29 December 2011

Post 463: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley. ISBN: 9780307463531.

I'm always impressed when an author manages to make history engaging. Not that history is boring, but it's difficult to write what daily life was like in an interesting manner in order to set up for the more fantastic events that sometimes happen in the lives of individuals. Not only has Ridley accomplished this, but she has also managed to include how and why she interpreted primary documents the way she did.

I think this is something the up-and-coming scholars have trouble with. I know I had difficulty in interpreting historical information when I was working on my undergraduate thesis, but it is also important to realize that historical figures were people first and people always have ulterior motives in how they present themselves and why. This kind of analysis is just as important for interpreting information today. That trusted news source? They're still trying to sell you something, whether it's a subscription to the Sunday newspaper or to hold your interest long enough so that they can charge their advertisers premium prices for airtime. Hell, even I would sell you something if I could figure out how to monetize this blog in a way that would be a) worth the effort and b) not so incredibly annoying as to drive more traffic away than my crazy ideas already do.

I think people sometimes forget that even the most honest and well meaning of human beings are still human beings. We want to believe that our heroes are like the ones in the movies, but the movies are even less realistic than the news, although the line seems to get blurred more and more every day. The truth is not always what is presented to us in whole cloth; a story can easily be edited to give us details we will find inflammatory or mollifying depending on where it has been cut. So for those who think history is boring, I would say it depends on your view of it. While the excitement may not reach National Treasure heights,* for some of us there is still the thrill of the chase as we put on our detective hats to determine motive and opportunity for historical figures altering details of the story and present day historians for presenting them a certain way.

In the case of Baret, there were several persons on the ship who were determined to obscure when her identity as a female was revealed to them. Yet Ridley has sorted it our and given a plausible and likely reason for when Baret's identity was revealed; what it meant for Baret, her crew mates, and the officers on board; and how it affected the rest of her voyage and life. The chance to finally give Baret credit for her botanical and other scientific work must feel a bit like tracking down a surviving relative in order to return a family heirloom. While some of its original meaning may be lost, the story of its return becomes part of the legacy. Although Ridley has taken liberty in imagining how Baret must have felt, I took less issue with this than I would have otherwise because it made real the danger she undertook to accomplish what she did.

My review can be found on Goodreads.**
LibsNote: Review copy provided by publicist.
*Give or take Nicholas Cage's deadpan "acting" style.
**Since this post is fairly reviewy I will be adapting it for my review on Goodreads, just fyi so you don't feel like you're wasting your time if you choose to read both.

26 December 2011

Post 462: That's Disgusting

That's Disgusting by Rachel Herz. ISBN: 978039307647 (eGalley - publishes January 23, 2012).

Interesting choice of cover design, especially if you've read this book and realize what that face subconsciously signals. Strangely, this was not the original cover, which had a cute tiny snail creeping along on top of the black text box. Snails weren't heavily mentioned in the book, but it was a much more appealing cover. Anyway, makes you wonder who vets these and whether Herz had any say in it. Honestly, you can almost smell or imagine whatever it is that made this lady make the "poopy" face.

While I was reading this, I kept thinking about moments where someone else was disgusted and I wasn't. One of the more interesting ones was when I was volunteering for an Air Force closed channel news and media center. During this period, they took footage from an airplane crash. I happened to be in the room eating lunch while they were reviewing the footage. I was casually watching the edits when they realized I was in the room. Not only were they shocked that I was still there, but that I was also chowing down on a chicken sandwich. My tender age of about twelve also shocked them. In any case, I was chased out of the editing room by some very perturbed and squicked adults.

So why wasn't I grossed out enough to at least stop eating while I was watching this footage? Am I morally depraved because I was capable of looking at carnage without being grossed out? Did I "like" this kind of footage or in some way find it appealing?

The answer to the last two questions is no. I did not enjoy watching the footage, but neither did it bother me. For one thing, I was at an age where death did not seem applicable to me. I knew I would die some day, but that day seemed impossibly far away to my twelve year old self. According to Herz, being reminded of how vulnerable we are to death and/or bodily harm is something that can cause disgust. However, the human bodies that I saw on the screen did not look like bodies to me any more than mummies look like human bodies. Certainly there is a resemblance, but there was little recognizably human left to the remains. Had I been able to make out facial features, or had there been a perfectly untouched body part among the charred flesh I may not have been able to stomach the sight.

Finally, I believe my curiosity was raised more than my feelings of disgust. This was the first time I had seen real dead people. This sounds cold and callous on my part, but in some ways this is the reality of human beings. We are interested in things we haven't seen or experienced before, and we are likely to explore them, even at that risk of offending someone else. Had this been a plane full of people I knew, I might have felt differently, but they were all strangers, and there was not much I could offer to them other than prayers and the hope that their wishes regarding burial were both possible and fulfilled.

