One of my favorite books: Ghost Map

643px-Snow-cholera-map-1Ghost Map :The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, read by Alan Sklar

This isn’t a book review, and I don’t plan to do book reviews in the future, but I do want to write about books, especially the ones I keep relistening to and getting more out of them each time.  Especially when I find myself appreciating them more over time because of other books.

I’m currently listening to A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger, read by Kevin Conway.  Similar books read recently are The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison, Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias by Jane Velez-Mitchell, Every Breath You Take by Ann Rule, read by Blair Brown, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, read by Scott Brick and The Disappearance by J. F. Freedman.  (although I haven’t finished the latter and probably won’t)  This is a diverse mix of fiction and non-fiction, but there’s a certain pattern they share.  Other examples are The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, The Great Fire by Jim Murphy, Columbine by Dave Cullen.

The core of what these books are about could be summed up in a few pages, but their authors have made them into entire books.  Ghost Map is especially remarkable in that its core is just one map.  The rest of the book is not only the events behind it and consequences of it, and the biographies of the people behind it, Heroes of Intellect, but also tangential bits of history and science that are part of the puzzle and each fascinating in themselves.  I admit, I may find this more exciting than most people because I just love to make charts and maps and infographics like this map that show data correlations at a glance and fantasize that one of mine with have as great an impact as The Ghost Map.  (see my other blog  But, even apart from that, the book is amazing, presenting pieces of the puzzle in a way that’s entertaining and logical.

While some of the other examples I’ve mentioned are very good books, none have the logic and coherence of Ghost MapA Death in Belmont is about a murder in a suburb of Boston at the time of the Boston Strangler and and Roy Smith, a black man from Mississippi who was convicted for it.  But it starts with how the author’s parents once employed Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler, including homey little details.  It’s relevant to bring in the Boston Strangler, because the murder was at first thought to be one of his, but the autobiography is less so.

Relevant, too, is the biography of Roy Smith and his family, but the choice of details included are . . . Or is it OCD of me to look for relevance in the amusing trivial included?  For example, Roy had a brother named “Coach” which the family pronounced as two syllables “Co- Aitch” because the mother worked for a football coach who was a local celebrity, and it was not uncommon in the South at that time to give their children names like “States Rights” and “Ex-Senator Webb.”  Only the way it’s said in the book is much longer and more circuitous.  And then there’s one very odd bit about the colorful biography of a bartender who testified for the prosecution that he served the accused a drink that has no relevance that I can detect.

Some books pad with what I think of as “soap opera.”  This is a pet peeve of mine I expect to write about elsewhere (for example, it’s a key reason why I like “Flowers for Algernon” as a short story, but not as a novel, why I like the Dexter books but not the tv series.) Since I’ve been learning about Asperger’s, I’ve been wondering if what I derisively call “soap opera” and give as a reason I dislike things, other people would call “relationships” and give as a reason they like them.  For example, the difference between the first 3 Harry Potter books and the others.  I like the first 3 books because they’re primarily about magic.  I dislike the others because they’re about adolescents.  I read someone else saying almost the opposite, that the first 3 books were stories but the rest were novels.

Some pad with autobiography, as in A Death in Belmont.  I find it especially annoying in science books, where the author appears to think I’m interested in why he became a science writer.  But I can fast-forward through those parts without missing anything.  In the case of both true and fictional crime, I’m very interested in the biography of the criminal, even going back generations.  I’m less interested in the biography of the victims, and actively dislike touching stories about how the survivors (of crime or natural disasters) cope afterwards.

(Ironically, if I were to write a book about my own Ghost Map — — it would probably be at least 50% autobiography.  Just because I don’t like to read it doesn’t mean that I don’t like to write it.)

I find very annoying how some books of this type are hard to follow and the connections so hard to see, because of the order of presentation.  Exposed told a really fascinating story, but in an infuriatingly choppy way, going from trial, to the victim’s childhood, to the arrest to the murderer’s childhood, back to the trial, then to how the two met.  (I probably have the actual presentation order wrong, but it was something like that.)  Maybe it’s easier to follow that sort of thing in a printed book than in audio.

I need to relisten to Ghost Map to get the taste of these others out of my mouth.

Reading list for book to TV adaptations

iu_011One of my “things” is translations from one media to another.  I suppose it started with the James Blish adaptations from the Star Trek tv series.  Not the typical direction.  Although the next case that got me was the more common book to movie adaptation of Gone With the Wind.  I’m also going to make note of the order I encountered them.  ST was tv first, of course.  GWtW was movie first.

Lately I keep diving into translations of books to tv series.  I’m not currently pursuing any of these, but I wanted to start this blog entry as an outline for future blogs.

Usually when I say “book” I mean “audio book” and when I say “read” I mean “listen.”  An audio book is adaptation, too, especially an abridged one.  In truth, for a lot of these I’ve never actually read the book, but I’m assuming I can judge the faithfulness of a media adaptation if I’ve listened to an unabridged audio version.

Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout.  Absolutely THE best book to tv series.  Excellent, faithful tv adaptation.  Loose radio adaptations.  Movies, too, but I only vaguely remember one that starred Dark Shadows’ Thayer David.  About half the series is iur_001available on excellent audio books read by Michael Prichard.  Movie, radio, audiobooks, tv.

(I just found this — and am in shock.  William Shatner as Archie Goodwin.  That would have been 6 or 7 years before Star Trek.)

Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters.  Faithful tv and radio.  Audiobooks available by a variety of readers, including some abridged versions read by Derek Jacobi who was in the tv version.  Audiobooks, tv, radio, and I still haven’t seen all the tv.

Dexter by Jeff Lindsay.  Even where the tv series uses plots and dialog from the books, it gives it a very different spin.  I love the first two books, don’t even count the 3rd as part of the series, and like the other books.  I don’t like the tv series.  However, I’m fascinated by trying to figure out why I judge them all so differently, so I keep re-listening and re-watched even the versions I don’t like.  Multiple audiobook versions for some, including read by the author. Audiobooks, tv.

Wooster and Jeeves by P.G. Woodhouse.  Multiple audiobook versions including same wonderful FREE versions from Librivox.  Multiple radio adaptations, most excellent and faithful and available online for FREE.  TV series is uneven in quality and faithfulness but visually gorgeous. Audiobooks, radio, tv.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King.  My favorite King book and not available as an audiobook.  All my previous examples were book series adapted to tv, and, of course, it’s much more difficult to stretch a single book into a series.  In this case, they did a terrible job of it.  I had mixed feelings about the movie.  Book, movie, tv.

The Dome by Stephen King.  As above on stretching a book to tv.  Awful book, awful tv.  Audiobook, tv.

Note: I was once a huge King fan, but he hasn’t written anything good in 20 years. He can still write “page-turners” though, but I’m usually so disappointed by the end.  I keep listening to the new audiobooks when they come out, since my library and/or Library2Go always gets them.  So far only one was so bad I didn’t finish it.  And only one was interesting enough for me to listen to a second time.  But when I get a chance to see a movie or tv adaptation, I watch it.  The only time I thought the movie was better than the book was when I saw the movie first.  But I’m not going to try to even remember all of them and if they were movies or mini-series.  They were mostly so forgettable that I forgot them soon after I read or watched them, so can’t do any comparisons.

The Cousin’s War by Phillipa Gregory.  TV version is The White Queen, which I love.  I’ve just started listening to the audiobook versions.  TV, audiobooks.

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer.  Very little similarity of book (okay) to tv (good).  TV, audiobook.

Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.  Very little similarity of books (variable from great to good) to tv (good).

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.  Not a tv series but I recently got engrossed in the adaptations and want to include it.  I had read the short story ages ago and thought it was a masterpiece.  When I saw my library had it as an audiobook, I took it out and was terribly disappointed.  When I tried to figure out why I discovered that it was a novelization made from the short story.  I also discovered there had been two movie adaptations, (when I watched the earliest one, I realized I had seen it before) stage plays, a musical, and an amazing number of versions on YouTube including one done with sock puppets.  I could write a book about similarities and differences of all these different versions.  I won’t.  But I will do a blog with some observations eventually.  Short story, first movie, audiobook of the novel, second movie, audiobook of the short story, YouTube versions.

Well, now that I’ve already departed from just tv adaptations, I’ll mention I recently got off on radio adaptations of short stories.  I have a massive Sheldonian spreadsheet to help me organize my collection.  But that’s for a future blog.

Coincidence, synchronicity or illusory correlation?

{6422393D-AA82-413F-895A-6F4416725399}Img400The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison and The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

Pure coincidence, synchronicity or illusory correlation? I read The Red Queen as part of my recent Wars of the Roses interest and The Silent Wife just happened to be available when I was looking for something on Library2Go. But the same oddity struck me in both books.

In the first half of both, I kept admiring the way the authors showed the hypocrisy of the main characters while the characters were oblivious. But by the second half, it was so extreme as to be ludicrous and the characters were saying things that, in real life, would have forced me to say “Did you just hear yourself?”  I got to wondering if the author was intentionally going for laughs.

In The Red Queen, it was stereotypical religious hypocrisy. On the one hand, that was ingrained in the culture of that period, Divine Right of Kings and all. On the other hand, it’s become a cliché in our culture to the point that even an atheist like me feels sorry for well-meaning church-goers when I see it trotted out again.

In The Silent Wife, it was the everyday hypocrisy that we all do to get through the day, of not noticing our own faults while seeing clearly those of others, only taken to an extreme, and with a background of Pop Psychology. This is one of those rare books that, as soon as I finish it, I have to reread. I haven’t decided yet if the author is extremely clever and I missed some subtle points or extremely sloppy and there were some things that had no point at all.

Reading List for What’s Wrong with the World?

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
The Hidden Brain : how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives by Shankar Vedantam.
Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano
The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon
The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill by David M. Buss
The World is Flat — A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman.
Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias by Jane Velez-Mitchell


Video lecture series: Neuroscience of Everyday Life — Professor Sam Wang, Ph.D.  —


Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
Sirius (1944) by William Olaf Stapledon
Odd John (1936) by William Olaf Stapledon