter by Roger Highfield should be on your reading table. He has interviewed the world’s best Muggle scientists for scientific explanations behind everything from the “Nimbus 2000” to “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.”

Science? In the Harry Potter books? Yes, according to Roger Highfield. Although there is no explicit science in Harry Potter, there is good evidence that the boundary between science and magic is blurred at Hogwarts, as was once the case in the Muggle world. Highfield uses the world of Harry Potter as an introduction to an interesting foray into genetics, folklore, mythology, game theory, quantum mechanics, and even Jungian archetypes. The book is divided into two parts.

The first half of the book is a “super secret study” of everything that happens in the Hogwarts School, from the origins of Quidditch to apparating. It’s obvious that the author is a big fan of the Harry Potter books, and this is a great way of introducing the “magical world of science” to children, laymen and fans of the series. The author does use the mythos of Harry Potter as more of a back drop, and doesn’t explore Harry Potter’s world in any great detail, so he does tend to get off topic as many Phds are prone to do. Devoted fans should take note, that if you find yourself of a highly fantastical and romantic nature, you may not want to spoil the magic by possible scientific explanations. The book is a spring board for Highfield’s discussions on science and philosophy, and not focus on the characters of Harry Potter.

The second half of the book is an endeavor to show the origins of magical thinking. The author delves into the birth of superstition, the magic of chance, the power of illusion, witchcraft and mythical beasts. For the ancient mind, magic may have restored a much needed sense of predictability and safety. Primitive magic was a means of seeking connections in nature, as a way to understand and manipulate the natural world.

For example, nothing is more important to an agrarian society than having a good crop. Weather prediction methods are examples of how magic can turn into science, once it has been validated by experiment. For hundreds of years, the Incas used the heavens for long range weather forecasting by observing the brightness of the Pleiades, a cluster of stars that they worshipped. They linked brighter star, which meant clearer skies, to earlier and more abundant rainfall.


Cultural anthropologists have yet to find any society that does not have a long-standing and elaborate system of paranormal beliefs. In this respect, our society is no different from supposedly primitive cultures. Many readers consult their horoscope every morning with their coffee. Athletes won’t play the big game without their lucky socks, and I can’t start the new Harry Potter until I go back and read the previous six….

I think there really are places like Hogwarts, full of impossible wonders, strange creatures and eccentric characters. They’re called laboratories, but I think I’ll still keep my fingers crossed and knock on wood until the last Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, arrives safely in our local bookstore July 21…