Confessions of a Bookaholic: Sciencey Things

Book ReviewsScience, Evolution, and DNA

If you’ve been around here for a minute you know that I’m kiiiinda of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. If you’re new, well, welcome; I’m Harriet, I’m kind of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. Why do I love this stuff so much? Well, there are a couple of reasons besides the fact that it’s AWESOME and FASCINATING and the science of genetics is ONLY THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF ALL LIVING AND FORMERLY LIVING THINGS!!!! Ahem.

  • Reason One: When I was 3 my family was part of a large study on genetics to determine a) if melanoma skin cancer had a genetic marker, and b) if our family had it (yes it is, and yes we do). My brother was diagnosed with skin cancer at that time, he was 13. We have talked about this my entire life.
  • Reason Two: I am an identical twin, there is another person on the planet with my exact genome and frighteningly similar dental records and fingerprints. Many MANY genetic studies focus on identical twins.
  • Reason Three: In 7th grade when we learned about Mendel and his genetic studies with peas, we also learned the basic grid for dominant and recessive genes. For twelve year olds, the easiest trait to study is eye color, it’s pretty straight forward and most people have either brown or blue eyes; both my parents have blue eyes, according to the grid, I should also have blue eyes. All my siblings have blue eyes with the same needs for contacts and glasses, but my twin and I have green eyes, quite green, actually, with no need for corrective lenses. We also are the only blonde’s in a family of medium-brown haired people, and (pink and purple dye aside) we are SUPER blonde. And we’re considerably shorter than the rest of them too. Frankly, if I didn’t have my Dad’s nose in the center of my face and the exact same eyebrows as my brothers and sister I’d be asking some questions!

I’ve been fascinated with genetics and the laws of inheritance my entire life, it actually seems pretty obvious (to me) that I would become an armchair evolutionary scientist/geneticist as an adult. And now, a few book reviews (if you’re going to skip the rest of this post because science isn’t your thing–that’s fine, you weirdo–perhaps just read the next three paragraphs first, they were my three favorites in this round of reading.

The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley (5 stars). I loved this book so much, and it is so much more than Darwin and the different parts of a cell. Ridley explains evolution and economics and how these vast systems are formed and tweaked and improved over time, whether that system is your eyeball, or your government, or a world religion, or banking, or the basis of trade, or the necessary vs unnecessary parts of your DNA. Ridley covers bits of all of that, plus a dozen more topics, and how Darwin and other science-minded thinkers predicted how and why certain evolutions would be successful and others would, eventually, fail. And, for a huge nerd like me, Ridley was funny. I laughed out loud a number of times at his jokes or satire or one-liners, all with a delightfully nerdy twist. Gah, this book was right up my alley!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (5 stars). In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, she was a poor black woman from Baltimore who went to Johns Hopkins for treatment, the doctors took a sample of her tumor and sent it to the lab for an experiment, and those cells–HeLa–became the first human cells to survive for more than a few weeks in petrie dishes…in fact, they are STILL alive, multiplying at astonishing rates, and HeLa is one of most widely used raw materials for scientific research, leading to breakthroughs in treatments for dozens (if not hundreds) of diseases and the first DNA genetic mapping projects. But, Henrietta’s family had no idea this research was going on, no idea their mother’s cells were collected or being used, and no idea that large pharma and biomedical companies were making millions and billions of dollars selling test tubes of her cells to scientists and researchers all over the world. In fact, Henrietta’s family cannot afford basic medical care. So, where is the social responsibility? What are the answers? How do you muddle through all that very gray area? I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read this book, I absolutely loved it. I loved the mix of biography and research science, the combination of social commentary and presentation of facts. I loved that by the end of the book I felt like I had a lot of information to form an opinion on using human tissue for medical research without informing the human herself what type of research, and without compensating that person or their family for any monetary gains on that research… but I still don’t know. I know more about genetic mapping and scientific processes, but I still am torn between the two sides of it (to benefit society as a whole (a good thing), or to somehow take care of the person’s DNA/identity/specific genetic make-up). There is SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT!

