Which book does one choose as a Mother’s Day gift when one’s mother (a) loves to read and (b) deserves the highest-quality reading material but (c) has very different bookish taste from oneself?
Herewith, Dear Readers, a case study.
My mom sometimes jokes that when she grows up she wants to be a fighter pilot or Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character in Alien. I hate to break it to her, but I think she’s grown up, because she is Ripley.
No, really. She’s a steely-eyed missile (wo)man who takes care of threats to her kids the way Ripley deals with the queen in Aliens. Sometimes there’s even salty language involved. She’s ferociously protective of people she loves, fiercely committed to helping those in need (pretty sure she’d want me to tell you here that you should give blood), she works harder than anyone you’ve ever met, and she’s accomplished in her chosen profession, brilliant, practical, and cool as a cucumber in stressful situations. Also funny. She gave me and my siblings the priceless gift of growing up with a mother who kicked ass and took names at a professional level. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
And I’m pretty sure she could drive a powered cargo loader if the opportunity presented itself.
Oh, and once she saved my life (and my brother’s) by jumping into a swimming pool (while she was pregnant) after we fell out of our inner-tubes. So, you know. That’s kind of a big deal. I think I still owe her a lanyard for that one.
In addition to her impressive personal attributes, my mom has great taste: She read us Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were kids (she’s still reading to my youngest sister, and had her three adult children and their spouses transfixed by her reading of By the Shores of Silver Lake recently), and Little Women, A Secret Garden, and Jane Eyre to me. She organized our grandparents and other relatives to record themselves reading chapters of Watership Down as a gift for my brother.
And it’s not just books: We were raised on Twister (so bad it’s good, and one of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman movies), All About Eve, Apollo 13, the Jane Eyre with Timothy Dalton & Zelah Clarke, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. She hates cartoons and she won’t watch kids’ movies. And yet: My mom took me — then 13 — to see Titanic three times in the theater (out of seven total times — she’s only human), and it was only the third time that she broke down and started whispering “glug glug” when it looked like Leonardo DiCaprio had had it. I laughed through my tears.
Not being terribly sentimental, Mom doesn’t have much use for Mother’s Day, but since her birthday is in the vicinity, and since I don’t live close enough to “clean something” (the only gift she ever asks for) I feel justified in sending her a present now and then on the family timeline (+ or – 18 months from the event). Naturally, this year I’m sending her a book.
As you might suspect, my mom isn’t lining up for the latest Nora Roberts novel. She’s a brilliant woman, but she doesn’t like Shakespeare, poetry in general, contemporary fiction (aka navel-gazing) or Virginia Woolf. And yet we’re genetically related . . .
She does like Jane Austen (mordant wit), Jane Eyre (independent heroine with strong convictions), and nonfiction about mountain climbing, Antarctic exploration, the history of medicine, and space. She thinks I should blog more about nonfiction, and she’s probably right.
In other words, finding a book for my mom is tricky, very tricky (just like book shopping for Ripley would be, I imagine). However, I’m going (boldly, of course) to throw caution to the winds and send my mom her very own copy of Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian*.
Mark Watney is a wisecracking MacGyver-type who specializes in botany. He’s also stranded on Mars.
Alone after his crew accidentally leaves him behind during a hurried evacuation, Watney decides to try his damnedest not to be the first person to die on Mars. With grim determination, creative engineering skills, long-term strategizing and way too much 70s tv, he takes painstaking steps to save himself, recording them in detail in his mission log.
The Martian is fiction that reads like nonfiction, which is part of why I think my mom is going to dig this book. Mr. Weir conducted painstaking research for the novel; as he notes in an author Q&A, “All the facts about Mars are accurate, as well as the physics of space travel the story presents. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories.”
Yes, you read that right.
The novel is chock-full of Watney’s nitty-gritty calculations for survival, which heighten the realism and the tension of the work. The pacing is fast, but Watney notes the long stretches of days when not much happens except survival in the wilderness against daunting odds; there’s no tedious day-by-day, blow-by-blow replay, but neither are we to believe that Watney survives a new catastrophe daily. The novel also features tense Mission Control scenes; the only thing missing is Ed Harris in a white vest. (Maybe not for long — the movie rights have already been sold).
Thanks in no small part to Watney’s sense of humor, his plight evokes sympathy rather than sentimentality; The Martian is a good old man vs. the elements survival thriller. The emotional payoff is comparable to a viewing of Castaway or Apollo 13, to which The Martian is often compared, but with fewer scenes calibrated as tear-jerkers. You’ll also learn a hell of a lot about potatoes and atmospheric regulators, and have a pretty great time in the process.
In other words, it’s the perfect novel for the resourceful and resilient woman who happens to be my mom.
Book’s in the mail, Ripley.
UPDATE, Christmas 2014: Ripley loved the book. So did my grandma, my brother, three uncles, and one cousin. So far.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.
P.S. Bonus points, Dear Readers, for those who know the literary connections in Alien and Aliens.