Get Well Soon: A Five Things I’ve Learned Review…

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.aaaaand a Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Today’s book is all about death and disease and as such, you wouldn’t necessarily think it would be all that enjoyable to read.  You would, however, be wrong.  Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a massively accessible nonfiction book with a conversational tone and enough humour to keep the (in some places) quite terrifying content, readable.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous book about history’s worst plagues—from the Antonine Plague, to leprosy, to polio—and the heroes who fought them

In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn’t stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome—a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs.

Throughout time, humans have been terrified and fascinated by the plagues they’ve suffered from. Get Well Soon delivers the gruesome, morbid details of some of the worst plagues in human history, as well as stories of the heroic figures who fought to ease their suffering. With her signature mix of in-depth research and upbeat storytelling, and not a little dark humor, Jennifer Wright explores history’s most gripping and deadly outbreaks.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright:

1. The incredibly deadly Spanish Flu didn’t actually originate in Spain.

2. No matter what the disease, it never does anyone any good when a stigma is attached to those who carry it.

3.  Having a plague that makes you dance non-stop for hours (or days) at a time may sound like fun, until your bones start protruding through your skin just as “Blame it on the Boogie” comes on.

4. Indulging in an illicit romp with a lady of the night is all fun and games until  your nose (and probably hers also) falls off.

5. People actually queued up at one time in history to allow a madman to drill holes in their skulls, in the hope that it would provide a cure for their assorted maladies.

I can’t remember when I last giggled so much while reading about infectious disease as I did while reading this book.  In terms of making nonfiction books accessible, Wright has done a bang-up job here with a narrative style that is light – but never makes light – despite content that can result in some pretty sobering reading.  The humour in this book is almost a necessary vent for the anger and sadness and bafflement some readers may experience while finding out about the ways in which some very sick people – as well as the people who tried to help them – were treated at various points throughout history.

The book covers various plagues in separate sections and includes famous plagues, such as the Black Death, Spanish Influenza, and Polio, alongside lesser known ailments such as the dancing plague mentioned in the blurb, the “plague” of lobotomies orchestrated by William Jackson Freeman III and the plague of Encephalitis Lethargia, which results in the loss of any kind of emotion or motivation and leaves sufferers, in some cases, like living corpses.  Part of the focus of the book is on how authorities and others dealt with these diseases when they first appeared and how this action or inaction affected the disease’s spread.  It’s fascinating to see how the work of some individuals and groups to gain evidence for the causes of certain diseases – cholera being a case in point – was pooh-poohed (pardon the pun) by the authorities and scientific community even in the face of growing numbers of people contracting the disease.

I suspect this book won’t necessarily cut it for those hoping for a scientific look at plagues and their causes, but for the casual reader and those interested in social responses to medical disasters, the book will provide enough information to be going on with.  The style of writing feels like narrative nonfiction, in part because of the way in which the author has highlighted the individuals involved in the outbreaks of each specific disease.  While the use of the term “heroes” to describe these people feels a bit twee to me, I appreciate the fact that these people should be acknowledged and possibly lauded as household names more than they usually are.

My favourite part of the book was the section dealing with Spanish influenza, simply because of the dastardly bad timing that meant this disease came to prominence at the same time as World War 1, leading to catastrophic breakdowns in communication between authorities and the general public that, had this been different, could have saved many lives.  Looking back on the content, I was mildly disappointed that the Ebola virus was not included in the list of diseases, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

If you, like me, enjoy reading about major global disasters in a style that won’t freak you out too badly or exacerbate general feelings of anxiety about the state of the world, this would definitely be one to add to your TBR.

Oh, and I’m adding this to my  Colour Coded Challenge as well.  Check out my progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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The Cult of Lego: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review

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Today’s book is one I picked up on a whim from the library, yet I am happy to report that upon reading it I learned lots of interesting new trivia about everyone’s favourite, foot-stabbing toy, Lego.  The Cult of Lego is a coffee-table sized, photograph-laden romp through the history of the humble, foot-stabbing Lego brick and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

No, this isn’t a book about joining some fringe cult. It’s a book by LEGO® fans, for LEGO fans, and you and your kids will love it.