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, by Bryan Sykes (3 stars). I snatched this book up in a used book store specifically to learn more about Mitochondrial DNA, tiny little packets of genes inside a cell that are passed down the maternal line with a mutation only once in every 10,000 years or so. What does this mean? It means that my siblings and I all share the exact same Mitochondrial DNA as my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. My brothers did not pass that little M-DNA packet to their children as it is only in the egg, not the sperm; M-DNA is not swished around when a sperm and egg combine (X and Y chromosomes recombine, but M-DNA does not) as there is no sperm-M-DNA to recombine with, so that little packet of history remains practically identical for thousands of years. One of my favorite chapters was how using this brand-new testing (in the 1990s’) for M-DNA from bones helped determine the final resting place of the Russian Romanov family who were murdered in 1918 and left in a hole in the Siberian forest. By extracting DNA from the bones, and then testing for mitochondrial DNA, scientists discovered that there was, indeed, a family. A mother and 3 daughters, the father of those 3 daughters, and 3 unrelated adults (doctor and 2 servants). By testing living relatives of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (meaning, living descendants of her SISTER), and testing other living relatives descended from Tsar Nicholas’ MOTHER (Maria/Dagmar of Denmark), they were able to determine that yes, this family was the Romanovs. ISN’T THAT SO FASCINATING! I think it’s fascinating. The idea that I am carrying history from my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, back hundreds of generations, sends my feminist heart all a flutter. So, I *loved* learning more about M-DNA, how it was discovered, the studies and testing that have happened in my lifetime to figure out what exactly it is and how we can trace it. However, “The Seven Daughters of Eve” as a title is SUPER misleading, because Sykes is really only talking about the seven matriarchs whose M-DNA has populated the majority of EUROPE. Throughout the world, there are just about 30 different “clans” of M-DNA that have survived. So, that was annoying. The very last chapter Sykes talks a little more about those other lines and how they may have spread. But the vast majority of his book is about the M-DNA of the 7 women who, anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 years ago, were the head of surviving dynastic maternal lines which have thrived and are currently found in the vast majority of Europeans (and sometimes, only in Europeans).

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (5 stars). Part mini biography of several different scientists who discovered genes and DNA and the means of inheritance, including all my favorites. Part current history of what scientists and geneticists continue to figure out on sequencing and altering genes and DNA. And part a treatise on the ethics of genetics and altering DNA and using stem cells to enhance or edit the genetic code of humans. GAH! I LOVED THIS SO MUCH! Mukherjee is a fantastic writer, and even with all the deep and heavy science stuff he kept my attention (I also happen to love the details of DNA and the means of inheritance, so.)

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott (4 stars). I tend to devour any and all books about Charles Darwin, his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, in general, the revolutionary era of scientific advancement in which he lived (Fun fact: Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day, The Origin of the Species was published right before the Civil War). This book covers the history of Darwin’s thoughts, but starting way back with Aristotle and going right on down to Darwin’s grandfather (a famous zoologist in England), Darwin’s contemporaries, and Darwin himself. Stott spends time detailing scientists and naturalists from around the world and throughout history who have discovered, independently, some aspect of Darwin’s theory. I loved reading about these individuals from ancient Greece, ancient Iraq, Egypt, Europe, and South America as they solidified their ideas on where plants and animals come from, and how humans fit into that story.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (3 stars). In many ways this is a modern re-writing of The Origin of the Species with additional information about the important advances in evolutionary science since Darwin’s time (1860’s), you know, things like genes, DNA, and all the tiny little bits that make up living organisms. Dawkins goes in depth on all of these little bits, jumping from species to species to give examples and more examples that show, in the end, how much more alike we are than different.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2011, Edited by Mary Roach (3 stars). I picked this up super cheap from a used book sale, mostly because of Mary Roach’s name on the cover. Turns out, none of these essays were written by her, she just selected them (?). Anyway, some of my favorite authors did have contributions, and I liked reading about science-y things without any other unifying thread than they were fascinating. Excellent read.

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, by Robin Marantz Henig (2 stars). Gregor Mendel, a monk in the mid 1800’s, was the father of modern genetics, meaning, he figured out that there were dominant and recessive genes and the patterns of inheritance, by studying and crossing garden peas for years while making copious notes. Unfortunately, after he died his successor as Abbot at the monastery burned all of his notebooks and papers. The very few letters he sent that were kept, and his one scientific paper explaining his experiments, are almost all that survives. He died without the scientific world in Europe having any idea who he was, and it wasn’t until several decades later that three scientists studying evolution “re-discovered” his paper and brought his experiments to light. Anyway, so that’s Mendel. This biography…is not great. Because there is so little primary documentation that has survived, everything is second or third hand. But Henig tried to make this read like a novel…which was REALLY irritating. ALSO, in the epilogue, she talks about how she has very little interest in genetics, specifically her own genetics, and doesn’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to learn so much about genes and chromosomes and this branch of science. Uh…then maybe don’t spend your time researching and writing a non-fiction book about it!? Ugh.

