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.

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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: Picture Books

It’s been a little while since my last Weekend Shorts post, which is weird because I have a lot of things to tell you about briefly! Let’s start the catchup process with the shortest of shorts — picture books!

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, by Julia Sarcone-Roach
The Bear Ate Your SandwichBack in October my library participated in the Read for the Record event, in which libraries around the world read the same book on the same day and count up all the people who read or listened to it. Pretty cool, right? I ended up being the person to do my branch’s mini-storytime, which was nerve-wracking, but it turned out all right!

The book itself is super cute, with gorgeous artwork that shows us the story of a bear who leaves the wilderness, finds itself in a nearby city, happens upon your lunch, eats your sandwich, and then hitches a ride back to the forest before you even notice your sandwich is missing! Then, in a stunning plot twist (spoilers!), it turns out this story is being told to you by your little dog, who looks suspiciously like it might have just eaten a delicious sandwich. Dun dun! The little kids I read this to thought it was hilarious, so that works for me.

Edward Gets Messy, by Rita Meade and Olga Stern
Edward Gets MessyThis one I didn’t read to anyone but myself, in the workroom, while I was checking in the day’s new books. I don’t generally read the new picture books, but this one was written by a Book Riot contributor so I’d been hearing about it via my BR podcasts, including one that had an interview with her about the process of writing it.

Because of the podcast, I was looking at the book a little differently than I might a random picture book, trying to figure out which parts were original and which edited, looking at the pictures and thinking about how the author and the illustrator never spoke and wondering what that illustrating process was like.

But! The book was suitably adorable to keep me from thinking too hard about that stuff. This one is about Edward, a little pig who does not like getting messy. He avoids anything that might even remotely cause a speck on his cleanliness, and so of course he misses out on all the things. But then he accidentally gets a little messy and realizes that sometimes messy is a good thing!

My first thought after reading this was, I bet there’s a kid out there making a giant mess in their house because of this book. “Edward says it’s okay to get messy!” Probably you should only read this to your weirdly spotless toddler?

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, by Matthew Inman
The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long DistancesThis one might be for adults, but it’s definitely a picture book! I picked this book up ages ago, back when I was still a running person (stupid injuries), largely because it’s by Matthew Inman.  If you’ve ever read his comics at The Oatmeal, you’ll know both the art and humor styles.

You find out pretty quickly that the main titular reason is that Inman doesn’t want to be a fat kid anymore, which seems a little self defeating, but then again, I’ve read The Oatmeal.  But then he goes on to say that you can’t become a runner for vanity reasons, because you’ll get giant legs, so.  Hmmm.

Inman talks about a lot of the fun and horror of running, from the obsession to keep doing it, the mental clarity you get while running, how to run your first marathon, what to eat as a runner, and how to get into the sport the “right” way.  It’s a little all over the place, but it’s got enough truth nuggets to be appreciated by any runner type you might know.

A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of ShadowsI read the first book in this series a couple months ago and liked it a heck of a lot, so much that I grabbed up the next book and started it almost as soon as it was in my possession. I’ve been having a spate of reading apathy, so this was a delightful distraction. And, awesomely, I think this book might have been better than the first.

Last time, I told you about all the Londons and the magic and the bad magic and the fancy magician and the totally-not-a-Mary-Sue protagonist and how I liked all the stuff but the ending should have been a cliffhanger. Which is not a thing I say, and in fact when the end of this book was a bit of a cliffhanger I was like, ARE YOU SER— oh, right, I said that was okay, didn’t I?

Anyway, in this go, our magician, Kell, and our wannabe pirate, Lila, are doing their respective things in Red London, Kell’s home. Kell is more or less on house arrest after the events of the first book, but with the upcoming Triwizard Tournament (I am too lazy to look up what this is actually called) he and his sort-of brother hatch a plan to get Kell out of the house and into the tournament.

Meanwhile, Lila is finally getting her pirate on as crew of a government-owned totally-not-a-pirate-ship ship with an intriguing captain who is equally as intrigued with Lila. We get to see more of the Red London world through Lila’s eyes until the ship comes back to Red London so that the captain can participate in the Triwizard Tournament — at which point Lila hatches her own plot to participate.

Meanwhile, in White London, the Dane siblings have been replaced by a very familiar face and a sort of familiar soul, and these two familiar beings have designs on both Red London and Kell himself, if they can just find a way to get him away from the castle.

The plot seems pretty predictable on its surface, and, well, it mostly is, but there are a few bits here and there where things go differently than I thought they might, and also the writing to get to these points is delightful and I can’t help but like it. Things I don’t like include the continuing lack of the Big Reveal that I am sure is coming and the not-quite-sudden inclusion of a Love Story that makes not very much sense and why can’t people just be friends, dang it? Things I do love include the mechanics of the Triwizard Tournament, even if I refuse to remember its name, and the machinations of our friends in White London, which I presume we will see the best of in the next book.

Speaking of which, I am so glad I came in this late to the series, because that next book will be out in less than two months and I am SO EXCITED. If you’re the type that wants a completed series, this is the one for you come March. Or now. It’s not that long to wait. Except that I can’t wait. Hurry up, end of February!

Recommendation: Read the first book first and then this one and then come tell me all your feels.

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: 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.