Weekend Shorts: Science Ladies on Audio

I’ve been meaning to throw this post together for ages, but it turns out that I am super embarrassed by my complete inability to separate two of these books in my brain and thus have had an almost complete inability to tell y’all about them. But the time has finally come to admit to my failures, mention to you some really awesome books, and promise myself not to make silly mistakes in the future.

What books have I got permanently confused?

Rise of the Rocket Girls, by Nathalia Holt
and
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rise of the Rocket GirlsHidden FiguresYou see, what had happened was, I really wanted to listen to Hidden Figures, but it had a miles-long holds list. Then I remembered that there also existed Rise of the Rocket Girls, with a slightly shorter holds list, so I waited patiently for that. And then, immediately after finishing it, Hidden Figures came in. And so I listened to two books about a large cast of women working as computers for various parts of the space program back to back. This was fine, as far as listening to things goes, but terrible if you want to tell other people what you think.

Aside from my own mistakes, part of it is also that these books do have large casts of characters, and so even while listening to each of them I found myself being like, wait, who is this? Do I know her? Is she new? Ah, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.

Both books are interesting looks into history at long-ignored people who did important things, both look at these women’s lives both at work and at home, and both talk of how white dudes totally didn’t want these jobs until they totally did and how that affected the work. If I could go back and listen to just one, I’d pick Hidden Figures as it is a little more tightly written and easier to follow, but they’re both quite good.

And now, books I’m not confusing for other books:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksI have no idea why this book took me so long to get around to. If you’ve also been putting it off, you should definitely check it out.

There are two stories packed into this book: one about the cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks that became both immortal and hugely important to science, and one about Henrietta Lacks’s family and how they live in the shadow of these cells but reap essentially no benefit from them. For most of the book, I think Skloot does a good job of combining these two stories to give a broader picture of the health care industry, medical ethics, science as a calling vs. science as a money-making industry, and of course race and class and the huge disparity in healthcare based on those things.

Toward the end I felt like the family story went a little off the rails and I found myself checking my audiobook timer to see how much was left a little too often, but the vast majority of the book was solid, and solidly awesome. Very much recommend.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper
Word by WordThis doesn’t exactly fit the science (SCIENCE!) theme I’m going for, being a book about dictionaries, but this is my blog and I say it’s close enough!

Stamper is a lexicographer (which certainly sounds science-y) for Merriam-Webster and in this book she takes the reader through the process of writing a dictionary, which is SO HARD, guys. She writes about defining words like “that”, choosing which words go into which versions of the dictionary, dealing with people who are upset about certain words and definitions, dealing with the fact that words won’t stop changing, and about the intricate nuances of the dictionary’s style guide, among other scintillating (yeah, kind of, actually) topics.

I loved the heck out of this book, and I even got my husband to tear his focus away from the internet while I listened to it on a road trip, so even if you’re not the nerdiest word nerd that ever loved words I think you’ll find some good stuff in this book.

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

Weekend Shorts: Further Adventures of Awesome Ladies on Audio

I’m chipping away at my backlog some more today, and continuing the theme of much of my audio listening of late — awesome lady memoirs. Need to feel like you haven’t done anything with your life? I’ve got you covered.

Forward, by Abby Wambach
ForwardI’m not a huge sports fan, but I’ll watch a game here or there if my team’s doing well, and of course the US Women’s National Team is almost always doing well. I like these ladies, like, a lot. So when an Abby Wambach memoir popped up in the midst of my audio memoir obsession, who was I to say no?

This is very different from the other memoirs I’ve been reading — those are all written by writers or funny people or funny writer people, and, unsurprisingly, Wambach’s voice is very different. This book is fairly straightforward with the whole, I grew up here, I did this, I went there, I thought this, etc., and Wambach as narrator is equally straightforward in her reading, except at some pretty emotional points.

As a person who only dips into sports occasionally, I’ve never really bothered to learn about any particular player, so all of the stories in this book about Wambach’s professional life — her captainship, her moderate to crippling alcoholism, her relationships with her teammates, her possibly literally insane work ethic — I don’t know if these are well-known stories or not, but they were all new and moderately interesting to me. Mostly depressing, actually, but I’m learning that that comes with the memoir territory.

