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May 4, 1998

This page is devoted to books recommended by readers of NeighborhoodNet. Some of the books may be mentioned in NeighborhoodNet articles. Although NeighborhoodNet itself is focused on local topics, I will be happy to publish any review or opinion of any book by one of NeighborhoodNet's readers. Please e-mail me your reviews at I will, of course, publish my own recommendations also.

Many books (millions, actually) are available over the Internet either from the Johnson County Public Library or for purchase. Other books may be limited to local distribution.

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Title/Author (Click on Highlighted Title To Purchase From Subject Area Reviewer

The Testament by John Grisham Fiction Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
I made the mistake of reading the first two chapters while standing in Border's Books. Wonderful start to a story that will grip you immediately.

It begins with a very old, very rich ($11 billion) guy. He despises all his former wives and his children. He's about to die. The families gather at the huge office building he owns, each family in a different room with a monitor. He is in another room with psychiatrists and lawyers hired by the various families. He has leaked word that he is going to sign a will that distributes his money to the families. They want it rock solid with no question of his sanity. Everything is video recorded. He passes the tests and signs the will.

The families, their lawyers, and their psychiatrists leave. The video keeps running. He whips out another, very short, will, signs it in front of the camera, gets up, walks to the window 18 stories up and jumps out.

There is also a strong subplot about the redemption of an addict through new found faith in God that was well done. I did not like the ending, but recommend the story.

Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets by J. K. Rowling Childrens' Stories Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
This is an example of a sequel that is as good as the original (See Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone below). We thoroughly enjoyed this book as my wife read it out loud to both me and my son. As I said about the first Harry Potter book, anyone from 9 to 90 would enjoy it.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene Science Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
This book is written for the layman (there is no math, for instance), but is a little heavier reading than some of the other science books I have recommended. It does, however, capture the excitement of the current quest for a better theory of physics.

There are currently two major theories that form the basis for most of physics: Einstein's theory of gravity (General Relativity) and quantum theory. They are the two most successful theories ever invented by the human mind. Experiments verify their predictions with more accuracy than has ever been achieved in the past. Unfortunately, they are incompatible and their predictive powers fall apart in some situations.

This book describes String Theory, which looks like it could resolve these problems and many others. However, at this point the physics and mathematics are so complex, so advanced, that they cannot even be worked out in detail. This book explains why there is so much excitement among scientists for a theory that cannot yet be tested. The beauty of string theory is that both the theories of gravity and the quantum naturally emerge from it.

In essence, the theory begins with the premise that it is a mistake to think the fundamental particles like electrons, photon, and quarks are point particles. Instead, they are all stringlike loops that vibrate at different energies. The book explains why this unites gravity and quantum mechanics, why it means there are probably 10 dimensions rather than 4 (3 space, one time), how it resolves conundrums about black holes, and why it consumes the time of our leading physicists.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling Childrens' Stories Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
This book is spectacular! For anyone from about 9 to 90. Wizards, magic, a wonderful story about a young boy and his friends. I know 5 adults and children who have read it and loved it. We started reading it to our 11 year old and his friend. They took it from us to finish themselves since we were not going fast enough. An adult in an airport saw me holding it and said he had just finished it and wasn't it great. Best book of the year in my opinion.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis Science Fiction Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
If you like time travel, romance, and comedy, this is a fun read. Most of the action takes place in Victorian England and is concerned with getting two people to meet and fall in love to fix a problem with the time stream.

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth by Richard Fortey Science Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
Fortey is a paleontologist who provides a nice view of what it is like to be one as he traces the history of life on earth for the last 4 billion years. The book rambles a bit and obviously touches on only a tiny part of the whole story. The most significant point I got: We know but a fraction of the millions of species alive today (even something as large as a new Vietnames antelope was discovered in the last 5 years, not to mention the millions of insect species) - now extrapolate that back through time and remember that only a small fraction of forerunners were fossilized, of which we have found only a tiny per centage. In short, we know almost nothing about what life was really like through the millions upon millions of years into the past. But what we do know is fascinating.

The Street Lawyer by John Grishom Fiction Bob Phillips of Stilwell, KS
If you like Grisham's books, you'll like this one. It is pretty typical - easy to read, the good guys win, conflict among lawyers. The new twist is that Grisham got interested in the homeless and that is the focus of the book. Grisham wrote The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and the Rainmaker, all of which were turned into movies.

Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At Cancer And The Environment by Sandra Steingraber Environment Diane Stewart of Overland Park, KS
I've just read a book called, LIVING DOWNSTREAM: AN ECOLOGIST LOOKS AT CANCER AND THE ENVIRONMENT by Sandra Steingraber, and I'm horrified at what may be in our air, water, and soil. Ms. Steingraber points out that obtaining accurate information about environmental contaminants should be a basic human right. I got the book at the Central Resource library, and highly recommend it. [See article.]

Toxics A to Z : A Guide to Everyday Pollution Hazards by John Harte, Cheryl Holdren, Richard Schneider, Christine Shirley (Contributor) Environment Haldun M. Ozaktas of Ankara, Turkey
This book has excellent essays on general issues on ecology, the environment, hazards associated with it, and toxic effects. Its alphabetical section deals with common toxics quite satisfactorily. [See article.]

