June Books To Read: The Martian, Spousnomics, Tell-Tale Brain

June Books To Read: The Martian, Spousnomics, Tell-Tale Brain

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

This novel has quite a few things going on. The plot is that of an adventure sci-fi story. A mission goes awry and a NASA crew leaves behind one of their astronauts on Mars. He is stranded on the red planet and needs to figure out how to survive/escape. Fortunately for him, he is an engineer & a botanist. Unfortunately for us, the writing comes off as a DIY blog written by an engineer who just happens to be living on Mars.

It is an exciting story. There are explosions. And near-death situations. Space is scary (although the main character never seems to be scared). This isn’t a story about aliens or monsters. But, a la Gravity, is about being alone in space. The absolute only person that is on a planet. It is crazy to think about. That’s probably why the main character rarely thinks about it. He also rarely expresses any emotion that isn’t the excitement of a 15-year old girl or sarcasm.

The problem is the narrative. The novel’s first sixty pages or so are told in a diary format. This is the astronaut’s log. So we get to learn about everything after he’s already done it. Brilliant strategy for a first-time author. This means all Weir had to do was tell the reader what happened. Instead of showing what happened, like good writers are supposed to do. (Here is an example)

The reader never feels suspense if one of his macguyver-esque schemes was going to work or not, because the beginning of every diary entry gives it away. “I didn’t blow up! Now let me tell you what I did.” This is easy writing but not very interesting as a reader. To make matters worse, Weir changes the narrative numerous times. Abruptly, the story switches to the third-person at NASA headquarters. I’m guessing the author didn’t think the whole “diary” narrative through but didn’t want to go back and change everything. It switches between the astronaut first-person and the NASA third-person a lot, especially towards the end. Then, for no real reason, there are a few paragraphs that are about the astronaut but in the third person. It was very odd to read.

Again, the plot is great and creative. They are going to make this a movie and I can definitely see why. I actually think I would love the movie. See, a big part of the book is the Macguyver-esque solutions the main character comes up with to survive. It is believable since he is an engineer-botanist. And if you too are an engineer-botanist, you would love this book. But I’m not. So, I don’t need a technical manual to growing potatoes or creating water. It is neat and interesting. But half of the book is basically non-fiction. It’s not suspenseful or even interesting. It’s also easy writing because it makes for lots and lots of filler.

But still the plot is so good! Which doesn’t make up for the fact that the main character has zero depth to him. It’s amazing because the reader is with this stranded astronaut on Mars for over a year. A year! Yet, he never talks about holidays in an emotional context. Thanksgiving is mentioned because he finds potatoes to eats. He doesn’t actually talk about feeling lonely on Thanksgiving.

There is no mention of his birthday. No talk about missing his friends or family. Everything is a joke to him. I don’t even know if he was single or married. He joked about wanting to get laid. But never discussed wanting human contact. Never mentioned being sad in an emotional way. There were statements, “It’s very lonely here.” But again, this is the author simply telling us the character is lonely. We never see him sulking around the ship. Or reminiscing while looking out the window.

I wanted the main character to survive because he’s a human being but there was definitely no emotional connection there. I will bring up Gravity again because I felt the emotional aspect there was a bit forced. But after reading this, I realize that a survival story needs that to work.

Fortunately, I’m certain Hollywood will trim down some of the technical engineering stuff & throw in a love interest somewhere.

Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Sci Fi
Rating: 2/5
Summary: An engineer astronaut is lost on Mars and Macguyver’s his way to survive.

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

Doug Harvey is one of three umpires in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I did not know that until I read They Called Me God. I’m a sucker for memoirs and this was no exception. It was definitely geared more towards a baseball fan, as there were some aspects of the game I wasn’t really sure about. But it’s more so about his life and early baseball. That is definitely fascinating.

The writing was a bit simplistic and repetitive but I get it. The guy’s an umpire not a writer. His personality does come through in the writing. He seemed like a very loyal/fair person. Sometimes to an extreme but he never apologizes.

There were lots of aspects of the profession that were interesting to learn about. And he definitely has an unique story to share. Even if you’re not a baseball person, I still recommend this.

Author: Doug Harvey & Peter Golenbock
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Memoir of one of baseball’s greatest umpires.

Spousonomics

After I finished Spousonomics, I learned they reprinted it with a different title, It’s Not You, It’s The Dishes. Dumb name. I doubt I would have read it with that on the cover. Thankfully I didn’t see that one because I really did enjoy this book.

It is sort of marriage self-help but the economics angle really changes things up. I’m not anywhere near married right now and still found the book helpful. You can think of most of the situations in relation to standard human interaction. Many of these things come up in every day life all the time. Loss-aversion. The hot-cold empathy gap. It doesn’t just have to be for economists. It’s an interesting different way of thinking about relationships.

Honestly, I’m giving the book a good rating mainly because it taught me the term “limerence”. Which is essentially that “crazy in love” feeling. Or “butterflies.” Or that “magical first kiss.” I never knew it had an actual name!

Whether you’re in a relationship or not, Spousonomics is a light-read interesting book bringing economics into real-life situations.

Author: Paula Szuchman & Jenny Anderson
Genre: Non-Fiction / Relationships / Economics
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Interesting take on personal interactions with an economics angle.

Tell-Tale Brain

I am such a sucker for these neuropsychology books. I’ve read several now. One of them actually cited Tell-Tale Brain so I was looking forward to reading it. It got a little bit heavy toward the end. But over-all is quite readable for someone with zero neurology background.

There were so many fascinating topics discussed! The book starts out talking about Phantom Limb Syndrome. This is when an amputee can still feel their amputated limb. Sometimes it itches or it is in pain. They don’t visually see an arm where there is not one. But they do truly feel it. Parts of the brain truly think the limb is still there. The author was one of the first to discover a therapy to help with this.

He discovered that you could place a mirror next to a patient so it would reflect the real arm. This way it visually looks like there are two arms. Surprisingly, this actually tricks the brain! Many patients, especially over time, said that when seeing the other arm in the mirror, the pain in the “limb” would ease. Or disappear completely. Incredible! Our brains are weird!

One of the other super interesting conditions mentioned is Blindsight. Now, I had heard of this before. But hadn’t actually realized how it worked. The author describes a situation where he is sitting with a patient who is completely blind. He shines a small light and asks the blind patient to point to where the light is. Even though the patient cannot visually see the light, they correctly identify the position of the light most of the time. Far more times than to be considered “a lucky guess.”

This is explained in the book; I’ll paraphrase a bit. When viewing something, that information goes on a journey through our brains to our eyes where the image is actually shown to us. Of course this happens so fast we don’t even know it. When blind, part of this journey is no longer working, but some of it is. The brain can still see and process the information. It’s just that it cannot pass that information along to the eyes.

There are many other weird/interesting stories about the weird/interesting things our brains do. I really enjoy this topic and recommend the book if you do too.

Author: V. S. Ramachandran
Genre: Non-Fiction / Neuro-psychology
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Interesting studies of how weird our brain really is
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