History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for Mars = Book #3 for my new Nonfiction Book Club! One of the members, not me, is super into books about space and Antarctica so our May read and July reads have been picked by her. And while I am a person who is often freaked out and overwhelmed by the vast void of space, I, surprisingly, wasn’t too freaked out by Packing for Mars.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity. From the Space Shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule, Mary Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Review

Admittedly, I’ve started reading/listening to 3 Mary Roach books prior to starting this one. And while I’ve enjoyed them all, for some reason I put each one down without coming back to it after reading about 50%. Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, each one fascinating, but I certainly haven’t finished them. And I really couldn’t put my finger on why until Packing for Mars.

Mary Roach has a near insatiable curiosity – she could probably ask questions endlessly. I thought I was curious, but she far surpasses my natural inclination to learn about the same topic for any significant amount of time. By the halfway mark, my curiosity regarding her chosen subject is pretty much fulfilled. However, because of her curiosity, I see her fulfilling a unique role to the film industry.

NASA has actual space travel mechanics to figure out – I trust the astrophysicists to figure out how we’re actually going to move off Earth and survive, though I hope this doesn’t have to happen until after my lifetime. But science fiction film and books don’t always have a direct link to the scientists of NASA – enter Mary Roach! If the filmmakers of The Martian didn’t take a look at Packing for Mars or any other additional source material for actually living on Mars, I’d be surprised.

With the ever increasing temperatures on earth, as well as other troubles, it’s no surprise off-world action adventure movies have become more and more popular. Originally I thought Packing for Mars would make the great basis for a movie, but I’ve now realized it can serve as a popular science companion to The Martian, Passengers, and a whole host of other off-world science fiction adventures.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.95 – 9780393339918 – 334 pages – originally published August 2010, this edition published April 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company – average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 – read May 2019

History, Non-Fiction, STEM

The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker

As my own little lion in the living room has been having a tough go of it lately (2 emergency trips to the vet in the past month…) my curiosity got the better of me (as it often does her) and I looked into why our house cats behave the way they do.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
The correct reaction to a house cat isn’t “awww.” It’s awe. We house and feed them, caress and obsess over them. How did these tiny creatures become so powerful? Science writer Abigail Tucker embarks on a remarkable adventure through history, evolutionary biology, and pop culture to discover the origins and consequences of our feline obsession. A tour de force of science writing, The Lion in the Living Room is the fascinating story of how cats conquered the world and the human heart.

Review

I have always heard that cats, unlike dogs, cannot be tamed or domesticated. And until I went to college and my roommate insisted on getting a cat, I was firmly a dog person. I’d grown up with a loving mutt, Sandiy (yes, that’s how we spelled his name), and was devastated when he died of cancer when I was 19. I firmly believed when I graduated college, I’d get another dog. Her name would be Hermione, and she’d be a pointer. I had it all planned. Senior year, my roommate Kelly brought home a male Russian Blue kitten whom we named Recchi and taught to play floor hockey. He was a delightfully playful cat, but a supreme troublemaker, and solidified my desire for another dog.

And then I met my future husband senior year, a tried and true cat lover who cold shouldered just about every dog he’s ever met. The summer after graduation he desperately wanted a cat. And, shockingly, a tiny little kitten showed up in his mom’s garage. I thoroughly believe he willed her into existence. Of course, we had to keep her. He nursed her and coddled her, while ensuring that I did the dirty work of taking her to the vet. Ben had just finished reading the five books of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and the show had just started airing, so we named her Arya. And she lives up to her name.

My cat has resting bitch face. She always looks like she’s plotting my murder and that’s her, now 8 years old, showing her face through the banister posts on the stairs. Hence, the curiosity – is my cat still a killer carnivore and hunter on the inside? The short answer, according to The Lion in the Living Room, is yes. Cats have evolved remarkably little since they first started to co-habitat with humans. They show some telltale signs of domestication, but for the most part, they still very closely resemble their larger wild cousins.

While parts of The Lion in the Living Room can get a bit repetitive, overall, it’s a neat book exploring the evolution and habits of house cats, as well as how different their lives are alongside humans compared to those cats who are still feral. From diet and exercise, to general demeanor, Abigail Tucker knows what her readers are most curious about. After every chapter, I’d look over at Arya, and see everything I read in her behavior. Overall, a very informative and often funny book, the perfect gift for the cat lover in your life, or for someone with the inexhaustible curiosity of a cat!

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $16.00 – 9781476738246 – 256 pages – originally published October 2016, this edition published September 2017 by Simon & Schuster – average Goodreads rating 3.61 out of 5 stars – read May 2019

History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

After a few years of being without a book club to lead (I still participate in my former club), I felt the nagging urge to start one that better suited my current tastes, nonfiction! Below is my review for the inaugural book, Isaac’s Storm!