Conservation Design for Subdivisions : A Practical Guide to Creating Open Space Networks by Randall G. Arendt Land Development Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond History/Science Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock
This book does an excellent job of presenting a coherent theory explaining why people from Eurasia conquered people around the world in the last 13,000 years. The theory is supported by a wide ranging set of facts and reasonable conjectures. It is science applied to history, which means the theory could be disproven if additional facts fail to support it.

What's really great is that it is fun to read, although occasionally repetitive. I used this book in writing Creation Of A Neighborhood, Part 8, which covers the history of a parcel of land in Johnson County, KS and where you can find a more detailed description of Diamond's theory.

Leawood A Portrait In Time by Leawood Historic Commission History Mike Gill of Waterford Estates
For you history buffs, Leawood has just published a new book which details its 50-year history. It is well-researched, has many interesting photographs, and can be purchased at Leawood City Hall and many commercial locations in South Johnson County. It is a limited edition and is selling very well.

[This book also may be ordered from the Leawood Web Page].

This year Leawood will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with many activities already planned or in the works.

The Control Of Nature by John McPhee Nature/Science Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock
John McPhee is my favorite author. If he writes a book, even if I have no interest in the topic itself, I always end up enjoying the read. Fortunately, he writes about a lot of things I know nothing about.

The Control Of Nature (the title is ambiguous on purpose) covers three topics related to nature and geology. The first is about our attempts to control the Mississippi river in its southern reaches. The second is about controlling a lava flow in Iceland. That one begins:

"Cooling the lava was Thorbjorn's idea. He meant to stop the lava. That such a feat had not been tried, let alone accomplished, in the known history of the world did not burden Thorbjorn, who had reason to believe it could be done"

Remind you of a couple of recent movies? This book is much better and it's real. It was written in 1989.

The third topic talks about debris flows in Los Angeles. Sound boring? A couple of paragraphs:

"Not far below the turnaround, Shields Creek passes under the street, and there a kink in its concrete profile had been plugged by a six-foot boulder. Hence the silence of the creek. The water was now spreading over the street. It descended in heavy sheets. As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie's words, "It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us."

"In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins."

Longitude : The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel History/Science Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock
This is a short book that will suck you right in. Forget the title. This is about a guy who invents something that the establishment, and one influential rival in particular, just can't stand and won't accept. Decades go by before the inventor gets the prize promised by the monarch. But right does triumph in the end. Pretty much. What did he invent? A clock that worked on ships. He solved the problem of establishing longitude at sea.

Where Does the Weirdness Go? : Why Quantum Mechanics Is Strange, but Not As Strange As You Think by David Lindley Science Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock
One of my hobbies is reading books for the layman about quantum physics and related topics. This is one of the three or four best. Physics without math. Easy to read and fun.

The odd thing about quantum theory is that it works, but its underlying principles/philosophy completely contradict common sense. Most scientists and engineers, at least until recently, used the theory and ignored the weirdness. This book begins with the problem of "instantaneous action at a distance": a choice made at one place instantly affects a result on the other side of the universe (or the earth, or your room, whatever). Quantum theory says it can and does happen. Einstein's Special Theory Of Relativity says it can't happen. Among other things, this book explains why there is not a contradiction between these two statements.

By the way, just for the record: Quantum Theory and Einstein's General Theory Of Relativity (his theory of gravity), the two great pillars of 20th century physics, are incompatible. I find it fun to watch as physicists struggle to come up with a theory that does work for both the very large and the very small. That is one of the reasons I read these books.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Fiction - Humor/Satire Bob Phillips of Blue Valley Paddock
This is, without a doubt, my favorite book. I have read it over and over. I'll pick it up, read a paragraph or chapter yet again, and be thoroughly entertained. It is humorous, but the humor is very dark. In fact, although it begins light heartedly, by the end you realize how appalling and horrifying the story really is. But if you're like me, you will be unable to put it down. (I still remember 30 years ago starting to read this book in the evening, reading through the night, and finishing it just before going to work the next morning. At the time I was a college co-op student in Oak Ridge, Tennessee).

The satire skewers the military bureacracy in World War II, but it applies to any bureacracy. If you work in one, you will see it in this book. Time and again I am suddenly taken with how like the absurdity Heller describes every day life can be.

The book itself is set on an imaginary island with an American air base south of Italy. A brief excerpt from the first chapter:

The only thing going on was a war, and no one seemed to notice but Yossarian and Dunbar. And when Yossarian tried to remind people, they drew away from him and thought he was crazy. Even Clevinger, who should have known better but didn't, had told him he was crazy the last time they had seen each other, which was just before Yossarian had fled into the hospital....

"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
"And what difference does that make?"
Clevinger really thought he was right, but Yossarian had proof, because strangers he didn't know shot at him with cannons every time he flew up into the air to drop bombs on them, and it wasn't funny at all. And if that wasn't funny, there were lots of things that weren't even funnier."

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