Friday, July 20, 2018

What we're reading: Memoir

Reviewed by Laura M., reference librarian

To help us decide what to read, my book club chooses themes such as “books outside your comfort zone” or “all-time favorites we want to share,” which is what we’ve been reading the past few months. The latest selection was Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain, chosen by a book club member who had been in the food industry. It has been on my “to-read” list for awhile, and with the recent passing of Anthony Bourdain, it seemed like a fitting time to pick it up. This is Bourdain’s first memoir, and a lot has happened since the events of this book, but it was interesting to see how he got his start.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the writing was fantastic. Bourdain really captured the visceral experience of working in hot, loud, and crowded kitchens. There was one chapter where he broke down just one day in his working life, and it was exhausting! What came through, time and again, was his incredible work ethic. Even after late-night benders, he usually got to work by 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until after 10 p.m., sometimes seven days a week; and apparently this is not uncommon for chefs and other kitchen staff.

Despite the fact that I eat in restaurants all the time, I realized I knew close to nothing about how they work. What’s the difference between a chef, a sous chef, a line cook, and a garde-manger? What even is a garde-manger? How do they know what to cook and when so that an entire table’s orders come out together? Should you eat the table bread, even though it’s probably been recycled from another sitting? (Answer: yes)

This was an eye-opening book. I had no idea professional kitchens were such boys’ clubs. The atmosphere Bourdain describes is one of testosterone-laden debauchery. Towards the end of the book, he does point out that there are some kitchens where this is not the case and where people are respectful towards each other, but you get the feeling that these are few and far between. I learned a lot--mostly that I never want to work in the restaurant industry! But I also gained a new respect for those who do. 

Editor's note: If this memoir whets your appetite for more, the library also has an eclectic list of other books by Bourdain, including a collection of magazine articles, blog posts, and diary entries compiled into one volume; his more recent memoir; a couple of cookbooks; and a two-part graphic novel starring a Los Angeles sushi chef named Jiro!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Digital Worlds

The Teen Summer Reading Program, "Reading Takes You Everywhere," is holding a special show-and-tell, Q&A session tonight at the Buena Vista Branch at 7:00 p.m., with guest speakers from two gaming companies.

Todd Chiocchio and Joel Goodsell from Insomniac Games, and Jason Wishnov from Iridium Studios will talk about their experiences designing the background maps and worlds in some of today's hottest games.

We anticipate a lot of interest in this program, and wish to let you know that, although this is a teen program, it is open to everyone. So if you are a parent or sibling or friend (or completely non-teen-related) and want to attend, please do!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What we're reading: Astronauts

Reviewed by Larry Urish

Anyone who has ever questioned the power of the written word should crack open a copy of Endurance, astronaut Scott Kelly’s fascinating account of his year orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station.

Long before Kelly earned advanced technical degrees, flew F-14 Tomcats as a test pilot and was selected by NASA to be strapped aboard controlled bombs aimed toward outer space, he was a terrible student who never studied – he never learned how – and he barely graduated from high school. Somehow, he got into a local college.

However, Kelly’s life changed forever one night during his freshman year, when he picked up a book by Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff. After reading it cover to cover in short order, he knew that one day he’d be an astronaut. Finally blessed with a clear goal, he taught himself how to study (about a decade late), gained confidence in the academic arena, joined the Navy with the express purpose of becoming a fighter test pilot, and eventually flew aboard the Space Shuttle. After one lengthy period aboard the International Space Station, NASA brass requested that he spend an entire year circling the globe at 17,150 miles per hour.

