Weekend Shorts: Science! on Audio

Ahhhh, science (science!). I love it. It is inescapable. It is fascinating. But, especially after reading the second book I’m going to talk about today, I am so glad I’m not a professional scientist. Armchair science is so much more fun! Let’s find out why…

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
GruntMary Roach is my favorite pop-science writer, so I had to pick up this book even though I have very little inherent interest in military anything. Luckily, this is why Roach is my favorite pop-science writer — she assumes that you have no interest in her topic and finds ways to make you interested.

In this book Roach covers a zillion different science-y military things, some of which you will find absolutely fascinating (the fact that IEDs blow off more than legs, and the science behind the penis transplants that are becoming more routine for men hit by said IEDs), and some of which are just regular interesting (the fact that an actual fashion designer is employed by the military to design uniforms). To me, the best bits are what I consider quintessential Mary Roach — sex, poop, and farts. They’re everywhere!

This was not my favorite of Roach’s books, but I’m definitely glad I listened to it and am looking forward to seeing what topic she tackles next.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
Lab GirlThis was a book club pick in the category: “Books I pick for book club so that I will actually get around to reading them.” I had heard good things, including from book clubbers, and we hadn’t read a not-fiction book in a while, so, sold!

Lab Girl is Hope Jahren’s memoir of both her personal life and her science life, and often both at the same time. I’ll admit here that I preferred the science and lab stories to the personal stories, but of course you really need both to understand either.

Jahren is currently a pretty awesome, award-winning earth scientist, but this memoir is about the times when she was a pretty awesome but largely unrecognized and unfunded earth scientist. She had to build labs from scratch and with begged and borrowed equipment, she had to subsist on almost nothing and pay her research assistants even less, and she had to somehow do enough awesome science to keep getting just enough funding to keep going. This is the part of academic science that is just awful.

But in the midst of all that horribleness, Jahren managed to have a life and a lab and some very exciting adventures, from the good and weird excitement of an impromptu 8-hour-one-way-side trip with students from a lab site in Georgia to a monkey habitat in Miami to the terrifying excitement of a completely avoidable car accident in the mountains of Colorado while on a penny-pinching trip to a conference. Jahren has a knack for telling these stories in a way that makes you wish you had been there and very glad you weren’t.

The unexpected star of this memoir is her perpetual lab assistant and obvious BFF(aeae) Bill, who is that weird science guy that does science for the sake of it and for barely any monetary compensation, and who is willing to live in a car that doesn’t reverse and can’t be turned off at gas stations or in a closet in the college lab building and drives 50 miles per hour and has long hippie hair until he suddenly doesn’t and who is willing to put up with all of Jahren’s crap for unknown reasons. My book clubbers were very disappointed when they got to the part of the book where Jahren meets her husband and said husband is not Bill, but I’m pretty sure the three of them are all fine with how things turned out.

I’ve been on a celebrity-funny-lady-only memoir kick of late, and this was a good reminder that other people have interesting and often amusing lives as well.

What are you guys reading this week?

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of MagicI’ve seen this book kicking around the bookternet a ton over the past year, but, like I’m Judging You before it, it took a Nerdette podcast to make me actually read it. Thanks, Nerdette, for bringing me more delightful things!

I will say that before I started this book, I had the sense that it was going to be a Different Fantasy Novel, with defied genre stereotypes littered in its wake, but it is not that. It’s not not that, but a lot of the book is very bog-standard fantasy novel, with good guys versus bad guys and magic with consequences and the slightly newer trope of damsel not-so-very-much-in-distress-thank-you.

What is excellent, as I say about all new fantasy books that I love, is the world that Schwab has built. It’s a universe with four separate dimensions all squished up against each other, each containing the city of London and a certain pub inside the city, but with very little else the same. There’s “our” world, with Grey London, which has no magic; then Red London, which is full of happy magic; White London, with scary creepy magic; and finally Black London, which has been overrun by dark magic and thus cut off from from the other Londons.

