Peabody Library Summer Staff Selections! (Part 8)

Every year, we at the Free For All ask the Peabody Library staff about the books, films, and music recordings that they would like to recommend to you for your summer reading/viewing/listening pleasure, and every year, we are delighted with the variety, the diversity, and the genuinely excellent recommendations that we receive.  We will be offering suggestions over the course of the summer, beloved patrons, in the hopes of helping you find a new favorite story to savor over the coming summer months.  Feel free to share your favorites with us, as well!  As our public services desk model has changed, you’ll note the headings on our recommendations has changed, as well.  Please feel free to speak with any Library staff member about finding a book to brighten your summer.

From the Public Service Desk:

The Cabinet of Curiosities: If you’re looking for a series with legs, then look no further than this series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, featuring the utterly unique FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast.  In this series installment, a construction project in Manhattan unearths a mass grave beneath a crumbling building.  As the quest to discover more about these bodies heats up, Pendergast steps in, ready to bend whatever rules necessary in order to get access to the site.  Before anyone can learn why, murders begin to take place across New York that mirror those of the bodies in the cellar–exactly.  Signs begin to point to a 19th-century scientist who was determined to find the elixir of life by any means necessary.  Did he succeed?  What is his final goal?  And what does all this have to do with Pendergast?  Although this is the third book in this series, this is the first book that truly focused on Pendergast himself, and is therefore accepted as the real launch to this series, which is still going strong.
From our staff: I read this series every summer (which is getting to be quite a feat!).  I love the first two books in this series, but for chilling revelations and intriguing characters, you cannot miss this book (and you can definitely enjoy it even if you’ve never read anything else by Preston and Child).  I hope someone reads this so I have someone to talk to about it soon!

Signs for Lost Children: Sarah Moss’ fascinatingly unique historical fiction deals with real-life cultural and social ills of its time, but also shows the hope that two intrepid people can create, even in the darkest and most unlikely places.  Ally Moberly, a recently qualified doctor, never expected to marry until she met Tom Cavendish. Only weeks into their marriage, Tom sets out for Japan, leaving Ally as she begins work at the Truro Asylum in Cornwall. Horrified by the brutal attitudes of male doctors and nurses toward their female patients, Ally plunges into the institutional politics of women’s mental health at a time when madness is only just being imagined as treatable. She has to contend with a longstanding tradition of permanently institutionalizing women who are deemed difficult, all the while fighting to to be taken seriously as a rare woman in a profession dominated by men. Tom, an architect, has been employed to oversee the building of Japanese lighthouses. He also has a commission from a wealthy collector to bring back embroideries and woodwork. As he travels Japan in search of these enchanting objects, he begins to question the value of the life he left in England. As Ally becomes increasingly absorbed in the moral importance of her work, and Tom pursues his intellectual interests on the other side of the world, they will return to each other as different people.


From the Upstairs Offices:

A Man Called Ove: There is little doubt that Fredrik Backman’s beloved novel is at the top of a lot of people’s “top picks” list, so we’d be very remiss if we left it off of ours!  Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time.  Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.  A Swedish blogger-turned-author, Fredrik Backman’s beautifully human, humane, and heart-warming tale is a perfect choice for anyone looking for an honest-to-goodness smile in their summer.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Another modern-day classic, Rebecca Skloot’s revelation about the truth behind some of the most profound tools in modern science’s arsenal has been hailed as a landmark achievement, and a critically important work for understanding the history of race, gender, and privilege in American society.  Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer, from whom doctor’s took a sample of cancerous tissue without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then.  These cells ultimately provided one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive–even thrive–in the lab. These cells gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio, as well as cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.  This book took over a decade for Skloot to research and write, and her hard work pays off in spades.  It’s not an easy read, but it’s a vitally important one.


Happy Summer Reading, Beloved Patrons!

Living (Not) Fossils: Part I

Good day dear readers! I hope you enjoyed our last foray into the world of sharks, rays, skates, guitarfish and kin! Today we’re aiming a bit more broadly – an introduction to some examples of what are popularly called “living fossils”.

.95" Gerastos Trilobite Fossil - Morocco
A non-living fossil of a trilobite. Photo Credit:,

As with any category, the first questions to be answered include: “What is it? What belongs? What doesn’t belong? Why?” Unfortunately, these answers vary depending on who is answering the question. In their 1984 book Living Fossils, Niles Eldredge and S.M. Stanley defined living fossils as:

  1. Members of taxa (the plural of taxon, meaning a taxonomic group of any rank, such as a species, family, or class) that exhibit notable longevity in the sense that they have remained recognisable in the fossil record over unusually long periods;
  2. Show little morphological divergence, whether from early members of the lineage, or among extant species, and
  3. tend to have little taxonomic diversity
Dawn Redwood Tree Picture (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as the dawn redwood, is often referred to as a living fossil. Photo credit: Rainer Lippert,,_2.jpg

However, the term “living fossil” is now being questioned: is it time for the term  coined by Darwin in his On the Origin of Species to be retired?

One of my favorite popular science writers, Ed Yong (author of 2016’s acclaimed I Contain Multitudes), argues that it should be abandoned on the basis that it implies that these organisms are in fact unchanged, when in actuality they show diversity and change over time apace with species not considered “living fossils”. That is, much of their living fossilness is based more on them having conservative body plans (looking “ancient”) rather than them actually lacking diversity or not exhibiting change over time.

Triops longicaudatus
Triops longicaudatus, also known as notostracans or tadpole shrimp, are small crustaceans that are not shrimp. Photo: ©2008 John White, Want Triops in your house? Arizona Fairy Shrimp can help.

In that case, what to call them? For purposes of this series of entries, I’m going to use the term “ancient organisms/creatures”. Whereas my previous entries dealt more with narrower classes of things, this one is a non-comprehensive tour of some organisms that have been described as members of this group.

Ancient organisms span the full gamut of organisms: bacteria, plants, animals, insects, fish, even creatures that perhaps aren’t always thought of as animals, like sponges.

Crinoids, also known as feather stars or sea lilies, are actually mobile (albeit slow) animals. Photo credit: erikschlogl

While my space here is limited, I’ll do my best to give you a whirlwind introduction to these fascinating critters by type. First up:

BACTERIA: Stromatolites

Normally one thinks of bacteria more in terms of things you attempt to remove from your hands with soap at a sink, but our representative of bacteria, stromatolites, are incredibly cool. Here is why:

The stromatolites at Shark Bay are some of the best living examples of microbialites. A tourist boardwalk at Hamelin Bay allows visitors to walk among these fascinating structures.
A macroview of the stromatolites at the Hamelin Pool at Shark Bay (Gascoyne region, Western Australia).

