Happier to have you alive than dead: “Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date” by Katie Heaney

Here is a good tip I’ve learned: Don’t like anybody who won’t tell you happy birthday on your actual birthday. Someone who likes you, I think, will remember to take the time on the day you were born to say “Hey, happy birthday,” and in so doing, at least be willing to acknowledge that he is happier to have you alive than dead.

Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date by Katie Heaney
272 pages, Grand Central Publishing, January 2014
Humor

Sometimes I feel like everyone else in the world totally understands this dating thing, and I’m the only one who finds it completely baffling. I don’t know how to talk to people and I feel like I have to watch other people at the restaurant for social cues as to how a person on this strange thing called a “date” should act. Oh, the napkin goes ON your lap? Oh, you’re supposed to NOT have cocktail sauce all over your face? I’m like Jane Goodall studying the chimps.

Katie Heaney doesn’t get dating, either, which is a relief. There are, apparently, two of us completely baffled about how this works and what we’re supposed to be doing with our hands at any given time. It’s nice not to feel alone, right? Right.

Heaney’s book tracks her dating life from when she started elementary school to the present, covering crushes and near-misses and tragic romantic mishaps. It’s got a blog feel, and in reading her bio, she’s contributed to a number of blogs, so that’s where that came from. (I was actually alerted to this book by reading an exerpt somewhere online, but don’t bother asking me where, because I don’t ever remember things like that. I visit too many sites in one day. My head’s a mess.)

I started out really enjoying this. The humor was right up my alley; I very much enjoy when people can make fun of themselves in an intelligent way. Heaney’s a good writer, too.

But it got tedious, and quickly. What was funny, and self-deprecating, and kind of adorable, at first, starting being whiny and complainy and repetitive. I’m not saying I’m any better at finding someone to go home with at the end of the night…but I don’t whine about it quite so much. Or quite so publicly. Because there’s a fine line between “funny” and “this emo Facebook status was a terrible idea.”

And worst of all: the title’s not true. She HAS a date before the book’s over. (Sorry. That’s a spoiler, I suppose, but not a big one.) So the title really needs to be Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Boyfriend or else it just doesn’t make any sense.

I’m kind of torn, here. It kept me reading, but as it progressed, it annoyed me. So I don’t really know if I liked it overall, or didn’t. I suppose I can split the difference and just say it was middle of the road.

Here’s my thought. I think a lot of bloggers want to write a book. And bloggers are hot right now, especially humor bloggers. So I think there’s a possibily the powers that be over at the publisher jumped on this one without thinking it over too well, and she didn’t have a solid plan about how she was going to finish it. She had a solid beginning, and a so-so middle, and then the end just went downhill.

She’s not a bad writer, though. I think if she wrote about something else, it’d be readable. As it is, with this one, read until she leaves for college, then you’ve got every last permission of mine to put it aside. Just not worth your time. If you want emo, go read the status updates from your younger friends on Facebook. Same thing, only they’ll be briefer, so better for your attention span, you know?

The other will look at you: “Carthage” by Joyce Carol Oates

The phobia against looking at another person. For then, the other will look at you.

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
496 pages, Ecco, January 2014
Literary Fiction

I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates.

You know how some authors just have that voice? That sound to their writing. If you were given a sample of their writing – say, an unpublished page, with nothing telling you who wrote it – you’d know immediately which author had written it?

I feel like there are a few authors I’d know immediately from a sample of this sort. Stephen King; John Irving; Margaret Atwood; Peter Straub; Joyce Carol Oates.

She has a very distinctive way of writing, especially with dialogue. A lot of sentence fragments; a lot of hesitation, dashes, nervous laughter. Her men are all bluster; her woman are usually timid mice with moments of fire. The circumstances might change, but the characters mainly remain the same.

