Another month, another pile of book reviews, broken down by topic. Last month I was all about neuroscience and brain chemistry (three books), as well as slavery, racism, and Apartheid (four books). This month I seem to be all about evolutionary science and Charles Darwin (six books). Basically, I am a topic reader and tend to get excited about something and read a whole stack of books about it. I also write in all the margins to cross-reference with other books that I’ve read on the same topic and snide remarks against or exclamatory agreements with whatever the author is talking about. (It should go without saying that I only write in the books that I own, I’m not one to deface another person’s book.)
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (4 stars). Recommended by RA. Basic premise: take a shelf of fiction in the public library and systematically read your way through it. Firstly, I’m not a huge fiction/novel reader, and certainly not without doing some research on it’s quality and style. I also realized while reading this book that I haven’t heard of probably 80% of the books and authors she talks about, not only the ones on her shelf, but the others peppered throughout the chapters. I try not to feel to badly about this, because fiction isn’t really my jam, and that’s okay. Ok, what I did love about this book was getting little bits of a bunch of different books and authors, and a few key concepts. The idea that creativity is the burgeoning idea for all art, and the idea that ultimately art is what changes the world. “‘Artists [are] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Changes in consciousness begin with art and take shape through discussion of art.” I love this idea. It reminds me of a quote from the book Culture Making that says “Creativity is the only viable source of change.” Was this book about art and creativity? Not really. But I love that was the direction my mind went as I read through the authors experience with her shelf. I also realized more and more that I don’t really follow “traditional” reading patterns; I generally get fascinated by a somewhat obscure topic or person and read book after book about it before jumping on to another topic (um, see below in the lengthy “Darwin and Evolution” section). I don’t read all the bestsellers, and I rarely pay attention to what is new this week (or month, or year) in the publishing world. Especially when it comes to fiction. For the most part, if a piece of fiction has withstood the 3-5 year test and is still relevant and highly discussed, only then I will consider it. This keeps me from being able to participate in a lot of “have you read this yet!?” conversations; but it also keeps me from reading a lot of crap.
Additional Recommended Reading: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan.
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young, by Kurt Vonnegut (4 stars). A collection of commencement day speeches from Kurt Vonnegut, but not a collection of pretentious, self-help type comments; he is frank and honest with young college grads, he doesn’t necessarily pump them up (which I appreciate), but he is pretty direct about the rest of their lives. There are some pieces of his speeches that cross over into multiple addresses, which I think is great, because he has some great tidbits of advice. In many ways this reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie, but without the dying old professor. This was a quick listen and I would definitely listen to it a few more times. Excellent stuff.
Additional Recommended Reading: Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom.
Fiction & YA Fiction:
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (4 stars). I had no idea what this book was about going in, and while Kathy’s narration seemed to ramble a bit, and circle back and jump forward and circle back again, I did like the premise…which you can’t really explain without giving major spoilers to the book because with this back and forth story-telling the Big Stuff doesn’t come up until a ways in to the story. I wish there was more of the science, particularly from the conversation with Miss Emily where she explains all of the plot pieces. This is kind of a mix of The Giver, the movie The Island, and a bit of Ayn Rand. I listened to this and found the British accent(s) delightful, which probably contributed at least one full star on my overall experience.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell (3 stars). This is both a sweet story about first teenage love, and also a really heartbreaking look at a young girl who is emotionally abused, neglected, has no real home or place where she feels safe. I think it’s fair to state that part of her longing for Park probably stems from her really horrible home life, but that doesn’t make her feelings for him less genuine or their interactions less sweet. I’m a little fuzzy on the ending…but again, I think that stems from Eleanor’s background and lack of love and support–she doesn’t have a toothbrush, for heaven’s sake! And no one thinks she might need one! She shares a room with 4 younger siblings and their bathroom doesn’t have a door and her stepfather is a total abusive, drunk, creeper and her Mom can’t seem to stand up to him. You can’t really blame Eleanor for her sometimes strange and isolating behavior, but I also wish more of the reviews of this book touched on the incredible neglect and abuse that is going on in this story, and a little less on the fluffy love stuff.
