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Welcome to Steve’s Book Reviews! The books reviewed here are titles that I have personally read, unless otherwise credited.  I hope to help readers answer the question, “Do I want to read this book?”  Directly engaging with an author may add depth to the process of answering that question, so many of my reviews will include author interviews. More reviews follow the linked list below.

The Adversity of Diversity

Tucker

Future Peace: Technology, Aggression, and the Rush to War

The Peacock and The Sparrow

When the Heavens Went On Sale

The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Overture of Hope: Two Sisters' Daring Plan That Saved Opera's Jewish Stars from the Third Reich

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation

A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters

The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone

Where Did the Universe Come From? And Other Cosmic Questions: Our Universe, From the Quantum to the Cosmos

Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel

Hogs in the Sand: A Gulf War A-10 Pilot’s Combat Journal

T-AI: Humanity’s Countdown to Artificial Intelligence and the New Pursuit of Global Power

Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better

Down Range: A Novel (Garrett Kohl, 1)

Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Labor

Mill Town: Reckoning with what Remains

The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement

Write to the Point: A Master Class on the Fundamentals of Writing for Any Purpose

The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir

And the Whole Mountain Burned: A War Novel

City on Fire: A Novel (The Danny Ryan Trilogy #1)

The Tyranny of Big Tech

Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul

 

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Fragments: The long coming home from Vietnam By Bruce K. Berger Cover Image
$12.95
ISBN: 9780985504816
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Published: Wordworthypress LLC - April 13th, 2020

Bruce K. Berger’s free verse poetry reflects his struggle to heal from his experiences in the Viet Nam war. The author was a “next-of-kin” editor who wrote letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers, and also assisted Graves Registration preparing the deceased for transit home. These activities certainly cemented memories of stark results of that conflict.

This remarkable collection travels through six chapters that run the gamut of military service in Viet Nam, from remembering those who died, thoughts of home, images of Viet Nam, and  experiences of being back in the U.S. The chapter names are telling: Taps, Dreaming of Home, Life on the Perimeter (Camp Eagle), Pictures and Prayers, PTSD, and Seasons.

Good literature enables the reader to appear in the narrative, and Fragments certainly accomplishes this. It is an intense journey of courage and fear, brotherhood and horror, sadness and purposelessness. Upon returning to the U.S., there were dishonor and blame for the horrors of war. The rejuvenation of spirit that came from rejoining family, and finding solace in the sanctuary of kinship with other vets were the best things life could offer.

According to the author, writing these poems helped him “to come home”. They are not only his own reflections, but the accounts and memories of others. “The words are mine; the voices are many.”

These poems come illustrated by the Providence Art Club of Rhode Island to present a poignant aide-mémoire for those alive in those times.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts

April 16, 2021

 


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27 Essential Principles of Story: Master the Secrets of Great Storytelling, from Shakespeare to South Park By Daniel Joshua Rubin Cover Image
$19.95
ISBN: 9781523507160
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Published: Workman Publishing Company - August 18th, 2020

Author Daniel Joshua Rubin has written for theater, television, and digital productions, and has taught dramatic writing at Loyola University and the University of California at San Diego. His work, 27 Essential Principles of Story, is a great choice for anyone who has a story to tell. 

The book is divided into three parts: the first has ten chapters, or essential principles, on plot, the second part has nine essential principles on character, and the third part has seven essential principles on dialog, setting, and theme. 

Every important dynamic of classic dramatic story structure is described, demonstrated, explained, and presented with a short test. To do this, each principle is given utilizing examples from various writers with very different styles. From Shakespeare to Eminem, every fundamental step in story-creation is shown in explicit and easy to follow fashion.

In plot, you see how to establish a central dramatic question, create risk, clash expectation with reality, and intensify action. In character, you learn to make the hero active, have the characters perform at the top of their intelligence, how to use masks, and have strong antagonists. You’ll see how the setting affects the whole story, and how your theme can actually be attacked in order to strengthen its persuasiveness and better its function of leading the narrative, and how dialog is used to illustrate the characters.

At times, this work seemed like a collection of highly useful tricks designed to obtain the best story possible, such as having the hero move closer to his goal while simultaneously moving further away, or finding paths to the appropriate mindset when writing.

While story-creation may be thought of as the creation of fiction, it is worthy to note that its purpose regularly goes far beyond entertainment. Humans make facts from fiction-consider corporations, nations, religions, and money. The purposes of story include helping us make sense of the world, and validating our experiences.

A pleasant surprise for me was the enjoyment of experiencing the works of the various authors Rubin uses to demonstrate the principles. His familiarity with their works made it a ride on a carousel of literary styles.

March 11, 2021

Steven Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts

Bookstore


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Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don't Have To By David A. Sinclair, PhD, Matthew D. LaPlante Cover Image
$30.00
ISBN: 9781501191978
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Published: Atria Books - September 10th, 2019

In his book Lifespan, Harvard geneticist and researcher David A Sinclair describes various methods of increasing lifespans and also healthspans, or the duration of vitality. The work begins with a primordial earth spawning the first life forms and ends with the Earth’s most advanced organism amending and altering its own shape.

The path of evolution has its start with a progenitor organism with the imagined name of Magna Superstes, or “great survivor.” Its genetic survival mechanism is based on its ability to switch its forces back and forth from replication to repair, and it foretells a nature common to all future life, no matter how complex the form.