Stromatolites themselves are structures created by cyanobacteria (called blue-green bacteria or blue-green algae) accreting layers and layers of oxygen-producing microbial laminae (they’re photosynthetic) that then trap sediments, resulting in lithification over time; that is, they turn into stone. This may not sound especially scintillating until you realize how old these structures are – stromatolite fossils date back to the Archean eon. Here’s a geologic time chart for reference:

Geological time scale
Earth’s geologic time scale. Image credit: Jonathan R. Hendricks,

If you’re interested in a more complex chart, the Geological Society of America supplies this one as a PDF, also available as a poster.

Excluding the Ediacaran fauna (who really deserve your attention because ancient stuff is wonderful), stromatolite fossils are the oldest evidence of life on Earth that we have. The fact that some of these organisms are still alive and metaphorically kicking is astounding. Their range (like that of so many things) was much wider in the past, to the point that many of their fossils are no longer accessible to humans due to plate subduction, a process that moves at a geologic pace.

This site has diagrams about where in the United States you can observe stromatolite fossils, which implies very old areas of exposed rock (which means FOSSILS! Bring your tools!). Even if they’re just sitting there eating light + air and defecating rock, stromatolites are venerable communities indeed. Here’s what they look like in fossil form, vertically sliced:

Lower Proterozoic Stromatolite fossil from Bolivia, showing its complex laminae (layers). Photo credit: Fossilmall,

PLANTS: Cycads (Cycadales)

Moving on to plants, I am pleased to present to you these representatives: the cycads (depicted above), dawn redwoods/sequoias, the ginkgos, and welwitschia, which is a fun word to say.

This looks like a palm tree and might even be referred to as a “sago palm”, but this is not a palm tree – it’s a cycad. Photo:

Cycads are stout, squat, cone-bearing (but they’re not conifers) woody tree-like plants – however, unlike trees, they contain very little wood in their bark. Actually, they differ from most “modern” plants in most regards. Cycads look like many things, but their fossil evidence demonstrates their existence back to the Permian period (check the chart!), predating the dinosaurs.

Because of their striking appearance and appeal to collectors, many species of cycad are endangered or threatened. However, if you want to see cycads in person, may I suggest the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida? Currently, there are ~300 extant species of cycad; if you want to know the nitty-gritty about their taxonomy, The Cycad Pages and The Cycad Society are happy to oblige.

HOT GEOLOGICALLY-RECENT CYCAD NEWS: This study published in Science in 2011 (here’s a link to a more reader-friendly interpretation) provides another example of why the term “living fossil” may lead to incorrect assumptions – today’s cycads are not the exact same as cycads that lived during the age of the dinosaurs. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re not an ancient lineage.

The Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

The dawn redwood (native to Hubei Province in China) is the shortest of the trees that we refer to as redwoods (also known as sequoias), the most spectacular being the giant redwoods of California. Dawn redwoods are well-represented at various locations in the fossil record; however, their status as living fossils echoes that of the coelacanth: it is an organism that was thought to be extinct until it was discovered to still be living in the mid-20th century.

It now enjoys (?) its status as a popular tree to use in bonsai. Three  dawn redwoods  grow in Strawberry Fields, an area of New York City’s Central Park that serves as a tribute to John Lennon.

Redwood Bonsai
(Meta?)sequoia bonsai. Photo credit: Ray Coulombe,

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Next, we have the distinctive ginkgo (also known as the maidenhair tree), known for its exquisite colors (they turn brilliant golden in the autumn), unique (sometimes) bifurcated-fan-shaped leaves, perceived value as a nutritional supplement, use in traditional medicine, and as a food source (the seeds). They are also apparently famous for the foul smell of their fallen leaves and berries.

Image result for ginkgo
A Ginkgo biloba tree in its autumnal glory. Photo credit:

Fossils related to the modern Ginkgo appeared during the Permian period; fossils that clearly belong to the genus Ginkgo appeared during the Jurassic period.

Autumnal ginkgo leaves, showing both their color and shape. Photo credit: Joe Schneid.

Unlike the other plants I’ve described here, Ginkgo are pleasantly unendangered – they’re popular ornamental plants, particularly due to their extreme hardiness in urban environments. Some ginkgo trees even managed to survive the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 . Here is a New York Times op-ed from 2017 about conservation and the Hiroshima ginkgos.  For further ginkgo edification, have a listen to this episode of the Generation Anthropocene podcast, talking about the tree and how humans have had a hand in its evolution and propagation.

Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis)

The final ancient organism that I’ll talk about today is the weird-looking and appropriately-named Welwitschia mirabilis. In the image below, you’re looking at a healthy welwitschia – yes, this is how they’re supposed to look.

Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild! Photo credit:

Welwitschia are odd plants native to Angola and Namibia in Africa, alone in their taxonomy. I’d write and describe them, but many other people have done so more completely and accurately than I am able to at length. In addition to having the longest-lived leaves in the plant kingdom, welwitschia appear in the fossil record in the Jurassic. Individual specimens are extremely long-lived, with reports of variable veracity aging them at 1,000-2,000 years.

While I haven’t mentioned it yet, welwitschia are a type of plant called a gymnosperm, distinguished by their unencased seeds. The only other currently-living gymnosperms include the conifers (pines, cypresses & others – this includes the dawn redwoods), cycads and ginkgos – doesn’t that wrap up neatly now?

While it is native to areas that are now arid, welwitschia is also grown and sought-after by botanical gardens. It’s a protected species, but most trade involves its seeds, rather than wholesale moving of the plant itself.

File:Welwitschia mirabilis(1).jpg
As you can see, welwitschia are not small plants. Photo credit: Thomas Schoch.

While I don’t have a close-up image of it offhand, a bit of trivia is that along with 52 other plants, welwitschia was embroidered into Meghan Markle’s 5-meter long wedding veil. Her veil featured the distinctive flora from each of the 53 Commonwealth countries, with welwitschia representing Namibia.

If you’re interested in making the acquaintance of welwitschia and don’t feel like going to Namibia or Angola, they can be seen at various botanical gardens, including the Chicago Botanic Gardens and The Domes in Milwaukee.

As seems to be my custom, I’ve spoken for too long and this is going to end up as multiple entries. I hope you look forward them, dear readers! In the meantime, have some reading recommendations so you can dive deeper into these august organisms and their stories:

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Living at the limits of our ordinary perception, mosses are a common but largely unnoticed element of the natural world. Gathering Moss is a beautifully written mix of science and personal reflection that invites readers to explore and learn from the elegantly simple lives of mosses.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book is not an identification guide, nor is it a scientific treatise. Rather, it is a series of linked personal essays that will lead general readers and scientists alike to an understanding of how mosses live and how their lives are intertwined with the lives of countless other beings, from salmon and hummingbirds to redwoods and rednecks. Kimmerer clearly and artfully explains the biology of mosses, while at the same time reflecting on what these fascinating organisms have to teach us.

Drawing on her diverse experiences as a scientist, mother, teacher, and writer of Native American heritage, Kimmerer explains the stories of mosses in scientific terms as well as in the framework of indigenous ways of knowing. In her book, the natural history and cultural relationships of mosses become a powerful metaphor for ways of living in the world.