Additional Recommended Reading: The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Wonder, by R. J. Palacios; Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. Clearly, as is evident by a serious lack of additional recommendations, I don’t read a ton of YA romance. Can we still be friends?
Charles Darwin & Evolution
A note from the nerdy blogger: this particular topic is obviously one that I have become unnaturally obsessed with (ha! a pun!). That being said, if you want to start somewhere learning about Charles Darwin, may I recommend Charles and Emma an easy read biography that surrounds the relationship between Super Science-y Atheist Charles Darwin and his Super Religious Pious wife, Emma. There are explanations of Darwin’s science and explorations, but also you learn about him as a man, a father, and a husband. Recommended.
And now, moving forward on my quest to read ALL THE DARWINIAN AND EVOLUTIONARY BOOKS:
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-82, by Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow (4 stars). I kind of have a thing for Charles Darwin, so it was inevitable that I would want to read his autobiography. I loved reading his own words and some of his own thoughts on science, evolution, his friends, family, and slavery (he was adamantly anti-slavery). That being said, this autobiography was written by Darwin, exclusively for his children and grand-children. And as such, it doesn’t cover much of his life, especially when compared to the 1,200 page, 2-part biography by Janet Browne that I read last summer. It is interesting the pieces Darwin felt were most important (combined with his volumes of letters and correspondence, some of which are included in the Appendix), compared to what a careful biographer would include–which includes researching multiple records and documents around Darwin’s life, not just his personal journals and papers. I am glad I read the behemoth biography first, because it helped me fill in the gaps that Darwin skims over.
Voyage of The Beagle, by Charles Darwin (4 stars). First off, I think you must be kind of a nerd to enjoy this book. Secondly, I am just such a nerd. I have read a number of books about Darwin and his writings, his science, and the 5-year voyage around the world that launched his career. This is not the scientific notebooks from his journey, but instead is a compilation journal of his experiences and some of his discoveries while exploring Cape Verde, Brazil, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, Chile, the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, a few island chains in the Indian Ocean, and then finally, back to England. The bulk of his time was spent in South America, and it was interesting to me to see the differences in Darwin’s opinions on slavery, native peoples, native cultures, and the vast British colonial empire when applied in South American vs. New Zealand and Australia. I think part of that must stem from his experiences in NZ and Oz taking place after living on a ship for 4 years, and after a lengthy, confined passage across the Pacific, where Darwin suffered constantly from seasickness. In NZ and Oz Darwin seems less concerned about slavery, less concerned about the colonial British taking over culture and introducing plants and animal species that drove native species to extinction. Darwin seems just thrilled to death with tidy English cottages surrounded by tidy English flower gardens. BUT, that irritation aside, I think his writings about his extensive time in South America is fascinating, he views the native peoples on their own terms instead of compared with British colonials, and he understands their required differences in culture and way of life, as dependent on their geography and climate. Overall, I really liked this book, and I loved how Darwin gets so focused on one thing (construction and survival of coral reefs, life cycle of barnacles, mountain strata in the Andes, the people of Tierra del Fuego who seemed impervious to cold, the differences in fossil quadrupeds throughout S. America, etc.). Yep, Darwin is my kind of nerd.
The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin (4 stars). After reading almost a dozen books about evolution and Darwin, I thought it was probably a good idea to read his most famous work. I enjoyed it, I love how he wrote so many examples of each piece of his theory, examples that would make sense to his Victorian, uber-religious audience. He talked about beetles and pigeons and songbirds and cattle and sheep and orchids and fruit trees; he explained how the variations between beetles or pigeons could happen, and why, and how each little variation, for each generation, of each variety, over time, could eventually create new species. He did NOT say that humans descended from gorillas, that was something from one of his critics, hoping to shock Darwin’s audience into not reading his writings. Darwin’s book created an enormous uproar both in agreement and staunch opposition, but in reading it over 150 years after it was published and many of Darwin’s premises are widely accepted by both the science community and the general population, it was fascinating to me how his explanations were still so easy to understand and how his thousands of little facts combined to make these clear, elegant arguments. Brilliant, then and now. Love.