The author defines a host of “hallmarks” of aging. They are: genomic instability caused by DNA damage; attrition of the protective endcaps of the chromosomes, the telomeres; alterations to the epigenome that controls which genes are turned on or off; loss of healthy protein maintenance, known as proteostasis; deregulated nutrient sensing caused by metabolic changes; mitochondrial dysfunction; accumulation of senescent zombie-like cells that inflame healthy cells; exhaustion of stem cells; altered intercellular communication and the production of inflammatory  molecules. Dr. Sinclair believes that, should any of these conditions be halted, the process of aging may be slowed, and should all of them be halted, aging, in theory, could be stopped.

In order to halt those aging processes, gene-editing interventions may be performed in the embryo, using enzymes such as I-Ppol or Cas9. thus allowing certain regenerative processes to be activated later in life. Another area of research is the development of senolytics, or medicines that destroy zombie cells. 

According to the author, the three main pathways to longevity involve mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), AMPK (an enzyme that assists in nutrient sensing), and sirtuins (proteins that regulate cellular homeostasis and require NAD to function. NAD is a coenzyme important to mitochondrial function) Some therapeutic agents, such as NMN (a supplement that can treat metabolic disorders) and metformin, may stimulate longevity circuits. 

Some lifeforms, such as Greenland sharks and bristlecone pines, already have vastly greater lifespans than humans, and therefore are subjects of research. Another life form, the tardigrade, has a much greater ability to repair DNA damage, so its genetic nature is under deserved scrutiny. And surprising research with lab mice and yeast cells show that aging may be diminished or even ended.

Moreover, challenging oneself with temperature (being a little bit cold or hot), reducing the intake of calories, avoiding amino acids from animal sources, and engaging in exercise will likely lead to a longer and healthier lifespan.

For me, the most important take-away from this work was the realization that there is no definite limit to a lifespan should aging itself is brought under control. Reading Dr. Sinclair’s work was a journey from disbelief to expectation.

March 2, 2021

Steven Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts

Bookstore


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Humans By Brandon Stanton Cover Image
$35.00
ISBN: 9781250114297
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Published: St. Martin's Press - October 6th, 2020

After Humans of New YorkHumans of New York: Stories, and Little Humans, author Brandon Stanton has produced Humans, another example of his visionary storytelling style. This work has photos and quotes from over 400 randomly selected individuals in over 40 countries. Within this collection are sections describing the birth, evolution, and operation of his unique style. His confidence and skill in interviewing grew as did his understanding of how his subjects could be led to reveal their stories.

Although Humans is not an anthropological study per se, it does present a significant truth— irrespective of language or culture— once people are convinced that defenses are unnecessary, most will gladly reveal personal stories. When the fears and suspicions caused by stress fragment and disappear, vulnerabilities emerge enabling us to connect. This book can be opened anywhere, and the reader is immediately grabbed. Whether it is a simple photo of a small girl in Ukraine holding a kitten, or a multi-page memoir of a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, the frank intimacy overwhelms.

These amazing quotes represent human interest, but little more. There are no great lessons to be learned from their details. They are not significant in their content. Yet, they are valuable for different reasons. They bestow upon the reader the sense of having met an incredible diversity of people. They prove that openness can be gained through trust—everywhere. They allow us the chance to see our own lives as puzzle pieces that fit, somewhere, on the puzzle that is humanity. Obtained with randomness, they deliver a type of truth that is a gift to objectivity, since neither the questions nor the subjects adhere to any narrative. And they show the enthusiasm of a man to pursue his idea and method of encountering the human condition.

Humans is unique. It took a special kind of person to create such a book. It took someone who discerned the merit in accomplishing this portrait of humanity, retained faith in his plan, and diligence in his effort.

 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Dearly: New Poems By Margaret Atwood Cover Image
$18.99
ISBN: 9780063032507
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Published: Ecco - November 2nd, 2021

The soul of a poet lives in a special place near the borderlands of words and emotions, and Margaret Atwood is no stranger to that place. Her work, Dearly, has the imprint of her style: crafty and slightly dark, at times melancholy, and always varied. She writes of women and sisters, the past, odd remembrances. She reminisces about cats and aliens, werewolves and nature. Her wit and effect are genuinely and easily enjoyable. 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts


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Edison By Edmund Morris Cover Image
$24.00
ISBN: 9780812983210
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Published: Random House Trade Paperbacks - November 3rd, 2020

Author Edmund Morris won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his debut work, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1980. An accomplished writer, he also produced President Reagan’s authorized biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.

Edison is an eight-hundred page work describing the life of Thomas A. Edison, patent-holder of over a thousand various inventions, in addition to being the creator of the first research and development facility. This well-written work is of frame structure, starting at the end of Edison’s life and working back to his early years.

It is a complete story of this renowned and influential man. The business side of his work—patent wars, a crooked attorney, traitorous associates, military connections, bankers and investors;  the technical issues (processes, problems, mistakes and successes) of many of his inventions are all well detailed, and there is great attention to family relationships.

When reading Edison, I felt that the author was often seeking insight into the character of Edison, apparently a man whose character traits were sometimes evident and sometimes not. The author met the challenge of portraying Edison as a person (not simply as an inventor) by often drawing on the impressions of those who knew him. He was described as a driven taskmaster, often autocratic, and quite demanding of his employees. He had no problem laying off large numbers of workers when he saw fit.

