Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Book of Vice

You knew you shouldn’t.
You loved it.
And now…
You feel terrible.
-Peter Sagal

The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them) by Peter Sagal: The host of NPR’s “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!” travels the country to understand the naughty indulgences of American society. From gambling to pornography, lying to gluttony, and conspicuous consumption to strip clubs, each chapter covers a different vice: who does it, how they do it, and why they do it.

Overall Quality: Very good. Every topic is both well-researched and funny, and if you tend to “hear” books as you read them, you’ll probably hear this one in Sagal’s voice if you’re an NPR fan. My one criticism is that, in the sexual vice chapters, he definitely seems to be writing for more of a male audience. I know it must be hard to get away from the male perspective when writing about strip clubs and singers’ parties, but there were a couple of times when I felt slightly alienated as a female reader. On the whole though, I did really enjoy this book, especially the interviews. He really delves into why people give in to their particular indulgences. The lunch interview with Nina Hartley, Shane, and Stormy Daniels (all porn stars) is the best. Expert tip: if you sleep with a porn star, don’t ask for an autograph afterward.

Bus Readability: Good. Once again, non-fiction holds up quite well to reading in small sections. Much like Packing for Mars, each chapter is a different subject, so there’s always something new to read about. The hardcover is about 250 pages, so it fits reasonably well in one hand.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: During World War I, a man named Commodore Ned Green wanted to own the largest yacht in the world. Since such a yacht wasn’t for sale, he purchased a 225 foot steamer, had it sawed in half, and added 40 feet. The finished result sank promptly in15 feet of water.

Too G rated for a book on vice? Okay.

Eadweard Muybridge, after using his fast-shutter photographic technology to settle a bet for Leland Stanford on whether a racehorse ever has all four legs off the ground, next turned to images of a naked, writhing woman: the first pornographic movie.

TL;DR: Naughty stories for a far more interesting bus ride.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


You can learn how to tie a shoe.
You can learn how to rebuild an engine.
You can learn how to speak Swahili with a French accent.
But style is innate
-Andy Spade

Style by Kate Spade: Designer Kate Spade shares her thoughts on stylish living in this volume, part of a trio with Manners and Occasions. Beginning with her thoughts on style in books, movies, and art, she spends the bulk of the book on fashion. How to mix colors, what to wear in any season, and Spade’s favorite clothes are all discussed, complete with beautiful illustrations. Style also serves as a useful reference book with conversion charts to International clothing and shoe sizes, as well as definitions of fashion terms.

Overall Quality: As an engineer, “stylish” is probably not the first word you’d come up with to describe me. I was hoping this book would be more of a how-to, and it does include a number of useful tips. However, it’s really more of a discussion of Kate Spade’s personal views on style. I sill found it an enjoyable read. As could be expected, the illustrations are the very best part. I always like to see how people with a better sense of style than me put together looks, and no one has a better sense of style than Spade. I will definitely hold onto this as a reference for subjects like how to care for vintage clothing. I'll keep my eyes peeled for the companion books Manners and Occasions, so don’t be surprised to see either of those featured later.

Bus Readability: The format of this book is actually much more like a magazine than a traditional book, so if you’re a morning Cosmo reader, you’ll be a fan. It’s more of a “flip-through” than a focused read, making it particularly ideal for short transit rides or those mornings when you’d need another cup of coffee before focusing on anything with a plotline. It’s a physically small book, and probably even more convenient to stow in a purse than said issue of Cosmo.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Did you know the bikini was invented in 1946 and named for the Bikini atoll?

TL;DR: Pretty pictures and easy bus reading.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Stephenson, a favorite author among geeky types, creates an alternate world where intellectuals live in “concents,” monasteries completely secluded from the rest of society except for specific occasions. Fraa Erasmus is excited to see the outside world for the first time in ten years, but he never could have predicted what would begin. Math, science, and philosophy are all key to solving a mystery that will change the concents--and the rest of the world--forever.

Overall Quality: Personally, I quite enjoyed this book. There are some amazing ideas and concepts explored and the last third or so of the book has a riveting plotline. I would love to discuss this book with someone, but I can’t because no one else I know has finished it. This 935 page beast starts off soooooo slooooooow. Really, someone should just write a summary of the first 150 pages and tell people to start there. He also makes up a lot of words, even inspiring an xkcd comic, though that didn’t bother me as much as it did others. And there is a legitimate story-telling reason for the invented vocabulary. (Which doesn’t really help you if you’re so annoyed by “Suur” and “Saunt” and whatnot that you can’t finish the book.) However, if you’re interested in math, philosophy, and alternate universes, I promise it’s worth slugging through the beginning and the made-up words. Despite the slow and somewhat confusing start, this is a great book.

Bus Readability: Pretty bad. In addition to being physically huge, this book does not hold up well to being read in short sections. Sometimes you can’t even finish one conversation before your stop is called. Wait for a vacation to tackle this tome.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Can you cut eight equal servings from a square of cake without using a ruler? There’s a fun geometry proof as the first appendix.

TL;DR: Great book for geeks, but not for the bus.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

(Trigger Warning: Violence between animals)

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris: In a big departure from his normal taken-from-life short stories, Sedaris’s Bestiary features tales of anthropomorphic animals satirizing the most annoying of human behaviors. A chicken tries to figure out the right way to behave in order to never die. An Irish setter wonders what it means to be loyal to his wife. An owl helps a lubricated gerbil into the anus of a hippopotamus to convince some singing leeches to move out. (You may have to just read the book to understand that one.)

Overall Quality: Sedaris is a fantastic author, but I’ll admit this isn’t my favorite by him. I cracked up at a lot of the stories, but a few of them are just too gruesome for my taste. (As in, more than one story involves eyes getting bitten out.) If you have a slightly more twisted sense of humor than I do, and a much higher tolerance for violent imagery, you will absolutely love this book.

Bus Readability: Short stories make for perfect bus reading, since you can often finish a whole story on one ride. You might get strange looks from your neighbors though, if they see some of the illustrations. (Like the mink who sold his skin for booze talking at the AA meeting.) The book is quite small, so it’s easy to read one-handed and tuck into a purse when you disembark.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: You could always tell the limerick about the rat with AIDS… Actually, that would be a bad idea.

TL;DR: Great for the bus, if you don’t mind a little cruelty to animals.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach: I wasn’t really into non-fiction until I started reading Mary Roach. After covering cadavers, the afterlife, and sex, her latest book is about space. Specifically, what happens to astronauts in outer space: from bone loss to zero-gravity toilets and what it would take to keep astronauts alive on a long-haul journey to Mars.

Overall Quality: Excellent, like her others. (Come on, any book including a thoroughly researched chapter on whether anyone has ever had sex in zero-gravity is automatically a good one.) She asks all the questions your inner twelve year old has always wondered about. What would a space shuttle smell like after two weeks without bathing? What happens if you vomit in your spacesuit? And of course, how do you go to the bathroom in space? Funny, compelling, and I learned a lot about space exploration.

Bus Readability: Solid. Non-fiction is well-suited to being read in small chunks. Every chapter covers a different aspect of life off Earth, so if a chapter drags a little for you (one or two did for me), you’ll be riveted again by the next one. Physically, even the hardcover is light enough to hold with one hand, if you’re unlucky enough to be standing.

Cocktail Party Conversation Starter: Did you know NASA scientists once filmed volunteers defecating in zero-gravity?

TL;DR: Good book; good bus reading; but, sadly, no one has ever had sex in space.


Welcome to the Bus Reader Book Review!

I’m a lifelong avid reader, but most of my reading these days is twenty minutes on the bus to work and twenty minutes on the bus from work. I’ve noticed that some books make for much better bus reading than others, so the BRBR is here to share with you what books I think make for the best commute reading. Whether you ride the bus, the train, the subway, or the ferry, this is the place to find great new books to read and what books to skip.