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Book Blurb: Hell by Robert Olen Butler

This was my first foray into Robert Olen Butler’s world, back in the day; suffice to say I am now hooked and completely understand how he won a Pulitzer. How can you not love a book whose main character – the anchorman from Hell, literally – manages to be both hero and anti-hero at the same time? Hell is a very clever take on the idea that hell is personal to each of us and features exactly those torments designed to maximize the hellishness of the experience. The banality of what comprises the greatest possible eternal torture is both thought-provoking and laugh-inducing (Schadenfreude, anyone?). I mean really, how can you not admire a mind that determines that the most Hellish thing possible for Anne Boleyn would be getting stuck in a quasi-relationship that can never be consummated, all the while regularly losing her head, literally, while constantly searching for a bloated old King Henry VIII who doesn’t want to see her?

Jill Elizabeth

The Official, What-Else-Is-There, Blog Thought for Today…

Blogging is not writing. It is graffiti with punctuation.

from Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh)

Really, what more can I say??

(Notice, I ALWAYS use punctuation. A lot of it. I know my blogging…)

Jill Elizabeth

Not-Quite-A-Review: The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

So here’s another one of those “I’m still reading but had to share” posts… This time about The Masked City, the second book in Genevieve Cogman’s superlative “Invisible Library” series. And hooray – it’s almost as good as the first in the trilogy! I say hooray and sound surprised because, in my experience, the middle books in trilogies are often necessary evils – they need to say what they do to set up the finale, but are often not the best stories to read by themselves… This one has some moments that clearly feel like setup – the pacing slows, the exposition grows, paragraphs feel just that little bit out of flow – but on the whole it also still reads like a really good story. Now I DEFINITELY can’t wait for the final installment! Unfortunately I have to wait until January… Blecch.

Here’s a taste of the writing in this one. I just love the straightforward, no-nonsense personality of Irene – this scene sees her facing off against one of the villains of the piece. This burst of villainous loquaciousness is a prime example of Cogman’s magnificent use of language and spot-on ability to nail the human condition:

“People want stories. You should know that more than anybody. They want their lives to have meaning. They want to be part of something greater than themselves… Most people don’t want a brave new world. They want the story that they know.”

If you haven’t started the series, you really should!

Jill Elizabeth

Book Review: The Human Superorganism by Dr. Rodney Dietert

My review copy of this interesting book was graciously provided by the publisher.

“What if the very basis of what a human is was radically different from what we were taught as children?”

Thus opens The Human Superorganism, Dr. Rodney Dietert’s exegesis on rethinking human biology and human health. thsIt’s a provocative idea that leads handily into a very thought-provoking set of ideas about what constitutes “healthy” living and how this new concept reflects a paradigm shift in not only our approach to health but also our approach to the human body. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the author and listening to him speak about his theories, his research, and his book. It was a very interesting addition to the information I gleaned from the book, and really fleshed out many of the topics for me. Dr. Dietert is a delightful man and a very easy-going speaker, and his enthusiasm for the topic was obvious and endearing.

The proposition laid out in the book is deceptively simple: the human body is host not only to what we traditionally think of as ourselves and our cellular composition, but also to a veritable ecological system of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites), a “microbiome”, that is found inside of us. As a result, human beings should be considered “superorganisms”, akin to rainforests or coral reefs. The novelty of this proposition is not so much in its factual existence, but in the state of that ecological system, since it turns out that human beings are just as hard on their own ecosystem as they are on others… In a nutshell, as a result of much modern medical technology and behaviour, the theory goes, we are decimating our microbiome to the detriment of our health just as severely as we are decimating rainforests and reefs.

Provocative, no?

The book is organized into three parts. The first lays out the theory, the second describes where things began to go wonky (largely, through unanticipated consequences stemming from our attempts to control and/or thwart contagious diseases), and the third attempts to resolve that wonkiness with a series of recommendations on how to regain equilibrium between the mammalian and microbial parts of our bodies. The theory is well-thought out and well-presented. Dr. Dietert’s writing style is conversational without being overly simplistic. He manages a handy turn of phrase, and the book reads much the way the man himself speaks: with clarity, passion, and a taste for rhetoric that renders even the denser portions of the science and theory into accessible language. He populates both his book and his speeches with fun facts and interesting tidbits, rendering the science even more intriguing than it is on its own. Example: notice the cover art? That’s a quite famous photograph taken by microbiologist Tasha Sturm – of her eight year old son’s hand, after playing outside. It’s amazing enough to learn that; even more fun to learn was why this particular 20160803_190217photo was chosen by Dr. Dietert for his book cover. It wasn’t just the gorgeous imagery of the microbial diversity found on the human body. It was also a fun, sly reference to one of the glyphs in the opening imagery for the television show Fringe – a creepily fascinating J.J. Abrams sci-fi series (2008-2013) about the world-within-the-world of “fringe” science. How can you not be instantly captivated by someone who artfully melds pop culture with high science? I certainly was…