He was generous to those who lent themselves to his projects, but had little time for those who did not. He highly valued curiosity, alertness, the ability to observe, and the power of observation. He was a compulsive risk-taker.

He was always inspired by difficulty, regarding problems or challenges almost as a source of delight. Although he lacked a formal education, he studied and read unceasingly. To his disadvantage, he would sometimes share his ideas.

I felt that Thomas Alva Edison was a brilliant and enigmatic person but, I could discern no great happiness in his life. Somehow, his genius seemed to carry some defect within its shine.

This is a good read for all who enjoy invention, and especially those who want to know about this incredible man who changed history.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West By H. W. Brands Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781541672543
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Published: Basic Books - October 20th, 2020

H. W. Brands Dreams of El Dorado is a history of the westward expansion of the United States. From Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. history is presented to the reader in a way that often gives the impression of hearing the words of people from the past. This is accomplished by abundant use of quotes from old sources, such as journals, books, and newspapers.

This fascinating history takes the reader through Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, the fur trade, missionaries, Mormons, the drive to California (and its gold), Oregon when the British were there, and Texas when it was Spanish. From the stories of cowboys and great cattle drives to John Wesley Powell’s adventure in the Grand Canyon, Dreams of El Dorado is a memorable excursion through our past.

While there were many different dynamics in the history of the U.S., it seems apparent that there were two overarching factors that had continual effects on the general course of events: national discord due to slavery and conflict with Native Americans due to territorial expansion. 

The Missouri Compromise, The Compromise of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott Case, and the Civil War itself all spectacularly illustrate this discord. Southern slave states were often obstacles to expansion because they wanted new states to accept slavery where the North did not. 

Conflict with Native Americans began with primary settlement in the eastern seaboard, pushing Indians westward. Settlements in California had a similar effect, displacing Indians and destroying native culture there. The Plains Indians still had the open terrain, but it was not to last. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the completion of the trans-continental railroad, the days of the Plains culture were soon to end.

While Plains Indian tribes suffered hardships and, ultimately, defeat due to the destruction of the buffalo herds, it was not simply a matter of white buffalo hunters killing buffalo. When the Indians adopted horses, the horse became a competitor for the buffalo’s food. The Indians, who already hunted buffalo, became more efficient hunters with the horse. And cattle also ate the grasses, and even spread diseases among buffalo.

And of course, neither North nor South suffered any serious objection to depriving Native Americans of their domain.

Author H.W. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The First American and Traitor to His Class.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Valentine: A Read with Jenna Pick By Elizabeth Wetmore Cover Image
$17.00
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ISBN: 9780062913272
Published: Harper Perennial - March 2nd, 2021

Debut author Elizabeth Wetmore grew up in West Texas. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in various reviews and journals and she is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council.

Her novel, Valentine, tells the stories of various women in Odessa, a West Texas oil country town in the 1970’s. These stories, like the place they tell about, are hardscrabble. It’s a rough read. Their stories connect to a rape of a fourteen-year-old girl, and there is poverty, loneliness, grief and struggle. The wisdom is brutal, and the truth naked. Yet, intense beauty and sharp humor pervade the roughness.

What made this work memorable for me was experiencing the author’s recreation of 1970’s West Texas. Her writing, with its genuine and polished idiom, will take you there. This is powerful stuff. She is an amazing and talented writer. 

Steven Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do By Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780735224957
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Published: Penguin Books - March 3rd, 2020

Dr. Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford. She was also the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur genius grant and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and has various other awards. Biased is mainly an examination of implicit racial bias, the kind of bias that may easily be unrecognized and can be long-standing. It is conditioning that results from lengthy experience and is certainly not restricted to whites, as it occurs in blacks and others as well.  She describes many psychological tests and historical events that show implicit bias is pervasive, not only in the U.S., but globally as well. Biased is a surprising book that quickly takes the reader into a reckoning of widespread assumptions about race. 

While conditioning and categorizing habits are necessary for survival because they can speed up understanding of situations and make results predictable, they can also cause a mistaken assumption of wrongdoing. Stress from a need to react rapidly produces a state of ambiguity, and that can lead to behavior that relies on implicit bias. 

Dr. Eberhardt has conducted lessons for law enforcement in Oakland and recommends procedural justice training for police. This means that police learn to give voice to the community, and to demonstrate fairness, respect and trustworthiness. 

For schools, she suggests empathy training for teachers and values affirmation exercises for the students. This gives the teachers an understanding of the kinds of student experiences that lead to misbehavior, and the kinds of effective discipline used by others. Students write about personal values to recognize their potential and see the school as supportive. This also helps teachers to see the students as individuals.

Recommended for teachers, police, social workers and all who desire to learn about unconscious racial bias.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe By George Beebe Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781250316622
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Published: Thomas Dunne Books - September 3rd, 2019

In his work, The Russia Trap, former head of CIA’s Russia analysis George Beebe describes various elements that underpin the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and how those elements could cause that relationship to spiral out of control and result in a catastrophic war. Such an event doesn’t have to happen, however, and the author makes some salient recommendations that could help prevent it. 