More recently however, I was exposed to a house that had been hoarded. That thoroughly disgusted me because the exposure was more direct. I felt disgusted being in the house, or even thinking about being in the house. Yet, I can watch an episode of Hoarders with a sort of fascination and only minor triggers of "yuck." It is interesting that things that we would find disgusting when faced with them directly are less disgusting when viewed from a distance or under other circumstances.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Advance Reader Copy provided by Netgalley.

24 December 2011

Post 461: a general update

Two more posts left for the year unless I decide to do a year in review, which I probably won't. Hope everyone is having a happy holiday, whichever holiday that may be. I will be attempting to enjoy it by holing myself up with a book and trying to avoid a mass cleaning of the house, or some other form of familial chaos. Now it's time for books and such.

That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz.
Finished this one already. Not bad, but a little heavy on the gender studies... which I have trouble accepting as accurate because it's terribly difficult to determine which gender differences are genuine biological or sociological differences. And since we will never be able to ethically raise children in a sociological vacuum it seems we will never have the answer to that question. Still worth reading, but mostly for the first chapter (which primarily talks about cultural foods) and the "harder" scientific information regarding what happens physiologically to our bodies when we are disgusted.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley.
This was a great book for anyone interested in how historians interpret information and account for any prejudices or ulterior motives in their resources, particularly primary documents. Ridley made this transparent without hindering the narrative of her work in any way. Baret was the first (known) woman (in recorded history) to circumnavigate the globe, particularly in a scientific role. There wasn't quite as much information on Baret's botanical work as I was hoping for, but her biographical details are incredible nonetheless.

The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflection on the Science of Food and Cooking edited by Cesar Vega, Job Ubbink, and Erik Van der Linden.
I had a chemistry professor who taught a course on cooking as/with chemistry. It was after I was able to take a class with him because I had already chosen my major, but I've always loved the idea. For one thing, teaching chemistry through cooking is likely to make it far more applicable and interesting, and for another... who doesn't like eating? Eating science just makes it 20% cooler.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt.
I am unfamiliar with Byatt's work, so I elected to read it when it showed up on Netgalley. From the description this sounds a bit like Pan's Labyrinth with Norse mythology and Nazis... and as a book instead of a movie. My interest, it is piqued. 

22 December 2011

Post 460: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. ISBN: 9780385340991.

Quite frankly, I think the reason this book was so well received among book bloggers and serial* readers is mainly because it is a love letter to reading. There are several book or reading related quotes that I think most of us would agree with, or at the very least be able to understand. Some examples include,
"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." Page 53.

“That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” Page 11-12
There are many others you can browse, just look at some that have been cherry picked by Goodreaders.

People who are drawn to reading seem to be attracted to it because of how it makes us feel. It is a means of connecting with people in our distant, but not too-distant, past. The experience of reading has changed little from its inception, and one can easily imagine a past reader having a similar experience or reaction as a present day or future reader. I think this is the overarching reason some people dislike eBooks so much. There is a technological divide and disconnect from our past when we read digital books. Most people in the past couldn't fathom the idea of digital books, much less the issues surrounding them (inability to lend, DRM, etc.) and the people in the future will likely have much better eReaders or technology with which to consume books than I can dream up.

I can understand their concern. Look at another central activity in this book: letter writing. It was more or less the same for ages, now you're lucky if you even get a Christmas card (and even luckier if it wasn't written on the computer). But there are people who still** hang on to letter writing, who enjoy having pen pals or trading art, stamps, and other non e-mail-ables through the post. Paper books are still more accessible, easier, and cheaper to read than their digital counterparts. And of course, they add a touch of romance to the reading experience. Sometimes literally.

Nikki from Vulpes Libris writes a heartwarming review.
LibsNote: Library sale table.
*If you have read at least four books in the past month and are currently in the middle of another, chances are you are a "serial" reader.
**I'm currently looking for pen pals by the way.

19 December 2011

Post 459: Uglies

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. ISBN: 9780689865381.

I could go for the obvious and talk about my feelings regarding "ugliness," but then how will you know I've read the book (you're all judging me aren't you)? But frankly, we could have that discussion more or less anytime, or you could ask me about it in the comments. No really, that's what they're there for.

Instead, a moment in the book that really stuck me was when Tally returned to Uglyville for the first time. She was comparing her situation to that of her friend (and boring, obvious love interest), whose home was destroyed:

"[...] her city still existed, right in front of her eyes--but emptied of everything it had once meant." Page 353.

