Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

This book is a lot of things all at once. It is the story of the time Robert Sapolsky spent in Africa studying a troupe of baboons (several months a year, over many many years), the story of how he grows up as a person and as a scientist, and it is the story of how a scientist can get so absorbed in a particular problem that they really can't see it from the outside anymore.

Yet another recommendation from Jo Walton's blog. In fact, I don't think I could possibly write a better summary of it than she has. Especially what she has to say about the way he writes about animals and people.

I especially enjoyed learning what it is like to do this sort of research, where you spend months in the field, in very different conditions than your normal life, and then head back home to the lab again. Towards the end of the book many of the local baboons are getting sick, and there's a real mystery that Sapolsky has to solve - how are they getting sick and what needs to be done to stop it. He solves the mystery - figures out exactly where the illness is coming from. It isn't curable, but it is definitely preventable - except that in order to prevent it from spreading involves some local politics. There are some folks involved in totally illegal dealings who are making a lot of money, and incidentally making the baboons very sick. He is quite ready to point a finger at everything that's going on, to him the baboons are every bit as important as any individual human being, and yet when he goes to folks higher up, they are very reluctant to do anything about the situation. I was so involved in the story that I was every bit as incensed as he was that these scams were allowed to continue and endanger innocent lives...and then eventually things are explained fully. The ramifications of getting certain people into trouble on the whole park system and all the efforts at conservation that were going on. Simply heading to the authorities and solving this particular problem might help these specific baboons right now, but in the long run would probably hurt them, and would definitely hurt the overall conservation efforts, the park system, access to these areas for scientists. As a scientist you get really stuck in your little corner, working on your particular problem, and it is really easy to stop looking at the rest of the world. If you let yourself become too distracted you won't make any progress on your own work, but every so often you do have to take that step back and realize that there's a much bigger picture, that everyone has to deal with politics at some level, and that no matter how important what you're working on is, other things are important too. Some of them so important that you've just been taking them for granted.

This is a brilliant story. Sapolsky writes beautifully and the prose just flows. But at the same time as entertaining, he also manages to teach you a lot - about baboons, about being a scientist, about life in Africa, and about respect for people in general. This is a book I'd love to own, just to pass it around to everyone I know.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Matter of Magic - Patricia C. Wrede

No idea where I read the review for this anymore, but the combination of a Regency setting, magic, and a young female heroine disguised as a boy on the streets of London sounded totally charming. And it was.

Kim is a street thief when she gets hired to search the wagon of Mairelon the Magician. He turns out to be an actual magician, rather than just a street performer, and convinces Kim that she should be working for him. She is incredibly drawn to Mairelon, at first to the lifestyle he is offering (meals! a safe place to sleep! warm clothes!) but then to Mairelon himself. The story feels very much like the Georgette Heyer Regency Romance novels I read a while back, but with lots of fun street slang to figure out.

One thing I especially liked about this was the relationship between Kim & Mairelon. There's obviously lots of suspicion initially, she's breaking into his caravan, he's offering her something that seems way too good to be true, but they both obviously really like each other, and enjoy one another's company. There aren't a whole lot of stupid miscommunications, and when confronted with things, they are open and honest. As usual, I just love reading a book where I'm not constantly wanting to smack one character or another upside the head.

Final note, the cover art is totally gorgeous. I'd love to have this as a full-sized poster. Or possibly I just want the dress she's wearing.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Cory Doctorow wrote about this series on BoingBoing, and the concept intrigued me. Adrian Mole is aging at the same rate as Cory...and just a bit older than myself. Cory's been reading them since they first came out, and I suspect this book in particular probably appeals to a 13 year old boy far more than it does to me, but I'm still inclined to keep reading even though I didn't find this story quite as compelling as Cory evidently did.

Townsend's gift is to make you choke with laughter and tears at once, to create a nebbishy antihero who is both terrible and lovable, and to torture him mercilessly for our benefit and edification.

This is the sort of comment that I read and think "Yes, this sounds fabulous" and then I start reading and realize that in fact, I don't really like anti-heros, and it bothers me when they are tortured unnecessarily, especially when they are the ones doing the stupid things and not realizing it. But I think that the reason I don't enjoy it might be the same reason that I had trouble enjoying Seinfeld - I hadn't realized that Seinfeld was supposed to be satire (they're charicatures, not characters), and this is supposed to be humor, not torture. We're encouraged to laugh at Adrian when he's being stupid, and to enjoy watching him do the occasional non-stupid thing. I do have a lot of difficulty watching people do stupid things, I find it incredibly irritating, and yet there's a really loveable side to Adrian which mostly you just get to see through other people's reactions to him.

The story is written as his private diary, and he really comes off as insufferable at first. He's a teenage boy and definitely sees himself as the center of the universe, as well as way more intelligent than anyone else out there. He sure doesn't cut his parents any slack initially, but then as the story goes on, you realize that they definitely don't deserve it. He's laughably oblivious to the things going on in their lives, as children should be, but then he's forced to deal with the fact that neither of his parents actually have their lives together yet. His descriptions of his mother's interactions with the next-door-neighbor, Mr. Lucas, as the Lucases are going through their divorce, are totally hilarious because you can see exactly where this whole thing is headed, even though Adrian can't. His parents separation and his mother's descent into total self-indulgence is quite funny, mostly because of everyone else's reactions to it. Even though her behaviour is absolutely atrocious, it very clearly doesn't scar Adrian the way you might imagine if you were reading this story from any viewpoint other than his personal diary.

Adrian joins a club which is supposed to help the elderly for some very selfish reasons of his own, and yet once he gets used to Bert, his assigned person, it becomes clear that Adrian is actually an incredibly caring and unselfish person. He can be very self-aggrandizing when he wants to, and when he thinks it is going to get him attention or praise, but put him in a situation where someone is in need and he is able to help - and he just jumps right in and helps. For me, this was the turning point, once I saw how much Bert obviously liked Adrian, it became clear that Adrian wasn't just a stupid little kid who deserved my scorn...he just liked to think of himself that way.

And then there's Adrian's girlfriend, Pandora. She starts out dating his best friend Nigel (even though Nigel knows that Adrian likes her!), and then some other guy, but finally winds up with Adrian, and actually stays with Adrian for much longer than you might expect, especially considering that he got her deodorant as a Christmas present. The phone bills the two of them manage to rack up are quite hilarious.

On the whole, definitely not the sort of book I usually read, I did enjoy it (once I managed to start liking Adrian rather than just being irritated by him), and I think I might have a slightly easier time with it as Adrian gets older.