Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Bonk is our second Roach book. It does not disappoint. Excessively foot-noted with tidbits like "nasal congestion is actually an erection in your nose", Bonk is hilarious and educational. As it turns out, after centuries of scientific study, we don't know that much about something totally fundamental to the future of our species.

The researchers Roach encounters (and whose experiments she and her husband participate in) are kind of a strange lot. But you have to value the work they do. I'm glad someone is out there studying how to have better sex.

Roach reviews the research done into human (and often animal) sexuality as far back as records are kept. Some of her juicier finds are at the U.S. Patent office, and others are in the strange opinions of Victorians, Catholic dogma, urologists' offices, and doodles in Leonardo DaVinci's engineering drawings.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys science, history or (God forbid) sex. Mary Roach is a great author who makes sense of scientific jargon and puts herself into all kinds of strange, potentially humiliating situations for her reader's benefit.

Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar

Bombay Time is a novel about a group of old friends who live in the same apartment in Bombay. It's sort of a coming of age novel, not just for the characters, but for their city. The city is growing and changing, it's more violent more impoverished than when the residents of Wadia Baug were young.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks. Each chapter is presented from the point of view of a different character. In the present, the group is gathering for the wedding of one neighbor's son. In the flashbacks, characters are taken back to a pivotal moment in their life, generally when they were in their teens or twenties. For some characters we are taken through a many years and others just a few traumatic months. The juxtaposition of these wide-eyed, ambitious youths with their faded, wrinkled present day ghosts is paralleled in the changes in the city from a bustling, hopeful place to a violent, dirty, dangerous city. The shine is certainly off of both.

The character development and relationships of this group is certainly Umrigar's strength. She investigates the tense and difficult moments that change the trajectory of each life. The style is good, each character has their own voice, their own perceptions which are confirmed or shown to be false in other chapters. I found the only disappointment was in the ending, which was narrated by the same character as the first chapter. He is the only person who finds closure or redemption. I was left feeling a bit unfinished, I wanted that final resolution for each Wadia Baug resident. But possibly the author's point is that the second look isn't necessary. The old men and women are set in their ways. The emotion of the wedding and the brief brush with violence they see there leaves them unchanged. We know the characters well enough to know what they'll be doing in the morning.

Umrigar does an excellent job bringing Bombay to life for an outsider. Made me want to see more into India.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Eating the Dinosaur - Chuck Klosterman

I heart Klosterman. This is a geek I'd get along with. For one thing, his writing style sounds like my inner monologue. He's sarcastic and obsessive about things that less geeky people couldn't care less about.

This particular tome definitely skews into the metaphysical. Klosterman seems quite hung up on the construction of reality. Or the impossibility of reality. On irony and our inability to communicate with genuine people (like Canadians). It sounds complicated and boring, but it isn't. It's like me making every life event relate to Sienfeld or Friends.

His essay on how progressive the NFL is left me a little cold (even with extremely detailed foot-notes, there's only so much you can absorb if you haven't spent the last 2 decades watching SportsCenter daily). The essay on time-travel was equally detailed, to the point of being almost unfollowable, but if you love Back To the Future (and seriously, who doesn't?) the first three-quarters is priceless.

Also notable - interviews with documentarians, tales from Klosterman's days in Fargo and what may be enough evidence to arrest him for being a peeping tom. Lengthy commentary on how much we've failed to learn from the Unabomber (hint: he's crazy, but not wrong).

As with all his books, I enjoyed this immensely and recommend it to anyone who suspects that their reality is a figment of their imagination.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Yes! I finished a book in a reasonable amount of time!! I'm pretty sure I finished this one in 4 sittings, spaced out over a few weeks.

This is the first graphic novel I've ever read. Can you really call it a "novel" though if it's a memoir? Isn't "novel" associated with fiction?? Anyway, I really enjoyed Fun Home, except for the last chapter. I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses, so the many many allusions and metaphors are completely lost on me. I'm sure they're very intelligent, but sadly, I'm not intelligent enough to completely get it.

I'm really tired right now and I'm on my way to bed, but I wanted to blog about this before I forgot. My absolute favorite part of the book is the last page of the first chapter. Alison is talking about her father's death and how even though she was 19 when he died, she felt that his absence radiated retroactively back through all her memories of him. She says it's the opposite of how an amputee feels phantom pain in a missing limb: her father really was there all those years while she was growing up, but she ached as though he were already gone. The last image of the chapter is incredibly moving when taken in with the description of feeling like her father is already gone. It's a picture from high above their yard, with Alison and her father with their backs turned, moving away from each other. I found it very powerful, and with that page, I finally "got" graphic novels. The words and the pictures play off each other and create something that is more than the sum of its parts. The missing limb metaphor could have worked in a traditional novel, but I wouldn't have gone back to that page to reread it 7 times if it hadn't been accompanied by the images. The images make a clever turn of phrase in to something special. I wanted to scan the page, or at least the last image, to include with this post, but I have already passed the book on to the next reader.

And now I'm going to bed.