We Were the Mulvaneys remains my favorite of her books; never have I read a book that hits so close to the experience of a rape victim, that shame, the way it tears up a family and a community. I also love her Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is my Heart (and not only for the title, a quote from one of my favorite poems) and her Black Water (if you want a barely-fictionalized take on the Chappaquiddick incident, that’s the one for you. It’s heartbreaking.) Or Zombie, the grimmest little realistic serial killer novel you can get your hands on. And if you want to read one of the creepiest short stories ever written, here. Read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I just re-read it and got the shivers all over again. Arnold Friend, with his empty boots and holding you so tight you won’t even think of getting away. His just doing two or three things to you, that’s all. I have actual gooseflesh over this.

Carthage treads familiar territory for Oates, both setting-wise and plot-wise. In a small upstate New York town (there were so many places I recognized – this is set where I grew up, so we had Potsdam and St. Lawrence and Plattsburgh and Dannemora, with a little Albany thrown in for good measure) live the Mayfield family – Zeno and Arlette and their two daughters, Juliet and Cressida. Juliet is the pretty one. Cressida is the smart one. Juliet is engaged to Brett Kincaid, who, after 9/11, immediately signs up to serve in the military, and comes back a broken man. Once he’s home, Cressida disappears – and all signs point to the severely disabled war veteran as the culprit.

I had problems with this book. I love Oates, and I loved the setting, and as always, reading her voice made me happy – but the plot and the characters left a lot to be desired.

There was no one to root for. Zeno was a holier-than-thou blowhard; Arlette ended up ok, but was a bit of a non-entity; Juliet was similar to her mother, somewhat non-existent other than as a plot device; Brett was probably the most interesting character, but not used enough. And the book wasn’t about them, anyway. It was about Cressida. And Cressida was a terrible character.

There was no explanation for her. She seemed to be annoying just to be annoying. There was a mention here and there that she might be autistic, but that was dropped, as if Oates forgot about it. She was described in the most derogatory of terms, with frizzy hair, like a little monkey, like a boy (she apparently never developed); she was rude to everyone, she didn’t know how to socially interact and no one dared correct her when she was being rude, she purposely ruined people’s things and lives…

How am I supposed to feel any empathy for this person? And the book needed me to feel empathy for her to work. I just couldn’t. She was a spoiled brat whose only impetus for anger was that people thought of her as “smart” and not “pretty” like her sister. Who the hell CARES? I’d choose being the smart one over the pretty one any day of the week. The pretty one eventually fades; the smart one endures. Maybe you don’t realize that until you’re older, but still, that’s the reason for everything that happens in this book? Weak. Weak plot.

I can’t totally dislike the book. It kept me reading and interested throughout. I love Oates’ work. I’ll continue to read her. But this just wasn’t that successful for me. (And it seems a lot of people are agreeing with me, scanning reviews online.)

If you’re not an Oates person, I can recommend a lot of her books that are better for you, if you’d like to BECOME an Oates person. She’s written enough that there are a ton of starting points for you. I just wouldn’t make this one of them.

And everything was rainbows and kittens: is there a need for negative book reviews?

Recently, in the New York Times, there was a discussion between two authors on the subject of reviews. More specifically, whether or not there was a need for negative book reviews.

Apparently, for a variety of reasons, negative book reviews are being frowned upon. The book publishing industry is in trouble, so we shouldn’t pan books; we should only encourage people to read, not discourage them. There are so many good books to review, so we should concentrate on those, and not spend our time reviewing bad books. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s just mean. Isn’t there enough negativity in the world? Why create more?

I call bullshit, you guys.

Listen, I’m all for nice. I think the world could use a little more nice. I completely agree that there’s enough negativity in the world – most of all, on my beloved internet, where I tend to live – that putting more out there is something that needs to be thought about before you do it. (Please note: I’m all for some good-natured snark. But outright meanness? I just think you might find something better to do with your time.)

However, anyone that knows me knows – I’m also all for honesty.honesty

I take my writing very seriously. More so my reviews, both my book reviews and my theater reviews. And I’m not comfortable putting out a review of anything that I’m not honest about.

