Author appearances a highlight of ASU Book Group

September 8, 2015

As a child, Joan Burtnett always looked forward to the days when the bookmobile would stop at the top of the hill where she lived.

Nowadays, the retired elementary school teacher and Arizona State University alum gets her literary fix at the ASU Book Group’s meetings, held from noon to 1 p.m. on (mostly) the last Wednesday of every month at the Virginia G. Piper Writers House on the Tempe campus. ASU Book Group titles This year's titles featured at the ASU Book Club include: “Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion," by faculty member Alan Simon; Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies,” by associate professor of English Tara Ison; and “The Best of a Better View,” by ASU graduate Chris Benghue. Download Full Image

This fall, the group kicks off its fifth year. It began in the fall of 2011 at the behest of Judith Smith, then an ASU media relations officer and contributor to ASU News. (Smith has since retired after 25 years with the university but remains active within the group and the ASU community in general.)

“I decided to start the book group because I … was privileged to meet many of the faculty at ASU who wrote interesting books on a variety of topics,” she said. “The average person at ASU does not get that chance, so I thought it would be great to invite ASU faculty, staff, graduates – and local authors – to [participate in the group].”

At each meeting, members discuss that month’s book, which, more often than not, is presided over by the authors themselves. Afterward, they can join the author and Smith for lunch at the University Club.

Past books have included “Desert Wind,” by local author Betty Webb; “Available Surfaces: Essays on Poesis,” by ASU English professor T. R. Hummer; and “A World Apart,” by Camelia Skiba with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Skiba isn’t just a featured author of the book group, though; she’s one of its most enthusiastic members.

“Books bring people together, feed our imagination and nourish our souls; we find ourselves inside their pages, living through the hero’s eyes and being exposed to things real life doesn’t always allow us – like traveling to places we can’t afford to go, other cultures and traditions, etc.,” she said.

ASU College of Law staffer Carolyn Landry has been a member of the group since its inception. She doesn’t hesitate when asked what she likes most about it:

“Meeting the authors!”

Among some of her favorites is Jewell Parker Rhodes, ASU English professor and director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, whose award-winning book “Ninth Ward” the group discussed.

“Jewell was really amazing, dynamic and fun to talk to,” said Landry.

Despite the ASU Book Group’s shining reviews, members like Burtnett and Skiba lament that not enough people seem to know about it.

“The authors are always so interesting, and I’m sorry and surprised that more people don’t come because I’ve always had a good time,” said Burtnett.

Not much of a reader? No problem, Smith said.

”I encourage people to come to the meetings even if they haven't read the book. It's a great learning experience, and just plain fun to hear the authors talk about what motivated them to write the book, and how it all took place,” she said.

The ASU Book Group is sponsored by the Department of English. It is free and open to all members of the ASU community.

“It’s free and at your feet; all it takes is a walk through the campus and you’re there,” Skiba said. “Make friends, learn something, discover new subjects, enhance your imagination … the list can go on.”

The schedule for the ASU Book Group’s fifth year:

Sept. 30 – “Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion,” by Alan Simon, a faculty member in the Information Systems Department of the W. P. Carey School of Business and an ASU graduate.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, more than 50,000 Civil War veterans ranging in age from 61 to more than 100 converged on the scene of the battle exactly half a century earlier in the real-life occasion of healing that was known as the Great Reunion. Simon’s novel tells the story of the Great Reunion through a cast of characters from both sides of the war as well as those charged with the success of the occasion.

The book is available as an e-book on

Oct. 28 – “Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies,” by Tara Ison, an associate professor of English at ASU.

“Reeling Through Life” looks at how film shapes identity. Through 10 cleverly constructed essays, Ison explores how a lifetime of movie watching has, for better or worse, taught her how to navigate the world and how to grapple with issues of career, family, faith, illness, sex and love.

The book is available at bookstores.

Dec. 2 – “My Son Dave (The Duck): A Story About Loving and Letting Go,” by Plynn Gutman, an ASU graduate.