The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman

The Oldest Living Things in the World is an epic journey through time and space. Over the past decade, artist Rachel Sussman has researched, worked with biologists, and traveled the world to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Spanning from Antarctica to Greenland, the Mojave Desert to the Australian Outback, the result is a stunning and unique visual collection of ancient organisms unlike anything that has been created in the arts or sciences before, insightfully and accessibly narrated by Sussman along the way.

Her work is both timeless and timely, and spans disciplines, continents, and millennia. It is underscored by an innate environmentalism and driven by Sussman’s relentless curiosity. She begins at “year zero,” and looks back from there, photographing the past in the present.  These ancient individuals live on every continent and range from Greenlandic lichens that grow only one centimeter a century, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, Caribbean brain coral, to an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. Sussman journeyed to Antarctica to photograph 5,500-year-old moss; Australia for stromatolites, primeval organisms tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the beginnings of life on Earth; and to Tasmania to capture a 43,600-year-old self-propagating shrub that’s the last individual of its kind. Her portraits reveal the living history of our planet—and what we stand to lose in the future. These ancient survivors have weathered millennia in some of the world’s most extreme environments, yet climate change and human encroachment have put many of them in danger. Two of her subjects have already met with untimely deaths by human hands.

Alongside the photographs, Sussman relays fascinating – and sometimes harrowing – tales of her global adventures tracking down her subjects and shares insights from the scientists who research them. The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Ginkgo : The Tree That Time Forgot

Ginkgo, by Peter Crane

Perhaps the world’s most distinctive tree, ginkgo has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. A living link to the age of dinosaurs, it survived the great ice ages as a relic in China, but it earned its reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago. Today ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts, and revered for its longevity. This engaging book tells the rich and engaging story of a tree that people saved from extinction–a story that offers hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written.   Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane explores the history of the ginkgo from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. Readers of this book will be drawn to the nearest ginkgo, where they can experience firsthand the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.

The Wollemi Pine: The Incredible Discovery of a Living Fossil from the Age of the Dinosaurs, by James Woodford

An enthralling detective story about evolution and natural history, and the botanical find of the century: the freak survival of a species that offers a window on to an ecosystem one hundred million years old. The discovery has been described as “the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth.”

Cycads of the world : ancient plants in today's landscape

Cycads of the World:  Ancient Plants in Today’s Landscape, Second Edition, by David L. Jones

Cycads superficially resemble palms and are often misidentified as such. However, cycads are actually a unique assemblage of primitive plants that have been around for at least 250 million years. They have become highly sought after for gardens, both private and public, and their present status as endangered plants has engendered an upsurge of interest in their conservation. With Cycads of the World, David Jones has achieved that difficult task of writing a scientifically accurate text, which is both easy to read and to understand.

For this second edition David Jones has added information covering over 100 new species and subspecies of cycads, and updated his material on the 200 species from the first edition. Each entry includes a full description, distribution and habitat information, and a detailed cultivation and propagation guide. Over 360 color photographs plus many other illustrations and maps facilitate easy identification for all living species. This second edition of Cycads of the World makes a fine addition to the library of anyone interested in exotic plants, including gardeners, landscape architects, horticulturalists, botanists, and the curious reader alike.

The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them, by Donald R. Prothero

Every rock is a tangible trace of the earth’s past. The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks tells the fascinating stories behind the discoveries that shook the foundations of geology. In twenty-five chapters―each about a particular rock, outcrop, or geologic phenomenon―Donald R. Prothero recounts the scientific detective work that shaped our understanding of geology, from the unearthing of exemplary specimens to tectonic shifts in how we view the inner workings of our planet.

Prothero follows in the footsteps of the scientists who asked―and answered―geology’s biggest questions: How do we know how old the earth is? What happened to the supercontinent Pangea? How did ocean rocks end up at the top of Mount Everest? What can we learn about our planet from meteorites and moon rocks? He answers these questions through expertly chosen case studies, such as Pliny the Younger’s firsthand account of the eruption of Vesuvius; the granite outcrops that led a Scottish scientist to theorize that the landscapes he witnessed were far older than Noah’s Flood; the salt and gypsum deposits under the Mediterranean Sea that indicate that it was once a desert; and how trying to date the age of meteorites revealed the dangers of lead poisoning. Each of these breakthroughs filled in a piece of the greater puzzle that is the earth, with scientific discoveries dovetailing with each other to offer an increasingly coherent image of the geologic past. Summarizing a wealth of information in an entertaining, approachable style, The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks is essential reading for the armchair geologist, the rock hound, and all who are curious about the earth beneath their feet.

Stromatolites, by Ken McNamara.

Lastly, if you have access to online materials via Endicott College, Gordon College, Salem State University or Phillips Academy, then you have electronic access to Ken McNamara’s Stromatolites! 

David Attenborough began his extraordinary TV series, The Living Planet at Shark Bay in Australia’s northwest, because crossing the low dunes and descending to the beach is like slipping billions of years back in time. Where the waves gently break on the shore are stromatolites, rising like rows of concrete cauliflowers from the ocean. While they may look like inanimate rocks, examining a piece from the surface under a powerful microscope shows that it is teeming with life. Stromatolites are complex domes or columns of sediment formed by microbiological communities.

Unbeknownst to many Australians,  Shark Bay is home to one of the most excellent records of ancient life on earth, a stromatolite, which is literally a living fossil. Stromatolites exist in only a few places on earth, and are formed by the trapping, binding, and cementing of sedimentary grains by microscopic bacteria (or microbes). These “living rocks”, as they are sometimes called, teem with the very oldest life forms on earth, having remained virtually unchanged during the comings and goings of animals and plants. In his new book Stromatolites, Ken McNamara shows readers how these ancient formations are a window to the past.

Five Book Friday!

And for any of you night-owls out there, be sure to check out the brilliant full moon!

For those of our readers across the Atlantic (hello there!) tonight’s sky will feature the second blood moon of 2018, in the longest totality of the 21st century, according to NASA.  The moon will be obscured completely for an hour and 43 minutes, during which time the earth’s shadow will fall across it, causing the moon to appear red.    Sadly, however, by the time night falls in North America, the eclipse will already have ended. We’ll apparently have to wait until January 21, 2019, when the next full lunar eclipse will be viewable here.

So while some predict this means the end of days, we have every intention of being open at 9am tomorrow, so by all means, be sure to come by, and check out the wonderful selection of new books, dvds, cds, and more on our shelves this week!  Here are just a few to whet your appetite.

