jueves, 26 de junio de 2014

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - Mary Roach

Summary (from Goodreads):

An oddly compelling, often hilarious forensic exploration of the strange lives of our bodies postmortem. For two thousand years, cadavers some willingly, some unwittingly have been involved in science's boldest strides and weirdest undertakings. They've tested France's first guillotines, ridden the NASA Space Shuttle, been crucified in a Parisian laboratory to test the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and helped solve the mystery of TWA Flight 800. For every new surgical procedure, from heart transplants to gender reassignment surgery, cadavers have been there alongside surgeons, making history in their quiet way. In this fascinating, ennobling account, Mary Roach visits the good deeds of cadavers over the centuries from the anatomy labs and human-sourced pharmacies of medieval and nineteenth-century Europe to a human decay research facility in Tennessee, to a plastic surgery practice lab, to a Scandinavian funeral directors' conference on human composting. In her droll, inimitable voice, Roach tells the engrossing story of our bodies when we are no longer with them.

I have been hearing great things about Mary Roach seemingly forever, and I really wanted to read something by her. I chose Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers because it was the only one they had in the library. I had no previous interest on the topic - I've never thought a great deal about death or cadavers, since the whole business seems a bit macabre and gloomy. However, Roach has an incredible ability to inject humor on her narrative without sounding disrespectful.

Stiff is written in a mix of conversational and journalistic style that makes for a fast and easy read, despite the grim subject. It really is informative - I learned a whole lot about the uses of cadavers in medicine, science, and improvement of human safety. It also deals with how different cultures think about death and which are the most popular and shocking ways we use to dispose of our own bodies once we are dead. It got a bit repetitive and considerably less exciting towards the middle, where the subject matter veered off onto better known areas, such as transplants and clinical death.

Of course, such a book includes a certain amount of gore and stomach-turning facts: head transplant experiments, people who want to be crucified, instances of cannibalism... It is absolutely not for the faint-hearted. It also can get you weird looks if you read it in public, and be prepared for some awkward conversations. Roach helps the reader in those difficult chapters since she is also revolted at some of the things she has discovered through her research. I found her voice to be amazing - it reminded me of Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, fast-paced, lots of snarky remarks and pop culture references.

I really enjoyed the book. Way more than I had anticipated, so I'll definitely read the rest of her popular science books.

Side Note: I read this book in Spanish and wanted to take my hat off to Alex Gibert, the translator for Stiff, who did the best job with this book.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

martes, 24 de junio de 2014

My Summer Reading List

Since I'm a mess, I've missed more Top Ten Tuesday topics than I can count, including a couple I really wanted to complete, namely books on my summer beach bag and books on my summer TBR list. I decided to compile my list anyway. Better late than never, I guess. And very fitting, because I'm going to the beach soon!

Here are the books I hope will go well with ice cream and swimming pools:
  1. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. Instructions for a Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell
  3. To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
  4. Kraken - China Miéville
  5. The Time in Between - María Dueñas
  6. The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson Walker
  7. My Sweet Orange Tree - José Mauro de Vasconcelos
  8. Where Things Come Back - John Corey Whaley
  9. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
  10. The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson
  11. The Puppet Boy of Warsaw - Eva Weaver
  12. Wigs on the Green - Nancy Mitford
  13. The 19th of March and the 2nd of May - Benito Pérez Galdós
  14. Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
My inability to follow lists and the fact that I'm a slow reader will probably go against my odds of reading all of this, but who cares? It's summer!

domingo, 22 de junio de 2014

Currently | On a Summer state of mind

shamelessly stole got this idea from Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness. She reviews the most amazing books, so go read her blog!

Beach / Finn made of balloons / Summer clothes / Park
I've had a big reading slump. And thus a blogging slump (kind of obvious, no?). Or were the slumps feeding each other? Coupled with great weeks at work when I had lots to do, I have neglected the blog. But I was itching to come back to it!

