Category Archives: On the Bookshelf



This is a remarkable book with lucid, approachable geological science. It’s written in a way that shows the author’s passion for geology and for teaching. She also folds in memorable vignettes about the lives of figures whose discoveries paved the way to what we know now about climate science. This is a very, very good read, and equally thought-provoking.   It methodically builds a case that the Earth’s climate is more unstable than we knew:  it can – and has, in historical eras  – drastically changed in less than a lifetime.  

Highly recommended.


Following the example of a professor who always finds really interesting nonfiction books in the Rice University library, and who checked this book back in, I just read Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis, MD. I’m glad I did. This book is an expertly guided tour of how the human body is fundamentally changeable through both natural development and different diseases. Dr. Francis tells these medical tales with fascination, compassion, and strong, clear, evocative writing. This is highly recommended reading for writers of science fiction, fantasy and mystery – there’s so much good material here!

The Card Catalog

Knowing I’d be on a panel about Libraries of the Future at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas this Spring, I read up on libraries of the PAST, and found this book.  Yes, it tells about the evolution of the Card Catalog through history.  The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of cards from the Library of Congress catalog, which  they have NOT done away with.  Hand-written on the old cards are scraps of bibliographic information that never made it into on-line cataloging. Recommended!

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. ” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher, writer, and professor (b. 28 Mar 1942), quoted in A Word A Day.


This excellent book adroitly weaves together  the scientific understanding of tides, the role of tides in history and literature, and the author’s own encounters with tides. And Aldersey-Williams writes so well that his meticulous account of spending a solid day on bit of shoreline near his home in England, watching the tide go and come, is page-turningly interesting!

THE TIDE was published by Viking in 2016.

Among the interesting scientific angles is that Earth’s tides likely had much to do with the evolution of life on Earth, including stabilizing the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which limited evolved life’s exposure to climatic extremes. In looking for life on other worlds, we may need to focus on exoplanets with moons.  This idea played into my science fiction novel Hurricane Moon, in which a star colonization mission seeks (and at first fails to find) a world with a large moon.

THE TIDE starts with an epigram that quoted John Steinbeck in The Log of the Sea of Cortez:  “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”


Bittersweet Season

Memoir is flourishing these days with aspiring writers who have a story of their own life to tell – and proficient writers inspired to turn their hand to this genre. Jane Gross is a New York Times reporter. She launched and still contributes to the Times blog called The New Old Age. Her mother’s final years of failing health, starting in assisted living and ending in a nursing home, are described in a memoir titled A Bittersweet Season. It was a time of nightmarish challenge, unwelcome revelation, and unexpected reconciliation. This is a blisteringly honest book. Elderly mother, dutiful daughter and not so dutiful (or rather, differently dutiful) son didn’t go into this with warm, close relationships. And Ms. Gross made understandable mistakes with disastrous results. Fortunately for all concerned, she found an excellent nursing home. This book has a great deal of candid and vital advice for anyone in the same boat the Gross family found itself in. Recommended, although not necessarily recommended at a time in your life when it hits too close to home. It’s hard to read if your own nerves are raw. I recently heard Jane Gross speak here in Houston.  That was a tremendously effective way for her advice to connect with people who needed to hear it.

A Bittersweet Season by Jane Gross, published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf in 2011.

Letters to Auntie Fori

Before Martin Gilbert trekked across the Indian Subcontinent as a young man, an Indian friend of his from Oxford University, Ashok, told Martin to look up his mother if he found himself in Delhi.  Martin turned up on her doorstep dreadfully sick with some kind of stomach bug.  Ashok’s mother welcomed him like another son and nursed him back to health.  She turned out to be a warm, energetic woman married to a cousin of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. They stayed in touch across several decades and many travels as her husband, known to Martin as Uncle Bijju, served as Governor of several Indian regions and chair of a UN committee.

Martin made a point of visiting Auntie Fori in India when she was 90 years old.  At one point in that visit, she asked if he knew of a history of the Jewish people she could read.  Why?  It turned out that she had met Uncle Biiju in their University days in England and thus became Indian by marriage and a passionate advocate of India;  but she was born Hungarian and Jewish. This book is the answer to Auntie Fori’s question.  Martin Gilbert is the author of numerous books on Jewish themes, and his mastery of the subject shows in his simple, approachable and assured treatment of an enormous topic.  Recommended!

Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5000-year History of the Jewish People and their Faith, by Martin Gilbert.  Schocken Books 2002.

Battle on Mercury

Here’s the first science fiction book I ever read, which I found in the YA section of the public library when I was eleven and which fascinated me.  It’s Battle on Mercury by Lester del Rey writing under the odd pseudonym Erik Van Lhin.  Curious to see if it holds up to reading as an adult, I got a copy through Interlibrary Loan (from Texas A & M – way to go A & M Science Fiction collection!)  Surprise – even though it was first published in 1953, and that shows, it’s still riveting in the darned-good-yarn sort of way. The plot is fast-moving with stakes rapidly ratcheting up.  Not only that:  there’s a sense of wonder, with molten metals and energy-based life forms called wispies on a Mercury that always holds one super-heated face to the sun.  Silicon-based life forms exist in the twilight zone at the edge of the hot face.  Far into the twilight, Mercury is so cold that oxygen is frozen solid.  Cool-!  Central to the plot is the relationship between a boy named Dick – the son of an engineer in a mining colony – and the wispie that Dick named Johnny Quicksilver.  Johnny evolves from trouble-making pet to friend to savior through the agency of an old robot that Dick repaired and that the wispie, it turns out, can operate – including operating the speech circuits.  Natural interplanetary wonders, technology and invention, and unexpected meeting of minds:  that’s good SFnal stuff.

Memorable Titles

The titles of academic books can run toward a string of verbiage studded with a colon amounting to nothing memorable.  Scholars must fantasize about writing a reputable book with the perfect title:  both apt and unforgettable.  One of my favorites is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.  Historian Robert Darnton scored with The Great Cat Massacre, about an episode in French history.   Now here is a brand-new book with a title that may be a bit too vivid for its own good, because a title should make readers open the book, not hold it by one corner like a loaded mouse trap.  Cambridge University Press has published this work by law scholar Allan C. Hutchinson:  Is Eating People Wrong? – Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World.