I don't often get a chance to return to a place I've lived before, but whenever I do it's never quite the same. While I was a student at Antioch, I always looked forward to returning to campus. It was a place I could see old friends and get caught up on what everyone did on co-op, or meet new friends (usually friends of friends). Everyone was easy going about relationships, because it was hard not to be. You never knew who was going to be on campus when you got back, and people avoided changing their co-op schedules because by the time you got done with the approval, you usually wanted to change it back (romantic relationships at Antioch were also somewhat easy going, and who wants to see their ex when they don't have to).

I thought I would always be able to return to that, that the students of every generation would be similar and welcome me, not necessarily as a friend, but as a comrade,* as someone who was likely to have had a similar experience and perhaps had relevant knowledge to their situation. However, even as a recent alumna, with friends still on campus, I discovered that this was not the case. Granted, I found myself returning twice before my graduation ceremony,** for memorial services. The first was for one of my mentors, who left an indelible mark on Antioch College and inspired a slew of young people to enter the library profession, and the second was for my room mate.

The first was easier to take; not everyone was as affected. Although many of the people I was close to were saddened by the event, he was long past retirement age (work literally killed him, he stressed his heart to keep the library open during a severe snow storm), and it was not completely unexpected that he would die "soon." My room mate's death completely changed the way I looked at the campus. There is no way I can even think about Antioch without some memory of Matthew popping into my head. Every time I glance at my degree, or wear one of my shirts, see an update from a classmate on my Facebook page, it is impossible not to have that bittersweet sensation of wanting to go back, and knowing that I never can. Thinking about those years will always be happy and yet never not be sad. And that brings its own sadness with it.

A good review from Rebecca Reads points out some of the flaws, Goodreader Lisa also points out some flaws but has a slightly more favorable opinion of the book.
LibsNote: Purchased from Last Exit Books with personal funds.
*Definition: a person who shares in one's activities, occupation, etc.; companion, associate, or friend.
**I graduated a semester early. 

15 December 2011

Post 458: His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. ISBN: 9780345490728 (eBook).

This book reminded me of Anne McCaffrey's work for several reasons, although the prominent one is probably the notification for it arrived in my inbox hours after hearing about her death (thank you, Twitter). The book was extremely enjoyable and brought me right back to my first encounter with dragons as characters. While McCaffrey's dragons usually don't talk to people other than their riders, and do so only telepathically, Novik's dragons are full fledged characters, and seem much more independent from their riders.

But there are still striking similarities, almost to the point where Novik's work is borderline fan-fiction. I do not intend this statement as a disservice to Novik's writing, which has merits of its own, but to express the reflections I had while reading her work. It really brought back the excitement of reading about dragons and their interactions with humans. The fact that Novik's world is set in the past, rather than the future and another planet makes it all the more interesting to see how she explains the development of history with dragons (this is possibly my favorite aspect of altered histories).

Furthermore, while McCaffrey seemed to focus mainly on female characters as protagonists, it seems she sometimes did so to the exclusion of other characters. Instead, Novik's protagonist (and his dragon) are male, but her female characters are also extraordinarily well-rounded and vibrant without the whole cookie-cutter of being tough... cookies. The women of the Aerial Corps may share some similarities in character, but they are usually the same similarities that the men share, making them characteristics, not of tough women, but of military culture and training. Furthermore, these women are not emotionless (or emotionally conflicted) ice queens, they are passionate about their work and play, and her inclusion of an age range of these women is particularly enjoyable. In fact, this is one of the few books I've read that has been feminist without actually having a female protagonist within recent memory. I think that's something McCaffrey would approve of, and I know her readers will likely enjoy these books with heartfelt nostalgia and hope that McCaffrey's legacy will be continued by other writers, even outside of Pern.

PS: Anyone who wants to buy me the series gets to be my best friend for life. Bonus points if you want to read it with me and have a discussion about it.

I first heard of this title through things mean a lot, and generally agree with her sentiments (at least regarding the first book). Also, Queen of the Nerds Felicia Day liked it. So there.
LibsNote: Library copy.

12 December 2011

Post 457: The Whole Story of a Half Girl

The Whole Story of a Half Girl by Veera Hiranandani. ISBN: 9780385741286 (eGalley - publishes January 12, 2012).

This story is spot on in dealing with a parent who has depression: the erratic behavior, the changes in relationships, broken trust. That Sonia, the protagonist, is also dealing with her own uncertainties regarding her identity and transitioning into a new school and young adulthood... or at least teenagerdom. My own father had a similar mental break down at about the same age, so this story was somewhat triggering for me.

