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In one end and out the other. Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp by Mary RoachGulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach; narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Mary Roach’s latest book explores the digestive process, from beginning to end, looking at what scientists think and have thought, what they study, and how they go about it.  It’s great, as usual, with lots of funny moments.  A few thoughts:

  • People are generally fine with their own saliva, as long as it’s in their mouth.  As soon as it has left their mouth, it’s gross.  For instance, they’re far less interested in eating a bowl of soup into which they have spit than one they haven’t.
  • Roach gave plenty of room to Alexis St. Martin and Dr. William Beaumont, the former being a man with a fistulated stomach and the latter being the doctor who used the stomach to experiment with digestion, whether or not St. Martin wanted to do so.  Particularly of note for us as Beaumont was the military doctor at the U.S. fort on Mackinac Island, which we visited this summer (and where I first learned about Beaumont, though mostly in a positive light).
  • As with the book on astronauts, there is a long section on flatus and the people who study it.  Flatus samples are now often collected via special mylar ‘pantaloons’ taped at the waist and legs, with a valve for harvesting the samples.
  • Elvis probably died from having a gigantic colon, something that happens after a lifetime of constipation.  His lifetime battle with this condition is part of why the Graceland bathroom was so well appointed.  The King spent a lot of time on his throne.
  • The section on coprophegia, animals that eat their own waste, was equal parts gross and fascinating.  Not only do rabbits and rats perform this most yucky of acts, it’s essential to their digestive practice.  For instance, there are bacteria in the colon of rats that release vitamins which the rat can only absorb in the small intestine, thus the food must make a second pass through the system.

Once again, Emily Woo Zeller does a fine job with the book, giving a wry twist to many of the more amusing passages and really Roach’s perspective.  Another fascinating book in the continuing line of science writing from Mary Roach.  A winner!

See also: Packing for Mars, Spook, Bonk


Happy Labor Day!

1915 -- Labor Day Parade

Fun facts about Labor Day (from Wikipedia):

  • We proposed it in the US after Canada already had it, but in a stroke of efficiency, we dropped the superfluous ‘u’ from Labour.
  • Because Labor Day has become a major sale day, “some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but work longer hours.”  The article also laments that most of those folks aren’t in unions.
  • It’s also the last day to wear white without looking like a no-class shitheel.  So get out those white pants today.

Happy Labor Day to all of you, dear readers.  Take some time to relax before the September Hammer of school and work and life slams down.  Enjoy it.

“With all respect, sir, we aren’t Ms. de Luce.”

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce returns in this sequel to the extraordinary The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  Once again, the precocious tween tracks a killer through the countryside of her English town.  When a famous BBC puppeteer comes to town, everyone is excited to have a show in the church.  However, when he’s electrocuted during the performance, Flavia is on the case, with her chemistry and her sneaky sycophantic act.

  • While Bradley tells another solid story (with a well-crafted countryside murder), the book isn’t quite as good as the last one, if for no other reason than that it doesn’t really do anything new.  A book like this really challenges the question of whether mysteries ought to be in series or not.
  • The mystery of the murdered puppeteer is compelling, but a little less so than was the murder in the last book, as Flavia’s family is not directly implicated.
  • Once again, the book confirms my suspicion that British towns have seething underbellies of secret passions and nasty secrets.  Londoners are downright open books when compared with their judgmental, small-town cousins.

An enjoyable return of a great character, and well worth a read if you enjoyed the first book in the series.  That said, I would probably wait at least a year in between the two, as they are very similar.

See also: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Lots of games this summer

Dead of Winter game session

Dead of Winter game session (Photo by Rocky Kolecke)

It’s been a fun summer for board games.  I got a few new games, played a bunch, and am looking forward to continuing this fall.  Some highlights:

  • Mice and Mystics – We’ve enjoyed this collaborative adventure game in the vein of Redwall, playing approximately once every six weeks or so.   We have another round scheduled for this evening.  We’ve got a system in which the children play or don’t play as they see fit, drifting in and out of the action.
  • Dead of Winter – Another one from Plaid Hat Games, this one is a fun collaborative tale with a strong betrayer element.  I’ve played two games so far and can’t wait to play more.  The premise is that the group are survivors in a compound trying to fend off zombies.  Each player controls a group of survivors, thus making it possible to have one die without killing all of them.
  • Heroes Wanted – This kickstarter jem has been lots of fun around the Riley manse.  The mix-n-match heroes make for funny situations, and the kids like the easy gameplay mechanics.  Finn (6) is still having a bit of trouble managing his goals so as to maximize points, but otherwise, way fun.  I can’t wait to play this with a group of all adults so we can really try out the quirks.
  • The Game of Thrones Living Card Game – I only played one round of this, but holy cow was it fun.  I can’t wait to play again.
  • Love Letter – this simple game has been a big hit at our house, though Avery likes it more than Finn (because of the theme, I think).
  • We played lots of Loot and Munchkin and Treasures and Traps on our trip in the early part of July.  Loot is a light pirate-themed game that’s good for all, while Treasures and Traps is a lightweight Munchkin that exceeds its original in some ways (mostly in that it takes about 20 minutes to play instead of an hour).

