April non-fiction books

That’s right, “books,” as in “more than one.”  I actually read three non-fiction books this month which totally makes up for not reading one in February (not that we are speaking of that).

I think I have found my non-fiction niche and that is the humorous memoir.  I read three of them in April.

First up was Little Heathens:  Hard times and high spirits on an Iowa farm during the great depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish.  My interest in this book is probably pretty obvious.  Additionally to my being from Iowa, my grandmother lives very close to where all of the action in the book takes place.  Also, my grandmother grew up on a farm (in a different part of Iowa) and so while reading the book, I often thought of my grandmother and wondered if her experiences were the same.  That said, I don’t think you have to be from Iowa or know someone who grew up on a farm to enjoy this book.  In fact, the NYT Sunday Book Review named it one of the 10 best books of 2007 so a few people outside of the midwest must have enjoyed it.  I think, the book can best be described using the same words Mrs. Kalish used in describing her her early childhood experiences–it’s “quite a romp.”

Next, I read The Sex Lives of Cannibals:  Adrift in the equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost.  This book takes place before Getting Stoned with Savages (which I read last month) and is, in fact, the book that the author is writing during that book.  The Sex Lives of Cannibals is every bit as funny as Getting Stoned despite the appalling circumstances the author finds himself in (Chapter 13 is entitled, “In which the author discusses how unfuckingbelievable scary the South Seas can be”).  After reading this book, it seems completely absurd that the author would ever want to live on an island anywhere in the Pacific ever again which makes Getting Stoned such a surprise.  As a bonus, Sex Lives has an epilogue that recounts a little bit of the author’s experiences soon after returning to the US (but before he leaves again in Getting Stoned) and the trouble he and his “beguiling wife” getting adjusted to life in America (like becoming stupefied over the bewildering array of maple syrup at the store).

Finally, I read Julie and Julia:  My year of cooking dangerously by Julie Powell which is actually being made into a movie.  The premise is that the author, Julie, finds herself in the middle of an identity crisis and in order to give her life some purpose, she decides to cook all 500+ recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.  I really loved this book.  Really.  First of all, the author seems to be as challenged in mental health as I am (though more in terms of anxiety than depression).  She definitely breaks down crying a few times which makes me feel better about my little crying episodes.  Second, it’s really quite funny.  Third, it illustrates The Power of the Blog.  Julie sets up a blog when she starts this project (back in 2002 before everyone and their grandma had a blog).  While blogging is only mentioned infrequently there are constant references to it in the background–the support she feels from her readers (whom she calls “bleaders” for blog readers) and the responsibility she feels towards them.  Ultimately, it’s the blog that brings about the changes in her life because that is what leads the media to pick up on what she’s doing.  If you like cooking, or feel a little lost in your life and especially if you blog, you will enjoy this book.

So that’s it for April.  Who knows what I’ll be reading in May.  Probably more humorous* memoirs.  J. Maarten Troost has another book called, Lost on Planet China.  What do you want to bet I’ll be reading that? 🙂

*I think I may be reading too many blogs written by Canadians and Brits because twice now I’ve typed “humorous” as “humourous” and had to correct it.

March non-fiction book: Getting Stoned with Savages

One of my New Year’s Resolutions (the only one, come to think of it) is to read more non-fiction books.  I decided to read 12 non-fiction books this year, one per month.  In January, I read Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.  We shall not speak of the February book.*

This month’s book was Getting Stoned with Savages:  A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost.  This book was a lot of fun and an easy read–I read the whole thing in an evening.  I suppose you would call it a travel memoir even though the author and his wife actually live in Fiji and Vanuatu (an island nation in the South Pacific) for several years.

The author has also written The Sex Lives of Cannibals:  Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific which is a memoir of his two years spent living with his then-girlfriend (no wife) on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.  Getting Stoned with Savages takes place after The Sex Lives of Cannibals, but the author mentions that he is writing The Sex Lives of Cannibals while living in Fiji and Vanuatu.

At the beginning of the book, the author and his girlfriend had just moved back to the US from their first experience living on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.  The author has a job at the World Bank and is making beaucoup bucks.  However, he (strangely, he thinks, because he was miserable on that island) misses living on the island.  His life in Washington seems very artificial.  So, after some thought, they decide to go back to the South Pacific, except to a less remote location.

The entire book is written from a humorous perspective even when the situation is more a “If we weren’t laughing we’d be crying” sort of thing.  He writes a bit about colonialism and his experiences being white in a place where there isn’t even the semblance of equality.  He also writes about his exploration of the islands of Vanuatu, his interactions with the native peoples, surviving a cyclone (hurricane) and his encounters foot-long poisonous centipedes.  And the joys of kava (which is where the book gets its name).

