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.

Groot by Jeff Loveness

51jARlMoeUL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Book: “I am Groot.” Groot, a huge hulking tree and a Guardian of the Galaxy, may be only able to verbalize three words, but he really does have a lot to say. Jeff Loveness’ graphic novel Groot is the story of Groot (duh) and Rocket the Racoon traveling together to Terrian (aka Earth). The two pals’ trip is not going as planned because apparently Groot wanted to take the scenic route. They also run into the problem of no longer having a spaceship. This leads the best friends to literally hitchhike across the galaxy. Much hilarity ensues as the pair encounter different alien species and trials on their journey. The contrast of Groot’s simple nature with Rocket’s impatience and lack of compassion leads great conversations and adventures.

Of the graphic novels that I have read, this one is by far my favorite. The story line is so much fun to read. It gives background knowledge to Groot and his friendship with Rocket. It shows a new side to both of these characters. If you loved the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, then you will love this graphic novel. If you want to try reading graphic novels for the first time, Groot is an excellent place to start. It’s a complete story from beginning to end and the art work is beautiful.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

1096390Book -If you meet any of the following criteria, The Uncommon Reader may be the book for you:

  • You’re a Downton Abbey fan in need of your next Britfix.
  • You’re as likely as I am to coo over pictures of Prince George and Princess Charlotte on magazine covers in the supermarket.
  • You’d enjoy a novel (a novella, really) that feels a bit like historical fiction, but isn’t.
  • Books about the act of reading are your cup of tea, especially ones bursting with wry humor.
  • You’re looking for a book the exact right length to consume in one sitting with a handy mug of something warm.

The premise of The Uncommon Reader is unusual but simple: the Queen of England (the current one, Elizabeth II) has a fortuitous encounter with the local bookmobile and, after sixty-odd years of viewing reading as more a duty than a pleasure, unexpectedly finds literature taking over her life.  It’s hard to avoid the word ‘charming’ in describing this book, but even harder not to mention ‘funny.’  The Uncommon Reader describes a life that would, for most of us, be unimaginable, yet on the page it’s perfectly imagined.  Bennett’s fictionalized portrait of the queen is psychologically astute, believable and real, foreign from everyday experience and not sugar-coated but still sympathetic.  In fact, sympathy is a central theme of the book: our growing sympathy for the character we’re reading, even as she, through her own reading, expands her sympathy for everyone else–that is to say, us.

That mirroring between character and audience is not only clever, it’s emotionally satisfying.  Reading about personal growth through the act of reading means feeling just plain good about yourself when the story is over–which is the best reason I can think of to give The Uncommon Reader a look.

 

Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt

518llbMNNIL._SY344_Book – Never mind The Force Awakens and its record-busting box-office numbers.  If geek has really become chic, as popular wisdom would have us believe, then there is no surer sign of the fact than the existence of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths.  Hold your head high and read it with pride, fellow liberated nerds of Warrenville, in the sure and certain knowledge, as author Ryan Britt puts it, that the geek has inherited the earth.

In a series of humorous essays, each just the right length for a bite-sized lunchtime or before-bed treat, Britt shares his love of all things geek, from space operas to hobbits to superheroes.  As a devotee of genre fiction in all its types and kinds–an unabashed geek, in short–I found a great deal of enjoyment in the familiarity of Britt’s experiences and fannish devotions (I love Jeremy Brett’s Holmes too, Mr. Britt, and I was right there with you on the weekly dose of delicious-but-depressing Battlestar blues!).  Even if your speculative fiction experience begins and ends with Star Wars or The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, however, I think there’s a lot of interest to be found here.  Some of the most fascinating essays to me were those that covered ground I wasn’t so familiar with, like “Wearing Dracula’s Pants”, about the history of vampire stories in print and on-screen.  Other essays focus on Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Tolkien, movie music, and, yes, Star Wars, among many other things.  It’s a playful, cheeky, joyous celebration of how and why we love the stories that have become our century’s particular mythology, and a massively fun ride from the first page to the last.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

indexBook- After witnessing a stranger’s accidental death as a child, Doughty has always been fascinated by death and mortality. This leads her naturally to getting a job in a crematory. Far from the sterile and sanitized version of death many people prefer to maintain, Doughty offers a more honest picture of what happens when we die. She tells of cleaning the bones out of the crematory, of smashing bones into “cremains,” and of many, many viscerally gross details that I won’t relate here. Even as just a memoir of her time in the crematorium, Doughty’s memoir is engrossing, informative, and, at times, hilarious.