Time: 19:21

Place: At home

Eating & Drinking: Six Herbs herbal tea (hibiscus, lemongrass, elmleaf blackberry, rose hip, mint, and lemon beebrush)

Reading: I have just finished A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in the epic fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire. It has been a disappointment and was certainly contributing to my reading slump. The review will be up in a couple of weeks. I'm now deciding what to read next, since it needs to be either a book I can finish in a work-packed five-day week, or a book I don't mind getting sand into, because I'm going to the beach!

Writing: I've been sprucing up the blog, and leaving some pre-written entries for when I'm on holiday.

Watching: I finished watching the last season of Game of Thrones. Despite the changes, they are doing pretty great, and I think they've come a long way from the first season. The season has been as heartbreaking as the book was - I'm loving every minute of it. I've also watched Man of Steel, which I appreciated as a work of art regarding cinematography, but surprisingly boring on the whole, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I loved to pieces. It's one of the few movies in which time-travel makes sense. I can't recommend it enough :)

Listening: The xx. I don't know how I didn't get hooked after the song they did for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, but I've finally noticed them. Better late than never. I'm loving Angels. I'm also finishing The Secret Garden, read by Karen Savage, and I'm loving it.

Loving: I've loved the last weeks. The weather was marvelous and I got to spend a morning at the beach! I'm also loving The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. It's a fantastic RPG game with a great story and a beautiful OST and world.

Hating: Organizing my wardrobe. But it needs to be done!

jueves, 12 de junio de 2014

The Court of Charles IV - Benito Pérez Galdós

In continuing with my project of reading all of Pérez GaldósNational Episodes, I've just finished listening to the second book in the series, The Court of Charles IV. I think the Episodes haven't been translated into English, which is a real shame. You can find my review of the first one here.

We are still following the young Gabriel de Araceli. He now lives in Madrid and serves an actress, Pepita González. His life is much calmer now, with his actions on the Trafalgar Battle well in the past. He has given up on being an adventurer, and is no longer a child. This leads to a stark contrast between the first Episode and this one. While the former was an adventure novel with a bittersweet ending, this one is more subtle and focuses on Court politics and schemes. I enjoyed both of them equally, but I've learned not to expect a consistent style through the Episodes.

The first half of the novel is just an excuse to introduce Inés, a young seamstress who has stolen Gabriel's heart, and to explore what the Spanish theatre scene was like in 1806. The Maidens' Consent, by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, premiered that year, and marked the start of a revolution in stage plays, which went from convoluted melodramatic soap operas set in a romanticised past to much more relatable and straightforward plays. These new plays were also critical of the contemporary society and clashed with the religious powers of the time. On top of that, The Maidens' Consent was extremely important in changing the views on marriage and female roles back in nineteenth-century Spain. Obviously, not everyone was on board with this, and criticised Moratín as being too French-friendly and anti-Spanish. There were several attempts to undermine the popularity of Moratín's plays, planting public who were paid or volunteered to boo the play. Pérez Galdós uses Gabriel de Araceli to show us one of these attempts, and it is a delightfully funny and skillfully-handed episode.

The status of Gabriel's mistress, Pepita, as a renowned actress, puts him in contact with some members of the nobility, who offer him to go serve at the Royal Site, El Escorial. In the second half of The Court of Charles IV, Gabriel can witness El Escorial Plot (or Conspiracy), which was an attempted coup d'état led by Prince Ferdinand against his own father, King Charles IV, and his Minister, Manuel Godoy. The coup was motivated by the increased collaboration of Godoy with Napoleon Bonaparte and by the defeat in Trafalgar at the hands of the English, but it was discovered before any real harm could be done. Of course, the Prince was acquitted, but many conspirators didn't have such luck. Gabriel, as a courier of one of the Queen's ladies, is privy to all the secrets of the Court and can thus introduce us in the Conspiracy as it develops. Even knowing the events beforehand, it was like reading a mystery. Pérez Galdós mastered pace - the Episodes are as entertaining as they are informative.

