Monthly Archives: December 2010
Body Odor. Monkey Masturbation. Poop-collecting bags.
All this may sound gross to you, but for NASA scientists it’s just another day at the office.
America’s funniest science writer, Mary Roach, has done it again. Having shone light on the brave souls who work with cadavers, study sex, and hunt ghosts in her last three books, with “Packing for Mars” she turns her rabid curiosity and wonderfully absurd sense of humor to the skies. Roach ventures into an area lesser-stomached writers would never dare to tread – the science behind putting human beings in space. Not the science of building rockets and all that jazz, mind you. We’re talking about the physical science of placing human beings with incredibly flawed and differing human bodies inside those rockets and ships that will go shooting out into space and will often keep them there for weeks or even years at a time.
Humans must be the most frustrating thing for scientists, for no amount of mathematical genius or higher education can presume to understand the factors present in a person’s mental and physical make-up. Who can predict out of a line-up of trained potential astronauts who’s going to be the one to have a nervous breakdown or fall apart under pressure? Unfortunately for the highly-educated researchers and scientists, humans are needed to pilot spacecraft and for the exploration of other planets.
And so, strange research has to happen.
What happens if you puke in your helmet during a spacewalk? Are there really people paid to lie down for months at a time to study the effects of lack of movement on the human body? Did someone really leave a plastic banana on the grave of Ham, the first chimp to go into orbit? Was there really a porn film shot in zero-gravity? These, and many other mysterious questions are answered (or at least explored) within the eye-opening and laughter-inducing pages of “Packing for Mars.”
I think Mary Roach is the bee’s knees. She writes candidly and with a quick wit, and she’s never afraid to step up to a challenge. For this book, she jumps into zero-gravity and drinks re-furbished urine to get the full effect of the millions of dollars spent on these studies.
She’s a bold, whip-smart lady and I look forward to each new book of hers.
[I bought this book for my Stepdad for Christmas. I hope he enjoys it as much as I did!]
David Nicholls 2009 novel “One Day” charts the relationship/friendship between Emma and Dexter over the course of twenty years by showing the reader one specific day – July 15th – of each of those years and how the protagonists have changed.
It’s an interesting concept, if not totally unique. Writers have long played with time as an element to develop bonds and relationships.
Nicholls, however, has one thing working in his favor – He’s incredibly clever, and has a gift for writing biting/smart dialogue and a talent for finding humor in the everyday. Several passages in “One Day” made me chuckle aloud, and a few more god re-read aloud to my husband. (Including one spectacular sequence where Dexter, now a father, struggles to put his baby daughter to sleep and contemplates why babies aren’t both with the natural ability to clearly express what they want.)
Emma and Dexter aren’t perfect people. He’s arrogant, one of those guys who knows he’s good-looking and seems to view the world as a giant gallery of women he can choose from. Emma’s no saint either; Though she’s a talented writer, she whittles away her time working in a burrito restaurant rather than going after what she wants, and is self-deprecating to the point of annoying. All this doesn’t mean we don’t care about them, though. They’re fascinating characters full of both dark and light and it’s hard not to care about their respective paths. Also, there’s a supporting cast of characters who are vividly painted as well – from Emma’s unfunny stand-up comic boyfriend to Dexter’s semi-control-freak wife.
Nicholls also avoids cliche by having the day (July 15th) just be a normal day – it’s not ever a plan that they meet up on that specific day, it’s just that they’re so reliant on each other that they always come back to each other, even in times of strife.
Undoubtedly, “One Day” will be a novel that some people love and other (snobbier) people roll their eyes at. In my humble opinion, it’s terrifically entertaining and well-written, and definitely worth a read.
[The film version, starring the wonderful Miss Anne Hathaway, is in post-production right now. It'll be interesting to see how the actors age from college to middle-aged, but hey... movie magic!]
For “Emma Brown” isn’t just a lovely novel written by Ms. Boylan. It’s got a lot longer literary history than that. When Charlotte Bronte died, she left behind a twenty-page piece of a never-completed novel. Ms. Boylan took those twenty pages, fleshed them out, and completed the novel both with all due respect to Ms. Bronte, but with her own twists as well. The end result is the acclaimed 2003 release of “Emma Brown.”
Though she’s clearly a fan of Bronte and manages to keep one coherent voice through the entire novel, it’s Ms. Boylan’s hand that turns the novel to what makes it the most interesting – a mystery. It’s as if Ms. Boylan took the spark from Charlotte Bronte, added in the delightful mysteries of Wilkie Collins, and then sprinkled it with her own modern thinking.