Nonfiction Book Club (2)

Synopsis

From the back cover:
September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history – and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.

Review

So, I missed the first book club meeting of my own book club. I had to go to the Hudson Valley in New York for a book buyer’s retreat (which was a lot of fun) and so my coworker, Su, filled in for me. Three ladies showed up, a strong presence for a brand new club, and apparently they had a lively discussion. I absolutely cannot wait to join in for the next meeting – if you want to follow along with our reading from afar, check out our book club page here!

I have now read three works by Erik Larson, Dead Wake (my favorite), In the Garden of Beasts (my least favorite) and now Isaac’s Storm (my middle choice). Unlike the first two works I read, Isaac’s Storm focuses on one main storyline, that of Isaac and the town of Galveston before, during, and after the storm. Other people and places make brief appearances, but the primary narrative sticks to the Texan Gulf coast.

As one of Erik’s earliest works, it is not surprising that what we think of as his trademark storytelling style, epitomized in Devil in the White City according to my coworkers, is not present in Isaac’s Storm. It is still an enjoyable book and a fascinating portrait of the early days of the American weather service. It is also difficult to fathom that Erik wrote this book before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. The bureaucracy involved in getting word out to the area that a storm was coming is laughable, but still in place today.

Unfortunately, I walked away from Isaac’s Storm without much more than a “I’m glad I didn’t live in turn of the century Galveston.” I didn’t particularly care for Isaac and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the townspeople mentioned throughout, they just didn’t stick with me the way the people in his other books did. It wasn’t a bad read, just not Erik’s strongest (also not surprising, at it is one of his earliest works).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780375708275 • 336 pages • originally published August 1999, this edition published July 2000 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in March 2019

Isaac's Storm

Non-Fiction, STEM

What If? by Randall Munroe

The audiobook kick continues! My husband recommends this book to just about everyone (despite the fact that he hasn’t read it!) so I figured it was about time I revisit the realm of science and read (welll, listen to) it myself.

Synopsis

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions. The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical: – What if I took a swim in a spent-nuclear-fuel pool? – Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? – What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City? – Are fire tornadoes possible? His responses are masterpieces of clarity and wit, gleefully and accurately explaining everything from the relativistic effects of a baseball pitched at near the speed of light to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements. The book features new and never-before-answered questions, along with the most popular answers from the xkcd website. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical.

Review

What a fun book! I love hypothetical questions, I am the person who constantly had to ask “Why?” in school, much to the chagrin of my teachers, I’m sure. However, it does mean that, as a teacher, I will always answer my students “Why-s.” The topics covered in What If? range across many different aspects of math and science and is the perfect classroom book – for students who finish early on work, or who just love to question everything about the world around them.

My one gripe – it does get a little highbrow. Between each “chapter” (serious question), there are other questions collected that Munroe doesn’t answer, and instead gives a snarky remark/answer to, basically treating them like stupid questions he doesn’t deem worthy of answering. Downside to this, even the smartest of readers don’t always know why he considers them stupid and would really like to know the answer to said questions. I’d take an answer over a snarky comment any day.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $25.00 • 9780544272996 • 320 pages • published September 2014 by Houghton Mifflin • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in May 2018

xkcd Website

What If? on Goodreads

Get a Copy of What If?

Essays, Non-Fiction, STEM

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

When my husband was studying physics, all he wanted to focus on was astrophysics. We watched all of Cosmos as it aired (a rarity for us) and frequently attended talks on the universe and astrophysics at planetariums in Philly. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has blown up in popular culture and his books become bestsellers, I figure it about time I read one.

Synopsis

What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.

While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

Review

Lately I have come to discover that I cannot fall asleep without listening to an audiobook and my library Overdrive app has become indispensable. Thankfully, there is no shortage of wonderful books to listen too and, following the recommendation of one of our publisher reps at the store, I decided to listen to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry as Neil deGrasse Tyson reads it himself. I’ve previously discussed how certain author’s voices ring in my head when I read their work (namely Anthony Bourdain and David Attenborough) and Tyson is one of them – if I was going to hear him in my head, I might as well actually listen to him read his own book.

I enjoyed listening to this collection of essays covering pretty much any physics topic having to do with astrophysics, however, as has always seemed to be the case with me and physics, since high school, I don’t remember any of it. My mind wanders – less so when listening to a book than when actually reading it, I can only read for half hour bursts – and I am a highly tactile learner. Visuals and auditory learning just aren’t my thing. So while I am the intended audience for Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, I am, simultaneously not, thank you ADD.

Additionally, while listening, I realized that Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is really Cosmos in book form. Which is great – it’s now been four years since it first aired, people probably need a refresher course at this point. All in all, I enjoyed listening to Astrophysics, but I really wish I remembered it better.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.95 • 9780393609394 • 224 pages • published May 2017 by W. W. Norton & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read March 2018

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Website

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry