Lollygagger’s Cannonball Read V Review #42: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

This is my second Mary Roach book of this Cannonball read, and the fact that it popped into my queue right now is perfect, because Gravity is out and I cannot wait to see it.

I was excited to read this because when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. Not enough to get into the physics and astronomy track in college, or enlist in the air force, or really do anything to actively pursue that career path, but enough that to this day I still think that if I win the lottery I plan to squirrel away a chunk of the change to pay my way into space (after donating the vast majority of it to charity, of course.)

The premise is not just exploring space travel, but specifically extended space travel. Ms. Roach does a great job of weaving in the history of space travel through specific areas from eating space food to … eliminating said food. There are so many wonderful facts, great footnotes and just fun stories. She gets to ride the vomit comet (i.e. the parabolic flight), interview groundbreaking (atmosphere-busting?) astronauts, scientists and others.

The book is especially interesting because it doesn’t sugar-coat anything about space travel. I didn’t realize, for example, that some of the early space flights involved two dudes hanging out in a capsule for two weeks, no ability to wash or really take care of any personal hygiene needs. Or how much fecal matter can end up floating around in the space shuttle, and how much research and development had to go into creating a toilet, or how much effort goes into creating food that allows for a little more time between … evacuations.

Along the way of telling the story of all the challenges that are increased on a long space trip, Ms. Roach drops great little bits of knowledge. For example, she explains how the flag on the moon looked like it was blowing in the wind even though there isn’t wind on the moon, and talks about why people get motion sickness. There are so many awesome nuggets that it’s worth it for anyone who is into trivia.

You know the drill. It’s Mary Roach. It’s good. You’ll probably like it. Add it to the list.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #41: Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

As you may have read yesterday, I loved Bridget Jones’s Diary. It was fun, honest, shallow, deep. Everything I want in a quick read. So naturally I downloaded the second Bridget Jones book. Still a quick read, still entertaining, probably not as great, but still fun.

Spoilers ahead, sort of.

This book starts with our heroine still dating Mark Darcy. There are some challenges, and they spend the better part of the year apart, possibly due to a scheming ‘friend’ who has decided that SHE belongs with Mark Darcy, not Bridget. There are bits that made me somewhat uncomfortable – basically the entire storyline involving Bridget’s mother and a trip to Africa – but there were also a lot of moments where I genuinely laughed. There’s also an entire chapter that I admit to reading with one eye closed because OH MY GOD EMBARRASSING. If you’ve read this book, I think you know the chapter. Ah, Colin Firth.

This book has a few more absurd components than the first one, and I have to say that I was a bit annoyed that the same plot device from the first book – Horrible Legal Misunderstanding Fixed by Dashing Mark Flying Somewhere To Fix It – was unnecessary and seemed to be a bit … lazy? I mean, it worked in the first one, so perhaps Ms. Fielding felt if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? I don’t know. The second half of the Thailand storyline was ridiculous, but the first? I do have to admit that I didn’t see it coming. So there’s that.

Also, there’s a weird language issue – I don’t know if this is an England thing, and I don’t recall it from living there a year, but instead of referring to someone as Asian, the author has the characters saying ‘oriental.’ That’s … not right. And was jarring every time I saw it.

I don’t see myself re-reading this book, but I am still excited for the third installment. I like Bridget. I don’t know if I would be friends with her, but I’m invested. She can be shallow, but I do think Ms. Fielding has written her with a good heart. She’s flawed but she’s not insufferable. I want good things for her.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #40: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

This book is so good.

I saw the movie. I laughed at the idea that Renée Zellwegger was fat. I drooled a bit over Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy. I loved the screw-up at work where Bridget claimed she was on the phone with an author who had, unbeknownst to her, died three decades earlier, when the word fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck scrolled across the bottom of the screen. I recognized the friendship archetypes.