When I’m writing my theater reviews, I don’t have a choice to review or not to review the show. I’m assigned certain shows, and I have to write a review of them. Sometimes I write a good review, sometimes a bad one, depending on how I felt about the show (and all the accompanying things like the set, the costumes, the direction, the acting, and the list goes on.) If I can’t write a good review of a show, I just can’t. This tends to really upset the readers of the paper, and they write very scathing (and often poorly-written) comments on my review, sometimes calling me names. However, I can still sleep at night. I told the truth as I saw it.

Now, here, on my blog, I can choose what to review and what not to review. And, to some extent, I do; if I read a book that I don’t feel enough about either way (or I don’t think I could write a whole review for), I just write a brief review on Goodreads and leave it there.

I suppose I could do the same with bad books, right? I could just read the book (or even NOT read the book; write it off as a bad job and give up and move onto something else) and write “I didn’t enjoy this” on Goodreads and forget about it.

But why would I do that?

Before I read a book, I often do a search for it online. I read a few Goodreads reviews (or reviews on Amazon, or on book blogs I trust, or elsewhere) and this helps me make an informed decision about whether or not to read the book.

If there were no negative reviews of it, and I read it, and hated it, I’d be kind of sad I hadn’t been tipped off and I’d wasted time on the book. And I’d write a review, stating exactly what I didn’t like about it, in the hope I could save someone else from reading it.

I’m not saying I’d write things like “OMG THIS BOOK MY EYES MY EYES” or something. (OK, unless it was 50 Shades.) But I’d say exactly what I didn’t like. And WHY I didn’t like it.

Also, even if the publishing business is in trouble…why would a bad review hasten that along? Really, in my eyes, what it would do is warn people off one book, and onto another. It’s not like it’s going to stop them from reading forever. It’s just going to warn them off this PARTICULAR book. There are MORE books. This isn’t the ONLY book.

Also, you’re not doing authors any favors by not writing honest reviews of their work, be they negative OR positive. Once you publish a book, it’s out there. It no longer only belongs to you. It belongs to every reader who puts eyes to it – and they’re entitled to an opinion. They might like it; they might not. But to muzzle all negative reviews – well, not only are you not doing the author any favors (how can they improve if they’re not aware they’re doing anything wrong?) but you’re not doing the readers any favors (it’s only fair they know what they’re in for) and you’re certainly not doing the reviewers any favors (I don’t know about you, but I have a slight issue with being told what I can and cannot write about, book-wise, on my own blog.)

Do we need negative reviews? Well, here’s my answer to that. We need HONEST reviews. We need reviews that reflect exactly what the writer felt about the book they read – good, bad, or otherwise. Yes, there’s more than enough negativity out there – but there’s always a place for honesty. And as long as you’re honest with yourself and your readers, you can sleep with a clear conscience. And isn’t that always the best kind of sleep, after all?

(And the two women in the article, after much discussion, agreed with me on this point. Only they did it in a much more New-York-Timesey way. I’m more of a free-newspaper-you-pick-up-in-the-gas-station writer. Sorry to break it to you, all.)

Total author crush: Poppy Z. Brite

“This guy had wings,” said Ghost. “He flew away.” –Lost Souls

Lost Souls
384 pages, Dell, September 1992
Horror

Drawing Blood
373 pages, Delacorte Press, October 1993
Thriller

Stay Awake
10 pages, Camelot Books and Gifts, 2000
Short Story

I was barely eighteen and home for my first real break from freshman year of college. I’d taken the bus home. I ran into a drugstore to find something to read for the trip back (five or six hours, if I remember correctly, and without a book or something to make me look occupied, I’m a magnet for crazies who think I want to either chat or get hit on for the entire trip) and grabbed the book that looked most likely from the rack and quickly checked out.

I spent the entire trip wrapped up in Steve and Ghost; Missing Mile, North Carolina; neon-pastel New Orleans; poor, lost Nothing; a van filled with lunacy hurtling down back roads bringing disaster in its wake; Christian the bartender; Ann and her brittle bravado; ghosts and music and magic and blood.