Our main protagonist, Kell, is one of two sort of magic beings who can move between the Londons (except for Black, of course). He ostensibly takes only messages between the rulers of the different nations of which London is the capital, but he also dabbles in smuggling artifacts to the few knowledgeable collectors in each London, and also maybe saving some cool things for himself. This hobby, as you might guess, gets him in huge trouble when he inadvertently smuggles a piece of Black London back to his own Red London, and more trouble still when he tries to prevent its misuse.

Our second, not-a-damsel protagonist is Lila, a resident of Grey London whose most fervent wish is to become captain of a pirate ship, as you do. In the meantime, she’s a pickpocket of some renown, which gets her into trouble when she picks the pocket of a certain smuggler carrying a certain very dangerous item.

You can probably more or less figure out the plot from there — good guys, bad guys, etc. But getting to the end is the fun part, with interesting characters popping in and out (and out forever, as Schwab seems to have taken a page out of George R.R. Martin’s playbook) and sufficient intrigue and subterfuge to keep me flipping pages. The writing is fantastic, as well, announcing its tone from the very first sentence: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.” This seems like a pretty innocuous sentence all on its own, but I could go on for far too long about all the awesome tucked in tight in there.

My biggest gripe with the book was its big boss fight (spoiler?); based on the number of pages I had left as I got toward the end I was one hundred percent certain I’d be facing a cliffhanger ending, but instead Schwab tears through the fight almost as quickly and terribly as Stephenie Meyer once did, sacrificing the story for the sake of finishing it in however many pages she was allotted. I don’t say this much, but I would have preferred a cliffhanger.

Still, the rest of the book was so fun and delightful that I’ve already acquired the second one and am already enjoying it, so don’t take that complaint too seriously. I’m hoping my only gripe after the second book will be that the third one hasn’t come out yet!

Recommendation: For fans of fun, fast-paced fantasy and fascinating… magic. Shoot, what’s an f-word for magic?

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

ArcadiaI read this book a couple months ago for book club, but due to scheduling issues I didn’t get a chance to talk about it with them until just a couple weeks ago. I had hoped that our meeting would give me a better understanding of the book or at least an upgrade in emotions from “…meh.”, but sadly, we were all more or less the same amount of baffled by this book.

It seemed promising-ish in the beginning. The book is divided into four parts, and the first two take place in Arcadia, a hippie commune where our protagonist, Bit, lives with his parents. Bit was born in the commune and so sees it as a totally normal existence, but as outsiders we can see that some of what he sees has a very different meaning than he thinks it does. Life on the commune is tough but bearable, and we come to learn why various people have decided to live there and why some decide to leave. It’s an interesting viewpoint to think about, certainly, though the writing to get there makes very slow reading.

Then we move on to the third part, which skips from Bit’s adolescence on the commune at the end of the second part to his adulthood and the disappearance of his wife and how he’s surviving as a single parent and photography professor. It is… just about as boring as it sounds. My book club was in agreement that we would much rather have had the part that Groff skipped over, where Bit is introduced to non-commune life, even if that’s a more obvious way to go, because it at least would have been amusing in some way.

The last part, which takes place in the near future and sees Bit’s parents in their old age, is also a jarring jump in the narrative, and serves only, as far as I can tell, to tell people that ALS is a horrible terrible disease that no one should ever have to live with. Was there more to this part than that? Maybe, but I can’t remember over the awfulness that is ALS and the cuddles that I am requiring of my cats just thinking about this right now. Ugh.

Ugh.

So… yeah. This was a book, it had words, ALS is bad, communes are not utopias, sometimes bad things happen to Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But even though I was not enamored of the plot, I did feel a certain fondness for something in Groff’s writing which makes me interested in checking out her other books, which everyone I’ve talked to about this has assured me are much better.

Recommendation: Yeah, just skip this one totally.

Weekend Shorts: Welcome to Persepolis

I’ve got two rather different offerings for you today. One is a graphic (as in pictures) memoir of Iran after the Islamic Revolution, the other is the first volume of scripts for the Lovecraftian podcast Welcome to Night Vale. You know, I said rather different, but there are probably more similarities between these two things than anyone wants to admit…

Anyway, let’s see what these are about!