The book isn’t better, or worse. It’s different, and frankly, I thought it was fantastic. I was expecting a sad, ridiculous stereotype of a woman – instead the Bridget Jones in print is a complex woman who isn’t overly intellectual but isn’t flighty or ridiculous. She’s living in a world where she’s been told what her value is in terms of looks and in terms of her marriagability. She is rational, then irrational, then rational again.

The book has a somewhat similar storyline to the film – there is a relationship with her boss Daniel, there is a disdain, then attraction, then disdain, then attraction with Mark Darcy, all her friends are accounted for – but there are also some diversions. For example, she has a brother in the book. And her mother’s journey takes something of a dark turn. But the core of the book – and of Bridget herself – remains.

I’m newly married, and I only spent one year as properly single in my 30s. However, I could relate to so much of Bridget’s internal monologue. Some of it was so ridiculous – like when she leaves a potential sex partner because she doesn’t want to just fuck around, and has this triumphant feminist moment … then muses “I may have been right, but my reward, I know, will be to end up all along, half-eaten by an Alsatian” – but still relate-able. She’s so hard on herself – tracking her daily food consumption, her weight, her cigarette intake – and beating herself up with each weight fluctuation.

One favorite part is when she somehow manages to get her weight down to her goal, and everyone comments that she looks a bit tired, and looked ‘better before.’ “Now I feel empty and bewildered…Eighteen years – wasted. Eighteen years of calorie- and fat-unit-base arithmetic…I feel like a scientist who discovers that his life’s work has been a total mistake.” Observations like that – as well as the one that she has lost 72 pounds and gained 74 pounds over the course of the year – are real, at least, to me, and they represent the constant struggle many women face, and how they feel they can’t win. I’ve been there. Shoot, I live there.

She’s also hard on herself when it comes to work, and men. Whenever she has a flash of self-confidence or makes an attempt to start fresh, something inevitable pops up to derail her. Sometimes it’s silly, but most of the time it seems fairly realistic. It’s not like everything is bad, always, but there is this sort of constant underlying stress. It’s not the same stress as someone who is facing poverty, or racism, or anything so serious, but it’s that steady undercurrent saying you aren’t thin enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough, or enough like society wants you to be (i.e. married and having children). It’s the stress of wanting to fit convention, then buck it, then fit it again.

The book feels light and deep at the same time. I’m sure if I spent more time analyzing it I could find some problems to dissect (is she an active agent, or does she fixate her life around finding a mate?) but I kind of don’t want to spend more time focusing on it because I don’t want to ruin a really fun reading experience.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #39: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Content Note: Discussion of depression, mental illness, suicide.

I’ve seen the movie – the one that won Angelina Jolie her best supporting actress Academy Award, the one starring Winona Ryder and featuring Whoopie Goldberg as the head nurse. It’s the one about a young, white, middle-class woman who commits herself into a psychiatric institute at the direction of a therapist. I felt some sort of inexplicable connection with it the first time I saw it, to the point where I ended up purchasing it. On VHS. I found a DVD of it at a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago. It reminded me that I wanted to read the book it was based on.

I should say loosely based on, because the book painted a much sparser picture than the film. In the book, Ms. Kaysen does tell some stories about the women she encountered while at the facility, and those women were definitely present in the film, but some of the stories in the film differ. There isn’t the same overlap, and clearly the narrative arcs of those women were expanded to make for a more involved film. It’s also possible that Ms. Kaysen shared more information with the screenwriters to flesh out those women for the film.

The book stands well on its own though. It is disjointed at times – it’s not a straight through memoir, but instead a collection of essays – but there is a lot of wisdom in the writing. The author has clearly had time to reflect on what her diagnosis (Borderline Personality Disorder) meant then and means to her now, as the book was written 25 years after she was discharged from the facility. For example, her discussion of her suicide attempt is really interesting – she thinks of it as wanting to kill only part of herself – “the part that wanted to kill myself” – which is both pretty meta but also makes a lot of sense. She also describes mental illness as coming in two forms: slow and fast, or ‘viscosity’ and ‘velocity’.’ “Viscosity causes the stillness of disinclination; velocity causes the stillness of fascination. An observer can’t tell if a person is silent and still because inner life has stalled or because inner life is transfixingly busy.