In The Cult of LEGO, Wired’s GeekDad blogger John Baichtal andBrickJournal founder Joe Meno take you on a magnificent, illustrated tour of the LEGO community, its people, and their creations.

The Cult of LEGO introduces us to fans and builders from all walks of life. People like professional LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya; enigmatic Dutch painter Ego Leonard (who maintains that he is, in fact, a LEGO minifig); Angus MacLane, a Pixar animator who builds CubeDudes, instantly recognizable likenesses of fictional characters; Brick Testament creator Brendan Powell Smith, who uses LEGO to illustrate biblical stories; and Henry Lim, whose work includes a series of models recreating M.C. Escher lithographs and a full-scale, functioning LEGO harpsichord.

Marvel at spectacular LEGO creations like:

A life-sized Stegosaurus and an 80,000-brick T. Rex skeleton Detailed microscale versions of landmarks like the Acropolis and Yankee Stadium A 22-foot long, 350-pound re-creation of the World War II battleship Yamato A robotic, giant chess set that can replay historical matches or take on an opponent A three-level, remote-controlled Jawa Sandcrawler, complete with moving conveyor belt

Whether you’re a card-carrying LEGO fanatic or just thinking fondly about that dusty box of LEGO in storage, The Cult of LEGOwill inspire you to take out your bricks and build something amazing.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Cult of Lego by John Baichtal and Joe Meno:

1. The first products out of the Lego factory weren’t little connectable bricks at all, but wooden toys – the most famous being a pull-along wooden duck.

2. Lego has been around for so long that its original patents have expired, which is why in recent years multiple products bearing the “Lego-compatible” mark have popped up around the place.

3.   The best selling of Lego’s products to date has been the Mindstorms robotics system.

4. Lego has been used to great effect in Autism therapy programs, as well as in corporate settings to encourage creative problem solving.

5. In accordance with Lego’s tagline, “build your dreams”, clever folk around the world have built everything from functioning ATM and vending machines to prosthetic limbs out of Lego…although my personal favourite creation is the working, floating bug killing device designed by two pioneering Kiwis (the people, not the birds) to overcome the problem of having an uncomfortable number of water insects inhabiting the family pool.

When I checked this one out of the library I expected that it would be the kind of book that I would idly flick through during points of boredom, but I actually ended up reading it cover to cover.  This was no mean feat given that the book is a hefty, coffee-table sized tome, but I like to think that holding it up for long periods counted as exercise.  Beginning at the beginning, the book takes a look at the fascinating history of the toy company that would eventually become the home of the ubiquitous and iconic Lego brick.  The company’s commitment to quality, amongst other things, is clearly one of the reasons why Lego has been around for so long, and has made such an impact on popular culture.

From Lego’s early incarnations, the book moves on to explore the extensive world of AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego, to the uninitiated) and the “cult” that has built up around the humble toy brick.  You may not be aware of this, but adult Lego fans are everywhere, with their own webcomics, literature, conventions, language, online forums and competitions and if you ever wanted to be part of a hardcore hobbyist community based around a children’s toy, Lego could certainly provide your entry ticket into such a world.  As well as the world of competitive building by adult Lego fans, the book takes a look at Lego as art, Lego as architecture and the ways in which adult builders have taken Lego to whole new levels that could not have been imagined by the company’s founders.   No book on Lego could be complete without a close look at the Minifig phenomenon, and these little guys play a big role in the cult of Lego, influencing everything from the scale of creations to the builders’ choice of avatar in the online and business worlds.

There is a section of the book devoted to Lego and robotics and this was a whole new world for me as I have never particularly dabbled in the Technic sets, let alone the Mindstorms system, which allows users to program robots for all sorts of purposes, from the aforementioned vending machines, to robots designed to solve Rubik’s Cubes.

