The Martian

I’m a child of ”Space Camp” (to the point that I have quotes like “We want to breathe, not dry clean our lungs,” and “Whip me, beat me, take away my charge cards, NASA is talking!” permanently engrained in my brain). A daughter of a man who includes Gene Kranz among his personal heroes. And a cinephile who came of age as “Apollo 13” hit the screens. Basically, I was practically genetically primed to love Andy Weir’s  “The Martian.”

Well…. I love “The Martian.”

We’re talking “owned it for a month and already reading it a second time” love. It’s just that good.

Besides being masterfully researched–and you can just tell that there are reams of research behind the facts that actually show on the page–the book is extraordinarily well plotted and, quite frankly, laugh out loud funny. It helps that the antagonist is, as Weir had stated, ” an irreverent smart-ass,” a description that could easily apply to me.

In fact, the tone is already set within the first line of “I’m pretty much fucked.” As Weir himself has said “I never intended for the book to be as funny as it ended up being, but looking back, I think it had to be—with a premise that has so much potential to be claustrophobic, it’s Mark’s voice and his gallows humor that keep things light and fun for the reader.”

And Weir did a masterful job of playing with the narrative structure. In my initial read, while I was enjoying the first-person narrative, I was also aware that the conceit would start to feel old. But before that happens, Weir takes you somewhere else… And he does it again and again.

If I had to come up with a complaint, it would be that he stated to follow the structural pattern of an episode of “House:”  think you’ve found the solution, new hurdle; think you’ve found the solution, new hurdle. Lather,  rinse, repeat to the end. And yet, each new hurdle is well-timed and each solution satisfying (and it helps that the hurdle is never lupus.)

Based on the research and NASA/space love, I’d recommend the book to science and sci-fi fans. Based on the smart-ass characterization I’d recommend (and have been recommending it) to all my friends. And based on a well plotted/paced story, I’d recommend “The Martian” to anybody who reads.

Everything old is new again…here’s to a wordy new year

I often find that New Year’s resolutions last closer to a week… maybe a month… rather than a year. As such, I’m making this less about a resolution than a “theme.” It’s an idea from a friend who assigns a theme to each year–one year it was health, another money–and then just make decisions throughout that year focused on that theme.

I’ve decided my theme this year will be “words.”

What will that entail?

First, more writing… In multiple forms. As evidenced by this entry I’ll try to be more active here. In addition, I plan to send more letters this year. I spent last evening going through my cache of letters and cards I’ve received since college. The letter my dad wrote as he and my mom were dropping me off at college. More than a decade of correspondence from one of my best friends. Old birthday cards full of in-jokes I’d forgotten. As much as I love the digital age, there’s something to be said about a physical letter.

Next…reading. Not more necessarily, just different. I spend an inordinate amount of time on the web and I want to get back to books a bit more. Probably can’t swing my record (50 in a year) so instead my goal is to read from a book, physical or electronic, at least five times a week. Hooray for bus commutes.

Books and letters and words, oh my. Looks like I’m ringing in the new year with some old, forgotten habits…

An Amazon-Free Existence: My First Big Hurdle

Last December I hit the limit on how much I was willing to let my money go toward a company I found shady and questionable–Amazon. And it’s been fairly doable.

The biggest change has been the lack of one-stop shopping–but more exploring. Without the default of “Amazon will have it” I need to think about who will. Sometimes that means finding a new outlet on the web, but sometimes it means finding a new store in my area. And while I’m OK at Internet communities, I need some work at connecting to my actual community, so anything that helps me do that is a bonus.

So life Amazon free has been a bit pricier amod takes a bit more time, but still worth it. And then…

In case it hasn’t been made obvious, I’m an Amanda Palmer fan, so news of her latest Kickstarter had me completely psyched. I was all set to donate anD then I saw the little Amazon Payments logo.

Commence sinking heart.

I did my research in the hopes that, maybe my money, no matter how small a fraction, wouldn’t be going to Amazon. No such luck.

So I didn’t give. Which makes me sad. But I’m also happy that I stuck with my convictions. Thankfully, Pozible is NOT linked to Amazon, so I can and did (and you should to) donated to Tom Dickins’ newest album. So hooray for supporting independent projects without supporting Amazon.

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor: A Hunger Games move review

CC License: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brokendownlover/Two weekends ago I had a marathon reading session as a burned through all three books of The Hunger Games. Unsurprisingly, as young adult fantasy with solid world building and a strong rebellious lead they were right up my alley. But powering through the books like that was all in service of this weekend and the movie.

Movies like this are rough when the books are a) so popular and b) told in the first person (so most of the exposition is the lead character’s thoughts). In the beginning I was a little worried. Part of it was that I couldn’t divorce myself from analyzing what they cut out and how critical information would or would not be playing to people who hadn’t read the books.