The old favorites like Forbidden Island and Smallworld continue to make appearances, and the kids are getting better (and more cutthroat) at Settlers of Catan.

Sheep in books

Three Bags Full A Wild Sheep Chase The Android's Dream

In the last six months, I read three different mysteries (loosely defined) centered on sheep.

Three Bags Full – a murder mystery in which a flock of sheep tries to find out who killed their shepherd.  The author does a great job channeling the sheepish worldview, imagining what it’s like to be a constrained, fenced in animal.  There’s a black sheep who has learned to live on its own and a group of meat sheep that are like the jocks of the pasture.  But most of this plays for amusement rather than something deeper.

Wild Sheep Chase – an existential detective story in which a lazy adman goes on a journey to track down a missing friend and a strange sheep.  Odd and ephemeral, the novel blends the modernist novel worldview (think Graham Greene) with odd twists on detective stories.  And on top of it is a woman who looks plain until she sweeps her hair back behind her ears, after which she is gorgeous.  She makes a living as an ear model.

Android’s Dream – a science-fiction thriller in which a lazy diplomat super-soldier goes on a journey to track down a missing sheep.  In this case, it’s a bio-engineered sheep that’s needed for a political ceremony on an alien planet.  It makes sense, really.  The best part is that one can’t help but imagine the book will be in conversation with the Philip K. Dick novel to which it’s title refers, when in fact there’s very little to connect them.  (There are some overlaps, just not many.)

My hope was that after having read these three novels I would have something significant to say about sheep and mysteries and novels and life.  Alas, I got nothin.  All three books were enjoyable in their own ways, so I’d recommend them if they sound interesting.  But don’t expect your life to change.

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I’m back, Baby

In early February of 2014, my blogs got hit with an automated hack that took them down, hard.  I was in the middle of preparing for the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference, so I took them offline (along with most of my website) “until I had time to deal with the situation.”  Now we’re six months later and I’m only now getting the ol’ beast running again.  Nonetheless, here we are.

"north sydney lamppost 2" by Jaqi

“north sydney lamppost 2″ by Jaqi

I’m going to post-date a couple posts to fill in brief news from February – today, and after that it’s back to blogging.

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July 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

July was a fun month.  We took a family trip in the pop up camper to Mackinac Island and the UP before joining friends at a campground in eastern Wisconsin.  Highlights:

  • Playing cards in the camper in the rain (no tents for us!)
  • Watching the kids enjoy a swingset in a downpour.
  • Over-reacting to a swollen bugbite and thus getting to visit the ER in a distant place.
  • The Pictured Rocks.  Pretty sweet.

At the end of the month, Jenny and I went to ComicCon so I could participate in the Zombie Research Society panel there.  UBER fun.  Highlights

  • I acquitted myself admirably on the panel, representing my school well and providing solid answers.  Most satisfying moment — when Max Brooks, author of World War Z, said “YES!” at my suggestion that members of the audience would be well-treated by reading Day of the Triffid.  Also, met some ZRS advisory board members and found they are awesome people.
  • Met Colin Anderson and J. August Richards in person.  Very cool.
  • Saw panels with Adam Baldwin, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Chris Hardwick, Joel McHale (and the Community crowd), and John Barrowman.
  • Hung out with friends Scott Kenemore and Matt Mogk.
  • Met many comic book writers, including Eric Powell, Mike Mignola, and Rick Geary.

Books this month:

  • A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary
  • The Lindbergh Child by Rick Geary
  • Lexicon by Max Berry
  • Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs

Last, my class appeared as a clue on Jeopardy!

Zombies on Jeopardy!

Zombies on Jeopardy!

June 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

June was a relatively calm month around the Riley manse.  A few highlights:

  • The PCA conference year is nearly at an end.  Glad to be done with that — on to other work!
  • Enjoying the early summer with the kids.  Lots of board gaming.

Books this month:

  • A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
  • Deadpool Vol 1 by Brian Posehn
  • Incognito: The Classified Edition byEd Brubaker
  • Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce
  • Hitman, Vol 1 by Garth Ennis
  • Bob Howard: Plumber of the Unknown, Vol 1 by Rapfael Nieves
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

May 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

The end of the semester arrives and summer begins.  A few highlights:

  • With the end of the semester, I’ve been able to start playing board games with the gaming group again.  Looking forward to doing this more this summer.
  • Wrapped up my classes nicely.  I appreciate their help and work.
  • The school’s choirs sang a cool arrangement of “Happy” by Pharrell at this year’s graduation.  It was great.