The book is also interesting as a study (although again, a sparse one) of the facility itself. Kaysen describes it quite vividly, but she describes the feel of it even better: “For many of us, the hospital was as much a refuge as it was a prison. Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off from the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy.

The author clearly struggled with whether she really was ‘crazy’ enough to be in the facility – some of the other residents seemed to have much deeper mental health concerns than she did. Was she being self-indulgent? Was she just someone who didn’t accept the rules everyone else accepted, and did that make her crazy, or just different? Or both? And would she have been viewed differently if she had expressed the same feelings and taken the same action but were a young man, not a young woman, in the late 1960s?

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this area. It was a very quick read for me (only a couple of hours) but I do feel like I got a lot out of it. I wish there had been more, so I’m going to look at some of her other work, as I did enjoy her writing style. Her self-awareness and introspection could come across as navel-gazing in less competent hands; instead the book provided me with an interesting introductory look at how mental health is viewed.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #38: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe

I was not aware of Mr. Kluwe (punter, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, currently of the Oakland Raiders) until he wrote his now famous letter, posted on Deadspin, ripping a Maryland elected official a new one for suggesting that football players should not be able to speak out in favor of civil rights. In fact, an attempt to replace the vulgarity in that letter (lustful cockmonster) resulted in the title of the book (Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies).

The book is not a memoir; it is a collection of essays – some previously printed, some new for the book. It’s Mr. Kluwe’s way of sharing his thoughts about life. Some chapters focus on football (though not all, nor even most); most focus on his ideas about how we can improve society. He suggests that the things he values most in life are empathy, justice and truth, and spends time discussing his support for equal rights for gay and lesbian people.

I really wanted to like this book. Like, kind of desperately. I follow Mr. Kluwe on Twitter (@ChrisWarcraft), and have enjoyed his 140-character comments. I also fully agree that just because people are in a position such as he is (celebrity, well-known football player, generally famous person) they don’t forfeit their rights to have an opinion. He seems to be a progressive libertarian, although I’m not sure he’d agree with that, because from reading the book (especially the entertaining chapter ‘Who is John Galt”) I get the idea that he is not a big fan of libertarians. However, possibly accidentally, much of what he says shows a distinct lack of empathy in areas, and a few of his statements read like they came right out of the straight white libertarian bro guidebook.

Perhaps I’m judging him unfairly; I had admittedly high expectations, and since he has cleared the bar of basic human decency of recognizing that gay and lesbian people are, you know, people, I think I was looking for him to hold similarly progressive views in other areas. Perhaps he does, but doesn’t realize how his words come across. Let me share some examples (jotted down into Evernote when I was listening to the book, so I won’t have exact quotes):

– The way he characterizes welfare came across as at least partially buying in to the bullshit ‘welfare queen’ concept. Mr. Kluwe seems to fully recognize that people do need help from others (see the aforementioned John Galt essay), but his words suggest that there’s a short window there, and that if someone is on it longer than his pre-determined length of time, then they are just milking the system. Eh. Really? That’s not a nuanced view.

– One section gave me the impression that he thinks unions are bad, and that union workers are lazy people who have no incentive to work hard. That was definitely off-putting and disappointing.

– He made a prison rape joke (of the ‘don’t drop the soap’ variety). Really? That’s empathy?

– He’s super self-righteous when it comes to atheism. He appeared to willfully misinterpret the definition so that he could claim that he’s morally superior because he calls himself ‘agnostic.’ I’d like to point out to Mr. Kluwe that the majority of atheists out there would certainly believe in god if there were actual evidence; their stance is that CURRENT evidence is insufficient. They aren’t claiming to know definitively that there is not a god, so the argument that they are just as irrational as religious people is not only super old, but super incorrect.

– His go-to voice (I got the audio-book) when he wants the person speaking to sound unintelligent is a southern accent. That’s regionalist and not cool.