The Wrong Heaven In Amy Bonnaffons utterly wild collection of short stories, anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects come to life, angels appear and disappear. Bonnaffons draws us into a delightfully strange universe, in which her conflicted characters seek to solve their sexual and spiritual dilemmas in all the wrong places. The title story’s heroine reckons with grief while arguing with loquacious Jesus and Mary lawn ornaments that come to life when she plugs them in. In “Horse,” we enter a world in which women transform themselves into animals through a series of medical injections. In “Alternate,” a young woman convinces herself that all she needs to revive a stagnant relationship is the perfect poster of the Dalai Lama.  These stories delve into the mysteries that surround our everyday lives, relationships, and locations, making for a set of stories that manage somehow to be profound, funny, thought-provoking, and wonderfully engrossing.  This book has been getting starred and glowing reviews from outlets across the country, including from Library Journal, who said (in its starred review) “At once goofy, poignant, and edged with the fantastic, the stories in Bonnaffons’s debut collection initially surprise, then turn into one long, delicious rush.”

The Map of Salt and Stars: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s debut novel has drawn comparisons to The Kite Runner in the way it captures a nation (in this case, Syria), and the deep bonds of two people who forge a life there.  In the summer of 2011, just after Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother moves Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. In order to keep her father’s spirit as she adjusts to her new home, Nour tells herself their favorite story—the tale of Rawiya, a twelfth-century girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to apprentice herself to a famous mapmaker.  But the Syria Nour’s parents knew is changing, and it isn’t long before the war reaches their quiet Homs neighborhood. When a stray shell destroys Nour’s house and almost takes her life, she and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety—along the very route Rawiya and her mapmaker took eight hundred years before in their quest to chart the world. As Nour’s family decides to take the risk, their journey becomes more and more dangerous, until they face a choice that could mean the family will be separated forever.  This is an ambitious novel that spans time and space, and brings the devastation of the war in Syria home in a way news reports simply cannot.  Booklist recognized the beautiful balancing act that Joukhadar manages here, describing in its starred review how “Nour’s family constantly endures hardship. . . but her young, honest voice adds a softer, coming-of-age perspective to this story of loss, hope, and survival. . . This imaginative yet very real look into war-torn Syria is a must.”


Ocean Light:  Fans of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series will delight in returning to the world of this series, this time to explore the changeling group of BlackSea, which is full of ocean-dwelling changelings.  Security specialist Bowen Knight has come back from the dead. But there’s a ticking time bomb in his head: a chip implanted to block telepathic interference that could fail at any moment–taking his brain along with it. With no time to waste, he should be back on land helping the Human Alliance. Instead, he’s at the bottom of the ocean, consumed with an enigmatic changeling.  Kaia Luna, a BlackSea changeling may have traded in science for being a chef, but she won’t hide the facts of Bo’s condition from him or herself. She’s suffered too much loss in her life to fall prey to the dangerous charm of a human who is a dead man walking. But when Kaia is taken by those who mean her deadly harm, all bets are off. Bo will do anything to get her back, even if it means giving up his mind to the enemy.  This is probably not a book for series’ newcomers, as there are a number of long-running plots threads (including a few answers for those who have been kept in eager anticipation!), but for those in the know, Kirkus Reviews promises “Another intricately plotted, vividly sensual love story from a romance favorite.”

Yes, You Are Trans Enough: My Transition from Self-Loathing to Self-LoveThis is the story of Transgender blogger Mia Violet, told in her witty, deeply insightful and wonderfully energetic style, which reflects on her life and how at 26 she came to finally realize she was ‘trans enough’ to be transgender, after years of knowing she was different but without the language to understand why.  From bullying, heartache and a botched coming out attempt, through to counselling, Gender Identity Clinics and acceptance, Mia confronts the ins and outs of transitioning, using her charged personal narrative to explore the most pressing questions in the transgender debate and confront what the media has gotten wrong.  This is a book for those looking for advice, as well as those looking to become a better ally by learning about the real experiences of transfolx.  Author and activist Christine Burns wrote a stunning blurb for this book, calling it “Honest, raw, moving: This intimate blow by blow account of a young trans woman’s odyssey to personal acceptance and authenticity really ought to be compulsory reading for anyone who ever thought in ignorance that a change of gender was a whimsical adventure.”


The Widower’s Notebook: A Memoir: On a summer day in New York Jonathan Santlofer discovers his wife, Joy, gasping for breath on their living room couch. After a frenzied 911 call, an ambulance race across Manhattan, and hours pacing in a hospital waiting room, a doctor finally delivers the fateful news. Consumed by grief, Jonathan desperately tries to pursue life as he always had–writing, social engagements, and working on his art–but finds it nearly impossible to admit his deep feelings of loss to anyone, not even his to beloved daughter, Doria, or to himself.  This is the story of Santlofer’s two-year journey of grief, acceptance, and healing, as well as his recollections of his loving marriage and memories of his beloved wife.   Though not easy to read, this is a powerfully necessary work that offers insight for those who are grieving themselves, or helping others to grieve, reminding us all that the journey is not a simple one, but that it can be done–and done with grace, honesty, and even a little humor, too.  Author Lee Child contributed a wonderful blurb for this book, praising it as a”Wrenching, heartbreaking, intense and emotional – but valuable, too: we’re all approaching the age where this will happen to us – or to others because of us – and understanding that it can be dealt with is consoling.  I don’t know how Santlofer found the fortitude to write this, but I’m deeply grateful he did. I think the world is a better place with this book in it.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Peabody Library Summer Staff Selections! (Part 7)

Every year, we at the Free For All ask the Peabody Library staff about the books, films, and music recordings that they would like to recommend to you for your summer reading/viewing/listening pleasure, and every year, we are delighted with the variety, the diversity, and the genuinely excellent recommendations that we receive.  We will be offering suggestions over the course of the summer, beloved patrons, in the hopes of helping you find a new favorite story to savor over the coming summer months.  Feel free to share your favorites with us, as well!  As our public services desk model has changed, you’ll note the headings on our recommendations has changed, as well.  Please feel free to speak with any Library staff member about finding a book to brighten your summer.

From the Public Service Desk:

Wylding Hall: Elizabeth Hand’s short novel won last year’s Shirley Jackson award in that category, and for good reason–this is a weird, haunting, and unsettling story about memory, loss, and a disappearance that can’t be explained.  When the young members of a British acid-folk band are compelled by their manager to record their unique music, they hole up at Wylding Hall, an ancient country house with dark secrets. There they create the album that will make their reputation, but at a terrifying cost: Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappears within the mansion and is never seen or heard from again.  Now, years later, the surviving musicians, along with their friends and lovers—including a psychic, a photographer, and the band’s manager—meet with a young documentary filmmaker to tell their own versions of what happened that summer. But whose story is true? And what really happened to Julian Blake?
From Our Staff:  This book defied all my expectations from the first page in the most beautiful way.   It’s weird, yes, but it’s a wonderfully human story that I find myself remembering months after I returned it to the library!