I’ve read Lost Souls so many times at this point I could probably quote it to you, even though I have it nowhere near me at the time. This one’s written on the inside of my eyelids, on sleepless nights: “I believe in whatever gets you through the night…Night is the hardest time to be alive. For me, anyway. It lasts so long, and four a.m. knows all my secrets.”

I sent the book to a friend who was struggling, right before he lost himself and I never saw him again. I like to think that somewhere, wherever he went, he brought the book with him, that it was his pillow and his Bible and his comfort when he needed it. I know he knew plenty of nights, and maybe having this made them knowing his secrets not as terrible.

This book made me want to visit New Orleans; I’ve never given up the hope that someday I’ll make that a reality. I’m intelligent enough to know that Lost Souls’ New Orleans isn’t the one I’ll find there, but optimistic enough to think I’ll see a little of that magic peeking at me around the corners, if I look hard enough, if I turn my head quickly enough.

Drawing Blood came out not long after; it wasn’t about my beloved Steve and Ghost, but I loved it just the same. Love and loss and murder and longing and art; Trevor and Zach finding one another and holding each other up when they weren’t sure they could go on anymore. At the heart of Brite’s work is love, and loyalty; things I love, things I cherish, things I relate to. And there were some recurring characters in the book, which was like coming upon old friends; I actually remember cheering when they appeared on the page (much like I might do when seeing friends unexpectedly in real life.)

Brite has written plenty of other books, all of which I’ve read. For various reasons, I’ve liked (and even loved) some of the others (and I own most of them, some of them signed copies – I especially recommend the short story collections) – I think this is because you can always hear Brite’s voice, no matter the subject matter. But these two will always stand out to me. They came into my life at just the right time, when I was struggling to become an adult, moving away from my childhood, growing my own wings and learning to use them. They showed me other people who were struggling, and who made mistakes, and who were still heroic – sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake.

(True story: when I went to England junior year of college, some of Brite’s books came with me. In a major spillage accident – actually not my fault, for once – they were all ruined, and the perpetrator gave me money to replace them. So I have British versions of Lost Souls and one of the short story collections, and I love the way they look and their feel in my hands and the memories they bring me.)

It’s now, though, and we’re in a world where your favorite authors are only a screen away, right? Well, sometimes. It’s not like you can just reach out and touch Stephen King. (OK, you’ve come a little closer. You can tweet him now. I’m just thinking, sheer volume-wise, you don’t have much chance of him replying to you.) I’ve been following Brite’s blog since I started reading blogs (and just for the sake of clarity, Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin, so please don’t freak out at the change of name/pronoun) and once I joined Twitter I became his follower – and listen. When an author you’ve admired for almost 20 years replies to one of your tweets? YOU FREAK OUT. (OK, maybe YOU don’t. But I do. Because I’m a little bit of a spaz.) I also follow him on Facebook, and we’ve spoken there; he’s not as well-known, perhaps, as other authors (and is effectively retired from writing now) so he interacts regularly with his fans.

Which is how I got a signed copy of Stay Awake.

Stay Awake is one of the only Brite works I never got to read, and somehow, luckily, it had never been spoiled for me. It was a 10-page chapbook continuing the story of Steve and Ghost and oh, how I wanted it. But it was an extremely limited run, and I’d never been able to find it online (because who would part with their copy? Seriously, it’s become a collector’s item.) Martin blogged that he had found a number of copies he’d put away and was selling them online, and could personalize them, if we’d like. I leapt on that like a kangaroo released from…um…wherever it is kangaroos might be released from. Kangaroo court, maybe. LEAP.

