Blogs: Adults

Leviathan Wakes book jacketLeviathan Wakes is the first book in the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (a pen name for for co-writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham).  If you prefer to watch instead, it is currently being produced as a 10 episode series for the SyFy channel. My husband wanted to read the book before seeing the show so he started in on it.  After about a third of the book, he insisted I also had to read it before watching the show. He wasn't too far into the second book when he asked for the third.

In this universe, set a few hundred years in the future, humanity has managed to colonize the solar system but hasn't yet reached the stars. The crew of a small ice hauler responds to a distress signal, and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong from there. Earth groans under the weight of 30 billion hungry mouths and doesn't get along with Mars or Luna.  Those three all look down on the 50 to 100 million Belters living on asteroids in the outer solar system. The Belters live a hardscrabble life taxed into poverty by the inner system and resent the folks born into a gravity well. When the ice haulers point the finger at Mars for the death of the ship, they find that things get ugly very, very fast.  The more sensible scramble to keep systemwide war from breaking out but the rest just add to the chaos. Remember, you don't need bombs if you can just push a big rock down a gravity well, so the wiser heads are terrified of humanity wiping itself out.

Once I got my turn with book one, I found this to be an action-packed title that alternates between two main characters who feel like believable men.  You see a great deal of the life in the "Belt" and it's a rough place.  Mistakes very quickly equal dead and the justice is quite frontier in style. Pretty much any consensual vice you can imagine appears to be legal but nobody bats an eye that an engineer that neglected some life support systems fell out of an airlock with some pretty terrible injuries. The science part of the science fiction does have a great deal of "handwavium", but it feels real.  The reader is given little details like how many years it took to put a stable spin on a larger asteroid so it would have some gravity for the inhabitants.Firefly dvd cover

I think that the setting and flavor of Leviathan Wakes would appeal to anyone who has the good taste to have loved Firefly.  It’s nice to see a new set of “big damn heroes”! I don't know that I hold out the greatest of hopes for the tv. show being as good as the books, but if they stick to the exciting story and interesting characters there's hope!  Even the tv show turns out to be awful, the books are well worth reading if you like space-set science fiction at all.

There is so much good teen fiction that I have quite a time (and only moderate interest in) actually getting to the grown-up stuff. Here are two stories I recently discovered and enjoyed.

Seraphina book jacketSeraphina by Rachel Hartman
I discovered Dungeons and Dragons at age 17, and I remember getting pretty excited when my brother told me "There are FOUR kinds of dragons!"  I'd read The Hobbit, The Reluctant Dragon, and a few Norse myths by then, so I knew that all dragons were not the same, but there being actual kinds of dragons was very new to me. Dragon taxonomy, if you will. Years and lots of fantasy later, this book gave me a similar thrill.
 
Among many very cool things about this book (a wry and honest main character, strange dream beings starting to talk back, a sackbut), it has dragons that, by virtue of their ability to assume human shape, can communicate on a level with the humans. But although they look like regular people, Hartman does a great job with keeping them very different. Dragons have a hard time understanding human emotions, so it's a bit like interacting with aliens, or animals, or gods. This had a nice amount of intrigue, a very observant prince, questions of loyalty, medieval music, saints and sayings for all occasions, and a bit of a look at discrimination and hatred.  Good stuff, and the first e-book I read for fun (because it was available and the printed one wasn't). 
 
 An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
I haven't quite finished this yet, but I'm thinking that I have a great recommendation for people who enjoyed reading The Hunger Games. This has some of the sameAn Ember in the Ashes book jacket themes - power vs. powerlessness, fate vs. choice, battle against friends, star-crossed love triangle. It's set in an empire reminiscent of ancient Rome, but this is not historical fiction. The magic of the desert pervades this story... ghuls, jinn, efrit... and yet it is mostly the tale of one young man expected to become a great leader, and of a young woman with nothing but a rebel pedigree, posing as a slave and struggling to save the last relative she has. The perspective changes back and forth between them with each chapter, and the pacing is used well to build suspense. It's on hold so I'll have to turn it in soon, but I'll finish this one quickly.

 

Lately I've been gravitating towards books that give me respite from working full time and going to school part-time. These are the books I've been loving lately:
 
Bee and Puppycat book jacketBee and PuppyCat by Natasha Allegri: Bee is a twentysomething woman who works for a temp agency fighting monsters with Puppycat in SPACE. It's a pastel dream just as gorgeous as the original cartoon.

Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa: Sakugawa takes you on a beautiful intergalactic journey where you deal with little and big things like petty annoyances, self-hatred, and anger. Surprisingly calming.The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl book jacket

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae: This is the funniest book I've read in a long time. I loved reading about her family, '90s culture, and the endless embarrassments. As a POC (person of color), this is the kind of voice I've been wishing wasn't so rare.
 
I hope you can find as much solace in these books as I do. What kinds of books help you keep cool when under stress?

