Reading for a Blackout

So the other night the weather just wanted to remind me and everyone within the general area I call home that the apocalypse could come at any moment by unleashing thunder, lightening, tornadoes, flooding and all that good stuff in the greater Chicago area. Apparently, it was big enough news that concerned family in Canada found out about the weather somehow and phoned us.

My neighborhood got off pretty easy on the apocalypse scale, but there was still a pretty bad storm, and that bad storm lead to a blackout. It’s really the sort of thing we should’ve seen coming on my street, but I had just sat down to watch TV when the power cut out. For a few seconds, I had no idea what had just happened, and for the next few, I had no idea what to do, despite the fact that I grew up on this same block with terribly faulty power.  Once the flashlights were grabbed and the normally ornamental candles lit, though, I still wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of my evening, which suddenly freed up.

Well, I’m an idiot. Obviously, as soon as the visibility issue is solved you’re supposed to read books, duh. I figured that one out before too long, but what do you read during a blackout? And how?

I had one or two books on electronic devices that I thought about going to, but had to cross those out immediately. One was on my phone, which was pretty well charged but you look at battery life a whole lot more warily when trapped in possibly unending night. I figured that I might as well stick to the paper books I had in my to-read pile. You gotta conserve battery power when you can in emergency situations, just a generally good rule of thumb. As much as I love reading, I don’t want to explain how I couldn’t call a friend, family member, or 911 because I just had to finish my e-book.

That’s all fine though. I have plenty of good ol’ analogue books to read, but which ones do I read in a blackout? Not the scary ones, that’s for sure. Maybe if I’d just then had a bunch of girlfriends over and we were planning on scaring each other’s pants off for a slumber party anyway, but I’m not twelve years old so I was pretty much alone and not up for books on death and ghosts, monsters, and/or psychopathic humans. Blackout darkness is true, horror movie darkness, so you have to be careful of what you choose to read. I sometimes find poetry rather soothing, and easier to read in poor light because there’s fewer words on the page to piece out, same thing with comics. If you feel like you have something to prove, go ahead and read a tiny print sized horror novel during your next power outage. I generally prefer lighter, calmer fair. The longer a power outage goes on, the more I start to worry about apocalypse prepping and get myself plenty worked up without help from my reading selections.

With my pile of books selected, I sat down to read them with a flashlight. It was a nice way to relive my most rebellious moments in middle school. One time, I read all the way through New Moon by staying up past midnight. There was nothing my parents could do to stop me. Whoa! I lived through puberty right on the edge, man. Recalling these pleasant memories made going to bed with no power slightly less terrifying. Would wild thirteen-year-old me be scared of a silly little power outage? Probably, but that was back when I decided showing any emotion that wasn’t angsty sarcasm was a stupid weakness that must be suppressed, so I would’ve seemed totally fine to an observer.

Don’t worry though, our power turned back on eventually. I woke up in the middle of the night to find the lights on and the TV blaring, announcing the return of civilization. The pile of books I’d read during the blackout were still sitting next to my favorite chair, having never left me in the first place.

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Mary Roach and Curious Science

There’s a book coming out just this month that I’m pretty excited to read. It’s written by Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars, Stiff, Spook, Gulp and Bonk. Her latest in a string of monosyllabic titles, (which do come with lengthy academic subtitles I’ve excluded for brevity,) is Grunt, subtitled, The Curious Science of Humans at War.

My mother managed to nab an early copy of this book at BookCon, so you think I’d have gotten a chance to read it by now, but she’s held onto it pretty tightly. We both have our own tightly guarded hoard of books to read, and plenty of reasons thinning that pile is taking us a good long while. So I can’t judge her too harshly. I’ll be waiting a bit for this one, but based on Roach’s past work I can highly recommend her for any and all curious minds.

In each of her books, Roach picks a single topic and explores the science behind it in depth, with a quirky sense of humor and curiosity. She’s explored the science behind space travel, sex, food, and death, those essential pillars of the human existence. Now she’s adding war to her collection. The science of war goes well beyond blowing stuff with the biggest booms and the biggest guns possible. There’s everything from the expected day to day stuff, like fighting exhaustion, hearing loss, medical matters, etc, all the way up to the more bizarre and unusual stuff, like dangerous shrimp and shark attacks.

