Wild Ideas: Into the Wild and The Wild Truth

Books – It’s summertime, and what better time to read about people dying alone in the wilderness. Right? No? Just me then. I’m not a camping person, and maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by stories of outdoors adventures going horribly wrong. It’s safely scary: while it’s real, I can be comfortably certain that I will never starve to death in the Alaskan wilderness, because there is no way I would be there in the first place.

indexBut somehow I’d never read Jon Krakauer’s classic Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, a young man who trekked across the country alone, then survived more than a hundred days in central Alaska, on his own with virtually no supplies other than what he could hunt or gather, before succumbing to the elements (and, Krakauer argues, some toxic potato seeds). I knew I had to read it, though, when I saw that Chris’s sister, Carine McCandless, had written her own memoir, The Wild Truth.

51hCNy79jIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A lot of people, after reading Into the Wild or seeing the movie based on the book, thought of Chris as an irresponsible, immature kid, who never thought about what his disappearance would do to his family. Really, Carine says, their parents were physically and emotionally abusive, and Chris had tried over and over again to reconcile with them before cutting them out of his life completely just before embarking on his fatal trip – a hard, painful separation that Carine herself took decades later. She’d asked Krakauer not to write the truth about their parents in his book, hoping then that her relationship with them could still be saved. The two books together are a powerful story about how our families shape our relationships with ourselves and the rest of the world, and the lengths people will go to when they need to escape that influence.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

indexBook – Britt-Marie is in her 60’s, socially awkward and incapable of tolerating a mess. She has just left her husband, Kent, and is looking for a job. After haranguing the young unemployment officer, she lands a temporary position in the tiny, down-on-its-luck town of Borg as a caretaker of the recreation center. As she arrives into town, she is surprised to discover that the residents, particularly the children, are fixated on soccer. The children practice without a coach and proper playing field. Britt-Marie compulsively cleans their uniforms, as well as the recreation center and adjoining shop. Despite her very definite views on proper conduct (and correcting everyone’s lack of it), Britt-Marie finds that she is accepted and understood for the first time in her life. The story unfolds with hilarious antics and heart-rending moments. I loved these characters and their town. As stated in the book, “At a certain age almost all the questions a person asks him or herself are really just about one thing: how should you live your life?” Britt-Marie is finally able to figure out the answer for herself, as she learns to live life on her own terms.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

indexBook – One day the stars go out. A mysterious membrane has encircled the Earth, and the only thing that gets in is sunlight. And then it’s discovered that the membrane doesn’t just seal the Earth off in space, but also in time, and eons are passing in the rest of the galaxy to every Earth minute. The story of the panicked Earth is told by Tyler Dupree, childhood friend of genius and technology heir Jason Lawton, who will eventually construct a space program dedicated to divining the mystery of the Spin membrane and the Hypotheticals who put it there. Isaac becomes a doctor, and is hired as Jason’s personal physician, a position that lets him watch the whole thing go spiraling out of control.

Science fiction with big ideas often suffers from unrealistic or just uninteresting characters, but I never had that problem with Spin. Tyler, Jason, and Jason’s twin sister Diane are all complex people with deep personal connections in addition to their role in helping the world recover the global disaster that is the Spin – Jason and Diane both push against their politically powerful father, E.D., in different ways, while Tyler is hyper-aware of his position relative to them: he’s the son of their family’s housekeeper. The way their personal dramas play out on a global, even a galactic, scale parallels the accelerated timeline of the Earth under the Spin.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

41350y21tlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book–How do you think you would react if you found out everything you knew about truth and life was a lie? That your parents where duped by a man with a silver tongue. That the world outside is not as evil as you were lead to believe. Meet Minnow Bly. For most of her life she grew up a Kevinian, a cult led by the “Prophet” Kevin. Life as Kevinian is not easy. Everyone lives in the woods, isolated from the world. The men take multiple wives in order to have lots of children. And people who leave or cause problems are punished, severely. Minnow herself lost both of her hands by the order of the Prophet.

