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The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution
The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution
by Donald R. Prothero
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.86
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5.0 out of 5 stars What the Fossils Show Us, November 28, 2015
Right at the beginning of _The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution_ (Columbia University Press), paleontologist Donald R. Prothero shows Darwin’s importance as a scientist. Oh, of course, Darwin had the brilliant insight about evolution, and had all sorts of admirable qualities as a scientist and as a human being. But one of his best traits was that he knew, and acknowledged publicly, where his theory was weak. He admitted that could not, when his _On the Origin of Species_ was published in 1859, answer questions about transitional species, those links between ancestors and progeny showing how animals changed in their lines of descent. Prothero explains that when Darwin was writing, almost nothing was known of transitional fossils. Darwin’s insights had to be made without their evidence. Now they are among the strongest confirmations of evolution, and Prothero here takes us through 25 examples to tell the stories about how the evidence was amassed and interpreted. There are millions of species he could have chosen, but these 25 show critical stages of evolution and also some of the most extreme examples of evolution at work. The resultant book, written with bright enthusiasm and describing clearly how the fossil record shows evolution to have occurred, is a wonderful primer about what paleontologists do. Sure, the fossil halls are among the most popular rooms of any natural history museum, but here is why the fossils are important.

The very first chapter has to do with the microbial mats and resultant domed stromatolites, which were the way the Earth manifested life for most of the history that it had life on it. The bacteria of the stromatolites formed colonies, but they were not multicellular creatures. Those showed up something like 630 million years ago and because they had no hard parts, their fossils are rare impressions of soft tissue onto sands or muds on the sea bottom. They were the first multicellular creatures, but didn’t last long after simple shelled organisms, and then trilobites, showed up. And so the chapters are laid down, with these earlier ones clearing up at least some questions about the initial origins of life and multicellularity. It takes a while to get to the gee-whiz specimens everybody knows, like _T. Rex_, and even longer to get to the line that produced humans. Over and over, in one chapter after another, the story is that gaps have been filled. The change from an invertebrate creature to the first unquestioned fish now has a demonstrable fossil lineage, as does the change from fish to amphibians. Each of these chapters, often concentrating on the researchers that made the insights happen, is a little essay on how evolution works and how we learn that it does.

One of the best parts of this entertaining book is that each chapter ends with a “See it for yourself” section, advising readers which museums to go to to see the specimens described, or in some instances, where they can go to collect their own specimens. It is pleasant to reflect that some of the younger readers of this book are going to follow Prothero’s exhortations to get into the collection rooms and out to the field, and to further our knowledge of how all the fantastically diverse forms of life came to be.

Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany
Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman's Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany
by Marie Jalowicz Simon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.41
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5.0 out of 5 stars Evading the Nazis, November 24, 2015

We have no dearth of books about World War II, but first person accounts have by this time naturally all been completed. But not quite. Here is an amazing one: _Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany_ (Little, Brown) by Marie Jalowicz Simon. It is translated by Anthea Bell, and given a foreword and afterword by the author’s son, Hermann Simon, who explains how the book came to be. His mother died in 1998, and he had worried that although he knew bits and pieces of her story, the full account might never be known and never be presented to others. Like many who had been through the war, she had a reluctance to talk about it. “I would not admit, being a historian myself, that I couldn’t get my own mother to talk about her life, and so on 26 December 1997, without any warning, I put a tape recorder on the table in my parents’ apartment and said, ‘You’ve always been meaning to tell your story - go ahead.” His mother went on to make 77 tapes, the narrative interrupted for times she had to be hospitalized. It was completed only a few days before her death. He could not face working on the tapes immediately after his mother’s death, but eventually a transcript of all the tapes was made, and the text edited, and finally here it is, a harrowing and inspiring story of survival.