Dr. Dietert has been traveling about the country, speaking to and with audiences of government regulators, scientists, and regular citizens like you and me. It is easy to see how these have become sold out shows. The theory is clearly and carefully presented, his proposal self-described as expansive rather than threatening to the status quo. “We’re not meant to be a purified species, we’re meant to be whole.” Dr. Dietert is trying to encourage a paradigm shift in our approach to human health. The “miracle of antibiotics saved us…and also led us to…fear of anything that was microbial.” This fear is having adverse effects that were unanticipated and is contributing to the decimation of many of the bacteria and other microbes in our bodies. This, he postulates, combined with other contemporary factors (including increases in Caesarean births, urbanization, changes in food/diet, and misdirections regarding human safety), is behind the dramatic increase in noncommunicable diseases (think things like diabetes, asthma – those often designated as “chronic”). Essentially, he is arguing that we need to supplement our naturally-present microbes to allow the microbial ecosystem to replenish itself and make itself more hospitable. This will allow us to regain the equilibrium our bodies have lost and hopefully result in a healthier – and even happier – population.

There is a lot of food for thought here. Fortunately, it is presented in a readily palatable format. While I’m not sure that the proposals for change contained therein are going to be to everyone’s taste, the theory behind it all remains very interesting and thought-provoking, and is definitely worth a look. And if you need a teaser, check out a video of Dr. Dietert’s lecture, courtesy of the WGBH Forum Network. It will give you a great sense of the author and his book.

Jill Elizabeth

Not Quite A Review: Superheroes Anonymous by Lexie Dunn

I seem to find myself compelled to write these blurb things up more and more lately while I’m in the middle of the book – it’s mostly because I’m a beta-writer on BookBub’s new Buzz (if you haven’t seen it, check it out – it’s still join-by-invitation only, but I can invite you so let me know if you’re interested). For that, I post a blurb a day about a book I recommend (or not). Often I use excerpts from my full reviews, but sometimes I just do a quick one on things I’m reading or won’t do full reviews on. This is one of those, but I thought you might find it interesting, so thought I’d throw it up here too.

How fun this one is! I must confess I love books where freakish cool things happen to “regular” people who turn out to have always been a little more than regular. Perhaps because I’ve secretly always thought I too was a little more than regular, and wanted freakish cool things to happen to me. In hindsight, perhaps, I don’t *actually* want freakish cool things to happen to me – they seem to be rather a lot of trouble and I doubt they wrap up quite as nicely in real life, but you know what I mean…

Anyway.

It’s not exactly a brand new story – there have been a few others I’ve read in this vein, most notably Soon I Will be Invincible and After the Golden Age) – but it is so far the most consistently enjoyable. Both of the others hit lulls at some point; this one has not (so far), and I’m more than half-way through. It’s a fun, easy read. Characters are well crafted and “super” without feeling overdone or over-the-top. It’s worth a look – it’s a cheap kindle book and there’s a sequel, so it is proving to be a great end-of-summer read…

UPDATE: OH NO! After that great setup, what a disappointment – it ended. Just ended. Like in the middle of the story. Grrr… A cliffhanger is one thing – I like those, there’s nothing wrong with them. But when a book just spontaneously starts something dramatically new in the story and then STOPS, well, I get annoyed. Because it always feels like a cheesy way for an author to force you to buy the next book… The books were released a year apart, so I’m willing to cut the author a leeeeeeetle slack. I’m hoping it was not her decision. And I understand that if it wasn’t, I shouldn’t hold it against her, because she was unlikely to be able to do anything about it if it was a decision forced on her. But if it wasn’t, well, then I’m seriously disappointed… Because the book was so fun all along, then all of a sudden – BAM! – the reader was whapped upside the head with a page and a half to go, and then it just stopped. Major twist, major event, and then nothing except – “now go buy sequel!” I did, at first. I read this one on kindle, and the sequel was only a couple of bucks. Then I thought about it, got annoyed, and returned it, unread. Because I really really really don’t like feeling manipulated into buying something else to finish the thought of the story I’m reading… I love series and multiple books, don’t get me wrong, and I understand that some stories need to continue in different volumes. I’m not saying everything has to tie up tidily at the end of a particular book. But you don’t treat books like TV episodes, with cliffhangers that literally leave you going “what the…?!” TV shows come back in a week. Books in at least a year. Tie up enough loose ends that your story feels finished, at least temporarily; it’s distinctly unsatisfying otherwise, and might well backfire and remove interest instead of sparking it, as this one did for me…

Jill Elizabeth

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