Thursday, April 23, 2015

#20 [2015/CBR7] "What If?" by Randall Munroe

My interest in science and space has grown exponentially from practically non-existent to almost moderate thanks to The Martian, and now, What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (2014) by Randall Monroe. Reading detailed, scientific answers with lots of math and equations that I don't understand isn't normally my thing. So I was afraid when I picked up What if? that it might turn into a plod. Fortunately Munroe exceeded my expectations, entertaining me throughout and even teaching me a thing or two.

The key to this book is buried in the rather clear description printed in the title: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. I hadn't heard of Randall Monroe before reading this book, but according to the book cover, he is a former NASA roboticist and popular blogger. Apparently about half the questions in this book are popular questions from his blog while the other half are new. Following are examples of some of Munroe's absurd questions.

What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person? Were they lonely?

Which U.S. state is actually flown over the most?

If an asteroid was very small but supermassive, could you really live on it like the Little Prince?

How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?

What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?

How much force power can Yoda output?

And here are the reasons I found this book entertaining and enlightening:
-The questions and answers are short. If I hit a question that didn't capture my interest or felt like I was drowning in unintelligible math, I knew it would be over soon.

-The comics (this book is filled with fantastic hand-drawn comics and illustrations) and irreverent approach to explaining the world provided a good balance with real discussion of  physics and math.

-Every once in a while, Munroe hits you with an insightful, almost philosophical, view of the world.

-Munroe's obvious humor and intelligence reminded me of the main character of The Martian.

-And finally, Munroe sparked in me an interest in space and an urge to better understand how the world works. In fact, I've never been so interested in physics since struggling through my physics class in high school. Actually, I think the problem in high school is that I wasn't interested in physics. If only Munroe had been my teacher! This was a good book; I'd recommend it.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

#19 [2015/CBR7] "Big Little Lies" by Liane Moriarty

I started seeing a lot of reviews for Big Little Lies (2014) by Liane Moriarty on Cannonball, so I jumped on the bandwagon before I could get too far behind. Of course, I am behind because tons of people have already read it, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable for me. I picked up Big Little Lies with practically no knowledge of the narrative and only a hopeful feeling that others had recommended it. The premise of the book is that a parent--it is not clear who--was murdered on Trivia Night at the local school. The book builds up to that fateful night as it dissects the many relationships, problems, and grudges that could have led to such a thing.

We begin in an Australian suburb in a beautiful seaside town and focus on three mothers of children in the local Kindergarten class. Jane is a single mother, new to the area and visibly battling some demons. She barely eats, constantly chews gum, and has low self esteem. Celeste is perfectly beautiful and married to the perfectly beautiful and incredibly rich, Perry. She is the mother of two rambunctious but adorable twin boys. But she does not fit the stereotype of rich socialite mother, caring little about her appearance and often uncomfortable with her wealth. Like almost everyone in this town, there is much more going on in her life than what we first see. Finally, Madeline is happily married and the mother of three children, the youngest of which is in the kindergarten class. Madeline is the kind of person who could easily be really annoying. She is loud, opinionated, and loves confrontation. Yet she is also smart, loyal, and protective. Madeline immediately takes Jane under her wing, and it is a visceral relief when Madeline stands up for her when she can't stand up for herself. I loved Madeline.

When Jane's son, Ziggy, is accused of bullying behavior, the suburban drama ratchets up a notch as hysterical parents rely on rumor and prejudice to guide their actions. On the surface, this book may seem merely like women bickering over inconsequential issues, but I was surprised that I cared so much about their day-to-day lives. I never thought a fictional, lost stuffed hippo would stress me out so much.

The unique presentation of this story and humorous and sarcastic portrayal of its characters often reminded me of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? But more than anything, this book reminded me of Jane Austen. Even though the story is exaggerated, there is an underlying truth to her characters and their feelings. It reminded her of trying to be friends with an ex-boyfriend. That studied casualness of your interactions. The fragility of your feelings, the awareness that the little quirks of your personality were no longer so adorable; they might even be just plain annoying. Moriarty has a gift for creating real and memorable characters. It really says something that I was able to remember the names of all of the major characters in this book without looking them up. Usually, I don't even remember the protagonists' names, but I felt like I knew these people.