Mr. Beebe contrasts two forms of analysis: one that believes Russia to be aggressive and requiring punishment and isolation, the other believing Russia to be defensive and in decline, requiring diplomatic conflict resolution and compromise. Neither approach is totally wrong; rather, both are incomplete. According to the author, we need to “balance firmness with accommodation, and military readiness with diplomatic outreach…”

He compares the U.S-Russia relationship to those extant among European countries prior to World War One, where there was great systemic rigidity. Peace could collapse from any small trigger. Later, he takes us through two absolutely horrifying hypothetical scenarios illustrating just how war could occur without our intent.

To prevent this, the first step is to recognize that the hazard is a complex systems problem. This means that there are many changing factors that interconnect, that problems cannot be solved piecemeal, and that many things need to be done at once. Most pernicious is the belief that each side represents an existential threat to the other.

The advent of the cyberage has resulted in great and significant changes. The dynamics surrounding MAD (mutually assured destruction) can no longer be based on the same rules. Command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions are now operated by satellites which entangle both nuclear and conventional weapons systems, making the nature of military actions unclear. Cyberintrusions may be espionage, sabotage or influence, and may or may not come from a state actor. (Read his take on the 2016 Russian intrusion of the U.S. election.) Both the U.S. and Russia have stated that a cyberattack could result in a nuclear response. And the multipolarity of today’s world suggests that bilateralism itself may be anachronistic, even though most of the world’s nuclear weapons are held by Russia and the U.S.

To help prevent a catastrophic escalatory spiral, “escalate to deescalate” doctrines must be abandoned. To avoid rigidity, stability strategies must be imaginative and adaptable. Resilience must be built into our communications, technological, and rule-making systems. Geographic restriction on deployment of strategic weapons and proscription against certain cyberintrusions, for example, should be a part of any new set of rules.

The U.S. and Russia might best regard each other not as partners, but as competitors. Then we may be able to establish ways of safely competing while reducing the risk of war.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know By Malcolm Gladwell Cover Image
$18.99
ISBN: 9780316299220
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Published: Back Bay Books - September 28th, 2021

Talking to strangers is not easy. This is the central premise of author Malcolm Gladwell’s workTalking to Strangers. Gladwell uses various events to demonstrate how misunderstandings occur, and how the results can be sad and egregious. From the intelligence services to politics in World War Two; from Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox and Jerry Sandusky to sexual assault cases and psychological experiments and rates of suicide in England, the author cites two main causes of misunderstanding: the default to truth and transparency.

Default to truth means that people generally will regard a stranger’s words to be true rather than false because normally, that is the case. Yes, we risk being deceived on occasion, but the trade-off is “social coordination and efficient communication.” It would not have been useful to evolve a tendency for continual suspicion. For good reasons, we will sometimes misunderstand the words and behavior of others, leaving us with a best approach of relying on respect and humility when engaging strangers while realizing that our abilities to understand have limits.

We always have doubts, but only depart from the truth default when doubts exceed a reasonable threshold. We continue to believe because we lack enough reason not to. 

Only when there is sufficient doubt do we begin to disbelieve.

Yet there are those rare people called “holy fools” who have no threshold to overcome and will accurately assess deceivers from the start. Harry Markopolos, who saw through Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, was such a person.

Transparency is the idea that we can determine a person’s true disposition and intent by their outward expressions and behavior. This is a myth that can be demonstrated with a FACS (Facial Action Coding System) which numbers facial muscle movements. Seeing a face may cause us to misunderstand the true sentiment inside. This is shown to be the case when computers, which cannot see facial expressions, have a greater percentage of correct decisions compared to humans who can.

Gladwell also describes coupling, which refers to a likelihood that certain behaviors are coupled with certain circumstances and conditions. He examines suicide rates in London during and after their use of town gas. He refutes the assumption that people who want to commit suicide will simply switch to a different means, should they be kept from their chosen method (displacement). Before the 1970s, most suicide was by town gas. But after they switched to natural gas, suicide rates fell. He also describes how policing techniques appropriate in one place and time may not be appropriate in another. So when assessing strangers, we should also consider time, location, and conditions as variables that play a part in accurate and ethical communication.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Gifts & Toys Bookstore


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Who's Afraid of AI?: Fear and Promise in the Age of Thinking Machines By Thomas Ramge Cover Image
$9.95
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ISBN: 9781615195503
Published: The Experiment - April 16th, 2019

Who’s Afraid Of AI? is a basic work that tells the major risks and benefits of AI (Artificial Intelligence) or machine learning. The Janus of our times does represent dangers, but it also heralds progress that will benefit humanity. An important question is, will the disruptive changes caused by AI occur too rapidly for humanity to adjust?

AI refers to machines (computers) that learn from data and extrapolate. The core skills are recognition, insight and implementation. By classifying the results of its actions, AI has the ability to autocorrect. It requires a robust set of rules and a physical apparatus that processes information based on those rules, and depends on feedback of data and pattern recognition.

Who’s Afraid of AI? takes the reader through the history of AI, from the work of Alan Turing in the 1930s, to the Dartmouth Conference in 1956, to an AI “winter” in the 1970s; from the brute force algorithms of Deep Blue, to Watson’s semantic analysis, to the intuition and creativity of AlphaGo, and the strategic thinking and risk-taking of Libratus in 2017. AI development became strong once the computational speed of computer chips increased and cloud storage of data became a reality.

