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In the stacks: New nonfiction for adults

Posted: February 21, 2013 - 1:06am

New nonfiction for adult readers ranges from a book on innovative education by Salman Khan (of the Khan Academy), a wonderful biography of husband and wife duo Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (of the children’s book “The Carrot Seed”), and “Philosophy bites back,” a collection of podcasts on the greatest thinkers of the past.

“Chasing Doctor Doolittle,” by Con Slobodchikoff. Are you convinced that your pet is trying to tell you something? Slobodchikoff is convinced, too – and not only about domesticated animals, but wild ones, as well. His specialty is prairie dogs, and he’s studied their communication for many years. Here, he explains how researchers have used the “Rosetta Stone” of animal communication, the warning call, to discover that prairie dogs use grammar in their vocalizations. He introduces readers to what he calls the Discourse System, a method of communication involving voluntary and involuntary movements, vocalizations, and scents which animals use to communicate within species. And he uses anecdotal evidence and scientific observation to show the wide range of ways in which the Discourse System plays out in real life. Fascinating and amusing.

“Because I said so!” by Ken Jennings. As a Jeopardy addict, I followed Ken Jennings’ record-breaking series avidly – what a brain for trivia! Here he uses his assorted bits of information and his young children as a launchpad for research into the big question: are mom and dad always right? The answer is: no! When it comes to questions about swimming after a meal, how much of your brain you really think with, or reading in the dark, don’t listen to your parents. But read ‘em and weep: they’re right about the dangers of running with scissors, the need to wear your retainer so your teeth don’t go crooked, and the existence of permanent school records. Jennings is witty and to the point.

“The old ways,” by Robert Macfarlane. This meditative book takes readers along with the author on a journey across, around, over, and into the British landscape. MacFarlane writes about the lure of the way-mark and the undeniable thrill of stepping onto a new path. But he also writes about the ways that walking enhances us, the tradition of contemplative walking, and the idea that the journey outside is also a journey inside. His walks take him out to follow fox tracks on a winter’s night, for a birthday spent beachcombing in the Scottish Hebrides islands, and striding across the Cairngorms on his way to his mountaineering grandfather’s funeral. Macfarlane throws in two boat trips along the coast of Scotland and several treks through other parts of the world (Palestine, Spain, and Tibet) for good measure, never failing to write evocatively about their own senses of place.

“The girl who fell to Earth,” by Sophia Al-Maria. Al-Maria’s parents meet on her father’s second evening in America when he ducks into a bowling alley to get out of the rain. Seeing him so lost and alone (but good-looking), Al-Maria’s mother takes him under her wing and the rest is history. Many English lessons, two children, a marriage, and a religious conversion later, the couple is at a breaking point: her father has brought the family to Qatar before revealing he has remarried and started a new family. Al-Maria’s mother whisks her daughters back to America, but keeps the lines open between them and their father. And so Al-Maria finds herself going back and forth between lives which have almost nothing in common. Al-Maria writes lovingly about coming to terms with being a child of two very different worlds in this lively memoir.

“The unexpected houseplant,” by Tovah Martin. From a “kid who craved green,” Martin grew up to be an adult with a house full of it. Here she shares her personal experiences – really, though, she writes about them as relationships - with houseplants (many brought in from outdoors) over the years. Her approach is idiosyncratic: for instance, she eschews the spider plant because she simply doesn’t like it, and encourages readers to only keep plants they find appealing, rather than those which friendly advice deem “easy” or “helpful.” She includes a wide variety of begonias, jasmines, succulents, and ornamental grasses, sprinkles in some vines, plants chosen just for their fragrance, and herbs, and writes about all so engagingly that you’ll sit down with this rather than use it as a reference.

•••

Kids: join library staff tonight (Thursday, Feb. 21) at 5:30 p.m. at the Valley Library for a Third Thursday Family night with reptiles.

Adults: join library staff Saturday, Feb. 23 , at 7:30 p.m. at the Downtown Library for “A Conversation in Stories and Song,” featuring writer Pam Houston and songstress Emma Hill.

And, wrapping up this weekend is the Empty Chair Project & Memorial, a presentation and discussion with local residents who were sent to Japanese Internment camps during WWII. That’s Sunday evening at the Downtown Library beginning at 6:30 p.m..

If you’re stressing over your taxes, stop in at the Valley library between 12:30 -4 p.m. any Saturday until April 15th to get help from AARP volunteers.

For information about upcoming programs, or to place a hold, visit www.juneau.org/library or call 586-5249.

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