I will definitely be reading more of Moriarty.

***SPOILERS***--Seriously, don't read this if you haven't read the book.

One of the themes of this book is of men doing shitty things to women, especially violence against women. You have the wife beater and mean rapist, the guy who leaves his wife and infant child, the many fathers who cheated on their spouses with the French nanny, and Bonny's abusive father. It is when the women begin to talk about what they're going through that they realize how it's affecting everyone and start to heal.

Fortunately, not all the guys are bad. Madeline's husband Ed is pretty cool. And Tom, of course. And even the bad guy is three dimensional, not just a demon. In addition, Nathan may have left his wife and infant child, but he regrets it now and is much more involved with his now teenage daughter and new family.

I spent a lot of this book trying to figure out who was going to die. I was almost immediately pretty attached to Jane, Celeste, and Madeline, and I was afraid it was going to be one of them. I did figure out pretty fast that one of the twins was the bully. I'm not sure if it was obvious or because I used to volunteer at a women's shelter. I also figured that Tom wasn't gay when he forced Harper (the most annoying character in the world) and her husband out of the coffee shop. He was just a little too passionate about Jane, and I was hopeful for her. Anyway, I thought Celeste was going to die. Although it turned out much better than I expected, it's the only part of the book that didn't feel quite real to me.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

#18 [2015/CBR7] "It's What I Do" by Lynsey Addario

I saw Lynsey Addario on The Daily Show promoting her book: It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War (2015). Jon Stewart was obviously impressed, and even though Addario is just 41, she seems to have already lived a remarkable life. On the show Addario talked about photography, getting kidnapped in Libya, and the struggle to balance her work with being a wife and mother.

Because Addario's photographs are scattered throughout this book, I'd recommend reading the hardcover book rather than the Kindle version. I don't know how well those would come out in an e-book. And I would recommend this book. It's a glimpse into what it takes for us [the privileged people lucky enough to be born in peaceful, developed countries] to see what's going on in the rest of the world. Even with the pictures, it's often too easy to forget how people are struggling for their lives in other parts of the world. I find it remarkable that journalists and photographers choose to risk their lives to get these images to us. Even if they escape physical harm, the psychological toll is still extreme. Perhaps what struck me most was Addario's dedication to her job, giving up stability and comfort to follow wherever violence and suffering led her.

Addario introduces us to her life as a child growing up in an unconventional household. As soon as she could, she was traveling and photographing, living first in South America and then in Turkey as she gained professional experience. She's been in incredibly dangerous situations and describes both the dulling of fear in the war zone as well as the camaraderie in the international journalism community.

In addition to an inside look into war photography, Addario has the unique perspective of  being a woman in a very male-dominated field. Addario's gender sometimes became an issue when she was groped taking photographs or trying to get access to Taliban members. But it also made personal relationships very difficult. Many of the male journalists had long-term relationships with women waiting for them back in the States, but men were less willing to tolerate the danger, schedule, and constant traveling required of Addario. When Addario finally found her perfect partner, one who supported her work, she struggled with the idea of motherhood and how that would impact her career. "I tried to imagine my life as a mother--struggled to envision a female role model in conflict photography--and I couldn't think of a single female war photographer who even had a stable relationship." (312)

I enjoyed this book more than I was expecting, and it changed my perspective in some ways. If I had any criticism, it is that I often wanted to know more as I read. Many of the photographs did not have captions. Even though these photographs fit into the general narrative of the book, I wanted to know more specifics. There were also a number of situations in the book where I would have preferred more contextual information: either about Addario's feelings, the situation on the ground, the people she's photographing, or what happened to them after. I realize, however, that photographs are just one still moment, a glimpse into people's lives. That glimpse can be powerful and informative even when it doesn't give us all the information--just like this book.