I sort of vaguely recall hearing about kava before reading this book, but I had the impression it was an innocuous herbal tea.  Um, no.  Kava, as consumed in the South Pacific, is a narcotic that is drunk for its tranquilizing effects.  Instead of having a beer after work, the locals drink kava.

I really enjoyed this book and really have nothing negative to say about it.  If you are looking for a book that waxxes philosophical about the rugged harshness of living in the third world, this book ain’t it.  But, if you are looking for a casual perspective about living in the third world, you might enjoy this book.

To give you an idea of the tone of the book, here are a couple of the chapter summaries found in the table of contents:

Chapter 3.  In which the author is confounded by Port Vila , which is not at all like the South Pacific he has known–he does not, for instance, have to eat fish every day–and after dipping into the past, which strikes him as being uncannily like the present, he cannot help but feel that for the whites in Vila it’s forever 1900.

And:

Chapter 6.  In which the author pondrs cannibalism and discovers that he just doesn’t get it–not at all, cannot get past the icky factor–and so, left to his own devices by his beguiling wife, he decides to seek enlightenment on the island of Maledula, where until recently, within his own lifetime even, they lunched on people.

So, that’s the book for March.  I haven’t decided on an April book, yet, but I suspect it may be The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

*Okay, here’s what happened with the February book:  it wasn’t fun enough.  I liked it but I’m having a hard time reading anything serious that isn’t also fairly humorous.  I’ll probably pick it up again after I go to California.

January non-fiction book: Bonk

When I did my year end review of books I read in 2008, I mentioned that it was my goal to read 12 non-fiction books this year–one per month. On Last Monday, it occurred to me that January was almost over so I needed to get my ass in gear and pick up something non-fiction. So, I headed to the bookstore and picked up Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach.

I’ve been wanting to read Bonk for awhile. I’ve read Stiff and Spook, both by Mary Roach and both funny as hell, so I figured Bonk would be along similar lines. It didn’t disappoint. Scicurious at Neurotopia has already written a stellar review of the book that I pretty much agree with so I’ll just give you a few of my impressions.

It’s a fast and fun read (which is what I need in a book these days).  The style of the book is such that you feel it’s as though your best friend went and did a whole bunch of research about sex and now you’re talking about it over lunch. (Although, when I was telling R about the book over lunch the other day, at one point she said, “This subject makes me uncomfortable.” So, I guess it would have to be a pretty uninhibited best friend.)  Roach has the kind of sense of humor and curiosity that I can relate to. And she’s not shy about it. If I met a man whose job it was to artificially inseminate pigs I’m pretty sure that there would be some questions in my head that I simply wouldn’t ask. Roach doesn’t have that kind of inhibition. And you got to admire someone who was so curious about a particular study that she went and participated in it herself (btw, her husband must be a saint; if I asked my husband to participate in a study where we have sex while a doctor stands next to us operating an ultrasound machine and giving us instructions, I’m absolutely certain he would look at me like I’d been smoking crack).

So, all in all, I would highly recommend Bonk to anyone looking for some interesting and lighthearted non-fiction to read.  Next on the non-fiction agenda:  The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell.

P.S.  On the fiction front:  still mostly reading vampire smut.  I think I may have a problem.

The year in books

Every year, I mean to keep a list of all the books I read that year so I can look back at the end of the year and be proud of how much reading I was able to do. Every year, I forget. Will 2009 be any better? Stay tuned.

So, I have to compile this list from memory. Which makes it extremely not accurate because I’m sure I’ll forget some things and other things I can’t remember if I read them this year or last year or what.

Mostly what I read was a lot of crap. Well, not necessarily crap, but if it were food, it would be junk food. Generally speaking, I’m okay with this because I primarily read for entertainment and escape and that pretty much guarantees I’m going to read fluff of little redeeming value. It’s only when I see other people’s lists of books they read this year that I feel a little sheepish.

But, whatever, on to the list!

So, apparently, this was the year of the vampire novel for me. I had never really gotten into vampires before (I stopped reading Anne Rice after Interview with a Vampire) but for some reason, this year they spoke to me. Don’t judge me.

1-8. Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. These are the vampire books I started with. I think they may be my favorites of the vampire genre.

