Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

Those of you how know me know that I don't often read non-fiction if I don't have to for class. But I saw this book on a co-worker's shelf and just had to take a look. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a fun little book if you're not squeamish. :) Roach's book is all about what happens to our bodies after we die. And while she covers some of the biological processes, most of it is about what happens to bodies that are donated to research and medicine. There is a chapter on anatomy classes (with the compulsory mention of Burke and Hare), using bodies as crash test dummies, studying decomposition to help forensic scientists, organ harvesting, and so on.

Sounds like a rip, huh?

If Roach hadn't written the book with such light, respectful but irreverant tone, this book would have been hard going. I've read a lot of mysteries, and am so stranger to descriptions of what bacteria and insects and time can do to a body, but one can really only take so much. But I feel that Roach has demystified at least some of the biological fact of death for me. I know that she's written a book recently about what might happen to the soul after death, so I might have to check that out to see what might happen to the rest of a human being.

Though, if I read something like this again, I'll try hard not to follow it up with something like The Zombie Survival Guide (my brief blog entry on this book).


To Say Nothing of the Dog, Part II

I won't say that the ending of To Say Nothing of the Dog was predictable, because I wouldn't have been able to tell you how the ending would fall out. I didn't have the slightest idea how all the little threads and details of the plot would get tied up and resolved.

But I can say that I had a pretty good idea about what was going to happen. All through the book, the characters are constantly concerned about "incongruities," or time paradoxes (also called predestination paradoxes or the grandfather paradoxes*).When you've been reading as long as I have, you can see foreshadowing a mile away. So I knew that the ending would involve some kind of time traveling paradox. Without giving too much away, the ending of this book involves the idea of everything happening for a reason--i.e. it was meant to happen this way--even the time traveling and so on.

Fun book. The only problem I had with it was that, towards the end, events started to come together so fast that I had to reread parts in order to follow the plot and to keep track of which loose ends were being tied up when.

* Whoever came up with this paradox had a dim view of potential time travelers. Why is it that theorists assume that people travel back in time to whack their ancestors? Wouldn't it be more likely that someone would misuse the technology to, say, stash valuable pieces of art to dig up later and cash in on? Or to off some important historical figure, like Columbus or Wellington**?

**There's a really fun running joke in the Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels where French revisionists with access to time traveling technology assassinate the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Nelson, and Harold Godwinson in order to help the French side win where they had previously lost***.

***I swear this is the last footnote.


Good Humor (not the ice cream) is hard to find

There are a very few authors that can consistently make me laugh out loud. The select list includes Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Tom Holt, and especially, Christopher Moore. But the problem with these guys is that the never write fast enough.

In the meantime, I will have to read Moore's blog. I recommend reading Help, Google has indexed my Memory! and Merry Christmas Kids - Here's your present!. I am so glad I wasn't trying to drink or eat as I read them--I would have ended up snorting something out my nose.

If you're not familiar with Christopher Moore, I highly recommend him. He's wonderfully silly and has an apparently endless supply of unexpected and hilarious metaphors, similes, and other turns of phrase.


To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, Part I

The thing about time travel books like To Say Nothing of the Dog is that you always end up talking about the nature of the universe in them. You end up thinking about how little things--like a cat, in this case--can change history. You end up wondering about how durable history is to tampering. If you could go back in time, will the things you do change history or were your efforts already included in the program?

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a great book for these questions. In this book, time travel is a regular activity for historians. But what's fun about this book is that the time travel technology isn't being used to, say, observe the Battle of Thermopylae or to study life in pre-Columbian North America. In this case, it's being used to make an exact replica of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during the Blitz, for a wealthy American. (It's always the weathly Americans who are misusing technology isn't it?)

But when one of the characters tries to take a rest in Victorian England--a prescription for time-lag--he gets involved with a small paradox in time when he returns a pet cat that was supposed to drown. The plot gets wonderfully manic--a la Henry Fielding but without the bed hopping--with the characters boating up and down the Thames, the time travelers trying not to get caught by the contemporaries, and with squirrelly arguements about the persistance of history. Fun, fun, fun reading.


The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant

I borrowed this book from Russet Vixen, after I heard a book group discussion on it. There were so many interesting plot points that came up, that I wanted to read for myself and find out what the book was about for myself.

The Birth of Venus opens with the death of a nun with a surprising tattoo. From there, we get the life story of the nun with the tattoo, a woman who used to be named Alessandra Cecchi, the daughter of a cloth merchant in Florence during Savonarola's campaign for God. The characters are well drawn, though some a little sketchy. What this book is really about, I think, is the Renaissance and the changing ideas about virtue.

On the one hand, there has been a resurgence in classical learning, art is flowering, the mind is allowed to explore new areas of though, epicurean pleasures aren't so frowned on any more. The Renaissance is getting under way. And then, Savonarola shows up on the scene and starts to preach of hellfire and the mortification of the flesh and the mind. Basically, old ideas from the Church rise up to challenge the new ideas. Alessandra gets to narrate the battle between the old and the new.

It's interesting to watch the conflict go back and forth. The way we learn about it in history classes when we're younger, it seems like pow! Renaissance and then Columbus starts asking for ships. Apart from the witch trials, it seems like a straight course for the Enlightenment. But it wasn't nearly that simple. People didn't just give up how they had been taught to think. Ideas about God and faith and such were in ingrained in people. Savonarola, nut though he may have been, wasn't the only one to teach about virtue through submission to (his version of) God's will and mortification of the flesh and senses. That conflict to me was sometimes more interesting than the love stories going on in the book.

Good book. It moved fast enough that it didn't feel like the usual literary slog. Thanks, Kris! Oh, and thanks for the mention. :)


Dies the Fire, Part II, and The Protector's War, by S.M. Stirling

I'm doing these two books together because I read them back to back and it really just seemed like one long book for me. The Protector's War is the sequel to Dies the Fire, and takes place about nine years after the events of the first book.

I still enjoy the concept of these books--an Earth with no electricity, no gunpowder, no internal combustion engines, and, it turns out, not steam power either. The characters--and consequently the readers--are no closer to figuring out what happened apart from a half-joking Theory of Alien Space Bats. Still, fun concept even if it does stretch the limits of credulity.

I really liked Dies the Fire. Well written, great characters, fast plot. I was really looking forward to The Protector's War, but as I read it, I started to feel more and more disappointed. The first thing I took issue with was the whiplash-inducing time changes. One the one hand, it was great to see what was happening in other parts of the world, and Stirling did mark the changes well, but it kept throwing me out of the narrative to have to keep readjusting to another time. Maybe it was just me, but it distracted me. Also, the narrative the was behind in time got pushed forward to catch up and I was disappointed to miss what would have been really interesting material. The characters in the behind plot were doing a kind of survey of the post-electric world. That could have been a whole book in itself--a really fun book.

Problem number 2: the title. The title of The Protector's War lead me--and I doubt I'm the only one--to think that this book would detail a war between the two factions that have set up shop in Oregon. But there was no war. There was skirmishing and some guerilla action and a very important kidnapping, but there was no official, declared war. This book is really a prelude to war. I kept waiting for it to happen, but nothing. The end of the book makes me think that the war is going to happen in the next book, if Stirling writes it.

So, in the final analysis, I am torn about how I feel abotu the series as a whole. Great concept, great character...but things haven't be executed as well as I think they could have been. But this book still gets major bonus points for making me think about it when I'm not reading it.