Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

packingformarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
2010

This is amazing, ridiculous, and horrifying in all the best ways, as Roach looks into the history of the space program and the work that went into keeping astronauts alive. Which mostly means looking into the details of how a body works and then trying to figure out what parts are impacted by gravity. And air pressure. Eating and drinking, peeing and pooping, blood circulation, bone growth, sweating, etc. And then consider all of those same issues, along with physical and mental health related to being confined to a small capsule moving at incredible speeds and with extremely limited personal supplies. (How greasy does a person get if they just… don’t bathe, or change their clothes, or get up from their chair, for three weeks? This was a real study done with real people.)

Space programs in both the US and Russia looked into these in detail, and thus so too does Roach. With delight! But not sex: NASA is much like the DC Comics universe: there’s no masturbation. Much to Roach’s dismay, too, as one tangent discusses the failure of journalism integrity as she searches for truth between the tales and the denials of scandalous space monkey masturbation and finds a series of authors so excited by the idea that they forewent the facts of the matter. She supplements the space program research by delving into the research on aquatic animal sex and searching for information on a zero-gravity porn movie, instead.

And then she looks into the disasters and how many ways a body can stop working under various traumatic circumstances and let me tell you: I had never before considered that in a sudden stop from a sufficiently high speed, your internal organs can have noticeably different deceleration rates. (This is not a good thing for your future well-being.)

This book looks at all the gross parts of being a living body made of flesh and phlegm and explores them with joyous abandon and is an absolute delight.

 

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

SmokeThis is a tough review, because Smoke has a fascinating premise, and is certainly well written, but it took me a month to get through it and by the end, I completely hated it. I think it might just be me? Like, it wasn’t the right book for me to read at this time, and forcing myself to continue just made it worse. So, I’m stuck where I can’t really recommend it, but I can’t pan it either.

Set in an alternative Victorian era England, Smoke elaborates on the real life coal smog crisis of the time. The premise is that people’s anger and violent thoughts manifest visually as a sooty smoke emitted from the person’s body, staining their clothes and polluting the world around them. The book opens in a prep school for the children of aristocracy, where an essential lesson is to avoid all ‘smoking’ entirely. The aristocracy apparently do not ‘smoke,’ but our protagonist, Thomas, is both on the fringes of society and has poorly controlled anger.

I was initially vaguely sympathetic to Thomas, though at a bit of a distance, which I first ascribed to being old enough that it is hard to even remember the drama of the schoolroom. However, as the book progressed, I realized that I just didn’t like Thomas very much. He is angry and aloof, and it was difficult for me to get a handle on him to empathize. His best friend, Charlie, is somewhat more likeable, but no more relatable and mostly serves as a foil to Thomas.

Through a combination of coincidence and nosiness, Thomas and Charlie uncover some minor secrets about smoke, which then leads them to a wider conspiracy. The adults around them all have their own agendas regarding the smoke’s role in society, and somehow all of them rely on causing suffering to those considered expendable to a greater purpose. Any characters that don’t try to exploit those around them are written as pathetically naïve and mostly come to a bad end (all animals also come to a bad end). Vyleta does not shy away from the brutality of British colonialism, human experimentation, and extreme poverty, and it all became unrelentingly grim by the end.

It is a very…combative story, with basically everyone in conflict with each other. Even our two protagonists form a love triangle with the same girl, and reflect that it is inevitable that they will fight each other eventually. It felt very masculine, in my least favorite way, so again, it is very possible that a different reader could enjoy it. (I was curious as to who those readers would be, so I did a quick scan of the reviews on GoodReads, and they are…varied. There’s a lot of two to three stars, all starting with “this book has a great premise, but…” and a smattering of confused one and five stars wondering how anyone could either like or dislike this book. It truly is a conundrum of a novel!)

My Planet by Mary Roach

myplanetMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
written by Mary Roach
read by Angela Dawe
2013

I’ve loved (and been grossed out by) every book that I’ve read by Mary Roach… except this one. This is quite the departure from the other books since it’s actually a compilation of short anecdotes that she wrote for a regular column in Reader’s Digest. They’re often cute and funny but I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting and by their very nature, they were fairly repetitive when in a collection rather than a serial: her husband Ed gets introduced at the beginning of at least half of them. They’re essentially a cheery little sitcom of a life, with many of the traditional sitcom tropes including both mocking and perpetuating 1950s stereotypes of married life. And I just don’t care for sitcoms.