9-24. All of the Anita Blake novels by Laurell K. Hamilton. These are much darker than the Sookie Stackhouse books. Also, much smuttier. They start out okay (that is to say, the first several books are smut-free) and I got invested in the characters and then the characters started having sex and then it got more and more graphic as a succubus got introduced, because, well, you can’t have succubi without sex, right? I don’t normally like reading about graphic sex because it embarrasses me, but, dammit, I wanted to know what happened to Anita! And, just like that I had read all 16 books. But, I just read somewhere that Anita Blake is considered “urban fantasy” which sounds way better than “vampire porn” and makes me feel slightly better about reading them. I’m still not sure I want my mother to know I read them, though.

25-28. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. I know. I probably just lost the respect of at least half of you. Let me explain. I got sucked into these books because a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go to the movie which I did and, having seen the movie, I still couldn’t understand the hoopla surrounding it, so I read the first book thinking this might give me a better idea of what the fuss is about. Then, I wanted to know what happens in the 2nd book, and, well, you get the idea. I have lots to say about these books, mostly about how I cringe to think of pre-teens reading these books because I think the main characters are really, really not good role models and also, if a boy is following you around everywhere you go and crawling into your room at night to watch you sleep (especially, especially if he is crawling into your room to watch you sleep, holy shit!), that boy is a STALKER and you need to report it to the police. That is really not okay behavior. But, hello, this is fluff. Much like cotton candy. You don’t read it with the expectation that it is going to be great literature. And, just like cotton candy, the closer you get to the end, the more you wonder why you are partaking of it, but, it’s cotton candy, you gotta keep going til it’s all gone (by the way, book 4? What.the.fuck??? Was Meyer smoking crack? Srsly). Perhaps, I should write more about this in another post.

So, that’s it with the vampires. And werewolves. Because, apparently, if you have vampires, you also have to have werewolves. At least in my experience.

29-34. The Merry Gentry novels by Laurell K. Hamilton. So, I really should have known that these books would have just as much graphic sex as the Anita Blake books (what with them having the same author), but, dudes, the main character is a faerie princess and I just could not refuse. I haven’t read the most recent one yet and I haven’t decided if I’m going to.

35-46. Riftwar books by Raymond E. Feist. Shadow of a Dark Queen, Rise of a Merchant Prince, Rage of a Demon King, Shards of a Broken Crown, Krondor: The Betrayal, Krondor: The Assassin, Krondor: Tear of the Gods, Talon of the Silver Hawk, King of Foxes, Exile’s Return, Flight of the Nighthawks, Into a Dark Realm. I still need to read Wrath of a Mad God to finish the series.

47. Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card. Got this one for Christmas this year. Was a fun read. Wish I had reread Ender’s Game before I read this latest one, though.

48. Tales of Beadle the Bard by J. K. Rowling. Also a Christmas present. It’s just three fairy tales so it went by quickly.

49-51. The Wee Free Men, A Handful of Sky, and The Wintersmith all by Terry Pratchett. These are technically kids books, but I love me some well-written kids books. They take place in the Discworld universe and have an awesome female protagonist. Way better role model than Bella of Twilight.

52. The Best Science Writing of 2007 by Gina Kolata Cohen. I think there may be a few essays in this I still haven’t read. I’ll get around to it one of these days.

53. The Duchess by Amanda Foreman. I saw the movie so I was curious to read the book. I haven’t finished the book, but I’ve read as much as I think I’m going to. Not that it’s a bad read. It just started to depress me, and, having the problems I do with depression and so forth, I can’t be reading depressing shit.

54. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. I think I actually started this in 2007 but whatever. I listened to this book rather than read it and the audiobook had a full cast so it was pretty fun. However, for reasons I haven’t entirely been able to figure out, I’m not in a hurry to read the 2nd book. I think this is partially because I’m upset about what Lord Asreal (sp?) did at the end of book 1 and I really don’t want to read more about him. Asshole.

55. Mason-Dixon Knitting: Knitting Outside the Lines by Kay Gardiner and Ann Meador Shayne. Knitting books do so count. Especially if they are full of essays. So there.

I think that may be it. I’ll add more if I think of them. Also, I reread a bunch of Terry Pratchett books but I don’t think I should count them toward the total.

So, wow. I read 55 books this year. Huh. I would have sworn it wasn’t that many. I think the key to the volume of books was that I read several series. Often, when I start reading a series, I obsessively read that series until I get through all of the books. And by obsessively, I mean, read while eating, read instead of sleeping and read while walking down the street (which works better in the summertime because it stays light later). Also, a large number of those books were low on substance which makes them quick reads.

Additionally, I started a few books that I then put down for one reason or another (probably to read a vampire book) and still intend to finish. So, I guess I’ll count those in 2009.