Gutman discovers a baby duck alone on a neighborhood street at a serendipitous moment in her life. Sensing her own sons growing away from her, the emptying hole in her heart fills when Dave (the Duck) imprints on her as his mother. With sensitivity and wit, Gutman shares her account of the challenges and joys of adopting Dave and raising him with the same love and care she gave her own sons.

The book is available as an e-book on, and a print edition is in the works.

Jan. 27 – “The Best of a Better View,” by Chris Benghue, an ASU graduate who has written for People Magazine and the National Enquirer, among other publications. He is a columnist for The Catholic Sun.

“The Best of a Better View” is an inspiring pick-me-up that helps the reader put the news, as well as their own personal experiences, into meaningful and hopeful perspectives.

The book is available through the publisher, Amor Deus Publishing, or on

Feb. 24 – “Pachacuti: World Overturned,” by Lori Eshleman, an instructor in ASU’s College of Letters and Sciences at the Polytechnic campus.

Eshleman has always been drawn to those spaces in time where cultural and religious traditions encountered each other, from the European Middle Ages to colonial Latin America to the American West. Her new book of historical fiction explores the overlap of issues of race, gender, politics and religion through characters whose lives become entwined during an uprising in the Andean kingdom of Quito in the 1700s.

The book is available through ACMRS Publications.

March 30 – “Classic Tales from the Firehouse,” by Rebecca Joy and Betty Hammer Joy. Rebecca Joy is an ASU graduate and was among the first group of women hired by the Phoenix Fire Department.

“Classic Tales From the Firehouse” focuses on the sometimes poignant, often lighthearted, but always human side of the fire service career and the heroes and heroines who choose it. The book captures the diversity of situations that firefighters encounter on the streets and in day-to-day life with their crews. Entertaining, historical and even educational, these stories reflect the forward progress of fire service over the decades.

The book is available through the website Classic Tales From The Firehouse.

Emma Greguska

Reporter, ASU News

(480) 965-9657

Chimp field research unglamorous but worth it for grad student

September 8, 2015

It sounds lovely: spending the summer on the golden slopes high above Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, watching chimpanzee groups go about their daily lives, working at the world-famous Jane Goodall Institute.

But the reality for one graduate student this past summer was quite different. ASU graduate student Joel Bray observes chimpanzees in Tanzania. Joel Bray, a graduate student in evolutionary anthropology at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, spent the summer observing chimpanzees in Tanzania. It was hard work and often boring — but also at moments amazing, he said. Photo courtesy Joel Bray Download Full Image

Up at 5 a.m., breakfast a boiled egg (if he was lucky), a long hike up steep hills, and then long days noting observations and being bored.

There was also a cobra living in the toilet.

For Joel Bray, research is not a walk in the park

“Whenever I, or others in my position, talk about our work to the public, it sounds really exciting,” Bray, a graduate student in evolutionary anthropology at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, wrote on his blog, Primate Dream. “Or when I post photos, it looks incredible. But it’s actually pretty awful. Most of the time we are either sweating out or beyond bored. … Ultimately, though, there is very little that is appealing about what I do, except for the briefest moments when I think to myself, ‘My God, a chimpanzee is literally walking beside me.’ ”

Being patient is an acquired skill, Bray said. When the chimps sit, you sit.

“I think all primatologists have it to some degree, or else we’d never come back to the field a second time, but I’m not sure that I have fully developed it even after several field seasons,” he said. “I am easily bored, and sometimes I have to give everything I have to maintain my sanity while waiting for a chimp to do something. Anything.”

When the chimps move, you move.

“It’s amazing how fast they can traverse thick vegetation,” Bray said, adding that he does not share that skill, especially when they’re cruising up and down steep ravines at top speeds. During those times, he relied on his Tanzanian research assistants, who were very adept at following the chimps. However, “at the end of the day, if they don’t want us around, they can easily do it,” he said.

It was Bray’s first time at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Gombe Stream Research Center. It was his fourth research trip to Africa to study primates, following two trips to Uganda to study chimpanzees and a trip to Madagascar to study lemurs. “I consider myself fortunate,” he said.

