Monday, July 14, 2008

A fragile bubble

Know thyself, pathologically, what a fragile bubble you are, and exposed to a thousand calamities. If you understand these things, you are man, and a genus very distinct from all the others.

While trying to maintain a little sanity in my bubble, I have actually read enough books in the past month(s) that I can pick just the good ones to tell you about. But first things first, three one-sentence reviews:

1. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë: I mean, it's JANE EYRE for pete's sake, but I've read better classics.
Dune, Frank Herbert: Meh. Don't watch the movie either; if you're the kind of person who gets off on this stuff, you've probably already read/seen it.
Snuff, Chuck Palahniuk: I read this in one sitting on a plane and spent the entire trip trying to hide it's filthy, filthy pages from the guy next to me--but I liked it anyway. Well, that was... brief. On to more important things:

Personal Days
By Ed Park

If you work in an office, and you only read the first section of this book, that will be enough for me. The whole book is excellent. But the first section is so goddamned hilarious and so, {SHUDDER} frighteningly DEAD ON that I read parts of it multiple times. Here, I'll let it speak for itself, this is the first page:

Who died? On the surface, it's relaxed. There was a time when we all dressed crisply, but something's changed this summer. Now while the weather lasts we wear loose pants, canvas sneakers, clogs. Pru slips on flip-flops under her desk. It's so hot out and thus every day is potentially casual Friday. We have carte blanche to wear T-shirts featuring the comical logos of exterminating companies, advertising slogans of the early '80s. Where's the beef? We dress like we don't make much money, which is true for at least half of us. The trick is figuring out which half. We go out for drinks together one or two nights a week, sometimes three, to take the edge off. Three is too much. We make careful note of who buys a round, who sits back and magically lets the booze appear. It's possible we can't stand each other but at this point we're helpless in the company of outsiders. Sometimes one of the guys will come to work in a coat and tie, just to freak the others out. On these days the guard in the lobby will joke, who died? And we will laugh or pretend to laugh.

People to whom I would recommend this book:
Kristin, Jared, and Vijay, who doesn't read my blog but would appreciate this this book is compared to P. G. Wodehouse. Seriously, if the opening credits on The Office freak you out because you might as well live in them, read this freaking book.

Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body
By Armand Marie Leroi

I'll admit it, I picked this book up because of the promise that it might have pictures and I was rewarded for my curiosity. I bought the book out of a simple morbid desire to read about people with deformities--which sounds terrible. And maybe it is terrible--but I'm surely not alone. Why else would the word "Mutants" be featured so prominently on the cover, with the sub-title nestled in the bones of a deformed skeleton?

I don't care who you are,
everyone judges a book by its cover. Leroi must know this, because right away he sets out to assuage our rubber-necking guilt and let us know that not only are we all deformed in some way (the average person has 300 genetic mutations), but that this fascination with the unusual has led to some of the most important genetic discoveries. Though it is occasionally dry, this book is difficult to put down because it accomplishes the great feat of being informative, sensitive, accessible, and wildly fascinating all at the same time.

Whether he is explaining how the right-side twin in many sets of conjoined twins can be born "situs inversus," with their organs positioned in a mirror image of most human beings, with the hearts on the right and their livers on the left.... Or how one out of every ten people has an extra set of ribs (and not all of them are male--like Adam)... or how children and animals can be born cycloptic, with one eye in the center of the face... what matters to Leroi is not that these things occur, but
how they occur and what they mean to all things constructed of DNA.

In general, this is the kind of book I wish I was smart enough to write.

People to whom I would recommend this book
: Jess Long and my Aunt Tanya, because both of them are interested in how biological things work, but also seem to be more interested in real life than in dessicated, lifeless lab specimens. Also, people who enjoyed Stiff, by Mary Roach.

The World According to Garp
By John Irving
If someone was going to take certain parts of my mother's character, multiply them by 1000, and write a chapter about her, it would be the first chapter of Garp. I hope this doesn't peak my mother's interest in the book and then leave her brutally disappointed, but it's true. All of my favorite traits of Jenny Fields, Garp's mother, are traits that make my own mother so uniquely wonderful. "My mother," Garp wrote, "was a lone wolf."

She even works as a nurse at an all-boys school, which is sort of a fictionalized version of what my mother does for a living. Jenny's other traits--like her starched white uniform--are distinctly unlike my own mother. I'm not sure if I'm much interested in being like Garp--except that I'm profoundly interested in what the world is like, according to me.

I can't honestly
rave about this book. It was good. It's a good, solid, entertaining read, which a few really wonderful characters and one or two parts that left me in complete shock. Irving is a master at creating a world which is wholly believable, and convincing you to fall in love with his characters like you fall in love with the weird, flawed people in your day-to-day life.

This probably doesn't sound like a winning recommendation to anyone but maybe my mom, but it is. This book was

People to whom I would recommend this book: Anyone who isn't afraid of a best seller.

By Carl Sagan

Oh Carl, you lovely, lovely person you. Unlike the movie, which glosses over the effects of something so profoundly earth-changing as a MESSAGE FROM INTELLIGENT LIFE BEYOND EARTH (which is a pretty big deal and probably belongs in all-caps), instead focusing on what Matthew McConaughey looks like shirt-less and how nerds like Jody Foster are generally lonely people--this book has incredible social, religious, philosophical, AND astrophysical importance.

This is sort of like the astrophysical answer to
The World Without Us, which I reviewed a while ago. Only this time, it's The World With Us, When We Know There's Also a THEM.

There are only a few points in the book when Mr. Sagan gets his predictions about what life was like at the turn of the millennium wrong (how could he predict the collapse of the Soviet Union?). Otherwise, his observations about religion and society 20 years later (the book was published in 1985) are sort of disappointingly dead-on. It's disappointing only because we, as humans, are so predictable.

In general though, this is an excellent, sort of mind-blowing discussion about the nature of science and religion, set in a very inviting, very engrossing fictional world. Mr. Sagan is also wise enough to know what makes this kind of philosophy palatable to plebes like me.

People to whom I would recommend this book: My dad, and maybe Kacie--but for different reasons, which I won't go into. Both of them like science fiction (within reason) and are both sort of personally invested in the whole "What the hell is religion?" question.

So that's that. More actual news to come at a later date. :)


  1. Yay book reviews!

    The World According to Garp is also a pretty great movie. It totally sucked me in, even though I came in 15 minutes late and it was on TV.

    I started Mutants and really like it, but can't read it for long periods of time since it gets sort of dry after the first chapter, and you get over thinking "ohmygod people are born this way." I really like it though.

  2. Yeah, just wait. It definitely gets better. It actually gets more terrifying and "I-never-want-to-have-kids" like as you go.