A young girl named Matilda Fitzgibbon is dropped off at a girls boarding school, dressed in exquisite clothes and obviously wealthy. Soon, it’s discovered that she’s not rich, and her name isn’t Matilda Fitzgibbon at all – but Emma. She doesn’t remember her history at all, and despairs until a gentleman and a widow team up to find her identity. Meanwhile, Matilda/Emma has gone on the run to try and discover her own truth, and winds up in the seediest places in London.
The narration follows the three main characters – Matilda/Emma, Mr. Ellin (the gentleman) and Isabel Chalfont (the widow) as they make their way through the events of the story. All three are interesting, fully-formed, and complex characters. The more we get to know about their backstories, the more we care about them. This is particularly true of Isabel, our narrator, who brings the title character of “Jane Eyre” to mind in many ways, from her hard work ethic to her addressing the reader personally. I took it as an homage to the legendary Ms. Bronte and her most famous creation, and immediately felt like I found a friend in Isabel.
Having read a great deal of Bronte in my time, “Emma Brown” makes both a welcome addition to Bronte canon while at the same time bringing attention to Ms. Boylan, a remarkable writer in her own right. (Sadly, Clare Boylan passed away in 2006.)
This one’s for the Bronte nerds.
In February 2008, Joyce Carol Oates’ husband Ray died after complications stemming from pneumonia. They’d been married forty-eight years. “A Widow’s Story” is Oates’ heartbreakingly unflinching memoir of what came next, and how she learned to live in a world without the one person she’d been part of a team with for nearly five decades.
In addition to struggling with her own all-consuming grief, Ray had always handled the household, and Joyce now to learn to deal with things like getting recycling bins at the same time she’s realizing things like the fact that he will never read the New York Times again so their subscription should be canceled. Ray had been the editor of a small-press magazine, and now that he’s gone the magazine will need to cease operations. She will also need to answer all the letters of sympathy she receives. The two house cats seem to blame her for Ray’s departure, and are stand-offish all of a sudden. Her world is crumbling around her.
All of these thoughts and details lead to her having severe trouble sleeping, trouble which causes doctors to prescribe her all sorts of medications – especially once she develops shingles from extreme stress. Also, she sincerely contemplates suicide.
Yeah, it’s a sad book.
Ms. Oates is glorious in her honesty, even at moments when she admits to feeling the stupidest. “A Widow’s Story” is also incredibly enlightening as to the things that happen after your spouse dies. Not only are there funeral arrangements to make (and really, who knows off the top of their head how you go about that?) but there are also bank accounts to deal with and apparently a great deal of paperwork necessary to prove to bank, insurance, and other official-type people that a) the person who has died has really died, and b) that you were really married to them.
There are a few chuckles to be found, here and there. There’s a particularly glorious passage about the crazy amounts of flowers and gourmet foods you receive after a death in the family. (Pepperoni sausage, really?)
On a personal level, I read this book with tears brimming at my eyes practically on every page. I’ve been married less than a year, and don’t even like thinking about the concept of my husband’s mortality.
It’s a beautifully written book, and I for one thank Ms. Oates for having the courage to put pen to paper and share such a personal time with her audience of readers. Oates gets through mostly based on her determination to live, but also thanks to the friends around her, her work, and little tiny moments of light in the middle of a whole lot of darkness. Though Ray is gone, the tulips he planted in the garden still bloom that spring – which is a beautiful visual.
Part of the marketing campaign for this book involves grief counseling centers and television appearances, and I feel it’s a book that can help lots of people, even if it’s just by saying what might be the most comforting words ever – “You are not alone.”
Well, that’s not 100% true. I know it’s a game with black and white squares and pieces. I know that “checkmate” is the ultimate goal. I also know there’s a musical (called “Chess”) about a chess match during the cold war, which is loosely based off Bobby Fischer.
There – That’s all I know of Chess and Mr. Fischer.
“Endgame,” Frank Brady’s new biography of Bobby Fischer, is a painstakingly researched story of a man who raised eyebrows at every turn, from his youthful mastery of an incredibly hard game to his later Anti-Semitic remarks and fleeing from the United States. Bobby Fischer was a complicated guy who remained an enigma until his death in Iceland in 2008.