Marie was eleven years old and living with her middle-class Jewish family when Hitler took power in 1933.
She had been drafted into forced labor, making arms for Siemens, and she began to hear about deportations to concentration camps. Throughout her story, people she knew disappear, snatched into oblivion by the Nazis. Marie was able to get by because she was wily, and was willing to do whatever would better her chances for survival, but also simply because she was extraordinarily lucky. She depended on her own wits, but also on the willingness of others to help. It is surprising how often the helpers were themselves Nazi sympathizers or anti-Semites. These were people who condemned the Jewish populace, but made a distinction in dealing with Marie the individual. One of the ways she survived was using sex. A friend told her, “In absurd times, everything is absurd. You can save yourself only by absurd means, since the Nazis are out to murder us all.” Absurd means included giving sexual favors in exchange for security, shelter, or food. Her attitude was, “What does it matter? Let’s get it over and done with.” At one point, she was dependent upon an old man who directed a rubber plant. He was a rabid Nazi who proudly showed her a prized possession. It looked like a framed picture with nothing in it, but the glass held a hair from Hitler’s German shepherd. “Why, that’s wonderful,” she told him. At one point she attempted a sham marriage with a Chinese man, thus to gain a Chinese passport. She spent two years acting as the wife of a Dutchman who was a guest worker. Time and again she thinks, “It is no use behaving normally in an abnormal situation.”

Included here are her descriptions of terrifying bombing raids from the Allies, beatings, rapes (including after liberation by the Russians), and Nazis who simply had a bureaucratic indifference to such things as phony identification papers. She often got by with sympathetic Germans on the fringes: “Prostitutes, poor people, really outsiders. Not the so-called normal people.” The two vital parts of this unforgettable memoir are the young woman who used her good luck and good sense to survive, and the elderly woman who tells her story frankly. Neither of them give a damn about propriety. After the war, Marie had a fulfilling academic and family life, and seems to have taken the lessons of the time to heart. After one of many instances of kindness to her, she reflects, “I decided, then and there, that if I survived and was still a decent human being, I would try all my life to listen to people and see whether they needed me. For it sometimes takes only a few words, a small gesture at the right moment, to help someone in need to recover.”

The Witches: Salem, 1692
The Witches: Salem, 1692
by Stacy Schiff
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.60
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Historic Witchery Told with Immediacy, November 10, 2015
The story of the Salem witch trials has a fascination unmatched by that sparked by any other bit of colonial history. You can find all sorts of accounts and interpretations of it - feminist, Freudian, hallucinogen-induced, Marxist, not to mention the novels and plays and movies. There is lengthier analysis of it than more important historical events, such as even the landing of the Pilgrims. There is no chance we are going to stop thinking, imagining, and worrying about Salem’s infestation of witches, and no chance that people will stop writing new accounts. Now here is a good one: _The Witches: Salem, 1692_ (Little, Brown) by historian Stacy Schiff. It is an ideal account for our times, as Schiff describes witches, wizards, broomsticks, and apparitions as they seem to have appeared to those who were experiencing them, according to the accounts of witnesses. This brings an immediacy and a weirdness to the social and legal proceedings, and Schiff’s detailed and lengthy account goes a long way towards explaining what was going on. It never completely explains the witchery; it was all too strange ever to be fully explained. But Schiff goes a long way to making the events understandable in a human way, and deftly ties them at the end to our own contemporary magical or malevolent ideas.

It all began in the very house of the village minister, among his own family. His previously model children began behaving in extraordinary ways, and all agreed that they had been bewitched. People came to the house to see the show, and got more of a show when there was an investigation in the town meetinghouse and the girls could shout out accusations. It’s easy to say that the village was comprised of ignorant and superstitious rustics, but they did not power the reprisals against the accused witches. The judges, clergy, and magistrates were not so prone to superstitious ignorance as they were to superstitious enlightenment. There was lots of information in print about witch infestations, and it was not the equivalent of pulps, but the academic accounts from learned religious societies and universities. Cotton Mather, whose writing and opinions run throughout Schiff’s book, was a highly educated minister who said that the witchery was a sign that the Second Coming was imminent, perhaps but five years away. Nineteen of the accused were hung, and one was crushed to death with large stones in a failed attempt to get him to confess. As the year wore on, the show trials and gruesome public executions began to erode the enthusiasm of the public and the officials who had used the proceedings to consolidate power. The ministers and magistrates began to cover their tracks. Astonishingly, the records from 1692 are largely absent, when otherwise Salem residents were obsessive about making records. The court recorder rewrote the village record, deleting distasteful events. Not a single transcript of a session of the witchcraft court can be found.

Nonetheless, Schiff has probed the journals and letters that remain, and brought forth a shockingly intimate view of village life that was hard enough without witches bursting in. Her strong command of detail cannot demystify the madness, but it does make it part of a recognizable community process. She mentions, but without over-emphasis, the sorts of witch-hunts we have subsequently put ourselves through, like the McCarthy hearings and the daycare scares. We have yet fully to learn the lesson that people under duress will confess guilt to all manner of unlikely things, or that we should distrust the torture that can reliably produce answers the torturers desire. Warnings of millennial doom continue. We have not left 1692 entirely behind.