(Spoilers below)

By the halfway point I was really getting worried. They’d already burned through at least half the movie and they still weren’t in the games. And there was so many individual scenes that were so critical I didn’t know how the movie-makers were going to do it. Thankfully for us, the audience, the odds WERE in our favor.\

Once they get to the games, things really pick up and they not only hit on the key points, they hit on them well. Peeta and the pack? Check. Trackerjackers? Check. Rue? Check. Food pyramid? Check. Cave romance? Check. Feast? Check. And, of course, the final confrontation at the cornucopia.

There are a couple of pieces missing that will probably annoy the book purists (where the pin comes from, the depth to which Katniss and Haymitch plot the “lover” deception and Peeta’s discovery of that, etc). Plus, they started to get into the riots of books 2 and 3 early on by pulling them in already as well as the repercussions for the Game Master, Seneca. But in my mind, these minor changes did little to nothing to detract from the experience…in the case of the latter, I actually think it completely makes sense from the standpoint of leading to the next movie and weaving the whole narrative together.

Everything that was chosen to be left in, edited out, or pulled in from the later books was clearly well-thought out and elegantly done. Plus the did a really great job of using the announcers (gotta love Stanley Tucci being a ham) and Game Master to give some of the exposition that, in the books, was limited to thought in Katniss’ mind.

In fact the only real missteps I could find was their attempts to establish the Gale-Katniss-Peeta triangle. The flash-cuts to Gale during the cave scenes were so heavy-handed and contrived that the audience in my theater actually laughed every time it happened.

But that small misstep aside, overall the movie is amazing. Really, my only problem is that, unlike my marathon reading session, the next movie isn’t immediately here for me to enjoy. Let the waiting begin….

Vacation Made Me Do It: How I Succumbed to the Lure of an eReader

I’ve been contemplating an eReader off and on for a while now. Initially, my main impetus was discovering I could knit while reading on my computer (don’t have to hold it open like a book) and an eReader seemed like the chance to be able to read.

So I did my research and, while early on I was leaning toward Kindle, Amazon’s recent shenanigans turned me toward the Nook. And I definitely wanted the Simple Touch. I wanted a dedicated eReader w/ the E ink technology that’s good for your eyes. If I wanted something for video/color/apps/browsing I’d have gone with an iPad (or something else that’s actually designed to be a dedicated tablet computer) cause the Kindle Fire et al seem like those TV/VCRs you had in college where it’s trying to be both an eReader and a tablet for cheap and isn’t doing the best at either.

But I was still conflicted. I LOVE books. When I move, I’d say a third of the non-furniture mass I take with my is comprised of books and craft supplies. Books are friends and their tangible weight and permanence is a comfort. And eReaders somehow seemed to cheapen that.

But here I am, a newly pressed eReader owner. What pushed me to succumb? Besides the hands-free appeal, there were two recent things that did the trick:

  • Ironically enough, Jonathan Franzen’s recent screed against eReaders/eBooks, where he talked about some of the same concerns I had myself. He said “…a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience…Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.” He then goes on to overreach and try to connect the lack of permanence to the possible breakdown of “a system of justice or responsible self-government,” but is hyperbolic fears aside, it was hearing somebody talk of the permanence of books that made me realize that there are some books where I don’t NEED that permanence. I’m an inveterate re-reader. Certain books are old friends who I can turn to time and again and have become permanent fixtures in my life. But there are also those books that are fluid. Pieces of fluff entertainment that I read once and then leave by the wayside. They need no permanence as they are just transients in my life so if the come in transient bit/byte form then what’s the difference. What’s more, for some of my oldest friends (Austen, Eyre, Monte Cristo), I can now have them in permanent form on my shelves and, at no cost (in money or mass), always carry them with me. So, my qualms swept aside by a man arguing for the opposite, the next step was…
  • An upcoming vacation. I’ve booked a trip with friends that’s going to involve a lot of time on a beach (reading!) and, more importantly, a 13+ hour one way flight. I tend to always over-pack my books when it comes to trips and this time the impulse would be even worse. But now I can take 100s of books with me while taking up the space of one.

So yes, I still love my books. And eReader aside, I don’t see my next move being any lighter in books. My shelves are still weighted down with those old friends and will find some new friends who rate this kind of permanence in my life. But I also have a small treasure trove that I can carry with me whereever I go. And really, Franzen’s rant aside, isn’t less about what form people are reading books but that they’re reading at all?

Happy reading, all!

 

 

Do You Think What You Think You Think?

Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kozumel/Labeled “The Ultimate Philosophical Handbook,” this is definitely an exercise in active reading. Even if you find you don’t, in fact, think what you think you think, this book will (dare I say it) make you think.

