WHY DON’T OUR BODIES WORK RIGHT? EVOLUTION GONE WRONG

Let’s get the first, most obvious question out of the way: No, Evolution Gone Wrong is NOT one of those books attempting to explain how evolution is only a theory (like gravity?) and how the proof is that people’s bodies don’t work right.  Quite the contrary: Alex Bezzurides’ book, Evolution Gone Wrong has the subtitle The Curious Reasons Why Our Bodies Work (or Don’t).

The book answers questions about why our bodies seem so easily broken and messed up by talking about our distant ancestors and how evolution has worked on the original forms we started out with.

Bezzurides is a professor of anatomy and physiology, and all I can say is that if I had the opportunity to take his course, I absolutely would, because he has a brilliant ability to take complicated subjects and make them not only understandable but funny as well. He asks the questions you probably wanted to ask at some point in your own life (probably in a state of frustration), and then he tries to answer them.

For instance, why don’t our teeth fit in our heads without braces and removal of wisdom teeth? Why do so many people have troubles with vision?  Why are human babies so prone to choking?  What’s the story with our knees: why do so many of us have problems with blown out knees or ACL repairs or knee replacements?  And our backs: what other animal can throw out its back by sneezing, let alone by any kind of strains?  And let’s not get started on menstruation and the difficulties of childbirth, though there probably isn’t a woman of reproductive age (or past reproductive age) who hasn’t, at some point, wondered why on earth we have to have menstrual periods when other mammals (for the most part) don’t.

It turns out that human beings haven’t been human all that long, evolutionarily speaking.  The author provides us with a brilliant analogy right at the beginning of the book: imagine a man who’s spent the last 20 years designing the perfect boat.  Then, after 20 years, the management of his company changes and tells him they want him to design a car, not a boat, BUT he has to only use the materials from the boat to make this car.  He will, eventually, make a car that works, but it will not be as good as a car designed from scratch to be a car.

In the same way, the things that make us human are, for the most part, the things that lead to our various aches and pains.  It’s our ability to speak, for instance, that makes us prone to choking, especially when we’re young.  Our bipedal gait is the source of our knee problems: hominids haven’t been walking upright long enough for our knees to get all the bugs out (so to speak).  The same goes for our backs.  As my 9th grade gym teacher, Mrs. Irma Berg, used to say, “knees and backs never adjusted to walking upright,” and this author backs her up on this.

He gives vivid examples of how things go wrong, and what materials our ancestors had for us to build from. Clearly homo sapiens is a transitional form, and we can hope that someday our distant descendants (if the species survives that long) will look back on our physical issues with a sigh for our primitive state. 

In the meantime, while knowing why you threw your back out by sneezing or why you need yet another stronger prescription for glasses will not make your life easier, this book will at least give you some understanding, and even some entertainment along the way.  It’s the best kind of science writing: you’ll learn a lot and have a good time doing it.

BOOKS THAT JUMP THE QUEUE

I’ve already admitted to being something of a rebel in that I read more than one book at a time, but I am, for the most part, orderly in how I choose which book I’m reading first and which ones I put off for later.  Usually, since I get my books from the library (duh!), I choose the book that’s going to have to be returned first, or the one that’s so hot I know I won’t get a chance to renew it if I need more time (this is an advantage of working in a library, of course), or I’ll read the one for the book group that’s coming up first, before I start on one that I’m reading just for myself, and so forth.

However, sometimes there are books that make me an anarchist of sorts, that jump the queue and cause me to drop whatever else I’m reading to make room for them.

At this moment, for instance, I was reading a couple of other books when suddenly I got Alison Bechdel’s The Secret of Superhuman Strength on hold.  I’d been waiting for that book since it first was published, and it seemed to have been in transit forever (probably it was just a couple of days, but you know how it is when you’re eagerly waiting for something; time changes its meaning entirely). As soon as I got the book into my hot little hands, I put everything else aside and dove into it. I was, naturally, aware that I was throwing my reading schedule into complete disarray and that there was a non-zero chance that I would lose track of the other books I’d been reading, but that was a price I was willing to pay.

Sometimes the queue-jumping book is like that one, something I’ve been waiting for eagerly for a while and know I might not be able to get again quickly.  Sometimes it’s a book by a favorite author (hi, Jo Nesbo, hi, Seanan McGuire), or a book in a series I’ve been following assiduously.  Sometimes it’s a book I know I’m only going to have for a short time, so I have to read it now or lose it for months (this is not an exaggeration; some really popular books have hold lists in the three or even four figures).  Sometimes it’s a book I’ve just taken out, and glanced through in an idle moment (yes, I do have some of those), and have been sucked into hopelessly as if I’d stepped on the edge of a black hole. 