Math Geek: From Klein Bottles to Chaos Theory, a Guide to the Nerdiest Math Facts, Theorems, and Equations
Math Geek: From Klein Bottles to Chaos Theory, a Guide to the Nerdiest Math Facts, Theorems, and Equations
by Raphael Rosen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.66
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making Mathematics into Something Fun, November 3, 2015
“Math class is tough,” Barbie used to say. She got silenced and no longer spouts on the issue, but it is only fair to remember that for lots of young people and adults, math is not easy. Even worse, it is not fun. This is a real shame. Mathematics reflects aspects of our existence with a mysterious fidelity. There are great mathematical ideas that can be contemplated and seen as beautiful by non-mathematicians, just as you don’t have to write stories or be a professor of literature to enjoy a good novel. That’s the appeal of _Math Geek: From Klein Bottles to Chaos Theory, a Guide to the Nerdiest Math Facts, Theorems, and Equations_ (Adams Media) by Raphael Rosen. The author is not a mathematician, and that’s all to the good. He is a journalist who has concentrated on writing about science. He says in his introduction, “I hope to show you that mathematics is not just a series of rote exercises performed in a classroom… I hope to convince you that mathematics is something built into the fabric of reality: a collection of shapes, patterns, numbers, arguments, and, well, little treasures.” He has given a grab bag of brief mathematical snapshots of important or trivial parts of the world. Even pre-censorship Barbie could have fun with this book.

There are equations here, but not many. There is no need for an equation in the chapter on “Bell Choirs and Math,” for instance, which has to do with change-ringing, or the ringing of church bells in all possible orders. If you have two bells, there are two arrangements, and if you have three, there are six; these are the permutations, changes in the order of ringing, and they skyrocket to huge numbers for steeples that have, say, eight bells. In change ringing, the order is varied in a planned way, so that every possible order eventually gets rung, with no repeats. There is a chapter on the famous Drake Equation, which is supposed to tell us how likely it is that we will be hearing from aliens from outer space. There is one equation in the chapter concerning miles per hour and why you should not tailgate. Many of the chapters do not even have numbers in them. This is one of the best parts of the book. Most people think mathematics means numbers, and of course that’s a big part, but over and over here mathematics is shown to be patterns. Why are manhole covers round? (No, the answer is not “Because they cover round holes.”) It’s because if the covers were square or triangular, they could be dropped through the hole.

_Math Geek_ offers a taste of a wide array of entertaining subjects. What is the most efficient way to board an airplane (yes, this is a mathematical challenge)? How many clues have to be given for there to be only one solution to a Sudoku puzzle? Why does your checkout line seem slower than all the others? If you are in a rainstorm, do you get wetter if you walk or you run out of it? Why do we always think that raindrops are teardrop in shape, like in the cartoons, when they are much closer to spherical? How can some infinities be bigger than others? The scope here is wide, and the brief look at each subject is entertaining. This would be a superb book to give to a young person who is interested in math, but even better for one who is struggling with math and needs to see how all-encompassing and even fun it can be. You can count on any such person to find something interesting here, and to be able to do a few clicks on the computer and learn lots more in depth.

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s
by R. J. Beck
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.06
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kindergarten Horrors, October 30, 2015
Richard Beck is 28 years old, and as a writer for the journal _n + 1_, was involved in a research group that looked into the history of radical feminism. Thus he was introduced into something he had never heard of before, the child abuse panics of the 1980s. Those of us who are older remember the sensational stories that children at kindergartens had been sexually and satanically abused, and everyone began wondering how safe it was to entrust your child to others for pay. Beck realized that he wasn’t the only one who didn’t know about the panics; he could hardly find anyone under thirty who knew about the events, and when he told people he was writing a book about the subject, they thought he must be working on a novel. _We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s_ (PublicAffairs) is no novel, but it is a serious account of horrifying incidents when reason went to sleep and monsters were produced. Beck is good at recounting the episodes, concentrating on the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, but he is far from the first at telling it. His book is especially good for those who did not live at the time of the case as it is comprehensive and puts the events into the sociological and psychological context of the time. It also shows that we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the panic.