Although I did not have to contend with the racial issues Sonia dealt with (her being half Indian), I did feel out of place with my classmates since I was always the "new kid." Being a military brat was always somewhat lonely, especially while attending public schools where some kids had been best friends since birth. In some ways this became more pronounced as I grew older and it was harder to "break in" to these relationships in order to form my own friendships, but with age comes wisdom and I realized they had traded a bit of freedom for their loyalty.

As difficult as it was for me to grow up without long term relationships, it has given me an advantage in that I was able to form an identity without as much influence from my peers. Unlike other people my age, I knew and even expected that my peer group was likely to change, if not in their interests and tastes, then because I moved schools. Knowing that I would never really fit in made it easier for me to avoid following the crowd. The few times I tried to fit in never worked out for me, so while I may have been the only one in my class to admit to liking The Scarlet Letter and reading or doing homework in my spare time (i.e. lunch/between classes), at least I was never surprised by friends moving to college and never speaking to me again.

I had a lonely upbringing, but perhaps that is what has made my current existence more bearable. I am simply used to it.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Advance reader copy provided by Netgalley.

10 December 2011

Post 456: a general update

Yeah, nothing's going on. Blah, blah, books and shit.

The Whole Story of a Half Girl by Veera Hiranandani.
I had to flip screens about five times to get the author's name spelled correctly, which I hopefully did. I can't recall what drew me to this book, possibly the father's unemployment and the subsequent throwing of the protagonist into a situation where she is now a misfit. I have a soft spot for misfits. Also, I was yanked out of a good school and ended up somewhere I really didn't want to be. Maybe I'll talk about my reaction to that.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.
I always want to spell that as Westerfield. No idea why. Anyway, it's dystopian, it's about perceptions of beauty and the extremes to obtain it, it is obviously things I like. I liked the premise enough to risk actually buying the first book in the series. (You guys do realize how cheap I am right?)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Anne Barrows.
Before reading the description (just now), I actually had no idea what this was about. I just knew that the blogosphere and book clubs and some word of mouth went crazy about it at some point in the last three years. People on my Goodreads friends list seem to agree it's pretty good, and I was able to buy it for less than ten cents from my library sale. So good job marketers, I picked up a book I had no idea I wanted until I saw it for the right price.

His Majesty's Dragons by Naomi Novik.
It's almost like Westerfeld's Leviathan series (minus the cross dressing) with a bit of McCaffrey's Dragon Riders of Pern. I first learned about this novel from things mean a lot, once again proving the power of blogs to get people to read books. I put a hold on this eBook and got the notification shortly after learning that Anne McCaffrey died. It was a bit spooky, and reading this I feel like there are some definite parallels, although the main character is male (many of the secondary characters are well rounded females though!). It's pretty good so far, and now that I am done blogging for today I think I'll go finish the 60 pages I have left to read.

08 December 2011

Post 455: Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. ISBN: 9780399149863.

Er, I think this might be one for the fans. Or people who don't understand women very well. Or something.

Unlike some people who thought the logo phobia/allergy was ridiculous, I actually thought it was pretty interesting. Sadly, Gibson doesn't actually do much with it. We don't know why  or how Cayce came about this phobia, and apparently it doesn't even "work" in foreign settings, because logos don't have any affect unless they're in English... I don't know, it only seemed to appear when it was convenient or Cayce started being too boring (which I think happened way more often than Gibson thought was the case...).

But imagine having a phobia of certain logos? What if you had an extreme aversion to the Starbucks logo? You wouldn't be able to travel to any of the major cities in the United States (or any of it really), and there were more than a few locations in various European cities when I lived there in 2005-2006. In fact, there are currently 55 countries that have Starbucks locations (there are even a couple in China). What was really interesting about Cayce's condition though was that we could actually use people like this in our world.

We are so inundated with advertisement all the time, that if it caused people physical and emotional distress, maybe there would be places where it wasn't allowed. Maybe we would get a break from the nonstop sell-a-thon that is life in America (and increasingly the world). Wouldn't it be nice to go to school and not have to see a myriad of corporate advertisements? The park? The zoo? The library? It's gotten to the point where I wish my brain had an Adblock. Sure, I like learning about new products to see if it's something that I can use, but most of the companies that can afford media spots have products I already know (and usually don't care) about. You can't usually reach me through the internet (seriously, Adblock, bitches), I rarely listen to the radio, and I don't have TV. Actually, one of the few ways you can get to me is through mail, which I will actually look at. And ad placement in TV and movies just pisses me off (I'm looking at you Disney; I saw what you did to the Muppets,* assholes).

