Taking a shot at understanding.

I really, really enjoy nonfiction graphic novels that are not memoirs. Specific enough for you?

As previously noted, a lot of graphic novel memoirs seriously bum me out; tops on this list were David Small's Stitches and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. There's something about seeing challenging if not downright horrific childhoods and young adulthoods portrayed in pictures that I very nearly can't handle.

Logicomix But history and biography graphic novels? Love 'em. Another good case in point of this phenomenon is Apostolos Doxiadis's and Christos Papdimitriou's graphic novel Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth.* Although the authors admit the book is more "based on reality" than it is pure nonfiction (they provide a very nice note in the back, explaining how and when they deviated from pure fact), I decided it didn't really bother me. The book is a rather selective biography of the life of philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, and covers the overlap between the philosophy of logic and the science of mathematics.

Now, I'm not saying I got a lot of it. I certainly don't get the math stuff and most of the logic stuff just seems like semantic wrangling to me, but I must say that the graphic novel format, for whatever reason, makes me feel like I've got a shot at understanding some of the basics of what the authors are trying to say.** Although I most likely won't have time to follow the interest, it also somewhat motivated me to maybe someday read more about Bertrand Russell--his is one of those names I hear a lot but can never really place. (Just so you know: he was born in 1872 in Great Britain, the grandson of former Prime Minister Lord John Russell, became a mathematical logician and well-known author, later became a vocal anti-nuclear activist, and died in 1970.) So thumbs up on this one; it ranks right up there with Jim Ottaviani's historical/scientific graphic novels Fallout and Suspended in Language: Niels Bohrs's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped.

*Can't remember where I heard about this one. Lesbrarian, did you suggest I read it? If so, thanks!

**I did learn this: I don't think you want to be married to a logician.

No one should feel like this in their twenties.

My goal for the weekend: I have got to find some lighter reading material.

Last night I was looking for something new to read on my pile of library books, and my glance fell upon a slim book titled The Two Kinds of Decay. I had requested this book at some point, but I couldn't remember why I had asked for it or what it was about.

Decay Turns out it's a memoir of a young woman in her twenties, who suffered from mutliple bouts with a rare disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), which (as far as I can understand) is a disease in which the immune system attacks the healthy myelin around nerves, leading tingling and numbness of the extremities, and eventually difficulty breathing.

The author, Sarah Manguso, is also a poet, and that sensibility can be seen easily throughout her memoir, which is comprised of short chapters of short paragraphs, all displaying a masterful use of language. What's disturbing are the procedures she's often describing (such as apheresis, in which the plasma in her blood was replaced) with that economy of language:

"The fresh frozen plasma was thawed before it was infused. The four half-liter glass bottles of albumin were left at room temperature.

For the first twenty or thirty apheresis sessions, I lay under several blankets, which didn't help the cold but helped me think at least I was trying.

The temperature in blood vessels is warmer than room temperature, of course, by about thirty degrees Fahrenheit. I was very clowly infused with several liters of fluid that was thirty degrees colder than the rest of my body." (p. 39.)

And that's one of the less scary descriptions; it only gets worse from there. This is an unsettling book, and I won't tell you how it ends or what happens (although, mirroring my thought when reading the above of, "Christ, they can't warm the albumin up a bit first?", they do eventually address that issue). But it's quite different from anything else you'll read, and I would recommend it. I must say that I for one am impressed at Manguso's lack of hysteria, considering that she is a woman who knows a little something about idiot doctors and half-ass nurses.

But the fact remains: I need to find something lighter going into the weekend.

I hate people with multiple skills.

Take a book like David Watts's The Orange Wire Problem and Other Tales from the Doctor's Office. Watts is a practicing doctor, and the stories in this essay collection all come from his experiences working as a doctor. To which I say, what? It isn't enough that you have the skills and drive to be a doctor, you get to be a good writer, too? Leave something for the rest of us, would you, pal?