– Finally, he REALLY dropped the ball in understanding domestic violence. He essentially assumes people stay in those situations because they think things will get better, and they are just liars lying to themselves. Read up on domestic violence. Learn about it. DO NOT call the survivors who stay ‘liars.’ That’s insulting and shows an utter lack of the real issues around being able to leave. For example, one might certainly know things aren’t going to get better, but fear the whole BEING KILLED BY THEIR PARTNER WHEN THEY LEAVE thing. Not empathetic.

I can’t recommend the book. It’s fine, there are definitely some really good parts, and as I said, the writing is not bad.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #37: A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

I didn’t consume this book in the same manner as the first one in the series. It was on an e-reader instead of paperback, so that possibly had something to do with it; it wasn’t staring up at me from my nightstand, begging to be finished so it could take its rightful place on the bookshelf.

[Spoilers ahead]

As the title suggests, this book in the series focuses on the fights between Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Robb Stark and Joffrey Baratheon (Lannister). Joffrey continues to be a little shit, Renly makes a brief appearance before taking his leave thanks to a creepy death fog baby, Stannis gets all eaten up by some wildfire (well, his troops at least), and Robb wins some battles and loses some he isn’t even fighting (sorry Winterfell). Theon is also a shit, although one can sort of understand how he came to be shit. I have little sympathy for him, but I can imagine a world where he wouldn’t make such piss-poor decisions. Tyrion, as Hand of the King, makes some great decisions, plays and nearly beats Cersei at her own game, and is rewarded with a missing nose.

The women continue to be complex but also frustratingly bound by duties. Cersei is a fascinating character, and one whose perspective is not readily shared, so she’s also a bit of a mystery. When she loses it, it’s interesting. Sansa and Arya are going about their own adventures, both devastating in their own ways. And Daenerys remains in search of ships, braving some pretty rough going to find people who may help (or may not). Jon is also still beyond the wall, Bran and Rickon are doing … things, and Catelyn believes they are dead.

Much like last time, I found myself speed-reading the chapters focused on Arya and Tyrion. I was less interested in most of the rest, although the chapters providing the perspectives on the Blackwater Battle were difficult to put down. The chapters from Bran and Jon’s perspectives were especially boring to me (I just don’t find the beyond the wall stuff that interesting right now; silly political infighting is so much more my speed) and even Martin’s great writing couldn’t keep me interested if anything remotely shiny or pretty were nearby to distract me.

One thing that was sort of fun was seeing things that didn’t show up until the third season of the TV show. Because I’m still catching up to that, my images are colored by what I’ve seen on HBO; I’m looking forward to book three because I know there are things in there that have not yet made it on screen. As for a recommendation – yes. Of course. Read it if you like the TV show. Read it if you don’t like the TV show. Just read it.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #36: Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation by Aisha Tyler

Another audio book read by the author, another worthwhile Audible purchase.

You know Aisha Tyler. She was host of Talk Soup, started out as a stand-up comic, and once penned an epic take-down of those questioning her gamer cred (go read it now. I’ll wait). She’s the voice of Lana on Archer, one of the best shows on television. (Fun fact, my husband and I plan to name our next two kittens Lana and Archer, just so we can comically shout at them around the house. LANAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.)

I didn’t know that this is Ms. Tyler’s second book. I’ll have to check out the first one because this one?  Is funny. It’s not a traditional memoir, although it does appear to vaguely follow a steady chronology. The whole point of the book is for Ms. Tyler to point out some of the epic fails of her life, embracing the choices that other people would shake their heads at. Instead of shying away from the ill-advised mock-turtlenecks of her early acapella career, or ignoring the multiple times she’s had some challenges with fire, she tells the tales of her errors with colorful language, self-deprecation (where warranted) and a whole lot of self-awareness. The point of the book isn’t ‘learn from my mistakes’ so much as ‘I made mistakes and it was awesome, so go make some of your own to learn from.’

