Lab Girl.

Botanist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for the best autobiographical work of 2016, is a wildly compelling, inspiring read, the story of a woman who has fought mental illness, institutional sexism, and the indifference of a country that would rather fund wars than basic science to become a successful researcher and professor. It’s full of observations on the lives of plants, processes largely beneath our awareness because plants aren’t sentient or, in most cases, particularly mobile. But more than anything else, Lab Girl is the story of Jahren’s unusual, decades-long friendship with a lab partner and co-conspirator named Bill, who threatens to overtake Jahren in her own life story.

Jahren grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota where most of the local economy revolved around the town’s hog slaughterhouse, the lone daughter of a scientist father and frustrated-scientist mother, and was drawn to science from an early age. She chronicles her meandering path to her current post at the University of Hawai’i by way of undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota (where she also worked in the hospital’s pharmacy, filling bags and running them to patient rooms) and graduate work at Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins.

The heart of Jahren’s story, however, is this quixotic relationship she has with the itinerant Bill, whom she first encounters while they work at a research lab in California and then takes with her to Atlanta, Baltimore, and now Honolulu. Bill appears only in anecdotes and his dialogue revolves largely around a certain Anglo-Saxon gerund, but he comes across as a character right out of Inherent Vice – witty, gifted, cutting, loyal, poorly dressed, and a stoner. Jahren has some career ambition, driven in part by the sexism she meets at every stop – some overt, most just subtle enough to not get every one of those assholes hauled in front of HR – but also by lessons of her childhood. Bill, on the other hand, wants to be in the lab. He wants to work in the lab, yes, but also to inhabit the lab, which he actually does at a few points over the course of their shared history. His limited personal needs become fodder for inadvertent humor, such as the time he cuts most of his shaggy hair off … and stores it in the trunk of a nearby tree so he can go visit it. Every time Bill shows up on the page, the book goes from good to great.

Jahren manages to wrest the spotlight back from Bill a few times, especially in her descriptions of her bipolar disorder, which she depicts as occasionally useful for her work but also disastrous for her life and a major problem for the first 26 weeks of her one pregnancy. (I didn’t get the sense she intends for there to be a second.) Bipolar disorder, often misnamed as manic-depressive disorder, is still a widely misunderstood mental illness, even as we creep toward greater societal acceptance of the most common diseases like depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Jahren’s story doesn’t revolved around her illness, but it is a shining example of how much someone can achieve in spite of that obstacle.

Lab Girl won as an autobiography, and it is much more that than it is a science book. Jahren explains her love of plants (and soil – you can’t separate the two) with concise lessons on topics like leaf structure, plant sex (fertilization), or how plants survive in the desert. She also takes us to some widely varying settings and depicts them with evocative, bright language, from the greenery of Ireland to the barren terrain of a nearly plantless Arctic island north of Nunavut. As someone who reads and enjoys popular science books, I was hoping for a bit more of this, and given the book’s length (under 300 pages), there was certainly room for that. For one important example, Jahren talks at length about the scarcity of funds for basic science research like hers – research that won’t help us in war or directly lead to a cure or a product – but climate change gets the drive-by treatment in the last two chapters. In an era when one of our two political parties has embraced climate change denial, and has recruited swaths of the religious right to join them in this delusion, we need more voices like Jahren to speak out about the truth.

I sell, share, or donate a lot of the books I acquire, because if I stored them all, I’d need a second room just to shelve them. (Also, books are heavy, and I’ve made two cross-country moves in the last seven years.) I’m going to keep Lab Girl for a few years; my daughter is eleven and enjoys science, so once she’s ready for the book’s vocabulary, she’ll devour it.

Next up: Fritz Lieber’s Hugo-winning novel The Wanderer, which is just $3.82 for the Kindle.

Stick to baseball, 6/3/17.

My second first-round projection (mock draft) went up on Tuesday, and I held a Klawchat, in which some guy got mad at me for answering a question about my first-round projections by including that link, on Friday. It’s bad enough civility is dead, but must we continue to mutiliate its corpse?

My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the light detective/puzzle game Watson & Holmes, yet another game that uses those public-domain characters strictly for marketing purposes. It’s not a bad game, though, just a little too simple.

I’m told that Smart Baseball continues to sell well, although the sales figures I get mean nothing to me (since it’s my first book), but it wouldn’t hurt if you bought a dozen more copies to give out for Father’s Day to … um … your twelve fathers. Feel free to sign up for my email newsletter as well.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 5/20/17.

My one baseball post this past week was the annual ranking of the Top 25 MLB players under 25, which causes more “read the intro” violations than anything else I write every year. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday while in Minneapolis; I will do a quick eats post from there soon, but I’m about six topics behind here due to travel and lack of sleep.

For Paste, I reviewed the new puzzle game Shahrazad, which has a solo version and a two-player mode, both pretty clever with fantastic artwork and very few rules to learn.

My book, Smart Baseball, came out on April 25th from HarperCollins in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats. I traveled to Atlanta and the Twin Cities for readings/signings this past week, and am very grateful to all of you who came out to buy the book, have yours signed, or just say hello; we had 50+ folks at each event and Moon Palace Books sold out of the book Thursday night. Smart Baseball also got a very positive review from an unexpected source, the political site The Federalist.

