science

Readings: Non-fiction, again

liebermanIt’s been somewhat slow in terms of reading and writing here. It’s partly work, partly the fact that what Warren Ellis calls The Great Winter Hermitage is approaching again, and I seem to be saving all the reading and writing for times when I really won’t want to leave the house. My reading now, oddly enough, is done mostly while I’m out and about, as I am still in the non-fiction audio book phase. I did Dewey’s readathon last Saturday and finished listening to The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge while doing a half-marathon through the park (way to overachieve, I say). Now I’m listening to Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, which is forcing me to learn quite a bit about something I oddly never particularly cared about, namely, various ancient hominids and what hunter-gatherers were up to. Lieberman is mainly interested in how evolution has affected our bodies and therefore our health. Spoiler alert: he thinks we should eat fewer donuts and walk more miles, but he also explains pretty well why it’s hard to overcome the impulse to sit on the couch instead. He makes a point that while we can ask what it is that the human body has evolved to do, we shouldn’t expect an easy, one-task answer. Much like we didn’t evolve to eat one kind of diet (he takes a few shots at modern paleo diets throughout the book). Whereas my previous audio read focused more on the brain, this one is more body-oriented (though I’m a few chapters away from the finish line).

ruhlI also just finished Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write. This is the perfect book if you don’t have time to read, either. As advertised, it has one hundred essays, Chekhovian in their brevity, but somehow containing within humor, profundity, life advice, and theatre critique all at once. Read this little book if you love theatre or if you hate theatre. Read it if you love children or don’t want any children around. Read it if you are a dramaturg, or if you have no idea what ‘dramaturg’ means. Just read it. It will either take you a couple of hours or weeks, depending on your reading speed and the number of children you have.

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Readings: alternate formats

I spent a few days dog-sitting for a couple of friends this week, and discovered that walking dogs is great for catching up on podcasts. It was so great, in fact, that I pretty much listened to everything on my list and ran out of audio material. Luckily, I then remembered that I wanted to give audio books a second chance. Audio fiction never works for me — I get distracted for five minutes, and in those five minutes ten characters die and I get confused. So I tried non-fiction, and it worked pretty well. It’s as if someone is narrating knowledge into your brain as you go about some mindless task.

accidental universeI listened to Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe, which came out a couple of years ago and was very well liked by someone at work whose reading taste I trust implicitly. It’s a pretty short book, but Lightman manages to touch upon the latest theories in physics, conflict between science and religion, philosophy, and what technology might be doing to human interactions with the world and each other. The latter was the point where I actually disagreed and even disliked his view of personal technology and its uses. It even struck me as privileged, for want of a better word, to grump about increase in texting and people spending a lot of time online. Sure, it’s annoying when everyone you’re having dinner with is checking their phones every two minutes, but think about any of these: texting allowing easier communication where it was nonexistent or limited before (see deaf community); cell phones allowing people who otherwise would have trouble keeping track of time or organizing their day to have a more scheduled life; online allowing me to find people like myself. And honestly, maybe uploading ourselves to some virtual reality doesn’t sound so bad to those of us who are not comfortable with our bodies. I’m certain Lightman does not think personal technology is solely bad for us, but the way he presents his thoughts on it is rather one-sided.

Before this gets too ranty, let me say that it was a good book to read if you have, like Lightman, a wide array of interests that include both science and humanities and if you like to break your brain by thinking about what conditions brought about life on Earth so humans could sit around and think about what conditions brought about life on Earth.

In addition to branching out into audio books, I also got a couple of e-books to read. I have periods when I remember e-books exist, and then go months without touching a single digital copy (touching it with my uploaded body, duh). I forget e-books are a thing because I get so many physical books. I also forget that advanced copies as e-books are a thing, and a great thing at that because they don’t add to the mountains of reading material in my house. So my e-book downloads this week are as follows: All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin (out next April), and The Good Death: Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann. None of these are out till next year, I’m afraid, so I feel like it’s a little early to even talk about whether I like these or not (I’ve read the first one on the list so far),

There are, as always, a whole bunch of books on paper in queue as well. Prepare yourselves, for I picked up my first Star Wars book in many years…

Some gems uncovered during book purge

I feel like there are too many moving parts in my life lately. Too much of everything: too much work, too many books, too many social obligations. I already have a strong tendency to hermit, and these days it takes extra effort to drag myself anywhere for any reason.