The point of difference for this book is that it takes a focused look at how a simple interconnected building toy has made such an incredible impact on wider society.  At the same time, it uncovers the vast and complex subculture of adult fans of Lego and the many ways in which the brick has evolved beyond “toy” status, in the hands of grown ups with innovative ambitions.  If you are a fan of Lego, and indeed of social history, I can recommend this book as one to lose yourself in.

In a nod to those adult builders, below is a little selection of photos from the Brisbricks (that’s the Brisbane Lego Fan User Group) display that Mad Martha visited in June of 2016 at Strathpine:

Kudos to the builders that came up with squirrel herding and chickens escaping from KFC!

Until next time,

Bruce

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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imageI seem to be on a bit of a minor roll at the moment, with unexpectedly wonderful books popping up here and there, and I am pleased to be able to add another to my (very short) list of “Top Books of 2015”.

Today’s book is as unexpected and wonderful as it is singular and extraordinary, and I was lucky enough to receive a copy from the publisher, Angry Robot, via Netgalley. The tome in question is The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath by Ishbelle Bee, being the first in a new series relating The Peculiar Adventures of John Loveheart, Esq. I hasten to warn that this book, with its oddities and profanities, will not be for everyone but if you are hankering after a blindingly original array of characters forced into unruly submission by an author with an obvious mastery of the written word, then there is a good chance that this book will be for you.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

1888.  A little girl called Mirror and her shape-shifting guardian Goliath Honeyflower are washed up on the shores of Victorian England. Something has been wrong with Mirror since the day her grandfather locked her inside a mysterious clock that was painted all over with ladybirds. Mirror does not know what she is, but she knows she is no longer human.

John Loveheart, meanwhile, was not born wicked. But after the sinister death of his parents, he was taken by Mr Fingers, the demon lord of the underworld. Some say he is mad. John would be inclined to agree.

Now Mr Fingers is determined to find the little girl called Mirror, whose flesh he intends to eat, and whose soul is the key to his eternal reign. And John Loveheart has been called by his otherworldly father to help him track Mirror down…

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Here, then, are five things I’ve learned from

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath

1. Never trust a man in a waistcoat. Particularly one made of whimsically decorated fabric.

2. Never trust anyone who names themselves after an opposable body part. 

3.  Should you ever be invited to take an especially close look at the workings of a coffin-sized clock, it would be prudent to decline. 

4. When being pursued by demons and humans of dubious origin, it is recommended that you seek the services of a large, battle-trained protector with the ability to shape-shift.

5. Socks, while generally considered an unimaginative gift for older male relatives, are also much less likely to see the giver murdered for the immortality-inducing properties of their soul.

 

I’m sure I’ve mentioned more than a few times how highly an original story is valued in my reviewing world. Being that I churn through a stupidly high number of books a year – my Goodreads challenge chart is telling me that I have read 68 books this year so far – it is only reasonable to expect that much of the time there will be a niggling feeling of having read something like the story in which I find myself immersed, at any given time, before. It is a real and almost tangible treat then, to come across a tale about which one can truly say, “This is different!” The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath is one such book and I put its originality down to the obvious and remarkable talent of the author.

The story is all over the place – and I mean this in the exciting and invigorating sense, not in the “Good Lord, this book is all over the place!” sense that is usually uttered with head in hands – as various characters (both main and minor) muscle in on the telling. The setting ranges from a woody cottage to the depths of the Underworld to the deserts of Cairo to a less-than-reputable clock shop. The characters are human and demon and almost, not-quite. There’s violence and one-liners and escapes and unsavoury dinner parties. Over the course of the tale, a number of characters are referred to as mad – “mad as a spoon”, “mad as a hat”, “mad as scissors” – and while a definite atmosphere of mild insanity hangs over the proceedings, at no point did I feel that the author was letting things get out of (her) hand.