The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin (4 stars) My nerdy heart loves Darwin so much. Now, this is a BEHEMOTH of a book, Darwin covers what seems like every single species in their evolutionary process. From birds and insects to large mammals and humans. The detail is…well, honestly, it’s a little excruciating to read through for fun. But I love that Darwin went to such extensive lengths to prove his points, spent so much time getting all the details and proofs lined up for his audience, to help them understand his process, the process of the earth’s changes and evolution from primordial soup to thousands of distinct species. And, what hasn’t changed between us. Sigh. I just love Darwin so much. Hashtag: Nerd.

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough, by Rebecca Stott (3 stars). When I picked this up I thought it would be a lot more about Darwin’s notes, correspondence, and discoveries regarding the barnacle (which he studied daily for 8 years, writing 4 volumes on it, and studying, describing, and analyzing these pin head sized creatures honed his chops for writing “The Origin of the Species.” Did you know that ancient barnacles were hermaphrodites, had both male and female parts and were often self-fertilizing. Over time, the male parts became their own male creature, often just a sac of sperm, often embedded inside female organisms. More time passed and the males added additional parts to become more than just sperms, and could be found outside the female, living as parasites, but far more independent creatures than their ancient ancestors. SO INTERESTING! There is an ancient Greek myth about how we all began as hermaphrodites, and the Gods split us into two distinct sexes, which is why we spend our lives searching for our other half. Even Christian theology states that male and female were joined into one (Adam) before God created the female (Eve) as a distinct and separate human. Gah, science is so awesome. Religion isn’t bad either. 😉 Okay, so my criticism: Stott does cover the barnacle and Darwin’s interactions and labors over it extensively, but she also throws in a TON of biographical information about Darwin, his family, his friends, their families, world history that only slightly relates (the siege of Sebastopol, anyone?) to the topic matter at hand. I don’t mind the biographic details, but it was not what I was expecting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (4 stars). I wavered between three and four stars, but truly, it’s not Diamond’s fault that I read this book 20 years too late, and after also reading a half-dozen other books that argue the same premise, often with wittier anecdotes, a little extra dose of humor. But, Diamond was most likely the earliest researchers on the theories of evolution of civilizations around the world based on the evolution of plants, agriculture, farming, domestication of animals, which are primarily based on geography, climate, and the availability of wild flora and fauna with which to domesticate. Some parts of the world (Eurasia) had more to work with than others (Australia) and, therefore, “evolved” to “civilized” communities faster. I mean, if you can call densely-populated people who live side-by-side with disease-ridden animals and generally ruin their environment and try to colonize everywhere else “civilized.” Ahem. Additionally, Diamond discusses the evolution of language, technology, and art in various parts of the world, as advanced after significant improvements of food and shelter were mastered.


Harriet the Bookaholic: April 2015

Another month, another pile of book reviews. In addition to two books on the rulers of (and from) the Hapsburg Empire in 18th century Europe, I devoured a pile of first-person narratives on slavery in the American South and another pile of accounts of defectors from North Korea. At first glance these two topics may seem fairly separate, however the more I read accounts both of life as an American slave on the plantations of the South and human existence within North Korea’s regime–and the struggles to adjust to life outside those institutions, the more they seemed aligned in their horrors and evils as well as the difficulties to assimilate to a more democratic and free-thinking society. More to come on that, I feel. I’m still ruminating on it. (Yes, I ruminate. Like a cow. What of it?)

Also, a note: I have tried to cut this post down to, you know, something less than 3,000 words. But it just isn’t happening. That being said, each book is linked to my review on Goodreads, most of which are longer and more expansive and possibly a little rantier; you know, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

Maria Theresa & The Hapsburg Empire

Maria Theresa, by Edward Crankshaw (4 stars). Maria Theresa was one of the last rulers of Austria’s ancient House of Hapsburg and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and her territory covered vast tracts of Eastern and Central Europe including Austria, Hungary, Germany, Czech Republic (then Bohemia), and a number of other smaller provinces and districts and states. She was crowned Queen and Empress (and a bunch of other titles) in 1740 at age 23 after the death of her father, and reigned for 40 years, a contemporary with King George IICatherine the Great, and Louis XV. She led several wars, and had massive reforms enacted throughout the continent including small pox vaccines/inoculations, increased civil rights, primary education for peasants, and religious reforms. Maria Theresa had a gift for selecting men who knew more than she did on any given subject and then trusting them to help her make decisions. She brought stability to her empire in a time when most of Europe was rocked with revolution and civil war. She also gave birth to 16 children, the youngest, Maria Antonia, would become Marie Antoinette in an ill-fated marriage trying to create an alliance between France and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Crankshaw’s biography can be a little dry and textbooky, but I specifically wanted to know more about Maria Theresa and there aren’t many books about her. Crankshaw includes a lot of info about the rest of Europe, including the wars and leaders of France, England, Russia, and Prussia, and entire chapters devoted to culture, architecture, and music of Bavaria, Vienna, and Prague and the masters who came from that era (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc), and I appreciated being able to place some of these more familiar-to-me characters into a broader historical arena.