On his blog, Bray broadly describes his academic interests as revolving around “what ways primates and humans are both similar to and different from other species, and how we came to be this way.”

“If we want to answer questions about our human origins and evolution, we have to study our nearest living relatives,” he said.

Ian Gilby, assistant professor and faculty member of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is his faculty adviser.

“One of the goals of the research group here is to understand what’s different about humans,” said Gilby, who is also a research affiliate of the Institute of Human Origins at ASU.

Bray’s immediate task in Tanzania was to test and implement laser photogrammetry, a method of collecting data on body size using digital photography and lasers. Collecting body-size data on large animals is difficult, for many reasons. This was the first time laser photogrammetry had been used at Gombe, he said.

“Body size is key to lots of things,” Gilby said, noting that the chimpanzees at Gombe are much smaller than the chimps Bray studied in Uganda. Gilby did his PhD at Gombe, finishing in 2004.

“There are guys who are constantly beating up other chimps,” Gilby said. “If you’re a little guy, you might choose a different strategy. If you’re a big guy, beating up everyone all the time might work just fine for you.”

The Gombe chimps have been studied for 55 years now, since Jane Goodall and her mother stepped off a boat onto a beach in 1960. A handful of chimps at Gombe have been followed from birth to death. A 55-year-old female named Sparrow is still there. Bray saw her twice last summer.

“We’re just beginning to get full lifetime follows of chimpanzees,” Bray said. “To follow a single individual takes a long time. … We’re only just beginning to answer those questions.”

The ideal subject for a day of observation is a big group, Bray said, viewed from 26 to 32 feet away.

“Ideally you follow them randomly,” he said. “You don’t want to follow the first ones you see, because they might just be a family that lives near camp.”

Chimps will pass researchers on a trail without a glance. They rarely interact with observers. “If they do, you turn around or walk away,” Bray said.

Baby chimps spend a lot of time looking at researchers. They lose interest over time. “Adults that are fully habituated rarely look at you,” Bray said. “It depends on their comfort level.”

“Different chimp communities behave in different ways,” he said, comparing his Uganda experience to his Tanzania experience. “Having that perspective is really cool. … Having experience at two different sites helps me understand why they’re different.”

He wants to go back, probably for a full year, once he has decided what his dissertation will be.

Another link between ASU and Gombe is Gilby, co-director of the Goodall institute’s long-term database, which is here at ASU. Currently he works with new data generated every day at Gombe.

“It’s a pretty big deal having all the data (from Gombe) here,” Gilby said. “It’s a great opportunity for ASU.”

Field notes from a young primatologist: Excerpts from Primate Dream, Joel Bray’s blog

“We track, follow and observe, hoping to learn the secret to being a successful chimpanzee. In general, the recipe is pretty standard, not much different from any other primate. Find food, defend access to mates, groom others, make friends, raise kids, rinse and repeat. Add a dash of chimpanzee-specific socioecology, and there you have it. Of course the details are ever more complicated and fascinating — and in most cases, yet unknown. Depending on your perspective, that’s either a very wonderful or very unfortunate thing.” — from "Reflections from Paradise," Aug. 1, 2015.

“Did the reality of Gombe meet my expectations? Woody Allen said, ‘The talent for being happy is appreciating and liking what you have, instead of what you don’t have.’ With that in mind, despite the summer’s backdrop of frustrations regarding the lack of food in the forest, and therefore the lack of consistent grouping, I’ve had a lovely and relaxing time alongside some of the most wonderful animals in existence.” — from "Reflections from Paradise," Aug. 1, 2015.

“I find myself reaching a place of serenity in the forest. The sounds of crickets, the chirping of birds, the barks of baboons, even the hissing of the termites. As the forest hums with activity, with the lake stretching out beneath the rolling hills in front of me, I sit back and embrace the solitude. What we lose by letting go we get back in a different currency.” — from "Forest Observations," June 23, 2015.

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU News