I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

While we tend to chuck microbes into a general “yuck” pile of germs in need of disinfecting, truth is, only a slim minority of species are harmful. The rest are not just beneficial, but essential to the ebb and flow of life on this planet. For instance, how did life evolve into multi-cellular, diverse creatures like birds, bugs, hippos, and humans? Because two kinds of microbes teamed up to make finding food and gene replication more successful. In other words, life as we know it would not exist without these critters.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acclaimed science writer, Ed Yong shares the latest research spewing out from studies on the tiniest creatures in the universe. As it turns out, small is by no means insignificant. Microbes—also known as germs—influence everything from global weather, our DNA, and even our choices and thoughts! Get ready for a real invasion of the body snatchers!

(Hint: This book makes for an excellent companion text to John Green’s latest YA knock-out, Turtles All the Way Down!)

Critique: Microbes are multitudinous, both in your body and throughout the planet. Every millimeter of every tooth in your mouth houses an entirely unique population of microbes designed to do something useful in your mouth. Same goes for every millimeter of your gums! Don’t forget your fingers, toes, armpits, and genital regions. But microbial significance goes way beyond teeth and testicles! Animals need the chemical byproducts of microbes—called odors, pheromones, and scents—to communicate, navigate, and survive.

Also, it may interest you to know that the human DNA chain does not contain all the instructions we need to shape our bodies to maturity. We borrow instructions from the DNA of microbes in our environment. In other words, your basic DNA is programmed to provide you with intestines, but it is not programmed with instructions for how those tubes ought to bend and fold in order to fit inside your body. Those directions come from a particular microbe. Plenty of other organisms copy this tactic because it is a smart, efficient way to reliably funnel genes over many generations.

Oh, oh! Budding research suggests that where you decide to live or places you yearn to travel or the foods you crave or the partners you attract may all be the result of your microbes spurring you to go out get new kinds of microbes. This theory has some scary implications; first and foremost, that who you think you are may be an illusion. You are not a single identity, but a composite of trillions—an inner horde of bugs that sometimes choruses in unison.

Yong may not have Rebecca Skloot’s ability to weave live action scenes through hunks of exposition (indeed, he loses as many of these threads as he begins), but his descriptions of complex scientific concepts and microbial functions are so engaging and accessible, the reader won’t actually want those woven scenes getting in the way. The best indicator of how good this book is lies in how I geeked out for weeks after I read it. Cocktail party small talk, trips to a public restroom, inviting friends over for dinner, geshundeiting a sneezing stranger, work meetings, waiting in line at the post office—heck, even this blog post—became one more opportunity to share yet another fascinating tidbit of mind-blowing microbial information.

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Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!

Happy With Me by Leo Timmers

A comic strip artist employs a clever visual tactic to establish the perfect bedtime reading pace.

Timmers, Leo. Happy with Me. Los Angeles, CA: Smallfellow Press, 2002. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A wistful boy spends his bedtime fantasizing about being other animals. Elephants, penguins, octopi—each creature leads readers off on whimsical and silly adventures as the boy weighs the pros and cons of each transformation. Being big vs squashing everything. Swimming lots vs icy waters. Multitasking vs tangled arms.

Critique: Although the text is not written to rhyme, Timmers employs plenty of alliteration and consonance. As a result, the texture is soft, delicate, tender—perfect for bedtime reading.

The Belgian comic strip artist also employs a unique visual strategy, placing a small picture snippet beneath the text. This circle captures some small tidbit of the illustration on the neighboring page. It functions much like a periscope or porthole—a little window providing a limited view. Readers are invited to linger on each spread, spending extra moments locating exactly what the “periscope” sees. What a perfect pace for sleepy time storytelling!

Best of all, Timmers concludes his story with a very clever, very evocative image of the boy setting off to face a new day and a trail of feathers spilling from his pajamas. Readers rest easy knowing, at their core, they really are whatever they long to be.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Over three decades ago, she predicted America’s current tailspin. Now, she’s reconfigured Shakespeare’s The Tempest, setting it inside a prison where magic and revenge frolic. Margaret Atwood is a mischievous goddess.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. New York: Random House Audio, 2016. CD.

Genre: fiction

Summary: Felix Phillips dazzles audiences every year at the Makeshawig Theater Festival, staging experimental and cutting-edge renditions of Shakespeare’s masterworks. But when a trusted colleague ousts him to claim the spotlight, Felix finds himself marooned in a country shack. He teaches chess to his daughter’s ghost and he plots myriad revenge schemes. When a nearby prison needs a new teacher for their inmate literacy program, Felix applies and soon discovers exactly how to exact retribution.

Critique: Margaret Atwood first dazzled me with A Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, that story anticipated the culture clash currently corroding the United States’ notions of democracy from the inside out. The book recently aired as a critically acclaimed series on Hulu. Viewers are warned not to binge watch it.

Hag-Seed is to Handmaid what Emma is Sense and Sensibility. It is lighter and brighter, but still promises Atwood’s signature wickedness and clever twists. The prologue opens in the future, inside the Fletcher Correctional Facility. Told in teleplay format, the text explains what is seen onscreen and heard off screen. The opening scene of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest unfolds, but with some modernized speeches added along with innovative costuming. Then, the power goes out. Voices from the audience express concern.

Outside the screening room, they hear shouting: Jail break!

Then gunfire. Then a voice inside the screening room commands the audience to keep still and quiet.

Electric tension whips the reader to attention in three short pages. Concluding with a cliffhanger, Atwood then backs up and shares how Felix Phillips made his way from lauded artistic director at a major theater festival to literacy instructor at a jail enacting an elaborate revenge plot on his old enemies.

As a villainous good-guy, Felix is truly sympathetic. Not only do we cheer on his plans to get revenge, but also, we adore his definitive skills as a teacher. Scenes in the classroom are among the novel’s most charming assets. For example, Felix allows inmates to swear all they want so long as they use Shakespearean curse-words. He truly inspires his students and transforms them into passionate actors.

Atwood unwinds the play within the novel,all the while echoing the two plot lines. The effect is dazzling, a bit like looking down on a stack of spiral galaxies. Corresponding swirls twist toward the same center. The more Felix’s students explore and understand the play, the more readers can anticipate what is going to happen next. And yet, the events are never predictable. Enough unexpected conflicts and curveballs enter the mix to keep us guessing and stressing. Will Felix’s plot succeed, or will the inmates rebel and exploit the performance to stage an actual jail break? Is the ghost of Felix’s daughter really there and really helping him or is it just a manifestation of his soured and maddened mind? And the ultimate question which the novel prods: is there really such a thing as happy endings?

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.