Book rec: Gulp by Mary Roach

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Mary Roach is the kind of nonfiction writer who can make any topic fascinating. No, really, anything. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a book about the digestive system, covering topics from the nutritional value of dog food to the optimal decibel level of crunchy snack foods to the stain-fighting properties of saliva. At one point she puts her hand inside of a cow’s stomach. There’s an entire chapter about smuggling drugs inside your rectum.

Roach has a history of finding the absurdity in science. Her other books, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void are all playful but by no means disrespectful looks at serious topics. She gets very in depth with her research and isn’t afraid to ask occasionally embarrassing questions of the experts.

 

This suggests that saliva—or better yet, infant drool—could be used to pretreat food stains. Laundry detergents boast about the enzymes they contain. Are these literally digestive enzymes? I sent an e-mail to the American Cleaning Institute, which sounds like a cutting edge research facility but is really just a trade group formerly and less spiffily known as the Soap and Detergent Association.

 

With no detectable appreciation for the irony of what he had written, press person Brian Sansoni referred me to a chemist named Luis Spitz. And when Dr. Spitz replied, “Sorry, I only know soap-related subjects,” Sansoni—still without a trace of glee—gave me the phone number of a detergent industry consultant named Keith Grime.

Gulp is a book that’ll give you a new understanding of your own internal workings, and if you haven’t read anything by Roach before, it’ll probably act as a gateway drug into everything else she’s ever done. I highly recommend it.

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Book rec: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

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I’ve been recommending Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles to everyone who ranges within earshot of me for the past week or so. My friend William loaned me Cinder because she thought I might be interested in a book written during Nanowrimo. It was on my ‘to be read’ pile for a month or so before I picked it up–and then was completely unable to put it down. I bought Scarlet for my Kindle before I’d finished Cinder, and then bought Cress the same afternoon.

Cinder is a YA science fiction series that retells the story of Cinderella, where Cinder is a cyborg mechanic living in plague-ridden New Beijing. The fairy tale is really only a framework; the real story is a combination thriller/mystery with a touch of romance. Scarlet and Cress add on to the story arc with retellings of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, respectively. Meyer is an extremely competent writer who balances a diverse cast of likeable, well-written characters with an exciting plot. This is the kind of book that feels like a guilty pleasure to read. And yes, all three of the books were written during three separate Nanowrimos.

My only complaint is that I thought the series was a trilogy, and was 90% done with Cress when I realized that there was no way the story was going to end anytime soon. The next book, Winter, comes out in 2015. I’m a little disappointed that I binge read them all before I found that out, though I guess that only means I’ll have to re-read the lot of them next year in preparation. It’s not exactly a hardship.

You can find Cinder on Amazon here.

Book Dissection: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I finished reading NOS4A2 by Joe Hill yesterday. I’d bought it after following him on Twitter, and I only followed him on Twitter because someone else had been retweeting him. That shows the power of Twitter, I guess–I hadn’t even heard of him before that.

It’s a powerful book. It’s something about the ruthless way he has of describing people, and the grim yet vivid settings. What I’m interested in doing is deconstructing the book to see what exactly it is that Hill does right. Because he does do this book right; it’s strong in all the right places, and the pacing is fantastic.

Non-spoilery recap:

Victoria McQueen has a knack for finding things. All she has to do is get on her bike and ride across the Shorter Way Bridge: a bridge that shows up wherever she needs it to, and takes her wherever she wants to go. But she’s not the only one with this kind of ability, and it’s not long before she runs into Charlie Manx, a man who uses his own powers to “rescue” children from their families and take them to Christmasland, where every morning is Christmas morning and every night is Christmas Eve, and Manx can drain away their innocence and humanity to make himself live forever.

In a different writer’s hands, this might have been about 12-year-old Vic’s battle against the evil Manx. But it’s not really about that. Instead, we see how her encounter with Manx and her own odd powers changes the course of her life. What the story really seems to be about is that everything has consequences, and those shortcuts that allow someone to avoid consequences–Vic finding things deemed lost, Manx being able to make himself younger–are the ones that have the greatest cost.

How the sausage is made:

I’ve been interested in figuring out how authors make unpredictable plots. There are thousands of examples of predictable plots repeated weekly on television screens and movie theaters. In many cases, that’s a result of the short format. There’s only so much you can do in a two hour movie, or in a 45 minute tv show where the characters need to end up in much the same place they started. Novels have more room to work with, but a lot of them take predictable paths anyway. So when I see a novel that does it pretty well, I want to figure out how it happened.

In Hill’s case, he lets the story get bigger than it originally appeared. Sure, Vic and Manx meet up, as you’d expect. But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the jumping off point for the real plot, which takes years to unreel. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense: in a story about consequences, you can’t just end with the confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. You have to see what that confrontation leads to. That’s where the story departs from predictability.

I guess a (possibly simplistic) takeaway from this is that in order to make a plot less predictable, make it about theme, not formula. I’ve seen places where I believe this backfired–China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station springs to mind. That was a book about borders and finding that undefined place where one thing changes into something else, and while I thought it was a gorgeous book (and he’s one of my favorite authors), the ending seemed to rely too much on keeping with the theme than on narrative coherence. Still, it’s a good starting point for plotting. NOS4A2 marries a good theme to a solid plot, and the combination makes for a satisfying story.