It all began in the summer of 1983 with one dubious report of a child with a medical problem; because it might have been a result of abuse, the police sent out a letter to parents requesting them to ask the kids about specific sexual acts at the kindergarten.. The setup was in place; the panic took over and reigned for years. The children were coaxed into telling stories that were horrific and at times made no sense; they told of tunnels beneath the school where they had been tortured and abused (there were no such tunnels), or being raped by a robot, or seeing animals ritually killed and worse. One little girl told an investigator, “It’s all a story,” and she thereupon wasn’t included as a complainant in the case. Physical evidence, like the photographs that were supposed to have been taken or the cat bodies that were supposed to have been mutilated, were never found. This was, however, not a demonstration that such evidence did not exist; it showed to the contrary that the devious abusers were experts at making sure the evidence was never going to be found. Something like $15 million was spent on getting the case to trial and on the trial itself, which lasted for six years. There were copycat cases all over the country. Almost all, just like the McMartin case, resulted in eventual court decisions of not guilty. The judicial system was able to go back and reflect that there had been clear instances of overreach on the part of investigators and prosecutors, but few such overreachers lost their jobs, and many went on to higher office.

Beck writes about how the panic was a reflection of its times. In the eighties, social conservatives were worried about feminism and changes in the family. No one planned the day-care panic to be a social lesson, but it was taken up as a warning to women who thought they could manage a life outside the home while turning over care of their children to others. We still have a legacy of the panic, in that some people are horrified that children are allowed ever to go unsupervised. Child abuse is horrible, and is not imaginary, but the pattern is that it happens at home; the horrible image of a child abducted from a public place by a violent pedophile is a horror only, and vanishingly rare. We are also faced with the pop psychology that if a person has a horrible experience, the person is likely to repress it. This simply is not the way humans operate; we do learn lessons from bad experiences, and it would be to our detriment to make them inaccessible to memory. There was a dental assistant who used to visit the McMartin school to teach hygiene, and reflected to her sorrow that she had never seen anything suspicious. She said at the time, “How could we have been so blind?” It’s a great question, but blindness comes in many forms, and one of the most troubling is seeing what is not there.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 2, 2015 5:06 PM PST

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family's Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis
The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family's Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis
by Simon Goodman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.01
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Slight Correction of a Monumental Wrong, October 26, 2015
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Simon Goodman loved his father Bernard, but hardly understood him before his unexpected death at age 80 in 1994. The father was a “crushed, taciturn, and damaged man” who didn’t talk much about himself, but who traveled all over the world and never explained to his children what he was doing on the trips. A few months after Bernard’s death, though, some musty cardboard boxes came from Germany to Simon and his brother, the last bits of their father’s meager estate. The documents within were the father’s notes, typewritten letters, art catalogues, and visas (some of which were stamped with the official Nazi eagle). As Simon waded through the old documents and photos, he began to understand his father better. He realized that the documents were about the huge art collection that had belonged to his family before the Nazis stole it, and that his father had been on an unsuccessful quest to bring it together again. In _The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis_ (Scribner), Goodman not only tells what can be known of his father’s covert searches, but also about how his family came to have such richness and lost it, and about his own successful search to regain the stolen items. It is thus a story of detective work, a narrative of a minor resolution of Nazi evil, and a poignant family memoir. Not all the mysteries of the lost artworks have been cleared up, but, writes Simon, “I can finally tell the story that my father never told me.”

Simon Goodman’s family were the Gutmanns, financiers since the time of Bismarck. They accumulated a huge coolection of ornate Renaissance silver and works by Renoir, Bosch, and many others. In the years between the wars, Fritz Gutmann, father of Bernard, moved to the Netherlands, and when the Nazis came, he was assured by no less than Heinrich Himmler that he, his house, and his treasures would be exempted from any police measures. It was not to be; Fritz and his wife were to die in concentration camps. Their son Bernard, the author’s father, had British citizenship and tried to warn his parents to come join him, but it did not happen. Once the war was over, he learned of his parents’ fate; he had been unable to save them, but perhaps he thought he could make something right by recovering their legacy that had been stolen and dispersed. He had little success. That the Nazis looted in such a way is a horrible, but familiar, story; what becomes plain in this book is that afterward the allied governments, museums, lawyers, and private owners continued the theft by resisting the attempt of anyone to seek the stolen properties. The author and his brother have had better success, partially because Nazi documentation of the “legal” thefts has finally been declassified and unsealed.