But now the Prophet is dead and the Community burned to the ground. The FBI want to know what happened, but Minnow does not want to tell them the truth. Telling the truth means going back to that night. Telling the truth means revealing secrets. Maybe some secrets are meant to be kept quiet.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a quick read filled with mystery and intrigue. It also brings up themes of religion and questions about God. But it is mostly a book about a young girl finding her own way. It is about discovery, first love, and friendship. It is also a great read that you will not soon forget.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

indexBook – One of last year’s Bluestem Book Award Nominated children’s selections was Susan E. Goodman’s How Do You Burp in Space?: and Other Tips Every Space Tourist Needs to Know.  Mary Roach could easily have used the same title for her endlessly entertaining adult nonfiction offering, but she instead chose Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

Packing for Mars (also available as an audiobook, digital or on CD) is in many ways the opposite of most stories about space travel.  Expect none of the rose-tinted romanticism of Space-as-Manifest-Destiny narratives that glamorize the patriotic thrill of being first among the stars, or any white-knuckled moments facing down the many terrors of space.  Roach’s down-to-earth focus on the humbler details of space exploration may not justify a John Williams soundtrack, but it makes for a hilarious, fascinating read.

As Roach points out, “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.”  Humans are the most fallible component in the precise and delicate machinery of space travel, and Packing for Mars examines the many measures that NASA and other space agencies have taken to address our physical and psychological needs in the harsh environment of space.  From an expedition into the remote and otherworldly Canadian arctic where personnel and equipment are tested for moon missions, to the hospital ward where “terranauts” are paid to lie in bed for months to simulate the effects of zero-gravity on bone density, to a parabolic (“vomit-comet”) flight in the upper atmosphere in search of a cure for space-sickness, Mary Roach traveled all over this planet learning how space agencies meticulously plan to reach the next one.  The resulting book provides answers to all the questions about space travel that you never thought of or wouldn’t have dared to ask, conveyed with an irreverent wit that makes reading a pleasure.

Life As I Know It by Melanie Rose

6919827Book – Imagine waking up in the wrong body.  Lying in a hospital bed with strangers gathered round–a man who claims to be your husband.  Life As I Know It by Melanie Rose explores this unique scenario, in which Jessica wakes to a nightmare, trapped in the wrong body.  The last thing she can remember is talking to the cute guy at the dog park and lightning striking her.  She wakes up in the body of Lauren Richardson, mother and wife.  The doctors insist this is who she is and she is simply suffering memory loss from the accident.  But Jessica knows in her heart that this woman is not her.   Against what she knows to be true, Jessica goes home with the Lauren Richardson’s husband.

When her head hits the pillow at her unfamiliar “home,” Jessica wakes up again in the hospital, but this time back in her own body, where the cute guy from the dog park has been waiting for her.  She is so relieved to find that it was all just a dream.  However, as she goes to sleep after the exhausting day, once again Jessica wakes up in the body of Lauren Richardson. Each time she falls asleep, Jessica switches lives, from her own to the rich high life of Lauren, husband to Graham, and mother to three young children.

Caught between two worlds–the one that is her life to live, and the one of obligations to a young family that relies on her support–will life ever return to normal for poor Jessica?

 

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

19367226Book– In the vein of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (which uses Conan Doyle’s characters), Sophie Hannah has set out to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the permission of Agatha Christie’s estate. When a contemporary author sets out to reanimate the legendary characters of a deceased author’s canon, she has a tall task ahead of her and a lot of expectations to meet that do not apply to a wholly original novel, but I tried to be fair when I read her attempt.

Hannah does not do a great job of imitating Christie’s characters. For example, bumbling police inspector narrator, Catchpool (an original character), who exists as a reader surrogate for Poirot to be smart at, is afraid of dead bodies due to an apparently traumatic incident at his grandfather’s funeral. Barring how silly it is for a police inspector to fear murder victims, Catchpool is also gratingly incompetent and has all kinds of tiresome (if justifiable) doubts about his fitness for police work. Poirot is not rendered pitch perfect either. He overuses some typically Poirot-esque mannerisms, such as “little grey cells” and gratuitous French, but for reasons I cannot pinpoint, does not hit the mark.