Because I listened to instead of read the book, I’m not easily able to quote specific lines that made me choke on my lunch or have to stifle a laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe (the danger of listening at work). But they are there, and they are many. The specifics of stories may not be relatable to you in some ways (perhaps you’ve never attended a kegger at a college, or flipped ass over teakettle on a rusty hobby horse), but the feelings, the decisions, the consequences – those are infinitely relatable.

The audio was a pure joy to listen to as well. Perhaps due in part to her experience as a voice-over actor, and part because these are her words, the stories jumped out of the headphones as vividly as if I’d been watching them as a flashback. I was close to tears during the thirty seconds where she imitates her dad telling the primary school-aged Aisha motivational phrases that the tiny she then repeated back. It’s good. So add it to your list for the next road trip / long flight / commute to work, as long as you’re okay with people staring at you when you occasionally laugh until you snort.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #35: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin

Are our feelings “a more reliable barometer than facts?” If you think you know something ‘in your gut,’ do you ignore the science that strongly suggests you are wrong?

I started this book before Jenny McCarthy was hired to be on The View, reminding many of us of how her activism has likey harmed so many children. While some are looking forward to seeing her strong personality come out while discussing the latest pop culture news with Whoopie Goldberg, others are frustrated that ABC would give her a platform that could ostensibly lead to more discussion about the myth that vaccines cause autism.

The Panic Virus is about much more than the vaccine vs. autism ‘controversy.’ It’s about science – the scientific method, the meaning of ‘theory’ in a scientific context, the fear of the unknown, the rights of the individual, and what we owe to each other. Mr. Mnookin doesn’t spend more than a chapter on Jenny McCarthy (although it is a fascinating one – did you know she was an indigo mom?), and Andrew Wakefield of course features but is not the main player. Science and families compete for the stage as Mr. Mnookin expertly weaves together the history of vaccine fear with the benefits of vaccines and the devastation of autism with the fatal consequences of pertussis on a baby too young to be vaccinated.

These two areas of focus fascinated me as I took this book in. What do parents owe their children – a vaccine against a disease few people have seen in recent years? A ‘better’ chance of not developing autism? What do community members owe to each other – helping to build the herd immunity if possible? Trusting science when it has repeatedly shown the lack of widespread harm of something?

I am not a parent. I am also not a scholar of vaccine history. I am, however, someone who appreciates science, and this book has laid out some of the amazing history of vaccines (including some moments that were extraordinarily poorly handled). It deals with the fact that some children are injured by vaccines, but not on the scale or in the ways that most folks who oppose vaccines claim. When a child with autism is shown with the distraught parents who argue that their child was a happy, perfect baby until immediately after he or she received the MMR vaccine, it’s hard not to empathize. The ‘one child injured by vaccines is one too many’ argument is pretty tough to accept, however, when one looks both at the STRONG evidence that vaccines do not cause the harm these parents claim coupled with the very clear reality that those who either cannot be vaccinated or who do not build immunity from the vaccine are at a real risk from those who refuse vaccines.

The politics of the different autism organizations, the piss poor media coverage, and the celebrity focus are all fascinating, but I was more intrigued by the broader debate over what we owe to each other. Can I be a good citizen if, knowing full well that I can get vaccinated, I choose not to, and then pass pertussis on to a friend’s baby who isn’t old enough to get the vaccine? Is there an obligation to act in the interest of others when the risk to yourself (or your child) is so much less than the risk to the community?

I highly recommend this book. It’s not horribly long, it’s interesting, it’s infuriating, and it’s an important topic to know and understand.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #34: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Meh.

Since one-word reviews are frowned upon at the Cannonball Read, I’ll elaborate. Like Sophia, who read this book prior (and whose review I should have read first), I had some issues with the depth of this book. I got some useful tips from it, and it was a pretty quick read (I read it in about three days), but I didn’t enjoy it. It was like watching a rerun of one of the filler episodes of Friends – it was fine, and I laughed a bit, but I could have been doing something better with my time. (And also like the characters in friends, the people in this book are affluent, white, and seem fake.)

