Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: Bonk by Mary Roach

Goodreads: “The study of sexual physiology – what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better – has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic.
Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of ‘The New Yorker’), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women or, for that matter, pandas? 

In ‘Bonk’, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.”

It’s hard for me to critique nonfiction in all of my usual ways, so I’ll just say firstly that I immediately took to Roach’s writing style here, which is humorous and engaging. I think she does a great job of interpreting the data and results and translating them to a less scientific audience, and I was amused by her anecdotes of how she had to participate in some studies in order to get any kind of access to the equipment that was used.

There are some cringey passages, which aren’t Roach’s fault so much as she’s just dutifully reporting some rather cringey experiments (both official and not.) I’d absolutely recommend this book to anyone who has curiosity on the subject, with the caveat that there will probably be at least one or two things she discusses that will squick you out. Otherwise, I definitely learned a few things and enjoyed Roach’s presentation.

Book review: Paper Towns by John Green

Goodreads says: “Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life – dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows.
After their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues – and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer Q gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew.”

I really enjoyed this one. It surprised me; it started out as what seemed to be a pretty standard tale of a guy obsessed with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that she is the key to enlivening his existence. But then Paper Towns turned that whole trope on its head and became a complete deconstruction of it. What started as Quentin worshipping a romanticized ideal of Margo Roth Spiegelman became Quentin realizing he doesn’t know her at all and trying to, first by reading into clues she left behind and then by finally understanding that the whole of who a person is can’t be deduced just by pieces left behind.

Philosophical meanderings aside, the novel also had a ton of great smaller moments between friends in their final weeks of high school, a satisfying (if unrealistic) storyline of high school jerks getting their come-uppance, and some hilariously cartoonish parents. Seriously: the three sets of parents we hear the most about are prototypically mean and neglectful (Margo’s), blissfully clueless (Quentin’s), or delightfully wacky to the extent of trying to collect every Black Santa ever produced in tangible form (Radar’s).

This is a charming and thoughtful YA book that was a quick and satisfying read. It was my first John Green book, and I have others coming through the library hold pipeline that I’m excited about.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Goodreads says: “A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.”
There was a lot to unfold in this book, with its successive stories each moving forward in time, interrupting each other, addressing each other, and then concluding sequentially. Having read it, I think I can especially understand the more at-odds than usual mixed reviews of the movie, since adapting this for film seems an unusually tasking endeavor.

Mitchell has accomplished an impressive technical feat here, which is to leap between stylistic genres believably. Some (possibly those with a higher literary IQ than I) have also alleged that the “stacked” nature of this book is itself an accomplishment; for me it seemed a little gimmicky. A vague thread of existentialism ran through each of the stories, which were more explicitly tied together with notes like the narrator of one story reading the journal of the prior narrator’s story, or multiple narrators mentioning having the same birthmark (this seemingly random connection was lampshaded later when one narrator, an editor, scoffed at the random inclusion of two other nested characters having the same birthmark.) Each of these stories also borrow heavily from other works of art (literature, film, music/music history), as acknowledged by Mitchell himself, so in a way, as the stories string themselves together, they are also tied to our living reality. It is very clever, all of these tenuous threads, but at the end of the day your enjoyment of the book as a whole probably rests mostly on how you respond to each of the different stories. I read someone else’s review recently (I’m sorry to say I don’t remember whose!) that addressed the idea that sometimes appreciating what the author has done is different from enjoying it, and that’s basically what I experienced here.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy any of Cloud Atlas. I just didn’t enjoy all of it. My personal favorite stories included “An Orison of Sonmi~451″, which was the sci-fi Blade Runner-esque account of a replicant type who became sentient. It’s presented as an interview with her as she waits on what is essentially death row. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek with its inclusion of many of our favorite sci-fi tropes in such a short story, and as a fan of the genre I appreciated the wink and nod. I also liked the story that comprised of letters from 1930′s composer Robert Frobisher to one Rufus Sixsmith, and the delightfully cheesy noir mystery of Luisa Rey. Conversely, I didn’t like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (I think I could the apostrophes correct!) much at all — the forced pidgin was an absolute chore to read and I gave up on it entirely, other than to scan through and find the connection, which was that Sonmi~451′s story had survived and elevated her to God-like status among some.

It’s hard to say if this book will, ultimately, ascend to the status of literary classic, or be defamed as hacky and pompous after some time. In the present though, it’s worth reading.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My original review of Ready Player One was kind of compromised by the fact that it has been reviewed already so many times on the group Cannonball Read blog to which I first post my book reviews. I ixnayed the usual format, and instead offered the following quiz:
  • Do 80′s pop culture references moisten your loins?
  • Were you waiting for the next great cyberpunk novel?
  • Are you a fan of sensitive and varied depictions of different races, genders, and sexual orientations?
  • Do treasure hunts still appeal to you on an instinctual level?
  • Are you charmed by geeks fighting an Evil Empire?
  • Might you be immune to the occasional irritation that could arise from an extended infodump?
  • Don’t you think there is something so appealing about a hero rising from inauspicious origins?
  • Have you ever dreamed of fashioning yourself a new life in an alternate reality?
  • Are old-style arcade games so totally your bag?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of these questions, you really should read Ready Player One if you haven’t already. I’m ashamed it took me so long! But here I am, emerged victorious, to be neither the first nor the last to recommend it to you.