As Simon and his brother regain one treasure after another (they have not finished and continue the pursuit), there can be little doubt that part of the reason for the effort is simply financial. Simon was interested in getting to the members of his family their shares in the lost artworks: “Today’s reality dictated that the only way to divide an heirloom among the heirs was through a sale.” But he feels the loss and sadness in doing so. His was once a family ensconced in a castle with their treasures, but no longer. “The Gutmanns, or what was left of us, were no longer the wealthy family we once were.” Financial restitution hardly rights the human suffering or lives extinguished; it is a slight and overdue correction. The effort, however, enabled the author to “finally begin to understand the strange, tormented, enigmatic man who was my father.” In learning the sad stories about a family he hardly knew, and putting the pieces of the family history together, he can proclaim at the last: “I no longer suffer from an isolation of rootlessness.”

Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood
Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood
by Terry Masear
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.66
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hollywood Hummingbird Hospital, October 20, 2015
We have bird feeders in our garden and I glance at them now and then, looking at the cardinals, sparrows, and doves that come to get sunflower seeds. When hummingbirds come to the sugar water feeders, though, I pay attention. Hummingbirds, for me and for lots of other people, have a special fascination. You don’t have to be devoted to hummingbirds to enjoy _Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood_ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Terry Masear, but my guess is that if you are like most people, these fascinating little birds grab your attention whenever you get to see them. It isn’t just hummingbirds that this funny and moving book is about, though; there are lots of peculiar people in Hollywood, some of them agreeable hummingbird nuts and some of them just nuts. Masear, who is a registered hummingbird rehabilitation specialist, also teaches English as a second language, and her prose is smooth and engaging, telling stories from a little world that few of the rest of us will enter.

Masear’s life was forever changed once she took on this volunteer job: “Joining wildlife rescue is like getting involved with the Mob: once you’re in, it’s for life. When you’re a rehabber, you can’t quit and walk away. Too many things depend on you.” Hummingbirds do not like one another, and are highly territorial, and spend lots of time chasing each other. Not only that, but these adorable little birds are quite able to fight to the death over food, sex, and territory; they endanger themselves more than storms or humans do. “Despite hummingbirds’ violent impulses, most people continue to regard them as adorable, proving that if something is small and pretty enough, it can get away with murder.” Another bit of advice Masear is able to give on the phone is about nest repair; windstorms sometimes tear up the nests leaving the fledglings hanging. The secret: pipe cleaners. Most of the problems she solves are not able to be taken care of by phone calls (20,000 callers in her decade of rehabbing), except by a conversation that concludes, “You need to bring the bird in here now.” She writes, “I’ve taken in hummingbirds from drug dealers, gangbangers, the morally bankrupt, the criminally insane, and other degenerates lingering on the periphery that nobody has bothered to report. But the atrocities damaged humans commit against one another do not translate into ill intentions toward the orphaned and injured hummingbirds these lost souls rush to my door.” Some people call thinking that her hummingbird connection gives her some sort of ability to travel through supernatural portals, and some confess that hummingbirds are their spirit animals or totems (this is Los Angeles, after all).

So Masear’s story is not just about hummingbirds, but about humans. Some of the humans are awful, like the wealthy woman who pruned her rosebush and cut off a nest with a pair of chicks in it, but said she was just too busy to bring the poor birds in to be saved. Most of the callers, though, are trying to help out, although more than a few have the wrong idea of what real help would be. Masear is busy steering them right, and taking in defenseless little birds every day, April through August every year, and is unable to find time in those months to do anything else, even to get a haircut. It’s a unique volunteer calling, and a unique, funny, and informative book that will have readers appreciating her valuable work and the fascinating little creatures who benefit.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 12, 2015 6:48 PM PST

The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone
The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone
by Carol Queen Ph.D.
Edition: Paperback
Price: $24.95

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Encouraging Sexual Fun, October 14, 2015
The famous Good Vibrations store was founded in San Francisco in 1977, selling sex toys and vibrators. About ten years later, it went into the mail order business because visitors from out of town made the shop a stopping point and wanted to continue ordering after they left. Good Vibrations was more than just an adult store; it was run mostly by women and promoted the philosophy that pleasure is good, and can be intelligently encouraged. Good Vibrations has put out its own sexual hardware, and films, and educational materials. It published an initial sex guide in 1994, _The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex_. Now it has published _The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone_ (Barnaby LTD) by Carol Queen and Shar Rednour. Queen is the academically-credentialed Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations, an erotic fiction writer, and the curator of the store’s Antique Vibrator Museum. Rednour is a performer and author of such books as _How Great Sex Made Me a Good Mom_. Their book is big, a comprehensive guide to sexual pleasures, written with enthusiasm and a love of the subject, and any reader will find lots of cheerleading to go out (or stay in) and have some good clean fun.

