Monday, September 29, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Spoiler-free summary:
Mark Watney, a botanist, has been stranded on Mars. His food, water, and oxygen supplies are low, he’s unable to contact Earth, and he’s pretty sure everyone thinks he’s dead. Needless to say - it’s looking pretty bleak. But he does have some flashdrives full of disco music, television reruns, and Agatha Christie novels. He’s also pretty resourceful. Watney details his strange stay on Mars in snarky, hilarious journal entries that reveal to us not only the inhospitalities of the planet, but the intricacies of one man’s personality in the face of danger.

I really liked the format of this novel. Watney’s journal entries are both informative and amusing. I loved his self-effacing attitude, his gratuitous use of obscenities, and his distrust of everyone who isn’t him. I also enjoyed the sections written from NASA’s point of view – the scientists were shown in an honest, humanizing light. I think Weir is a master at pinpointing just what makes a person likeable. I found myself caring about Watney, which is really saying something because I usually like books to end with at least one heart-wrenching, gruesome death.

Sometimes it was difficult to keep the abbreviations and Mars lingo straight – there was the Hab, there was also the MAV, one of the rovers became The Trailer at one point, I kept confusing the crew members who left him behind. I took a day or two off from reading and had to reacquaint myself with the jargon and names, but I did get it all straight eventually.

It’s been a long time since I took chemistry, physics, or “Extraterrestrial Life for Beginners” (this was my favorite class), but it seemed to me that the science might be sound, or, might at least interest engineering types and readers of hard science fiction. I have noticed other readers calling this book “too sciencey,” and there were parts where I felt kind of bored/inadequate because I couldn’t get into the finer details, but I’m glad Weir didn't shy away from these technical explanations. Mark Watney made engineers seem pretty cool (think “humble comedic geniuses with supervillain powers”), and if this gets one person interested in science, I’m all for it.

There were times when I wanted this story to hurt more. Sometimes I wished Watney was less nerdy, interested in pirates, and content with being a l33t haxor type (this is a type), and more interested in some weird ill-fated love affair or the state of his own mind, but, I think Weir knew what he was doing, and by making Watney seem flippant, kept us invested in him for him.

I am not sure what this has to do with my reading of the book, but it’s interesting to note that Weir self-published The Martian on Amazon in 2012 and was then picked up by a publisher and the novel was re-released in 2014. The paperback is coming out in November and I've heard some really good things about the audiobook.

Buy The Martian today in a variety of formats from Powell’s Books.

Photo: Random House

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Flowers in the Attic - Nothing is Ever Dark Enough

When I was in school, there was only one book we chaste and innocent readers whispered about in the hallways. It wasn't To Kill a Mockingbird, which is, as so eloquently described by the Vernon Verona Sherill school district, a “filthy, trashy novel,” nor was it the Harry Potter series with its abundance of satanic Brits, and it definitely wasn't The Catcher in the Rye, which I’ll tell you about, if you really want to hear about it - it was, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately? I can’t decide), a novel with less literary merit: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews was the only thing that was so raunchy that it became a legend.

No one I knew in school had actually read the thing, but it would bubble up in conversation every few years, and then quickly fade away. We didn’t want to talk about it – we didn’t want to think about it – that’s how bad we felt, but it couldn’t be ignored; We needed to acknowledge it and to share our forbidden knowledge. It wasn’t like the other strange, vaguely sexual things kids talk about on the playground – it wasn’t something we could laugh about. It wasn’t funny at all. It was almost as if the story of the Dollanganger children had really happened and we knew we shouldn’t get off on their misery.  

I am not exactly sure how my peers found out that this novel existed – someone’s older sister, perhaps? Someone’s parents? Anyway, it was so taboo that we banned it ourselves. Maybe there was some sort of social standing at stake? I’m 90% sure it was available in our school library (I remember an excited, scared whisper: “They have that book in the library here… oh my god”), so we could have read it, but we didn’t because we might be mistaken as being “into that kind of thing,” and that pisses me off now, but that’s a different story. I don’t think our school would have minded – especially if someone “responsible” was reading it (I am the girl who painted the cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being for my square on our senior quilt…), but no one was daring enough, no one was willing to throw their reputation on the line to just get the thing over with.

I pride myself on being a fearless reader, yet I couldn’t bring myself to read this novel until this year. That weird social stigma was still there. I saw it was on Scribd, and I decided to finally get it over with. And you know what? It was actually pretty boring. The sex (rape? I don’t even know what it was) barely happened – the kids are disgusted with themselves, God literally strikes one of them down, and they generally take anything worth whispering about away and make it into something shown in an Afterschool Special. It was entertaining at times (I liked the descriptions of clothes and opulence and the occasional plot twists), but I feel letdown after the fifteen years of muffled whispering. I think the thing that most disturbed me in the book is when they randomly decide to drink each other’s blood or pee on each other to get some fabulous hair. These are the parts worth exchanging knowing glances in studyhall over.

