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.

 

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.

Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton

HarrietTubmanHarriet Tubman: The road to freedom
by Catherine Clinton, 2004
read by Shayna Small, 2017

I put a hold on this book as soon as I returned from the theatre after watching Harriet, the movie, because it was an amazingly good movie and I wanted to know more about the history. Also because I wanted to know if the theme of Joan of Arc parallels was unique to the movie. As it turns out: no, the similarities were acknowledged during her lifetime.

I highly recommend this book.

Also, the audiobook version picked an excellent voice to read the book: clear spoken and academic but with a hint of a southern accent.

And that really typifies the book: it’s an academic biography of Harriet Tubman that addresses where the evidence and documentation comes from and where the holes in that evidence are and why, in a very direct and personable manner. We don’t know what year she was born because there’s no birth certificate and a possible ten year span. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Underground Railroad because anyone keeping records at the time would have been keeping records of their own criminal activity. Tubman struggled to get any sort of payment from the government for her services in the civil war because, despite being at that point a well-known celebrity, the bureaucracy demanded documentation that didn’t always exist. And the implications for how these issues effected other African-Americans is staggering because Harriet Tubman was well-known, well-respected, and well-remembered by highly ranked military personnel.

Apparently during the civil war there was a third category of African-Americans that I had never heard of before: Contraband. These weren’t free blacks or slaves, these were “contraband” who had been confiscated and/or escaped from their masters but were still considered possessions rather than people in the eyes of the law. The whole thing really highlights how insane the slave era was, (and how insane the white supremacy era continues to be.)

Anyway, Harriet Tubman was amazing and doing her best as she could, and her life is an example of: do what you can, when you can, and you can move mountains… but there will always be more to do.

But also, risking your life to change the world doesn’t always end with death, even for someone so similar to Joan of Arc: Harriet Tubman Davis died free, of old age, in a house she owned, surrounded by family, as a cherished and celebrated member of her community.

Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
by Mary Roach
read by Abby Elvidge
2016

I think every child goes through a phase of being fascinated by the gross and gruesome and Mary Roach never grew out of that phase. And she invites her readers to take similar joy in it as well. She takes such honest delight in peering into the hidden, dusty, bug-infested corners of history and science and holding up the often gruesome contents for our perusal.

What’s the sleep schedule like on a nuclear submarine and why is it a major problem that sleep deprivation is an ongoing and increasing concern? How are military doctors advancing the science of genital reconstruction and recreation from where it used to be due to the increased survival of IED victims? Who are the people designing the uniforms and what are the features they’re trying to optimize? How can you protect soldiers in the field, their hearing, their eyesight, their bodies, without hampering their abilities act and react quickly? Why is diarrhea such a concern and yet so difficult to study? Why are maggots so helpful in medical care and yet so rarely used?

All of these questions and more are examined in this book that looks at the establishment part of the military establishment rather than the military part.

So this book is delightful and I highly recommend it, but maybe not while you’re trying to eat anything.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book

10percenthappierMeditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler
read by Dan Harris and Jeffrey Warren
2017

I ran across this book a year or so ago at someone else’s house and noted that it looked interesting. The  elevator pitch that originally caught my eye: it’s written by a TV news anchor who had an on-air panic attack and got into meditation in the aftermath as he dealt with his issues. So when I was looking for a good audio book to listen to on my commute, I remembered it, requested it at my library, and gave it a shot.

As it turns out, a book on meditation is not necessarily the best thing to listen to while driving. While the authors are very specific about how you don’t have to actually stop and meditate when they do through a meditation, it’s something I might have enjoyed doing otherwise. And driving along as the speaker says, “close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing” isn’t the safest way to drive, especially if I want to do so.

Also, as I should have realized from the title, I’m not actually the audience for this book since I’m not a skeptic about the benefits of meditation. I don’t care for the spiritual and transcendental elements that sometimes come along with meditation, but I’m quite well aware of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation. Sadly, there are all sorts of things I know would be good for me that I still don’t do, which is why I wanted to try this book out. But while it was a reminder that I should try to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I found a lot of the self-deprecating bonhomie humor of Harris, the primary author, not to my taste and a reminder of one more reason why I don’t watch TV news chat shows.

