Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

"Bill Bryson is one of the world’s most beloved and bestselling writers. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, he takes his ultimate journey–into the most intriguing and consequential questions that science seeks to answer. It’s a dazzling quest, the intellectual odyssey of a lifetime, as this insatiably curious writer attempts to understand everything that has transpired from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. Or, as the author puts it, “…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” This is, in short, a tall order.
To that end, Bill Bryson apprenticed himself to a host of the world’s most profound scientific minds, living and dead. His challenge is to take subjects like geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics and see if there isn’t some way to render them comprehensible to people, like himself, made bored (or scared) stiff of science by school. His interest is not simply to discover what we know but to find out how we know it. How do we know what is in the center of the earth, thousands of miles beneath the surface? How can we know the extent and the composition of the universe, or what a black hole is? How can we know where the continents were 600 million years ago? How did anyone ever figure these things out?
On his travels through space and time, Bill Bryson encounters a splendid gallery of the most fascinating, eccentric, competitive, and foolish personalities ever to ask a hard question. In their company, he undertakes a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only this superb writer can render it. Science has never been more involving, and the world we inhabit has never been fuller of wonder and delight."

I cannot quite convey how good this book is. Yes, it's around 500 pages, and it's information-dense, but the information is presented in an incredibly interesting and entertaining manner. It's matter-of-fact but maintains a huge amount of dry humor and good storytelling. It got me quietly giggling to myself in public a couple times, which I'm afraid to say earned some strange glances. Yes, it takes a bit of time to read because there's just so much to take in, but it's definitely not boring. Above all, just the process of learning the basics of geology and the beginning of the universe and the earth and atoms and so much more (and all the little fascinating stories that go along with them) feels awesome. I got a lot of perspective from reading it, seeing it all outlined in terms of eons and evolution and light-years. It's like a high-speed, high-interest, all-inclusive course for anyone who's ever been curious about astronomy/biology/physics/geology/science in general. The book very well lives up to its name. And like I mentioned earlier, the anecdotes are occasionally the highlight of the book, like the geologist with a penchant for doing fieldwork naked, or the painfully shy Henry Cavendish, who once fled from an admiring house-caller and had to be coaxed back into his house hours later. There's some lively stuff in the book, I'm telling you. If you like learning, if you have any ounce of curiosity in you, I think you'll like it. I certainly did, and I'm giving it five stars. I can't recommend this book highly enough. There's a copy at Kettleson and Mt. Edgecumbe.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams

"Back on Earth with nothing more to show for his long, strange trip through time and space than a ratty towel and a plastic shopping bag, Arthur Dent is ready to believe that the past eight years were all just a figment of his stressed-out imagination. But a gift-wrapped fishbowl with a cryptic inscription, the mysterious disappearance of Earth's dolphins, and the discovery of his battered copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy all conspire to give Arthur the sneaking suspicion that something otherworldly is indeed going on....

God only knows what it all means. And fortunately, He left behind a Final Message of explanation. But since it's light-years away from Earth, on a star surrounded by souvenir booths, finding out what it is will mean hitching a ride to the far reaches of space aboard a UFO with a giant robot. But what else is new?"

So this took a bit of a more relaxed track with its plot than the others; it was set just on Earth, no alien wars or anything. And I have to say it was one of my favorites. It was just simple Douglas Adams at his best. The dialogue was sharp, the observations were relevant, and the end was absolutely priceless. I think I went through this one quicker than the others, too. There were still some plot twists, slightly less out-of-the-blue than Life, the Universe, and Everything, but still enough to keep things interesting. Not much really to say other than that, so I'll leave you to decide. Five stars, by the way. There's a copy at Sitka High.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Life, the Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams

"The unhappy inhabitants of planet Krikkit are sick of looking at the night sky above their heads--so they plan to destroy it. The universe, that is. Now only five individuals stand between the killer robots of Krikkit and their goal of total annihilation.

They are Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered space and time traveler who tries to learn how to fly by throwing himself at the ground and missing; Ford Prefect, his best friend, who decides to go insane to see if he likes it; Slartibartfast, the indomitable vice president of the Campaign for Real Time, who travels in a ship powered by irrational behavior; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed ex-president of the galaxy; and Trillian, the sexy space cadet who is torn between a persistent Thunder God and a very depressed Beeblebrox.

How will it all end? Will it end? Only this stalwart crew knows as they try to avert universal Armageddon and save life as we know it--and don't know it!"

So, you may or may not know about my absolute fondness for Douglas Adams books. On the trip I was determined to finish the Hitchhiker series, which I did, so I figured I'd give a little feedback on the two ones I read. I'd seriously missed reading stuff like this, so it made me so happy to get back into them. They're written by a man who's undeniably ridiculously smart, as well as somewhat sassy and slightly insane (which, in my opinion, is the best kind of person). Everything from the Thor cameo, to the random immortal alien bent on systematically insulting every member of the universe, was weird in the awesomest possible way. Things made simultaneously no sense and perfect sense, in the way that happens when Douglas Adams spends the entire duration of writing a science fiction book with his tongue in his cheek. I really loved it; the parallels were intelligent and funny, the characters were strange, and the plot was twisty and had some completely unexpected developments that I didn't see coming. Five stars. I would barely stop short of force to get you to start reading this series; this book's at Kettleson and Sitka High, and the first book is at Kettleson, Mt. Edgecumbe, Blatchley, and Sitka High.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

"Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try."

