How To (CBR12 #35)

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

I laughed out loud when I saw the How To square on this year’s Cannonball Read bingo card – days before a friend had given me Randall Munroe’s latest  How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems when I had lamented my inability lately to sink into reading anything. Her answer to that problem (and it is a good answer) was something intended to be read in small pieces and not all at once, and something that is both humorous and full of interesting information. Checks all around.

Reviewing this one is difficult, because I basically just want to ask you, my fellow readers, questions and if you answer yes, then this is a book you might want to pick up. Questions such as:

  • Do you find yourself wondering if you could accomplish a basic task in the most ludicrous method possible?
  • Do you enjoy random facts and footnotes?
  • Are you someone who enjoys and appreciates the beauty of well-done stick figure drawings?
  • Are you already familiar with xkcd and Russell Monroe?
  • Is absurd, but strait-laced humor, your jam?

See, its more about you the reader than the book itself. I stand by this assessment.

If your answers to even most of those questions is yes than this is something that you might want to pick up for yourself to have around. I will mention that you probably absolutely want to read this book in dead tree format – you want the graphics – and I’m just not sure how they would show up on your eReader of choice and you’d lose them entirely in the audio version.

A Mind of Her Own (CBR11 #45)

A Mind of Her Own

This one was okay and therefore 2 stars. I don’t often rate books 1 or 2 stars, at this point in my Cannonball history my to read list is pretty well-honed in on books that I’m going to have a good response to (making them 3 stars or higher). But, back in the spring when I still had an Audible subscription this was one of their free Originals so I scooped it up.

I’m not sad I chose it, I just wish it knew what it wanted to be.

In 75 minutes of audiobook Paula McLain goes about telling the story of Marie Curie before she accomplished all the things that made her famous, when she was still Maria Sklodowska, a 25-year-old student of physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne.  McLain has several false starts, painting a picture of a stark and withdrawn Marie who has sworn off interpersonal relationships for the single-minded goal of succeeding where so few women were even allowed to be. She also pursues the Marie that excels where others do not. We also get the Marie who still Lived in Warsaw and watched her sister and mother die, and hatched a plan to get her remaining sister and herself the university degrees they would ned to pursue their dreams of medicine and science.

But, McLain never really commits to any of these versiosn of Marie, bouncing between them and overlaying the love story of Marie and Pierre and his steadfastness in contrast to her determination to return to Poland, to work in science, and to succeed. He imagines a life where they can do those things together (short of moving to Poland, but the real Pierre did offer to follow Marie there). She eventually capitulates and they are married, within 8 years they will earn the Nobel Prize.

While A Mind of Her Own didn’t hang together for me, it certainly wasn’t the fault of Hillary Huber’s narration, she did a great job with the material at hand.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (CBR9 #15)

Image result for grunt mary roach

The past few years I have been working slowly but surely through the works of Mary Roach. I find her style to be intoxicating, even if her subjects seem a little outside my own personal interests. When announced that her latest book would be about the science of war I was immediately wondering how her light-hearted and comedy heavy style would work with this subject. Once I realized that she was, as usual, going to focus on the weird eddies of science and discovery. In her introduction, she refers to herself as “the goober with a flashlight stumbling into corners and crannies, not looking for anything specific but knowing when I’ve found it.”

Which is how I came to read and enjoy nearly three hundred pages about some of the research and work that goes into keeping our armed forces prepared, and how sometimes they wish we’d all prepare them a little less (seriously, the weights on the army standard armor are just… insane). Roach focuses on what dogs military personnel: panic, exhaustion, heat, noise, illness, injury, and introduces us to the people who work against these plagues.

It’s hard to pin down if I had a favorite section, or chapter, but I appreciated Roach’s approach of discussing things warts and all. For example, no one in the U.S. government seems to want to fund sexual therapy for soldiers returning with injuries to their sexual organs, but she is certainly going to highlight it, the need, and waggle her eyebrows for us all to get over our prudishness and think about quality of life.

I’m rating this one four stars, its everything good that she displayed in some of her previous books such as Packing for Mars and Gulp without the early mistakes in style that appear in Stiff (which is still a fascinating book that you should all read.)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Gulp! Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (CBR8 #69)

Image result for gulp adventures on the alimentary canal

I love Mary Roach. I will read whatever she writes, regardless of whether or not the subject area really sounds interesting to me. I was admittedly indifferent to this one, generally speaking, before I picked it up. The Read Harder challenge said to read a non-fiction book about science, and I knew Mary Roach was my gal for this.

I enjoy Mary Roach’s smorgasbord approach to non-fiction writing. Each idea is linked to the next, but if you look at them from the macro you wouldn’t necessarily be able to predict how. Roach’s tone is respectful while simultaneously playful, and brightens up some perhaps less than pleasant topics.

In her fifth book Roach tackles something we all share: the alimentary canal. Gulp takes us inside the body, a tour from mouth to rectum with Roach answering the random questions this passageway provides. The questions inspired by our insides may be taboo, (as were the cadavers in Stiff) and a bit surreal (zero gravity pooping anyone? See Packing for Mars), but Roach has found her niche as the purveyor of answers for the taboo and surreal. Thank goodness.

