Category Archives: non-fiction

even educated fleas do it

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex  by Mary Roach 2008 (319 pgs)

Roach writes the best kind of science- compulsively compelling and delightfully accessible. In her third book, she delves into the history and current state of sex research. With short sections ranging from artificial insemination of farm animals to the study of rats in polyester pants (really!). Extremely informative, occasionally shocking, often hilarious, and always entertaining, Roach knows how to present science in a way that keeps you coming back for more.

make you an offering you can’t refuse

Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru  edited by Elizabeth P. Benson and Anita G. Cook 2001 (211 pgs)

More accessible than you’d think, the intriguing essays by various experts focus on textile, pottery, and forensic evidence of sacrifice among the pre-Incan societies in Peru.

giving up is half the battle

Books I didn’t finish:

The Last Season  by Eric Blehm (335 pgs/read 60) 2006

Well written chronicle of an experienced back-country ranger who goes missing.  Blehm aptly captures both the Sequoia/Kings Canyon country and the ranger Jim Morgenson to the point that you feel you’ve know both for years.

Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson 2007 (282 pgs/read 135)

A second case study book from one of my personal heroes. Bill Bass pioneered post-mortem decomposition analysis when he founded the Forensic Anthropology Research Center or “Body Farm” at the University of Tennesee in 1971. Not quite as riveting as the first book, Bass seems to be reaching deeper into his historical grab-bag than previously.  There are still some interesting cases, and Bass’s personable, down-home tone is always enjoyable.

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories  by Elizabeth Hand 2006 (240 pgs/read 2 stories)

It’s the rare writer who can use “chiaroscuro” in a sentence (twice!) and not come off pretentious.  Hand is an apt and enjoyable author and her $50 words never distract from the narrative, but seem to fit with an almost unnoticeable ease.  And “strange stories” is right.  The writing is intense, compelling  and vaguely unsettling- like trying to meditate while caffeine-jittery to the point of nausea.

this is palahniuk, this is palahniuk on portland

Fugitives & Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon  by Chuck Palahniuk 2003 (175 pgs)

Fun little guide to Portland-town.  Not your typical “go here, do this” travel guide.  Palahniuk manages to capture the “keep Portland weird” spirit.  Good fun, even though many of the places/events he writes about are now defunct.  My favorite is the self-cleaning house- that’s a genius invention that I’d love to visit. 

bits and pieces

Partial reads:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down  by Colin Woodward (383 pgs/read 150) 2007

What I love about this book, is that it doesn’t veer into hyperbole or romantic notions about pirates.  Life among the sailors of the day was nothing like the glamorous or romantic ideals we have, it was bleak and brutal and often short.  Woodward sticks to the facts, drawing from historical documents and using direct quotes only rather than made-up dialogue.  Truly informative, well laid out, and constantly interesting.  The included documents (maps, ship silhouettes and relative sizes,  values of everything from a galley to a barrel of ships biscuits to an adult slave) are informative and intriguing.

Why I stopped: came up due before I had a chance to finish.  Ordered it a second time but I’d lost the urgency.

Magic for Beginners  by Kelly Link (272 pgs/read 100ish) 2005

Quirky, captivating short stories.  In one story, a family find their new home becoming haunted piece by piece.  First a clock, then a pair of pants, then a bathroom.  In another story, two young men man an all-night convience store near a chasm full of zombies.  Link can make the most bizarre occurrances seem natural.

Stopped?: Fun, but I kept never getting back to it.

Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful  by Teresa Riordan (307 pgs/read 150ish) 2004

A lot more interesting than you’d think & fun to skim.  The illustrations (everything from the first patent of a mascara applicator to bustles through the ages) are fascinating. 

Stopped?: waaaay overdue, every time I pick it up to return I get hooked again.  Dangerous!  I’ve got to get rid of it.

Mirabilis  by Susann Cokal (389 pgs/read 30) 2001

Bizarre story of the village outcast who begins performing miracles. 

Stopped?: somewhat interesting, but not enough to make me invest in it.

The Rough Guide to Blogging  by Jonathan Yang (200pg/read 100ish) 2006

Fairly helpful.  Walks you through blogs from step one.  Well laid out; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in blogs.

Stopped?: read everything applicable.

a tale of two fateful trips

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World  by Joan Druett (284 pgs) 2007

An absolute page-turner.  Two crews shipwreck on the same desolate island four months and 20 miles apart.  The stories of their survival (or lack thereof) are compelling. 

Druett first introduces the five-member crew of the Grafton.  Through unity of purpose, specialized know-how, and hard work they are able to eke out a bearable existance.  It’s amazing to witness the extent to which they are able to overcome their surroundings.  They build a sturdy shelter complete with mortared fireplace, they perfect a method of hunting seals and sea lions- curing the hides and using the oil for lighting, they process shells to make soap, they even build a forge.  At every turn they overcome obstacles large and small to further their goals of survival and rescue.

Not so for the survivors of the Invercauld.  Stranded with the entirety of their ship sunk to the bottom of the sea, they are left with no resources and little first-hand knowledge. Spurred by infighting and lack of leadership, the crew disintigrates. 

Arranged chronologically, the book reads like a thriller- setting you up with an example of the ingenuity and adaptation of the Grafton crew before introducing the ineptitude of the Invercauld survivors, then cutting back and forth between the two.  The result is gripping.

family breeds contempt

Let Me Go  by Helga Schneider  (166 pgs) 2004

Helga was four and her brother eighteen months old when their mother abandoned them.  Bad enough on it’s own.  But she abandoned them to join the SS and become a guard in concentration camps.  Helga only saw her mother twice after that.  Once 30 years later, and once 27 years after that, shortly before her mother died.  This is the stream-of-consciousness flash-back interspersed chronicle of that last visit.  Her mother remained unrepentant and unapologetic, seeing nothing wrong with her decision to leave her children or her work in the concentration camps.  Interesting focus for a holocaust book- simultaneously an insight into a guard’s justification and a daughter’s appalled questioning.