Despite these complaints, I would still recommend this book. The mystery itself is elegantly constructed, with plenty of red herrings, and a beautiful resolution at the end. I did not correctly guess the murderer early on, which I typically do, and actually needed the scene at the end where Poirot explains the plot to everybody to wrap my head around how the murders went down. The Monogram Murders was a much better experience once I decided to read just for the plot, which is excellent, rather than the characters, which were not.

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

indexBook – Tara Abernathy is a contract lawyer. Wait, no, don’t run away – I swear this is a fantasy novel, and a really good one, too. In Gladstone’s post-war fantasy world, contracts regulate and control the use of magic, called Craft. In recent history, Craftsmen (and women) overthrew the gods, shifting control of magical power into mortal hands. But remnants of the old religions still exist. And the old gods do, too – so long as they abide by their contracts.

That’s what Tara and her boss are investigating: Kos Everburning, a god of the city of Alt Coulomb, has died and defaulted on his contract. In order to keep the power on, and to forestall political upheaval, they have to prove that Kos was murdered.

Three Parts Dead isn’t always the easiest book to read (Gladstone subscribes to the “throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim” school of worldbuilding), but it’s never boring. This is the first in Gladstone’s ongoing Craft series. The sequel, Two Serpents Rise, features an entirely different cast of characters in a city halfway around the world from Alt Coulomb, but as the series goes on, the storylines begin to converge. It’s deep, fascinating, twisty stuff, and totally worth the effort it can sometimes take.

Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

indexBook – There are various times in one’s life where the discussion of death, and God, and the afterlife happen. When love ones pass, health issues arise, or in lectures with professors. In Calculating God the story centers on Thomas Jericho, a paleontologist from Toronto who is dying from lung cancer.

Two alien species from different planets, Forhilnors and Wreeds, have come to Earth to speak with paleontologists about evolution, science, and religion. Tom, being a scientist does not believe in God and is surprised both alien species firmly believe in a God. This makes for interesting dialogue between all parties. On the one hand there are aliens on Earth and want to learn about the evolution of our planet and species; but on the other hand both alien species believe in what we call God. Tom has a hard time grasping this even knowing his fate.

The writing is a little slower in pace and gives the reader points where reflection of one’s life may happen. There is a plot line that includes creationists and I did not understand why it was being included until it climaxed. Science fiction readers or anyone who may want to reflect on why illness happens or question if a higher power exists may find this book interesting. Readers who enjoy a book with minimal, but more developed characters will also like this book.

It took me two years to finish this book. This does not speak of the quality of writing, because Robert Sawyer does a great job of keeping the reader intrigued. I am a firm believer of the notion that sometimes you are not ready for a book. At the time I started it, I was not ready for it. I found it again and was bolstered by the ending.

The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust

49281Books – Vlad is an Easterner (a human, to us), but he’s lived his whole life in the strictly regimented, caste-based Dragaeran Empire, among Dragaerans (whom his grandfather calls Elves). Most Dragaeran Houses are a matter of birth, but Vlad’s father bought his family into the House of the Jhereg, best known for putting the “organized” into organized crime. He lives a little in both worlds, rising in the ranks of the Jhereg while learning Eastern witchcraft from his grandfather – which is how he came by his long-time companion Loiosh, who is also a jhereg. All the Dragaeran Houses are named after animals, you see – a jhereg is a small flying lizard, about the size of a housecat. No, they don’t breathe fire. They’re not usually telepathic, either, but Loiosh is a witch’s familiar, after all.

The Vlad Taltos series – part of Steven Brust’s larger Dragaeran universe, which also includes a five-book trilogy and a stand-alone novel set in the East – is really something different; I don’t know of any other fantasy novels like them. They’re all narrated by Vlad in the first person, and Vlad’s voice is one of the most delightful things about them. Think something of a cross between Sam Spade and Strider (who becomes Aragorn). And each book is also about a different Dragaeran House and what that House stands for in Dragaeran society – Jhereg, the first in the series, is about Vlad’s life in the Organization; Dragon, another good starting point, is about war. You learn a little more about the universe with every book. There are fourteen books so far, with five (and lots of questions) left to go.