The book takes you through a series of exercises to explore your internal logic and beliefs around issues from morality and religion to art and freedom.

One of the main things the book focuses on is whether your framework of thinking about this issues is internally consistent. And while I was pleased to find that I actually am fairly consistent in my own thoughts and beliefs, it was the motions of confirming that which I found most fascinating.

The questions make you really think about beliefs that, in your day-to-day life, are more about gut reactions, and, in doing so, make you feel yourself thinking. It’s a very conscious thought process that makes you hyper-aware of the foundations of a belief system you (most likely) unconsciously built throughout the course of your life.

While I found no shocking surprises about myself, it was still a worthwhile exploration of self as I’m now more consciously aware of thinking the way I think. And, because of how the exercises are built, with their focus on finding logical inconsistencies, I think the revealing power of the book has the possibility of being that much stronger for those who have hidden inconsistencies. Either way, you’ll come out of reading this book knowing yourself better than when you started.

Thanks For Making the Choice Clear, Amazon

Though I’ve resisted for a while, I’ve been thinking of getting an e-reader. Finally realized that it won’t be in PLACE of actual books, but in addition too. I still love having actual books, but there are certain scenarios where and e-reader makes more sense. Like being able to bring a bunch of books on vacation without hauling…a bunch of books. Or being able to read and knit at the same time cause I don’t have to hold a book open.

I was leaning toward a Kindle Fire (inexpensive tablet AND e-reader), when the latest Amazon story broke about their price check app, where they offer discounts and coupons for customers reporting on competitors’ in-store prices.

Really Amazon?

Despite some past missteps of theirs, I’ve been a fan. I don’t buy myself books there as I try to support local indy bookshops, but I definitely buy a bunch of other stuff through Amazon because of the ease. No longer.

They can claim all they want that they’re not trying to go after small businesses but rather big retail chains, but that won’t stop them from getting data on and increasing their advantage over small business while using their customers to do so. And really, the whole idea of it just feels….sleazy.

So between my already well-entrenched loyalty to my local bookstore and this latest sign of corporate greed, I’m done with Amazon. I will not get a Kindle. I will be closing out my Amazon Visa. I will not buy anything else from them. And I will, in general, be spreading the word to others that it’s worth considering doing the same.

So what’s my e-book solution? Looks like I’m going with a Nook. Might seem a bit counter-intuitive to go from one big corporation to another, but there’s a Barnes and Noble just up the street from my office and, as the receipts from my local indy bookshop note:

How much money stays in your community when you spend $100?
At a locally owned business: $68
At a local chain: $43
At Amazon: $0 *

So bound books from the independent bookstores. E-book reader from a local chain. And since Amazon gives $0 for my community, from now on I will give $0 to them.

——————————————-

*I have no idea how accurate these numbers are**, but the logic and point behind it is sound. With a locally owned business, the taxes, staff wages, and profits stay in the community. With a chain, the taxes and staff wages stay in the community. With Amazon….yep, that’s a big fat zero.

**Edited to Add (12/19/11): I checked with the bookstore and apparently they were using a Civic Economics study for these numbers. It’s from 2004 and focused on Chicago, but my guess is that, while the exact numbers might not hold true, the theory behind them is still pretty solid.

Finding the Good

A sculputre of the Concorde in Gander, Newfoundland via http://www.flickr.com/photos/rjproduct/One of the things I immediately implemented upon reading Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist Way was getting info from the Good News Network. As he pointed out, “Yes, it’s important to be informed about the world, but it’s ALSO important to keep in mind that it’s not all horrifying.”

A good chunk of the stories on the Good News Network center around “good Samaritans.” While it’s good to see the effect one individual’s actions can have, it also makes it overwhelming to think of the individual actions needed to face up to the overwhelming bad news in our headlines: climate change, political corruption, militarization of the police, war, economic collapse, etc.

That’s why I was so touched this week to be reminded of the power of groups. The reminder started with an individual, and the story is bookended by tragedies, one large and global, the other small and personal. And yet, it’s still a story of good news.

A few years ago, I read The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander Newfoundland. Basically, when the U.S. airspace was closed on 9/11, more than 30 jets, carrying more than 6,000 passengers, were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland–a town with a population of about 10,000. The book examines the few days around 9/11, following residents and stranded travelers and the intersecting stories that this crisis created in this small corner of the world.

It really is a fabulous read. It inspires trite phrases like “the power of the human spirit,” which can never encompass what they’re trying to convey. At its basic level, it’s a heart-warming read, and an interesting frame through which to look at this part of our recent history. Here was a group, banding together in a time of great national and global tragedy and making something good out of it.