Growing up in New York with his single mother, Bobby had only one interest – the game of Chess. His obsession with the game led to his triumph, but a serious lack of social skills, a seriously inflated ego, and a hot temper nearly (and eventually) cost him everything. He turned his back on fame, became a recluse spouting conspiracy theories and hate-speech, and eventually found himself an ex-patriot of the U.S.A., finally having to seek asylum in Iceland, where he died out of the sight of a world still fascinated by him.
Brady takes it all step-by-step as he charts the rise of this wunderkind, and fortunately doesn’t go deep into the technical aspects of chess. We, as readers, are given enough to know what was a mistake and what was a good move as far as Bobby’s countless games go, and it’s more than enough. (There are a few parts of the book that get a little heavy anyway, due to the sheer number of chess matches detailed, but they’re easy to skim.) Fischer is an anti-hero the reader won’t necessarily root for, but he’s mesmerizing nonetheless.
It’s an interesting read about an intriguing person. Who can ask for more from a biography?
(Interesting note: One of Fischer’s classmates was a young girl named Barbra Streisand, who admits to having had a crush on the mysterious Fischer. Who knew?)
“Endgame” will be in stores February 1, 2011.
Yes, dear readers, I now have an e-reader. Despite previously proclaiming my confusion as to where the appeal of such a device could be, there is now a brand-new Kindle (and sassy purple case) in my possession.
While nothing will ever replace paper books as far as I’m concerned – being one who loves cover art and ink and fonts – I’m already seeing some of the benefits of this technological advancement. Mainly, that for less than five dollars, I was able to stock it with the complete works of Jane Austen, The Bronte Family, Louisa May Alcott, and Mary Shelley in less than ten minutes. That’s pretty splendid for a booknerd.
Having now read my first book on a Kindle (David Nicholl’s “One Day,” review to come!) I can most assuredly say it’s a delight. It’s sleeker and lighter than I expected it to be, and there’s a rather spectacular kind of laziness in pushing a button and having pages turned for you. I’d been concerned about the feeling of having to stare at a computer screen to read, but thanks to this magical “digital paper” feature, it truly feels like you’re reading print on paper. The Kindle also remembers where you stopped reading, and you can highlight passages and make notes within the text. (You can also see most frequently highlighted passages, which is an unexpectedly cool feature for those of us who like to mark up our books sometimes.)
I guess what I’m saying is – I’m digging it.
So, yeah…I now own a Kindle.
Or does it own me?
That, friends, is the question…
Even if I find this video a little sad, it’s still funny.
Merry Christmas to all – and to all a good book!
[Merry Christmas, everyone!!]
Holiday traditions aren’t something I put a lot of stock in, but over the past few years the coming of the Christmas season has meant that my copy of Christopher Moore’s joyously ridiculously “The Stupidest Angel” comes off the shelf for an annual reading.
The book is both a breeze and a blast, full of satire and silliness. From it’s opening moments, where a divorced couple gets into a fight in a grocery store parking lot while she’s dressed in a Santa suit (ringing a bell for the Salvation Army) and he fights her off with a bag of ice, you know Moore is in the best shape of his career.
The ex-husband (a jerk) dies mere pages later, killed by a shovel. Good times.
I should have begun this with a disclaimer that there has never been a Christopher Moore novel I haven’t loved. As far as I’m concerned, he’s as good a writer as they come, and a master of absurdity.
For folks who’ve read the bulk of the Moore collection, many of these characters will be familiar and it’ll feel like spending holidays with the wackiest members of your family. From the Pine Cove stories, Moore brings back Constable Theo Crowe and his now-wife Molly Michon (a former actress known best for her role as Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland) and some other townies. From Moore’s “Island of the Sequined Love-Nun” he brought in Tucker Case and his fruit bat Roberto. Literally, it’s like a big get together.
For newbies, it’s simply a laugh-out-loud funny book about pothead cops, new loves, zombies, warrior babes, and a little city by the sea at Christmas. There’s also an archangel, a Christmas party, and somewhere around the page 200 mark there’s a zombie attack. (So what if the zombies have plans to go to IKEA after they feast?)
It all ends happily – Strangely, but happily. It’s a grand adventure of a silly book, and this time next year I’ll haul it down from the shelf for another reading.
(Meanwhile, the long-anticipated film version of “The Stupidest Angel” appears to be in the world, if imdb.com tells the truth. Can Nathan Filion just sign on to play Tucker already, please?)
