In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
Mary Roach’s pop science books—including Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, and Packing For Mars—work because Roach infuses so much of her giddy, pleasantly puerile personality into her work. That means long digressions—or whole chapters—on the complicated science of pooping in space, or a tangent about whether menstrual blood actually attracts bears. (Good news: Only polar bears go nuts for Aunt Flo.)
But in her latest book, Grunt, that personal touch takes a darker, more somber turn. Focused on the work of military scientists, the book sees Roach wrestle, albeit quietly, with her disquiet with so much of the military’s work, balanced by her endless curiosity about human problem solving. She threads the needle by willfully turning away from weapons of war and destruction, and focusing instead on the thousand other problems military engineers and biologists are forced to face: heat, noise, sleep deprivation, animal attacks, and all the other issues that come from moving thousands of human bodies through hostile territory. The book’s central conflict, then, becomes not one between two armies, but between the military and itself. On the one hand are the scientists—as ever, Roach’s heroes—who investigate problems, contrasted against the rank-and-file military personnel forced to implement and test their ideas. One side sees the world as a problem to be fixed and changed, while the other relies on uniformity and routine to keep itself alive. And while Roach’s heart is clearly with those who look at things like heatstroke in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the judgment-damaging sleep deprivation that most of America’s nuclear submarine crews operate under, and say, “How can we fix this?” she never pays short shrift to the submariners whose few luxuries are disrupted by well-intentioned schedule tinkering, or the soldiers who lost friends because some “life-saving” military innovation ran out of batteries or made too much noise.
It’s a difficult moment to be black in America, what with the current debate over whether African-Americans should be afforded basic protections under the Bill Of Rights. Such transparent disdain is enough to disturb a guy’s peace, so I’ve been thankful this month for Being Black, Angel Kyodo Williams’ introduction to Zen Buddhism from a black perspective. It’s not the sort of book I’d normally be drawn to, given how frequently the word “warrior-spirit” appears. But the rituals and virtues of Buddhism feel especially important during a time when black folks need all the inner-peace and tranquility we can muster. Williams skillfully blends a layman-friendly explanation of how Buddhism can refresh one’s perspective on the world with personal anecdotes and techniques to implement Buddhist principles on a daily basis. Everyone can use tips about how to find solace amid life’s little stressors, but at this moment in history, some of us can use it more than others.
Dave Holmes has many points of entry: as a writer (currently for Esquire, covering pop culture and current events, and formerly Vulture, where he wrote a delightful column); as a podcast host (the comic quiz show International Waters) and frequent guest; as a TV host (he co-hosted DVD On TV for years and was an MTV personality); and as a comic actor. And now there’s another one: author, with the new book Party Of One: A Memoir In 21 Songs. (Each chapter takes its title from a song loosely affiliated with what he writes about.) In his professional work, Holmes has a knack for breezy prose that’s insightful and funny—i.e., the kind of writing everyone on the internet aims for, but seldom hits, because the humor is labored or the perspective isn’t strong enough. Holmes’ voice translates nicely to book form, particularly when reliving awkward and painful moments from his past. When he includes a fairly self-righteous letter he wrote anonymously to the newspaper of his small Catholic college about being gay on campus, Holmes writes, “I have typed it out and included it here in full, and it is all I can do not to type in little interjections from the present day. Things like ‘I KNOW,’ and ‘SOMEONE PLEASE HELP THIS BOY,’ and ‘SOMEONE PLEASE SLAP THIS BOY.’”
There’s a fair amount of meta commentary about writing the book—like when he concludes an intense couple of chapters about his early days being out with a photo of Melrose Place’s Grant Show, or the chapter interlude “All Right, You Jackals, Here Are A Few Shocking Stories About Famous People.” But it’s more charming than cutesy, and it serves Holmes’ voice. For those who know him as the second-place finisher in MTV’s inaugural Wanna Be A VJ contest, Holmes devotes a chapter to the competition and its weirdo winner, Jesse Camp, and imbues it with the “Seriously, this is the last time I’m talking about this” finality of a man who’s sick of discussing something that happened nearly 20 years ago. It’s also the least interesting part of his tenure at MTV, which coincided with the rise of superstars like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and others. Party Of One has plenty of anecdotes about big names, but Holmes’ voice is the real draw.