Apart from the welcome and inspiring originality of the tale, the shining light has to be the book’s narrative style. Bee manages to be simultaneously lyrical and distinctly unnerving, mixing dry wit with outlandish, almost slapstick violence and a sense of the poetical with deeds unequivocally wicked. While the title refers to Mirror and Goliath, the main character here turns out to be John Loveheart, Esq., who embodies this sense of innately flawed hilarity and carries it to the nth degree.

By the end of this book I was utterly convinced that I want to read more from Ishbelle Bee, whether in this series or elsewhere. It is rare, in my experience, to come across such finesse with the use of language that one feels excited just to be experiencing the words on the page. I therefore have to commend this book into place number four on my “Top Books of 2015” list, which is growing at a slow but steady pace.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Undertaker’s Daughter: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Welcome to another “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review, wherein I relay to you, the eager reader of this blog, the insights gained from one of my recent reads.  Today I have the memoir of a lady who literally grew up among the dead; residing, as she did, in a funeral home.  I requested The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield partly because I was drawn in by the cover and partly because of my interest in the funerary rituals of your kind, so I was smugly grateful to receive a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the skinny on the story:

As the child of an undertaker in Jubilee, Kentucky in the 1960s, life for Kate was relatively typical, provided you discounted the corpses temporarily populating the ground floor of her home. Sharing her house reasonably comfortably with Jubilee’s dead – although always avoiding the embalming room – Kate watches as her father renders vital services to the townsfolk during the aftermath of a resident’s passing.  From feuds between the two funeral homes in town to family bouts of fisticuffs over the wills of loved ones, Kate learns about the shadier sides of human nature through others’ reactions to the spectre of death in their midst.  As she grows up, her ideas about her father evolve and family secrets and struggles shed new light on the stresses of life in a small town.  As well as one girl’s personal experience of growing up around the undertaker’s trade is a reflection of the broader social climates of a small Southern town across some turbulant decades. 

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So here are…

Five Things I’ve Learned From…

The Undertaker’s Daughter

1. Embalming is not a spectator sport.

2. Even funeral homes are not immune to underhanded tactics of sabotage from business rivals.

3.  In the 1960s in some small towns, the hearse also served as an ambulance.

4. Small towns in the Southern US seem to have higher proportions of colourful characters with quirky lifestyle choices than elsewhere.

5. Living in a funeral home is much like living in any other home, except for a slight awkwardness regarding filling in the “how many people are staying in your place of residence” question on census night.

This was a bit of a hot-and-cold read for me.  There were some bits during which I felt really interested and engaged, and there were some bits that I could take or leave.  On reflection, this is quite a broad memoir that not only takes in the specifics of living in a funeral home, but also encompasses the author’s learnings from watching her father’s interactions with various people in their town.  There are big chunks of the book dedicated to Kate and her father’s relationship with a reclusive, wealthy lady resident of the town and the resulting friction that occurs between her family and the townsfolk after the lady’s eventual death.  There’s quite a bit about the volatile social climate around race in the post-segregation era as told through Kate’s experiences with friendship and dating as a young teen.  There’s an awful lot about Kate’s family struggles as she learns more about her father’s less-than-stellar behaviour and deals with her elder sister’s untreated mental illness.

So if you have an interest in that time period and its impact on the relationships between different groups in a small town, there will be a lot of extra bang for your buck if you pick up this book.  For me though, while some of those bits were reasonably interesting, I really just wanted to find out more about living in a funeral home.  By the time Kate gets to be a young teen, the funeral home bit of the memoir is pretty much wrapped up and the rest of the book focuses on Kate’s emerging social awareness, before relating her family’s experiences in dealing with her father’s death.

Overall, I suspect this wasn’t really ever going to be the book for me.  It’s in no way a bad book – it’s very readable, and as I said, got plenty to draw in the person with an interest in memoirs that focus on social history – it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Nevertheless, I – and now you, dear reader – will depart this reading experience with some valuable learnings, and for that also, I am smugly grateful.

Until next time,

Bruce