Orange I don't often read books about medicine, with the exception of medical thrillers by Robin Cook, which I used to eat up with a spoon (today's fun trivia: Rent the movie "Coma," based on Cook's first book, if you want to see Tom Selleck in a very early movie role). This is for a very good reason. Even before I had a not-fun surgery a couple of years back, the medical establishment gave me the heebies. It may be very wrong of me, but you know the way most people hate lawyers? That's the way I hate doctors. I recognize they're necessary but for the most part I never want to talk to one ever again. And nurses? Don't even get me started on nurses. Especially the evil ones that never call you back when they say they're going to.*

So reading this book was an education. For one thing, the essays are written in a rather dreamy, poetic style, with few quotation marks and (what seems to be) a thoughtful doctor's take on interactions with his patients. But the essay that most stands out in my mind is the one in which he describes his own experience as a patient, while undergoing a colonoscopy, titled "The Soft Animal of the Body." In the essay, he describes how he chooses no anesthetic (being a control freak), has chosen a doctor friend of his with years of experience to do the procedure, and how during the procedure, he suggests that the doctor turn him onto his back. This is what Watts normally does for his patients, as it helps minimize the pressure of the scope against the bowel walls. His dcotor responds only that it's okay. Meanwhile the nurse is relating the information that Watts's pulse rate is fluctuating alarmingly, and then you go to this:

"Time to stop, I said, as if from nowhere in particular. The words just popped out and surprised especially me. If I had had time or inclination I would have tried to imagine where that voice had come from.

No response.

George, I said.


And while I was figuring out what to say, the voice took over: PULL IT OUT.

There was a delay, then a soft, Yeah..."

And, later, as Watts was thinking about the procedure in the recovery room:

"I was thinking how in this situation, that of the first sustained low heart rate, I would have been out of that colon in a flash. A different appreciation of risk? A difference of style, I told myself.

Then I wondered: could it be that my style is determined by what the soft animal of my body knows about itself, knows about what it can take and cannot? And what it fears? I was astonished to learn that, despite my comfort with the whole idea of colonoscopy, my body had a different take on the process." (pp. 97-98.)

That really hit me, for some reason. I was interested that even when a doctor is telling a doctor to stop, they don't always listen as fast as they should. And it made me feel better about the soft animal of my body. Read this book. And next time you have to go to the doctor, I will hope you find a doctor who is respectful of the soft animal of your body, too.

*There are exceptions to prove the rule. I have been lucky enough to come across a few stellar doctors and nurse practitioners, and I'll say this: you appreciate them all the more after you deal with any of their multitude of lackluster colleagues.

Not sure about the subtitle, but otherwise, good science-y stuff.

Okay. Flu season may not be the best time to read a book titled The Invisible Kingdom: From the Tips of Our Fingers to the Tops of Our Trash, Inside the Curious World of Microbes.*

Microbe But I couldn't help it. I got it from the library because every now and then I like a good satisfying science read, and this was definitely that. In various chapters Idan Ben-Barak describes what microbes are ("any creature that is, individually, too small to be seen with the unaided eye"--including bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, and viruses), how they've been studied and used in experiments, how they move, how they affect us, and lots of other good creepy topics. It's just rigorous enough to be interesting and kind of challenging, but it's definitely science lite; topics are explained simply** and with a great deal of humor and enjoyable footnotes. Consider this tidbit, from the chapter on surprising discoveries about microbes:

"How do gut bacteria first enter the gut, though? A fetus inside the womb is sterile, and the initial transfer of microorganisms occurs during or shortly after birth. Eventually, in the first year or two of a child's life, they gradually build up stable, thriving gut flora." (p. 176.)

And the footnote for that piece of information is: "Note that I have tastefully refrained from using the words contamination, mother, and feces in this description, so as not to cause too much unease."

So yeah, I liked this one. But perhaps my favorite thing about it is a little present that came with it: for a long time I worked in the public library, and periodically people I knew there must still notice my name on holds, because when I opened this book there was a tiny little post-it with a "hello!" note on it from my friend, which I really enjoyed. But even without the note it would have been a good book.