I wasn’t especially captivated by this memoir, but I’m definitely glad I spent the time with Wambach’s voice and life. Political trigger warning: this book was written and published before Election Day 2016, and there are some bits near the end about Wambach’s involvement with the Clinton campaign, so. You know. Dramatic irony abounds.

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, by Mara Wilson
Where Am I Now?If I wasn’t captivated by Wambach’s memoir, holy cow was I captivated by Wilson’s. I was SO excited about this book, since, like all precocious girls of a certain age, I have always felt a kinship with a little girl called Matilda. I know in my brain that Wilson has played other characters in things, but in my heart and, according to this memoir, the hearts of MANY others, she will always be Matilda.

Or would have been, except that Wilson is a fabulous writer with interesting stories to tell and, you know, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in My House, so she’s got a lot going for her these days.

Stories about Wilson’s life as a child actor take up most of this book, and the stories about getting awesome jobs and working with amazing people and the short tribute to Robin Williams are delightful. But her stories about growing up, scrounging for the jobs that remain to former child actors, and dealing with obsessive-compulsive behavior and related mental disorders are the stuff that no-longer-a-precocious-child me found the most interesting. I don’t want to spoil the story too much, but I will say that the anecdote from this book that has stuck with me the most is about the book that Wilson finds and reads as a teenager that helps her come to terms with her obsessive behaviors. The world works in very strange ways, it seems.

Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick
Scrappy Little NobodyI picked this book up in the midst of my lady-memoir frenzy for very little reason other than 1) lady memoir and 2) Pitch Perfect <3. Unfortunately, it left a similarly vague impression on my brain, to the point where I'm trying to remember some anecdotes and then I'm thinking, no, that one was Mara Wilson. Shoot.

It doesn't help that this book is very similar to Wilson's, tracing the path of a child actor to adulthood. I had no idea that Kendrick existed before Pitch Perfect, so it was kind of interesting to find out that she was a reasonably big deal in theatre and also was in Twilight. Huh.

Although I can no longer relate any scintillating specifics from the book, I do have an overall good impression of the memoir and of Kendrick’s writing, and if you’re a fan of hers you’ll definitely want to read it. But now I’m mostly craving yet another re-watch of Pitch Perfect. Which, really, is not a terrible way to spend a couple of hours, so I’ll recommend that, too!

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?

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!)

Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping GiantsAfter our previous dispiriting road trip audiobook, Scott and I were in the mood for something a little more engaging. Sleeping Giants came highly recommended by my bookish bestie and so I was thrilled when it came in on Overdrive just before our trip back to Florida. And I’ll tell you this: it is a GREAT road trip listen.

It’s a great audiobook primarily because of the style — like World War Z before it, it’s written as an oral history and narrated by a full cast, bringing some much-appreciated variety to the audio. Here I have to admit that I didn’t terribly much like the main, unnamed narrator and his awkward speech style, but in service of the story I was willing to put up with it.

And what a story it is. It starts with a girl who falls into a hole and lands on a giant hand, as one does, and then that girl grows up and studies physics and ends up, coincidentally (or is it?), on a team studying said giant hand. Soon enough, another giant body part shows up and the military gets involved, and then the unnamed narrator and his shadowy organization get involved and it becomes a whole big thing, looking for giant body parts and figuring out how they fit together.

That’s the big story; the small story is the team that’s working on this body part rescue mission and how they interact with each other. There’s some predictable and predictably sexist love triangle crap, but there’s also a lot of legitimately interesting interactions between the team members.

But let’s be real, the big story is more interesting. Giant body parts! Shadowy organizations! Aliens?! Mutually assured destruction! It is completely crazypants bonkers and delightful. And then, spoilers, there’s a fascinating cliffhanger ending that had better mean there’s another book coming.

Other reviews I’ve seen of this book compare it to World War Z, obviously, and then also The Martian, which I see a little less. I would place this more with The Three Body Problem for its big ideas and its ridiculous science.

It’s not a really good book, but it is really good brain candy and a great way to pass eight and a half hours in a car. If you’re in the market for action, adventure, and excitement, this ought to do the trick.