There is plenty of cheerful encouragement on every page of this manual. There is reiteration of important basics: everyone is different, everyone’s desires are different, orgasms solo or with others are terrific, fear and shame are overcome by good information, and so on. This is a superbly encouraging manual, positively overflowing with a sex-positive attitude, motivating education and experimentation. Do not try to tackle the question, “Am I normal?” comes the advice, as if in these times there was a good definition of normal. The questions to ask are, “Do I desire it?” “Do I enjoy it?” and even “Do I have enough information about it to try it in real life?” I thought, given the source, that the book would have lots to say about sex toys. It does; perhaps 150 of its almost five hundred pages are devoted to the use not only of groin gadgets, but such hardware as blindfolds and paddles, plus other things to play with like erotic books and movies. Though there are general descriptions of vibrators, dildos, plugs, and such here, this is not a Good Vibrations catalogue, a fun publication for browsing, perhaps with a partner, and one I recommend.)

There are so many useful sections with surprises here. One answers the vexed question, “What do I wear to the orgy?” The answer includes various subtleties such as, “Unless your sex party friends are vegans, a leather look is generally considered erotic.” There are wonderful pages on how to talk about sex with your kids. A section gives warnings about sexual safety within the shower. Handcuffs might seem perfect for BDSM play, but the authors don’t recommend the real or the toy ones, which can tighten too hard around the wrists; Velcro restraints are safer. The book has lots and lots to say about safe sex and barrier methods, and not a whole lot about contraception. (For basics on this and other general sexual matters, please consult the splendid _The Guide to Getting It On!_ by Paul Joannides, a book that this one includes as recommended reading.) Also, the book needs more illustrations; describing the “Gates of Hell,” for instance, just won’t do; I’d like to see the rings, leathers, and snaps of such a gadget which “looks fantastic, and is sort of a penile bondage,” even though I figure that would be on my personal No List; repressed me. Overall, this is a funny, informative, and joyful book that will embolden, enlighten, and empower readers, and has potential for increasing the world’s happiness.

Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
by Dean Jobb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.14
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He Out-Ponzied Ponzi, October 6, 2015
Everyone knows what a Ponzi Scheme is, the process of making money by recruiting new investors so that the original investors get paid by the entrance of the new ones, until there is an eventual collapse. The name comes from Charles Ponzi, who built his scheme by selling postal coupons. If language and eponyms were logical, however, we would call it a Koretz Scheme. Ponzi got caught and prosecuted quickly, after his scheme had run just a year. Leo Koretz had already been taking on new investors for years before Ponzi, and his scheme ran for a couple of decades, and it wasn’t just based on postal coupons. Ponzi will forever be remembered, but Koretz can resume his role as a superior con-artist, thanks to _Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation_ (Algonquin Books) by Dean Jobb. Jobb teaches journalism, and much of this biography is drawn from Chicago newspaper stories, originally fawning as Koretz rose, and then incredulous when he disappeared, and condemnatory when he was caught. A lot of people lost fortunes, many of whom should have known better, and some of whom were investing the best way they could find to get a good return. This could be a disheartening story, and ought to be, but darned if the trickster isn’t still a charming con-man whose rags-to-riches-to-prison story is a romp.

Koretz was a Chicago lawyer who in 1908 was swindled in a bogus deal for land in Panama. In the tradition of enterprise overcoming adversity, he made the swindle his own. The distant country’s Bayano region was rich with timber, he originally claimed, and then he was to go on to proclaim that huge oil deposits had been found, and to hint that he had turned down Rockefeller’s offer to buy him out. He “reluctantly” took on members of his synagogue, friends, and relatives as investors, and if prospective investors had any doubts about giving him their money, they could reason that his own family was investing, and he would not bilk his own kin. When his schemes were eventually collapsing, he sent his investors on a fact-finding trip to Panama (knowing they would find nothing but jungle and alligators), and he took off, making a new identity for himself in Nova Scotia. An observant tailor tripped him up, he was extradited to Chicago, pleaded guilty, and went to prison. In a way, as Jobb tells the story, he had one more scam to pull in thwarting justice, and it is an intriguing one.