There's even talk of discounted eReaders that have advertisements. What? No! Reading is one of the few forms of entertainment where there's almost no advertising at all (or at least it's pretty clearly demarcated with ads for other books in the back). Occasionally authors will mention products in the book by name, but unless companies have started paying authors to do this (I will stab someone), it is less product placement than detail.

But here's a challenge for you: mark down what time you finished this post, then tell me how long it took before you saw a logo, advertisement, or product placement. Was it before you even finished that sentence?

Kirkus Reviews adequately captures the meh-ness I felt in reading this book, although I disagree with their assessment of the logo-allergy. I just think Gibson didn't give us a good reason for Cayce having it. Goodreader Karou pretty much sums up my feelings on why I didn't hate or like this book.
LibsNote: Bought with personal funds from library sale table.
*I still recommend seeing it, but it was definitely cheap and tacky. The Mini-Cooper closeup felt especially insidious.

05 December 2011

Post 454: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth. ISBN: 9780062024022.

Dear YA authors, you write awesome books. But then you throw in abbreviated romances that make no sense. Please stop doing that. You're scaring the readers who aren't ready for that kind of relationship and boring those of us who know that's not how love works.

Moving on.

Divergent was pretty awesome other than the divergence from the plot that I mentioned earlier. The world is set up so that different factions have control over different aspects of society and take on certain human character traits. For instance, Candor is full of (obviously fictional) lawyers who attempt to seek out and tell the truth at all times.

Children are raised in their parents' faction, there are no inter-faction marriages and apparently children outside marriage is not a thing in this series. However, when children turn 16 they are allowed to choose a different faction (if they want), and then everyone under goes an initiation into the faction. Before and after the choosing, you are required to live by the standards of the faction you're in (if you are Candor you take on those traits, and if/when you switch to Abnegation* you would then take on those traits).

I found this aspect of the book more interesting than others, not so much because of the different cultures and expectations, but because humans aren't that simple and I enjoyed seeing how various characters dealt with suppressing other traits in order to fit in with their faction. Most of what we saw was obviously Beatrice/Trice since she was the main character, but even her brother, who seemed to be an archetypal Abnegation, was able to hide aspects of his chosen Erudite faction. Had Roth focused more on how we are conglomerates of these factions and are stronger for having (and recognizing) a mix in every human being, I think the story could have been more interesting as had more depth. As it was, it was a nice diversion from Thanksgiving holiday prep and chaos, but tasted a bit more like fluffy dessert than a full meal, which I suppose is fine if you don't mind empty calories.

I found this book through Eve's post at Vulpes Libris, but agree more with the Jessica's review from Sci-Fi Fan Letter.
LibsNote: Library copy.
*Somebody used the thesaurus.

01 December 2011

Post 453: Bonk

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. ISBN: 9780393064643.

I was surprised that Bonk was focused on the perceptions people have of scientists who study sex and their methods. It seems Roach has gotten a little better over time with balancing crude humor, interesting facts, and no-less-interesting-but-not-quite-what-most-readers-are-looking-for research stuff.
But even people who have a remotely open interest in sex are sometimes seen as perverted. For instance, I'm a big fan of sexual innuendo,* and while I have a healthy sex drive, those two things are correlations rather than directly related to each other. I may be able to make innuendo or sexual jokes more frequently than someone who doesn't think about sex as much, but having a low sex drive would not make me less interested in sexual research, humor, and other aspects of sexual behavior.

I almost feel like we should be more worried about people who don't have an interest in sex. I'm not talking about wanting to have sex, but the topic itself. As a biological function it is far more interesting than many of the other things our body does. It is a core of who we are as living beings, and the one thing we share with every living thing on the planet. Even mold spores have sex... kind of. Our bodies are geared towards it in a way that affects our higher brain function, and the equipment itself is pretty fascinating even outside of the actual erotic context.

Sex is one of the things that I think we can all agree on being a good thing, even if we don't agree on the particulars of when or how it is a good thing. And the beauty of it is, you don't even have to talk about sex between humans for it to be interesting. With all the different aspects of fertility, mating rituals, and physiology, people should be able to find something of interest that is also appropriate based on the situation. Maybe my openness about sex makes me a weirdo, or even a pervert, in the eyes of certain people, but at least I know the difference between a vagina and a vulva and don't have to ask my gynecologist what a cervix is.

Check out Kirkus Reviews, and from the blogger realm Fyrefly's Book Blog and The Book Lady's Blog do a wonderful job at reviewing Bonk.
LibsNote: Bought from Capitol Book and News from personal (and very limited) funds.
*This morning I had a dry throat and the first thing that came to mind was, "If you had a French boyfriend, having a frog in your throat would have a completely different meaning." Yes, I am a dirty old man at heart.
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