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?

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The End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

Weekend Shorts: Human Division Extras and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The Human DivisionFrom The Human Division: “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today”

If you’ll recall, I read The Human Division in serialized e-book form, so when the official print compilation came out and had extras, I was like, hey, wait a second. Those extras have since been made available for free on the internets, but since I am apparently too lazy to make the required account and also since I happened to see the hardcover come into cataloging at my library, I figured I’d just grab the book and read the extras there.

“After the Coup” I have actually read before, when it was maybe on tor.com at some point, but I was more than happy to read it again. This story takes my good friends Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and puts them in a diplomatic situation that is really more humorous and disgusting than it is political. Wilson, the one with the genetically engineered body, finds himself recruited to an exhibition match in an alien martial art against one of said aliens, a sort of amphibious creature whose martial arts skills are a combination of awesome and totally cheating, but of course Wilson makes the best of it.

“Hafte Sorvalh” etc. was new to me, and differently interesting than “After the Coup.” This one is definitely political; the gist of it is that the resident Conclave (the bad guys, more or less) diplomat sits down to eat some churros which end up going cold while she explains herself and her race and the Conclave and the potential for upcoming war to some inquisitive schoolchildren. I like the explanations Sorvalh gives, and I like the way it sort of sets up what I assume will be the next set of stories in this universe.

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastFrom The New Yorker Fiction Podcast: “Reunion” by John Cheever and “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

I’m finally catching up on my previously months-long backlog of podcasts, so of course it’s time to throw a new one into the mix! This is not a bad one to do that with, either, since the episodes are comprised of a short story and some commentary and thus take less than twenty minutes, at least so far. It is also helpful in my new quest to read more short stories, because a) I don’t have to actually seek any stories out and b) I get to listen to stories I wouldn’t have known existed to seek out.

“Reunion” (scanned copy here) is the very first story on this podcast, read by Richard Ford more than six years ago (I have a little catching up to do, yes). It is a very short story about a kid, probably late-teenage, stopping in New York City on a train layover to meet up with the father he hasn’t seen in three years. The father takes his son around some nearby bars, generally being an ass to all the wait staff and not generally getting a drink out of them, and the son realizes that maybe three years wasn’t long enough to have been away. I loved the way Ford read this story, making the father’s exclamations and insults both hilarious and depressing, and Cheever certainly nailed that awkwardness of seeing a person for the first time in a long time and not getting what you expected.

“How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (nicely formatted version here) is a story that I probably would not have read on my own, and it still kind of isn’t. It stars a kid who, as you might guess, is explaining to someone (probably himself) how to date a girl, with contingency plans in case she’s white or black or local or an “outsider” or whatever. It’s an interesting look into the complexities of dating in a community I’m not familiar with, in a time — 1995 — that is so different from my own dating time, but with, in the end, a very familiar truth of what being a horny teenager is like. This story was read by Díaz himself from an older recording, with discussion by Edwidge Danticat afterwards, and I’m defnitely going to have to seek out work from both of these authors.

The Human Division #13: Earth Below, Sky Above, by John Scalzi

Earth Below, Sky AboveI don’t want to say it, but it is true: I was more than a little underwhelmed by this story, the last in the 13-week adventure that was The Human Division. You’re going to read it if you’ve read the rest, so I’m going to skip over a summary (well, I’ll say it was still pretty cool!) and just give you my feelings about the series.

After the rollicking first episode and several delightful and/or awesome episodes thereafter, with conspiracy and questions and more questions at every turn, I suppose I thought I’d get some more explosions, perhaps a huge fight, and some big answers that maybe left me with a few more questions to gnaw at my brain for the next few days.

Instead I got… I’m not really sure what I got. There were definitely explosions and fighting, though the fighting was more or less one-sided, but I think the only answer I got was to the question, “What did happen to all those missing ships?” Unfortunately, this was pretty low on my list of questions I wanted answered.

I’m chalking my disappointment up to the format of this publishing experiment, which was part serialized novel, part collection of standalone but interconnected short stories. If Scalzi and Tor wanted people to be able to find this story and read it without any knowledge of what had gone on before, it would have had to have been more than its double-length to really recap everything that had happened in the first twelve stories and also it would have bored me to tears. So, by necessity, it leaves out most of the big questions that had been asked and instead briefly mentions a few things that would mean something to series readers and would be kind of interesting to new ones.

The story stands alone quite well, I think, but for my own personal reading happiness I would have preferred this series to be more truly serialized, so that this last story could have been that epic question-answering and question-creating finale rather than one that didn’t really do either.

On the plus side, Scalzi recently announced that there would be a continuation of this series, which I assume will again be in this short story/serial format. He’s also taking comments and concerns about said format over on his blog, so I’m hoping if enough people say, hey, meany-face, you forgot to actually end this series, it will at least be a consideration in writing the next one. (Fingers crossed!)

Recommendation: Do please read this series, because it’s pretty awesome, and might end up being awesomer in book form? Who knows?

Rating: Story, 7/10 for not answering any of my dang questions; series, 9/10 for being explodey and delightful.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkOh, Billy Lynn, with your title that I can never remember correctly or in full. You are a strange little book, and I’m still not sure if I really like you, but I can definitely see why you keep getting nominated for awards.

This was a tough book to get into, and to start discussing when it was time for my book club meeting. On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of a group of soldiers who did some heroic things in Iraq and have therefore been recruited by the George W. Bush-era government to go on a victory tour culminating in an appearance at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game. We hang out with the nineteen-year-old Billy and our other soldier friends in the stadium and environs (the ride there, the seats, the owner’s box, the field, the concession area — there is a lot of stadium in this novel!) as they try to figure out what they’re even supposed to be doing as part of the halftime show and also try to get a movie deal made before they ship back out in two days.

It starts off slowly, but somewhere in there it starts to pick up steam and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen with these guys, so plot-wise it’s a pretty good read. But even more important than the actual story is the underlying satire that is almost difficult to see. Where its spiritual predecessor, Catch-22 (which I love and which it references and which, apparently, is big in the advertising push for Billy Lynn) is a flamboyantly ridiculous sendup of the military and the bureaucracy of war, Billy Lynn is a quiet but pointed jab at our pro-war, pro-soldier, pro-patriotism, pro-America society.

Billy & Co. spend a lot of time throughout the novel answering the same questions from different people — How is the war going? Is there an end in sight? Are we helping those poor souls? — and being told how wonderful and brave and patriotic they are for going out and fighting for the American way and all that, even though there’s not one soldier present that these mostly upper-class conversationalists would likely give the time of day to otherwise. At the same time, they are hearing half of several phone calls between their putative Hollywood producer and the rest of Hollywood that say that the Iraq War is not a seat-filler and maybe could it be a World War II movie instead? With Hilary Swank playing one or more of the all-male soldiers?

And then the actual halftime show, goodness. Face, meet palm.

I will say that I didn’t connect with everything in this story; there’s an extended sequence with Billy visiting home and being a little gross about it and also interacting with his intensely dysfunctional family, and a very strange bit with Billy and a cheerleader in an alcove, and the ending is a bit out of nowhere. But after some time away from the book, I think less about the weird stuff and more about how weird it is to send teenagers off to fight wars so that I can sit in this comfy chair and write about books I read. I am made uncomfortable, in a very good way.

I’m glad that Billy Lynn did not suffer the same fate as the movie within it, and I may actually go read some of the other recent Iraq War novels that are coming out now because I, for one, am World War II-ed out.

Recommendation: Not a must-read, but definitely an interesting read for anyone who experienced the USA of the last ten or so years.

Rating: 8/10

The Human Divison Parts 10-12, by John Scalzi

We’re in the home stretch now! Just four more stories to go after these… it’ll be interesting to see how this all comes together in the end. As always, some thoughts on the recent installments:

#10: This Must Be the Place
This Must Be the PlaceI was a little worried about this one, as the entire Internet was telling me that it was a complete change of pace from the rest of the stories and probably about half of said Internet was telling me it was a no-good change of pace. Even my husband, who managed to read this one first, was like, “What the heck was that?” But I actually liked this one, so whatever, haters. In this episode, our old friend Hart is taking a vacation from dealing with aliens and intrigue and puppies to go home for Harvest Day (Thanksgiving, I’m guessing) and hang out with the fam. There’s obviously not much action here, aside from normal family squabbles, but it is a nice insight into Hart and also into how more or less regular (albeit powerful and rich) people are viewing from a distance all the fights we’ve seen up close. It’s going to be a weird chapter when this is a book, but as a standalone story I quite liked it.

#11: A Problem of Proportion
A Problem of ProportionHoly crap, John Scalzi. We head straight back to the fighting in this one, right in the middle of some, in fact, and it is awesome. Even better, we get to meet up with our Conclave friend Hafte and get some more of that enemy point of view. Even better than that, we find out that there is a really mean person or group of persons (aliens can be persons too, right?) out there who apparently don’t like either the Colonial Union or the Conclave and are willing to be total assholes to mess things up. I am still bitter about this.

#12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads
The Gentle Art of Cracking HeadsAnd again, Scalzi just makes my mind boggle with his combination of politics, intrigue, and blowing stuff up. Also science, as we learn about a very interesting idea that hypothetically could be just as asshole-ish as what happened in that last story. Seriously, who are these persons who are doing things? How are all these mysteries going to be wrapped up in just one more story (double-length, even!)? How unlikely am I to drink tea ever again?

Rating: I’m gonna go 8, 9, and 9, because dang.