Friday, March 20, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Author Mary Roach enjoys exploring the unexplored, the odd, out right weird, and amusing details of events that are everyday (well her space travel book, Packing for Mars, may not cover everyday life, but it does look at space travel in a way that you won't find in most histories). Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers looks at the adventures a body can have once it is dead.

Bodies can be donated to science and used in research for car crashes (dummies can only tell us so much), provide practice for plastic surgeons, and used in anatomy labs for future medical professionals. Roach also covers organ donation, cultural and historical definitions of death and the soul, and an overview of death and the use of cadavers historically (at one point in a doctor suggested systematic tongue pulling for several hours to ensure that a person was truly dead). Other, slightly less known options include ecological burial  - at least in Sweden (which is more or less turning your body into fertilizer) and plastination, which is a way to preserve actual bodies for education (at the time of this book's publication The Body Worlds exhibit was not around, but now you can check it out in action the next time it's in Chicago).

While descriptions can be blunt and irreverent (although the overall book I found to be respectful) it was a fascinating, amusing, and thoughtful book to listen to.


Other books you may want to check out:
The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

150 Pounds: A Novel of Waists & Measures by Kate Rockland

Two successful bloggers, Shoshana and Alexis, meet on the Oprah Winfrey Show for a debate regarding weight and lifestyle. Alexis is very thin ( 100 pounds dripping wet!) and extremely rigid with her opinions about the kind of lifestyle women should maintain; Shoshana is much more relaxed (and larger - 215 pounds). Her attitude is be happy with the body God has given you and love yourself. 

Although there is not a clear winner of this debate, both women leave the show with a new determination to defend women of all body types. And this is where the novel gets interesting. 

Flaws and triumphs are revealed, as well as a new understanding of what fit and healthy really means.

150 Pounds is not a feel good book by any means, but I am sure many women (and men as well) can relate to yo-yo dieting and image worries. This novel offers a bit of dispensation if only for a little while.


Read alike author: Meg Cabot

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Seeing the Light by Rob Jovanovic

While beyond obscure in their brief time together, the late sixties/early seventies band The Velvet Underground has become almost legendary since their albums started getting re-released in the mid-eighties. You can now find deluxe CD box sets of some of their albums, such as a six CD version of their debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s not surprising, then, that a number of biographies have come out on The Velvet Underground, such as Rob Jovanovic’s Seeing the Light: Inside The Velvet Underground.

Jovanovic’s book spends most of its time on the band as a whole. He moves through the biographies of individual members quickly rather than getting bogged down discussing band members’ great grandfathers. This appealed to me as many biographies take 100 pages to even start to sniff the lives of their main subjects. The Velvet Underground was together from roughly 1965 to 1970 and, unlike other bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles that were successful while they were together, The Velvet Undergrounds did not have constant media coverage. Despite this potential lack of sources, Jovanovic dishes out a lot of good information about the band’s albums and live shows. It also helps that for a period the band was managed by Andy Warhol, although their split with him was far from amicable.

Seeing the Light also doesn’t paint the best picture of Lou Reed, the group’s best known member. He comes off as a control freak and paranoid, but the book also investigates Reed’s innovations in song writing, particularly in terms of taking on edgy material such as drugs. Reed’s gift for melody and writing catchy material, most notably the classic Velvet Underground song “Sweet Jane,” is also explored.

If you’re a fan of The Velvet Underground or just know a few songs but would like to further explore their career, I highly recommend Seeing the Light.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

All the President's Menus by Julie Hyzy

Nothing like a good palate cleanser after a tough read! Julie Hyzy’s White House chief chef, Olivia Paras, does that for me every time. The mysteries are entertaining, the behind-the-scenes peeks at how 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue runs are interesting, and the characters are engaging. This is definitely cozy, but also a good mystery.
When visiting chefs who are representatives of an extremely repressed foreign country are dumped on Olivia’s plate just as her staff is cut back, she finds herself battling on multiple fronts. The chefs come from a male-dominated society and are not happy having a woman in charge. When her pastry chef collapses and lands in the hospital, is discharged, returns to work, and collapses again while in the company of the visitors, alarm bells start going off. She has a state dinner to prepare to honor the female candidate for the chefs’ home country, a pastry chef out with a concussion, suspicious behavior on the part of the chefs, and then one of the visiting chefs dies. Olivia knows if she can’t figure out the who, what, and whys cluttering her kitchen, her goose will truly be cooked.

