The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

45 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

The Chicken Chronicles is a short and sweet little book, beautifully done. Alice Walker talks about the life of a chicken keeper as no one else can. She is, in fact, talking to the chickens in this book. The reader is just an outside observer.

We get to see her love for her chickens as we learn a collection of facts about chickens and how they are treated around the world. We get to see the peace and the joy her chickens brings her — not to mention the eggs. We get to see the humor and her frustration. Alice Walker is surprised, for example, when her “roosters” lay eggs. She is also surprised when one of her hens begins to bully another and when she is unable to save them all from random tragedy, from hawks and accidents like someone slamming a door on a chicken’s head.

We get to share her concerns. How does she offer the chickens some freedom and keep them safe at the same time?

The book is both meditation and love letter. It is full a surprisingly tender moments such as Alice sitting in her garden with a chicken in her lap.

At times it goes a little annoyingly overboard. She refers to herself as Mommy when addressing the chickens. I find that annoying when people are referring to dogs and cats. You are not your cat’s mommy. I’m sorry, but no, you are not. When Alice Walker refers to herself as mommy to chickens, I just find it absurd. Still, I’m touched by her love for the birds.

I’m also impressed with her master craftsmanship. Lest we forget, Alice Walker is a woman of remarkable letters, and you will know you are in the presence of someone remarkable when you read this book. This is a quick read, and for the sheer awe of hearing Alice Walker speak through its pages, it is worth the price. I loved every minute of it, annoying bits included.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

44 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

The Weird Sisters is a beautiful novel about sibling relationships. Rose (Rosalind), Bean (Bianca), and Cordy (Cordelia) are the children of a Shakespeare professor. You Bard fans will note the Macbeth reference in the title as well as the characters each of the sisters are named for — Rosalind of As You Like It, Bianca of The Taming of the Shrew, and Cordelia of King Lear.

Their mother has cancer and needs them, and the sisters, all adults now, have come home. They just haven’t come home for their mother. They are all facing one kind of overwhelming crisis or another, and they all need their family to help them get back on their feet. They are a help to their mother nonetheless, and in facing her crisis as well as those of their sisters, they each find some degree of strength and even redemption in themselves.

The sisters are more than just named for Shakespearean characters; they are aptly named. Bianca, for example, is driven by her beauty and her attractiveness to men. Cordelia is her father’s favorite, as anyone named Cordelia by a Shakespeare professor would have to be.

Rosalind is strong-willed and quick to point out the faults of others but deeply afraid she will not be able to control her own problems. Rose has stayed behind while the man she loves has moved away because of this fear. Meanwhile, Bean is in huge financial trouble, and Cordy is pregnant with no means of even taking care of herself. Rose is nearly as hard on them as they are on themselves, but when it comes down to it, she still sees them as her little sisters, and she still steps in to help. In doing so, she finds the softer parts of her own character as well as the parts more willing to take risks.

The story is told in the plural third person. The narrator “We” is the collective voice of the three sisters. It is a lyrical and whimsical voice that knows every line ever written by the Bard. I very much enjoyed the story it had to tell me.

The Weird Sisters is quirky and funny and tragic and heart-wrenching. It is also smartly and beautifully done. Most of all, I see it as a redemption story. The three sisters on their own were all lost. When they came together again, they found their way again. They found it through books and through church and through community, but mostly they found it through each other. They remembered they were “We” and not just “I.” The very presence of the We helped them to remember who they really were and who they wanted to become.

It’s a good book. You’ll especially like it if you understand the Shakespeare references, but that isn’t necessary. The story of Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia is relevant enough in its own right. Knowing about their Shakespearean counterparts just gives them more layers, and layers are nearly always good — at least in books and winter clothing.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

43 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Packing for Mars is equal parts fascinating and disgusting. I guess I should have expected that the woman who also wrote Bonk would fixate on bodily functions and fluids. Still, I was not quite prepared for the level of detail I got on how astronauts deal with bathroom issues.

Did you know NASA employed people whose entire careers focused around being toilet engineers? I confess to have never given that much thought prior to this book.

If you are an actual 13-year-old boy, I would not recommend Packing for Mars as there is a long section on sex in zero gravity. If you are a grown up with the mentality of a 13-year-old boy, however, you’ll probably love it. There is stuff about astronauts trying to find out if they can propel themselves forward with the power of their own flatulence in here (which, by the way, didn’t seem to work as anticipated).

All that scatological zaniness aside (suffice it to say nothing naturally flows downward in zero gravity), Packing for Mars really does pack in quite a lot of compelling information. I had no idea of the number of studies conducted here on Earth each year related to what it would take to send humans to Mars.

There are the muscle atrophy studies, for example. NASA has studied the effects of long-term space travel on muscles by having human subjects (in deep need of credit card bail outs) agree to spend months on end using none of their muscles. They spend months bed-bound while hooked up to NASA equipment. They follow that with a recovery period while also hooked up to NASA equipment. At the end of all this, NASA understands a little more about how long astronauts can remain in zero gravity without completely losing muscle function, and their test subjects get an enormous check with which to pay off the creditors that have not been able to get to them while they were locked down in a NASA facility.

Let us all hope we never become that desperate.

Then there is the issue of laundry on a long space flight. Carrying enough drinking water is a giant problem. It just wouldn’t work to carry laundry water as well. The solution? Edible clothing. Yes, that’s right. Edible clothing.

I won’t bother to go into what it takes to make human urine drinkable as I am still in the process of recovering from the very idea.

As I said, lots of body fluids covered in this book. If you can stomach all of the bathroom science, you’ll find Packing for Mars both entertaining and informative. If you don’t think you can take it, just remember that nothing flows downward in zero gravity, and consider not signing up for early Mars expeditions.