Books I read:

  • The Neon Rain by James Burke
  • The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

April 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

April was a busy month:

  • The PCA conference happened this month.  The conference itself went very well, but the politics of the governing board were very unpleasant.
  • Courses continue well at Columbia.  Yay my students!

Books I read:

  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
  • Fatale, Vol 1 by Ed Brubaker
  • A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi


Zombie, Indiana

Zombie, Indiana, due out May 6

Zombie, Indiana, due out May 6

Zombie, Indiana
by Scott Kenemore

When zombies start crawling out of the ground across the Hoosier state, it’s all people can do to keep society from falling apart.  Kenemore tells the story from three perspectives, following: Hank Burleson, the corrupt and myopic Governor of Indiana; James Nolan, the former star athlete / police officer who works as the Governor’s fixer; and Kesha Washington, an Indianapolis high school student trapped in the scary rural zombiescape.  With this third novel (which belongs to the series I suggest he begins calling “The state of the zombie”), Kenemore refines his technique and finds another great story to tell.

A few thoughts:

  • I like that Kenemore continues to write about slow zombies, usually emerging mysteriously from the ground. It gives a purity to the stories that makes them universal.  It also fits the written story better.  With slow zombies, the protagonist doesn’t need to be a military super-commando (as in Jonathan Mayberry’s Patient Zero) to survive.
  • I’ve always liked that this series imagines cities and governmental structures surviving on some level.  Kenemore continues exploring the idea that humans helping humans will win out over isolated survivalists or rural communities.  This emerged in both the previous Zombie novels.
  • Like Zombie, Illinois, this novel brings biting satire and political edge to the story.  The particular target here is the governor, a free-market conservative of the tea-party bent with delusions of grandeur.  His storyline makes Indiana itself into the “rural” part of the country, trying to stand on its own, unwilling to ask for help and suffering for it.  For people who like their zombie stories without any social commentary (and why would you want that?), this aspect of the tale will probably grate a bit.  But the corruption and short-sightedness of the character echoes the long history of selfish villains in zombie tales, like Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead or the human villains in the Return of the Living Dead movies.
  • The three main characters in the novel each have diverse perspectives that shape the way they view the world.  These differences make their narratives move in separate ways, and reflect careful character construction.  I found the police officer and the high school student pretty believable, but the governor got a bit cartoonish toward the end.  That said, individuals under extreme stress could certainly go “off the deep end” the way he does.
  • One of my favorite things about Kenemore’s writing is that he uses words I don’t know.  It’s too common in mainstream commercial writing for authors to dumb down their vocabulary rather than using the mots juste.  One word I noticed and looked up: spavined, meaning something like ‘misshapen from disease or age.’

The State of the Zombie novels don’t explicitly happen in the same universe, but they also don’t rule out one another.  (I may be mis-remembering this about Zombie, Illinois.) At some point, I’d love to see what Kenemore would do with a larger-scale story, trying to understand the zombie outbreak in these novels from a wider perspective.  It’s hard to see how one would do that without aping World War Z, but I’d enjoy seeing Kenemore try.  Maybe he’s already doing it in longitudinal form — one state at a time.

Zombie, Indiana hits the sweet spot between entertainment and insight. Kenemore has written an enjoyable romp for the reader with brains.  Highly recommended.

Full disclosure: Kenemore has been to visit my zombie class a number of times, and we’re both members of the Advisory Board for the Zombie Research Society.  This review is based on a preview copy of the novel, which goes on sale May 1st.

March 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

March in Chicago.  What fun!

  • Nothing much to report from March, except that things continue apace.  Courses go well, PCA planning for the conference goes … along, anyhow.

Books I read:

  • The Windup Girl by Paulo Gacigalupi
  • Champagne for One by Rex Stout

February 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

A chilly winter in Chicago.

  • Preparations continue apace for the PCA/ACA 2014 conference.  It’s going to be very big.
  • Enjoying the new Spring semester courses at CCC.
  • Swim meets, swim meets, swim meets.

Books I read:

  • Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann
  • The 13th Hour by Richard Doetsch
  • Broxo by Zack Giallongo
  • League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru


January 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

A cold month, but another great time teaching Zombies in Popular Media.  YAY!

Books I read:

  • Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! by Otto Penzler
  • A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
  • Code Monkey Save World by Greg Pak and Jonathan Coulton
  • The Chatham School Affair by Thomas Cook

Tweets from 2013-12-29 to 2014-01-04