So here's one that I read on the plane and finished in the first couple days in Guatemala, and while I wasn't glued to it every free second, I really enjoyed reading it. It's a really interesting portrait of a relationship, and it's also pretty freaking powerful too--it handles some intense topics, both good and bad. It's mature at times, I guess slightly from the relationship but mostly with the depiction of certain unhealthy situations orbiting the characters. 
It was set in the 80s but the only marker of the time period was the use of cassettes--everything else could have been set in any time, which I kind of liked. (For some reason my enjoyment of books set in the past tends to be more iffy). But anyway, this one could just as easily have read like modern teens as anything else.
The story was a bit of a slow burn for me; I warmed up to the characters and the story as they warmed up to each other, which was a bit fitting. By the end I was completely into it--the story got sweeter and more in-depth as their relationship progressed. It was unconventional but felt familiar somehow, which was really nice. The way the plot played out, and the ending (which was previewed in a prologue) was powerful, realistic, and devastating to read, coming not too long after I'd fallen completely in love with the characters. I think this is a book definitely worth reading: sweet, and different, with no bland romanticism or airbrushed plot. 4.5 stars. There's a copy at Kettleson and Mt. Edgecumbe.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


So, it's with a not-so-heavy heart that I have to report that I'll be posting extremely sporadically over the next couple of weeks. I'm going to Guatemala, and the books that I could review are basically the ones that get finished on the plane or some such--I might upload something if I get internet, but odds are you'll just get a couple reviews when I get back, all in one fell swoop.

And my packing and studying-for-SAT frenzy has left me zero time this week to read, so I'll owe you three reviews when I come back. But I don't feel bad, 'cause I'll be in Guatemala!

Okay, sorry. Not to rub it in your face or anything.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston

"I'm Valkyrie White. I’m fifteen. Your government killed my family.
Ever since Mabby died while picking beans in their garden--with the pock-a-pock of a helicopter overhead--Valkyrie knows what her job is: hide in the underground den with her brother, Bo, while Da is working, because Those People will kill them like coyotes.
One Year Ago:
Those People have come. It has to be them, because when Valkyrie and Bo return from a lesson of alert and ready, everything is on fire and Da is gone. But they've been trained by their Da for this: It's time to wait. Time to prepare. Time to be invisible. 
Last Fall: 
Maybe Da's not coming back. Maybe. So Bo and Valkyrie must enter the outside world--a not-so-smart place where little boys wear their names on their backpacks and young men don't pat down strangers before offering a lift. People should be more careful. 
This Afternoon: 
Valkyrie finds herself in a twisted game of life and death where winning is all that matters. And in a final, trigger-tense moment of when and where and who, it all comes down to . . . 

Well. I'd like to open this review with a cursory statement, and sorry if it's not quite censored, but this deserves it: this book is creepy as hell. There's really no other way to put it, I'm sorry. I'd like to lay out a few more points of the story than the summary gave, if you don't terribly mind not finding them out for yourself. I just want to elaborate on what you're getting into if you decide to read this: this is about a teenage suicide bomber. I honestly didn't quite get that from the blurb--I couldn't figure out if it was just a post-apocalyptic storyline, or conspiracy plot, or what. The story is also structured to put the actual pieces together slowly, interspersing bare current-time scenes with events that happened in the past. I finally got an idea of the complete picture around page 50. 
That isn't to say, though, that it's badly written--quite the opposite. I have no problem saying that this is very well written and carefully structured. The "present" scenes span about a day, and between them the "past" scenes start ten years before and work up to months or weeks before, showing the life she's led that leads her to that present. Things are still developing up until the end. You get an unsettling idea early on that the narrator--Valley--is, if not unhinged, at least not a fully reliable narrator. Threads of rage, detachment, and deep-rooted paranoia run through her account, and crafted chess parallels run through the entire book. 
It's, overall, a deeply unsettling thing to read. It's not dystopian or post-apocalyptic either, really; it exists in some gray area that Valkyrie's state of mind doesn't allow us to fully pin down, but it's not overly futuristic. That bit adds to the unsettling nature, and I'm sure has a lot of literary weight. Finally, untangling whether there's truth in Valkyrie's conditioned beliefs about the black helicopters and Those People is nearly impossible. Overall, it's dark, bleak, and pulls no punches. For a 170-ish page book, it's incredibly intense and I'm sure would be conducive to re-reading to pull together more facets of the story.
I'll just say this: I didn't enjoy it--not that I think you're really supposed to, but I won't be re-reading this. It's incredibly intense, mature at times, and not recommendable for anyone under about 10th grade. I will say that it's very well-executed for what it is, and leave you to decide whether you want to try it. There's a copy at Kettleson.
Just be prepared.