Weak or narrow AI is what exists today; super AI is conceptual and as yet, non-existent. Super AI would be cognitively advanced, human-like, and possibly have self-awareness or self-interest. However, the development of super AI seems unlikely, absent the ability to control quantum dynamics. “Apocalypticists”  fear that a super AI might simply grow exponentially in intelligence until it became a singleton, or a single, omnipotent decision-making entity. Humanity could be deposed from its position as “apex cogitator,” rendered obsolete, and exterminated.

Weak AI still poses threats and requires governance. Products and services with AI tend to cause market share gain, thus risking collapse of the market economy by destroying competition. Individuals can be manipulated by deception from virtual assistants, and mass manipulation, surveillance and oppression could result from a state ungoverned by the rule of law. Will people draw the line anywhere at all when it comes to machine-driven infantilization? AI may not relieve us of the burden to think, but will people rid themselves of it anyway if AI offers them such a delusion?

But the promises of AI include increased productivity and GDP growth. Computers can translate texts, pilot vehicles, predict stock prices, conduct medical research, make diagnoses, and perform legal and business work, as well as work in farming, in construction, and in many other industries. Such changes may result in large numbers of people being unemployed, so the best approach will be to use AI to augment decision-making rather than to allow total automation. 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Topgun: An American Story By Dan Pedersen Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780316416283
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Published: Hachette Books - March 3rd, 2020

Dan Pedersen joined the Navy in 1953. In his book Top Gun, he tells the story of his life as a naval aviator and the story of Topgun (U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School), which he founded with eight other men (the Original Bros) in 1969, in response to severe aviation losses over Viet Nam. Dan Pedersen, now 83 years old, has flown 39 different aircraft, made over 1,000 carrier landings and accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours. But this book is not only a history of that school and of Dan’s life.  It also tells the story of Lyndon Johnson’s and Robert McNamara’s inept and intrusive micromanagement of our military’s efforts.

In World War Two, the kill ratio between U.S. and Japanese forces was 19 to 1, and in Viet Nam it was 2 to 1. Our Phantom jets had missiles that often failed, and no guns. The Soviet MiGs used by the North Vietnamese had no missiles, but they did have cannons. Perhaps most importantly, our forces were severely constrained by rules of engagement imposed by the U.S. government that prevented our forces from successfully prosecuting the war. For example, our pilots were required to drop flares (!) before releasing bombs and to visually identify targets before firing a missile. This often meant they would be too close to use a missile, but would be in range of the enemy’s cannons. Pilots were trained to use missiles which they often could not successfully employ.

Eventually, the Navy decided to take steps. A lengthy report was issued which included the recommendation to start an Advanced Fighter Weapons School. Dan Pedersen became the first officer in charge, and the school was soon called Topgun. Dan was tasked with creating a curriculum for the school. Some Israeli pilots, here to become acquainted with the Phantom, were being hosted by Dan. They made the suggestion to use division of labor in training, as Israeli squadrons did. Each technical specialization—radar, weapons, ordnance, aerodynamics, tactics—was led by the person with the best knowledge and skills. This method came to describe the way Topgun would operate.

One of the techniques the pilots learned was called the Egg. Typically, Phantoms would fly in a pair. One pilot could engage the enemy while the other would fly up in a nearly vertical path without cutting power. Then, he would plummet back to the engagement to destroy the opponent. Topgun training resulted in a 600 per cent improvement in kill ratio, eventually leading to a ratio of 12 to 1 by the end of the war.  

This work is composed of the memories of a man who played a real part in protecting his fellow Americans during one of his country’s worst times. From flying a captured MiG at Area 51 to rescuing dying refugees from an overcrowded boat in the South China Sea, from the advent of guided weapons to the use of telemetry in training, his reminiscences inspire the imagination. He remembers: “God, How I loved flying. On a night like this, you could see for hundreds of miles at forty thousand feet. Crystal black sky overhead, lit with an infinite number of galaxies and their stars, the glittering cities below, like diamonds reflecting sunlight. Earth and life in all their beauty.”

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Alone at Dawn: Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World's Deadliest Special Operations Force By Dan Schilling, Lori Longfritz Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781538729663
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Published: Grand Central Publishing - June 23rd, 2020

This work tells the story of John Chapman, an Air Force CCT who lost his life in Afghanistan and posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor. John Chapman’s actions saved the lives of a SEAL team, and then a Ranger unit before he was killed. There are Rangers, SEALS, Delta forces and other units. There are Chechen and Uzbek Al Qaeda. Their weapons and equipment are formidable. Although the story is a sad one, it is also one that tells of the truly heroic deeds of an individual who put his brothers first.

Before reading this book, I had never heard of a CCT (Combat Control Team). It is a military occupational speciality that describes what may be the most elite soldier of all.

Training to become a CCT is reportedly more arduous than that for any other speciality, and the descriptions of that training do not lead one to assume otherwise. A reason for this is because the CCT must carry a heavier load (batteries and other equipment) than any other soldier. Once there is actionable intelligence, the military will place the CCT on the ground. His main function is to call in air strikes based on his observations. A CCT must have three-dimensional situational awareness.

Alone at Dawn traces the passage of events since Viet Nam: Grenada, Desert One, Bosnia, Somalia and then, 9/11 with Afghanistan; the Northern Alliance and Mullah Omar, vis à vis the technical evolution of the CCT. 

Combat controllers did not have a high priority in World War Two. Although the Army felt that it should have jurisdiction over them, the Air Force did obtain jurisdiction, believing that technical developments would eventually eliminate the need for Combat Control Teams.

