38. The Devil's Teeth, by Susan Case. The Farallones, about 30 miles west of San Fransisco, are a desolate series of islands, remote and dangerous to get to. The area's claim to fame, however, is that it is the fall destination of Great White sharks, who feast on the island cluster's seal populations before heading off to destinations largely unknown. The area is prime ground for researchers interested in studying white sharks (as well as sea birds). This is an area few get to see beyond a quick boat tour. Staying on the island is a privilege granted sparingly, save for the staff and interns, but Casey was able to access the island and witness its shark population not once but several times (the final time not without considerable controversy and danger). Her book is short but densely packed with information on Great Whites, the seabird population, the issues with both, the history of the island and her own observations and adventures. I've always been fascinated by sharks and consider myself fairly knowledgeable but I learned several things. One of the more amusing notes is that white sharks can tan. Sharks - or at least Great Whites - are more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for, and each individual has its own personality. There's also a misconception about blood in the water and "feeding frenzies" but attacks don't generally mean a free-for-all at the food. Sharks have a pecking order as to who eats. The "Sisterhood" -- the large female sharks - pull rank, and when a Sister is eating, the male sharks hang back (or will get attacked). The members of the "Rat Pack," or the male sharks, then follow. The researchers had names for the sharks- like Cal Ripfin, Stumpy, Bluntnose and Bitehead - and kept logs on them. The two researchers quoted in the book had a catalog of more than 100 individual sharks. The sharks found at the Farallones are on average larger than sharks found elsewhere; 15 feet is smallish, 20 feet uncommon but not off the bell curve. The ending of the book was a bit unexpected but in hindsight not surprising. A bit sad, in some ways. At any rate, I highly recommend this for those interested in sharks, history and nature. Reluctant readers might like this one due to the casual, conversational language and the adventure aspect.
39. Just My Type, by Simon Garfield. You would think a book on fonts and typeface would be as interesting as a novel on watching grass grow, or a treatise on the qualities of paint drying. This book shows that with the right approach and in the right hands, any topic can be made interesting. It probably helps that with my job, where I do a lot of page layout and graphic design, coupled with having a mother who is a longtime calligrapher, that I would find this topic of interest. Still, I think anyone who has ever used a computer and wondered at all the fonts may find the history behind the font's creators interesting. In addition, the book goes over what fonts seem to work best and where, why some fonts work better for some types of signs, and the controversy surrounding Comic Sans. It's fascinating to me how intent and passionate type designers can get over various typefaces. There are several fascinating, and even a couple sordid, tales regarding a few of the fonts we use and the people behind them, such as Eric Gill (of Gill Sans fame). This is a good book for those who work in design or just like odd, random history.
40. The Family That Couldn't Sleep, by D.T. Max. This is a fascinating book on the history and types of prion diseases, a perplexing and frightening malady that only in the past few decades humanity has really begun to understand. Prion diseases include "mad cow," scrapie, kuru, fatal familial insomnia (where the book takes its name), chronic wasting disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Each of these diseases has its distinctions but all leave a similar mark: a victim -- whether it be a cow, sheep, human or deer -- experiences sleeplessness, hallucinations and aggressive behavior before falling into a coma and expiring. An autopsy of the brain shows holes in the grey matter as well as a spongy consistency. Prion diseases defy what we know about disease. Instead of a bacteria, a living agent that can be killed, or a virus, with a genetic makeup that can be destroyed, prions are proteins that have malformed and cause surrounding proteins to also become deformed. Prions are extremely difficult to destroy since they technically aren't living matter. Prion disease also can be inherited, infectious or sporadic (although the final category is under considerable debate; there is a school of thought that sporadic cases are only cases where the contagion can't be traced. One of the more memorable observations is that "the absence of evidence isn't the evidence of absence.") The book's chapters alternate between the sad story of a family in Venice -- one of roughly forty families worldwide who suffer from fatal familial insomnia, which generally strikes when someone is in their forties or fifties and kills quickly -- and information on infectious prion diseases such as kuru, scrapie and "mad cow," the latter to which came about due to the unintended consequences of human tinkering with biology. There's a lot of science, but the book handles it with easy-to-follow language. Even more interesting are the stories of the scientists, researchers and the history behind the prion diseases. This was a fascinating- if chilling- read.
Currently reading: Wet Work, by Les Roberts. Also just ordered several books from the library.