Just a note to say, yes, I changed the appearance of my blog a little bit last Friday afternoon, and I didn’t warn you first. I’m sorry! All that’s changed is that there’s a new header image up there, and the background is now a (hopefully soothing) solid color. I hope you like it or at least find it un-distracting from the content that you’re really here for. Thanks for your support! Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
As you know, gentle reader, I occasionally digress from books to write about bicycles, travel, or other causes for personal celebration. Today is one of those days. If you just want the books, c’mon back tomorrow.
Last week Husband and I left town with a group of friends, as we try to do every February, headed for the Big Bend area of southwest Texas. Unfortunately I have missed the last two years: in 2012 I had just had knee surgery and couldn’t ride, and in 2013 I chose to go to Australia to see friends instead. So I last wrote about Terlingua and Lajitas back in 2011. It was so very good to be back in the big desert: big land, big sky, amazing great mountain bike trails, some of our very closest friends, and not much to do except slow down and enjoy ourselves. I thought I’d share a quick synopsis here with you, accompanied by some great photos. These were all taken by either me or my friends who I trust won’t mind. Thanks, friends. (As always, click to enlarge.)
On day 1, we arrived in Terlingua, checked into the cabins our team rents each year, and started packing up. Four of us (Husband, Holt, Damian and myself) were off for an overnight bikepack – camping out and self-supported, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Day 1’s riding was pretty consistently up, up, up; we did a lot of hike-a-bike:
Just a little wildlife:
Although not as much as one could wish. We saw bobcat prints, and I think I heard the guys say they heard coyotes yipping at night. (I am a good sleeper.) One year Husband and I saw a mule deer; not this year.
I had some issues with my rack, which afforded us the chance for this dusky repair job at a fortuitously placed picnic table up in the middle of the high nowhere:
Resulting in this repair (shot taken in the light of day 2):
But it all worked out fine. And what a sunset!!
Settling in for the night…
We ate, had a few sips of whiskey, and fell asleep under the mixed blessing of a very bright full moon that obscured the outrageous stars visible out there where the light pollution is minimal.
The next morning we got a leisurely start on a much more leisurely ride, generally downhill and starring views like this one.
Although day 1 had been challenging, I think we were all very pleased with our self-sufficient journey and solitude. I especially had a difficult time with all the hike-a-bike, which aggravated both my feet and my bad knee (and all that pushing of the very heavy bike bothered my lower back) – but I was with a small group of good friends & good people. They helped me out and encouraged me, and never made me feel like I was a bother. Thanks, guys.
On day 3, we did a much lighter-weight ride, with more friends, from the cabin – no gear required.
And at night, the whole pack of us enjoyed each other’s company.
I mean, really. Look at these views from the porch of the cabin complex.
It was another great trip, and our love of these parts is confirmed and strengthened once again.
In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.
Some great fiction about science:
By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)
Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.
Some great nonfiction about science:
My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!
On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).
Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.
Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.
River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.
Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.
When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.
Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.
That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?
Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:
I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.
So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.
This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.
It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.
He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.
[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]
You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.
You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.
I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.
Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!
And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.
An addendum from Pops:
First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.
So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)
Such fodder for future expression!
Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.
Barbara Kingsolver has captured my heart with The Lacuna and Flight Behavior. Only fitting, then, that she should make such a charming, truthful, and lyrical submission as this to Orion magazine: “Where It Begins”. I can’t decide which is more valuable and valued: her lovely message, which I won’t sully by summarizing, or her lovely writing, for example:
…banish all possibilities, the winter and the summer, the bare feet under the table, the shattered day undone and dregs of old regard and bitter unsettled tea leaves and the words forever jostling ahead of each other in line, queuing up to be written. Especially those. Words that drub, drub, drub at the skull’s concave inner wall. Words that are birds in a linear flock, pelting themselves in ruined fury all night long against the windowpane.
I am so very happy to hear that words are still drub, drub, drubbing at her skull’s inner wall, because I want them out here.
Enjoy. (Thanks, Pops.)