Review: The Martian

The Martian, Andy WeirWhen the Ares 3 crew makes an emergency departure from Mars during a windstorm, they do so without their botanist. Mark Watney is killed on the way to the extraction point.

But after the dust settles on the red planet, Mark is still alive. For now. He has no way to contact his crew or NASA, and it will be over a year before the next manned mission sets down on Mars.

He’s not giving up. In fact, he’s going to do something amazing: survive alone on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

Holy mackerel

I’m several years late to the worldwide obsession with The Martian, but I’m officially hooked.

This book was fantastic! Mostly because of the main character. Author Andy Weir makes Mark relatable and human from the word go — which is nice, because if he’d started us off with all the science that the book eventually gets into, I wouldn’t have felt so connected.

According to Neil Degrasse Tyson and a bunch of people way smarter than me, the science is pretty damn accurate (except for that one teeny, tiny, no-one-will-ever-notice-it thing). The plausibility of the entire situation makes it that much more exciting and scary.

Ignoring the fact that I’d never be chosen for a mission like this, I definitely wouldn’t survive being stranded alone on a planet. I love that one of Mark’s main weapons is his humor. At several moments it’s the only thing that keeps him from giving up.

The TL;DR is that I loved The Martian. It’s so well-written that even though I’d seen the movie, I was still on pins and needles wondering if the Hermes was going to rescue Mark.

And speaking of that inevitable comparison…

Book vs. movie

I’m usually not happy with book-to-movie adaptations; they have to cut so much that it’s just not a fair comparison.

I watched the movie The Martian sometime last year. I’d heard good things about the book, of course, but I thought it would be a bit of a “talking head” piece — and if I had to muscle through something like that, I’d rather be watching Matt Damon on a screen than picturing him in my head.

It didn’t end up being a talking head piece, and it had far more humor than I was expecting. And it even did some things better than the book. For example, even though Weir’s book had more room to flesh out other characters, the film versions felt more three-dimensional. I could see the physical differences between each of them, whereas in the book there’s not much description of what people look like.

That said, there’s a chilling moment in the book that I really wish had been included in the movie. I won’t spoil it — because it’s just that awesome — but I will say that it prompted an hour-long conversation with some friends about how one would go about field dressing human remains in space.

No matter how you choose to take in the story of The Martian, I encourage you to do so. The science gets a little heavy for laypeople, but not overwhelmingly so. Check it out!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book set in a different dimension, a book in which time travel is involved, or a dystopian or science fiction book where reality looks very different than what we’re used to.)

Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth PetersMiss Amelia Peabody, bluestocking and self-proclaimed “spinster,” has left England to pursue her passion for Egyptology. It’s 1884 — on the cusp of the 20th century — and she’s determined to spend her inheritance doing what she enjoys.

En route to Cairo, Amelia meets Miss Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young woman with a shameful secret. Amelia takes the girl under her wing, and together they embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

This adventure takes them to Amarna, the ancient city established by Akhenaten more than 500 years previously. They meet up with two gentlemen they met in Cairo: Radcliffe Emerson, a prickly excavator, and his brother Walter, a master of hieroglyphics.

Something strange is happening on the outskirts of the destroyed city. The locals are nervous, especially after a mummy goes missing. Amelia, Evelyn, Radcliffe, and Walter are under siege, and their enemy may be supernatural.

Cheeky and wonderful

Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first in author Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, and it is fantastic. Set in 1884 but published in 1975, it’s a marvelous mixture of Victorian language and modern thinking.

Amelia is my new favorite character. She’s smart, practical, and outspoken, with a soft sentimental underbelly she tries to hide. If you enjoy Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll love Peters’ book.

Evelyn and Walter are younger and stupider (in Amelia’s opinion as well as mine), and it’s fun seeing Amelia boss them around and mow down their ridiculous notions like so much grass.

Although I caught onto the mystery’s final solution before it was revealed, the journey to that solution was surprising and exciting. The story and characters are fun, funny, and charming.

I loved Crocodile on the Sandbank. And the best part? There’s 19 more books in the series!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a book involving spies, detectives, private investigators, or a character in disguise.)

Quickie Reviews: Personal Stories

My 2017 reading started off slow, but I’ve kicked things into high gear in the last few weeks. So of course I have a review backlog. Let’s hit the high (and low) points, shall we?

Work Rules!

Work Rules! Laszlo BockThe subtitle on this is a mouthful: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. It’s got some good ideas on transforming company culture, but most of it seems pretty “pie in the sky” and a little bit “We’re Google and we’re awesome.” I’ve had some good conversations about it with co-workers, though.

The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist, Carrie FisherCarrie Fisher’s last book before her death in December 2016. She was a fascinating, complicated woman, and I want to learn more about her. Unfortunately I don’t think this was the right book for that. The Princess Diarist is a bit disjointed, and focuses mostly on her fling with Harrison Ford during Star Wars filming. It just not as interesting as I hoped it would be. But she’s got a great writing voice, and fortunately wrote several other books that promise to tell more about her life.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy ParkerThis one’s been sitting on my shelf for years, and is part of my 2017 Off the Shelf Reading Challenge. I’ve gone all the way through it, but probably read only about half. I love Parker’s poetry and letters, but have trouble with her short stories (anybody’s short stories, really — I don’t often like them). She was always better at short form writing than long form. And those quips! “It is true that he is so hard-boiled you could roll him on the White House lawn.”

Review: Love, InshAllah

Love, InshAllah, Ayesha Mattu and Nura MaznaviFinding love is hard, no matter who you are. But it might be a bit harder for American Muslim women.

The 25 women who contributed essays to Love, InshAllah are planted between two worlds that seem very different on the surface. They are independent American women with careers and ambitions; they are also Muslim women who want to follow the rules of their faith. At times these two things seem incompatible.