Not every book has to be life-altering; sometimes it’s all right to just be entertained and All the President's Menus does exactly that.      


Test of Wills by Charles Todd

I discovered Charles Todd when the first of his Bess Crawford series, A Duty to the Dead, which takes place during WWI, was released.  Test of Wills, the first of the Ian Rutledge series starts just after the war’s end. Rutledge has returned to his position as an inspector with Scotland Yard, but much changed by his experiences in the trenches. Suffering from what would now be diagnosed as severe PTSD, he hears the voice of dead Corporal Hamish MacLeod, whom he was forced to order executed for refusing to lead another attack on the German lines. His superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles, hates and fears Rutledge for his education, social status, and his uncanny ability to ferret out solutions to murders no one else can solve. Bowles doesn’t know how vulnerable Rutledge has become but senses something and is hoping to exploit whatever it is to either cause the Yard to let Rutledge go or drive him out.
Bowles sends Rutledge to handle the extremely sensitive murder of a much-loved land owner and retired Colonel possibly by his ward’s fiancĂ©, a former Captain in the RAF, highly decorated and close to the royal family. There appear to be no good solutions as he struggles to resurrect the skills he took for granted before the war, solve the murder, and not set off a personal and political fire storm.

Todd shows great skill in developing a baffling mystery, creating a believable setting, and drawing characters that are multi-dimensional. I've already checked out the second Ian Rutledge mystery!


Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Every day when she’s on the train into London Rachel watches a young couple (she calls them Jason and Jess) lounging outside their home and wonders what it must be like to be them. Her train frequently gets stuck at a signal by their house and this gives her ample time to ponder and day dream about what their lives must be like. But things haven’t been going well for Rachel. She is divorced, has a drinking problem, and has little to look forward to in her life.  When Jess, whose real name we find out is Megan, disappears Rachel is noticeably upset and soon finds a way to meet Jason (actual name Scott) and stumbles deeper into the disappearance than she’d like to be. (Or does her involvement give her a reason to get out of bed in the morning?)

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been touted as the next Gone Girl. Like that recent hit there are twists and turns all over the place, but I actually preferred Hawkins’ novel to Gone Girl. Rachel is an unreliable narrator due to the blackouts she frequently suffers when she drinks. She has trouble piecing together what happened the night before. Despite, or maybe because of, her knack for making bad decisions, I found her fascinating to follow and even a sympathetic character to some degree. With Gone Girl the main characters were frequently unlikeable and seemed to become shallow whenever it suited the novel’s plot. Girl on the Train on the other hand succeeds as a page turner and a character study.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Lizzy & Jane: A Novel by Katherine Reay

If you are looking for a gentle read about the importance of family, Lizzy & Jane has all the right elements.

Named for the famous Jane Austen characters, sisters Elizabeth & Jane could not be more different. Estranged since their mother's death, they even live on opposite sides of the country. Elizabeth is a chef at an exclusive restaurant in New York and Jane is an artistic stay-at-home mom in Seattle.

When an illness brings the sisters back together, it is very difficult for them both. Both women are in rough, unknown places in their lives, and they really need each other. But do they know it?

With the Seattle restaurant/market scene as a back drop, this novel will be a big hit with all of the foodies out there as well. Plus the added bonus of many, many references to the great books of Jane Austen.

A lot to offer with this title.


Read alike author: Barbara O'Neal