A few words about a few books

These are all books by authors I’ve previously reviewed and loved and gushed on and on about, so I thought I’d spare us all the embarrassment and just give you a quick blurb, in case you are also a crazy fan person.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is another great read by David Sedaris, who rants about his technoloathing (not technophobia for him, no sir), bemoans his ability to communicate in French (hence the title) and cracks wise about the death of pets and parents.  I’ve waxed poetic about my love for Sedaris before, so I’ll just say he continues to satisfy my every snarky impulse.

Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is a collection of essays by Michael Chabon that were originally printed in such places as The Washington Post  Book World, New York Review of Books and Architectural Digest (yes, really). His non-fiction is as precise and entertaining as his fiction writing, and he likes some of the same people I do (Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, comic books), so I’ve forgiven him for Sherlock Holmes.  Worth every penny of the $8 I spent at the Powell’s sale rack (and probably more).

Gentleman and Players is another winner by Joanne Harris. The story of an all-boys school in modern-day England, it explores the pain of growing up, the role of teachers in our lives, and the relentless march of time vs. the proud traditions of the past.  Not as powerful as Blackberry Wine or Holy Fools, but a great read.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is the family memoir of a year spent trying to eat local. Barbara Kingsolver, along with her husband and two daughters, commit to a full year of trying to grow as much of their own food as possible, buy food from no farther than an hour from their home (in the southern Appalachians), and try to live a life-less-damaging (to the planet). The book includes recipes as well as essays on some of the statistics behind commercial food production and what-not, but is mostly the journal of a fabulous writer who happens to be trying something difficult and important. I’ve yet to read a book by this woman that didn’t impress me. It makes me happy that there are people like her sharing the planet with me.

something to look forward to…

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are Pulitzer-prize winning authors who appear to have dedicated their lives to investigating injustice and trying to get the world to pay attention. In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’ve written a guide for those who want to help, and examined programs that worked and those that didn’t – and why. If you are at all interested in this topic, this would be a great place to start. I read Half the Sky for bookbrowse.com about four (four!?) months ago.

The most surprising fact was this:

There are more women trafficked to brothels every year – right now, today – than the number of slaves transported annually at the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Does this shock you? I hope so. It surely shocked me when I read it. This is happening right now, and right here. These women are brought to the U.S. and all over the world so that they can be forced to have sex with men who pay money to someone who keeps these women as livestock.  It is disgusting and unbelievable and ubiquitous. And makes my heart hurt.

I was impressed that the book didn’t sensationalize the good or the bad but treated this subject with the seriousness it deserved, and critiqued the results of aid programs, not just the intentions behind them.

The fact that we need books like this makes me sad. I’m glad that someone is writing them, but hoping for the day when the need for them becomes history.

On a lighter note – Kristof was speaking at the Public Library Association’s biennial conference here in Portland in March. I was working the exhibit floor for BookBrowse.com (with the fabulous Davina) so I probably could have gone to hear him talk 1) if I’d really wanted to, and 2) if I’d known about it beforehand. (Mary Roach was there as well, also didn’t find out about that one until it was too late – that one I would have attended for sure!). Kristof also writes a twice-weekly editorial column for the New York Times.

so very NSFW

You may have heard of Mary Roach. She’s the woman who wrote Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (of which I have heard great things but have not read). It became a best seller – so clearly this woman knows how to make the strange accessible to the masses. I found Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex on the sale table at Borders and grabbed it.

I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a book.  Bonk is not a book about sex, it’s a book about the ridiculous situations that arise when you are trying to study sex scientifically.  Hamsters are wearing polyester pants.  People are having intercourse inside MRI machines.  Roach has a fine sense of the ridiculous, and the skills to let all of us in on the joke.  Roach travels the world to witness first-hand (whenever possible) the studies that tells us what we know about bumping uglies.

One of the most interesting things in the book was finding out how little is really understood about the physical realities of human sexual intercourse.  And the most interesting stuff seems… well, rather explicit for an open forum such as this. Instead, I’ve decided to share the topics of a few of the footnotes, to give you an idea of the randomness of the world and the breadth of her topic.

In no particular order (I can see my spam folder filling up now):

the sale of soiled panties in Japan
premature and retarded ejaculation
copulation rates of primates
the maternal fastidiousness of earwigs
the passage of flatus at coitus
artificial insemination of dogs in the 18th century
boar odor spray
the odor of the flowers of the Spanish chestnut tree
the great-grandniece of Napoleon and her gay husband
the Masturbate-athon
the Personal Pelvic Viewer (PPV for short).

Seriously, how can you not read this book?

Vehicular and Authorial Romance

I am a car nut. Specifically, a muscle car nut.  I hung out w/car nuts in high school and they brainwashed me into believing that late 60s muscle cars were the only cool cars that existed. 70s were ok, (and closer to our price range), but the coolest guys had the 60s muscle and raced it on the strip. The man I married got noticed because he drove a 60s muscle car. Because of him (among others), I have been exposed to other beautiful vehicles, and the joys and pains involved in restoring old iron to street-worthy condition. So when a new-favorite author writes a book about his love for an old truck that he’s in the process of restoring… well, that’s just a book with my name on it, isn’t it?

Truck: A Love Story is a year in the life of Michael Perry. A rather eventful year, in which he commits to restoring his old International pickup truck, growing a garden, and (unexpectedly) to a woman he wants to marry. It’s also the year that his book (I think Population 485, but could have been Coop) hits the big time and he must travel to support it through radio interviews and book-signings.

The reason I like Perry so much is this: he’s a master at observing ordinary life and finding something extraordinary to say about it. He’s not the first, or the greatest, or the most famous writer to make a living doing this – he’s just my most recent discovery in this area. Also, his humility: he’s conscious of the fact that he is indeed no one special, and his life is not all that special either. Except that it is his life, and therefore special to him.  What he writes about is not terribly significant in the details, only in his awareness of it – how one lives it with purpose and joy, appreciating the miracle of waking up and finding someone or something to love. Even if all we have is Mom and an old pickup.

Gives me hope to read of men with humility, sensitivity, wit, and a thing for old trucks. And did I mention, a musician as well? Because I would like all of those things in one package, thank you.

Chaos – it’s not just a state of mind

I’m pretty sure I got Chaos; Making a New Science by James Gleick from the library because my friend rhapsodized about its wonders – and I’m a sucker for a good David vs. Goliath story. I will admit, it took me awhile to finish this book. The narrative was decent, but I would often get bogged down in the science and crave more lyrical pastures.  Chaos was also around while I was riding The Wheel of Time, so it was renewed a half-dozen times before I finally finished it (no one lining up to read this one). Gleick wrote this book in 1988(ish) and the edition I read is a 20th anniversary edition. For the book, he spoke to many of the early scientific explorers as well as those who dragged the ideas out of obscurity.

Chaos theory is the discipline that brought us the idea that ‘a butterfly flapping its wings can cause storms half the world away’. Now, anyone who knows me (in person or on the interwebs) knows that science is not my area. I love to learn new things, and I find the world a fascinating place, but I’m much more interested in the story of things than the details of atoms or vectors or whatever.  I took the require science classes in both high school & college (took a psychology class for my lab requirement) and ran back to my humanities courses.

I was going to try to summarize the basics of chaos theory – but I’ve decided to spare us all from such folly (and my ego can’t take the beating that will come from the mistakes I’ll surely commit to print).  If you are interested, there is good information here and here, and of course, you could read the book like I did. But here are some of the ideas I took from the book.


1) A never-repeating but not unpredictable pattern is inherent in the design of nature.

As a person with poetic leanings, I love this idea – and it’s not just an idea, but indeed a fact! So much of the world around us can be predicted with these short little equations that even I could understand, but can result in the myriad of living things all over this planet. The equations are simple, but initial conditions have a huge effect on outcome (a relatively new thing to the scientific world, apparently, but seems pretty obvious to me).

2) Complete understanding is not required to predict outcomes.

It seems that, for decades, engineers have been designing airplanes without understand why they were able to achieve liftoff, or how turbulence would affect them (comforting, yes?). And before that, the turbulence of rivers/streams/oceans was also a mystery to the scientific community.  Equations were built by trying to account for every single possible variable, and it was assumed that if you could not account for everything, you could not predict anything. And since no one had been able to grasp every single variable which influenced – say – cloud formation, predicting the weather (or examining turbulence) was deemed impossible and therefore largely ignored as an area of continuing study. If you were building an airplane, you built a prototype and spent a lot of time in wind tunnels testing it (ok, I feel a little better).

Of course, in our personal lives, this should already have been obvious (though not scientifically proven).  I don’t understand exactly why I’ve been having difficulty getting up in the morning, but that doesn’t mean I can’t predict that I will have that same difficulty next week.  But (at least in the empirical plane), science has found a way to predict turbulence and weather without understanding each piece of the puzzle individually.


Narratively, the most interesting part of the book (for me) was the fact that many different people had stumbled upon chaos in their scientific pursuits, but either ignored it as a coincidence, or were not taken seriously by their peers and ignored. The early guys who understood that they’d found something interesting were in disparate disciplines and it wasn’t until decades had passed that they discovered each other, and realized how wide-ranging this phenomenon truly was. And I love it when the little guy proves the establishment wrong.

Also – the pictures are stunning. The visual representations of the Mandelbrot equations and whatnot (I don’t remember all the names) are incredible. And I love that math created them – beauty in unexpected places.

I’m glad I read the book.  I know that some of the science has sunk into my (thankfully) subconscious understanding of the world. But it also reinforced my first love – literature – as the place I belong.