• Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

    Book Review: The Martian | LenaStark.com
    Book Review: The Martian | LenaStark.com
    Not the ideal vacation destination

    The Martian by Andy Weir

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Mark Watney has a problem. Not a small problem like running out of clean socks or a medium problem like your subordinate trying to maneuver for your position at work. An actual problem. A colossal problem. A marooned on Mars because your crew mates thought you died during the emergency sandstorm evacuation problem. Mark Watney is now The Martian.

    How do you survive on thirty day’s worth of supplies until the next mission arrives in four years? How do you grow food in dead Martian soil? How do you separate hydrogen from rocket fuel in an oxygen-rich environment so you can make water without blowing yourself up? How can you let someone, anyone, know you are even alive and need help getting to that next mission’s landing site when all of your communications equipment is destroyed? Just a few problems of the variety that can kill you at any given moment.

    First-time author Andy Weir thinks like a scientist (he’s an engineer and son of a particle physicist, both of which absolutely show) but writes Mark like he’s your favorite, snarkily enthusiastic friend (Mark’s first words on being reminded to keep his communications clean because they are now being read around the entire globe? “Boobs”).

    The entire book is problem-solving one catastrophe after another, and the science is both fascinating and apparently accurate based on the amount of vetting done by massive numbers of online fans who are not me but who seem to have lots of available time. If you have one of those brains that constantly formulates the logical scenario within any given parameters, you will adore this book.

    In addition to the general cheeriness that Andy gives his protagonist and the intensity of the writing in general, Andy Weir manages to pull off one of the hardest parts of writing fiction in an utterly satisfying way: the ending. Thank you, Mr. Weir, for writing one of the best closing passages I’ve ever read in fiction.

    The Martian began life as a free serial posted on Andy Weir’s blog, grew into a $.99 ebook due to reader demand, debuted at #12 on the NYT Best Seller list after Crown Publishing picked it up, and is now set for theatrical release in October 2015 with Ridley Scott directing and Matt Damon starring. If you are remotely interested in science, sci-fi, space, Mars, or survival stories, you will love this book.

    View all my reviews

  • Pipe Dream, Part 2

    Pipe Dream #2 | LenaStark.com

    Part 1 is here in case you missed it.

    “I knew you would know where to go,” I said to my friend Angie as we pulled into the alleyway behind the boutique pipe tobacco shop down the street from her house. Knowing where to buy a pipe and tobacco is useful when one wants to take up pipe smoking. She grinned. Angie has a massive cache of unexpected information inexplicably quartered in her miraculous brain. It’s a huge part of why I like her.

    Upon entering the small, acceptably wood-and-leather inspired shop, we were greeted by a gray-haired, amiable looking man with the biggest mutton chop sideburns I’d ever seen.

    “I’m looking for a cheap pipe,” I told him.

    “Oh, well I’ve got a wonderful, refurbished Master Craft for $35. Here, take a look at this,” he replied as he removed a small pipe from a glass display case and handed it to me. It was very nice, but not quite what I had in mind.

    “Actually, it’s for me, and I’ve never smoked a pipe before. I’m really just looking for something cheap like a corn cob pipe so I can decide if I even like smoking it or not.”

    “Oh, it’s for you!” he said. He did not seem to be expecting this and immediately became more animated. I got the impression that I was not his usual demographic. “You can buy corn cob pipes anywhere. Well, except here because mine just sold out.” Not a promising start.

    “How about tobacco?” I said. “Do you have Sail?” According to my mother, this was the brand my grandfather used to smoke. My mother does not approve of my pipe smoking.

    “Sail! No, that’s horrible stuff, all chemically processed. I don’t carry any of that here. All of my tobacco is organic, and I blend it myself. Here, smell this,” he said as he shoved an open plastic bag labeled “Grandfather’s Blend” in elaborate calligraphy under my nose. “I made this blend myself fifty years ago for my own grandfather.” The proprietor puffed proudly, and the difficulty with which Angie was stifling her giggles at his rapid demeanor change was becoming a palpable threat to my own attempts to remain collected. “This is eight dollars, but if you buy it today with the pipe, I’ll give it to you for six.”

    The thirty-five dollars in my purse roughly comprised my pipe experiment budget. Maybe I could just buy the tobacco here and get a corn cob pipe at the smoke shop up the road that had “Pipes Here” emblazoned on the iron-barred windows next to the gang signs. “What’s this one?” I asked, pointing to the bag beside the grandpa one. “And can I smell that one too?” I pointed to the one on the other side.

    He seemed rather pleased that I was sniffing and admiring the aromas of his other tobacco blends. “Actually,” he said, “if you buy the pipe, I’ll throw in the tobacco for free. Just for today.” There was my $35! I looked at the smooth, wooden pipe in my hand. It really was beautiful, and it wasn’t too big.