Book jacket: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlinWhen I was approaching 30, I left a job in Seattle and moved to Portland to become a woodworker.  I spent the last of my cashed out 401k on a table saw, hung my hand tools neatly on pegboard and slowly and with great discipline became a master carpenter.  Not true.  I spent about a month dressed in overalls, creating little more than sawdust before stopping to admire my tools with a self-congratulatory glass(es) of wine. And then I panicked and signed on with a temp agency to do mind-numbing office work.

Nina MacLaughlin carried out what I only fantasized about.  After spending much of her 20s working as a journalist in Boston she realized that somewhere along the line, the work that had once inspired her, had grown oppressive.  Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter is her memoir of what happened when she quit her desk job and traded in her cubicle and computer for a hammer, a tile saw and a 50lb bag of grout.

Picking up Hammer Head, I felt an immediate kinship and let’s face it- envy for MacLaughlin.  We share an enormous satisfaction in mastering a new tool and an appreciation for the unique history and warmth that radiates off of a freshly-sanded plank of wood. But by the end, it was her boss Mary that I fell in love with. It was Mary’s Craigslist ad: Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply, that started MacLaughlin’s journey.  Not much of a talker, Mary offered only the simplest instruction and encouragement (“Be smarter than the tools”), but abundant patience and quiet humor. McLaughlin's inspiring memoir is as much about her own leap of faith towards meaningful work, as it is a love letter to her straight shooting and unflappable mentor.

Oh why weren’t you in Portland in 2001, Mary?

 

Check out this list for more memoirs that will inspire you to follow your bliss.

Do you love urban fantasy? I do. I love that the stories are set in the real world with an action paced plots and supernatural beings. I connect better with a story if it’s set in our modern world. And if there is humourous dialogue-you’ve got me. I become a devoted fan!

Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles series is at times so funny I can laugh for a full five minutes about a scene. The stories are pageturners with a mix of supernatural beings that are Nordic, Celtic, Native American, Roman or Greek gods. There are vampires, witches, and werewolves thrown in too.

The Iron Druid is Atticus Sullivan who lives in Tempe Arizona with his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon when we first meet him in book one Hounded. The fact that the story is set in Tempe Arizona makes me giggle. Because then it is a nod to sunny noir.

The humor I love best in the series is in the discussions between Oberon and Atticus. There’s comic relief and diversion when Oberon and Atticus discuss snacks like sausage when they are worried about an upcoming battle. If you like your supernatural action story with a side of humor then you might love Iron Druid Chronicles series. I do.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? bookjacketMy mom is getting up there in years and my siblings and I are learning first hand that there are lots of issues to deal with when you have an aging parent. As a welcome respite from all of the seriousness of trying to help my mom live out her years as best as possible, I’ve read Roz Chast’s wrenchingly honest and painfully funny graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant several times lately. But the book that is really helping me grapple with the issues of an aging parent is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.

Being Mortal bookjacketGawande, a surgeon, writer and public health researcher, explores how we make choices as we come near the end of our lives. He looks at the history, how our culture transitioned from caring for aged family members at home to putting them into nursing homes and assisted senior housing (and who knew that the first independent senior community was in Portland?). Gawande questions how modern medicine, which has been so successful in prolonging life, can also cause more suffering at the end of one's life. Wouldn’t it be better to help the elderly live out their lives in as comfortable and positive way as possible?

Or as Roz Chast says, "I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don't do anything at all. Would that be so bad?"

That’s the end of life I want for my mom and everyone else when they get old and reading Being Mortal is helping me figure out how to help my mom get exactly that as she lives out her life.

Utopias Book Cover"Art can cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more advanced sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us."
- Guy Debord, from "Theses on Cultural Revolution"

Art has always served a precarious role when it comes to a radical and transformative politics.  Too often, even the most apparently revolutionary art ends up recuperated as market or museum-piece.  MIT Press' elegant 2009 collection Utopias assembles an historically broad (though almost exclusively western) swath of manifestoes, interventions and proscriptions toward utopian and revolutionary transformation.  Editor Richard Noble's introduction situates the power of these texts in their lurch toward a revolutionary horizon (that which is yet to come).  And while the collection is certainly an excellent introduction to many essential and revelatory broadsides and critiques, Noble can't help but find himself stuck in this ultimately unsatisfactory impasse, resulting in toothless assertions like "[the] utopian impulse is implicit in all art-making, at least in so far as one thinks that art addresses itself to the basic project of making the world better."

Nonetheless, the book itself is a formidable archive (ahem) of revolutionary texts (with the occasional negative dystopic warning - like snippets of Orwell's 1984).  Kicking off with an excerpt from Thomas More's Utopia and closing with a 2008 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Adam Phillips, Utopias provides all kinds of known and unknown pleasures.  However, the collection - like Noble's introduction - reproduces the same cul-de-sac the bulk of the excerpts rail against.  At the end of the day, Utopias is another attractive museum catalog, producing weak whispers and disavowed reminders of something far more scandalous, unattractive and untameable.

As supplement and tonic, I'll close with a sentence from an excellent piece on Occupy and art from 2012, co-written by Jaleh Mansoor, Daniel Marcus and Daniel Spaulding:

"Art’s usefulness in these times is a matter less of its prefiguring a coming order, or even negating the present one, than of its openness to the materiality of our social existence and the means of providing for it."

