Nonfiction

Murder in the Stacks

If one single event stands out in the memory of my first semester in State College, Pa., it’s the murder of an English graduate student that happened in the library.  Before reading this book, I would have guessed it occurred just a week or two into term, rather than toward its end—so much did it color life for the rest of my college experience in Happy Valley, Pa.  Yes, this remote mountain valley in almost the exact center of Pa. is actually named that.

Most of my dorm-mates felt absolute terror after the murder.  They literally would not leave the building alone after dark.  I remember big gangs of young women walking together in a phalanx toward the library to study.  I joined them one night, but that was it.  I could not time my departures and arrivals and function in such a timid, emotionally-wrought group.

And though this horrible crime happened decades ago, it still has not been officially “solved.” But the author, a Harrisburg journalist, has come up with some compelling facts that point to a specific fellow grad student. A student in fact that went on to continue his PhD studies and remained on campus for four or five more years.

Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

This well-written memoir about teaching in a college in North Korea the year Kim Jong-il died sent shivers up my spine. The author, Suki Kim, an American writer, who spent part of her childhood in South Korea and is fluent in the language, had visited North Korea several times. Each time she felt divorced from the people and prevented by her “minders” (they were actually called that) from getting a true understanding of what contemporary life was like in the country.

Emotionally, Kim felt connected to the country because part of her family lived there. Kim’s mother had often told her stories about how her eldest brother disappeared and was never seen again when he was taken from a truck during the Korean War.  The family was divided from other aunts and uncles and cousins who lived across the divide.

Kim, primarily a journalist, had taught at a college in the states and sometime around 2010 heard that a Bible college, financed by Americans, was soon to open near Pyongyang. The very idea sounded strange—a culture that scorned religion was allowing westerners to open a bible college by the capital?

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

De Grenade brings to vivid life a remote cattle range in the far reaches of Australia, just a boat journey away on the Coral Sea from the Indonesian island of Papua New Guinea. Stilwater, this remote ranch bounded by seas on two sides and by the curvy Solomon and Powder Rivers, was until a year before the author’s arrival mostly uncared for, its cows and bulls, unbranded and roaming free. Not only free but feral on this ranch of a thousand square miles.

De Grenade, adventurous and stubborn, and an excellent horsewoman left school at age twelve to cattle ranch in Arizona. There she buffed up her horse and animal skills.  In her young twenties she asked family members for contacts in Australia, and through them found a distant connection who offered her free room and boarding in exchange for work.  At the end of her gig, they gave her an airline ticket and as she wandered around “this island between two oceans” as she calls Australia, she found a notice to work on Stilwater.

Limber

Nature, particularly trees are central to this lovely book of essays.  Several of the narratives were unusual enough that I wondered if they had been fictionalized. They seemed more like creative nonfiction than essays. For instance, “Moon Trees” begins with this sentence, “There are cinnabar trees growing on the moon. “ But soon the world of facts—and interesting ones—becomes paramount.

Did you know that astronaut Stuart Roosa brought lots of tree seeds—katsura, loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, and redbud onto Apollo 14’s moon expedition?  Unfortunately, he did not get chosen to land on the moon so he brought these seeds back, and 450 of them were planted and studied by scientists. But they just grew normally like tree seeds that had never left Earth. However, for a brief while, Roosa got to combine his early career as a forest service Smoke Jumper (saving beautiful trees) and an astronaut whirling through space.

The New York Dog

There are dog people in this world and then there others! Sorry, cat afionados. But for you lovers of all things canine, this new book of photographs with New Yorker's "best friend" stories will charm you. When you think of it, what could be more counterintuitive than a Manhattan or Brooklynite pup? Imagine the crowds (homo sapien primarily), the honking horns, lights, and police and fire sirens. It's enough to set even a human howling.

The photos are lovely. They include: an endearing poodle with its mouth open leaning into the wind from a cab window, a Great Dane crossing a car-filled side street, and several mixed breeds running free past colorful graffitied walls. There's even a refreshing series of summer beach scenes with dogs coated in sand or racing into the surf. Famous photographer William Wegman is shown with four of his graceful dog models: Flo, Topper, Candy, and Bobbin.

From the color of Your Eyes to Your Type of Earwax

If the last thing you learned about genes was Gregor Mendel’s pea pod experiments, you might want to try this easy to read science book to get up to speed about many fascinating changes in hereditary theory.

For instance, humans have only 20,000 to 25,000 genes, downgraded from a previous estimate of 100,000.  In comparison, a tiny water flea--barely visible to our naked eye--has about 31,000.

You’ve heard the word genome in the news and on PBS. Your genome is your full set of genes. Every cell in your body gets a copy of the full set although each cell cannot read all of them.  By the way, the word “cell” came from Robert Hooke, the first person who saw them in the 1600s. When he first discovered them under a microscope, they reminded him of monks’ cells.

Other interesting facts about your genome.  The chromosomes scientists have discovered have something to do with either inherited diseases or traits. For instance, chromosome 1 is associated with deafness, schizophrenia and maple syrup disease.  (You read that right!) If you have red hair, thank chromosome 2.  Blue or green eyes?  Chromosome 19 is for you.  And yes, previously scientists thought that there were only two possibilities for eye color: brown or blue.  Those green eyes, they just tagged as a variant of blue.

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