There is a great deal of military jargon. The reader will be immersed in it and must pay attention to the acronyms to follow the story. ATC (Air Traffic Control), FTX (Field Training Exercise), NVG (Night Vision Goggles), SOF (Special Operations Force), and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) are a few examples.

This work is a creation of John’s sister, Lori Chapman Longfritz and Dan Schilling, a former CCT; Lori’s recollection of her brother and Dan’s expertise are well-reflected. It is a story of depth, love and brotherhood.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Gifts & Toys Bookstore


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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis By Jared Diamond Cover Image
$22.99
ISBN: 9780316409148
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Published: Back Bay Books - May 12th, 2020

Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond’s newest release deals with the topic of crises in nations, how and why they come about, and how they respond to those crises. Diamond uses twelve response factors recommended for individuals in crisis therapy, then finds parallel factors for nations. Upheaval is a historical analysis of how seven particular countries dealt with various types of crises. It also concerns crises facing the world as a whole. Those factors are: 1) obtaining a national consensus that a problem exists 2) accepting a national responsibility to act on the problem 3) building a “fence” isolating the problem 4) getting help from other nations 5) using other nations as models to find ways to solve the problem 6) national identity 7) honest self-appraisal 8) experience of previous national crises 9) dealing with national failure 10) situation-specific national flexibility 11) national core values 12) freedom from geopolitical constraints. 

A nation in crisis will need to make selective changes in order to escape the crisis, and its success or failure will depend on its responses to those twelve factors, responses that will facilitate or impede a favorable outcome.

The countries which Diamond selected for examination are countries in which he spent many years, and with which he therefore felt a high degree of familiarity. They were Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the U.S. Examples of the crises they faced include Finland’s wars with the Soviet Union; Japan’s westernization and fall after World  War Two; Chile’s intense political polarization and the fall of Allende; events surrounding and stemming from the 1965 coup in Indonesia; Germany’s aftermaths of World War One, World War Two, and reunification, and Australia’s ethnic changes and loosening of ties to England. 

He believes that, while the U.S. is not currently in a crisis, it does have some very serious problems, the most important of which is the loss of political compromise. For politicians, the causes are the high cost of campaigning, the ease of air travel, and gerrymandering. But people other than politicians are also increasingly uncompromising, and this is due to the prevalence of internet-derived niche information use. The other major problems faced by the U.S. are the failure of eligible voters to vote, socioeconomic inequality, and lack of investment in our future.

For the world as a whole, he sees the possibility of nuclear war, climate change, resource depletion, and inequality of living standards as the greatest risks for crisis.

In great detail, he compares and contrasts the countries examined relative to those factors.

Drawing on psychology, history, and geography, Diamond produces an interdisciplinary study that gives the reader a new approach for analysis of crises.

Recommended for history and psychology buffs who will appreciate a readable yet highly detailed work.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Gifts & Toys Bookstore


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Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations By Admiral William H. McRaven Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781538729755
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Grand Central Publishing - June 2nd, 2020

And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” -Isaiah 6:8  (epigraph)

Admiral William H. McRaven (retired), author of the best-selling Make Your Bed, has produced another work telling stories of his life in the Navy SEALS. With service of 37 years, he retired as a Four-Star Admiral and Commander of all U.S. Special Operations Forces.

Admiral McRaven tells of growing up in a military family, with reminiscences of the American Officers’ Club in France, youthful hijinks on an air force base in the U.S., and  the value of confidence obtained from athletic achievement. He then jumps into the rigors of SEAL training and the insane challenges of Hell Week. The only fear he and his fellow “tadpoles” face is that of failure.

From there, he relates stories of various training exercises illustrated with mishaps such as a helicopter crash or a parachuting accident. Tales of actual combat operations follow, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, the elimination of Osama bin Laden, and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. These are stories of adventure and daring. But their value is more than entertainment; it is the lessons they teach, lessons of resoluteness, courage, equanimity, perseverance, motivation, reliability, and game knowledge.

For me, the most significant result of reading this book was the sense of meeting and getting to know its remarkable author. A man’s character may be determined by the objects of his love and respect. Admiral McRaven is a man with a great love for his family and country, faith in its youth, and an intense admiration for those whose sacrifices enabled good people to live in freedom. 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Who Says You're Dead?: Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned By Jacob M. Appel, MD Cover Image
$24.00
ISBN: 9781616209223
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Published: Algonquin Books - October 8th, 2019

Author Jacob M. Appel, M.D. teaches ethics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and is an attending psychiatrist in the Mount Sinai healthcare System. He has a medical degree from Columbia, a law degree from Harvard, and a master’s degree in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College. He has written several novels as well as other works of literature. 

Who Says You’re Dead? is a collection of seventy-nine hypothetical medical and ethical dilemmas, each of which is followed by a question that inspires ethical contemplation. This is the time for some deep, unforgettable, and character-revealing conversation! Actual case decisions, relevant standards, and experiential material then follow in a reflection relative to the dilemma, most of which remain open-ended.

What are the limits of doctor/patient confidentiality? Should people be able to sell their organs? Should sex be permitted in nursing homes? Should anyone be forced to take medication or required to have surgery? From reproductive issues to end-of-life situations, from body modification to experimental medicine, this collection of hypothetical dilemmas makes a treasurable spark for great conversation. 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life By John Brockman, Daniel Kahneman (Foreword by) Cover Image
By John Brockman, Daniel Kahneman (Foreword by)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780062897947
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow Paperbacks - June 4th, 2019

One of the main reasons I enjoy reading is because of the rich intellectual stimulation that can be derived; it opens the mind and inspires curiosity and wonder. This work elegantly satisfies that drive.