I helped my friend pack for his cross-country move a couple of weeks ago, and in the process inherited a new bookshelf that I just couldn’t turn down. I spent the next day rearranging my entire book collection. Some stuff was purged, everything else was organized. I wanted my company to be made of paper and talk to me silently from the page. Even this was overwhelming, since the number of books in my house is quickly approaching infinity. But at least I now have more shelving space.

As is always the case with book archaeology, long-forgotten titles were discovered. Here are the few of these gems:

It’s a tiny volume. I remember reading it, and that’s all I remember about it. Away it goes.

There was a time a few years ago when for a number of months I only read non-fiction. This is the last remnant of that binge. It’s quite neat, you get to learn about and fall in love with bats (among other creatures).

This is one of the books I bought because of the indie bookseller rule: if you go to another indie, you must buy a book. This one seemed like a good choice because my own store did not have it and because I had read and loved some of Kij Johnson’s short stories before. This one is a keeper, if yet unread.

And finally, this cherry on top:

Someone gave it to me a few years ago as a not entirely ironic gift. As in, they thought I would actually read it. I never did and probably never will. I’m fairly certain the reason I never read it was not because I didn’t want to to squirm while reading about people parting with their genitals using a shaving knife, but rather the scary superimposed giant head on the cover. Off with it.

In other news, I finally got a new laptop, which means I can write from the comfort of my own chair. I’m also currently reading a delightful fantasy novel and a yet-unpublished memoir, both of which will probably make an appearance in the next post. And I finally ran for the first time in two weeks.

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.

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Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.

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I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’

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Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:

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Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.

Blurbs! Le Guin, Smith, and Ball

I’m not going to make any reading/blogging resolutions for 2014, but I will inaugurate the new year with some short reviews of books read in the past couple of months.

latheMy bookgroup obviously can’t get enough of Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven is the third Le Guin we’ve read in the past couple of years. I confess, I am not the greatest fan of Le Guin. I couldn’t get through the Earthsea books. The only book that appealed to me was Left Hand of Darkness. I could appreciate her contribution and importance to the genre, her lovely writing style, but the books themselves just didn’t do it for me. Well, The Lathe might be the book that breaks the streak. I was so excited and engrossed I busted out sticky notes and pencil to write down quotes: ‘What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?’ (page 44) or ‘…a man who saw a miracle would reject his eyes’ witness, if those with him saw nothing’ (page 65). In The Lathe, a man named George Orr discovers he can change reality with his dreams. He attempts to suppress dreaming with drugs taken illegally using his friends’ Pharm Cards, and is assigned to undergo ‘voluntary therapy’. His therapist, however, after witnessing Orr’s ability firsthand, proceeds to augment reality by controlling Orr’s dreams via hypnosis and the invention called the Augmentor. The Lathe is one of the most deeply philosophical sci-fi books, raising questions about destiny, free will, and shared reality.

raslThe new Jeff Smith was the first book I read in 2014, and it was a great choice. Here I am, recuperating from December retail madness, half brain-dead, when this giant tome falls off the reading pile and lands in my lap. Coincidence? I think not. There’s noir, and there’s science, and Nikola Tesla, and dimension-jumping thief who used to be a physicist. Plus it’s Jeff Smith, so the fast-paced story is combined with sharp cartooning skills.

jesseballThe last blurb is for a book that is, strictly speaking, not speculative fiction, but bear with me. A couple of months ago I read the new Jesse Ball book, entitled Silence Once Begun. This one is due out in late January. The plot is pretty much revealed in the first few pages, so there isn’t much I can spoil for you. A man Oda Sotatsu brings to the police a signed confession that states that he is responsible for disappearance of eight people. Oda is jailed and convicted. But is his confession true? The story is told entirely through interviews with family members, prison staff, and other people involved in this trial. The book is partially based on true events. It’s unsettling and rather creepy (which is a good thing). Ball also captures the tone of Japanese literature perfectly. Silence Once Begun reads as if it is translated from Japanese. I love Japanese lit, and part of what I love about it is the style and tone, so this book hit all the right notes for me. (Another book about Japan that hit all the right notes was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which is now shortlisted for Booker. Go read both.)