stuff I read

Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women by Lyz Lenz

An impassioned and irreverent argument for dismantling our cultural narratives around pregnancy.
The U.S. has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, a rate that is increasing, even as infant mortality rates decrease. Meanwhile, the right-wing assault on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy has also escalated. We can already glimpse a reality where embryos and fetuses have more rights than the people gestating them, and even women who aren’t pregnant are seen first and foremost as potential incubators.

In Belabored, journalist Lyz Lenz lays bare the misogynistic logic of U.S. cultural narratives about pregnancy, tracing them back to our murky, potent cultural soup of myths, from the religious to the historical. In the present she details, with her trademark blend of wit, snark, and raw intimacy, how sexist assumptions inform our expectations for pregnant people, whether we’re policing them, asking them to make sacrifices with dubious or disproven benefits, or putting them up on a pedestal in an “Earth mother” role. Throughout, she reflects on her own experiences of being seen as alternately a vessel or a goddess–but hardly ever as herself–while carrying each of her two children.

Belabored is an urgent call for us to embrace new narratives around pregnancy and the choice whether or not to have children, emphasizing wholeness and agency, and to reflect those values in our laws, medicine, and interactions with each other.

Local author alert: Lyz Lenz lives up the road from me. Well, up the interstate. Welcome to Iowa. And I read a lot of her articles in the Gazette and other media. I really liked her previous book God Land so was looking forward to her examination of pregnancy and motherhood in America.

Belabored is really well-written. Lenz uses a combination of memoir and reportage to chronicle the many ways the deck is stacked against pregnant people in America. She covers the whole gestation, starting from perceived virginity or sexual availability of women through pregnancy and then post-pregnancy (the “fourth trimester”) as well as pregnancy loss. Lenz covered the historical aspects really well. She also made a real effort to cover racial disparities – Black women in American suffer from many times higher rates of complications and poor outcomes than white women – and LGBTQ+ issues in pregnancy and parenthood, since cis women are not the only uterus-owners who might carry a pregnancy (Lenz acknowledges the lack of inclusive language around pregnancy and motherhood as well).

Lenz’s own memoir of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood is woven throughout this book, so the book is structured somewhat linearly around her own life. She’s given birth to two children, so writes from that experience, but also suffered a miscarriage and recounts how she is now working through the emotional fallout of a sexual assault in college. [Brief content warning: Lenz doesn’t pull her punches; if pregnancy loss, sexual assault, etc. are hard topics for you then make sure you take care of yourself while reading this book.] She tells her own story in a very powerful way. However, I thought that perhaps there could have been a stronger conclusion or presentation of issues facing pregnant people, parents, and etc to tie everything together. The research she did was very good, so her information is solid. (This might just be the scientist background talking.)

Belabored is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

stuff I read

The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking

43453744Summary from Goodreads:
What’s the actual secret to happiness? Great memories! Meik Wiking—happiness researcher and New York Times bestselling author of The Little Book of Hygge and The Little Book of Lykke—shows us how to create memories that make life sweet in this charming book.

Do you remember your first kiss? The day you graduated? Your favorite vacation? Or the best meal you ever had?

Memories are the cornerstones of our identity, shaping who we are, how we act, and how we feel. In his work as a happiness researcher, Meik Wiking has learned that people are happier if they hold a positive, nostalgic view of the past. But how do we make and keep the memories that bring us lasting joy?

The Art of Making Memories examines how mental images are made, stored, and recalled in our brains, as well as the “art of letting go”—why we tend to forget certain moments to make room for deeper, more meaningful ones. Meik uses data, interviews, global surveys, and real-life experiments to explain the nuances of nostalgia and the different ways we form memories around our experiences and recall them—revealing the power that a “first time” has on our recollections, and why a piece of music, a smell, or a taste can unexpectedly conjure a moment from the past. Ultimately, Meik shows how we each can create warm memories that will stay with us for years.

