Friday, September 19, 2014


You can keep your Heathcliffes, your Darcys, your Rochesters ; my literary boyfriend on whom I call dibs for all time is Mark Watney, almost-omnicompetent botanist, engineer, Martian.

Andy Weir's The Martian feels like it has a very familiar premise -- Robinson Crusoe on Mars anyone? -- but Weir's hero makes it a unique story all its own. Stranded on a newly-established Mars base after a sandstorm forces the rest of his crew to abort their years-long mission (an accident during the evacuation leads everyone to believe Mark has perished), he has to choose whether to give up and die and spare himself a slow suffering death from starvation after his NASA rations run out, or to outthink his situation and live. He chooses, of course, the latter, even though he is pretty sure no one is ever going to come to his rescue. And there is much rejoicing.

His story is told via his logs, in which he details his thought processes and his progress toward survival (making water, making [via a combination of Martian dirt and his own poop] garden soil, growing potatoes, hacking the expedition's exploration and sampling equipment to turn it all into a survival machine) as well as his occasional exasperation at his erstwhile crewmates' taste in culture; the mission commander had a serious Seventies problem, and her choices completely govern how Mark winds up spending his leisure hours while, e.g., waiting for batteries to recharge, for potato seedlings to grow, for hydrolysis to happen.

Intercut with Mark's journal entries are conventional third-person narratives detailing how NASA discovers he is still alive and the extraordinary efforts to which they -- and the rest of the planet, really -- go to get him home again. These characters are as vividly realized as Mark is, and almost as enjoyable to watch in action. Almost.

All this is very exciting and enjoyable, but really, for me it's the competence porn that makes this book the delight that it is. Mark is not truly omnicompetent -- he has some scary near misses and makes some nearly-deadly mistakes -- but he's close enough. Give me a man who can make his own soil, hack a Mars rover and maintain his sanity on a cultural diet of nothing but Three's Company reruns and I'll... no, just give me that man, all right?

And yes, I still want to go to Mars. Maybe my cadaver can go someday at least (which, see next review)...

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Ever since I learned it could potentially be a thing, to turn a human corpse into pencils, I've been absolutely certain that this is what I want done with my remains.

After reading Mary Roach's remarkable Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, though, I'm having second thoughts. Because, awesome as being turned into pencils might be, there are way more awesome things that might be done with this meat carcass of mine when I'm done with it. Things that might benefit all of humanity, rather than a few dozen of my friends who still write their grocery lists on paper.

Yeah, yeah, it might just be that all I'm good for is providing a head on which plastic surgeons can practice doing nose jobs and face lifts, but I might also do service as a human crash test dummy, making the next generation of cars even safer than the last. Or I might teach the next generation of crime scene investigators something new about how bodies decompose in soda ash or sand. Or I might see service as an awesomely gruesome movie prop in some fashion or other!

Oh, the possibilities!

Such are the thoughts a book like this inevitably inspires, even if it's not really good.

But it is, in fact, really good. Mary Roach ( I find myself wondering if that's her maiden name or if she had to hunt down a guy named Roach and marry him in order to have the best name EVER for a journalist who investigates things no one else has the stomach to) has a lively, somewhat gruesome curiosity, a courage abd honey badger-saque lack of concern about how she might be perceived for indulging it, and a knack for framing the results of all of this as satisfying and entertaining narratives. In other words, she is fun. 

I bet she's a blast at cocktail parties. 

What an enjoyable read!

Monday, September 1, 2014


Not since I first encountered Simon Schama's wonderful Landscape and Memory have I experienced a book that so powerfully evokes the power of place as Tim Butcher's The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War. For while the book is ostensibly concerned with Gavrilo Princip, whose murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 touched off the First World War, I would argue that the region itself -- the lands occupied by Princip's beloved "southern slavs" that would be united (more or less) as Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century -- is the real "trigger" for World War I and many subsequent conflicts.

It's Butcher's uniquely haunted perspective on the region that lets the brutal realities of the landscape eclipse the story of its most famous son. The result may disappoint seekers after a mere biography of Princip (but hey, details on the man's life are scant enough to where such seekers should be used to disappointment -- but should be delighted by Butcher's encounter, early in the book, with Princip's modern relatives, who cherish a sort of folk memory of their famous great-great uncle that is, as far as I know, all new-to-us material), but readers who can get over that small disappointment will still be rewarded by a remarkable book.

Butcher was a journalist on assignment in the Balkans during the horrific conflicts that broke out after the Warsaw Pact gave up the ghost and the nation of Yugoslavia (the name means essentially, southern Slavs, implying a union of same that might have been dear to Princip's heart, though one wonders what he'd think of Tito as a replacement for the Hapsburgs/Ottoman Turks/etc) dissolved into bloody ethnic conflict. As he follows Princip's journey from his poor and remote home village to Sarajevo, Belgrade and back to Sarajevo, Butcher can't help but recall how the vistas he encounters and the people he (re-) connects with in 2012 looked back in the 1990s, even as he tries to imagine his way back to the early 1910s.

This sounds like a recipe for maudlin mourning or peacenik preaching, but Butcher doesn't let either flavor spoil the dish. For every scene of survivor's guilt or tragic and harrowing story behind a destroyed building or a desecrated monument, there is a scene of enduring charm (Fishing with the Imams) or of newly adopted, moving and meaningful rituals (the march commemorating the escape of thousands of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica).

The result is a difficult but rewarding read, and one I would recommend to absolutely anyone.