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
The Complete PersepolisThis was yet another of those book club picks that make me read a book I should have read a long time ago. I hadn’t read it because a long time ago, I was totally not into comics things (I know, right?) and had no interest in some picture book even if it was important or whatever. Oh, me. And unfortunately, oh, several of my book clubbers, as the low attendance at this meeting will attest.

But those who did come loved it, and I liked it quite a lot as well. It is a little difficult to get into, even aside from the pictures aspect, as the book is written as a series of vignettes of Satrapi’s life in Iran and Europe that don’t always flow smoothly one to the next. The breaks can be a little jarring and at least once I found myself wondering if I had managed to skip a bunch of pages because I had clearly missed something.

But the vignettes themselves are super interesting. Satrapi starts at the end of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew one terrible government for a differently terrible government, as seems to happen in these sorts of revolutions. She talks about the abrupt change from co-ed secular schooling to sex-segregated Islamic schools, the new requirement to wear the hijab and other clothing restrictions, her own anti-authoritarian streak that got her in all sorts of trouble, her family’s involvement in the revolution and post-revolution politics, the bombings from Iraq, her time in an Austrian high school, her return to Iran, her marriage, and more. But the clear through-line is Satrapi’s difficulty in reconciling all of these parts of her life which have defined her in so many different ways that it’s hard to say who the “real” Marjane Satrapi might be.

Satrapi’s art style is kind of rudimentary, with imperfect lines and a pure black and white palette, but somehow she manages to capture the individuality of each of her characters and even of herself growing up and changing from a girl to a young woman to an adult. I was really impressed with this book all around and would definitely recommend it to you and your book club.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Mostly Void, Partially StarsYou guys already know my obsession with Welcome to Night Vale, but now you know that the obsession extends to reading written versions of episodes I have already listened to, which sounds weird even to me and I’m the one doing it!

And yes, it did take me rather longer to get through the book than I thought it would, partially because Night Vale is kind of a small doses thing and partly because, I mean, I already know what’s going to happen, here. BUT, it was absolutely worth it to pick up on little references and continuity things I missed the first time and for the short intros to each episode written by various Night Vale-adjacent people. I love a behind-the-scenes anything and this one is excellent.

If you’ve never listened to Welcome to Night Vale but want to, definitely listen first. If you’ve been interested in Night Vale but are not into the podcast thing, this is what you’ve been waiting for! If you love Night Vale, I’m sure the Sheriff’s Secret Police have already delivered you a copy.

Dept. H #1, by Matt Kindt
Dept. H #1Sneak attack bonus! I left this comic off my post-hurricane comics roundup a few weeks back, for reasons I cannot currently remember, so you get to hear about it now!

I pre-ordered this comic when I heard it existed because a) Matt Kindt, and b) the cover tagline that says “murder six miles deep.” Murder! In an underwater headquarters! Take my money!

This is just the first issue, so it has to cover some boring backstory bits, but it gets quickly enough into the going underwater business and the big murdery reveal. I’m super into the protagonist, who is a space person (not, like, an alien — I just don’t know what she does for the space program!) sent underwater to solve this murder for mostly bureaucratic reasons but also personal ones, and, as I knew I would be when I ordered it, I am loving the artwork, which is very similar to MIND MGMT and has a colored-pencil-and-watercolors quality to it that I like a lot. This series somehow didn’t make it to my comics pull list proper, but I’ll definitely be picking up the trade when it comes out in a couple months.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

CrosstalkI have been searching for a couple of years for a cute, quirky romance story as good as Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, with varying results. I have also been meaning to read more Connie Willis since I read To Say Nothing of the Dog even longer ago. So when I saw that Connie Willis wrote a cute, quirky romance story involving technology and telepathy? SOLD.