Endurance readers get a behind-the-scenes look at how Kelly and his fellow astronauts cope with living in a weightless environment. (The crew’s treadmill, something that everyone uses to avoid bone loss and other space maladies, is located on a “wall” relative to the inhabitants’ perspective. It could’ve just as easily been placed on the “ceiling.” Up is down, left is right, and everything floats.) Readers learn that many astronauts, most of whom are Type A alpha achievers (picture Maverick in Top Gun) initially become nauseated the first several days in space. Everyone has to adhere to his or her own absurdly tight experiment schedule set by NASA. And spacewalks are far, far more dangerous than most realize. Geographical and political boundaries don’t exist aboard the ISS. American, Russian, Scandinavian, Japanese, Italian and British space scientists learn to get along, thanks to their shared mission – to learn more about human beings in a weightless environment and to apply that knowledge to future missions to Mars – as well as their shared challenges, not the least of which is surviving.

The book’s chapters alternate between Kelly’s ongoing year in space and his past life as a distracted, hyper child who grew to become a one-in-a-million NASA rocket jockey. His story reveals what it was like to learn about the shooting of his sister-in-law, then-Arizona U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. (Her husband, Kelly’s twin brother, Mark, is also an astronaut.) Readers learn about the two times he had to dismantle and repair the space station’s extraordinarily complex carbon-dioxide filter in order to have enough oxygen to breathe; what it was like to land an F-14 aboard a pitching, rolling flight deck in the dark on a moonless night; and how NASA officials never thought about testing Kelly’s earthbound twin, for scientific comparison, until Kelly himself mention it casually in passing.

Here’s my recommendation, in a nutshell: “Go for launch.” Maybe, like Scott Kelly, you’ll be inspired as well.

Editor's note: The library also offers this as an audio book, if you prefer to listen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

What We're Reading: The New Science of Ancient DNA

Who We Are and How We Got Here:
Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past,
by David Reich

It’s not quite as comprehensively ontological as it sounds.

[Editor's note: I'm going to stop Mr. Kozak right there and elaborate for those who are saying, Um, what? Ontology is "the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations."]

David Reich gives us a portrait of the development of prehistoric human populations and the relationship of modern to older human species, but this is not a study of early hominids and their place in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. The oldest human DNA that scientists have been able it extract is around 400,000 years old. The skeleton of a hominid like the australopithecine "Lucy," who lived three million years ago, does not have extractable DNA. So what ancient DNA can tell us about human evolutionary origins is restricted to a certain time period in human development, but that doesn’t mean that what it can tell us about how modern humans have come to be is not amazing and illuminating. By tracking the changes in the genome of various samples from ancient human skeletons, scientists are able to trace the developmental history and geographical migrations of ancient peoples. This information can both supplement—and often supplant—the finds of traditional paleoanthropological, anthropological, archaeological, and linguistic studies of early humans.

A successful suitor? It turns out that a
certain amount of interbreeding occurred
between modern humans and Neanderthals.
The genomes of modern Europeans and
Asians are about 2.5% Neanderthal.
What has been the major impact of ancient DNA studies so far on our knowledge of the probable history of humans? Perhaps the most immediate thing is that studies of ancient DNA seem to have undermined irreparably what has been called “the regional hypothesis,” the argument made by some paleoanthropologists that the ancient species of humans known as Homo erectus, which moved out of Africa and populated Europe and Asia, evolved into modern man, Homo sapiens, in situ, in the geographical areas that this species colonized. It appears now from the evidence of ancient DNA that those ancient species of man were in fact almost wholly replaced by other human species, like Neanderthals (who came out of Africa) and by Homo sapiens who also had developed in Africa and in turn replaced (with some minimal interbreeding) Neanderthals and other early human subspecies. Ancient DNA has confirmed—much like ongoing paleoanthropology studies in Africa where more hominids and possible progenitors of man keep turning up—that the history of the origin and evolution of our species, which we originally thought of as following a straight line, then more recently as a branching tree with multiple species (you could trace us to the tip of the distal branch), now must be viewed as the product of a tangled species radiation, one that has interbred at times with creatures of close kin, doubled back, and been changed by subsequent waves of evolution.