This is standard coverage for all Roach’s topics. She picks a broad enough subject and covers them top to bottom, piece by piece, one specialized chapter at a time, and she answers the questions you really want the answers to. A while ago, I read her book on what it would take to send a manned mission to Mars, Packing For Mars, and found she went into far more depth on how astronauts go to the bathroom than I could ever my science teachers to, with pictures and everything. I can’t say that part made me want to be an astronaut very much, but it was an itch in my brain that has finally been scratched. No thanks to you, 5th grade science teacher. Pluto isn’t even a planet anymore! Everything you taught me is useless!

You could call this sort of writing pop-science lit. The critics do. That’s “pop-science” as in made for popular consumption of the public. To me that always seems a derogatory term, like they’re watering down “real” science so the dunderheads of the general public might be able to swallow it. That’s not how Mary Roach’s books read.

They read like a woman’s found a subject that fascinates her, a subject she usually knows next to nothing about, but one about which she’s vowed to learn everything. She also promises to bring back all these answers from professional sources, interviewing any and every oddball scientist and expert in the field to find the answers that will scratch the itch in your brain. Some of these answers you might not have even known you wanted or needed, but by the time Roach is done you’ll be very glad she gave them to you.

This sort of experience makes me glad to pick up any book by Mary Roach, no matter the topic. I can’t say I’ve been very interested in military science or history, but I know Roach well and am still very eager to dive into her latest title. If you haven’t read her books before, I recommend you do the same with any of her works.

Reading For a Good Cry

So I was perusing the poetry section of a bookstore when I came across a book with a title and concept that I, at first, thought was very unusual. It was a collection of poetry called “Poems That Make Grown Women Cry.” Editors selected 100 different actors, authors, activists, etc who were women and asked them to pick a poem that made them cry and write a little forward about the poem and why it emotionally touched them. To be honest, I didn’t recognize many of the names, but I did recognize many of the poems those names picked out, and they are real tear-jerkers. We’ve got some pieces by death-obsessed Emily Dickinson, some by always-good-for-a-sob Sylvia Plath, and appearances by several romantic poets like Coleridge and Byron at their glummest. Yup, congratulations. These poems probably would make me, nominally a “grown woman,” and any other emotionally developed adult ball their eyes out. Who would willingly buy something like that? Well, I did of course.

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My new book, tissues on standby.

While I often, at first, think it’s ridiculous  that anyone would go to a movie, read a book, or view any other type of art that is supposed to make you go all sad and sobbing, I do also recognize that there’s a whole lot of art meant to exploit the more heart and gut wrenching emotions humans can experience. Okay, so exploit may be a cruel word for books that pull tragedy off well, but with any shoddily written romantic tragedy or cancer/ terminal disease story, it feels exactly like a low, exploitative ploy for our money. Still, though, something about the good stories, the books that connect with the reader in the tenderest spot, make the endeavor worth the risk.

I bought the collection of gut wrenching poems because I did know and love some of the pieces already in it, and the ones I didn’t know seemed promising as well. Reading the intro from each woman for their selected poem allowed me to feel connected to those people through the feelings we would both experience in reading the poem, creating a tangible community that can have a cathartic moment of pain and sorrow together.

I feel the setup for this particular collection is, overall, a great example of what people get out of reading  unbelievably sad stories or watching them on TV. Even better, you could go the Game of Thrones route and read someone’s horrible death and then watch the same scene play out on TV. The feels! Even if you don’t have people writing a small passage explaining how sad this moment made them feel, you know that connection is there. Sure, there’s the social media aspect of watching and reading everyone else’s reaction to the same tragedy, but on a more intimate level, there’s the reader and the story itself, created by someone who somehow knew what the inside of your head felt like, feels like, at it’s worst moment. The fact that thousands of other readers say they feel the same way is just icing on the cake of a truly well crafted, emotionally realistic story.