Flat Broke With Two Goats: A Memoir: Jennifer McGaha never expected to own a goat named Merle. Or to be setting Merle up on dates and naming his doeling Merlene. She didn’t expect to be buying organic yogurt for her chickens. She never thought she would be pulling camouflage carpet off her ceiling or rescuing opossums from her barn and calling it “date night.” Most importantly, Jennifer never thought she would only have $4.57 in her bank account. When Jennifer discovered that she and her husband owed back taxes—a lot of back taxes—her world changed. Now desperate to save money, they foreclosed on their beloved suburban home and moved their family to a one-hundred-year-old cabin in a North Carolina holler. Soon enough, Jennifer’s life began to more closely resemble her Appalachian ancestors than her upper-middle-class upbringing. But what started as a last-ditch effort to settle debts became a journey that revealed both the joys and challenges of living close to the land.  This is a hilarious, touching novel, not only about the homesteading movement, but about discovering the true meaning of home.

From the Upstairs Offices:

The Lacuna: Barbara Kingsolver’s books are always ambitious in their scope and depth, and this book is no exception.  Spanning the the North American continent and its history, this is a moving insightful study of one man and the history of the world around him. Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico, Harrison Shepherd has never known a real sense of home. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.  Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America’s hopeful image and claim a voice of his own.  But as he journey back and forth from North to South, Harrison finds the layers of his life torn apart, rather than mended, making for a book that is both heart-wrenching and historically insightful.

Lady Bird: One of the best-reviewed films of 2017, this look into one young woman’s senior year at a Catholic high school in Northern California, and her quest for her own identity was also among the highest-rated films on the site Rotten Tomatoes.  Christine ”Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Roman) fights against but is exactly like her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letters) loses his job. The result is an affecting look at the relationships that shape us, the beliefs that define us, and the unmatched beauty of a place called home.

The Apartment: A classic comedy, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray are superb in this tale of love and ambition in the world of big business that went on to garner a Best Picture Oscar.  C.C. ”Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly Manhattan office drone with a lucrative sideline in renting out his apartment to adulterous company bosses and their mistresses. When Bud enters into a similar arrangement the firm’s personnel director, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), his career prospects begin to look up… and up. But when he discovers that Sheldrake’s mistress is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the girl of his dreams, he finds himself forced to choose between his career and the woman he loves.  Here’s another multi-Academy-Award-winning film, sure to keep your summer full of laughs!

Until next week, beloved patrons, happy summer!

The 2018 Man Booker Prize Longlist!

It’s here!  It’s here!  Not that we are excited about this or anything, but the judges of the 2018 Man Booker Prize released their long list this week, and we are all a-twitter with excitement, not only because the Man Book adds so much to our “To Be Read” lists around here, but also because this year, a graphic novel made the long list!  This is also the first year that novels published in Ireland are eligible for the prize, following a change in rules announced at the start of 2018 that recognised the special relationship between the UK and Irish publishing markets.

This year’s longlist of 13 books was selected by a panel of five judges: by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (Chair); crime writer Val McDermid; cultural critic Leo Robson; feminist writer and critic Jacqueline Rose; and artist and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton.  Their choice was not an easy one–this year saw some 171 submissions to the prize panel, representing the highest number of titles put forward in the prize’s 50 year history.

According the chair of the 2018 judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah:

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the times, there were many dystopian fictions on our bookshelf – and many novels we found inspirational as well as disturbing…All of these books – which take in slavery, ecology, missing persons, inner-city violence, young love, prisons, trauma, race – capture something about a world on the brink. Among their many remarkable qualities is a willingness to take risks with form. And we were struck, overall, by their disruptive power: these novels disrupted the way we thought about things we knew about, and made us think about things we didn’t know about. Still, despite what they have in common, every one of these books is wildly distinctive. It’s been an exhilarating journey so far and we’re looking forward to reading them again. But now we’ll have thousands and thousands of people reading along with us.”

So let’s take a look at the list.  As ever, where the books are available in NOBLE, or not (yet) available in the US, we have done our best to provide a point of access for you, or the expected publication date.  Let us know if you need assistance accessing these (or any other) titles!


2018 Man Booker Long List, featuring titles, author, and author’s nationality.

Snap by Belinda Bauer (UK)

Milkman by Anna Burns (UK) This title will be released in the US on December 4, 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (USA) <– Graphic Novel!

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)

In Our Mad And Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (UK) Please speak to a staff member if you wish to access this title.

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (UK)  This title will be released on January 15, 2019

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA)

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (UK)  Please speak to a staff member if you wish to access this title.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Canada)

The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA)

The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK)  Please speak to a staff member if you wish to access this title.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland) This title will be released on April 16, 2019

From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Ireland)


Congratulations to all the long-listed books and authors!  On September 20, the judges will be announcing the short list of nominees, and the 2018 Man Booker Prize will be awarded on Tuesday, October 16.  Check back here for all the details!

The Furor Over Forbes; or Why Amazon Should Not Replace Libraries

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

We eagerly look forward to bringing your our regularly scheduled Staff Summer Reading Selections later on this week, beloved patrons.  However, there are some times when we need to interrupt our regular routine to really have a go at some privileged absurdity on the internet.

This past Saturday, Forbes magazine published an online editorial by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas entitled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.”

Via iHeartRadio

According to the (grossly misinformed) piece, doing away with libraries would save taxpayers’ money, while concurrently raising the price of Amazon stock.  According to the piece, Amazon should open its doors (meaning its brick-and-mortar bookstores) to the public, and thus obliterate the need for public libraries; thus reducing the cost to taxpayers, who don’t use the library because they are (allegedly) sitting in Starbucks.

We’re not linking to the piece for two reasons.  First, Forbes took the piece off its site (you can find it, and lots of analyses of it, floating around the internet).  Secondly, we believe in good information here and the library.  And this article did not contain good information about libraries, their purposes, or their use to the community.  It is a pleasure to see how many other websites, news outlets, libraries, publishers, and individuals have gathered together to defend libraries, and emphasize the good that they do.  But we’re adding our voice to this chorus nonetheless, because disinformation makes us sad.  And angry.  And like writing a blog post about it.

First of all (and it’s really rather tragic that someone had to point this out to a grown-up person), Amazon is not a Library.  It is a store.  Moreover, it is a store that is stocked and run by analytics.  Which means it only stocks best-sellers and other such high-interest titles.  So finding an obscure or older title?  Most likely not going to happen.  Quality control?  Not much.  Also, you cannot take books out of an Amazon store unless you hand over money.  Libraries allow you to take out books (and cd’s and dvd’s and other media equipment and physical items) by virtue of you living within the bounds of a specific community.

Do your taxes pay for the library?  Yes, in part, they do.   According to the 2018 Peabody Fiscal Report, the Main Library receives approximately 1% of the total city budget.  We also receive money from the state and the federal government, as well–just like most libraries across the country.  And we make that money work for us and for you, by investing in paper-and-ink books, ebooks, dvds, streaming services, digital subscriptions, and other technology that you and many, many other people can access on-site and remotely.
Do you know who doesn’t pay their taxes?  Amazon.*

But, sarcasm aside, there are two major, fundamental problem about thinking that Amazon can ever replace a library: First, Amazon is a private company.  It is designed to make money; not to serve a community.  A side note worth making is that Amazon’s presence in a city has a direct and distinctly negative effect on the way-of-life of its residence.  Due to the rise of housing prices near Amazon warehouses, and a lack of corresponding pay for employees, there have been numerous reports of Amazon employees forced to live in tents near the warehouse in order to survive.   This is somewhat an aside, but it is important to remember in terms of the kind of community Amazon fosters.