The Last Unknowns is the last of John Brockman’s Edge Question Book Series. It asks 284 leading academics and thinkers the question, “What is ‘The Last Question,’ your last question, the question for which you will be remembered?” This book is the collection of their responses, and reading it once was not enough. Sometimes the questions seem to demand your answer, sometimes they seem like there could be no answer. And sometimes, you may not understand the question

Examples of these questions: “What is the hard limit of human longevity?”- Gregory Benford, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy, University of California;  “Does consciousness reside only in our brains?”- W. Brian Arthur, external professor, Santa Fe Institute;  “Which questions should we not ask and not try to answer?”- Nick Bostrom, author, Superintelligence; “How do our microbes contribute to that particular combination of continuity and change that makes us human?”- Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, assistant professor of sociology, University of Minnesota; “Will post-humans be organic or electronic?”- Martin Rees, former president, Royal Society.

Readers will marvel at the ideas and thoughts that the questions of these great thinkers reflect, consider their concerns and expectations, see and imagine their envisioned future, near and far.

Recommended for scientists, secondary school and college students, teachers, and anyone who enjoys deep thought and conversation.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man By Lynn Vincent, Sara Vladic Cover Image
$21.00
ISBN: 9781501135958
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Published: Simon & Schuster - May 21st, 2019

It is impossible for me to remember reading a book of this size (592 pages) that was such a binding adventure. It tells the story of the USS Indianapolis as the ship that took the uranium from the U.S. to Tinian Island, where the air force assembled the nuclear weapon that was used on Hiroshima, her torpedoing and sinking on the way back, and the court martial (and exoneration) of her captain, James McVay.

At times, the book reads like the World War II adventure story it is: simple, passionate, horrific. But at other times, because of the incredible amount of detail, it takes on a deeper quality. The many years it took the authors to create this book become evident when the reader grasps the astounding completeness of their work.

The authors are impressively credentialed. Lynn Vincent is a Navy veteran, a best-selling author and a journalist whose investigative work has been cited before Congress and the Supreme Court. Sara Vladic is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, a leading expert on the USS Indianapolis, and has published new research on the ship in Proceedings, the official journal of the U.S. Navy. Together they produced an extremely well-researched work, full of complexity developed largely from primary source material, and which took more than fifteen years to create.

When the Indy was sunk, the men who initially survived were in the Pacific Ocean and subject to frequent shark attacks. For four days and five nights they struggled with little food and water and insufficient life rafts. Some went insane from drinking sea water. Some fought each other.Their lives became an unmentionable hell. And when they were eventually discovered, it was by accident. Of 1,195 crewmen on board, approximately 300 died when the ship went down. Of those remaining only 316 eventually survived.

They had sailed without an escort and none was entrusted with following them. Admirals and other officers displayed a greater lack of diligence to duty than did Captain McVay, yet he was court martialed, a unique occurrence for a skipper.

Compared to the number of people who know that Japan was attacked with atomic weapons, few are aware of the story of the Indianapolis and her captain. For this, the Navy must take responsibility. The Navy prevented release of information about the sinking until news that the war had ended was released, even though reporters would have been able to report the loss. Simply put, the Navy wanted this horribly tragic story to be buried in the glee of ending the war, and it also failed to assign responsibility to those who may have prevented the tragedy of so much horrific loss of life. 

Bill Toti, commander of the U. S. submarine Indianapolis became an advocate of redefining the historical record regarding Mcvay, and his role is described along with the actions of an eleven year old boy named Hunter Scott. Hunter made a school history project from the story of the Indiannapolis, and he became a major player in McVay’s exoneration.

The authors included chapters describing what it meant to them to create this work-their challenges, experiences, events and memories of the survivors whom they grew to know.

This is a story that needs to be told because it is an important one whose telling somehow never really occurred. It is no less a part of history because it was delayed. It is no sideshow. This story is one of the America from which our America grew and it is one whose players and whose details must never be forgotten.Clearly, this book receives a strong recommendation for those who appreciate thorough and well-written history.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Imaginary Friend By Stephen Chbosky Cover Image
$16.99
ISBN: 9781538731352
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Published: Grand Central Publishing - October 6th, 2020

A woman has a small boy. Her husband goes crazy and commits suicide. She has a relationship with another man who turns out to be abusive, and she leaves him. She travels to a different state and tries to make a new life for herself and her son. The boy disappears for six days and, when he returns, he has changed. This is a skeleton storyline of the work.  And although the storyline is useful as a sort of anchor that keeps the reader connected, it hardly describes the nature of this intriguing work of horror. 

At first, the reader may think that the boy is consumed by a bizarre, frightening, and overwhelming psychosis; hallucinatory and detached beyond repair. However, it is soon clear that the boy is in some metaphysical realm and participating in a nascent battle of good and evil, where his mother and others also become participants.

The nice man, the hissing lady, aggressive deer with sharp teeth, magical and damned tree houses, mailbox people with mouths sewn shut and eyes zippered closed, streets of blood—and many other images and events straight from Hell—make Imaginary Friend an amusement park of horror unlike any other you may have visited. With occasional and extremely novel religious undertones, the love of goodness and hope remain constants in the boy and his mother.