Maybe you yourself have never gotten cancer, dealt with addiction, or had your entire family murdered at a wedding. That doesn’t mean you cannot connect with the story or the other people balling their eyes out over it. This is the best sort of magic a gifted poet or writer can manage. Situations can be strange and foreign to a reader, but the feels can still come through if the characters and their situation is well realized. I’ve never had to worry about dying from consumption or dragon fire, but I’ve read some good enough books wherein that is a very real danger and was able to connect to those unfortunate characters. In that way, writers can teach us to be truly empathetic with people going through struggles that are not our own, which is arguably one of the most important magic tricks a good read can pull off.

As weird as it might seem at first glance, I get the good that comes from intentionally picking up a book or film knowing you’re going to cry your eyes out. Sure, people might think I’m blocking everyone out by sticking my nose in a book, but with a well written book, I’m crying my way to a meaningful connection with people I might never even meet.

A Wickedly Divine Series

So I was debating with myself whether I should write a review and/or recommendation of a series that I haven’t even gotten halfway through yet, but some books are just so good I have to say something, and it’s not my fault if everyone from Barnes and Noble to the local library is telling me I’ll have to wait a week until I can get the next volume in this adventure. What this series needs is some exposure, so people will start stocking this series on their shelves more, and I don’t have to put up with this waiting a week for a book business like it’s the 1800s or whatever. Maybe if a pony express pony delivered the book to me in its little pony mailbag, I’d be okay with it, maybe, but other than that I need instant 21st century gratification

In this particular case, I’m talking about graphic novel series The Wicked and the Divine, written by Kieron Gillen and art by Jamie McKelvie. I can’t recall for the life of me who recommended this series to me, because I’m sure I heard the name somewhere before deciding to pick up the first book when I saw it laying on the library shelf and anything sounded better than actually studying for finals, but I can’t recall. Sometimes finals season leads to large chunks of memory being pushed out of my head to make room for “This will be on the test” stuff, but I digress, I think. What were we talking about?

Ah yes, The Wicked and the Divine. It was an excellent breath of fresh air for me during a stressful time, academically speaking. The whole concept was incredibly imaginative in and of itself, and the way it was executed, as far as I read anyway, was perfect.

The setup for this states that every 90 years or so, a different group of gods possess the bodies of young adults and/or teenagers. The deal is that they only have two years on Earth before they and their host bodies die. They use what time they have on earth to cultivate celebrity and create crazy mystique and stories surrounding themselves so that these gods will be remembered. The roster of gods in this series include Amaterasu, Baal, Lucifer (aka Satan, aka Luci) Odin, the Morrigan, Sekhmet, and even more obscure figures from long gone pantheons. I linked to most of those guy’s Wikipedia pages because that’s where I found myself going more than a few times while reading this book.

Don’t let the light research work deceive you though, this book feels far more like an exercise in enlightenment than a bunch of mythology references going over your head. There’s a rich exploration of character, especially the sort of character that divine, all-powerful beings develop and express in a modern world, and the only true modern divinities people seem willing to worship anymore; celebrities. Then of course, there’s the murder mysteries and the god groupies, etc. I’m not sure I want to spoil this blast of a read for you guys.

Instead, let me talk about books this reminds me of, so you can get a better idea if this free sample wasn’t enough of a taste for you. Frankly, it reminds me of some of my favorite graphic novel series, so that might be why I took such a shining to it. Mainly, I see elements of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in the appearance of gods in modern ages and Bill Willingham’s Fables series and it’s various offshoots in the way these godly figures must blend in with modern urban life. If those series were your jam, as they were mine, then the Wicked and the Divine is nothing but good news for you.

I’m hoping to be receiving some good news about the next book in this series coming in for me very soon, oh and maybe something  about passing my finals and graduating too, but more importantly getting the next volume in this series. Hmm, it took me a while to write this. Is it in yet? I better go check again!

It wasn’t. Drat. Okay then, time to study. Again. Til next time folks!