And not long after, I had a copy of my long-awaited Stay Awake in my hands. (Signed. To AMY, no less. SIGH TOTAL AMAZING HAPPINESS.) I saved it for the new year; I thought it was an excellent book to start the year with. I was right. I opened it and started reading and I was eighteen again; it was ten pages right after Lost Souls ended, and it took things in a direction I hadn’t seen them going. (Maybe a direction I wouldn’t have taken them, but I’m not the author. I’m just the consumer, and I’m not complaining, just surprised.) My only complaint is, ONLY ten pages. I’m never going to know any more about Steve and Ghost (well, there’s one brief story about them in one of the collections) so I wanted more. Of course I did. Martin has complained that people will always want more Steve and Ghost; no matter what he wrote after Lost Souls, no matter how good he thought it was, people would always say, “But when are you going to write about Steve and Ghost again?” And that has to be disheartening, especially when you don’t have any more stories about them to give. When you’re tapped out. When you’re trying to put out more work, but it’s something else, and people are appreciative, but keep saying, “But what about…?” Yeah. I get it.

Painting of Nothing from “Lost Souls” by Billy Martin, available in his Etsy shop

However, I’m one of the “but what about…?” people. I’ll admit it. I’ve read everything else he’s ever written…but I originally fell in love with Steve and Ghost, and that kind of love, man, that lasts, you know?

Someday I’ll go to New Orleans; I’ll walk through the streets, I’ll marvel at the architecture and have some beignets and muffuletta and look for magic and ghosts and thank Billy Martin for planting the idea in me that I needed to visit this city, at least once, before I leave the world; I’ll throw in some thanks for his beautiful words along the way. I have certain authors I feel very loyal to; they’ve become more than icons, more than admired – they’ve become part of my extended family. He’s one of those people. And I love having him here, giving me his dark, twisted worldview and showing me that you can be broken, and you can be forgotten by the majority of the world, but you will find your people. And those people will love you, and love you, and love you.

I never asked to be a hero: “Feed (Newsflesh: Book 1)” by Mira Grant

I never asked to be a hero. No one ever gave me the option to say I didn’t want to, that I was sorry, but that they had the wrong girl.

Feed (Newsflesh: Book 1) by Mira Grant
608 pages, Orbit, May 2010
Horror

This one’s been recommended to me for heaven’s knows how long, but I actually ended up reading it by mistake. No! True facts!

Heather and I wanted to do a readalong. (And we’re still planning on doing one, if I don’t Keystone Kops my way through the next one.) She sent me a list of books she hadn’t read; I said, “Ooh! I’ve been wanting to read Feed!” so we both got it and started reading and she sent me the first email about it and I was all, “Oh, I AM SO EXCITED, wait, what the…this didn’t happen…” and I realized she’d been reading M.T. Anderson’s Feed and I’d been reading Mira Grant’s Feed and I felt like SUCH AN ASS because it CLEARLY STATED on her list which Feed she was going to read but apparently I had my mind on this one because I’d been wanting to read it. But, since Heather is the best, she didn’t get upset. She laughed and laughed. Which is just one small part of the reasons I love her, and also, whew!

And listen, before you get all up-in-arms, people who’ve read this…I know, it’s not really horror. But it’s not really a political thriller, either, or solely action-adventure, or sci-fi. Dystopian future fiction, maybe, but is that even a genre? (And if it’s not, shouldn’t it be by now?) I didn’t know how else to categorize it, so I stuck it in horror, but it’s really so much more.

George and Shaun, siblings and bloggers in a future overrun by zombies (George is short for Georgia, and she is amazing, and I love her to bits) and their fellow blogger, Buffy (just a nickname, but she’s blonde and kicks ass – wonder where she got THAT moniker?) run a news blog that’s got decent readership (newspapers are all but dead, and bloggers are the new journalists.) They are chosen by one of the frontrunning candidates for president to cover his campaign, and their site (and popularity) blows up. They travel with Senator Ryman on the campaign trail and things start to get newsworthy – and if you’ve watched or read anything about journalists following a big story, you know their lives aren’t always safe.

I don’t want to say another word, plot-wise. I don’t want to spoil this for you.