But that’s not the end of this story. That’s the start, with the large global tragedy. Last month, the pilot of the second to last plane to land in Gander passed away. It’s a footnote to the grander story, and one I probably wouldn’t have ever heard about if he hadn’t been from my hometown (and if I hadn’t made my mom read the book). But what makes this small moment of loss for a family something bigger is tucked away in his obituary:

In lieu of flowers, please send donations written to the Canadian Red Cross, for the benefit of Gander Newfoundland, Canada.

Once again, it’s a simple individual action…this one taken in the spirit of and in return for a larger group action. But it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

When my mom told me the news, I went back to look at the book and the epilogue is full of the stories of how the people both the Gander natives and their temporary guests responded after everybody went home…the pages are full of acts like this. And in their simplicity, they remind me, once again, that there is good to be found. Even in tragedy.

Where’s Sam Vimes When You Need Him: Pratchett and the Occupy Protests

Police at Occupy Oakland via http://www.flickr.com/photos/52055911@N05/6308820692/When asked to describe Terry Pratchett’s work, I often say that he’s to fantasy what Douglas Adams is to science fiction…by way of Jonathan Swift. What’s always drawn me in is his ability to use humor and fantasy to create startling clear social commentary.

And he always seems to do it best in “The Watch” books* and I would say it’s mainly because of the main character, Sam Vimes. I’ll fully admit that he is my favorite character in Discworld (and probably in my top ten characters in all of fiction). I was quite happy to see my affection was shared by Pratchett who, in a talk I attended, said that Vimes was among his own favorites as well.

Pratchett has said of Vimes that he “is fundamentally a person. He fears he may be a bad person because he knows what he thinks rather than just what he says and does. He chokes off those little reactions and impulses, but he knows what they are. So he tries to act like a good person, often in situations where the map is unclear.”

Pratchett’s use of Vimes as tool for political commentary is so clear to me that, when we launched the most recent Iraq War, one of my first impulses was to re-read Jingo, which looks at nationalism, racism, and war…through the Pratchett lens of humor and fantasy.

So what’s that have to do with the Occupy protests?

Vimes is a watchman…a policeman. And right now, policemen aren’t getting the best of press. And with incidents like this, is it any wonder?

So as I was reading the new Discworld novel, Snuff, the following really struck a nerve:

It always embarrassed Samuel Vimes when civilians tried to speak to him in what they thought was “policeman.” If it came to that, he hated thinking of them as civilians, What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians the only other thing they could be was soldiers.

There’s been a lot of political analysis about the militarization of police and how it led to the horrors we’ve been seeing at the Occupy protests. And tucked away in a fantasy novel, written months before the protests began and published only a few weeks in is a not-so simple policeman, with a not-so simple thought…

I can only wonder what the headlines would have been if there were only more Sam Vimeses on the police forces of our country.

 

*Terry Pratchett’s longest and most well-known series of books is Discworld. But the 30+ book series has several sub-series, including (but not limited to) the Wizards, Witches, Watch, and Death. It makes figuring out where to start and what order to read them in a complex decision.

RIP Anne McCaffrey….and Thanks

Anne McCaffrey: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theenmoyThere’s something strangely fitting that I learned of Anne McCaffrey’s death from Tamora Pierce. I don’t know as I ever would have discovered Tamora Pierce if it weren’t for Anne McCaffrey.

Actually, it’s possible I wouldn’t have discovered Mercedes Lackey, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Brian Jacques, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein… you get the idea.

See, up until about age 13, I wasn’t a sci-fi/fantasy reader. Babysitters Club? Check. Nancy Drew (the originals, thank you very much!)? Check. The Sunfire series of historical romances? Sad to admit, but check. My reading time was focused on the young adult shelves of the public library and that was it.

And then, at school, while looking through similar books I found one that, I now realize, was misfiled. I was intrigued…it looked like it might be historical fiction (I failed to notice the dragon), it was focused on a main, female character, but this lone woman standing on her own, was a far cry from the cheesy romance novel covers of the Sunfire series.

And then I read it and was blown away….this was the book form of all the TV/movies I liked. This was Labyrinth, and Dark Crystal and, and, and…I wanted MORE! I read my way through the Pern series. My Dad, on noticing the author, handed me The Ship Who Sang. Not just fantasy…space! Star Trek, and Star Wars, and, and, and…

Thankfully, my junior high sci-fi/fantasy section was fairly well stocked…and what I couldn’t find there, could always be dug up at the public library.

These are the books that have shaped my life. That chance “meeting” with Anne McCaffrey didn’t just open me up to the worlds of Pern and Brainships, but to the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi as a whole…and the myriad worlds available therein.

And for that, I will be forever grateful.