However, during her time in the traditional death industry, Doughty has come to the conclusion that we as a culture live too far separated from death and dying. In the past, seeing an untreated dead body was not a rare sight. Today, the dead are either cleaned up and embalmed to look like they are sleeping, as in wakes and funerals, or whisked away quietly, as in hospitals where death is viewed as a failure of the medical system. Doughty wants us all to think openly and honestly about death since, after all, it is inevitable.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will appeal to fans of Mary Roach, who offers a similarly unadorned picture of the human body and its processes.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.

1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.

Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.

Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? by Lisa Scottoline & Francesca Serritella

Book – Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca share their witty observations and musings about the joys and trials of everyday modern life. They take on topics such as college reunions, leather loungers at the movie theater, diets, working out, family relationships, mice in the house, auctions, men and, as the title suggests, eating on the beach.

The collection of short essays kept me laughing out loud, but was also heartwarming and endearingly honest. I felt like the authors were sitting across the table from me, sharing their stories. Francesca writes “I feel like I’m the last of my friends to try two things: online dating and therapy. I think I need both. Or more specifically, I think I need one for the other. I’m just not sure in which order.” as she expounds on the challenges of being newly single. Lisa shares “I joke about getting older, but the truth is, I don’t feel old. On the contrary, at age fifty-nine, I feel as if I’m entering my prime. So I’m either delusional or insightful. I’ll leave the choice to you. But let me make my case.” in discussing the evolution of our lives.

The mother-daughter duo have written five other humor memoirs in this series. Lisa Scottoline is also the author of twenty-four novels, including her latest best-seller, Every Fifteen Minutes.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

1451666179.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – I don’t know what it is about Allie Brosh’s style that is so deeply hilarious. Is it the choppy storytelling, half-illustrated and half in prose? Is it the expressions on the faces of her MSPaint-drawn characters? Is it the stories themselves? Or is it a combination of all three that so regularly leaves me giggling helplessly for minutes at a time?

I first discovered Hyperbole and a Half as a webcomic in 2010, when it was still being updated semi-regularly. Then Brosh took a long hiatus due to a bad bout of depression, and then she came back with two outstanding comics about it (both of which are included in the book). There are a few other extras in the book as well, stories that were never published on the website, so ideally you should read both: once you’ve polished off Hyperoble and a Half, head over to the website and work your way through the archives. It’ll be fun, I promise.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big littleBook – Big Little Lies, by the author of the bestseller The Husband’s Secret, tells the story of the events leading up to a shocking death at an elementary school fundraiser. The tale revolves around a trio of women whose children are starting kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School in Australia. On orientation day we are introduced to Madeline, who is bold, humorous, and maternal. “Oh Calamity!” The husband who walked out on her and their newborn daughter years ago has moved to Pirriwee Penisula with a new wife, and their daughter will be attending kindergarten with Madeline’s youngest child. Then we meet Jane, a young single mother whose vulnerability stimulates Madeline’s protective instincts. Lastly Celeste is introduced. She is beautiful and wealthy but somehow disengaged from life.

The friendship of these three women is galvanized when a kindergarten incident fractures the school community. The story is infused with delightful humor about all the little absurdities of parental life and school society. In addition, the author is artful in her presentation of serious social issues such as domestic abuse. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Caroline Lee. Her lively Australian accent boosted the humor and helped me to visualize the characters and their life in an ocean-side locale. Big Little Lies is likely to be a movie as well, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have picked up the screen rights.

The Toyotomi blades : a Ken Tanaka mystery by Dale Furutani

toyotomiReading mysteries set in interesting locations is one of my favorite forms of armchair travel. In this whodunit Ken Tanaka, who became an amateur detective when he solved a murder involving a samurai sword in California, is invited by a Japanese television show to an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo to share the story of his adventure. Descriptions of the nuances of his travels were especially entertaining.

Despite being a third-generation Japanese American, Ken experiences some culture shock as he interacts with the television studio team. He also learns something about himself and his identification as an American regardless of his ethnicity or minority status. His humble sense of humor is likable and the overall tone of the story is light.

In addition to traveling among the sights in Tokyo, Ken’s sleuthing propels him into a treasure hunt in rural settings near Kyoto. Japanese history and legends color this mystery nicely. The historical embellishments as well as some code deciphering are slightly reminiscent of a Dan Brown novel. However, descriptions of humorous missteps that occur while traveling in a foreign land lighten the tone of this book.