Combining his signature charm with Scandinavian forthrightness, filled with infographics, illustrations, and photographs, and featuring “Happy Memory Tips,” The Art of Making Memories is an inspiration meditation and practical handbook filled with ideas to help us make the memories that will bring us joy throughout our lives.

I received a copy of The Art of Making Memories for review last fall (sorry so late, but thanks William Morrow!) and decided that now (yay, COVID-19 isolation, ugh thanks I hate it) would be a good time to give it a read.

This is a very pretty book that uses psychological and neurological research – presented in an easy-to-read format – to suggest ways to remember our good memories. So it’s much less “here are prescribed kinds of memories you should make” and much more “this is how we remember things and how you can use these tools to remember things that make you happy, particularly as you’re making new memories”. So Moonwalking on Einstein but instead of remembering reams of information, it’s remembering life events.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy from the publisher.

audiobooks · mini-review · stuff I read

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

47191839._SX318_Summary from Goodreads:
A linguistically informed look at how our digital world is transforming the English language.

Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project, and the internet is making our language change faster and in more interesting ways than ever before. Internet conversations are structured by the shape of our apps and platforms, from the grammar of status updates to the protocols of comments and @replies. Linguistically inventive online communities spread new slang and jargon with dizzying speed. What’s more, social media is a vast laboratory of unedited, unfiltered words where we can watch language evolve in real time.

Even the most absurd-looking slang has genuine patterns behind it. Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores the deep forces that shape human language and influence the way we communicate with one another. She explains how your first social internet experience influences whether you prefer “LOL” or “lol,” why ~sparkly tildes~ succeeded where centuries of proposals for irony punctuation had failed, what emoji have in common with physical gestures, and how the artfully disarrayed language of animal memes like lolcats and doggo made them more likely to spread.

Because Internet is essential reading for anyone who’s ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from. It’s the perfect book for understanding how the internet is changing the English language, why that’s a good thing, and what our online interactions reveal about who we are.

I saw Because Internet get good reviews when it came out but I just couldn’t get to it. Then surprise! Past me had apparently put the audiobook on hold via ICPL’s Libby and it came available last week. Conveniently, I was in need of an audiobook during commute time so I zipped right through it.

This is such a fun and informative book! McCulloch writes in a style that sits in a comfortable middle-space between layman and scientist which makes it a treat to learn about how informal writing on the Internet has changed and is still changing, from the old Usenet days up through present day LOLcat memes (just like I’m the dog’s-tail of GenX I am the dog’s-tail of the InternetOlds). The audiobook is read by the author and McCulloch makes it really fun, like listening to a cool professor lecture.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from my library’s Libby/Overdrive service.

Best American · stuff I read

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 edited by Sy Montgomery, series editor Jaime Green

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Sy Montgomery, New York Times best-selling author and recipient of numerous awards, edits this year’s volume of the finest science and nature writing.

“Science is important because this is how we seek to discover the truth about the world. And this is what makes excellent science and nature writing essential,” observes New York Times best-selling author Sy Montgomery. “Science and nature writing are how we share the truth about the universe with the people of the world.” And collected here are truths about nearly every corner of the universe. From meditations on extinction, to the search for alien life, to the prejudice that infects our medical system, the pieces in this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing seek to bring to the people stories of some of the most pressing issues facing our planet, as well as moments of wonder reflecting the immense beauty our natural world offers.

It’s Best American time again! This year the Science and Nature volume was under direction from new series editor Jamie Green. All the pieces guest editor Sy Montgomery included are phenomenally written but taken together many of the middle pieces blend together. I’m not sure if the Alphabetical-by-Author arrangement of articles worked for this volume, especially since previous volumes had clever groupings. The balance of the included essays tips the book heavily toward pieces about nature and the environment (not surprising, given Montgomery’s own writing choices, but it felt much less of a spectrum this year). The standout articles fall to the end of the volume – Linda Villarosa’s “The Hidden Toll: Why Are Black Mothers and Babies in the United States Dying at More Than Double the Rate of White Mothers and Babies. The Answer Has Everything to Do with the Lived Experience of Being a Black Woman in America,” Ed Yong’s “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America ready?” and Iliana Yurkiewicz’s “Paper Trails: Living and Dying with Fragmented Medical Records.”

