Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Bedside Baccalaureate: The Second Semester Edited by David Rubel

fpo  Every morning for the last six or seven years I have begun my day by reading a page from an nonfiction book that explains how some aspect of the world and/or human history works. The idea is to improve one's knowledge and education on a certain subject or subjects. I started with a book called The Intellectual Devotional. That book became a series with devotionals focused on American history, modern culture, health, and biographies, each of which I devoted a year too. For a change of pace one year I found a devotional for book lovers called appropriately enough, the Bibliophiles Devotional. Each page (365 in total, one for each day of the year) was devoted to a literary classic. Having finished The Intellectual Devotional series, for 2015 I looked for another similar type book and found The Bedside Baccalaureate. Skipping the first book in the series, I decided to begin my mornings in 2015 with a page from The Bedside Baccalaureate: The Second Semester.

Of these type of books I've read, The Bedside Baccalaureate might be my favorite. It is divided into four sections or syllabi. Each syllabus consisted of five courses, for a total of twenty courses. Broadly speaking the courses covered topics in art, literature, the classics, math and engineering, social science, history, economics, physical science, religion, environmental science, and philosophy. I learned a little about the anatomy of the Internet, electricity and magnetism, the roots of the Cold War, the epics of the Trojan War, the Protest Reformation, Sigmund Freud, and Italian Renaissance art. My favorite courses were on game theory, issues in feminism, the 1913 Armory Show, meteorology and climate, the history of modern China, and the origins of Judaism. Some courses or topics I still don't understand. (If there was a test of electricity and magnetism I would absolutely fail). Some topics whet my appetite for more and led me down rabbit holes to find more information. (Who knew game theory would turn out to be so interesting?)

I really enjoyed my morning reading ritual this past year. (Who am I kidding, I enjoy it every year or I wouldn't do it.) These types of books are a great way to learn something knew without it feeling like you're back in school. The small chunks of information (just one page) keep it interesting and remove any iota of intimidation I might have about tackling a new topic, especially one having to do with science or engineering, two things I generally know little about. The Bedside Baccalaureate had the added benefit of being divided into four sections, which meant I didn't spend a whole year on the topics I enjoyed less.

Eventually, maybe in 2017, I will read the first semester of The Bedside Baccalaureate.  For 2016, I'm going to switch things up and pick a nonfiction book from my way-too-big TBR pile. It won't be a devotional but something that hopefully I can divided into small chunks and read slowly. Hopefully it will be just as interesting and educational.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

fpo  The world is ending. An asteroid is set to collide with planet earth in six months or so. Some people choose to end their individual world prematurely with suicide. Others continue to hope for a last minute saving grace or take comfort in their religious faith. Some decide that if the world is ending they should make the most of what time they have left, whether that means traveling the world, spending time with loved ones, or taking drugs and smoking cigarettes because at this point there are no consequences tomorrow for today's bad choices. Still others continue to live more or less as they did before the idea of an asteroid colliding into the planet became a definite and certain reality. Police detective Henry Palace falls into the last category.

Palace is called to the scene of a hanging. It presents as a suicide, which in a time where the world is literally about to end, is all too common. No one is interested in investigating a death that appears by all accounts to be a suicide, no one except Palace. Something is off about the crime scene and he can't just let it go. So he starts an investigation in a time when almost everyone is asking, what's the point?

I am in an awesome book group called Mocha Girls Read. We used to have our monthly meetings at Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore that specializes in mysteries and science fiction. Unfortunately it has since closed its doors in L.A. county. (I believe the flagship store in San Diego is still open.) One day about a year or so ago I asked the guy behind the cash register if he had anything to recommend, book wise. This is unusual for me. I have a ridiculously long TBR list and rarely ask people for more books to add to it. If anything I, the librarian, am usually recommending books to other people. But this time I asked and the guy (sorry I don't remember his name) recommended The Last Policeman. It took me awhile to get to it. In fact the third book in the trilogy was released before I got around to reading book one but I finally read it and I have to say, thank you bookseller, for this was a very good read.

The Last Policeman prevents a very interesting scenario - the coming end of the world. If you know with a fair amount of certainty that the world is going to end in six months what would you do with the rest of your life? What kind of person would you choose to be during those last few months. That's the question The Last Policeman presents (or, at least one of the questions). It's easy to say that you would live it up - quit your job and travel, spend time with loved ones, party, sex it up, whatever, but then again if everyone did that the world would kind of end sooner. I mean someone has to keep growing the food and running the electrical plants during those six months or everyone would die of starvation in the dark. So maybe you keep going as you did before you got the news that humanity was on the brink of extinction. You keep going to work, keep waiting for the light to turn green before crossing, and keep eating your vegetables. At least that's what Detective Palace does. The world is ending but he still believes in right and wrong, and that murderers should be brought to justice even if a life sentence only means six months in prison under current circumstances. It is against this backdrop that Palace tries to figure out what happened to Peter Zell, the man found hanging in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant.

The most interesting thing about this book is not the mystery of who done it, but whether asking that question even matters when everyone is going to die soon anyway. The impending end of the world and the associated fallout really ratcheted up the tension. When the world is ending, one can't help but question every one's motives, including that of the police. On the one hand it is admirable that Palace cares about right and wrong today even when tomorrow isn't coming. On the other hand, when most people have decided screw it and checked out mentally or physically the fact that Henry Palace cares so much about this case stands out as a little odd. Throughout the book I rooted for Palace to solve the case while also wanting him to take a vacation day. I can hardly wait to see what awaits Palace in the next two books. I want to see how he changes, if at all, as the date of impact approaches. Will he still be the same straight and arrow cop as death come closer?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Trust Me, I'm Trouble by Mary Elizabeth Summer

fpo Trust Me, I'm Trouble is the second book in a series by Mary Elizabeth Summer about a young grifter who goes by the name Julep Dupree. It picks up not long after the events of the first book, Trust Me, I'm Lying, with Julep now living with a foster family and grieving over the loss of a friend. She's still taking on cases only now her client base extends beyond the halls of her private Catholic high school. When a woman asks for her help in finding out how her husband became an embezzler, Julep knows she should walk away. She doesn't of course, not even when it requires her to infiltrate a shady "leadership" organization. When her new case appears to be connected to her long lost mother, Julep is even more drawn in. Pretty soon it isn't clear who's the con and who's the mark.

Between vacation and National Novel Writing Month in November (my fourth year participating) I inadvertently took some time off from reading books. Trust Me, I'm Trouble was what I picked up when I started reading again and it was exactly what I needed. It's a smart, young adult mystery with some unexpected romance thrown in. It has a great main character in Julep (though I did get a little tired of her self-recrimination over the events from the first book). Julep straddles the line between criminal and hero well, helping others, helping herself and always trying to protect the people around her. The plot was well executed. It had more twists and turns than a roller coaster. Overall it was a very good read and exactly what I was looking for when I started reading again. I don't know what the plans are for this series, but I'm hoping there is more to come.