I’m still sending out my email newsletter when I can, and the last edition, about some recent troubles I’ve had with my anxiety disorder and the medication I take for it, got the strongest response yet – so many replies and comments, in fact, that I haven’t been able to respond to the majority of them. I did see them all, though, and I really appreciate all the kind words.

And now, the links…

Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the best depiction of depression that I’ve come across in any medium of fiction, even though it’s, of all things, made with puppets and stop-motion animation. It uses one incredibly effective gimmick to show us the main character’s illness without resorting to lengthy explanations, and then is carried forward by the three voice actors’ performances in a story that is at times heartbreaking yet often deliberately silly. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis (a.k.a., Remus Lupin), is a successful author and public speaker on the topic of customer service, and he’s just landed in Cincinnati to give a talk on the topic. He’s also battling what we learn is a very longstanding case of depression, which is shown to us via his senses: He sees all other people as having the same face, and all their voices as identical as well. Male, female, child, adult, whatever, they all look and sound alike to him. (All of these characters are voiced by character actor Tom Noonan, who just moderates his pitch slightly for age and gender, nothing more.) Many of the people he meets are comically annoying, from the cab driver who gets him to the hotel to the bellman who just won’t leave, followed by a disastrous reunion with the girlfriend he left without explanation ten years earlier.

Later that night, he hears a different voice for the first time in years, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a very insecure woman who drove in from out of town with her friend just to hear Michael’s talk. Michael pursues her, discovering that she’s lonely in her own way, and … things move from there, but I wouldn’t say they “progress,” so much as they stumble, because Michael is still depressed and Lisa – whom he dubs “Anomalisa” when she refers to herself as a sort of anomaly – is not the cure.

I have been there, so to speak, not for the length of time that Michael has apparently been depressed but for long enough stretches to recognize what he’s enduring, and I’ve described it as a sort of fog. Colors seem less bright, everything is darker, edges are less crisp, and memories are always less clear. You don’t even necessarily know what’s wrong until you’re out of it and realize that your perception of the world and everyone in it was warped by your condition. I never suffered from the sort of modified Fregoli delusion that writer Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) gives Michael, but it works perfectly as a metaphor for depression in general. Your brain perceives the world without its details, so everything becomes less interesting or able to hold your attention, and you become overwhelmed with a feeling of sameness. (I assume the name Anomalisa also alludes to anomie, a sociological term that can refer to the loss of direction or purpose an individual might feel due to a sense of alienation or disconnect from society. Michael also stays at the Hotel Fregoli for another bit of Kaufman wordplay.)

Anomalisa also avoids showing depression as a one-dimensional disorder. Michael is depressed, but he can still function. He got on the plane. He’s given these speeches before and even written a best-selling book. He has fans. He’s supposed to be quite good-looking (for a puppet). Depressed is not dead. You can be depressed, or anxious, or even bipolar, and still lead a functional life – just not a fulfilled one. And for whatever reason, Zoloft, a very widely prescribed anti-depressant, doesn’t appear to have helped Michael. His foggy status could be a combination of the depression and the side effect of SSRIs that they tend to take the edges off your emotions, for better or for worse; at one point he mentions being unable to cry, something I’ve experienced on escitalopram (Lexapro) as well.

The film’s concluding sequence is somewhat jarring after the languorous pace of everything up to and including Michael’s encounter with Lisa, although it’s a logical series of events – it’s simply missing a few pieces, notably a last conversation between those two before Michael returns to Los Angeles, his miserable wife, and attention-starved son. Kaufman’s better at beginnings than endings; Being John Malkovich is a brilliant idea that crashes into the wall on the final lap, although I thought Eternal Sunshine ended well by returning to the beginning. Here, his script finishes with one final, beautiful flourish, a glimmer of hope in Lisa’s words and a visual trick you might miss if you’re not looking for it, that salvaged the slightly incongruous editing at the end.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand depression, perhaps because a friend or loved one has it, watch Anomalisa. All three voice actors are superb, especially Leigh, whose intonation reveals her character’s insecurity long before we understand her reasons for it. Kaufman’s script gives the disease an authentic, uncomfortable (quite so, at times) treatment for the serious, multi-dimensional story mental illness deserves. It’s a sad film, but never humorless, and left me wanting to see more.

Stick to baseball, 5/28/16.

My Mock Draft 2.0 Is now up for Insiders. You can also see my post from Tuesday ranking the top 25 prospects in pro ball. I’ll expand that list to 50 after the Futures Game in July.

I also held my usual Klawchat, this time on Friday morning on a flight from Birmingham to Baltimore.

And now, the links…

Saturday five, 10/10/15.

I visited the Dominican Republic for the first time this week, and saw Eddy Julio Martinez, six other Cuban defectors, and a handful of Dominican teenagers who will be eligible to sign in 2016 and 2017; Insiders can read all of my scouting notes on those players. I also wrote some preview/notes pieces on the American League and National League Division Series, although my Blue Jays in four prediction is already dead.

I held my regular Klawchat here on Thursday. I think the new software, despite some tiny glitches, is working out well; if nothing else it works far faster on my end.

And now, the links…