To summarize: it’s well written for its intended audience, but that audience isn’t really me.

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

SapphireFlamesSaphire Flames
(4th book in the Hidden Legacy series)
by Ilona Andrews
2019

This series is something of a guilty pleasure for me and this is the fourth book and the first one about Catalina Baylor, sister to the prior main character, Nevada Baylor.

The reason this is a guilty pleasure is the set up, which is an urban magic world where about 150 years ago, there was a serum developed that gave people magical powers. (Or killed them, or turned them into monsters, but the survivors at this point have magical powers.) And this has created something of a three-tiered society, where there are civilians going about their daily lives with no magic, and living their lives much like anyone else in the modern day; there are magic-users who have a little bit of extra magical skill; and then there are the members of the magical Houses, where families have bred themselves into powerhouses and accumulated vast wealth and are essentially above the law and only counterbalance each other in particularly lethal ways. The bad guys are the people who are trying to destabilize this society.

In any reasonable universe, I would be cheering on the rebels trying to take down this insane society. Instead, I am agog to see what these high society magical killers are doing in their love lives.

The (purported) good guys are the super-handsome, super-wealthy, super-powerful, super-psychopathic killer, scions of these Houses who, despite being psychopaths who barely feel compassion for anyone else, are desperately in love with our main protagonists: lovely ladies who had once thought they were in the middle tier of magical civilians, but discovered their ‘hidden legacy’ that means they are actually extremely powerful and have now formed a House of their own.

Don’t judge me. I love these.

Unfortunately, I don’t love this particular book as much as the previous three (I still like it though!), because the narration keeps on trying to convince me that Catalina and Alessandro are desperately in love even as they deny themselves and each other, despite them having met for all of 15 minutes three years ago when she was 18 years old. He’s a high society heart-throb who she was able to cyberstalk on Instagram (while secretly being a James Bond style assassin maybe?), while there’s hints that he might have actually stalked her for a bit (wealth, power, etc, make all things possible), but the narration keeps on denying that it’s a crush, or simply lust, or obsession. It’s love! Which mostly means that there’s no character arc for them to fall in love because it starts out with the premise that they are both in love already, just pining from afar. My suspension of disbelief, which is normally quite strong, hit a snag on that.

But anyway, the world building is still fascinating and the action sequences are ludicrous and amazing and the dialogue is fun.

What I enjoyed even more is the prequel novella:

DiamondFireDiamond Fire
by Ilona Andrews
2018

This is a good segue between books three and four, as it covers the wedding of Nevada Baylor and Mad Rogan, and sets up Catalina Baylor as a main character who is about to have a lot of changes, and thus book four can happen after the three-year training montage implied at the end of this novella. But in the meantime, the novella itself is fun and a detective story because all of Rogan’s kookie/creepy/lethal relatives show up and then the family wedding tiara gets stolen and shenanigans ensue, with Catalina being conscripted as the detective.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

A House of Ghosts

W.C. Ryan

House_of_GhostsThis novel is a murder mystery, spy thriller, and ghost story all in one, and manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, uneasily creepy when reading late at night, and solemnly poignant about the horrors of war. Any of these is a rare achievement, but combining all together make this something really unique. Set in England during the first world war, spiritualism is on the rise, as so many young men are missing/presumed dead on the front.

The Highmount patriarch made his fortune in weapons manufacturing during the war, but has since lost both his sons. In their grief, he and his wife have retreated to their remote island estate, which is converted from an old abbey and rumored to be haunted. They plan a house party over the holidays, inviting several spiritualists to attempt to make contact with their sons.

There are the charlatans, of course, like Madam Frey, with all sorts of tricks up her sleeves. But there are also the real deal, like Kate, friend of the family and ex-fiancé to one of the Highmount boys, who can actually see ghosts, but finds it so socially embarrassing that she hides it as well as she can. And there’s spiritualist Count Orlov, who can perhaps see ghosts but may find it more convenient to fake the séances?

Add to all that, some confidential weapons designs have been discovered in the wrong hands, and three undercover personnel, who have complicated relationships to each other, are suborned into attending the house party, under a variety of subterfuges, causing even more confusion.

Of course, there is also a light romance, which is so deftly done that I had to double check that the author is male. The two protagonists have a slow growing attraction toward each other, built on mutual respect and good communication, which is also awfully rare and a very pleasant surprise in novels.