*I am not a fan of overly long nonfiction subtitles, particularly when they don't add much to my understanding of the book's subject. This subtitle is too long and not particularly helpful. I also hate it when subtitles change from the hardcover to the paperback edition. What is that? Confusing and stupid, tht's what.

**Not as simply as the textbook I had in my high school Physics for Dummies class, which used rhyming to provide pronunciation help ("joule rhymes with pool"), but still, pretty simply.

A good graphic novel, but not one that I'm in love with.

I am a huge, huge Brian Fies fan.

His graphic novel Mom's Cancer is not only one of my favorite graphic novels, it is one of my favorite memoirs, and favorite books, full-stop. It was his take on his mother's battle with both lung and brain cancer, and a family story of how he and his siblings dealt with her illness. It was, of course, horribly sad, but it was also fantastic. The rare graphic novel that I loved without reservations, and in which the art and the text were easy to integrate, and which complemented each other.

So I was very, very excited to see that he had a new graphic novel out, titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? This one starts at the New York World's Fair of 1939, and charts the course of scientific and future discoveries and aspirations in different decades, including 1945, 1955, 1965, and 1975.

I did read the whole thing, but it turned out to be not for me.

Tomorrow This is no reflection on the quality of the work, which is once again very, very high. I love Fies's clean drawings, simple text, and how easy it is to integrate the two while reading. However, I have never been enthralled with science and progress* OR comics, which are two things that clearly had a big effect on Fies; in fact, this book is like an extended love letter to both. In fact, in between the chapters, Fies has inserted what appear to be classic comic books, titled "Space Age Adventures" and printed on what appears to be pulpy comic/newsprint pages. Unfortunately, the beauty of much of his work is lost on me, as I am not and never was a comic reader. (I am such a person of inaction that most action/adventure stories, which is what a lot of comics are, completely bore me.)

I was also a bit confused by the characters in the story, as Fies uses the same father/son pair in each decade, without the kid growing up for several of the first decades, which I found disconcerting. (He explains this in a foreword, commenting on the wonder of "comics time" which allows characters never to age or change.) Anyone else have this problem?

Still and all, though, Brian Fies is a super-talent. Immediately upon finishing this book I went and re-read my copy of Mom's Cancer, and appreciated him all over again. Give this one a try if you're interested in science or comics; I don't think you'll be disappointed.

*I am in fact usually quite cranky about both science and progress, although I am a fan of indoor plumbing.

And people wonder why I don't like doctors.

Yes, I know doctors are there to help you. I know when you need an operation or someone to clear an airway and jam a breathing tube down your throat, you have to go to doctors. That doesn't mean I have to like them.

Normal It probably doesn't help that I keep reading books like Normal at Any Cost: Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry's Quest to Manipulate Height (by Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove). The title and subtitle there don't leave a whole lot to the imagination; basically it's a book about how doctors and others in the medical profession have "treated" people whose final heights will fall outside the bounds of what they consider "normal." Told chronologically, the story first focuses on girls whose parents feared they were growing too tall (and would grow themselves right out of the marriage market--this was in the 1940s and 1950s) and who were given hormones to speed up their puberty and stop their growing. It then moves pretty smoothly into the discovery that human growth hormone could be extracted from human pituitary glands, and how that hormone was used to treat all sorts of children who seemed too short.


That's a very quick nutshell synopsis of the book; if you're interested in the subject, you should definitely pick it up, because the authors do a good job of telling a very detailed and complex medical story. (At times it was actually a little too detailed, and because I had been working on the book for a while and just wanted to finish it, I'll admit I did start skipping a few pages here and there.) But I can hit the salient points, and try to give an indication of why I found this book so, so interesting, and why it may be worth some of your reading time:

1. Jesus God, I don't know if they're still this way, but doctors in the 1950s and 60s certainly seemed a bit carefree about just injecting patients with any old thing to see how they'd react. That's how you got girls whose mothers worried they'd be over six feet tall receiving DES, a synthetic hormone with a chemical structure similar to that of DDT, and which was also used to prevent miscarriages (but which may have actually caused miscarriages).