That’s probably part of my problem. I don’t particularly like what this author presents of herself. While that doesn’t really matter with other books, it’s kind of a big deal with this style of book. There was an ‘aww shucks’ quality that is not my particular cup of tea. Additionally, this woman started from pretty high up on the happiness scale. Not that any happiness discussion should be limited to those who have been deeply unhappy, and I recognize that there is value in helping people improve their lives regardless of where they started from, but COME ON. This woman is rich. This woman has two healthy, adorable daughters that she clearly loves. Both the kids grandparents were alive as of the writing of the book, and her in-laws (whom she also adores) live around the corner. She makes a living following her passion. And all of that was BEFORE she started the Happiness Project.

But as I said, that doesn’t necessarily mean what she’s going to say doesn’t have value; it just means a whole hell of a lot of people aren’t going to be able to find much in common with her and so may find it a little hard to think that singing in the morning is really going to change things for them. And Ms. Rubin is clear that this is *her* happiness project, and that everyone’s will be different. But I’d be more inclined to start on my own if the one I’d just read hadn’t been so … weirdly lacking in self-awareness. For example, she talks about wanting to eat better but seems to applaud herself because she’s NOT going on a diet. She’s just … cutting out food groups entirely to lose weight. O-kay. And while she has the healthy view that you can’t change others, you can only change yourself, some of the discussions around trying to give up needing to be praised kind of make her husband look like he’s taking total advantage of her. And since I know about 300 pages worth of her marriage (i.e. next to nothing), I’ve no right to actually judge that relationship. But it was impossible to remove my thoughts on the author from what the author was saying.

Here’s my take-away: if you respond well to checklists, you’ve got an interest in somewhat saccharin writing, and you are looking for a dozen or so useful nuggets, sure. Add this to your list. Otherwise … no need. Shoot, you can even email me and I’ll send you the items I thought were the most useful if you’d really rather not bother.

Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #33: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire Book One by George R.R. Martin

I’ve watched all three seasons of A Game of Thrones and enjoyed them immensely. My husband has read all five of the books; I had not heard of them until the TV show started. I usually don’t go in for fantasy books (nothing about Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit appeals to me), although I did enjoy reading and watching the Harry Potter series. I think I enjoy magic, and castles, and ridiculous concepts of honor; I just didn’t realize that there were books out there that had the things I like without the things I don’t.

I bought the bullet and bought the first book at the airport before leaving on my honeymoon. We were taking five flights total, and while I had a kindle full of fun books to read, I knew that for about 20 minutes at the beginning and end of each flight I’d not be able to access it. So I figured it made sense to have a physical book that I could easily step away from (because I knew what was going to happen next) and that was broken down into such small chunks that I could stop and start without getting lost. This fit the bill perfectly.

I loved this book. I loved the narrative device, I loved the character development, I loved the writing. It’s clearly difficult to form my own visions of people and places now that I’ve seen actors and sets assigned to them, but that didn’t take away from the book for me. In fact, I think it helped me keep everything straight in my mind, at least as much as I could. We learn about so many different people in this first book that I think I might have been confused if I didn’t have the TV show in the back of my mind to jog my memory.

As seems to be the case with most people I’ve discussed this with, my favorite chapters are the ones dealing with Arya, Daenerys, and Tyrion. I like Arya’s spunk, Daenerys’ steadfastness, and Tyrion’s self-awareness and humor. I’m not so much interested in Bran, or Jon, or really any of the other Starks, and Sansa. Oh Sansa. The women in this book are interesting and not one-dimensional (except perhaps Sansa, at least initially); the men are complicated and not all just excited to pick up a sword. And while there were many brutal scenes involving poor treatment of women, I don’t get a misogynistic feeling from the writing. Martin has chosen to set the book in a fictional world but it still has a lot of the same issues (expressed in different ways) as we have in this one. I look forward to reading book two, and anticipate that it’s going to be very hard to fit any other books in between now and when I finish book five.