These writers lead very different lives than most Americans, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see that we all want the same thing: happiness.

Interesting and challenging

For more than a decade, most Americans have not been encouraged to think well of the Muslim faith, or Muslim people. The religious and cultural divide seems too big.

But this book’s writers and editors aren’t interested in excuses. They want readers to understand that we all face the same challenges. How do we find love? How do we reconcile our faith and our culture? What do we do when love disappoints us? Where do we find the courage to stick with — or break — religious and family traditions?

This book was not a comfortable read for me. At first I thought it was because the writers are Muslim, and there are aspects of the religion with which I disagree. But then I realized I’d be just as uncomfortable reading stories like this written by Catholics, Baptists, or Jewish people.

Whether I’m right or not, I think most religions are too oppressive. Islam may have a reputation as being the “most” oppressive, but I know women of other religions who experience just as much pressure to stay pure until marriage, marry young, have children, and practice their faith perfectly.

I didn’t like much of what I read. These women have so many expectations placed upon them, and feel unworthy and unlovable — or face ostracism from their families — if they don’t do things “right.” That’s not something I can understand, regardless of what religion they practice.

The stories I enjoyed most were the ones in which the author took control of her own destiny, and synthesized what she believed are the best pieces of being American with the best pieces of being Muslim. There was the girl who met a man online and asked her parents to arrange a marriage with, and the woman who joined a polygynous marriage after her divorce.

The creators of Love, InshAllah shared their stories because they wanted to poke holes in the stereotypes they see playing out in the media and pop culture. The book gave me some interesting insights into the logistics of Islam — how conversion works, how divorce works, how arranged marriages work, etc. — but in the end I think it ended up reaffirming my dislike of religion in general.

Like the authors of these stories, I want to find my own way through life.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. January’s challenge was to read a book with a character — or written by an author — of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than my own.)

Want to change the world? Educate a girl.

2016 is almost over, and with it my reading challenges. Normally this is when I look at how I’ve done with the year’s reading, and gloat a bit about completing the challenges. But this year it’s different — this year, one of my challenges helped me find a new calling.

Let’s back up

A little over a year ago I was surfing around Netflix, looking for something to watch on a night when I had nothing else to do. In the documentary section I found Girl Rising. It follows nine girls living in places like Nepal, Cambodia, and Haiti as they stand up for their right to an education and freedom.

Girl Rising opened my eyes to some pretty horrifying statistics:

  • 65 million girls are out of school globally.
  • In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls were victims of sexual violence.
  • In developing countries, the number one cause of death for girls 15-19 is childbirth.

It made me so mad. I loved school so much, and couldn’t imagine how horrible it would have been to not be able to attend just because I was a girl. Everything I am is the result of what I have read and learned, and it infuriated me that so many girls were being left behind.

Especially when I learned things like:

  • A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult.
  • 10% fewer girls under the age of 17 would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they had a primary education.
  • If India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.

I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start. I asked a friend of mine who works for Child Legacy International (they do some amazing things, please check them out!) if she knew of any organizations that focused on girls’ education.

That’s when I learned about Camfed. Their mission — to educate girls in some of the world’s poorest regions — is critical to making the world a better place for everyone.

But you know how it goes. You read an article or watch a documentary that gets you all fired up, you follow an organization on Twitter and you sign up for their newsletter…and then you never put your money where your mouth is. And that’s where this story almost ended.

First steps with the Charity Reading Challenge

In late 2015 I learned about the Charity Reading Challenge, in which participants pledge to donate a certain amount per book they read to the charity of their choice.

I liked the idea that my reading could help fund another girl’s education. So I pledged to donate $2 for every book I read in 2016 to Camfed. I signed up and started reading, glad that I’d found a way to give a little to a good cause.

But fate wasn’t done with me yet.

A heartbreaking email

In early September I got an email from Camfed that broke my heart.

Every September we face one of our most difficult decisions. We have to draw a line between the girls who will go to school and those who will not – we simply do not have the resources to help every child who needs support

We are facing a crisis that will condemn even more girls to a life of exclusion. A reduction in funding due to recent global uncertainty has pushed 3,500 more girls below that line.

I imagined what it would be like for those girls to hear that they wouldn’t be able to continue — or start — their education. What would it be like to see your brother head off to school while you have to stay home? What if not going to school meant being married off to a stranger because you are a burden on your family’s resources?

When I visited Camfed’s website, I read that $240 can send a girl to school for a full year.

$240. That’s less than my monthly car payment. I donated that night.

Since then I’ve imagined over and over someone from Camfed telling a girl in Ghana or Malawi or Tanzania or Zambia or Zimbabwe that she will be able to go to school this year. How did she react? What’s her name? Her favorite subject? What does she want to be when she grows up?

Then I remembered that the company I work for matches charitable donations — I’ve submitted that paperwork already, which means two girls get to go to school.

Just getting started

I’m still planning to donate $2 to Camfed for every book I read this year, but that won’t be the end of this adventure. I’ve found something that ignites my passion, that makes me want to participate in something bigger than myself.

I don’t know exactly what that participation looks like yet, but I do know that it includes others. If you’re passionate about girls’ education and empowerment, or think you could be, I encourage you to:

  • Read Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky. Take at least one of the actions they list at the end.
  • Read more about Camfed and the other organizations Kristof and WuDunn describe.
  • Consider donating to Camfed so they can meet their goal of educating 1 million girls by 2020.

Today is Thanksgiving. This year I have more than ever to be thankful for. I’ve found a calling, a cause, and I hope you’ll join me in this fight.

Update: Donations from people in September and October got 343 more girls above the line and into school. So badass.