Here are things I’ll tell you:

  • George and Shaun’s bond is amazing, I adore them both, and I felt like I knew them about ten chapters in. I wanted to spend time with them. I thought about them when I wasn’t reading. Grant has a beautiful way with characterization, and her characters were fully three-dimensional – and this included the fact that she wasn’t afraid to let them screw up, fail, or do things that made them less than perfect. And I LOVE that in a character.
  • Grant’s world-building in this book was fantastic. It wasn’t cookie-cutter zombie fiction. She made it her own. There are things that are changed from the canon just enough to make it believable, but not so much that you roll your eyes (I’m looking at you, Twilight, and your sparkly vampires. Although, let me say, deviating from the canon a lot, when done well, is not a bad thing. Warm Bodies deviates from the zombie canon a HELL of a lot, and I adored that. I guess it’s just a matter of how good of a writer you are.)
  • I loved the political plot. You may not know this about me, but behind-the-scenes political things fascinate me. I think I was a campaign manager in another life or something. I loved seeing how the campaign worked, how the press navigated it, everything you don’t normally see as a normal citizen seeing the campaign from the front end.
  • There were three different points where I cried. None of these were little-weepy cries. All three of these were I AM WEEPING cries. One of them, I’m going to admit to you, was one where a bit of a wail came out. I get a little misty at books, when they’re done well, but it’s not often they make me make sobbing out-of-control NOISES. Well-played, Grant, well-played.

There are two more books in the series – I’ve heard they’re not as strong, but I’ll still read them. I want to know more about this world, and these people, and what happens next. I’m hooked. (Although, can we slap my library website on the wrist? I went to reserve Book 2, and Book 3 popped up by accident. Before I could click away, I saw the BIGGEST SPOILER EVER in the one-sentence description for Book 3. Like, one I can’t bounce back from. One that’s going to color my reading of Book 2. Thanks a lot, library.)

Just when I think there’s a glut of a certain thing in the market (zombie books, for example) I manage to be pleasantly surprised (and blindsided by tears tears OMG ALL THE TEARS) by something wonderful. I love when that happens. Highly recommend this one if you like politics, dystopian fiction, zombies, strong sibling bonds, excellent characters, action-adventure, or just damn fine books that’ll keep you up nights wanting to know what happens next.

Choose not to swim: “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts

How does a person jump in the water…and choose not to swim?

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
152 pages, Theatre Communications Group, February 2008
Play

Raise your hands: how many of you knew this was a play before it was a movie?

I’m hoping for lots of hands. That would make me all kinds of happy.

I was interested in seeing this movie, and friend D. (who is my MOST theatery friend – as in, he’s a talent agent, and lives in New York City, and knows the fanciest of people, but is still the same person I met when I was 17, somehow, which I love about him) said, “Please read or watch the play first, because it’s brilliant, and the movie has issues.” When D. talks, especially about theater, I listen.

(Also, I love Tracy Letts. Friend N. and I went to see the movie version of Bug years ago, and we were blown away, and I’ve read the play since. Letts has a way with ugly. He gets beneath the skin of things and shows us what we’re afraid of seeing, or what we avert our eyes from. And I love him for that. I’d recommend you read the play of Bug, but the movie’s not a bad choice, either. Fairly faithful and independent enough that it was able to keep some of the flavor that was intended.)

On the surface, everything’s very middle-class-solid in the Weston house. (I’d love to see this onstage; the set directions make it seem so beautifully shabbily grand.) We meet Beverly, the patriarch, and Violet, his wife; Beverly’s an alcoholic poet (ah, yes, I’ve known a few of those…) and Violet’s dying of cancer and has a mean pill addiction. When Beverly disappears, their children and extended family show up to provide support for Violet, and we meet the rest of the family: Beverly and Violet’s three children, Ivy, Barbara, and Karen, and their respective spouses, fiancés, and children, as well as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law and their son.

Family reunions. Nothing like them, right? Gather around the home fires, which we’ve kept burning for you, kiddos, and we’ll tell you a story, but probably not the one you want to hear; not the one about how much we miss you, how amazing you were as a child, and how special you are to us, but the one about old wounds that have festered, old secrets kept that are just coming to light, and how when you left, you really abandoned us, and that’s never been far from our minds. It may not be a story you want to hear, but it’s a story, by God, you’ll listen to. You’re back home, and you’ll do as you’re told.

