“The Martian” – July Book 3

It’s not what you think.

Though I am perfectly happy to read about earthlings encountering strange fantastical Mars natives, along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s wonderfully ridiculous A Princess of Mars and its sequels, The Martian is not a book of that kind. Not at all. In fact, I’m reticent to describe it as science fiction, because it’s just so damn realistic.

I mean, why haven’t we had manned missions to Mars yet?

Let me back up. Here’s the premise: a manned Mars mission (think Apollo missions, but on Mars) goes awry and the crew barely escapes, but not before Mark Watney, resident botanist and Mr. Fix-It, gets left behind, presumed dead.

BUT HE’S NOT DEAD.

That’s the book. That’s it.

Really, though, the whole book is Mark Watney trying to be not dead. What makes this book such a fun read is Watney’s – and therefore Weir’s – incredible ingenuity. He’s stranded on Mars with nothing but some random NASA equipment. The setting is very-near-future, humankind’s third manned mission to Mars, so there’s no turning the ship around to pick him up at the Hellas Basin bus stop. HOW WILL HE SURVIVE? And will he ever make it home?

I cannot imagine the extensive research Weir must have done for this novel. For a science lover who knows pretty much nothing about science (I’m talking about myself), the mission and Watney’s survival antics are 100% believable. Maybe an actual rocket scientist or NASA engineer would have a different opinion, but unfortunately I don’t know any of them.

I actually started the book last winter and put it down until last week. It has a fairly predictable pattern of life-threatening-danger, brilliant idea, huge screw-up, another brilliant idea, giant obstacle, brilliant idea, etc etc, which I got a little tired of. But, once you start to notice the pattern, you’re too invested in Watney’s life to not finish the book.  And it is pretty darn fun.

That’s my consensus: a really fun, well-thought-out, not masterpiece, summer read. I don’t think all of the science-y stuff makes it too niche. I don’t know anything about science, remember? If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t, you’ll have time to read something more life-changing.

Lest I forget, to all of you who have joined my readership since I was Freshly Pressed this week: Welcome! I’m honored that you think my words a worthy read. When I’m back from vacation, I look forward to reading and responding to all of your comments.

‘Til then,

Corinne

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“And the Mountains Echoed”- July Book 2

I’m sitting here looking at my most recent read, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and trying not to resent it.

It’s a beautifully written book. An excellent book. Hosseini is one of those writers who doesn’t just write a good story (and he really writes a good story), he has that rare and shining ability to craft prose like poetry.

This book will break your heart.

And the Mountains Echoed is an overarching story, spanning 60+ years. Each chapter is a different vignette, a tile in the mosaic. You never go back to the same character’s point of view – you bounce from one decade to thirty years later, then back twenty, from Afghanistan, to Paris, to California, and back again. He even switches unpredictably from first to third person, from present to past tense. You would think that this would make the story feel disconnected, like a jumble of pieces. You’d think you’d get disinterested, or get so involved in one vignette that you can’t move on to the next. But you don’t – with just a couple of sentences, you’re invested. All of the jumping around doesn’t feel awkward, like when you’re dreaming and it’s completely natural to walk out your kitchen door into the Tower of London.

It’s poignant and engrossing. It would have been a quick read, if I didn’t have to keep putting it down to grieve.

The tragedy of ATME is not doomed lovers or terrible battles. Those kinds of things, you can read as an observer. “Oh, so sad,” you say, you sniffle and blow your nose and get on with your life. ATME does not allow such safe reading. Every story within the story is a tragedy of everyday brokenness. There are nine chapters: there are at least nine griefs. At least nine times that I had to put it down and say, “Later.” And there will be a chapter, a character that you identify so strongly with that you have to watch reruns of “30 Rock” to distract yourself.

(Side note: TV may not be the best coping mechanism.)

The characters of ATME are not heroes, they’re normal people, like us. They experience terrible tragedies or maybe just the sad brokenness of time’s inevitable march, missed opportunities, or disillusionment. That’s what makes this book so gripping and so effective. The stories might be fictional but the truth (and the sorrow) in them is not.

I bet you’re getting on Amazon right now to buy it, right?

If I were to recommend this book based on how good of a book it is – how well-written, how powerful, how relevant – I’d say, yes, you should read it. But, with that recommendation comes a big huge caveat. It’s sad. It’s really really sad. It’s all the different kinds of sad. Even the bad kinds of sad. It’s a book of sad, written beautifully.

My falling-out with Myers-Briggs

We have an identity crisis. Call it what you will, a post-modern, existential, millennial crisis of self, we are all asking ourselves: Which Game of Thrones character am I?

Ok, in all seriousness. The rash of Buzzfeed, Playbuzz, Quizmodo, etc “Personality Quizzes” that promise to tell you who you really are, in terms of your favorite fictional paradigm, is really just the latest symptom of our human desire to know ourselves, to approve of ourselves. “Ugh, I got Pansy Parkinson? Are you serious? I wanted to be Bellatrix Lestrange!”

For those seeking to understand themselves in less frivolous terms, we might seek to discover if we’re Type A or Type B, or which of the four humors we are, or, in terms of the perennial, inescapable, enduring favorite: What’s my Myers-Briggs type?

Sigh.

I’ve long been a fan of the Myers-Briggs. It’s helped me understand certain aspects of my personality (like, why I’m contemplating the archaeological record that will be left by our apartment building while everyone else is talking about what to get for dinner) and also how to better know and love the people around me. For instance, why my dad and I connect over history and science fiction, or why it’s OK for me to want to stay home and read when everybody else goes to a football game.

According to Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTP. There’s parts of that that delight me. I’m the eccentric absent-minded professor? Awesome! But recently I’ve come to a point where I want to say, Enough. Myers-Briggs and I need to take some time apart.

Myers-Briggs is like pointing to a blue-and-green striped shirt and saying “That shirt is blue.”

Ok, yes, there is a lot of blue on it, but there’s also the same amount of green. And, it’s not a solid color shirt – it’s a pattern. Describing the shirt as “blue,” while not entirely incorrect, gives you the wrong picture of the shirt. You hear “blue shirt” and you think of a shirt that is blue, not blue-and-green striped. You could also describe a blue shirt with white flowers as blue. So now you have two blue shirts – that are fundamentally different! And what if the blue shirt with white flowers is a sleeveless chambray blouse and the striped shirt is a longsleeved knit?

Excuse me, I think maybe I need to go to TJ Maxx…

Let me explain to you why being called “blue” when you are in fact, blue-and-green striped, can be a harmful thing. For one, others start to believe you’re blue. “Oh, you know Corinne, she’s blue, so, we should ask her to do this blue thing. She wouldn’t want to do the green thing.” Also, you start to believe you’re blue. “Yeah, I’m a blue person…green? That’s weird. Why is that green? I’m blue. That doesn’t fit, that’s not me.”

Why did I solidly know myself as deeply passionate, adventurous, sensitive, artistic, and empathetic before I learned that I was really an INTP? Why was I wild and emotional for the 18 years before I heard of Myers-Briggs, but now that I’m an INTP I’m Spock, or Data?

Ok, so my identity problems are not Myers-Briggs’ fault. But Myers-Briggs has been my enabler, has been a neat little box that I, so staunchly anti-box, have allowed myself to live in, have slowly shrunk to fit in.

For the time being, I’m saying Bye-Bye, Myers-Briggs. I want to know myself on my own terms, not on someone else’s. I’m on a journey to feel like myself, and you are a big damn suitcase that I am not going to carry around.

“Never Let Me Go” – July book 1

I have a terrible habit of starting books and never finishing them, even though I enjoy them, and want to finish them. With all but a few books, if I put it down where it’s not obviously in my sight, I will forget about it. For months, years even. It’s dumb, because I’m only limiting my own fun by doing that. So I arbitrarily decided (my favorite kind of decisions) to read 4 books in the month of July. Four books I haven’t read before, because there’s another one of my little problems: always rereading old favorites when there’s a mountain of literature out there, just because I know the old favorites won’t let me down.

The first book of the month was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and honestly I really started it around June 29. Grace, people. I saw the movie several years ago on a plane, so I knew a little bit about it, but not much (somehow I never really remember the movies I watch on planes). All I remembered was 1. Depressing 2. The twist and 3. I hate Kiera Knightley’s character.

I chose to read it because a friend was writing a paper for grad school on it and asked me to read her paper. It piqued my interest in the book.

The book is not as depressing as I remember the movie to be. I think this is largely in part because of the protagonist’s narration. It’s as though she’s telling you a story, in a very winding, conversational, and casual tone. So very casual, given the premise of the book. The very casualness with which she, Kathy H, and her classmates regard their lot in life is disconcerting and agitating.

What is it? You ask. What is their lot in life?

Ha! I’m not going to tell you! Read the book! (Or watch the movie.)

I will tell you this: beginning at a school in the English countryside, Never Let Me Go is Kathy H’s recollections of her young life and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy. This little book is a myriad of philosophical and ethical questions, in an intimate, low-key package. It asks REALLY BIG questions in a really quiet way. You will enjoy learning Kathy H’s story, but you will also find yourself ruminating on little affectations, passing mentions, and character traits in order to understand the bigger picture behind her words.

Is this review vague enough for you? I’d love to go into some of my own ruminations on it, such as what Ishiguro might be commenting on with all the euphemistic language – donor, student, complete. But to do so would spoil the discovery for you, much like the movie spoiled the discovery for me. The book is still quite worth it, whether or not you’ve seen the movie. If you like philosophical books, you should read it. If you like to read books that are smart but you don’t have to slog through them, read it. If you want something poignant, read it. If you want to shut your brain off and be mindlessly entertained, watch TV.