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August 15, 2004 Edition

Fourth Uncle in the Mountain, by Quang Van Nguyen and Marjorie Pevar

This oral history shows a view of Vietnam rarely seen by Westerners. When Quang was nine, he began training with his adoptive father, a monk who practiced ancient Chinese medicine and magic. Thau’s attempts to teach Quang to follow in his footsteps were at first thwarted by his young son’s desire to learn Cambodian sorcery and martial arts, but in time, Quang became a Buddhist abbot himself and took on the responsibilities that his father had hoped he would. More than an amusing memoir of childhood and homage to a folk hero, this is a window into another time and place where ghosts can be trapped in jars and wanted men can escape soldiers through use of magic.

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, by Diana and Michael Preston

The buccaneer William Dampier was a brilliant man whose exploits served as inspiration for Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, and whose scientific observations were fuel for Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook. Unlike others of his time, Dampier was a pirate to finance his quest for more knowledge, not to become rich. (He gained riches later, as a bestselling author recounting tales of his three circumnavigations to an admiring readership.) For those who love a good tale, want to know more about the pre-European New World, or who want to meet a fascinating and nuanced individual, this one’s for you.

Life on the Outside, by Jennifer Gonnerman

What is it like to live in prison long term and then be released into society with no job, no home, and no money? Every year, nearly 600,000 former inmates get to find out, and, according to Elaine Bartlett, it’s like trading one prison for another. This is the heartbreaking story of Elaine’s attempts to raise her kids, first on the streets, then from prison. Finally back at home after 16 years in prison, Elaine faces many challenges in reconnecting with her family and learning to live within the rules of a society that has a hard time forgiving felons. Gonnerman, a journalist with The Village Voice, won a Livingston award for the essay on which this book is based.

Surviving the Extremes, by Kenneth Kamler

Just how much blood can you lose? How much water do you need to survive? And what happens when oxygen is in short supply? Kamler, a doctor and extreme adventurer himself, explains the workings of the human body through the injuries inflicted on it in a variety of locales. From the jungle, where machete cuts and snake bites are a way of life, to the extremes of ocean, desert, altitude, and vacuum, he gives anecdotal and scientific evidence of life and death under the harshest conditions imaginable. Fascinating and cautionary reading from an accomplished writer.

Meeting Faith, by Faith Adiele

When Faith was chosen by the Rotary Club to be a high school exchange student in Thailand, all she knew was that Thailand was close to Vietnam. It was 1979, and she thought she would die. Six years later and back in the States, she’s fed up with American ideas of what she should be, tired of not fitting into either the black or white worlds around her, and exhausted by college. With the pretense of doing field studies, she returns to Thailand, where, intrigued by the Buddhist nuns she meets, she becomes one herself. A delightful and eye-opening look at both Thai and American cultures.

Talking to the Dead, by Barbara Weisberg

In 1848, two sisters became the focus of mysterious knocks and raps that were heard throughout their home. The sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, declared their ability to talk with spirits and their experiences formed the basis for the Spiritualist movement which swept America in the 1850s. But controversy swirled around them, and, by the turn of the century, the sisters were denying ever having been mediums. Before their deaths, however, both Maggie and Kate had recanted the denial and professed their belief in Spiritualism once again. Were they ever really in touch with spirits?

Sore Winners, by John Powers

NPR commentator Powers takes on social Darwinism and American culture in this funny but unsettling look at what he calls “Bush World.” Exploring what our choices of entertainment (in particular, reality shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol”) and news sources say about the American zeitgeist, he proposes the idea of a cultural feedback loop that enables the Bush administration to function as it does, that in turn supports an “us or them” mentality that encourages the media to present shows the way they do, and so on.

The Second Mark, by Joy Goodwin

During the pairs skating portion of the 2000 Olympics, all eyes were on the three main contending pairs for the gold medal, all equally skilled technically but vastly different in their styles. The Chinese, Russian, and Canadian pairs each gave outstanding performances, and everything came down to the scores from the French judge. After tense moments, the Russian team was awarded the gold medal. One week later, however, a second ceremony was held, awarding an unprecedented second gold medal to the Canadian team. This is the behind-the-scenes story of six world-class skaters, their coaches, and the judge who tried to play the system.

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