Simply put, “The Wake” is a beautiful ending to a fascinating, lovely, dark, and intelligent series. Morpheus, our DreamLord, our Sandman, has died, and the whole world he has created and encountered has come out for the funeral. Countless figures we’ve encountered thus far – from Jed to Lady Bast – arrive in the DreamWorld to pay their respects to Morpheus. If you look, you’ll even some of the rest of the DC Universe paying farewell – including, most obviously, Batman.
This includes all the rest of The Endless – even Destruction,who introduces himself to Daniel (The new DreamLord) then sneaks away before anyone else can see him. Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and even Death speak at the funeral. Matthew debates whether he wants to serve a new DreamLord. Daniel, now the DreamLord, recreates many of the characters who were destroyed in “The Kindly Ones.”
In subsequent stories, Hob Gadling – now in modern times, dating a woman who works at RenFaire – is visited by Death. Given the option to die after centuries of life, Hob still refuses. The world is still worth it. Shakespeare also gets an epilogue – Not only did he write “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Morpheus’ request, but “The Tempest” was also a commissioned piece.
Ends are tied up as best they can be. A whole new series could be created following the new adventures of Daniel in his role as DreamLord, but maybe it’s best to leave the series when it’s at it’s peak.
“The Wake” is a quiet ending to a rambunctious story, and a fitting tribute to a King of Dreams. Even the artwork seems to be more muted in tone and drawn less like a comic than a series of paintings. There are some stunning images of these characters contained in these pages.
I began reading this series not knowing what I was getting in to. I conclude it with images and characters forever burned onto my brain, and an even deeper appreciation of the genius of Neil Gaiman (as well as his spectacular team of illustrators.)
Highly recommended. HIGHLY.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep..” – Shakespeare, The Tempest.
["The Kindly Ones" is installment 9 - of 10! - of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. This one is illustrated by Marc Hempel, Richard Case, D'Israeli, Teddy Kristiansen, Glyn Dillon, Charles Vess, Dean Ormston, and Kevin Nowlan.]
This installment is where s$#t gets real.
In what I would probably call the grand finale of the whole Sandman series (though I haven’t yet read #10, I can’t imagine a climax bigger than the event at the end of “The Kindly Ones”) characters re-surface, characters die, and things change – big time.
It all begins with those three sisters from the first volume, and soon we’re brought to where Lyta Hall, now mother to Morpheus’ baby Daniel, is off on a date/job interview. While she’s gone, Daniel is taken – and no one knows where. Furious, hell-bent on revenge, and having a breakdown, Lyta goes in search of Morpheus.
From here on out, there’s going to be spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In essence, this volume is about the end of days. The three sisters/furies/The Kindly Ones, triggered by Lyta, make their way to the DreamWorld.
Lots of familiar faces re-appear; The Corinthian is re-made, and Loki, Rose, Thessaly, Hal, Zelda, and the two sisters from “The Doll’s House” show up – some for moments, some for the duration. (Rose, by the end, is pregnant. And Desire has revealed to Rose that she is her Grandfather. That’s probably important.)
Delirium has already lost Barnabus (the dog she was gifted in volume #7.) She wanders around looking for the dog, encountering Lucifer, who now plays piano in a fancy restaurant. Random, right?
Nuala’s faerie brother comes back for her and Morpheus lets her return to her people, where she is restored to her former beauty – and is promptly miserable. She calls on Morpheus and asks him to tell her he loves her. Unbeknownst to Nuala, Morpheus’ leaving the DreamWorld to come to her is the catalyst for his destruction.
The roster of people who die in this volume is large, and sad. Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green, Abel, Mervyn, Gryphon, and finally even Morpheus himself. Morpheus’ death is incredibly touching, as it’s a throwback to the sequence in the first volume where he and Death sit side by side and feed birds. Immediately after Death takes Morpheus’ hand and he vanishes, baby Daniel (who’s back in the DreamCastle) transforms into an all-white version of Morpheus.
(Goldie is fine at the end. Thank Goodness. And Lucien was once a Raven. Who knew?)
I loved it – all of it – despite the obvious sadness over having to say goodbye to characters I’ve become irrevocably attached to over the past few weeks. I’m excited to see ends get tied up in the final volume of the series, “The Wake.” Though I’m really expecting some questions to just never get answered. I doubt Mr. Gaiman is just going to show up and explain it all. That doesn’t seem like his way.