"But when I am doing my work, I am alive and I am me. It's what I do. I am sure there are other versions of happiness, but this one is mine." (22).

#17 [2015/CBR7] "The Martian" by Andy Weir

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now h'es sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded on Mars' surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he's alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive.

Doesn't that sound fascinating? I'm not a huge science-fiction reader, but that premise sucked me in like you wouldn't believe. I guess I like survival stories. The Martian by Andy Weir was published back in 2011, but I hadn't heard anything about it until recently. Now I think they're even making it into a movie with Matt Damon.

The hype and the promising blurb did not disappoint. I was immediately sucked into this story and couldn't stop reading. According to the back cover of the book, the author "is a lifelong space nerd and devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight." And it shows. Weir has found the perfect balance between believable scientific details of living on Mars with a suspenseful survival story. Watney is an admirable character: smart, funny, and a man of great ingenuity and optimism. I enjoyed reading about him and wanted him to succeed.

I went into this book knowing very little about its structure or what was going to happen, and I think that was a good thing. So, if you haven't read The Martian yet but want to, then I'd recommend that you stop reading my review right now and go read the book. If not, then be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

There are a lot of details when it comes to keeping Mark Watney alive, so Weir did not have a lot of time to develop other characters in the book, but he does a remarkable and creative job with the space he uses. Watney's team on the ship heading back to Earth are introduced primarily through a short letter Watney sends to them. In addition, the prominent players at NASA are all memorable and unique.

Because Mark is such a positive character, Weir does not delve too deeply into the psychological trauma and fear that is bound to come with being alone on Mars for such a long time. However, there are still a number of moments that are deeply touching. When NASA first discovers that Mark is alive and when Mark finally makes contact with NASA are the two that first come to mind, although there are others. I got so involved in Mark's life that I didn't want the book to end. I could have easily read another hundred pages. I hope the movie does this book justice.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

#16 [2015/CBR7] "Sharp Objects" by Gillian Flynn

It wasn't hard for me to determine that Sharp Objects (2006) is the creepiest and most disturbing of Gillian Flynn's novels to date. And that's saying a lot. Although I believe Flynn's writing improves in her future books, I was impressed and disturbed by her ability to create a setting so dark and haunting. Camille Preaker, is a 30-something, struggling reporter in Chicago when her editor sends her back to her tiny hometown to cover the potentially sensational disappearance of an adolescent girl--shortly after another girl was found murdered. Camille reluctantly heads back to her childhood home to stay with her mother, step-father, and her 13-year-old half-sister while she reports on the investigation

It is clear from the start that Camille comes from a dysfunctional family and struggles with detrimental, addictive behavior. However, Flynn takes her time in giving us the details, so it is well into the book before we really understand her situation. This could get a little frustrating and confusing in the beginning of the book, and the writing sometimes felt jerky--especially compared to Flynn's other novels. However, I quickly became so immersed in all of these horrible characters peopling this small town, that it didn't bother me for long. 

And that's what I remember most about this novel. There was not one character that I really liked. I sympathized with Camille, and I couldn't imagine living in her situation, but it stressed me out to spend most of the book cringing at her decisions. My inner monologue was a looping stream of, "Oh God, don't do that. Please stop. Don't do that. Ugh." The entire town was a cesspool of humanity that had forgotten basic kindness and normal social interactions. And the area was so small and isolated that a healthy outside influence was impossible. "It was a town that bred complacency through cable TV and a convenience store." The way people treated each other was horrifying. There were strict judgments about money, class, and sex, yet nasty bullying and psychopathic behavior were simply accepted.

Yet, even though this novel gave me nightmares for about a week, Flynn is an intense, unique writer and I'd recommend Sharp Ojbects to anyone who doesn't mind the darkness and dysfunction.