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic by Ben Westhoff

44643351Summary from Goodreads:
A deeply human story, Fentanyl, Inc. is the first deep-dive investigation of a hazardous and illicit industry that has created a worldwide epidemic, ravaging communities and overwhelming and confounding government agencies that are challenged to combat it. “A whole new crop of chemicals is radically changing the recreational drug landscape,” writes Ben Westhoff. “These are known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and they include replacements for known drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana. They are synthetic, made in a laboratory, and are much more potent than traditional drugs”–and all-too-often tragically lethal. Drugs like fentanyl, K2, and Spice–and those with arcane acronyms like 25i-NBOMe– were all originally conceived in legitimate laboratories for proper scientific and medicinal purposes. Their formulas were then hijacked and manufactured by rogue chemists, largely in China, who change their molecular structures to stay ahead of the law, making the drugs’ effects impossible to predict. Westhoff has infiltrated this shadowy world, becoming the first journalist to report from inside an illicit Chinese fentanyls lab and providing startling and original reporting on how China’s vast chemical industry operates, and how the Chinese government subsidizes it. He tracks down the little-known scientists who invented these drugs and inadvertently killed thousands, as well as a mysterious drug baron who turned the law upside down in his home country of New Zealand. Poignantly, Westhoff chronicles the lives of addicted users and dealers, families of victims, law enforcement officers, and underground drug awareness organizers in the U.S. and Europe. Together they represent the shocking and riveting full anatomy of a calamity we are just beginning to understand. From its depths, as Westhoff relates, are emerging new strategies that may provide essential long-term solutions to the drug crisis that has affected so many.

Fentanyl, Inc. is a comprehensive look at the rise of fentanyl, fentanyl derivatives, and the myriad designer drugs and novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that have come in their wake. This is the next step in the opioid crisis, since the street heroin addicts have turned to is often cut with varying and dangerous amounts of fentanyls, often with tragic results. This book falls much more on the chemistry and business side of the story, rather than the law enforcement side, although the human cost of this epidemic is never far away. Westhoff met with manufacturers in China, makers of safe-testing kits in Europe, and researched the Dark Web.

Fentanyl, Inc. is out September 3.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn, Enrique Brinkmann (Illustrations)

42922291Summary from Goodreads:
From the award-winning author of the memoir The Three of Us, a lyrical exploration–part travelogue and part history–of Doggerland, the area beneath the North Sea which, until 6,000 years ago, was home to a rich ecosystem and human settlement.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Julia Blackburn became fascinated with Doggerland, the stretch of land that once connected Great Britain to Europe but is now subsumed by the North Sea. She was driven to explore the lives of the people who lived there–studying its fossil record, as well as human artifacts that have been discovered near the area. Now, she brings her reader along on her journey across Great Britain and parts of Continental Europe, introducing us to the paleontologists, archaeologists, fishermen, and fellow Doggerland enthusiasts she meets along the way. As Doggerland begins to come into focus, what emerges is a profound meditation on time, a sense of infinity as going backwards, and an intimation of the immensity of everything that has already passed through its time on earth and disappeared.

Time Song by Julia Blackburn was a middling read, for me. It’s a book that tries to do many things – an anthropological exploration and history of Doggerland, a memoir of the author’s fascination with artifacts and anthropology of older human culture, and a collection of poems (Time Songs) inspired by paleontologic and anthropologic scientific works – and doesn’t quite grasp any of them. The memoir jumped around making it hard to follow. Blackburn digresses a lot. She meanders down historical paths with other random amateur and professional anthropologists and their collections of artifacts which introduced a lot of “characters” who never appear again. The interruptions of the poems felt unnecessary. The drawn maps weren’t easy to read or orient (for reference Doggerland was a stretch of land between The Netherlands and the coast of Great Britain that was exposed during the Ice Age). Blackburn’s sentence-level writing is beautiful, though.

Time Song is out on Tuesday, August 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #1)

42117380._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

Look at that pretty, pretty cover. The story for The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is pretty rad, too.

Our astronomer-heroine Lucy – who performed all the mathematical calculations for her astronomer father – is at the end of her rope. Her lover has just married, her artist-brother is being a hypocritical jerk, and she’s running out of money. She jumps on the opportunity to translate a critical work of astronomy from French to English and presents herself to the widowed Countess of Moth.

Our embroiderer-heroine Catherine would like to get this business finished so she can wash her hands of her late adventurer-husband’s affairs. He had been volatile and unappreciative but Catherine is in need of something to do. So the young woman who turns up on her doorstep for the position of translator is an intriguing – although somewhat dismaying, Catherine has had enough of scientific ambition – surprise. After a few missteps and one scathingly patriarchal Society meeting later, Catherine determines that she will fund Lucy’s translation of the book herself in opposition to the Society translation (by a male translator, naturally).

Over the course of the months that Lucy lives with Catherine, diligently working away at the translation, the two women grow closer to one another. Lucy never makes it a secret that she is attracted to Catherine, but for Catherine – who defined herself sexually in terms of, well, she was married to a man and had an affair with a man so she likes only men, yes? – becoming entangled with Lucy in a non-professional sense means that she will have to re-examine past relationships to see herself in a new light. There is a beautiful scene where she examines some of her embroidery work – Catherine is a gifted fiber-artist who can create a portrait with her needle and silks – in light of the realization that she is also attracted to women.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics was a wonderful summer romance filled with lady scientists and artists taking down the patriarchy. Waite sort-of signals the Big Reveal plot-twist at a Royal Society debate ahead of time, so I did catch it, but it was a delicious piece of “eat crow, dudes” nonetheless. Lucy’s and Catherine’s relationship was so lovely to see develop and also to see them have growing pains related to class, wealth, and jealousy. There are even small side plots where Catherine and Lucy help lift up other women scientists and artists.

(Note: I read my galley while waiting on an Amtrak train that was supposed to arrive at 830pm but didn’t arrive until almost 11pm and I was stuck in the crappy train station starting around 5:30pm. This book kept me from murdering people. High praise, I’m sure, lol.)

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is out today in ebook! Mass market paperbacks are expected July 23.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and I had a copy pre-ordered on my Nook OF COURSE.

mini-review · stuff I read

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek

40594415Summary from Goodreads:
Our bones have many stories to tell, if you know how to listen.

Bone is a marvel, an adaptable and resilient building material developed over more than four hundred million years of evolutionary history. It gives your body its shape and the ability to move. It grows and changes with you, an undeniable document of who you are and how you lived. Arguably, no other part of the human anatomy has such rich scientific and cultural significance, both brimming with life and a potent symbol of death.

In this delightful natural and cultural history of bone, Brian Switek explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these artifacts of mineral and protein are all we’ve left behind.

Bone is as embedded in our culture as it is in our bodies. Our species has made instruments and jewelry from bone, treated the dead like collectors’ items, put our faith in skull bumps as guides to human behavior, and arranged skeletons into macabre tributes to the afterlife. Switek makes a compelling case for getting better acquainted with our skeletons, in all their surprising roles. Bridging the worlds of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics, Skeleton Keys illuminates the complex life of bones inside our bodies and out.

Skeleton Keys is a fun overview of the history of the human skeleton and what it can tell us about our past. Switek’s background is in non-human paleontology so he comes at the subject with an interesting mix of experience and self-education. He covers some famous cases of identification (such as when the skeleton of Richard III was positively identified) as well as the ethics of treating the skeletons of people who once lived as curios and objects to keep in museums. I think Switek did an excellent job presenting all the information here with due respect for indigenous cultures and striped back the history of racist and misogynist ideology which has permeated study of human skeletons.

Skeleton Keys is out Tuesday, March 5, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.