It’s always a pain when the new book that’s thrown everything into disarray turns out to be less wonderful than I wanted; then I feel all the guilt of putting other books aside for this one.  That’s usually not the case, though.  I don’t pull this stunt unless I’m really REALLY excited about the new book, and nine times out of ten, when I’m that excited about the book, it lives up to my expectations.

So don’t be embarrassed if you fall in love with a book and cast all the other things you’re reading aside.  You’re not in school anymore (probably), and you don’t need to be rigid about what you’re reading and how orderly you are about your To Be Read pile. The delicious pleasure of reading out of order, devouring something now just because you can’t wait another minute to read it, is worth all the guilt, trust me.

A NEW LOOK AT OUR URBAN PAST: FOUR LOST CITIES

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you: I am not an anthropologist nor an archeologist.  My love for history goes deep, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, but I’m not much of a scholar of ancient history.  You would think, therefore, that a book about four extinct cities, the earliest of which was around at the beginning of human civilization and the latest of which was in use until CE 1300, would not exactly be in my sweet spot, but you’d be wrong.  Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, by Annnalee Newitz, is a great read even for those of us who are not really up on our anthropology or ancient history.  The one city everybody knows about (Pompeii) turns out to be much more interesting than we learned about in history class, and (speaking for myself) I’d never learned anything about Catalhoyuck, Angkor, or Cahokia (the latter is especially embarrassing because it’s in North America).  Annalee Newitz turns out to be an entertaining host through archeological digs and discussions with experts, and brings these very different ancient cities to vivid life.

Each city gets its own section of the book, complete with a map of what we believe the city looked like at its peak, and Newitz meets with archeologists currently studying the city in question. We get to see what they’re working with, and we get to learn what they think their finds mean about how the cities operated when they were running, and what might have happened to hasten their demises.  If you’re a fan of Jared Diamond and his book, Collapse, be warned: the experts Newitz talks to are far from persuaded by his relatively simple explanations for why civilizations collapse. Like the cities themselves, the reasons for their disappearances are complicated and unique to the circumstances of their particular locations and times. 

Newitz’ choices of cities are inspired.  They are all very different from each other and from the kinds of places we think of as cities now, but they each show us something important about why people congregate in cities and what happens when cities fail.  Without being heavy handed about it, Newitz draws some interesting conclusions about our own urban lives and our urban future.

Even if you’re one of those people who says they don’t like nonfiction, give Four Lost Cities a try.  It’s fascinating and endlessly readable.  You may even find yourself reading bits and pieces aloud to anyone in your vicinity, because it’s that good.

A DIFFERENT WORLD: DISAPPEARING EARTH

Some books are easy to categorize: they’re mysteries, or they’re romantic comedies or they’re speculative fiction, or whatever.  Sometimes you can just read the description of a book’s plot and get a good sense of what kind of book it is, but sometimes the description doesn’t really do the book justice.  The description of Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, talks about the disappearance of two young girls from a village in Kamchatka, on the eastern coast of Russia, and the aftermath of that disappearance, which made me think it was possibly a mystery (what happened to the girls? How is the issue solved?).  In fact, though, the book is not a mystery at all.  It’s better than that. 

Each chapter in Disappearing Earth is a sort of short story in itself, focusing on a different character or set of characters, linked together by their connection, however fleeting and however distanced, with the events of the opening story, where two young girls get into a stranger’s car on their way home from the beach and never arrive at their home.  

I freely confess that all I knew about Kamchatka before reading this book was that it was a place you tried to conquer in the game of Risk (and I had a general idea of where it was as a result of games of Risk as a child and teenager).  Phillips brings the peninsula to life, slowly and deeply, with characters from different social classes and ethnic groups interacting with each other. You can feel the tension between the indigenous people and the “white” people who live on the peninsula, between the city people and the rural ones, 

Some of the stories are more compelling than others (as is always the case with a collection of stories, linked or unlinked), but they all have in common a deep compassion for the main character, who is always a woman: the woman who witnessed the girls getting into the car, a teenager who’s suffering from the fears of the adults around her after the disappearances, the mother of one of those teenagers, facing a cancer diagnosis, a college student torn between her “white” fiancee and her indigenous roots, the older sister of an indigenous girl who disappeared as well, possibly running away, possibly abducted, the wife of the police officer who’s given up on ever finding the missing girls, and finally the mother of the missing girls.  They’re all compelling in different ways, and once I got the sense of how the book worked, that it wasn’t a linear narrative of a mysterious disappearance, I couldn’t stop reading.

If the book reminds me of anything, it reminds me of Let the Great World Spin, a book which I love for its breadth of views and its depth of compassion for all the suffering people touched by a single incident.  

If you’re reluctant to read this book because you’re afraid of reading about something horrible happening to two young girls, don’t let that stop you.  The book doesn’t exploit anyone, doesn’t dwell on terrible things (except as they’re imagined by the people who care about the missing girls), and gives you, in the end, something satisfying. 

Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, broad hearted book that’s well worth reading.  Give it a try.

SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR FIELD NOTES FOR AUGUST: ONE NIGHT TWO SOULS WENT WALKING

Isn’t it delightful to be able to meet together in person again?  Not that there was anything particularly wrong with zoom meetings, and for most of my book groups, they were the way we could stay connected, but real live, face to face meetings, complete with coffee and donuts, are so much better!  The Field Notes book group, larger than it’s been in months, got together in person in the library on Saturday to discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, our July book selection, and talked about the real life women who inspired the characters in the book, about poverty and prejudice and the love of books and reading.  Then, as we usually do, we voted on the book we’re going to read for August.  This was a more difficult vote than usual (though at least I didn’t have to join in to break a tie, as I have done once or twice), but eventually the group decided on One Night Two Souls Went Walking, by Ellen Cooney.  Copies will be available at the library shortly.

Anyone who has been reading this blog will suspect that I promoted this particular book enthusiastically, and I did (though not to the point of twisting any arms, literally or figuratively), but only because I really loved this book when I read it at the end of 2020 (see here).  A lyrical, beautifully written book about a young woman chaplain doing her nightly rounds at a hospital, dealing with all the people in need of her help, whether they’re living or dying, this short book is powerful and compassionate, like the unnamed protagonist, and I have reason to believe we’re going to have some interesting discussions about faith and souls, life and death and what may come after death, in response to the book. 

The only disadvantage of doing book groups in person, as compared to doing them over zoom, is that people do have to be relatively close to the Field Library in order to attend (by zoom, you could be anywhere in the world and participate), so if you’re in our area, come and join us on August 21 from 11 to 12:30.  If you’re not, you’ll just have to wait for my report on how our discussion went (or read the book yourself — you won’t be sorry if you do).  

FIELD OF MYSTERY GOES BACK DOWN UNDER: THE SURVIVORS

Returning to something like normal for book groups is a weird sensation, and when the group in question only met once or twice in person before COVID hit, it’s odder still.  However, the Field of Mystery Group got together physically to discuss July’s book, The Late Show, by Michael Connelly and had a good time talking about sexual harassment (if you’ve read the book, you know that is a plot point, and we weren’t just going off on tangents), about commercial fiction and what we like to see in a protagonist in a mystery series.  We made comparisons between this book and The Trespasser by Tana French and even got coffee and donuts, before turning to the difficult choice of our book for the month of August.

We ended up choosing The Survivors, by Jane Harper.  We’ve already read one of her books in this group, The Dry (and Field Notes Book Group read The Lost Man, also by her — what can I say? She writes terrific books and I like them), enjoyed it and found lots to discuss in the characters, the plot and the atmospheric setting.  

The Survivors is also set in Australia, albeit in Tasmania rather in the dry regions of the Outback.  Kieran Elliott is filled with guilt for the deaths of his brother and the disappearance of his girlfriend years before.  He left his waterfront hometown after that, and began a new life, getting married, becoming a father. He had no desire to return home until circumstances forced his hand. His father was moving to a nursing facility and his mother needed his help with the move.  But sleeping dogs don’t always lie, and when a young woman’s body washes up on the shore, long-forgotten secrets come to the fore. 

We know how well Harper writes about people facing their pasts, about what happens when people are stuck in a dying town, resenting the people who leave, about grudges held for a long time and what happens to people who carry them.  This book hits those themes, so I’m looking forward to a great read.

We’re changing our meeting date from the first Saturday in the month to the evening of the first Tuesday of the month as a way for more people to be able to attend.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk starting now, and we’ll be meeting in person on Tuesday, August 3, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., so come and join us if you can.

WHO’S DELUSIONAL? THE INVISIBLE HUSBAND OF FRICK ISLAND

I’m a big fan of quirky books, the kind that look at the world with a slightly askew viewpoint and present oddball characters in somewhat bizarre plots. Sure, there’s a time and place for books that promise something and deliver exactly that thing, but I have a soft spot for books that surprise me, especially if they’re written with a lot of charm and feature characters you want to shake but also want to see succeed.  Such a book is The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, by Colleen Hoover.

At the heart of the book are two people, Piper Parrish and Anders Caldwell.  Piper is a resident of the small, isolated Frick Island, where the population is declining and the main industry, crab fishing, is declining even faster.  She’s happily married to Tom, a reluctant waterman who’s following in his father’s footsteps, and is a beloved character in a community with lots of odd characters.  Then one day her husband’s boat capsizes in a storm, and his body isn’t found. The people of the island know what that means, but Piper refuses to accept that her husband is dead. Instead, she returns to her job at the local inn and speaks of her husband as if he were there beside her, or going out on his boat, or meeting her for dinner.   And the people of the town, after an initial period of surprise, go along with her, greeting Tom as if they saw him and referring to him as if he were alive.

Enter Anders, an endearing character who has spent his young life wanting to be a great reporter. How can you not love someone whose hero is Clark Kent, not because Kent can turn into Superman, but because he’s such a great reporter?  Anders had hoped for a more brilliant career than the one he’s currently stuck in; he thought he would be writing for The New York Times by now instead of writing articles on local events for a small town newspaper.  True, he did start a podcast, but there are few people listening to it and the only one who regularly comments on it is his stepfather.  Not exactly the kind of success he’s been dreaming of.

He’s sent to remote Frick Island to report on their Cake Walk fundraiser, but he finds out about Piper and her invisible husband, and his curiosity is roused. He starts talking about the situation on his podcast, and, to his surprise, he starts getting more subscribers, and the numbers increase as he investigates and reports more about what he sees as the crazy situation there.

You have an idea of where this is going, and you’re partly right.  He’s keeping his podcast a secret from the people of the island (an easy thing to do when there’s virtually no computers and no wifi), and sooner or later Piper is going to find out about it and hear it, and she is not going to be happy, especially since she and Anders have been growing closer to each other as he spends more time on the island.

But that’s not the whole story, and along the way there are all sorts of interesting questions raised.  Why is everybody acting as if Tom is still alive?  Who is the mysterious person Piper is meeting and talking to?  Why did someone suggest that Tom’s death wasn’t an accident?  Who sent Anders the email that alerted him to what was really going on with the island?  Who burned Tom’s boat after his death?  What is all that stuff in Lady Judy’s attic and what is she doing with it?  What was actually going on between Tom and Piper the night before his disappearance?  

You root for these characters, all of them.  You want to see the island preserved from the ravages of climate change.  You want to see a happy ever after for Anders and Piper (come on, you know that’s where this story is going).  You want a resolution to the issue of Tom’s death and Piper’s realization of his death.  

What you get is a satisfying ending that brings everything together, and a memorable, funny, quirky book that’s an entertaining read all around.

WHEN YOU HATE THE BOOK CLUB BOOK

Everybody knows I’m a booster of book groups (I run three myself).  I believe book groups can be a lot of fun, introducing you to interesting people and to books you might not have read otherwise.  Of course, not all book groups are created equal, and some don’t live up to the high standards of the best ones, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to assume that you’re involved with a good book group.  

Even the best book groups, though, can sometimes choose a lemon of a book. The best processes for choosing books, which include reading reviews and looking at “best of the year” lists and award winners (and books shortlisted for awards), can sometimes lead you to a book that you can’t stand, and sometimes you don’t know you can’t stand it until you start reading.

What do you do then?

My first suggestion is to push a little longer.  There are books that start off badly but pick up later on, and books that don’t make any sense (or don’t seem to make any sense) at the beginning but develop into something meaningful.  While I’m not a person who believes you have to finish every book you start, generally if you’re in a book group, you’re making an implied promise that you’ll try to read the book the group selects.  

But let’s say you’ve given it a good try and you still can’t stand it.  The writing’s terrible, or the characters or plot are offensive or annoying and you find yourself skimming or repeatedly checking the last page to see how close you are to finishing it. At that point, it may be worth your while to talk to other members of the group about the book, off line, so to speak.  You may not be the only one who feels that way about the book.  If it’s early enough, maybe you can talk to the leader of the group and the group can choose a different book for the month.  I’ve done that in two of my book groups (one time I, as the leader, read and hated the book, and offered an alternative to the group, which they agreed to), and it’s not the end of the world.

If that’s not a possibility, you have two choices: don’t read the book or hate-read it.  In either event, come to the group meeting.  If you haven’t read the book, your ability to discuss it will, of course, be limited, but maybe you’ll see different things in the book when you hear other people talking about it.  You might be inspired to give it another try.  There’s a definite possibility that you’ll hear spoilers in the discussion, but if you’ve absolutely given up on the book, that shouldn’t be a problem.  Alternately, if you hate-read it (reading it to find things you loathe), you can contribute to the discussion, if only as a counter to the people who loved the book or liked it.  Of course you’ll be polite and considerate while you’re explaining why the book was loathsome, but it can be really cathartic to talk about why you hated a particular book, and you may find that other people in the group share your feelings.  Disagreements among book club members (if conducted politely and with consideration, naturally) can be what brings the group to life.  Sometimes those meetings are more fun than the ones where everybody loved the same things in the book, or just all loved the book. 

If this happens once in a while in your group, all you can do is grin and bear it and try some of these techniques to deal with it.  If, however, you notice that you’re having to read a lot of books that annoy you, you might need to talk to the other people in your group about the way you’re choosing the books for the group, or consider whether maybe this is the kind of group you want to be in. There are lots of groups out there that might be a better fit for you, and you deserve to have a great book group experience.