Monthly Archives: May 2011

Packing For Mars – Review – ****1/2

I want to be Mary Roach.

For this book alone she has managed to find excuses to travel to Japan, Russia, and Texas, speak to astronauts and waste specialists, ride a parabolic plane flight, and sky-dive indoors in a vertical wind tunnel. She has also tasted her own pee, which I am slightly less jealous of.

And instead of bragging, she condenses her experiences, interviews, and endless historical and scientific research into a wonderfully entertaining, intelligent, and, of course, funny novel; so you can’t even hate her properly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (given that I am 12), my favourite chapter of 16 was “Separation Anxiety,” a title that is much, much funnier after you have read said chapter. To give you a better idea about what’s going on, here’s the subtitle: “The continuing saga of zero gravity elimination.”

Mars is written in such a way that you can  read any chapter in any order, which is nice, but gets frustrating if you’re the predictable type who reads books straight through. Retired Air Force Colonel Dan Fulgham is introduced in an identical fashion at least 3 separate times; enough that I didn’t have to look up his name or title to type this sentence.

There is a good mix of hard science and more indirect tangents explained thoroughly enough for newbies, but briefly enough that those with a (very) basic knowledge of physics and engineering don’t get bored.

For a journalism student, the book has an unexpected use: it gives a rather interesting insight into the workings of a professional journalist as she navigates through contacts, archives, and PR people, particularly when tracing incorrect data, stories, and rumours.

Of course, much like in the last Roach book I reviewed (or any book I review, really), there were a few small things that bugged me:

“In the words of some academic I can’t name because I’ve lost the first page of his paper…”

There’s a horrible, nit-picky part of me that can’t abide by this. Rephrase, find another source, Google the damn quote. On the other hand, she is a very comedic, accessible writer, and you can readily imagine the epic search for that first page ending in this little nugget of frustration.

The last chapter is a nice inspirational little essay on the “point” of progress. One standout suggestion: funding the enormous cost of a Mars mission not through taxpayer dollars, but through the media – what network wouldn’t pay to see the elimination of candidate after candidate until the final astronaut contestants are chosen? Jesus, what an idea. Using reality TV for good.

Overall, recommended, of course. I enjoyed this one just as much as Stiff, and more than Bonk and Spook, which, while good fun, just didn’t keep me as entertained, amused, and full of wonder.

P.S. If you’re interested in more Roach, check out her website, or the interview pajiba.com did with her when Bonk came out.

Cannonball Read III: 6/52

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Three Cups of Tea – Review – ***

For those who don’t know, Three Cups of Tea is a non-fiction novel co-written by Greg Mortenson and journalist David Oliver Relin. It’s about Greg Mortenson, a former mountaineer and current humanitarian, who has made it his mission to promote peace by building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The story itself is fascinating; heart-warming, inspirational, and genuinely incredible. It begins just after Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2, one of the toughest peaks of the Karakoram range in the Himalayas. He accidentally wanders into the mountain village of Korphe, and is so thankful for their support and hospitality that he offers to try and help them in whatever way he can, in return. The rest of the book traces Mortenson’s journey as he plans and struggles to raise funds to build the first school, and how his work begins to take off. Mortenson is fairly well known in many circles today, and a quick Google search could tell you everything you need to know about his history. However, a book like this, which has clearly been richly researched and deeply cared for, is certainly a welcome addition to Mortenson’s legacy.

The problem, unfortunately, the very, very big problem, is in the writing. Considering that there were not one, but two authors, and that one of these authors has allegedly received actual awards for editing, and that, I presume, there was at least one editor at Penguin who read the book before shoving it through the printer, the prose in this novel is just, well, frankly, it’s dismal.

If I may pick some nits, one of the very basic rules of the English language that these two can’t seem to get straight is the distinction between the words “and” and “but”. If I am not mistaken, and I don’t think that I am, and, to put it crudely, means in addition to, while but implies a statement that is in contrast to. However, there are many sentences in the book which quite clearly confuse the meanings of those tiny little words.

“And” is further abused by being thrust unsuspecting on the beginning of practically every second sentence. I don’t know about you, but when I read a sentence beginning with the word and, that sentence stands out as important, majestic, perhaps a wee bit pretentious. But every fucking sentence? Did you have a word quota to fill? JUST DELETE IT. IT IS NOT NECESSARY.

To get a better idea of what it’s like to read Tea, take that third paragraph of mine and add the word to every second sentence. I dare you. No, I’ll make it easy for you.

“The story itself is fascinating; heart-warming, inspirational, and genuinely incredible. And it begins just after Mortenson’s failed attempt to climb K2, one of the toughest peaks of the Karakoram range in the Himalayas. He accidentally wanders into the mountain village of Korphe, and is so thankful for their support and hospitality that he offers to try and help them in whatever way he can, in return. And the rest of the book traces Mortenson’s journey as he plans and struggles to raise funds to build the first school, and how his work begins to take off. Mortenson is fairly well known in many circles today, and a quick Google search could tell you everything you need to know about his history. But, however, a book like this, which has clearly been richly researched and deeply cared for, is certainly a welcome addition to Mortenson’s legacy.”

By the end of the book, I wanted to destroy that tiny little conjunction. Although, to be fair, it’s not the word’s fault that the people wielding it clearly missed that first grade grammar class where we were told to never, under any circumstances, begin a sentence with the words “but”, “because”, or, that’s right, “and”. Or perhaps they just took that class, four years later, telling them that the ban wasn’t quite so absolute, a bit too seriously.