But it did seem like a good book for the right audience. And as an audio book it was recorded in some ways like a podcast with Harris and Warren switching off reading their sections and occasionally interacting with each other in scripted conversations. So to sum up, a relatively good book but not really my cup’a.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic_DSTraffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)
written by Tom Vanderbilt
read by David Slavin
2008

Since I’m listening to audiobooks on my commute, I figured I might as well listen to one about traffic patterns. This was not my best idea ever. Not only does the reader try to input emotional import into every single one of his sentences to make it sound important and high energy and highly emotional (not what I want first thing in the morning as I drive in or after a long day’s work), but it also has a tendency to tell me what the average person’s commute is like and how people with longer commutes are unhappy with those commutes. I dislike being told I should dislike something that I don’t currently dislike. Look, there are enough things in the world that I do dislike, that I don’t need to acquire more just to fit in! And yet, I start double-guessing myself: am I unhappy with my commute? Should I be? Urg.

But aside from all that, it’s still a really interesting book.

While not in specific sections, this book addresses traffic in three different ways: as a psychologist about human behaviors, as a game theorist about best options, and as historian about stories. As it turns out, I really enjoy the stories (did you know that LA traffic has a central command hub that is largely automated except for Oscar night where there are people literally manipulating the light cycles to try to get the limousines all through? Because I hadn’t and I love it!), I find the game theory interesting (when lanes merge, late merging benefits everyone, so don’t merge until you absolutely have to!), and I find the psychology really, really irritating (as stated above, I don’t like people telling me what I do or do not think, and I’m not sure whether it’s worse when they’re wrong or when they’re right.)

Overall I do recommend the book and have found that even as I waited a month or so to actually post about this, that many of the stories and concepts have stuck with me.

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

HowToBeAloneHow to Be Alone
written by Jonathan Franzen
read by Jonathan Franzen and Brian d’Arcy James
2002

Franzen starts out introducing this book of essays with some reflection about how angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing he had once been as a younger man, and I’m listening to the remaining essays, glad that he’s found his own sense of self-improvement but also realizing that these essays are the most angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing that I’ve ever read/listened to. In large part because I actively avoid the genre I would normally typify as Guy-in-your-MFA High Literature, but this is a set of nonfiction essays by a literary author and I have a commute, so I might as well listen to this one through to the end. With each successive CD, I had to convince myself anew to complete it if only just to write this review.

He discusses a variety of issues that I actually find moderately interesting, if depressing: the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Report scandal, the problems with the Chicago postal service, the internal conflict between research departments and legal departments in the tobacco industry, the for-profit prison industry, the commercialization of sex. However, his essays are like op-ed pieces where he presents himself as speaking for “the silent majority” who all agree with him, and is distraught by the “cheap attacks” of naysayers with their statistics and surveys pointing out that he is, in fact, in the minority. The facts of a given situation are quickly overwhelmed by his personal interpretations. He is the everyman and speaks for everyone.

He states that High Literature = The Social Novel = Tragic Realism, and that all of these are best demonstrated by being about the unmarked straight white male. I generally avoid any modern novel calling itself “Literature” because it seems to me to be a genre made up of unpleasant people living unpleasant lives. Franzen agrees, except he thinks this is a good thing.

In fact, he seems to be carefully cultivating his own dissatisfaction with life. He’s not glorifying the problems of the world, per se, but glorifying his own knowledge of those problems, throwing it in contrast to the bourgeoisie others who “don’t fully understand.”
Part of his unhappiness is based on his apparent belief that being lauded by the masses is his proper default state and thus nothing to take pleasure in, while anyone not actively being impressed by him is taking something away from him. He is insulted that his demands for solitude and privacy are met without demure. He’s bemoaning the loss of his rape fantasy: he wants to be able to say “no” to demands for his opinion and then have that “no” disregarded.

As he bemoans the loss of interest in “real” literature, he remarks without any acknowledged irony, that publishers are instead publishing more works done by women and people of color. These he considers genre rathe than literature, by default. He argues that authors should not pander to the masses while also despairing that the masses do not like his books as much as they should. (Keep in mind that this is the complaint of an award-winning author.)

I can understand, in theory, that it must be very hard for straight, white men who have long been told that their concerns are universal, and that other’s concerns are merely genre issues, to be confronted with the discovery that they are actually just one more demographic. I can understand that it is a hardship for them all, and this author in particular. But I can’t managed to dredge up much actual sympathy.

In contrast, I realize that he is likely creating the background against which hopepunk and solarpunk have developed. And that, I think, is a gift.