Of course, much of how and when this works is up to us.
 

Winnie book jacketI attribute the beginnings of my Anglophilia to two bears:  Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington.  When I was a child, I loved Milne's stories and poems about Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood friends, my mother's nickname for me was Roo, and we called snacks "smackerels". I knew that Winnie was based on a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, but until recently, I didn’t know that the stuffed bear got his name from a real live one!  The “real” bear, Winnie (short for Winnipeg), was purchased at a Canadian train station by a veterinary surgeon serving in WWI.  The seller had shot the cub’s mother (not realizing she had a baby) and now didn’t know what to do with the young bear.  Fortunately, Harry Colebourn came to the cub’s rescue and thus began Winnie’s adventure.  You can read all about Winnie in a lovely new children’s book entitled Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh.  The watercolor illustrations are charming and evoke the era, and the endpapers have photos of Winnie, Harry, Milne and Christopher Robin (with his teddy bear). 

For other true stories about children’s literature, check out this list.

Sometimes I get tired of the boys’ club that is our pop culture. I think “Give me some women’s voices.” You certainly won’t find women’s voices on Portland radio, so I have to start spinning my own musical choices. And find the books for women's voices. And I’ve been lucky lately.  

I found the Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. I was transported to 1970s London where punk rock was just taking hold and young Viv was just learning to hold a guitar, and her own on the stage. I was floored by the two prominent men in her life: her father and her husband, who sneered and put down her music career. Viv triumphs though! This is a memoir about creativity, aging and empowerment. I found her determination inspiring.

Then I heard that Kim Gordon had a memoir coming out. I got goosebumps. I was more of a pop music lover or local music lover most of my life. My favorite bands in the 80s and 90s were local bands but that’s another story. But I knew of Kim Gordon at that time. She was a beacon of hope for women in rock. Yes, there were others. But hearing that she sang about Karen Carpenter in the song “Tunic” sealed the deal for me. Reading her memoir really fleshes out the story how she began with visual arts and dance in California. Her musical career with Sonic Youth starts in New York City with her relationship with Thurston Moore. This is a wonderful memoir about reinventing oneself, and finding truth and creativity.  

Both women portray the healing power and strength of music and creativity.Their storytelling skills really drew me in as a reader. The musical settings and characters were very interesting for a music fan. Perhaps you will find their memoirs as inspiring as I did.

 

It was my second term in Conceptual Physics when I learned that I was not cut out for the career in science I had dreamed about while watching Star Wars over and over again. Subsequently, supportive friends and teachers taught me this “it’s not the end of the world” mantra: “D is for diploma.”

Things turned out fine. I remained a decent student and survived my remaining science courses. I focused on other subjects that I still excelled in and ended up with a great job that I love after plenty of other failures and just enough success; however, there are still times I dream of discovering the secrets of black holes or the ocean floor.

The Panda's Thumb book jacketArcheological digs and guest spots on NOVA sometimes enter my rich imagination and, just as I used to live out my fantasies of rock superstardom through air guitar in middle school, I find an outlet for scientific delusions of grandeur on the library shelves with those amazing scientists that can speak my language and hold my hand through the equations and lab lingo. One of the best-selling and most entertaining science writers was the late Stephen Jay Gould, and his award-winning series of essays entitled The Panda’s Thumb taught me everything I actually understand about the theory of evolution (well not everything, as you’ll see below). Gould’s short entries make it easier for us in the scientific laity to fight the urge to nap in the middle of a chapter.

For those of you with a longer attention span who are interested in evolution, I recommend David Quammen’s beautiful verbosity. His writings on The Black Hole War book jacketDarwin and Wallace more or less equal the remainder of my evolutionary knowledge. Even though it was physics that destroyed my chances of being an award-winning scientist, it is still one of my favorite subjects. The Black Hole War (eBook ) by Leonard Susskind is my favorite narrative on the subject. It combines great diagrams for all the mathy (all right, this isn’t a real word) points, fun anecdotes about some of the world’s foremost scientists, and a long arduous battle between Susskind (with a couple colleagues) and Stephen Hawking and the entire scientific world concerning what happens when information passes through the horizon of a black hole. Spoiler Alert: Susskind won and opened new avenues for String Theory, Holograms, and oh so many fun physics wormholes.

Cataclysms on the Columbia book jacketCataclysms on the Columbia brings us back home to the ancient history of Cascadia, as well as to the recent past. Bretz, an intrepid geologist, also fought with the scientific community over his discovery. He realized that it must have taken one or many (upwards of 90) cataclysmic floods to form the geological markers from Western Montana through Eastern Washington, down through the Columbia River Gorge, all the way into the Willamette Valley. Of course, everyone at the time accused him of Catastrophism, which was viewed by many as a religious perspective, not legitimate science. Bretz’s strength of character and the vivid descriptions of what the floods must have been like are respectively inspirational and terrifying.

This is only a small sample of the highly readable Science-Fact available at MCL. So if you too are a member of the numerically-challenged laity, please respond below with your favorite science book and I will add it to the Page-turning Science reading list being created as we speak!

Pages

Subscribe to