Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This week at the library: the cosmos, Jane Austen, zombies, and the Middle Way

-- Minireviews -- 

Some zombies like to lurch about groaning for brains. Some zombies like to ride the escalators, listen to Frank Sinatra, and daydream about their past life. That's R,  a zombie who has forgotten most of his life, even most of his name.  R is of the mobile damned shambling around a ruined Earth, living in a hive of the undead in an abandoned airport. He sometimes goes into the remains of civilization to find someone to nibble on. Brains are especially fun, because eating them allows the diner to experience the memories of the dined-upon. It adds a bit of color to the zombies' dreary, grey not-lives. But when one young man dies saving his girlfriend's life and R munches down on his memories of growing up with her, R unexpectedly develops a crush -- and instead of turning her into a second course, he totes her home and hides her from his moribund brethren.  Such is the beginning of Warm Bodies, a novel of the living and the damned, and the bridge between them.  I checked it out not because I like zombies, but because a friend of mine -- a mature, knows-how-to-manage-her-time-well friend -- stayed up all night reading it. While the premise intrigued me, the humor and earnestness of a zombie yearning for more, even love, snookered me completely. I read it in one sitting, as it's the kind of novel that doesn't let you go away: it continues to rise in intensity until the very end.


With Warm Bodies out of the way, you know now that the title does not refer to my reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies again. My Jane Austen reference was to The Jane Austen Book Club, a novel  which covers the stories of five women and one man who get together once a month and discuss a given Jane Austen novel, each taking it in turn to host. As a guy who has read Pride and Prejudice, I thought it might be fun to see another fellow go through it. His responses aren't all that remarkable. I hate to admit it, but this is the rare instance wherein a book doesn't compare favorably to its movie  Admittedly, I saw the movie before reading the book, and in fact read the book after finding out it was the source for a money I thought hilarious. (The Austen-reading man is developed far better in the movie: he's a riot: I screamed in laughter at the faces of the women as he, an SF buff, tried to compare the plot of an Austen title with the development relationship of Luke and Leia through the original Star Wars trilogy.  Great movie, all-right book: I might have enjoyed it better had I actually read more than one Austen novel. It made me feel guilty, actually..

I also read Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, which wasn't as ferociously compelling as I thought it might be, possibly because I've taken Buddhism's extrareligious applicability for granted for a few years now.  Batchelor treats Buddhism as a practice in response to certain realities, and invites readers on meditations to cultivate a sense of compassion within them. Batchelor's philosophical explanations sometimes seemed like vague esoterica (the chapter on emptiness, for instance), others were eye-opening, like the section on no-self. He compared us to clay spinning on a wheel:  the thing that emerges is the result of a lot of actions acting in concert: the constituency of the clay, the pressure, the wheel; there is no ideal Pot that will suddenly materialize there. The same is true for us: there is no ideal Self floating around inside us, or out in the ether: we as beings are being constantly created by drives internal and external.

And on a final note, a book I need to re-read because it's been a few months since I finished it:  The Universe Within reveals the profound connectivity of the universe, exploring the ways our biology has been shaped by astrophysics and geology. But it's not actually about us: his account demonstrates how all of nature is bound together in cycles -- water evaporating into the air, then returning as rain; sea crust being formed at ridges, and dissolved again in volcanic explosions --  and how no field of science can exist without connection to another. A rock can tell you about physics, chemistry, and biology.  Had the book been about the interconnectedness of the sciences, it would have been a triumph. It's supposed to be about how these processes have shaped human beings, though, and the human connection is added in only tangentially at the end.

Today I also received two books through interlibrary loan: Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, which examines human-plant coevolution, and Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte.  I'm looking forward to both:  Pollan is a weird author in that I'll finish his books regarding them too problematic to recommend, and yet I never stop thinking about them. Neither The Omnivore's Dilemma nor In Defense of Food are never far from my mind.

Look for more food books as the spring matures!

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