There is poignancy in the plight of the wife Mae Koretz, who was shattered by her husband’s financial and sexual betrayals. She did her best to make amends to those Koretz had bilked. Mostly, though, this is a jolly story of a clever criminal who scammed rich people who could take their losses and were too embarrassed about them to make much of a fuss. (There were some less well-off investors whose losses were cripplingly real.) There was plenty of crime in Chicago at the time, with political offices for sale and the famous gangland wars, all of which Jobb covers as part of the local color. We have swindlers still; Bernie Madoff used many of the techniques Koretz did. None of us will be financially swindled by Leo Koretz, but readers are liable to be willing suckers for involvement in his unjustly obscure but amazing story.

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells (Bloomsbury Sigma)
Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells (Bloomsbury Sigma)
by Helen Scales
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.28
78 used & new from $14.24

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mollusks and the Homes They Build, September 29, 2015
Did you ever hold up a seashell to your ear to hear the winds and waves within? You get a hint that a shell isn’t just a shell, but a portal to distant worlds. People have valued shells for their beauty, but they have also made myths about them with themes of birth, sex, and death. They have used shells as decorations for sending off the dead, and used them for money, and more. The lore of shells, and plenty of the science behind marine mollusks, are the subjects of _Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells_ by marine biologist Helen Scales. She says of her book, “It is my attempt to set the record straight, to throw out the novelty knick-knacks and reinstate seashells to their rightful place as glorious objects that can tell us so many things.” The beauty of mollusk shells is undeniable, and their variety comes from how evolution has formed them not only as protection for the creatures inside, but also to help the creatures eat, move, hide, fight, and more. Scales’s accessible account has lots of facts and explanations, and her enthusiasm for her subject is a delight.

Shells were the first known jewelry. Shells were used for a long time as money. They are good for this purpose; it is hard to counterfeit them, they are tough, they are easy to handle, and specific shells, if appointed as currency, can be counted upon to come in consistent sizes and weights. Some shells get used in the way of oyster knives and jemmy their way into an oyster dinner. Some shells get used as drills, into wood; shipworms are not worms but clams, and have sunk fleets. Some shells get used as battering rams to smash into other mollusks. Here is an aspect of mollusks I had never before known: textiles. The enormous bivalve known as _Pinna nobilis_, or the Noble Pen Shell, looks like a huge mussel standing on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea. To stand that way, such a shell requires guy wires, a thousand slender threads to anchor it, each about as wide as a human hair. These hairs have been woven into thread and made into cloth. Many mollusks are good for humans to eat. In fact, we eat something like sixteen million tons of them a year. There are clams, mussels, and oysters, of course, but in some places people eat whelks or conchs. Mollusks do more for us than taking a place on our tables. Mussels glue themselves to rocks using an enormously powerful adhesive which is now the basis for development of synthetic bio-glues that would be invaluable in gluing tissues together during surgeries. The Geographic Cone Snail can have beautiful patterns, but collectors of the living specimens must beware; the sting is often fatal to humans. The toxins, however, can be used and modified to become medicines; a neurotoxin has potential for being a powerful pain medicine.

So we should value our mollusk fellow-creatures, and ensure their well-being. Naturally, there are pages here about the difficulties posed by global warming and ocean acidification. But also, in a final few pages, Scales tells us about the danger of buying ornamental shells. A shiny, pristine shell you can buy was taken from an animal that was killed to get the shell. Shells from animals which die naturally quickly become beaten or bored into. We know more about the trade in mollusks for food than we do that for decorations, and there is little regulation of the ornamental trade, which is a huge business. Anecdotal reports indicate that there are shortages of ornamental specimens caused by over-harvesting. You are less likely to have an ecological effect if you pick up your own shells, but Scales warns not to take live specimens (especially the deadly cone shells), to return any rocks you move to look for shells, and to refrain from taking every specimen you find. It’s good advice, advice I had never seen anywhere else. It’s a unique slant on ecological matters, from someone obviously knowledgeable and who obviously cares.

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