The slightly convoluted premise of this story is that in a world full of smartphones and social media, new technology has been created that allows, with a bit of surgery, couples who are emotionally bonded metaphorically to become literally emotionally bonded, with the technology allowing each person to feel the other’s emotions. This is… great?, in that it means you’ll always know if your partner loves you and how they’re feeling whether they want to tell you or not, but of course it’s awful for ALL SORTS of reasons. Our protagonist, Briddey, who does some sort of important job for a smartphone-related company, is asked by her boyfriend, Trent, who does some slightly more important job for the same company, to undergo this procedure, and she’s like, sure. But after she wakes up from the anesthesia, she discovers she’s not emotionally connected to Trent but rather telepathically connected to her sub-basement-dwelling coworker, C.B., who can hear all of her thoughts and who has a decidedly told-you-so attitude about this surgery.

Got that? Good, because things only get crazier from there.

I loved so much of this novel largely because Connie Willis speaks my humor language, writing sentences like, “And when she looked through the door’s glass-and-wire mesh window into the lab, C.B. was wearing a pea coat, a wool muffler, and fingerless gloves. And cargo shorts and flip-flops.” And “I’ve got just the thing. An app that translates what you say into what people want to hear. I text you, ‘You’re an idiot to be having brain surgery for any reason, let alone for some infantile notion that it’ll bring you true love,’ and the phone sends it as ‘Wow! Trent asked you to get an EED! How romantic!'”

And Willis does this amazing thing with her sentences that makes them feel rushed, like you have to read them as fast as you can before Briddey’s crazy Irish family shows up on your doorstep to tell you all about their every crisis, real or imagined. It’s a really neat trick and a clever commentary on the age of social media and all the information we’re asked to take in, but it’s also great because this book flies by.

Well, the first half or so does, anyway. Once we get out of the “Holy Mae Jemison what is even going on why am I telepathic what is Trent going to think oh god I can hear all the voices” bit and into the “Hey, this is how telepathy works and how you can make it work for you” bit the going is sooooo sloooooooow. Yes, it’s interesting that you thought this through, Connie Willis, but if we could get back to the flirting and the cuteness THAT WOULD BE GREAT.

The flirting and cuteness bits are also only pretty good, and the pacing of the romance storyline is like that of most such storylines, which is to say completely unrealistic, which makes this not the match for Attachments that I was hoping for.

I think if maybe Willis had given herself 300 pages to work with instead of 500, I would have liked this better — less explanation, more telepathy and cuteness. But, to be fair, I would not cut a single word of crazy Irish family banter because that is the best.

If you’re more forgiving of a romance storyline than I am, or if you have an author-crush on Connie Willis, I think you’ll enjoy this book just fine.

RIP Tuesday Update: The End of the Line, This Year!

Holy cats, guys, RIP is over! This day always comes too soon every year, although really I get my RIP on year-round because creepy books are always awesome, so. The point is, I handed out a crap ton of candy last night and now October’s over! What do November and December have going for them, except, like, holidays and ALL THE FOOD and actually reasonable temperatures in Florida?

Oh, right.

Anyway, let’s look back over the spooky awesome I’ve consumed since my last update post!

RIP XI artwork

Reviews
I’ve finally reviewed The Family Plot, which has a great premise with a haunted house temporarily inhabited by pickers, which, yes, but which falls down a bit on the ending. I’d still totally recommend this, but maybe just skip the last several pages?

And, though it’s not really an RIP book, I want to give a shoutout to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it’s delightful and has a mysterious cult at its center, so it kind of counts? I just really liked it, is all, and it bears repeating!

Reads
I finally finished Mostly Void, Partially Stars, the first collection of episodes from my beloved podcast Welcome to Night Vale. It turns out that Night Vale and I need to be in a small-doses relationship, but that worked out okay because it meant I could read a few of these episode scripts here and there throughout most of RIP, while listening to current episodes, which, interesting. More on this, after traffic.

I am also reading A Darker Shade of Magic, which I picked to be my very last book read specifically for RIP and at halfway through, I think it was a pretty good pick!

Watches
I would swear I mentioned here that Agents of SHIELD is back, but apparently I didn’t, so, hey, it’s back! It’s… not great, unfortunately, I think because they’re trying to do this lead-in thing to Doctor Strange that I know and really care nothing about. At this point, I just really miss first-season SHIELD and its relatively movie-free existence.