    “Okay, I’ll take it,” I said. “Hey, do you have a pouch I can keep this stuff in?”

    “A pouch? Hmm, I don’t think so. Let me check,” he said as he began pulling out and rifling through each of the drawers behind the cash register. “I don’t usually keep them, but I might have an old one floating around… yes, here’s one. Here are some matches too,” he said as he threw a small box on the counter, “and you’ll need a tamper. Hang on.” He went back to the display case and pulled out a small metal tool that was flat on one end and tapered into a very thin scoop on the other. I could feel Angie snickering again behind me.

    “What is your problem?” I asked her as the man was whizzing around accumulating gear that either wasn’t for sale or that I hadn’t asked for.

    “Nothing. Nothing at all,” she said with amused eyebrows and an abysmally stifled grin. I turned back to the checkout counter which now claimed a pipe, a bag of tobacco, a box of matches, a tamper, and a pouch to carry everything in. This was going to be way over budget.

    “Soooo… what do I owe you for all this?”

    “Oh, you can have it for $35,” he said. I hadn’t told him how much my budget was. I offered to pay for everything, but he declined.

    As soon as we got back outside, Angie exploded in laughter.

    “I think I just snookered some old guy out of a bunch of stuff,” I said.

    “Yeah, I think so.”

    The next week my Mom was over, and she wanted to see my new pipe. Grandpa hadn’t smoked since I was a kid, and although I have fond memories of the smell, I had completely forgotten what his pipe looked like. She hadn’t. “This pipe looks exactly like your grandfather’s,” she said. It wasn’t until she brought over the picture of Grandpa two weeks ago for Pipe Dream, Part 1 that I realized just how right she was.

    Lena Stark | Pipe Dream, Part 2
    Grandpa Style: Me with my pipe on the porch swing.

  • Book Review: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

    Gorgeous cover art is a plus too!

    The Complete Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    “Picking up some fairy tales, huh?” said my friend Eli, the proprietor of my favorite bookstore, as I sidled up to the cash register.

    “Yeah, I’m taking the kids camping, and they aren’t quite old enough to read Poe to at the campfire. Proper fairy tales seem about right though, but I’m looking for the real ones — translations, you know. None of that sanitized Disney stuff. You think either of these books will work?” At that point my six kids were ages twelve and under.

    Eli grinned at me and checked the two books in my hands. “You don’t want those. Come here; I’ll show you the book you want.”

    That was how I came to own this version of the Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Eli was right; it is the version I wanted. These tales are so much more entertaining and rich than the happily ever after renditions that seem ubiquitous in children’s picture books and popular films. The first night camping I read several to the kids and to my in-laws who had come with us. The kids, Uncles, aunties – all loved it (not so sure Grandma appreciated it), and now the kids insist that I drag it out again every time we camp and even the adults ask me if I’m bringing it along.

    The kids’ favorites are A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, Rumpelstiltskin, and How Some Children Played at Slaughtering. That last one slightly horrifies me, actually, but the kids think it’s hilarious. I append my own dictum, “NEVER DO THAT because I’ll cry forever,” to the end, which seems to amuse them even more as they roll their eyes and immediately request another story.

    These stories will not appeal to everyone. If you worry a lot about kidnappers, trampolines with no nets on them, people who ask too many questions, or your children getting the idea that cutting off their toes to fit into a fancy shoe to impress a prince is a great plan, you will probably hate these. Why do I like them? They are seedlings of imagination that plant in your brain and grow into all sorts of wonderful, bizarre things. They inhale the wild, weird beauty of this world and exhale wonder. They tell of a world that never was yet feels just as familiar as our own.

  • France in Five Days

    I am not supposed to be here this morning sitting on a plane to France. I’m supposed to be at home snoozing quietly in my bed. This isn’t my trip. I have not planned and hoped and saved for the last year to fly overseas today, yet here I am. My dad is the one who is supposed to be here. I am taking his place.

    T-6 Days (or last Thursday to you lay people):

    Last week (Sun-Sat) was our church’s Family Camp at the beach, which we and my parents and my husband’s parents all attended. Two weeks prior to camp, my dad had minor surgery, which he began having complications with last week. Thursday morning I awoke to discover that Dad was in the hospital. Mom came back from the hospital two hours later to pack up their things and let us know they were going back home.

    “Is your passport current?” Those were Mom’s first words to me when I finally found her. Dad was transported to the hospital by their house, and they went home.

    T-5 (that was last Friday. See how I’m looking out for you?)

    “We refunded your dad’s ticket and yours are booked.” – Mom

    Thank you, terrorists, for prompting airline regulations when you hijacked aircraft on 9/11 that prohibit transferring Dad’s ticket directly to me. This means I am not on the same outbound flights as the others, which was undoubtedly part of you nefarious scheme.

    Oh yes, right. “Others” is plural. Did I not mention that my parents were not flying alone? The point of the trip was actually to take three college-aged art girls to tour Paris and Provence since my mom speaks French and has taken a couple of other sets of girls there before.

    Anyway, by Friday afternoon I was definitely going. Alas, I was still at the beach for one more day, and we were hosting about fifty people from camp that night. Not much preparing was going to get done that day.

    T-4 (I know you can do this; I have faith in you. Okay, it was Saturday. I was sure you had that.)

    “I might not be going either, so you might be taking the girls by yourself.” – Mom

    Dad still wasn’t out of the hospital. Did I mention that I don’t speak French (Mom does)? Or that I’ve never been to France (Mom has)? Or that my driver’s license was due to expire during the first week of the trip (problematic with the second week plans to rent a car and drive around Provence)? Or that I still wasn’t even home from camp yet? It was about that time that I began to properly panic.

    [pullquote]“I might not be going either, so you might be taking the girls by yourself.”[/pullquote]We drove home, unpacked the car, and went out and purchased walking shoes.

    T-3 (a.k.a. “The Day of Doom”)

    “Kyra and Henry both threw up last night.” – Husband

    By noon another one of the kids was down, and by the afternoon my husband and I were both sick too. This was not helpful. I needed to be at the airport on Wednesday by 3:30 or 4am. Everything needed to be ready by Tuesday evening.

    With the amount of available preparation time rapidly waning, I spent the time in between barfing episodes messaging everyone I knew asking them if they would be able to take a couple kids for a few days while Hub-ness worked during the week. In retrospect, that was probably the most convenient day to get sick before flying out.

    T-2 (Monday, which should be permanently prohibited by law)

    Spent the morning finishing organizing the kids (thank you, everyone!) and making a spectacular (or possibly ridiculous) list of things to ask Mom about the trip, since it was looking like I was no going to be in charge in France and I had very little of the necessary information to manage everything. Where are we staying? Do we take a taxi there from the airport? Can I have the tickets for the train to Nimes? On what day do I have to have everyone to Nice? Do you tip in France? You know, small things.

    Monday afternoon I kidnapped my friend Angie, who was already mad that I had ditched her for the beach for a week, and she spent six hours chatting and running all over town with me and my older son. Angie’s fun to take to the DMV.

    “HEY, YOUR DAD’S OUT OF THE HOSPITAL. FACEBOOK SAYS SO!” she yells extremely loudly to me as I’m talking to the lady at counter. She’s taking the fact that I’m leaving for two more weeks really well, I thought to myself.

    We made it to my parents’ house, said “hi” to Dad, bombarded Mom with questions, and borrowed a TSA lock. Dad was fried that Mom might miss the trip on his account; Mom didn’t want to leave Dad since he had just gotten out of the hospital. After getting all my questions answered, I started feeling like this might be doable.

    T-1 (That means it’s the day before the take-off, in case you really have watched nothing involving NASA or space)

    “Your Dad is covered; I’m coming.” – Mom

    Knowing the trip situation, some friends had volunteered to stay with Dad while Mom is gone and another friend had organized for people to bring him meals.

    I spent the day organizing up an itinerary for the trip so I knew what was going on, typing up kids’ itineraries for my husband including two birthday parties and eight places the kids are staying, printing out copies of our bills and my passwords and my itinerary for my husband in case I die, locating our life insurance information, packing, getting a hair cut, and making a million phone calls. I started working at 7am and finished at 10:40pm. Phew! All done. Angie messaged me five minutes later: “I am already angry with France. Have a safe flight. Don’t get Taken. I would hate to fly there to rescue you.” And there it is. “I would totally be all Liam.”

    Blast Off! (after 3:39 minutes of sleep)

    “Are your power cords in your carry-on? Don’t wear those flip-flops on the flight. What if you get stuck outside the airport and it’s cold? What if you have to sprint to catch a plane?” – Husband

    He’s usually a very calm man, but the trick to telling when he’s worried is to watch for the irrational statements. It’s rare. I always feel very loved when it happens. I smiled and changed my shoes despite the facts that a) I could think of no plausible explanation for why I would be trapped outside an airport, b) the fact that I was wearing flip-flops with my khakis and sweater was not likely to produce hypothermia even if I did since it is June and I’m not going anywhere cold, c) the shoes he wanted me to change into were also sandals, just ones that had a back, and d) since I was planning to spend my seven hour layover in Newark writing and reading Isaac Asimov, I expected to have plenty of time to make it to my flight without sprinting. It’s all for you, dear. All for you. Except going on the trip. That’s for me.