Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February - the Beginning of Sports Nirvana

Ah February, the month of love and even though the 14th has come and gone there are still many love celebrations to observe.  There is “Love Your Library Month” and so I would like to urge everyone to email, call, write, or post on our Facebook page why you love our library!  We would love to pass on these comments to the Mayor, City Council, and the City Manager. There is also a comment box in the library – so you when you come in you can write down why you love your library.  
The heart is also feted with "American Heart Month" and we have lots of heart-friendly cookbooks to check out.   The animal rescue community urges everyone to observe "Responsible Pet Owners’ Month" and we urge you to put the kibosh on irresponsible pet love so that you can enjoy “Love Your Pet Day” on February 20 with a clear conscience because your pets are spayed or neutered. 
February is not really about holidays for me but the middle of the month signals that some of my favorite sporting events are fast approaching: 1) Daytona, the first race of the NASCAR season (Go Junior-he has the pole!) is just a couple of days away; 2) the glory of March Madness (Go Duke-2010 Champions, repeat in 2011!) of the NCAA Tournament is just around the corner and conference play is underway; and 3) spring training is underway(Go St. Louis Cardinals and you better talk to Pujols!). It is also time to remember Dale Earnhardt, the greatest NASCAR driver of all time, who passed away on the last lap of Daytona on February 18, 2001.  I can’t believe it has been a decade.

While I religiously watch certain sports, it occurred to me that I do not read any true sports books unless you count The Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball that my husband gave me for Christmas.  Oh sure there are the romance books that have a tenuous connection to sports such as the Chicago Stars Series by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The main book characters are connected to a pro football team although it is is peripheral to the story and is a device that ties the different book in the series together. I also love her books (Fancy Pants, Lady Be Good, and her latest, Call Me Irresistible) which feature professional golfers from right here in the Texas Hill Country.  I love the series but I do not read it for the sports!  Oddly enough, and you think I would love them, but I do not care for the romance books set in the world of NASCAR.  All of the titles I have tried seem to lack the snappy dialogue and that leavening of humor I so enjoy in my favorite romance books. The one I like best in this romance sub-subgenre was Once Around the Track, by Sharon McCrumb. 
Of the books that I have read and enjoyed where the sport itself takes more of a center stage are Diamond Ruby by Joseph Wallace and Playing for Pizza by John Grisham.  I am not a fan of Grisham's legal thrillers but I am surprised by how much I liked this small novel.  It chronicles the story of how Rick Dockery, a washed up NFL player, finds himself playing professional football in Italy and what happens as a result.  It's a bit sappy and predictable but who knew they played pro football in Italy!  I enjoyed the afternoon I spent reading it. 
Wallace's book, the better written of the two, is set in the Roaring Twenties and it fictionalizes the real life story of Virnett "Jackie" Mitchell, who was signed as pitcher for the all-male Chattanooga Lookouts at the age of 17.  A phenomenal pitcher, her fame grew and then her legend was cemented when the mighty New York Yankees travelled to Tennessee to play an exhibition game.  On April 2, 1931, in the first inning of a rain-delayed game, Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth (who took the called third strike very badly indeed to say the least) and Lou Gerhig on 4 and 3 pitches respectively. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract and declared women unfit to play baseball as the game was "too strenuous" and I do not think it was a coincidence that the rather oddly-named northerner banned women two days after the exhibition game. 
Ruby Thomas in Wallace's book not only faces the same sexism that Jackie Mitchell faced but his story also places his heroine in the broader societal context of the 1920s.  The novel expands upon many of the other simmering issues of the time including anti-Semitism, class, and even the disastrous cultural effects of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.  While the author can go on a bit long at times, it is still a rich and well-woven tale.

Happy Reading!

p.s. if you are both a mystery and a sports fan, try Harlan Coben's long running Myron Bolitar series, which features a crime solving sports agent. I haven't read any of his books but I know that Coben is one of our patrons' favorite mystery writers.  The newest book in this series, Live Wire, will be out on March 22 and I expect it to be in great demand here at the library. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

My husband and I moved to Texas ten years ago so that I could pursue my Ph.D. in biological anthropology at UT. I was (and still am) interested in the ecology and behavior of nocturnal prosimian primates (i.e. the cute little ones). I wanted to know how some species hunted insects and if the size of external ears and other morphological characteristics of the auditory system were evolutionary evolved adaptations to insectivory and if a reliance on insects as a food source played a role in the earliest primate origins and evolution. My all time favorite primate is the unique, and in my eyes adorable, Daubentonia madagascariensis commonly known as the aye-aye, inspired this line of inquiry. I was very tempted to title my dissertation “My Little Primate, What Big Ears You Have!”.  I have to mention that my best friend Leiellen gave my beloved aye-ayes the very unflattering sobriquet of bat opossum. 

During my program, I discovered that I was no longer quite ambitious or driven enough to devote myself to going full throttle after what few jobs there were in academia and in doing all the things that I would have to do to get there. My heart was no longer in it and it really showed. Academia no longer made me happy nor did it give me a sense of satisfaction that I was doing something that had a deeper meaning, had a lasting impact, was important, made a difference, etc.  I loved having the opportunity to teach and share my fascination with primates and the beauty and elegance of science with others but teaching well has less value than publishing large numbers of papers and securing lots of grant dollars.  The great thing about librarianship is that every day is full of moments where you help people discover and learn all sorts of different things. 

Even though I am no longer in science I still love reading books about different scientific fields and research. Ah, so you think books about science are all dry and dusty tomes? Au contraire! There are truly talented authors that can take good and often complex scientific ideas and research and bring these stories to life so that anyone, including nonscientists, can become totally engrossed in the story. A good science story is as exciting as any adventure tale that has ever been written! 

Two of the authors that I feel are particularly talented are Natalie Angier, a scientific writer at The New York Times and author of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, and Mary Roach, whose latest book is Packing for Mars although I believe that Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers is my favorite. Both authors have a great sense of humor and I think that helps them tell the stories so well. Angier’s goal was to write a basic primer of scientific literacy so that the reader is able to acquire a firm basic understanding in a number of areas. She argues, and I agree, we need this basic understanding so that we can evaluate the information that we are bombarded with on issues as global warming.  Roach has a more multidisciplinary  approach in her exploration of what would it take for humans to realistically travel to Mars.

Because of my background, I especially enjoy books about evolutionary biology and since it is Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday on February 12th, you could celebrate by reading one of the books we have about evolution. You could read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which is wonderfully written but rather full of delightfully florid Victorian prose. A great basic and concise primer is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, exceptionally well-written also but the florid prose is at a minimum. We also have two brand new titles you can check out: The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization, by Geerat Vermeij and Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek.

Of the two books, I like Switek’s best. Vermeij, after an excellent and clear discussion of adaptation in the natural world takes a leap (and he is not the first person to ever do so) and begins to apply the principles of adaptation to cultural phenomena. I have always disliked talking about culture and other nonbiological systems in this way because I feel that it leads to the dangerous justification of Social Darwinism. I just don’t buy it. Switek’s book not only examines the growing body of fossil evidence that has accumulated in science Darwin’s time but he also looks at the scientists and how they made their discoveries. It is such an enjoyable armchair historical journey!

Try to stay warm this week with a great book about science or any good book. Don’t forget to join us here at the library for our author event for Lake Travis Reads, “An Evening with Ben Rehder” on Wednesday, February 9, at 7:00 pm.

Happy Reading!