At the same time, another conspiracy is happening between Pepita and some of the actors and noblemen, albeit a much less important one than that of El Escorial. Paralleling Othello, the play which Pepita directs in a private performance for a noble family, there is a story of love and jealousy involving Pepita, another actor, a Countess, a married Duchess and her lover. This subplot adds some much-needed comedic scenes to the grave second half of the novel. The references to Othello and the entanglement with the real Conspiracy are extremely intelligent, as well as funny, and they help advance the story of Gabriel even more than his services at El Escorial.

This second book is decidedly more fun than the first one, and the pace was also faster. However, the characterisation has gone backwards - endearing characters like Gabriel or Inés are little more than plot devices. Here's hoping that the third book will have both the masterful characterisation of the first novel and the thrilling pace of the second.

Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!

This book is part of the Everything España Reading Challenge 2014.

jueves, 5 de junio de 2014

It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life & People and Other Aggravations - Judith Viorst

Summary (from Persephone):

Judith Viorst's inspiration is marriage and motherhood and the conflicts they cause: romance versus reality, love for a child versus passionate longing for sleep, love for a husband versus - it is the 'versus' that Judith Viorst writes about, with tenderness, realism, insight and wit.

So I was kind of tricked into this book. A poem from Judith Viorst's Suddenly Sixty and Other Shocks of Later Life, 'Old Friends', appeared on the twelfth issue of The Persephone Biannually, and I was immediately attracted to her direct and tender way of dealing with the loss of a dear one. If you get the chance, read that poem - it's really moving.

I figured that It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, the volume published by Persephone, would be a great place to start. This edition includes both It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life, and People and Other Aggravations, two different but related poetry collections written by Judith Viorst and first published in 1968. 

I really wanted to like this. The voice is as wonderful as in 'Old Friends' - humorous, witty, and insightful. While I don't often read poetry, when I do, I prefer this direct, plain and humorous approach to the more convoluted poems that we are usually forced to study in our school years, and Viorst really delivers on that front. The choice of subject is one that appeals to me - marriage, gender roles and identity. Unfortunately, Judith Viorst and I don't see eye to eye in these matters.

In It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty, the married life she describes is so wildly different from what I know that I can only pity her. She fills her poems with fear of the other woman and sees lovers as inherent to a functioning marriage. While I don't think everybody wants to have a lifelong committed monogamous relationship, I believe that marriage is just that, unless it is previously defined in a different fashion by both partners. However, what Viorst is saying is that no matter how modern times are, boys will be boys and we just have to put up with the consequences, be it extramarital affairs or any of the other perceived expressions of manliness. 

At the same time, Viorst and her peers, which were the direct inspiration for this collection, are deeply dissatisfied with marriage. They are forced into the role of 'wife', so they have to give up careers and confine themselves to house chores, and they do this after the shock of discovering the 'husband' is wildly different from the 'boyfriend' and 'fiancé'. And yet, they don't try to change it. In fact, in People and Other Aggravations, this situation worsens. When compared to the life led by women rights defendants, Viorst definitely prefers marriage and scorns those who don't (See: 'Married is Better' or 'A Women's Liberation Movement Woman'). This second collection ends up being a giant ridiculization of anyone who tries to challenge the norm.

I get that this book is a glimpse of our society half a century ago, and that women were raised up with different beliefs, and Viorst is conscious of this (See: 'Lessons'). She is, after all, a really intelligent and well-read woman. All of this early poems probably stem from fear of the unknown, of fighting against the establishment. But I just can't laud a book with such a negative message, especially when rape is shown in a good light. This is a fragment from 'Anti-Heroine', a poem about the adventure life she is sacrificed for marriage, and shown in contrast to the tedious, endless chores she has to fulfill every day:

Why am I never running through the heather?
Why am I never raped by Howard Roark?
Why am I never going to Pamplona
Instead of Philadelphia and Newark?

Just no. Even as a comical exaggeration of marriage and gender roles, I just can't recommend this book.