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.)

Review: Equal Rites

Equal Rites, Terry PratchettIn a small village tucked away in a quiet corner of the Discworld, a dying wizard passes his powers on to the newborn eighth son of an eighth son. There’s just one snag: the newborn is actually a girl.

The village’s witch, Granny Weatherwax, is aghast. There’s never been a female wizard, so why start now? Wizardry is a man’s magic, sneaky and overly complicated. She’s determined to turn the girl, Eskarina, into a perfectly normal witch.

Unfortunately, that’s not how magic works.

The wizards at the Unseen University are the only ones who can help Esk control her powers — but they’re not willing to teach a girl. Can Esk and Granny Weatherwax find a way into the university before it’s too late?

Bewitching

I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, especially the books featuring witches. Granny Weatherwax is a particular favorite, and it was fun to see her introduced (Equal Rites is the third book in the Discworld series, and the first to feature a witch).

Pratchett’s world building is amazing. I love the way magic works — how in many ways it’s more about knowledge than actual magic.

The characters are great, too. Esk is smart and stubborn, and clearly incredibly powerful. But Granny Weatherwax totally steals the show. She’s sharp-tongued, very clever, and in no way interested in being out-gunned by man or beast. She’s who I want to be when I grow up.

Equal Rites is a slow burn kind of novel. There’s plenty of action, but a lot of it is in the characters’ heads. There’s no explosions or shocking twists. It’s cerebral, and I think it’s fantastic. I’ll be dipping back into the Discworld series again as soon as I can.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. December’s challenge was to read the next in a series you’ve been working through — or even finish it up!)