Before I started this list (back when I was thinking I hadn’t read a lot of books this year), I was considering making a goal to read X number of books in 2009. This seems less necessary, now. So, instead of making a goal for the total number of books, I will make it my goal to read at least 12 non-fiction books in 2009. That’s only 1 a month. That seems doable, right?

So, you guys have any suggestions for non-fiction books?  Nothing too heavy, mind you.  Also, what did you guys read this year?

Blog filler: book meme

I ran across a book meme and since my labwork has kept me too busy to write anything of substance, I thought I’d play along.  Consider yourself tagged.

1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you have started but haven’t finished.
3) Place an asterisk by those you intend to read/finish someday.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

*6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
*9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
[One of my favorite books ever]
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
*22. The Great Gatsby 0 F. Scott Fitzgerald
*23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
*27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
*31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
*33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis [I’ve read three or four but not the whole series, yet]
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
*52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov [too damn disturbing for me to ever want to finish]
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas [technically, this was an abridged version but as it was over 500 pages long, I feel it counts]
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie [absolutely brilliant]
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
*71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
*72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
*79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
*89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
*92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
*94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Books

Over at ScienceBlogs, Laelaps has asked what people have read this year. I started thinking about this and realized my list was too long to put in the comments, so I’m going to post them here, in no particular order.

First-time reads:

  1. Making Money, Terry Pratchett (audio)
  2. The Demon Under the Microscope, Thomas Hagan (audio)
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
  4. A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin (audio)
  5. A Clash of Kings, George RR Martin (audio)
  6. A Storm of Swords, George RR Martin (audio)
  7. A Feast for Crows, George RR Martin (audio)
  8. Stardust, Neil Gaiman
  9. Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, Lauren Slater
  10. Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, Jessica Valenti
  11. The Cup of the World, John Dickenson (audio)
  12. The Widow and the King, John Dickinson (audio)
  13. Master of Dragons, Margaret Weiss (audio)
  14. The Dragon’s Son, Margaret Weiss (audio)
  15. Crazy Aunt Purl’s Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair, Laurie Perry
  16. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Casts Off: The Yarn Harlot’s Guide to the Land of Knitting, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
  17. Misquoting Jesus:  The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Bart D. Ehrman
  18. She’s Such a Geek! ed. Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders
  19. I Had Brain Surgery.  What’s Your Excuse? Suzy Becker
  20. The Great Snape Debate : The Case for Snapes Guilt/Innocence, Amy Berner and Orson Scott Card

Re-reads:

  1. Thud, Terry Pratchett (audio)
  2. The Truth, Terry Pratchett (audio)
  3. Monsterous Regiment, Terry Pratchett (audio)
  4. The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett (audio)
  5. An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, Pamela Aidan
  6. Duty and Desire: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, Pamela Aidan
  7. These Three Remain: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman, Pamela Aidan
  8. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling

Currently:

  1. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, Carl Sagan
  2. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (audio)

I think it’s pretty obvious I’m a fan of:  fantasy fiction, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, and Harry Potter.  The non-fiction is sort of all over the map.  I also like to listen to audio books while I knit.  Or on the plane to California.  Or while doing the dishes.

Looking at this list, I realize that I read a lot more than I thought I did.  I am always bemoaning the fact that I have no time to read, but I still have managed to read approximately one book every two weeks.  This is much, much less that the amount I used to read before grad. school.  So much less that I honestly feel deprived.  I’m looking forward to catching up on my reading  when I take a break after I graduate.

What have you read this year?

The Demon Under the Microscope

I am in the process of reading The Demon Under the Microscope (listening to, actually–I like to listen to audiobooks while I knit) by Thomas Hager.  I saw a couple reviews of the book on scienceblogs and, being interested in science history, I decided to give it a shot.

I don’t have time to do a thoughtful, detailed analysis of the book (besides, I’m only 2/3 of the way through it), but I will say that there is plenty in it to enjoy for a cell biologist with an interest in history.  The book details the discovery of sulfadrugs in the early 20th century, but to tell this story, the author dips into the discovery of microscopes and micro-organisms, the appalling conditions in the field hospitals during WWI, development of sterile surgical technique, and a whole host of things that ultimately led to the discovery of these drugs. The focus is both on how scientists went about looking for a cure for infectious disease and about what drove those scientists to look for a cure in the first place.  Right now, I’m listening to the birth of pharmaceutical companies which arose from German dye manufacturers of all things.

Having never looked into the history of this subject, I can’t speak to how accurate the information in the book is.  But it is a compelling read and if you have an interest in science history, worth your time.