Which brings us to the most important things that Mourdoukoutas’ piece ignored.

His argument mentioned that people were more likely to go to a bookstore/coffee shop (pardon, a brand name bookstore or coffee shop, like Amazon and/or Starbucks) to do their work.  Which inherently assumes that people have their own access to the tools they need to do that work, such as a laptop computer, tablet, or phone.  This implies that people know the work they need to or should be doing.  It assumes that people can afford to sit in a place of commerce, like a bookstore or coffee shop.  It seems to forget how problematic and downright dangerous such places have proven for community members in the past.  And it absolutely overlooks the realities of life for many members of our community, and others, as well.

A 2017 joint report by internet industry trade group Wireless Broadband Alliance and research firm IHS Markit stated that about 44% of people on average living in rural areas in the U.S., as well as a number of other developed nations don’t have access to or can’t afford broadband internet.  All told, that’s approximately 62 million Americans in urban centers and 16 million in rural locations who can’t access fast internet.  We in Massachusetts are more fortunate than most, living in the 5th most connected state in the country.  But that still means that some 3,000 people in Essex County are completely without wired internet access.  The cost of living in Peabody is more than 12% above the national average, meaning that we pay more for our services, our housing, and our food, than many others–meaning it is more difficult to afford luxuries and non-necessary items and services.  The unemployment rate in Peabody (as of October 2017) was 5.7%.

The people mentioned in these statistics–those not connected to the internet, those unable to afford items like computers or tablets or smartphones, those without jobs or in between jobs–those are the people that libraries are specifically designed to assist.  Those are the very people that private stores intentionally ignore.

Libraries are institutions of conscious equity.  They ensure that the underprivileged, the unemployed, and the ignored have a place to go, and access to the resources necessary to improve their lives; from a glass of water and a bathroom, to access learning materials and job applications, to a place to study for an exam or finish an important report.  We offer homework assistance for students so that they have the opportunity to shape their future to their own dreams.  We provide language assistance for non-English speakers so that they can communicate effectively in whatever situations they encounter.  We offer safe spaces for children to learn and play.  We offer activity and discussions for the elderly.   We connect people to the material they need to learn, be entertained, and feel validated as people.  We ensure that everyone in our community has a place to belong, regardless of their ability to pay for it.  Libraries are the absolute antithesis to the capitalist, for-profit business model that Professor Mourdoukoutas describes, that relies on a privileged elite to function.  And that is precisely why they are so revolutionary, so necessary, and so popular.

This is not a slogan. It’s the honest-to-goodness truth.

As this article from Quartz Media noted, the link to Professor Mourdoukoutas’ article was active at 10am, and had garnered some 200,000 views.  By 11am, it had been removed, in the wake of a full-bodied internet revolt.  According to a statement from a Forbes spokesperson, “Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view…Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.”

You know how you can get better informed about these things?  Go to the Library.  Even you, Professor Mourdoukoutas, would be welcome.  It sounds like you could really benefit from a visit to an actual library before you produce any more opinions about them.

* While we made have taken a bit of a stand against Amazon here, we don’t want to negatively influence the way you spend your hard-earned funds.  But if you do feel like helping out your beloved local library in any way, when you make your purchases via Amazon, feel free to go to the Amazon Smile page and direct your donation to go to the Friends of the Peabody Library, as shown below:

Thank you for your support!

Shark (And Relatives) Week(s) @ the Library: Part II

Welcome back to the Stage of Fish, dear readers! Today I will conclude what I started last week: talking about batoids, aka shark relatives! In particular, I’ll be talking about stingrays, manta rays and electric rays.


Stingrays have long had a reputation for being dangerous.  This is probably because they have venom-coated barbs on their tails that they will stab you in the leg with if you stomp on them.

However, due to the tragic and unusual death of nature television show star Steve Irwin at the tail of a stingray, reactions to them seem to have to turned to outright fear: while one should never give too much credence to YouTube comments or anything they read on Yahoo! Answers, I have seen far too many comments on batoid-centric videos that called every batoid a “stingray” and treated every “stingray” like it’s a vicious predator out to get them.  This is actually the same way many people tend to talk about sharks, which is also grossly inaccurate, misinformed and has led to negative repercussions for that much-put-upon fish.

Image Credits: Stephen Frink/Getty Images  Justin Lewis/Getty Images


When a stingray wounds a human, it is out of self-defense, not malice.  I personally think that stabbing whatever creature that is exponentially larger and heavier than me and happens to be standing on my cartilaginous body is a perfectly valid reason for exercising a typically non-lethal defense mechanism.  When you are playing at the beach, please remember that you are in their habitat, not vice versa.  Also:     

Humans are not a food source for stingrays, therefore they are not hunting you; stingrays physically can not eat you. I promise. 

The Elasmodiver, a site that’s been a great resource to me both while writing this entry and just in general for my daily elasmobranch needs, actually has a page set up with information specifically related to this disturbing issue about stingray barbs, how to treat stingray injuries and information about stingrays relevant to beachgoers.  I strongly recommend that everyone visit this if no other link provided here just to combat some of the rampant fear-based misinformation on stingrays that’s floating around.

Like all wild animals (which it is, make no mistake), it is good to treat stingrays with respect: don’t live in terror of them, do take precautions to not step on them (do the Stingray Shuffle!), don’t molest them, etc.

ANOTHER BEEF: YouTube commenters and members of the media are guilty of calling pretty much every batoid a “stingray” all the time.  This is inaccurate and wrong: taxonomically speaking, stingrays must be members of the Dasyatidae family.  There are LOTS of batoids that are not “stingrays”.  Here are some examples of  inaccurate reports about batoids in the media for an object lesson!Many of you may have seen news reports of a “giant stingray” leaping onto a woman in her boat some years ago.  This “giant stingray” is clearly an eagle ray one of the most photogenic (and thus well-known) and large batoids.  Please compare:

An eagle ray. Diamond-shaped body, notice the head shape. Max weight is 230 kg/507 lb (so the average weight is well up there); common            length is 180 cm/5’9″.  Thus the eagle ray that leapt on the woman in the report (reports of the ray’s weight seems to oscillate between 200-300 lbs.) is perfectly   average for its species.  Eagle rays, unlike stingrays, swim a lot and school.  They don’t engage in the same burying behavior, though they will swim near/at the seafloor. And yes, as observed, they leap, sometimes into boats.
A Southern stingray.  Traditional disc-shaped body.  Typically smaller than an eagle ray. Found on sandy bottoms, near reefs, in seagrass beds; not known for leaping like eagle rays, mobulas or mantas.

As you and anyone who has experience with rays can see, the two cannot be confused.  It would be very odd if a stingray, a creature that dwells on the seafloor, randomly jumped into someone’s boat, as opposed to a ray of a species that frequently swims along the surface and is known for jumping.