SPOILER ZONE:
As the title implies, Camille dealt with her early childhood trauma by cutting herself. She cut words that were haunting her into every inch of her skin except for one perfect circle in the middle of her back that she could never reach. Fresh out of rehab, and free from cutting--if not the impulse--for the first time since she was a teenager, Camille has to face the reasons she began cutting in the first place as well as trying to live with the literal scars of her past.

When Camille begins to date a big-city detective brought in to help with the investigation, she hides her scars from him. As much as it disturbs me to say I relate to Camille, I understand the feeling of fearing intimacy with someone because there are things you don't like about yourself that will be shared as you get closer. Camille's situation is similar but brought to an incredible extreme. And I felt so bad for her because she can't outgrow her past. She will always be hiding her scars. As long as she dresses carefully, Camille is a remarkably attractive woman, but you look a little closer and she's turned herself into something of a disfigured monster. 

And that brings me to the one point of the book I found hard to accept. I couldn't figure out how Richard, a smart and intuitive detective, could date and have sex with Camille without observing or figuring out that she was a cutter. Her entire body is covered in scars, which often creep up near her sleeves and neckline. Did he never wonder why Camille always wore so much clothing in the heat of summer? Why she never let him touch her? How do you even have sex with that much clothing and that little touching? Even if he wasn't much interested in her, she is the key to his murder suspect and you'd think he'd want to understand her better.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

#15 [2015/CBR7] "Blood Promise" by Richelle Mead (Vampire Academy, Book 4)

I've been steadily working my way through the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead ever since I got sucked into the first one. Hmmm...let me clarify, the books are fun and quick reads. The part of this process that is slow is getting the books from the library. There's not a huge waitlist, but there also aren't too many copies.

Blood Promise (2009) is the fourth out of six novels about Rose Hathaway, a dhampir (half-human and half-vampire), her best friend Lissa (a nice vampire with special powers), and her studly love interest Dmitri (a fellow dhampir). It wouldn't make any sense to jump into this series on Book 4, and my review won't be helpful for anyone who hasn't read at least the first four books. I'm also going to be throwing spoilers around left and right. So if you have any interest, I'd recommend picking up Book 1 and starting from there, while forgetting the rest of this review.

At the end of Book 3 Dmitri has been turned Strigoi and Rose has just dropped out of school to keep her promise to find him and kill him. With no idea where he might be, Rose heads off to Dmitri's hometown in Siberia to search for him. Along the way, she meets Dmitri's matriarchal family, learns about alchemists (humans who help vampires navigate the world without giving themselves away), and kills some Strigoi. At the same time, Lissa is still in school, struggling with her separation from Rose, and facing her own challenges.

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book as the scope widened from campus grounds to an entirely new country and culture. I also liked that Mead used flashbacks of Rose and Dmitri's that she hadn't used in earlier books, so I felt like I continued to learn new things about their relationship. There was a bit of a lull in the middle as Mead set up all the circumstances she needed for her finale, but once the shit hit the fan, there was no going back, and I was hooked for the rest of the book. I think this is often a pattern with this series. It starts out well, slows down in the middle, then picks up again to throw you into the next book. I guess it would be better without the lull in the middle, but you can't have everything.

I went into this book thinking that there must have been some misunderstanding, and Rose would somehow find Dmitri unchanged. I was surprised to find I was wrong and probably even more surprised when Mead turned Rose into a weak, bite-addict yearning only for the monster she came to kill. I wasn't sure how she was going to get out of that one. It takes some nerves to turn your teenage heroine into an addicted "blood whore." Mead constantly flirts with the line between interesting and inappropriate. Mead began with the illicit relationship between a teacher and a student and she takes it even farther here.

As I read this book, I was constantly imagining it in my head as a movie with the actors from the first film. However, I was disappointed when I looked it up and found that they're not making any more Vampire Academy movies. Apparently the first one was a flop. Even though it's not perfect, I find these books significantly more fun and entertaining than the Twilight series. It's a shame that it never found its audience. Now I have to rely on my imagination to bring it to life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

#14 [2015/CBR7] "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

I honestly can't remember how I ended up reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012) by Charles Duhigg. I must have seen it somewhere, and I like books that can teach me something. Depending on the day and my motivation, I can have significant problems with procrastination and efficiency. I am so idealistic and optimistic when it comes to planning everything I want to get done, and then reality sets in. I think picking up this book was a concrete (but still kind of procrastinating) way of working on these issues.

