Sunday, November 20, 2005

Spook: Book Review

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, is a fast moving, very funny book, though you probably wouldn't expect a book on what happens to our souls (or whatever makes up a person's personality) after death to be so engaging. Unless of course you've already read her previous bestseller - Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - in which case you already know about Roach's ability to ferret out bizarre and strangely fascinating stories.

Each chapter of Spook reads well as a free standing essay. Her topics range from an account of a reincarnation investigation in India, a history of the discovery of sperm and "ensoulment", ectoplasm and how a talented medium can produce it from various bodily orifices, descriptions of historical & modern devices to measure various spiritual phenomena, to studies on near death experiences. I think my favorite chapters are the one on how EMFs (electromagnetic fields) affect human perception and can either produce hallucinations of ghostly presences, or (if you are a believer) make humans more sensitive to psychic emanations, and the chapter about infrasound, pipe organs, and ghosts, complete with a link* for you to test your reaction to an 18 Hertz tiger roar.

Spook is filled with digressions and asides**, some of which are far from the original topic, but are enormously entertaining. She is honest (and sometimes a bit snide) about her reactions to the various studies and the people she meets, and while that may turn some readers off, it made it more personal and readable for me. The only thing I really missed, which I realize I've now complained about in many of the books I've reviewed, was an index. It took me forever to track down the story about Tesla, Edison, and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant in 1903.

As one of Roach's interviewees notes, between the genuinely true and outright faking lies a wide middle ground of unconscious delusion. Roach includes many engrossing stories that are clearly in the latter two categories, and perhaps...maybe...a few that may belong in the true, or least presently unexplainable, group.

*Click on the speaker icon in the 5th paragraph down. For the best effect, turn your computer speaker WAY up. Be prepared to jump, even if you know it's coming.

**For more interesting tangents, see the recent interview with Roach at Powell's Books.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

First Snowfall, Tomato Watches, and Birthdays

We had our first real snowfall today, where the air was filled with big blowing flakes for a couple of hours. There wasn't enough to shovel or even to sweep, but the edges of the streets and sidewalks and the leaves that blew back into our yard after being raked to the curb last weekend all have a little white on them.

Just a few nights ago we had a "tomato watch" and a thunderstorm. That's what my daughter calls tornados - tomatoes - which makes it hard to stop laughing and collect flashlights and clear a safe space in the basement.

My kids will turn 9 and 4 in the next two week period on either side of Thanksgiving, so I'm going to be making many cupcakes for school treats (chocolate, with "lots of sprinkles - the long kind, not the little ball-like ones") and doing more traditional mom work and less reading and blogging than I'd like.

But I would like to highlight The Mom Salon, which bills itself as a place "where women find the smartest mom blogs". It is just getting started, and has a few rough edges, but it could be a great way find other mom bloggers both geographically and according to their interest in topics like academia, adoption, cooking, feminism, infertility, knitting, politics, and work.

And finally, the 3rd Carnival of Feminists is up, showcasing reasons to thank a feminist, giving many insights into women's lives in other cultures (including that of the US in the 1970's), looking at female computer geeks, "the fear, the guilt, the worries, the organization, and the sheer hard work that goes into child-rearing", and many other perceptive and surprising looks at how our gender affects our lives.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Goodnight Nobody: A Novel

Jennifer Weiner's new book is a bit different from her previous novels. Good in Bed, in particular, is often pigeonholed as chick lit, especially by those who decry novels with male-female relationships that end happily ever after. Goodnight Nobody is more of a mystery, despite the subtitle that declares it "A Novel". But it's a lot more substantial than a "mystery with Mommy as sleuth and social commentator". And I don't mean to disparage Ayelet Waldman's "Mommy Track" mysteries, which I find breezy, insightful, and funny.

But Goodnight Nobody is sharper satire, like something like you would expect of Jodi Picoult's characters if they were living in Judith Warner's Perfect Madness (or perhaps on Desperate Housewives, but I haven't managed to catch an episode of that yet). The stay-at-home moms at the center of Weiner's story have left New York City and their careers to live in safe, upscale Connecticut McMansions, where concern for appearances, social status, and the cult of "The Good Mother" seem to predominate.

Initially, I thought the book was interesting but a bit trite and overdrawn, like David Brook's Bobos. It's fun to recognize your neighbors (or note that your neighbors couldn't be more different) in the first chapter, but how much more can you really say about latte drinking, Pilates practicing, SUV driving, Bugaboo stroller using moms? Some social trend stereotyping is better suited for newspaper columns than full length books. I'm guessing that goes for Maureen Dowd's latest - Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide - too.

As with Weiner's other books, the characters get more complicated and occasionally surprising as the book continues. Weiner reveals a fine understanding of women's friendships, how family relationships can change when offspring enter the picture, the alienation and ambiguity many stay-at-home mothers feel about their circumstances, and how easy it is to prejudge people. Insights into feminism, politics, and conflicts between generations are deftly drawn into the picture.

In the middle of the book, the storyline jumps back and forth between (the main character) Kate's past and present. The backstory describes her relationship with the intriguing (unavailable, then unwilling to commit, shower-attachment-fantasy-hot, blues-lovin') guy next door, and then how she met her (now) perpetually absent husband and came to have three kids under four years old. The time jumps were distracting, but not enough to derail my need to find out how the story ended and what happened to these people. The violence and death that is usually downplayed in "cozy" murder mysteries had a real impact here, and Weiner didn't tie everything up in a nice little bow in the traditional mystery book conclusion. Perhaps that makes this more of a novel and less of a mystery. She did deliver a snarky surprise plot punch at the end, while leaving the characters' future relationships unclear - providing ample room for sequels.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

2nd Carnival of Feminists...

is up at Personal Political. How appropriate! And it's utterly fascinating, with links from all over the world to many thought provoking, intelligent discussions. How can anyone think that feminism is through?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More on Christian Pumpkins

Sometimes you can carry an analogy only so far before it becomes ludicrous:

Christians are like Jack O' Lanterns:

God picks you from the pumpkin patch and brings you into his home. He washes off all the dirt on the outside that you got from being around all the other pumpkins. He cuts off the top and takes out all the yucky stuff on the inside. He removes the seeds of sinfulness and carves you a new smiling face. He puts his light inside of you to shine for all to see.You can either stay outside and rot on the vine or have Jesus come inside and become something new and bright!

Is This a Trick or a Treat?

My son got an interesting little booklet in his pumpkin bucket while out trick or treating last night. It's a colorful story about Peter, who plants a pumpkin seed, takes care of it, and then...

Peter held the pumpkin tight,
Sliced the top off with a knife.

Peter reached into the goop,
Pulled out slimy pumpkin soup.

Peter carved a smiling face,
Set a candle right in place.

Peter's pumpkin shone with light,
Chased away the gloomy night.

You are like a pumpkin, too!
Jesus picks you, washes you;

Takes away the slime of sin,
Lets his light of love shine in.

There's a sticker from a local church in the front, and a letter to parents and teachers in the back, urging them to "turn the most familiar symbol of the holiday - the jack-o'-lantern - into a symbol of faith!"

I'm not offended by this offering, but I do find it strange. I know that there are fundamentalist Christians out there who think that Halloween and its trimmings are satanic and ought to be shunned. Apparently (and happily), our neighbors aren't so extreme, but Shine, Smiling Pumpkin's attempt to appropiate a Halloween symbol is a bit irritating and quite unintentially funny, especially when Jesus pops up on the last page of the book to wash the pumpkin-like "slime of sin" from Peter. The company's "Faith Pops" and "Scripture Smarties" are just bizarre. I think I'll stick with a Snickers sans scripture.