An eagle ray. Photo credit:

To be fair, I do not expect every person to be able to identify every batoid, but instead of calling an unknown batoid a “stingray” (which is not a generic label.  Sorry, the word “stingray” narrows it down a very specific set of rays!) perhaps they could just call it a ray?  That’s not wrong, unless it’s not a ray.  Which is possible, people call all sorts of things all sorts of wrong names all the time.

I will also take this opportunity to talk about Stingray City, a snorkeling/scuba diving site at Grand Cayman Island known for its stingray population that’s habituated to humans.  If you’re bent on physically interacting with stingrays (which I guess is better than being terrified of them), this might be an option for you.  Many well-known photographs of Southern stingrays are from this site.

Kfulgham84, the author of this image, demonstrates the dangers and temptations of fraternizing with stingrays at Grand Cayman Island.

They are tolerating you, not trying to become your friend: please be respectful towards them.  They are not pets, do not treat them like your cat (unless your cat is a stingray).  I assume that our readership knows better and would behave appropriately around rays, but  some folks who have not been educated about how to behave around tame-ish wild animals do not.

Additionally, many public aquariums (including our own here in the Boston area) have supervised ray & shark interaction areas if you feel the need to physically connect with batoids. In my experience, the most popular species in these tanks tend to be stingrays and cownose rays, as well some species of smaller sharks (epaulette sharks, bamboo sharks, etc).

In conclusion: If you swim with the rays, or happen to encounter them in an unscheduled manner, don’t be That Guy.However, I will talk more about stingrays than just complain about those who do ill by them.  Stingrays can get very large, as attested to in one of the photos up above.

The largest stingrays in the world are the freshwater stingrays that live in the rivers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.  They are the guys that show up in e-mail forwards from your relatives and websites that feature many exciting animated pop-up ads.


Zeb Hogan (the fellow behind the Megafish Project) with H. chaophraya.  Most photos of giant stingrays aren’t too exciting because they live in muddy rivers so it’s just people holding them and them being huge.

They are more formally known as freshwater whiprays and the binomial name is Himantura chaophraya.  Yes, they are stingrays, meaning they have very large barbs on their tails.  National Geographic has covered them as part of their Megafishes Project, which I naturally encourage you to check out because large weird freshwater fish are great.  Jeremy Wade of Animal Planet’s River Monsters also did an episode on them if you enjoy that media modality.

Round 2: MANTAS

The largest ray, mantas are the charismatic megafauna of the batoid world.  Behold their majestic form:

A manta ray smile. Awkward.
The first thing you might notice about manta rays (aside from their size) is how weird they look compared to the standard batoid (omitting the guitarfish, sawfish, etc.) body shape:

       Here are mobulas doing their flying thing off Cabo Pulma:

Also, they school.  A lot.  They are somewhat photogenic.

  • Their eyes are on the sides of their heads.  While this isn’t as weird as the cephalic lobes or the the front-of-the-head mouth (this eye position is also present in eagle rays), stingrays’ eyes are on top of their heads.
  • Like the largest of their non-flattened elasmobranch comrades, the whale shark, manta rays are also filter feeders.  Unfortunately, the manta does not get to sport the natty grid + spots pattern that looks so cool on whale sharks.  Now that I think about it, I’m surprised people don’t kill them to wear their skin, they do it to every other species unfortunate enough to have skin that is aesthetically pleasing to humans.
  • While they are filter feeders, manta rays DO have teeth!  However, they’re for reproductiontime, not for dinnertime.  I actually reviewed this earlier when talking about batoid dentition, so scroll up if you want to see their little poky teeth.
Manta at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, ©Tim Snell
So how big are these guys?  The maximum recorded size from FishBase claims a 910 cm/29.86 ft for length and 3,000 kg/6,613.9 lb. for weight. That’s 3.3 tons of batoid, by the way. However, FishBase also tells us that mantas are commonly 450 cm/14.8 ft and the sources I could find says average weight is more around 1,360 kg/3,000 lb., a mere 1.5 ton of flattened cartilaginous fish.
1933, y’all.  Also, mini-manta is precious, aside from being dead.
I hate having to say this, but evidence on the Internet compels me: just because you can ride a manta ray doesn’t mean you should. In fact, you shouldn’t.  Why?  Let’s talk about MUCUS.
Any of you who’ve ever touched a fish before know that they’re slimy (scroll down for slime, as interpreted by hagfish).  Fish are slimy due to the protective coating of mucus on their bodies that protects them from infection, harmful organisms and other external badniks.  Touching/handling/stressing fish removes some of this valuable mucus coating, which can injure them and/or make them more susceptible to infection.  Thus, riding a manta would most likely be detrimental to their mucus coating and could possibly outright injure it.


Don’t be this person.


What?  A fish with many names?  You don’t say! First, let’s get our etymology on via the Online Etymology Dictionary: the “torpedo” comes from the Latin torpere, meaning to “be numb”. Coincidentally, these guys are also known as “numbfish” or “crampfish” in some quarters.  This is as deep as I’ll go.  The Etymology Dictionary actually provides Proto Indo-European stems so you should be grateful that that isn’t within the purview of this entry, although I actually have an idea for an entry that involves PIE and fish so none of you are truly ever safe.


Bullseye electric ray photographed by Andy Murch
Electric rays (that’s what I’m going to call them IN GENERAL) look a little weird compared to the rest of the rays we’ve covered.  I tend to overgeneralize their body shape as “unfortunate pancakes taped together”.  This diagram provides a better idea of the diversity in electric ray body shapes:


Still look like weird pancakes. (Madl & Yip, 2000)

In addition to being pancakeoid, you’ll notice their tails (or more properly, “caudal fins”) more closely resemble those of fish than of stingrays or certainly mantas with their spindly tails. What are they used for?  LOCOMOTION!  Somehow this makes them look even sillier, the guy below vaguely looks like a living metal detector who just happens to be an awesome electric batoid. I doubt he is sympathetic to your gouty toe.

Torpedo Ray at Casino Point (Catalina Island, California), Photo by Nick Ambrose

Electroreception (the biological ability to perceive electrical impulses) is not something unusual to elasmobranchs or to many fish in general; the platypus can do it, why can’t you? Electric rays are unique among rays in that they can both detect and emit electric impulses, an ability that is shared to a lesser extent by skates, though their electroreceptive organs differ in origin, function, strength, and location. Note that skates’ electrical discharges are too weak to be used for defensive or predatory functions.

Let’s break it down taxonomically.  Technically, there’s no such “thing” as an electric ray, given that would imply that there is a single species called “the electric ray”.  That is a blatant falsehood because there are actually about 60 species of rays that emit electricity.

Let me show you, because if you’re going to learn one thing from me it’s ridiculous fish taxonomy.  Let’s do this thing:

ClassChondrichthyes (Contains Elasmobranchii and Holocephali [chimaerae]) 
     Subclass: Elasmobranchii (It’s a shark or a batoid!)