Duhigg wrote a generally interesting, and in some ways, informative book. He begins by describing the pattern of habits and shows how once they are engrained, we often follow habits without thinking. Our brain creates shortcuts to make our lives easier, but it is also what makes bad habits so hard to break. The pattern of habits involve a "cue" that signals your brain to perform the "routine," to receive the "reward" that your brain is craving. For instance, smokers may have a "cue" of drinking at a bar. The routine is to light up, and the reward might be the rush of nicotene. The trick is to figure out the cues and rewards and find a new routine to replace the one you don't like. Cues are almost always one of these five things: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action.

Almost all of the above information was useful, interesting, and focused. It was also almost all in the first chapter. But Duhigg had an entire book to fill. And even though he filled it with interesting stories, I felt he got widely off topic in an effort to find things to discuss. He never clearly defines "habit" and what it means, and his anecdotes didn't seem to have much to do with habits when it comes down to it. Sometimes I felt he was being downright disingenuous in order to keep a story in his book, which drove me crazy.

For example, Duhigg mentioned that people who improve one part of their lives, often improve other aspects of their lives as well. So, if a person began an exercise program at the gym, that person might also start eating better and even watching their spending. Duhigg called this strengthening a "willpower habit" [what?], but is it really willpower or are people feeling more control over their lives and feeling better about themselves? It's certainly an interesting study, but there is no real discussion of the possible causes and Duhigg's insistence to fit it into a "habit" model decreases its value.

Another example of this is when Duhigg stated that students who were treated kindly in a study that required them to not eat chocolate chip cookies did better on a later computer test than students who were treated poorly. Again, Duhigg somehow chalks this up to "willpower habit," but I think it's simply that people are more willing to work hard for people they like. The same goes for the study that shows giving employees a sense of control over their jobs improved job performance. Interesting studies, and possibly helpful, but throwing "habit" in there is just confusing.

Subsequent chapters involving Target's advertising and Rosa Parks seem similarly off topic. I did find the discussion of Target's analysis of its customers both disturbing and fascinating, though. I liked how the Target analyst stated, "With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly [that Target is tracking what you buy and can tell you are pregnant before you even tell anyone]." React badly? That's one way to put it. Or you could say, react like a normal person who feels their privacy is being violated.

Finally, and these chapters bothered me the most, was the comparison between a sleepwalker who murdered his wife in a night terror and a compulsive gambler. Again, both of these stories are interesting on their own. In fact, compulsive gambling actually fits in with some of the AA stories Duhigg discussed in the first chapter. However, sleepwalking is not a habit. Duhigg states that, "Society, as embodied by our court and juries, has agreed that some habits are so powerful that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices, and thus we're not responsible for what we do." What? No. Just no.

To be charged with murder the prosecutor has to prove that the defendant had the intent to kill. You can't have that intent if you are asleep and do not know what you are doing. It has nothing to do with habits. In the gambling case, which I was so irritated by, I had to look it up, it seems that the focus on appeal was the aggressive tactics used by the casino, even when it was obvious she was addicted and had told them that she was broke. And the gambler was liable for the money she spent because addiction is not an excuse under the law, and corporations are not required to be moral.

I like learning new things and I appreciate authors who dig in to find the truth in something or find a new way to look at the world. Alternatively, I hate it when I am misinformed, and I feel like that happened in almost every chapter in this book. Duhigg was too focused on shoehorning stories into his main topic, and on the way, the truth of these stories became twisted. I have very little patience or tolerance for this kind of thing. Honesty is more important than anything to me, and so this bothers me more than it might others. Thus, even though this book was a generally interesting read, I probably won't read another by Duhigg because I don't trust him.