Read this book if you want to know why is crunchy food so appealing, or why is it so hard to find names for flavors and smells. What about the stomach digesting itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis?  (You know you want the answers to all of these questions.)

Why the three-star rating if I obviously enjoy Roach so much? This book, believe it or not, suffers from a lack of images. We can’t see our alimentary canal, and a lot of the procedures that come up in Roach’s research were a bit difficult for me to follow along. I was also suffering through a bout of the stomach bug and some small food poisoning, so this may not have been a timely book for me. But it actually made me feel better to burp along with Roach’s narrative.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Girls of Atomic City (CBR8 #11)

I loved the topic of this book, I wasn’t so much in love with its execution. I listened to this one via audiobook, as has become a new obsession of mine, and I’ve noticed that listening to books as opposed to reading them can really highlight poor editorial choices. There were many cases in the course of reading this book where we were revisiting information for the third or fourth time and it bothered me. Not enough to stop listening to this book, but enough to keep me from bumping this book’s rating up from three stars to four.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II is both exactly what its title says it is, and a little bit more. Author Denise Kiernan runs two narratives simultaneously: the first about the aforementioned women who came to the mysterious Clinton Engineering Works without any idea of what exactly they were working towards, except something that would help end the Second World War quickly, and the second the history of the scientific discoveries which would eventually lead to the development of the world’s first atomic weapon. Each side of the story has its ups and downs, but Kiernan does a good job of conveying the experience of a variety of women (and men) had at CEW both during the war and in its aftermath.

I’ve seen this one compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I think that a fair comparison. Each book tackles a portion of science which is likely unfamiliar to the general reader (how many of us really understand what goes into nuclear energy?) and tells us the tale of the science and the people who were directly linked to it. However, each suffers occasionally from an onslaught of information or a story that seemingly wanders away from the main narrative, but are both well researched, engaging reads.

While working on this review I came across the website for the book and it is full of the stuff I missed not having a hard copy in front of me (I love pictures!) and that has generally improved my opinion, so perhaps this one is best in its paper form.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Rosie Project (CBR6 #25)

The problem with reading books quickly is that I am often left with little to say when review time comes around, because I haven’t spent days or in the cases of some books – weeks, thinking about my feelings and reactions to the work. Instead, I’m going to make arguments against the detractions I’ve read about The Rosie Project which will hopefully help illuminate for you why it is a four star book for me.

As this book is pretty well reviewed  If you’re not familiar with the basic plot, here’s the two sentence summary: Thirty-nine year old Australian geneticist Don Tillman, and likely someone who would’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s if he was coming of age now, decides to attack the problem of finding a life partner in the same manner he would attack solving a science problem. Until a completely incompatible but irresistible woman enters his life with a problem.

It doesn’t necessarily sound like it should be the kind of book to pull you in for marathon reading sessions, but it absolutely is, and that all lines up with wanting to spend time with the protagonist. I’m on the record as saying that not all well written characters are also good protagonists, but in this case I found Don Tillman to be both a well written and good protagonist. I was interested in seeing the world through Don’s eyes, learning about how he coped with the world around him, and hearing him explain his motivations for deviating from his normal schedule, which was at the very core of how he coped with the world around him.

And Rosie ain’t half bad herself.

Some of the detractions I’ve seen in other reviews of this book (not here at CBR HQ) is that the book was written “quickly” and that Mr. Simsion chose to make it a comedy. First, the “quickly” problem: in his acknowledgements Mr. Simsion refers to having written what became The Rosie Project fairly quickly, but notes that it was still 6-7 years from beginning to publication. This is not actually quick. And the basic idea coming together quickly versus the work it takes to get the idea into both a workable novel and in the case of The Rosie Project a screenplay are highly different things. The second issue people have mentioned is wishing that Mr. Simsion chose to make this novel a comedy, and horror of all horrors, something that might be considered a romantic comedy. How dare he! How dare he choose to write something that is genuine and heartfelt and a statement and also funny! We should hang him from the rafters for that!

But to be perfectly serious for just a second this was, to me, a stroke of absolute genius. In the character of Don Tillman we have someone who knows that the way he processes the world around him is different and this difference often causes those around him, the normal folk, to find humor in his actions. So, as the coping mechanism of a highly intelligent person Don latches onto this and in his teens decides to act the clown, to choose the action most likely to cause a laugh, so that the laughter he is causing is his choice. By having the protagonist make this choice, and still be humorous to the reader outside of this coping mechanism ,Mr. Simsion has crafted a piece of work that is both accessible to the reader and makes a statement about what we ask others to do by assuming that we’re the norm. Mr. Simsion didn’t have to write a “serious” book to make this serious point.

All that said to say – read this book. It’s a lovely, funny, thoughtful look at what love is and what love does from an angle you may not have previously looked at it from

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.