          Superoder: Batoidea (It’s a batoid!)

               Order: Torpediniformes (Rays that do the electric thing)

Under the order Torpediniformes we get four families of electric ray with four evocative names: Narcinidae, Narkidae, Torpedinidae and Hypnidae.  There may be a suggestion of a naming motif hidden here.  Indeed, electricity-producing rays have been known to humans for a very long time and apparently used to be subject to medical employment.

This 2,300 year old garum (fish sauce) plate from Christies boasts two cephalopods and two batoids.  The batoids are two types of electric ray and the cephalopods are an octopus and a squid.
Scribonius Largus, Emperor Claudius of Rome’s court physician, used electric rays as treatment for headaches and gout.  We know this because he recorded it in his text Compositiones medicae, where he specifically mentions treating people by having them stand in buckets with “live black torpedo fish” circa 50 C.E.  Apparently the physician Galen also thought electric rays were pretty good for this kind of thing, even though it strikes me as rather rude.
The skin is peeled back to reveal the electricity-producing organs.  Engravings from John Hunter’s paper to the Royal Society ©Royal College of Surgeons of England 1. The under surface of a female torpedo 2. The upper surface of a female 3. The under surface of a male

I’ve found allusions to the ancient Greeks using electric rays as a form of anesthesia during childbirth (?!) but no reliable references because the Internet is full of lies.  I have, however, found a letter from a guy doing experiments on electric rays writing to Benjamin Franklin about them in 1772 to tell him that he figured out that BY GOD THEY’RE FULL OF ELECTRICITY, JUST LIKE THAT LEYDEN JAR

Anyway, people have known about them for a while and used them for their busted toes and all kinds of weird stuff, with nary a thought for the ray’s welfare in mind.

BONUS: What do electric eels (which are actually really big knifefish, not eels at all) get for Christmas? Forced labor, depending on how liberal your definition of “labor” is.

So how strong is the shock of the electric ray, anyway? It kind of depends on which electric ray you’re talking about.  As is so often the case with fish records, they vary and FishBase ain’t talking.  The max seems to be about 200-220 volts and that seems to be pretty outstanding; the species cited as producing this was Torpedo nobiliana, the Atlantic torpedo.  I look askance at records of things like 700 volts, which I have seen cited as an upper range figure.

Please, manta riders, approach, harass and attempt to ride this ray.

There is a reason for the pancakeosity of the of the electric ray: if you observed the engraving by John Hunter above, electric rays’ kidney-shaped electricity-producing organs are located in the sides of their discs.  If you’d like to see these organs in the flesh, the Brine Queen dissected an electric ray and documented the process.

An electric ray will specifically use its Thor-like powers to ambush its prey, wrap its flexible body around it to deliver powerful shocks, and then devour it using its distensible jaws.  I’m not sure if the diver in this video got shocked, but the put out ray’s posture seems to suggest it at the very least entertained the notion:

I think this covers your introduction to batoids.  There’s always more to say because there are a LOT of batoids: The ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research says that 55% of total extent elasmobranch species (sharks + batoids) are batoids, with around different 555-573 species of batoids.  I’ve mentioned fewer than 10 species in this entry, to put it in perspective.

To conclude my entry, I’ll give a small bit of attention to the neglected skate.  Skates are always neglected and I’ll fully admit I neglected them here.  I blame the world for not having more information on skates and I blame skates for not being manta rays or having much of a reputation beyond, “How is it not a ray?”.

While no, they don’t get as big as river stingrays or mantas, they certainly can get big.  I applaud the angler pictured below, Damian Greenwood, for releasing his quarry.  There are definitely more sustainable fish to eat.  Read the full write-up here.

192 lb/87 kg skate caught off the west coast of Scotland.
For those of you interested in skate fishing in the region, here is a handy skate identification chart courtesy NOAA, though it does contain information on protected species that is from 2014 and is thus not the most current re: fishing governance.
As your reward for reading through all of this, why not check out a book about skates, rays and more-than-likely sharks? Here are today’s offerings:
For the diehard elasmobranch enthusiast! Successor to the classic work in shark studies, The Elasmobranch Fishes by John Franklin Daniel (first published 1922, revised 1928 and 1934), Sharks, Skates, and Rays provides a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of elasmobranch morphology. Coverage has been expanded from anatomy to include modern information on physiology and biochemistry. The new volume also provides equal treatment for skates and rays. The authors present general introductory material for the relative novice but also review the latest technical citations, making the book a valuable primary reference resource. More than 200 illustrations supplement the text.
Hundreds of thousands of people have an intentional encounter with sharks every year, and shark-watching has become a multi-million dollar business. The ultimate shark-watcher’s guide, this comprehensive and ground-breaking book is essential reading for any marine enthusiast who wants to navigate the waters of those who consort with sharks.
Sometimes you just need a general lay-level text on elasmobranchs: this book is your destination. Sharks have a reputation of being the most feared creatures of the sea, and in this fantastic book, we learn the myths and facts of these fascinating animals–and that they aren’t as deadly as they seem. Of the more than 850 shark species, 80 percent either would not hurt people, or would rarely encounter them.
Sharks and their kin–skates and rays–have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, and their very existence is now threatened by man and his fears. Thomas Allen takes us through the evolution of the shark, its folklore, its commercial uses, and gives us a detailed look at shark attacks–where they happen, why, and how to protect yourself from them. He describes over one hundred shark species–their behavior, appearance, size, and distribution–and provides helpful scientific illustrations. He offers current information on scientific research (including the recent studies on shark cartilage in cancer research), current population findings, and continuing conservation efforts.
With over twenty-five color photographs of familiar and unusual sharks, interesting and fact-filled sidebars, and useful appendices, THE SHARK ALMANAC is a comprehensive overview and the perfect book for anyone interested in these amazing creatures.
Shark : Stories of Life and Death from the World's Most Dangerous Waters
Shark picks up where previous Adrenaline titles such as Rough Water and Deep Blue left off, with a collection focusing on man’s terrifying interactions with one of the planet’s most frightening beasts–an animal that arouses our most primal fears–fears that were recently brought to the surface by an outbreak of fatal attacks on this country’s beaches. From novelists to sailors to oceanographers to divers, man’s encounters with sharks have produced a diverse body of gripping, ofteninspired writing by great names in adventure literature. Along with 16 black-and-white photos, selections feature a wide range of work with an emphasis on thrills and chills, including Peter Matthiessen on the great white shark, Edward Marriott on hunting man-eaters off Nicaragua, Richard Fernicola’s account of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and Jacques Cousteau’s studies of the creatures. If you’re interested in checking out this title, please speak with a librarian.

*=yes, I’m oversimplifying and excluding subspecies.  DEALMadl, P & Yip, M. (2000). Essay about the electric organ discharge (eod) . Proceedings of the Cartilagenous fish Colloquial Meeting of Chondrichthyes ,

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass