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
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: 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?

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

LagoonWhat a weird book. This is one of the many books that ended up on my TBR list because the internets told me it would be good, and I read it because I saw it at the library and remembered that I thought it would be good. Maybe that’s not the best way to go into reading this book, because it is super weird and you need to be prepared. I can help!

Okay, so. This book. How to describe it. Besides weird. Which it is. Hmm.

Let’s start broad. This book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, in I think roughly the present day. A lot of the tension and interestingness in the novel come from this setting, particularly in the way that the people of Lagos treat magic and religion and how those interact with science and logic. I was very glad to have recently read Half of a Yellow Sun, which helped me sometimes to figure out what was “a Nigeria thing” and what was actually weird in this novel. Sometimes.

What really intrigued me in this book is that the main protagonist is a woman of science, fighting against her husband’s belief in the goodness of his religion and the badness of the magic he believes she has, but then also the book is full of actual magic and also aliens and so the fight isn’t between science and religion or logic and magic but between the people who don’t see them interact in quite the same way. This caught me off guard, but in a good way, I suppose, and I kind of want to go back through the book and know this from the beginning and see how it changes my reading.

If those overarching themes hadn’t already had my brain working overtime, the story itself would have done it quite nicely. It’s a deceptively simple story: what would happen if aliens showed up in Nigeria? But when you throw in lots of narrators and characters and points of view (including POVs of fish and, um, roads) and wade through all of the baggage that all of these characters carry, getting a shape-shifting alien an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria is really difficult.

I didn’t read this book especially quickly, partly because I was constantly wondering if I should even keep reading because I clearly had no idea what was going on, but I’m not sure it’s a book you should or can read quickly. If I had been prescient, I would have picked this for one of my book clubs so that I could have all the people to talk about all the things with. There’s still time, I suppose…. Until then, I do have this fancy comment section if anyone wants to help me figure out what’s up with those poisonous oceans!

Recommendation: For people with time for thinky-thought-thinking and those who love magical realism and aliens.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body ProblemI feel almost embarrassed to have waited over six weeks to talk about this book, but, see, here’s the thing: this book is bonkers. And not just bonkers like I usually mean it, where it’s weird and strange and requires a lot of brain power to make it through, although all of those are certainly true. But bonkers like, there was so much going on and the narrative was so all over the place that my brain just went ahead and jettisoned all of my memories of it. I listened to it for 14 hours with my husband on our pilgrimage to Cleveland and honestly the thing I remember most clearly is the narrator saying “REEEEEHYYYYYYYDRAAAAATE” like some kind of health-conscious Dalek.

Obviously, there’s more. The book starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with the government decrying heretical things like physics. There’s a looooooong bit with a physicist being persecuted for SCIENCE and lots of boring talky talk, and I was like, “I swear to god this book is supposed to be about aliens. If I had data signal right now I’d double check that.”

Then there’s more stuff with the physicist’s daughter getting caught up in more anti-Chinese things and getting sent off to do, um, stuff, I have no memory of any of this, and then there’s a dude in the near-future-day taking pictures with weird ghostly time stamps that no one else can see or take a picture of and cue me being like YES ALIENS but no, no aliens yet, just super weird science and shadowy government organizations and a weird video game with dehydrating people and chaotic eras and winter is coming.

When we finally get to the aliens, this does not solve the problem of the book making only 5 percent sense. The aliens are weirdos, the people who like the aliens are weirdos, the people who hate the aliens are weirdos, there are two mysterious protons that have a backstory that is highly amusing if you are a complete nerd (our amusement level: fairly), and I still have no idea what any of that was about.

So, like, you know The Martian? You know how it’s got all that awesome science that is super cool because it’s explained in pirate ninjas and whatnot? Okay, take that, but instead of space engineering this has theoretical physics and instead of pirate ninjas this has no useful explanations whatsoever. And you can’t just kind of skim over the science parts, as you can with The Martian, because the whole dang book is science parts.

But the thing of it is, the author and narrator do a great job of telling this story. I may not remember the actual story, but I do remember that I had more than one book downloaded and ready to listen to and Scott and I chose to keep listening to this one. It’s weird and crazy and makes no sense when you’ve had six weeks to forget all of it, but in the moment it’s kind of awesome and fascinating, if you’re into that theoretical physics thing.

There’s two more books in this series, and the second one just came out, and it’s definitely going on my list of road-trip audiobooks because I need to know what’s up with these aliens but I will never find out if I don’t have Scott around to commiserate with when the book inevitably goes completely off the rails. I’ll try to remember that one better, but no guarantees!

Recommendation: For science nerds and wannabe science nerds ONLY. Do not attempt this book without at least a passing interest in theoretical physics.

Rating: 6/10

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the TreesI love my online book club and the fact that it forces me to stay in contact with people I love and who love books. And even though my last selection for this book club was a total slam dunk, I still feel like I have to make up for the selection before that, which was a… um… thing that is bad in basketball (this metaphor would be better if I actually watched basketball).

I knew I couldn’t drop the ball (is that a basketball reference I HOPE SO) on this one, so I got some help from the good folks at The Morning News and their Tournament of Books. Two books that I loved, The Goldfinch and Life After Life, both went up against The People in the Trees, and in both matchups this book sounded absolutely fascinating. Three point shot! (I have no idea what I’m talking about.) (I’ll lay up off the basketball metaphors now.) (I am so sorry.)

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway. This book. Fascinating.

What I remembered from the writeups, aside from the fact that my books kept losing, was that the story revolved around this scientist dude who went off and explored a little-known island and studied the people and found out that some of them were living almost literally forever and something something ethics something. I may have skimmed a bit.

I thought this would be a book about anthropology and the effect of an outside world on an insular world and the ethics of science and what it means to do research, and it absolutely is that book. Yanagihara makes note of the line between studying and respecting people and judging the heck out of them early on, and makes it really easy to do both throughout the story — to the U’ivuans and to our scientist Norton Perina himself.

Perina is an interesting subject of study; you find out at the very beginning of the story that he has been convicted of sexual abuse and statutory rape of some of his many (many many) adopted children. He never directly addresses these charges in the text but that knowledge hangs over his actual writings, which focus on his work with the U’ivuans and later with the turtles that make them live forever (poor turtles). Not in focus is the fact that Perina is a strange, awful, hurtful, self-obsessed person, but that part is pretty obvious anyway.

Y’all know how I love an unreliable narrator, so reading Perina’s memoirs of his life while knowing the “truth” behind them is totally fascinating to me. But this book is even better — these are Perina’s memoirs as edited and footnoted by a close personal friend, who at the end of his introduction notes that he has “cut—judiciously—passages that [he] felt did not enrich the narrative or were not otherwise of any particular relevance.” Oh, DID you now.

I said earlier that Perina never addresses the pedophilia in the room, but [spoilers?] it turns out that this is just one of the things that his friend judiciously edited, and this part of the narrative is included after the epilogue because it “should not make a difference” to the story, but of course it does, and really, even if you’re expecting the gist of this entry, it’s going to give you way more feelings that you anticipate. One of them may be the “I must throw this book across the room” feeling. (Seriously, what the fuck, Norton Perina?)

But with some time to process my emotions, it turns out that I really liked this book. Enjoyed, maybe not? But it is a really great work of fiction that is going on my “to be read again someday” pile.

This is probably a really great pick in general for a book club, because anyone who gets to the end is going to have SO MUCH to talk about. I don’t think my book club appreciated it quite as much as I did, but I can guarantee it was better received than that LeBron James book. I can guarantee that about a lot of books, actually.

Recommendation: For people who haven’t been uncomfortable or angry enough recently, and those who want to practice being nonjudgmental. (Good luck.)

Rating: 9/10

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianYou and I, we’ve known each other a while (unless you’re new here, in which case, hi! and, uh, prepare for swears ahead), and I think you generally know how I feel about things. So I hope it’s safe to say that you know what I was thinking when I saw the first lines of this book:

“I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.

If you guessed anything other than “SOLD SOLD SOLD” or at least “…tell me more”, then, well, you should go explore the archives!

If you yourself are thinking “…tell me more”, then read on, because I’m going to oblige!

The Martian, as the name implies, is the story of a dude on Mars. Why is he on Mars? Well, he was part of the third manned mission to Mars, which was going swell until a huge storm blew in, knocked everything around a bunch, and caused the mission to abort. Everybody got back in the capsule except for our hero, Mark Watney, who was knocked out and, according to his malfunctioning equipment, dead. Except, of course, he wasn’t, and now he’s stuck on Mars indefinitely, with only vitamins, water, and a handful of Thanksgiving potatoes to sustain him while he works out a plan to get home.

Are you excited yet? Because I am still super excited, and I have already read this book. In fact, in going back to look up details for this post, I found myself starting to read the book all over again, because, spoiler, I absolutely loved it.

The book is told primarily from Watney’s perspective via his log entries, written partially for himself and partially for whoever might find them in the future and therefore full of technical science-y things (which seem plausible enough and I so don’t care if they’re not) but also full of swears and emotions. Interspersed with the entries are third-person chapters detailing what is happening back on Earth and on the spaceship with the rest of the crew and sometimes what is happening to Watney when he is not writing log entries.

It was, for me, a very tense reading experience because I read it only on my breaks at work and so had to wait hours between entries, usually with something terrible having just happened to Watney, because, you know, stuck on Mars.

Luckily, Watney is a Space MacGyver, and really a lot of my enjoyment of the novel came from imagining this dude on Mars cutting apart millions of dollars of NASA equipment (including Pathfinder!) and duct-taping it back together, or combining hydrogen and oxygen together to make water with some explosive results, all the while explaining how this could totally work (again, don’t care if it couldn’t!). The rest of my enjoyment came from Watney’s personality, which is just the right combination of snarky and serious to match how I think I would feel, were I a super-smart astronaut suddenly given what is likely the rest of my life to explore Mars. I am totally Team Watney.

I loved this book so hard, from beginning all the way through to the exciting ending and even into the less-exciting, wrap-everything-up ending, which is brief enough that we can just pretend it never happened, right? Good. That’s what we’re doing, then. I loved this book from beginning to end, and from the beginning all over again just now. If I don’t just read the whole thing a second time, maybe I’ll go check out the other stories at Weir’s fantastically old-school website, which include Sherlock Holmes AND Doctor Who fanfiction? Uh, ‘scuse me guys, I gotta go. Be back… soon?

Recommendation: For fans of space and potentially totally made-up science and snarky dudes.

Rating: 10/10