2. When the doctors aren't the problem, parents are. There is much discussion in this book about kids who didn't want treatments--especially girls who weren't in a big hurry for puberty and boys who didn't feel particularly bad about being short--and the parents who pushed their doctors to prescribe "treatments" anyway.

3. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is how hormones used to be collected from the pituitary glands of cadavers, and how nobody really thought that was a problem--until, ahem, kids that had been treated with those pituitary hormones started dying from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (also known as the mad cow disease that affects humans). Would that be worth an inch or so of extra height? Nor is this story exclusively about America; the authors also discuss similar cases from Australia, France, and Great Britain.

4. The science of height prediction is unscientific in the extreme. Basically, your doctor has about as good a chance of predicting your kid's eventual height as the weatherperson has of predicting the weather a month from now.

5. Here's a surprise: pharmaceutical companies who are still selling growth hormones keep working to expand their markets, and are trying to make "shortness" a disease that qualifies for insurance coverage.

If you've got the stomach for it, it's a really interesting read. It's not a perfect book; sometimes it's a little dry, but all in all it's an eye-opener. I'll let the authors sum it up; this is what they have to say on the back cover: "In the end, short stature is a multibillion-dollar business that is still growing like a weed."

Marvelous engineering.

It was always my secret dream to marry an engineer.

You'll notice I've always been a pragmatic girl; I recognized early on I wasn't going to have the brains to BE an engineer, so I tweaked my dream accordingly. It didn't come true, but the fact remains I've always been a big fan of engineers. My brother is an engineer. I used to be an engineering librarian, and students training to be engineers remain the nicest group of students and people I've ever worked for. (In fact, when I left the engineering library for the public library, the members of the public were so shockingly mean, when compared to engineering students, that I cried after work the whole first month.)

Narrows So the other day when I was browsing the library stacks and found the book Marvels of Engineering, I thought, hey, I miss engineering. So I brought it home and spent a very enjoyable Saturday evening perusing it. I know. I'm the biggest nerd ever. But did you know that "in 1824, Joseph Aspdin concocted 'Portland cement' by burning a mixture of clay and lime. He had rediscovered the art of making cement, which was known to the Romans"? I thought not. It covers a ton of subjects: waterways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, skyscrapers, sports arenas, pyramids, and gothic cathedrals (among many others).

It's a great book, worth it for the pictures alone, but also for the explanatory text. It is, in short, the type of book you should buy if you have kids, and just leave it laying around for them to discover and look at. I may have missed the boat on marrying an engineer. But maybe if we have kids I can keep the dream alive by hoping they'll become engineers?

What I learned over the weekend.

I learned that it's really, really stupid to read some dark apocalyptic quasi-horror fiction right before bedtime.

I know. I'm a real genius.

Road2 I finally got around to reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and geez, if you're looking for scary imagery, depression, and cannibalism, do I have the book for you. As when discussing True Crime, "enjoy" is not really the word that can be applied to reading a book like this. But I did read the whole thing, and then spent a couple of nights working it out in my subconscious with nightmares. Yikes:

"He wrapped their coats each in turn around the trunk of a small tree and twisted out the water. He had the boy take off his clothes and he wrapped him in one of the blankets and while he stood shivering he wrung the water out of his clothes and passed them back. The ground where they'd slept was dry and they sat there with the blankets draped over them and ate apples and drank water. Then they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep." (p. 106.)

No, I'm not going to share any of the disturbing cannibal bits with you. I will not be held responsible for your nightmares. The story is simple: the end of the world is come, everything's destroyed and smoking, and a man and his son are out wandering the road, trying to make it to the coast, scavenging what they can to eat, and avoiding the few other humans still alive. And, if you want to know what the end of the world looks like, they're filming the movie: outside Pittsburgh.

In another interesting twist, Mr. CR spent the weekend reading The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a nonfiction account of what the world would look like, well, without us. Hm. I'm reading fiction and he's reading nonfiction? Up is down! Black is white! Maybe this is a sign of the end times. If it is, I can promise you I'm going to lay right down wherever I am and die. No walking to the coast with a grocery cart, avoiding other deranged and starving remnants of the human race, for this girl.

How far I got this weekend, and why.

After this weekend of reading, I'm going to have to start describing myself as flighty.  Fickle. Short-attention-spanned.

I would go on but I've lost my train of thought.

I started all kind of books this weekend.  I didn't finish them.  What follows is my very own walk of shame, or a recounting of how far I got in the books I read, and why I wasn't woman enough to finish them.

Title: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach. Pages read: 117. Discussion: The title says it all, really. No one can fault Mary Roach for dull titles (Stiff and Spook). And it was interesting. And well-written. And amusingly foot-noted. But by page 117, I'll admit it, I simply could not read about vaginas anymore.  I was wearying of penises too but up to page 117 Roach's narrative is decidedly vagina-heavy.

Title: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. Pages read: 109. Discussion: This was a tough one to give up, because I am starting to like Sedaris more and more as time goes on. I was completely bored by his earlier books Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked, but somewhere in the middle of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim he started to win me over a little bit. And I enjoyed the parts of this book that I read, including his essays on his boyfriend (boyfriend? significant other? lover? I'm not sure what word to use, as Sedaris simply refers to "Hugh" and seems to assume that everyone knows all about their couplehood by now) Hugh's traveling style, a horrifying but somehow still hilarious experience he and his siblings had with a babysitter, he and Hugh's first apartment and their neighbor, and many other completely unrelated topics.  My favorite story was when he described how his sister Amy takes him shopping:

"'Buy it.' This is my sister Amy's advice in regard to everything, from a taxidermied horse head to a camouflage thong. 'Just get it,' she says. "You'll feel better.'

Eye something closely or pick it up for further inspection, and she'll move in to justify the cost. 'It's not really that expensive, and, besides, won't you be getting a tax refund? Go on. Treat yourself.'

The object in question may be completely wrong for me, but still she'll push, effectively clouding my better instincts. She's not intentionally evil, my sister, she just loves to see that moment, the split second when doubt is replaced by complete conviction..." (p. 56.)

That little story ends with Amy talking him into a sweater from the women's department, which is truly hilarious.  And the above is very, very, very well-written. I know just that moment that Amy Sedaris likes, the doubt-replaced-by-conviction moment, and Sedaris describes it with a miracle of economy.  Really good stuff.  So why did I stop reading?  I don't know.  Even when I really like him, I find 100 pages of Sedaris is about all I need to get by. I'm checking these books out from the library, after all, not buying them, so I can afford to read around wantonly.

Title: Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler. Pages read: 149. Discussion: I really enjoyed the essays that I did read in Handler's collection. Better known as the host of E! network's Chelsea Lately and the author of a former memoir titled My Horizontal Life, about her collection of one-night stands, you can bet there's very little Handler won't say, which I enjoyed.  How she even managed to make getting hauled to jail on a DUI is beyond me (her sister had reported her for license fraud, as Chelsea had been using her older sister's ID before she turned 21, which is why she got thrown in jail). While there, I'll hand it to her, she does try to adjust:

"'What the fuck you thinking?' asked the woman in front of me waiting for the phone as she ran over and retrieved my sandwich from the trash. 'You can trade that for something.' Then she handed it back to me.

'What can I trade it for?'

'Candy, soda, pills, whatever,' she said. Finally, someone was speaking my language.

'What kind of pills?' I asked." (p. 57.)

Trust me when I tell you this woman is WILD.  Funny, but wild. And I can only read so much of that sort of thing before I start to get too nervous by proxy. Reading Chelsea Handler is like hanging out with a friend I had in college who was so seemingly unconcerned about her own personal safety that at one point she told me how she'd spent the previous night rambling around the north side of Milwaukee, at 2 a.m., in a formal gown, looking for the bus station to get back to Madison. She was exhilirating to know but exhausting to worry about.  Ditto with Chelsea Handler.

And there you have it. A weekend with very little closure, at least in the way of books. Here's hoping all the books you read this week are so good you'll have to finish them!