Booked: The Muckraker’s March Picks

The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown)
The Martianby Andy Weir (Crown)

I had my reviews lined up for this month before I left for spring break, but when I read “The Martian” in under 12 hours, I knew something had to get bumped. This book has a little something for everyone – humor, science fiction, thrilling edge-of-your-seat plot twists, compelling characters, and a bit of politics and international relations.

Mark Watney was the 17th person to land on Mars during the third manned expedition. Injured during an unplanned evacuation, Mark’s crew thinks he is dead and makes the tough choice to leave him behind. Only Mark’s not dead, and he now has to figure out how to survive alone on Mars for over a year until the next manned space expedition arrives.

For what is essentially a hard science fiction thriller, the book is remarkably accessible. Mark’s narration is laugh-out-loud funny in the face of life-or-death decisions.  I said it’s hard SciFi because there is a lot of realistic science, but it is written so clearly and simply that even I understood it. (For reference, the last Science class I took was Marine Biology in high school.) I learned about radiation, space travel – and atmospheres and actually enjoyed it.

It’s a cliché to say this, but I did not want to put it down. I only stopped reading to make polite conversation at meals (mostly about how great this book is) and to sleep. “The Martian” is so well done it’s amazing that it’s Andy Weir’s first novel. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.

Verdict: Affirmed for absolutely everyone who enjoys a good book, and I do not make broad recommendations lightly. This is going to be one of those big deal books – Fox is already negotiating with Drew Goddard for the film adaptation.


The Circle by Dave Eggers (Knopf)The Circleby Dave Eggers (Knopf)

The Circle is a technology company that is rapidly growing and infixing itself into everyone’s everyday lives. It’s the monolith many fear Google or Facebook will become, and this book serves as either a cautionary tale or a hopeful look at what the future brings, depending on your interpretation.

Mae Holland begins working at the Circle, indifferent at best to the company’s growing social media empire. The longer she works there, the more involved she becomes in the company’s culture and mission, happily surrendering and buying in to the company’s goal of “closing the circle” and ensuring all information is publicly available at all times by fully integrating their social media platform into the very functioning of human society.

The five-minutes-in-the-future story moves quickly, making the nearly-500 pages a breeze. The suspenseful, fast-paced plot is coupled with a side mystery and easy-to-digest social commentary. The novel isn’t about the characters – they’re more interesting for their points of view and how they clash with each other than for their personalities or growth.

Upon finishing it, I thought the book was a thoughtful critique of the ever-increasing role of social media and technology giants in American society. I was surprised by the less-than-stellar reviews on Goodreads, but figured it may have been too preachy for some readers. However, after discussing it with friends, I was more surprised that the people I know expressed a range of opinions regarding what the book’s message actually is. If my friends are any measure, Eggers provides a depth and nuance to his critique that seems to let readers find the message that resonates with them.

Affirmed: Jury’s out – read it if you’re interested in how technology impacts human interaction and society as a whole, whether you’re optimistic or concerned. Skip it if five-minutes-in-the-future or current events commentary doesn’t do anything for you.


The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth GilbertThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, narration by Juliet Stevenson (Viking Adult, Penguin Audio)

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know Elizabeth Gilbert had written anything other than Eat, Pray, Love, and I haven’t read that. After reading The Signature of All Things, I’ll definitely check out her other novels and short fiction.

The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma Whittaker, from her father’s origins to the end of her days. Alma is raised by an entrepreneurial botanist and pursues her own interest in botany, to the exclusion of much else. She meets and marries Ambrose Pike, a younger man with similar interests, but who remains very much her opposite. Their relationship shapes the rest of the book and presents the larger themes of spirituality vs. scientific inquiry, and how the two both clashed and informed each other during the Enlightenment. Unlike many other novels that focus on specific instances or times in a character’s life, Gilbert zooms out, allowing the reader to see how childhood experiences and one’s parents’ backgrounds can shape the rest of one’s life.

It’s hard to pinpoint what kept me listening to this book, as the themes and era aren’t my usual fare. Since I hadn’t read any descriptions or reviews, I didn’t know where the book was going for the first few chapters. Once I settled in and let Juliet Stevenson’s pitch-perfect narration wash over me, the book flew by. Alma is an exciting, intriguing character whose view of the world is relatable to today’s readers who might otherwise be put off by the more common views of the time period. She is surrounded by a well fleshed-out cast of supporting characters, and her relationships with the others are a delight to watch unfold.

Verdict: Affirmed. It’s not a book for everyone – the particularly practical will roll their eyes at a few of Alma’s internal theoretical debates – but I was out of my comfort zone and ended up enjoying it.


“Princesses Behaving Badly- Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale EndingPrincesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie (Quirk Books)

A couple years ago, several journalists raised the issue of the “the princess problem” – the idea that teaching young girls to idolize princesses who are passive players in their own life stories furthers gender stereotypes and inequalities. In “Princesses Behaving Badly,” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie tackles the princess problem head-on, presenting the stories of thirty real-life princesses who were anything but boring.

Divided into categories such as “Warriors,” “Usurpers,” “Partiers,” and “Madwomen,” McRobbie presents short biographies of princesses from ancient history through the present day. Some I’d heard of, but there were far more I hadn’t. All are fascinating. For example, there’s Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a princess known for partying in the 80’s, who went on to take control of her family’s estate. Wu Zeitan was a princess who seized the throne in China, first ruling through her son, and then claiming the title of Emperor for herself. Sarah Winnemucca styled herself “Princess” in order to receive more respect from Americans when negotiating on behalf of her Native American tribute, the Paiute. McRobbie does not hold all of these women up as role models. She delivers complete portraits, with all of their strengths and faults on display.

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 10.01.28 PMIt’s a short read at only 288 pages, and the individual biographies make it easy to pick up & read as the mood strikes, or when you have down time between class assignments. It’s also likely to lead to further reading – there are several women on this list whose full-length biographies have made my summer reading list.

Verdict: Affirmed, for history buffs, feminists, or anyone looking for some unusual conversation starters for your summer internship or your next networking event.

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