Maybe the reason why we didn’t read it back then was because we knew that once we read it, the mystery would be gone. Or maybe we didn't read it because we somehow knew that 400 pages of attic life couldn't possibly be that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong – this is an amusing novel and I’d even go as far as to say I liked it, but it wasn’t the soulless black hole I needed it to be.

(But I love these 1970s paperback covers - they're perfect).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jen Michalski's Virtual Book Tour

Today is the fourth stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they're all searching for a place to call home.

For your viewing pleasure, Jen illustrated part of her story, “Neighbors,” which you can find in her new collection.

*Tomorrow, head over to HTML Giant to read about the endings of stories--if they end at all. If you missed yesterday’s post, go to the blog The Next Best Book Club to read an excerpt of another great story in the collection and to experience Jen’s funny and educational author insights!

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize; the short story collection Close Encounters; and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Désirée Zamorano's Virtual Book Tour: Setting & The Amado Women

Book Puke is happy to be the next stop on Désirée Zamorano's virtual book tour! Today's post is about the influence of setting in Désirée's novel The Amado Women. Tomorrow, stop by HTML Giant!

Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.

Images of The Gamble House - 
Masterwork of Greene & Greene, Jeanette Thomas, 
Univ. of So. Calif. 1989, ISBN 0-9622296-1-X
1. Pasadena, CA: The Arts and Crafts movement was the foundation for many of the beautiful homes in Pasadena.  Architects Greene and Greene were Pasadena brothers.  Sylvia Levine (Amado) had dreamed of living in a craftsman home, but her husband Jack insisted on turnkey.

2. A group of people settled in Pasadena to escape the treacherous winters of Indiana. The climate is fairly mild year round, about 60-70 F, making it, for them, an ideal place to live.
 3.  A recent tongue-in-cheek online article, based on housing prices, cultural events and number of private schools, listed Pasadena as the snobbiest mid-size town in the country. Sylvia’s children attend a private school.
4.  Balzac said, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” The Huntington in Pasadena is a spectacular venue representing the railroad fortune of the Huntington family. Mercy Amado loves taking her granddaughters here, to visit Pinkie and Blue Boy, walk through the botanical gardens, or for a fancy high tea in the restaurant. 

5. Los Angeles, CA. Taken from the rooftop bar of Ace Hotel, downtown LA.  Los Angeles has beautiful old buildings in its downtown historic district.  Although Nataly Amado waits tables in a sleek and modern restaurant, Ace Hotel is somewhere she would have hung out with her friend and artist Yahaira, eyeing the men.

6. Demographics: Latinos comprise nearly 50% of the population of Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, yet fewer than 5% of all major film roles. In 1997, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival was created to award filmmakers and discuss Latina/os in cinema.

7. Downtown LA’s art district and literary communities are exploding, from the artist’s lofts, residencies to the literary events.  Celeste Amado would have discovered investment opportunities, while Nataly might have cracked the gallery scene. 

Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.
The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

App Awareness: the OverDrive Media Console

The OverDrive Media Console is a really great app and I want to tell you about it. Basically, it's a way to access your library's digital catalog. You can check out ebooks, audiobooks, music, and movies according to the terms of your library. You sign in with the credentials you use to access your library's website - a local librarian can get you set up. It's really, really easy. I have a few library memberships, but it seems like they all accessed the same digital library (The Ohio Digital Library). I am sure if you had more varied library memberships than I, you would be able to access other repositories.

I mainly use OverDrive for audiobooks. I check out the book I want, download it, and then listen to it in the car as I drive to work. Selection depends on your library, but I have been able to get some really current, in-demand books through the program. I checked out a few ebooks and I was able to download and read them with the Kindle app, but I think you could read them with a different program (I am not entirely sure). Books expire at the end of your library's designated borrowing time and are removed from your device.

Available for iOS, Android, Kindle, Nook, Windows Phone, and desktop platforms, OverDrive makes it easy to sync your reading progress across all of your devices. I have been using it on my Nexus 5 and have no complaints about the OverDrive app. The Ohio Digital Library's interface, however, could use some work, but it's nothing that really hinders my experience. I like that I can add titles to a wishlist and immediately see if they've already been checked out by someone else.

It's a free app (and is produced by a local (to me) company!) so it's worth a try! It's one of my most used apps.