The upshot is that the traditional and often racist argument for superior races and ethnicities in our species is rather hard to make; the exact origins of any population that today lives in any given location are confused by a long history of peregrinations and mixing that have brought us to a place as a species where none of us are much different than any others. The genetic variations within individual populations are greater than the differences between them. The study of ancient DNA in conjunction with anthropology can also tell us something about whether culture—and new artifacts and inventions—were transmitted between different human populations or if they resulted from one population wholly replacing another. Ancient DNA also has the ability, by tracing the genome, to tell us which populations dominated or enslaved others, and also the longevity and rigidity of certain cultural institutions like the caste system in India. As the study of ancient DNA advances, it holds the promise of revealing even more about the relationships of ancient peoples to each other on our road to becoming who we are today. 

Geneticist David Reich
Perhaps just as important, however, is that Reich makes us understand the limits of ancient DNA studies, and what they cannot unlock for us. The great mystery about our past is not so much how we developed physically, but rather how modern human behavior evolved. Even today, we cannot trace directly a relationship between certain genes and behavior, so trying to trace the behavioral implications of ancient genetic mutations is something we are even less likely to ever be able to do. Reich says, “I expect that no intellectually elegant and emotionally satisfying molecular explanation for behavioral modernity will ever be found.” 

This book is organized into a series of chapters detailing what ancient DNA studies have told us about the history of Homo sapiens in various regions of the world. Some regions, for various reasons, have been studied more than others. The most complete story, and perhaps the most interesting so far, is the one on the history of humans in Europe (especially as it relates to the development of Indo-European languages). There is substantial information on the history of populations in India and Southern Asia, not so much on China and Northern Asia, and interesting data on the native peoples of the Americas and where they came from, a subject which seems to have been rife with controversy in recent years. There has not been much study so far on the modern populations of Africa. The picture of the development of modern humans will become more complete both for the well-studied and the as yet unknown regions of the world in the coming years. Ancient DNA studies is a science yet in its infancy. 

Reich warns that currently popular genealogy kits may oversell the certainty
of their results. His research suggests that it may all be a little more complicated than that.

We are, Reich cautions, likely to discover differences in the genetic endowment between populations of living peoples as we learn more about the history of particular populations, both in the ancient past and through the comparative studies of genomes of contemporary populations. Reich is concerned that we develop a new framework about how we consider the importance of those differences. He is anxious about whether or not and how they will affect our relationships with each other, and hopes that we will not be tempted to lapse into the eugenic and racist formulas of the past. His arguments are reasoned, eloquent, and moving.

Reich is a scientist among what seems to be a growing group of others like him, who desire that their work not be parodied or misused, bent or distorted by those with mean and selfish agendas who have no concern for the science itself but are only interested in its political uses. These scientists--often at great personal sacrifice —take time away from their engrossing research and passion to explain the implications of their discoveries to all the rest of us. They act not only as scientists but as public citizens, concerned that we all understand both the promise and the dangers of new knowledge and developing technologies, so that we can be involved together in the important decisions we need to make about how we will use them to shape our world.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

This week at the library...

Central Library, 10:00 a.m.

A Conversation Group

Practice your English language skills, make friends, and learn about different cultures. This group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Literacy Room on the second floor. Drop in or call for information. 818-238-5577.

Central Library, 12:00 noon

The club has read and will discuss Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann. It's a tale of murder, betrayal, heroism and a nation's struggle to leave its frontier culture behind and enter the modern world. Filled with almost mythic characters from our past – stoic Texas Rangers, corrupt robber barons, private detectives, and murderous desperadoes like the Al Spencer gang – Grann's story amounts to a secret history of the American frontier.

Please bring your lunch and join the discussion. For more information, email

Central Library, 6:00 p.m.

If "Reading Takes You Everywhere," then what do you need most? A MAP!

Tonight we will be taking our compass roses, thumbnails, and preliminary sketches and putting them together as a base drawing for our maps. This is a three-part workshop designed so that participants will end up with a completed map. The three Tuesday nights are/were: July 10, 17, & 24. Questions? Email

This program is part of Teen Summer Reading and is for teens in grades 7-12 ONLY.

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

The club has read and will discuss The Moscow Code, by Nick Wilkshire

Ottawa bureaucrat–turned-diplomat Charlie Hillier is back. Having barely survived his first posting in Havana, Charlie is eager to put what he learned there to good use. And it isn’t long before he's thrust into a fresh case ― a technical writer from Toronto in a Moscow jail on dubious drug charges.
Please come, and join the discussion. For more information, email

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

Sounds of Summer presents...
With seven nationally distributed CDs, Petrella made history as the first African-American female country singer on the cover of Cashbox Magazine. This is a free concert that is part of the Summer Reading for Grown-ups program, but all are welcome to attend. Bring a blanket or a beach chair!

Central Library, 10:00 a.m.

A Conversation Group

Practice your English language skills, make friends, and learn about different cultures. This group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Literacy Room on the second floor. Drop in or call for information. 818-238-5577.

Central Library, 7:00 p.m.

GENRE-X BOOK CLUB, (not your mother's book club) is a group intended for Millennials and Gen-Xers to get together, hang out, and talk about diverse, interesting books. The club reads a mix of realistic fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, nonfiction, and graphic novels, and sometimes ranges into young adult fiction. It meets the third Thursday of the month, upstairs at the Central Library in the Literacy Conference Room, at 7:00 p.m. For this meeting, the club has read and will discuss All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai, "a mind-bending story about the journeys we take, populated by friends, family, lovers, and others, that show us who we might be, could be—and maybe never should be—that eventually leads us to who we are.”—USA Today

Email for more information.

Buena Vista Branch, 7:00 p.m.

Teen Summer Reading presents...
Gamers: Find out how the pros build worlds for you to explore! In a show-and-tell, Q&A session, Todd Chiocchio and Joel Goodsell from Insomniac Games, and Jason Wishnov from Iridium Studios will talk about their experiences designing the maps and worlds in some of today's hottest games.

Although this is a TEEN program, everyone is welcome to attend.

Central Library, 10:15 a.m.

A program for preschoolers and their families. Join us for a fun introduction to movement, coordination, rhythm, and dance! We'll be dancing using shaker eggs & scarves and listening to music.

Buena Vista Branch, 2:00 p.m.

Adventures in Art for Adults presents...
Transform old books into works of art. Learn how to change a discarded book into a striking geometric sculpture just by folding the pages. Supplies are provided, but space is limited. Call 818-238-5625 to reserve a spot. This program is part of our Summer Reading For Grown-ups. Sign up to be included in prize drawings and to play Book Bingo this summer.


Friday, July 13, 2018

What we're reading: Another bookshop

My treasured list of books about books, readers, and bookstores is growing! Last week I reviewed a book whose shop was located in Paris, and this week I have one set in York, England. Last week's was replete with flamboyant characters, situations, and circumstances, while this week's is a little gem of a highly personal narrative that I could hardly put down to come to work and that I therefore finished too soon. I think I will probably buy it and add it to my permanent collection, because I can already anticipate re-reading it.

It's called The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland. The protagonist, Loveday Cardew (it's a Cornish name), is 25 years old, and has worked in the bookstore since she was a wayward 15-year-old. She is reserved to the point of surly, and loves books more than she does people, most of whom she finds annoying (not, as she herself admits, an advantage when it comes to customer service). But Archie, the proprietor, has had a feeling about Loveday from the first day she showed up in his shop and attempted to disappear with a copy of Possession, by A. S. Byatt. To be fair, she didn't exactly steal it; kids on the bus had taken her wallet, so all she had to leave for it was a one-pound note, when the book was marked for twice that. But Archie took advantage of the situation to tell her she had to work off the cost of the book she "stole," thereby insuring her participation as his mainstay and only steady employee of Lost for Words for the next 10 years.

Loveday has a tragedy in her past. She thinks she has come to terms with it, but mostly she has just shut it down and ignored it, by steeling herself against feeling anything, and being fiercely independent. She's not exactly a nun, but she doesn't do relationships; her only real friend is her boss; and she leads the existence of an introverted reader, spending both her work time and her down time surrounded by books, in the crowded store or in her tiny austere flat. She is so deeply devoted that she has a series of tattoos in beautiful spidery handwriting of the first or last lines that hold meaning to her, distributed about her person on a collarbone, the back of an arm, the width of a thigh. But most people never see these.

The narrative is painstakingly doled out by Loveday in a series of alternating chapters that begin with her nine-year-old self, shortly before her life exploded, and the various ways in which what happened impacted who she is today. But who she is has begun to change; she has let someone into her life by the simple action of picking up his lost book from the pavement and putting it in the store window for retrieval by its negligent owner. Nathan is special, and although she's trying not to be swayed by him, Loveday can't help herself. There is a chink, finally, in her armor.

The cover of this book makes it look like a lighthearted read, but it's so much more: It's a deep, detailed, personal look at a woman who has experienced and survived unimaginable pain. But it's not depressing; it's poignant, it's resigned, but it's also hopeful. Reading it made me happy. You try it and see what you think.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What we're reading: Microcosm of life

I know Judy Blundell as the author of a couple of smart Young Adult historical fiction books (What I Saw and How I Lied and Strings Attached). So when I saw The High Season, the first adult novel by Judy Blundell, on the new books shelf over at Northwest last week, I decided to give it a try. I'm so glad I did.

Because of the title and cover, one might assume "chick lit beach read," but it's not that. Yes, it is set on Long Island, just as summer season is kicking off, and yes, you get your quota of resort town-related antics and backdrop; but this book is so much more than the surface drama that takes place in it. People who focus on that, or say Oh, another tired plot about how testy the wealthy people in the Hamptons are, are just not getting it.

Ruthie and her husband Mike inherited his aunt's house on the North Fork of Long Island, and despite its disrepair, it was everything Ruthie had ever dreamed of wanting, with its panoramic uninterrupted view of the ocean. The two of them spent years repairing it and fixing it up, stretching their finances to the max to do so, until Ruthie finally figured out how they could keep the house without drowning in debt: Give it up for the best part of the year. So during the fall, winter, and spring, Ruthie, Mike, and their daughter, Jem, enjoy the house, but when Memorial Day rolls around, they pack up and move into a (usually uncomfortable) cheap rental, while holiday makers with lots of disposable income inhabit their place and pay handsomely for the privilege.

The years have passed, and Ruthie and Mike are separated and planning divorce, but the summer routine has continued, with the house being held as a nest egg and a college fund for 15-year-old Jem. This year, however, the wealthy and somewhat notorious Adeline Clay has forsaken her usual haunt in the popular and social Hamptons to instead rent Ruthie's house, supposedly in search of some peace and quiet, bringing with her a stepson from her former marriage. And the intrusion of these people into Ruthie's haven has an impact with wide-reaching implications for everyone involved.

This book is so timely in terms of what's happening in our country--the increasing division between the rich and everyone else. And yes, some of these things have been happening for a long time or have always happened; but this is a little microcosm of the rich deciding they can take what they want from the middle class and that it doesn't really matter—they'll bounce back, right? and the disbelief of the middle class victims that anyone could be that clueless or that willfully cruel. It's about the total obliviousness that a certain sort of people with money have towards people who do not. It's about snobbery and superficiality, and it's also about sincerity and persistence and fortitude. It's about family values, sacrifice, and feelings.

I loved the characters and thought Blundell did an amazing job of making them into real people when they could so easily have remained complete caricatures. There are a few of those, too, but even there, she gives them a realness and a vulnerability that keeps them from being cardboard cutouts. I thought the writing was smart and witty and in some cases literary and lyrical, and based on this book, I would definitely read another by Judy Blundell! This is the first book in a long time that engaged me so completely that I spent most of a day reading it instead of doing all the things I had planned to accomplish, and I'm glad I took the time.