The prose is frightfully purple, bursting at the seams with adjectives. Congratulations, you found your thesaurus. Get over the excitement and move on.

However, some of it is, I swear, downright nonsense.

“’I wasn’t trying to be difficult. These guys had a serious job to do, especially after 9/11,’ Mortenson says, pronouncing the word the way he does.”

I mean – what? Which word? Pronounced how? Why on earth do you need to point that out? None of these questions are answered in any of the 349 pages I scoured. I have to imagine this one’s on you, Relin, as that sentence just screams rushed journalist to me (and believe me, I would know).

But abusing words isn’t enough. M & R had to drag the punctuation into it, too. Joseph Heller, who wrote the morbidly hilarious Catch-22, wrote florid sentences that could reach a whole page in length. Mortenson and Relin are evidently hell-bent on beating that record.

“In the fall of 2003, at the desk of his aviation company in Rawalpindi, as he tried to arrange a flight for Mortenson to Afghanistan, now that the CAI’s work in Pakistan was on firm enough footing for him to leave, Bhangoo’s boss, the bull-like Brigadier General Bashir Baz, ruminated on the importance of educating all of Pakistan’s children, and the progress America was making in the war on terror.”

Oh, that’s right.

You might think I’m harping a bit strongly on the writing style, but considering that you’re stuck with it throughout, I think it’s an important part of any book.

The bottom line is, I would recommend it to anyone who can stand reading it.

*This is an old review, not part of the Cannonball Read, but I never published it.

To: The Internet

Dude.

When I said “calligraphy f” that is SO not what I had in mind.

Books Read During Summer 2011

  1. Packing for Mars (****1/2)
  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (****1/2)
  3. The Bullpen Gospels (****)
  4. Lord Edgware Dies (***)
  5. At Home (****)
  6. Wishful Drinking (***1/2)
  7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (****)
  8. I Know I Am, But What Are You? (***1/2)
  9. Carry On, Jeeves (***1/2)
  10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (***1/2)
  11. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (*****)
  12. The World of  Jeeves (****)
  13. Eat, Pray, Love (***1/2)
  14. Absurdistan (***1/2)
  15. This is Your Brain on Music (****)
  16. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (****)
  17. The King’s Speech
  18. On The Road
  19. The Scarlet Pimpernel
  20. Shadows of the Empire
  21. Breakfast At Tiffany’s
  22. The Hot Zone
  23. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  24. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  25. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  26. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Legend:

* = irredeemably awful
** = middling
*** = decent; has value (of some sort)
**** = very good
***** = amazingly fantastic
****** = almost never used; the perfect book

Reviews: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – **** and Ella Enchanted – ***1/2

As someone who has severe difficulties with time management and keeping the buzzing in her brain subdued, I go through hot and cold periods of reading. There have been summers (during high school, when summers were long) that I’ve read over 50 books, and 6 months stretches when I’ve barely read 3. I also tend to read several books at once, so while I won’t have finished a book for a couple of weeks, I might have started 6, and will finish them all around the same time. So right now, I’m in the middle of 8 books (and actively reading four of them), but I’ve only completed 5 since starting this year’s Cannonball Read, and I’ve only done 3 reviews. Part of this has been the demands of school, but another part of it is being a perfectionist – I can’t think of anything useful or meaningful or clever to say about these books that I’ve read, as much as I’ve enjoyed them, so I haven’t written a review. Unfortunately, unreviewed books don’t count for CBIII, so I’m going to challenge myself to write something crappy and NOT CARE. Here goes.

This was the first book I read for CBIII. I picked it up for no other reason than because it was free, because I honestly assumed that with a title like that, and a movie like that, it would be utter crap, but a quick read.

It was actually wonderful. I mean, it was ridiculously cutesy, full of cloying nicknames and syrupy dialogue, but eventually it stops feeling forced (or I just learnt to enjoy it) and you can enjoy the genuine wisdom and maturity of the storyteller, and the richness of the characters and their world. As someone familiar with mental illness (due to family, myself, and my chosen profession), I really appreciated the treatment of stress and depression in the novel, the way that no one was a villain, because as much as you hate or dislike or get frustrated with them, they’re all people, they’re all well meaning and selfish and confused, and they all try. I wish I could clear my head enough from biology to do this book better justice, but since I have a bunch of labs to do, I’m going to leave this review unfinished and not perfect, and if I’ve intrigued you at all then please take a look at some other reviews online, or go ahead and pick up the book yourself.

Rating: 4 stars

I read this book when I was a kid, and I ADORED it. Most books I read look as though they’ve never been touched by human hands (unless someone else in my circle of family or friends has borrowed them), but Ella Enchanted is one of the special few who, despite my careful touch, has been manhandled so many times that it has, sadly, become soft and dog-eared.

I saw bits of the movie a couple of years ago on TV, and nearly had a conniption while screeching “MY EYES!” a la Chandler and Phoebe and have been bad-mouthing it ever since, until a friend suggested to me that perhaps the book wasn’t as good as I remembered. In order to shut said friend up, I finally got around to rereading this book (because, frankly, I need something short to pad my 52 books for this year, at the pace I’m going).

I still love it. I don’t really get why I was quite so enamored of it as a child, but it’s still a great read, entertaining and exciting, quick and sweet. A great kid’s book with a great heroine. The sort of book I wish tweens were reading these days.

Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Cannonball Read III: 5/52