This is a brilliant play. Better have been; damn thing won a Pulitzer. I’m really curious about the movie, but will wait for DVD; the version that now lives in my head is better than any movie version that could exist (and, although I love him? Benedict Cumberbatch is not at all right for the part in which he was cast. The women were cast well, I think, but Cumberbatch as a bumbling Red-State screw-up who still lives at home and watches a lot of trash television? I’m sorry. Not with THOSE cheekbones. Man looks like a beautiful alien statue come to life. It just doesn’t work.)

(Also, for those of you that love poetry, there’s poetry in here. And some beautiful, beautiful writing. Letts is an amazing writer.)

If you see the movie, please give the play a read, too, and compare the two; not only will you be reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, you’ll have something to talk about at parties. It’ll make you seem super-intelligent. “Ah, yes, but have you read the play of August: Osage County? I don’t know that Streep made the choices Letts intended in her portrayal of Violet, although I won’t fault her acting; the woman is, as always, flawless.” Right? You’re totally going home with the hot librarian chick/fella after THAT party! And you have me to thank!

Has a gentler euphemism ever been coined?: “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” by Mary Roach

In the history of medicine, has a gentler euphemism ever been coined for the act of excretion?

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
354 pages, W.W. Norton and Company, April 2013
Nonfiction

I like Mary Roach.

I feel like Mary Roach and I could hang out and have dinner and be wildly inappropriate together. Not, like, throw straw wrappers at the waiters and laugh loudly enough to bother the other patrons, or anything. But say things like, “Well, what DOES happen to a person that dies unattended in a hot apartment and isn’t discovered for a week?” and neither of us would think the other person was insane or ghoulish, just scientifically curious about such things. (Because, seriously, things like this fascinate me. I mean, sure, they also gross me out a little, I’m only human. But it’s more of a “Ew, gross, TELL ME MORE!” thing. Don’t judge.)

I’ve read all but a couple of Roach’s other books and really enjoyed them. The science behind sex and the science behind death (Bonk and Stiff?) Yes, please. And it’s not just the science. These books are funny. She loves a good euphemism. She loves to make the uptight sciency-types squirm, but not really on purpose, just by being really curious and asking a lot of questions. And she loves when someone’s last name matches their profession (Mr. LeBeouf being a cattle inspector, for example. OK, fine, this is really funny if you speak French. Oui, oui, c’est vrai!)

I liked this one as well – maybe not as much as the other two I’ve read, but listen, I don’t know if anything can measure up to sex and death. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. (And I’m obsessed with death, and who doesn’t like sex?)

This book is about everything related to digestion – from our mouths all the way down to our…well, waste-removal systems. That would be taken care of by Dr. Colón. Heh.

I like things that people consider icky? So I was totally into this. Things like an entire chapter about a man who had a wound heal improperly so scientists could watch him digest food THROUGH A HOLE IN HIS SIDE ZOMG? Totally made me exclaim AND marvel. This is a book about burping and farting and different forms your poo can take and constipation and special underwear so you won’t gas out your significant other and how it’s totally ok to lick spit off your lips, but it is NOT ok to lick spit off your arm once you’ve spit on it because it’s a cultural taboo to re-ingest your own saliva. (Also kind of gross, but that’s beside the point.) If these kinds of things gross you out, probably avoid this. But they’re not egregiously gross. It’s SCIENCY. It’s the science of how all these things work. How our saliva helps with the breaking down of our food; how our stomach works; how the intestines work; how waste is produced. I love things like this. I mean, it’s not like you can SEE in there. You need someone to tell you what’s happening. And Mary Roach does! In a very funny sciency way!

I’m more of a fiction person (I always will be) but I’ve been reading a few more non-fiction books at the start of this year, and am glad I found this one. Now I know that the scientific term for my stomach growling is borborygmus, and doesn’t that make you all feel so much smarter? Yes. Yes, it does. You are WELCOME.