Also back and also apparently forgotten on this blog is Elementary, which is definitely better than SHIELD right now, though it is also not as great as its own first season. Come on, television, get it together! There is some good stuff going on this season, though, with just enough simmering background mystery behind the murders of the week and Sherlock’s self-indulgent crime-solving. I like it!

Listens
Well, Welcome to Night Vale, of course, as always, but mostly I’ve been listening to decidedly non-RIP books in the form of memoirs and nonfiction, so I have clearly been failing in my RIP duties here. I’ll do better next year?

Plays
Another play of Betrayal at House on the Hill this week, as the featured game at my library game night. I had to miss the very end of the game, but I enjoyed my time exploring the house and attempting to solve riddles in the haunt (which was, I think, much better written than the last one we played!). Also great was introducing three new people to the game, which is always fun. “Wait, so, we just explore the house and roll a bunch of dice for an hour and then the game starts?” Well, yes. Yes you do.

It has been a fabulous couple of months for imbibing peril and I look forward to doing it all again next year! Or next week! Or tomorrow! What have you guys enjoyed lately that I need to put on my list?

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Lady Memoirs

Today we’re talking Awesome Lady Memoirs, which conveniently seem to be released all at once every couple of years for perfect binge listening. I wasn’t super familiar with either author’s work, written or spoken or filmed, before reading, which I think is often the best way to go about these things, but if you’re a fan I’m sure you’ve already listened to these anyway! If not, let me tell you why you totally should.

I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, by Luvvie Ajayi
I'm Judging YouThis book was sort of on my radar from various book sites, but when the author was interviewed on my new podcast love, Nerdette, I was like, okay, fine, I’ll read this. Well, listen to it, because memoirs narrated by their authors are my FAVORITE THING.

I’m Judging You starts out with a couple of chapters of delightful rants about all sorts of things, from mispronouncing names to Nigerian lateness to a very strange, extended bit about people who don’t know how to appropriately split the bill at restaurants, which is odd because she never points out that separate checks are totally a thing. Are they not totally a thing where she lives? Why would anyone go anywhere you can’t split a check? Man, I could rant about that for a whole chapter, probably.

But just when I thought I was going to listen to six hours of hilarious and overblown ranting about life’s trivialities, Ajayi brings in the big guns and devotes several chapters to racism and sexism and the combination thereof in which she pulls no punches. As a white woman, I felt alternately vindicated and accused, but the latter in the good way that encourages me to become a better person. I’m hoping there are dudes out there listening who feel the same way on the sexism front.

Even with the srs bsns, this was a pretty light listen, and with short bits, it was perfect for my walking commute to work and quick drives here and there. I will definitely be seeking out more from Ajayi in the future!

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer
The Girl with the Lower Back TattooSchumer I was a little more familiar with, having seen her standup show with a friend when it came to town. I had… not a great time at the show, being not quite Schumer’s target audience as a chick who got married relatively young and who has stayed married ever since. Relationship woes? Wild college parties? Wild adult parties? I don’t have the right experience for those jokes.

But still, I could tell that Schumer was an interesting person and a fantastic storyteller, so I added her book to my list. And then, on a mindless day at work, I listened to nearly the entire thing while weeding and shelving and generally getting the library in order.

And man, it was perfect. Schumer checks off the usual memoir business of relaying crazy stories from childhood, from her family’s loss of riches to working with special-needs adults at a summer camp to committing grand theft with her younger sister and totally getting caught. But she also gets into the backstory of her life as a standup comedian, talking about how she stumbled into telling jokes for a living and how her terrible jokes became decent jokes and then pretty darn good jokes and what being a halfway famous person means in life. She also tells some stories that I recognized from her show but that were far more interesting when Schumer had more than ten seconds to really tell them.

Like Ajayi, Schumer also strays a bit from the funny to get serious about her father’s MS and the shooting that took place at one of her shows and to talk sexism and gun control, and with the same fervor. It’s sneaky, putting a lesson in a funny book, but I can see how well it works so I can’t argue.

Since these were both so excellent, I’m looking for more Awesome Ladies to read books to me about themselves. Any suggestions? (Besides Mara Wilson; I’ve got her book on hold already!)