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond (4 stars). Basic premise: we share over 98% of our genetics with chimpanzees, so what is it about the remaining sequences that make us human instead of apes? (Short answer: sexual pairings and strange life cycle for the animal kingdom, language, art, use of tools, genocide, drug addiction, intentional destruction of habitat/necessary resources for survival.) I enjoyed this book, I really did. But I also had to keep reminding myself that it was written 20+ years ago and that a lot of science has been altered and improved upon since then. A lot. Especially when it comes to DNA, genetics, carbon dating, and study of ancient fossils. Diamond has a few chapters that seem like they are coming from left field; for example his theory that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere in the cosmos because we’ve sent out radio signals that haven’t been returned….but he seems to not fathom that our radio waves may not be the intergalactic language used by other intelligent humanoids. Maybe they use waves we haven’t discovered on our planet, or that don’t exist on our planet. His theory that extra-terrestial life cannot exist because we don’t have routine visits from alien flying saucers is extremely flawed. Additionally, there are a number of passages where he seems to assume that the perspectives and opinions of the West (USA, Europe) are far superior, and that anything else is just primitive drivel hardly worthy of the terms “culture” or “science.” And that is irritating. He also has dated views on race, genocide, drug abuse, learning and language, and technology, as well as a couple other key improvements from the last quarter century. (He cites fax machines as the height of modern technology. So, there’s that.) Overall, I appreciated so much of this book and it’s study of ancient links between humans and other species, how we are alike and how we are different. I have a couple of additional, more recently published books on my night stand that I hope will curb my frustrations a bit.
The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, by Christine Kenneally (3 stars). I wanted to love this book, I really did. I was so in to the premise and really hoping for a something meaty to sink my teeth in to. And this….was more like one of those dainty, crustless sandwiches. Kenneally and I got off on the wrong foot when she started writing page after page of why personal genealogy was a crack-pot science, why normal people weren’t interested in learning about their ancestors, and the groups that provide massive genealogical searches (Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.com, etc) were charging people for services that should be free. Now, I live in what is probably the genealogy capital of the world, and the headquarters of the LDS Church is just down the street, and they are one of the biggest international forces for collecting genealogy information (which they input into software and store in a massive granite vault buried deep in the Rocky Mountains, said to be able to withstand just about anything Mother Nature or humanity can throw it’s way). I also happen to have a solid record of my own ancestry that in many cases goes back 1,000 years or more. So, she and I are very different when it comes to this particular topic. She is Australian and is hung up for several chapters about the idea of a convict being in her family history…the significance of which I just don’t understand. We probably all have criminals for forefathers and foremothers, but in Australia I guess this is something shameful…? Yeah, I don’t get that. Just because your English great-great-grandpa stole some candlesticks to buy a loaf of bread (24601!!) doesn’t mean you are going to turn out a murderer and a rapist, nor should it bring shame to your family in 2015.
Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, by Robert M. Hazen (3 stars). I think I bit off a little more than I could chew with this one. There is a LOT of chemistry in this book, and my 10th grade, non-honors, non-AP Chem class was not nearly enough background for me to easily follow most of the chemical reactions, processes, and names of derivatives of elements, atoms, etc. Honestly, lots of this went over my head. However, after skimming a few paragraphs that I just couldn’t understand, I did come across some fantastic gems that seem to be written more for a lay audience. Hazen is arguing for what process generated the first living one-cell organisms…and/or the amino acids that those organisms require…and/or the process of metabolism that supports those acids, etc etc etc. Some of the experiments that Hazen describes are fascinating, and the stuff that scientists are able to determine in both a tiny test tube, and by studying millions and millions of years old fossils and samples is absolutely astounding. If you are a science nerd or an armchair chemist, I think you might actually really enjoy this book.
Additional Recommended Reading: This post about Darwin’s kids using his manuscript pages as artist canvases; Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman; Charles Darwin: Voyaging, by E. Janet Browne; Charles Darwin: Power of Place, by E. Janet Browne.