For me, reading Imaginary Friend was an experience often uncomfortable, regularly disturbing, occasionally frightening, yet perpetually engrossing and deserving of admiration. Obviously, recommended for fans of horror. You will find it unique.

 

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys and Gifts Bookstore


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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Reese's Book Club (A Novel) By Gail Honeyman Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780735220690
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Published: Penguin Books - June 5th, 2018

This is a story of a young woman, Eleanor Oliphant, who is educated and well-spoken, yet odd, reticent, and quite awkward socially. She works in an accounts receivable job, and has very limited activities outside of work, which amount to little more than eating frozen pizza and drinking vodka on the weekends.   

One day, she and a co-worker witness a man stumble and fall in the street. They get help for the man and eventually befriend him and his family. She also obsessively fantasizes about a local rock musician, and her dreams become a belief that she and the musician will share a future. She has macabre conversations with her mother every week who, frankly, seems quite evil.

As the story progresses, she attends a concert of the musician she has become infatuated with. There, she discovers that he not only does he not notice her, but is undeserving of her respect or admiration. At this, her level of depression plummets and she contemplates suicide. Her friend and co-worker intervenes, and with the help of some therapy, gradually brings her out of her defective condition. As her problems unravel, their sad, true nature is revealed. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a panorama of the isolation, introversion and anxiety that surround loneliness. Thankfully, it is also a story of compassion and emergence.

What was most surprising to me was how this debut author used her writing skill to create a character with an excellent command of English but unable to make her words  sound other than contrived, klutzy and inappropriate. Eleanor was not at all completely fine, but by the end of the book, she is taking small, careful steps on a much healthier path.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books, Toys & Gifts  Bookstore


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Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America By Craig Childs Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780345806314
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - April 9th, 2019

Craig Childs is a nature and science writer who has published several other books including Apocalyptic Planet, Finders Keepers, and Animal Dialogues. Atlas of a Lost World is his latest. He has also written for various publications and teaches writing at the University of Alaska and the Southern New Hampshire University.

This work examines the questions of when did people first arrive in the Americas, how do we know, and why did they come. Evidence seems to suggest that people first began arriving about 20,000 years ago but there is not uniform agreement on this. Radiocarbon dating and the discovery and analysis of paleolithic artifacts and fossils are the main ways that we can know the approximate date of arrival. However, there have been discoveries of other objects, such as stone points or a piece of a bone in much older strata that throw doubt on the date. Speculations as to why people came include consideration of genetic drivers, such as a rover allele or a dopamine receptor that will cause certain individuals to forage more or engage in risky behavior; climate changes, and even space-related drivers.

The author traces human evolution from Africa. Animal bones having been cut with stone about two million years ago, possibly by Homo Erectus, were discovered in Kenya. 100,000 to 70,000 years ago humans left Africa at Djibouti and entered the Middle East at the bottom of Saudi Arabia. About 48,000 years ago humans entered Sahul, the contiguous landmass of Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, and there is evidence of humans butchering Mammoths in Siberia at 45,000 years. One theory has humans crossing a land bridge at the Bering Strait before it was submerged due to ice melt. They would have followed mountains or nunataks protruding from the ice. Another has them traveling down the Pacific coast in boats made of skins, following the Kelp Highway, a maritime ecosystem surrounding kelp and proceeding inland along rivers.

Craig Childs has travelled extensively-Alaska, Chile, Florida, New Mexico- to research various paleolithic sites. He has even spent time on the Harding Icefield to experience what the Ice Age Pleistoscene may have been like. Whether he is in a desert or a jungle, his imagination launches him to the period when the artifacts and fossils were in use or had life. The way he allows his study to transport him to that time draws me into his work. He can examine a prehistoric camel skull and, a moment later, there he is in the Pleistoscene watching for dire wolves and sabertooth cats, observing the landscape, smelling the moisture in the air, feeling the wind. When visiting Paisley, Oregon and reflecting on the Paisley Caves site as it existed 14,000 to 16,000 years ago, 6,000 years after the last glacial maximum, he writes: “Clouds streamed off the Cascades. Dabs of sleet pegged the ground, hitting my shoulders, nicking my cheeks. For time travel, stormy weather is best. The dry West can be nothing but sunny, everything cut into slices of shadow and light. On a day like this, sunlight turns into color and shape as shadows richen. Ghosts stir from the ground, silver-tipped rain on sage.”

This work was pleasurable and stimulating. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy nature and scientific adventures.

Steve Brehm

32nd Avenue Books Toys & Gifts Bookstore


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Small Fry: A Memoir By Lisa Brennan-Jobs Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9780802147219
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Published: Grove Press - June 18th, 2019

“Small Fry” was the nickname Steve Jobs called his daughter, Lisa. It is also the title of her autobiography. This book is a coming of age story, brutal in its innocence and complex in human emotions and values.

Author Lisa Brennan-Jobs endured the struggles on growing up with a genius, her feared and famous father and a sensible but confused single mom, Chrisann, to become an independent young woman that created her own path in life.

She survived the apparent immaturity of her parents and the distance and volatility of her father while experiencing an enormous desire to be accepted and approved by his family. Lisa managed to overcome the toughness of her early life to create her own triumphant future.

 

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