I bought a stack of books at the annual library sale and got started on reading some of them in April. I couldn’t help rereading an old favorite in the hopes that I would find it just as enthralling again. (Spoiler alert: I did.) I also read another funny science book by Mary Roach and a more serious picture book of extinct species. To round out the month, I read a superhero origin story and a Newbery Honor winning kids’ classic.
- Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a funny and interesting book on what happens after we die. Years ago I read and enjoyed her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but I hesitated in reading the follow-up on the afterlife because I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, or at least what I had assumed would be her take on it. I needn’t have worried. Roach makes almost anything interesting with her lively and humorous writing. I rediscovered her last year when I read her book on the digestive system, and I then decided that I would happily read any of her books. I especially liked the early chapter on souls and the hunt for them in the body. I also learned about the dubious study that supposedly found that the soul weighs 21 grams. There were many other good bits: the hunt for reincarnated souls, testing the effectiveness of mediums, and the search for ghosts. One particular story involved a farmer, with the help of his father’s ghost, finding a new will that changed the entire family’s inheritance. I won’t give away what Roach’s investigation into the matter finds. Overall it was a very enjoyable read, but I would probably recommend one of Roach’s other books first.
- The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is a fun origin story about a mysterious and short-lived Golden Age superhero named the Green Turtle. As explained in an afterword, the original Green Turtle only lasted five issues in 1944. He fought in China against the Japanese, but curiously it wasn’t ever known if he himself was Chinese or not (rumor was that his creator Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese). His face was never shown; he was mostly drawn from the back or when he was in profile or was facing the reader, he had his face covered in some way (i.e. with his arm or obscured by another character). In fact, the publisher had him colored a garish pink, possibly to accentuate his Caucasian skin as a Chinese superhero might not sell. Another recurring element to those stories was that Green Turtle was always on the verge of telling Burma Boy, his sidekick, his secret origins, but never gets around to it as he is always interrupted. So in steps Yang, 70 years later, to write an origin for Green Turtle, possibly the first Asian American superhero. The story takes place in Chinatown in a stand in for the Bay area, where gangs thrive. Young Hank helps his father tend the grocery store while his mother wishes better things for all of them. After she is saved by a superhero, she pushes Hank to become a superhero, too, even though he doesn’t have superpowers. It’s a fun tale about identity and heritage that plays on many of the conventions of the superhero origin. A brief warning for younger readers: the story includes stereotyped language about Asian Americans to place it into historical context. It doesn’t condone the language, but rather shows how the stereotypes are wrong. If you like superhero origin stories, definitely check this one out.
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller. Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried. It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book. The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book. I think I loved this book because much of the action takes place in libraries as the characters conduct research with old documents and letters. Much of the story is related in letters, an obvious homage to Bram Stoker’s famous novel. It’s not a particularly deep novel, and the characters are not fully formed, but for a suspenseful thriller, I can hardly imagine a more successful novel. I read the book over ten years ago when it first came out and I really liked it then. I forgot much of the action since then, so I picked it up again hoping to have a similar experience. Part of me worried it wouldn’t hold up. I needn’t have fretted. I loved it all over again.
- A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals with text by Tim Flannery and illustrations by Peter Schouten is a sobering look at the effects of humanity on the animal kingdom. The book includes 103 species (mammal, bird, or reptile) that have gone extinct since the year 1500, most of them in the past 150 years. Peter Schouten’s illustrations are beautiful and naturalistic. I was reminded of the Audubon calendars we had in our house growing up. It was rather haunting to see animal after animal that is gone forever. Some of the species are familiar, even famous for their extinction: the gigantic moas of New Zealand, the Dodo of Mauritius, the Great Auk in the North Atlantic, the Passenger Pigeon of North America, and the Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian Tiger). I didn’t know about Steller’s Sea Cow, a gigantic relative of dugongs and manatees. It was the largest mammal (besides whales) to live in modern times, at up to 30 feet long and weighing approximately 10 tons. They were all hunted until there were none left by 1768. The text by Tim Flannery, an introduction and commentary on each species to accompany the artwork, is informative on what was known about each species and its demise. Sometimes a bird would be hunted for food by humans. Such was the fate of the Rail (a kind of bird) on Wake Island during World War II—during hostilities between the Japanese and American forces, the Japanese soldiers faced starvation and ate the birds to survive. More often the reason for extinction was the introduction of some other invasive species that disrupted the life cycle. Black rats might eat the eggs, for example, of some other island bird. The rats came to shore from aboard the ships that explored the South Pacific and other faraway once diverse habitats. Sometimes people destroyed the habitat for these animals, usually for agricultural reasons. Flannery also notes that a few species went extinct when naturalists gathered the last few remaining specimens for natural history museums. Our knowledge of the species came at the expense of their extinction, a truly bittersweet result. This book is a good complement to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, showing example after example of humanity’s devastation of the natural world.
- The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another classic of kids’ lit that I managed to miss when I was growing up. I thought maybe I had read it because I have some vague memory of a book I randomly picked up at the library that had to do with kids and some Egyptian mystery, but then I forgot the title and could never find the book again when I went to look for it. I don’t think it was the same book, but regardless, The Egypt Game is a good book for elementary age kids to read. It has a lot to say about friendships, imagination, and figuring out how to deal with disappointment. The initial main characters are April and Melanie. April has recently moved in with her grandmother, who herself has recently moved into a new two bedroom apartment so she would have enough room for April and herself. Melanie lives one floor down from April, and they become friends because of a shared interest in Egyptian history. They start to imagine that they themselves are living in ancient Egypt with its gods and ceremonies, priests/priestesses and pharaohs. The game is a secret they play in a fenced storage lot behind a junk shop, but they eventually end up inviting others to join them. I’m looking forward to the day my kids are old enough to read it so I can talk to them about their own Egypt games.
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