In Destiny’s Hands: Five Tragic Rulers, Children of Maria Theresa, by Justin C. Vovk (3 stars). Of Maria Theresa’s 14 surviving children five became rulers in their own right across Europe. This book follows their stories, their children, the history and political landscape of a revolutionary Europe including the French Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns. I loved learning more about Joseph II, Maria Theresa’s successor and Holy Roman Emperor; Leopold II, Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor after Joseph’s death; Maria Amalia, Duchess of Parma in Italy, Maria Carolina/Charlotte, Queen of Naples; and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. I was astounded at how the children and grandchildren of Maria Theresa and their political alliances and strategic marriages eventually covered over a third of Europe. The history was fascinating and new-ish to me, I loved learning more about the different kingdom/queendoms and how they played nicely (or not) with each other. All this being said, this author needs an editor with a BIG red pen; minus two stars for lack of proper editing. Vovk always calls these five rulers “Maria Theresa’s five special children” and after the second mention of “special” in the intro I started scribbling out that particular word, it just grates on my nerves. Special? Really? Is that the best you can do? They are not a supermarket bargain!

Additional Recommended Reading: Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund.

World War II

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan (4 stars). After multiple recommendations I finally picked this up for a church book club discussion; Girls of Atomic City follows the story of a half-dozen women working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a secret city built to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb. At one time 72,000 people were living in this government compound with no idea what they were doing, no real idea the materials they were working with, and unable to discuss their work with anyone else, family and friends included. I wanted more information about the women themselves, their stories–although Kiernan conducted dozens of interviews with them, and to be fair, they were not allowed to keep diaries or journals at the time. I wanted more information about the African-American experience, families not being allowed to live together, blacks were banned from schools and dances and swimming pools, segregation all over the place with African-American’s having substantially sub-par facilities in every possible respect. There is a lot about the science and technology that went in to discovering how to produce enriched uranium and then use it to fuel the atomic bomb, and that was interesting. I also felt very little was spent on the thoughts and emotions of the characters after the bomb was dropped, which is when they finally figured out what, exactly, they had been working on creating. At most there is 2 or 3 sentences from a couple of individuals. All in all, however, I really appreciated and enjoyed this book.

Additional Recommended Reading:Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin.

North Korea

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). The North Korean gulag are prison work camps with unimaginable conditions. North Koreans can be sentenced to years of imprisonment for stealing a bit of rice, or for making a comment in passing that one of the Dear Leader trio is perhaps not 100% divine, or any other minor offense. The conditions inside the camps, and the mortality rate of prisoners, are as bad as the worst concentrations camps during WWII. But, consider this: Auschwitz existed for three years; the North Korean prison camps have been in operation for over 50 years. Shin was born in Camp 14, his parents had been sentenced to life in the gulag after his father’s brother defected to South Korea. Shin was bred to inform on his family and his fellow prisoners, public executions were commonplace, and starvation and physical torture were a way of life. Unlike citizens outside the prison camps, Shin did not receive the indoctrination and brain washing about the Kim family; he knew nothing about the outside world (not even basic things like that the world is round). At the time of it’s publishing (2012) Shin is one of only three people to escape from a prison camp and make their way to South Korea or the West and tell their stories. Three. In 50 years. Shin is the only one who did not have previous experience outside of the camp to help him escape and survive; he was born inside it’s electric fence. His escape is remarkable, he managed to find his way to China and then to South Korea without wealthy backers, without a guide and against all possible odds. He had an incredible amount of luck on his side, which only makes me wonder how many other people with just a little less circumstantial luck have failed their attempts to escape, only to be returned to the gulag for torture and execution.

Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot (3 stars). One of the earliest memoirs of life inside North Korea, I think. Kang and his family are sentenced to the gulag/prison camp when he is 10 and remain there a decade. Kang grows up starving and malnourished, he learns to swallow salamanders and catch rats, he forms a strange type of friendship with fellow detainees, carefully trying to sort friends from informers, and his stories about the violence, deprivation, executions and lack of humanity in the camp is gut wrenching. The writing is a little choppy with some strange circular wanderings in story and chronology, so minus a star for that. Escape from Camp 14 is definitely a better book, although Kang’s experience in the gulag is perhaps a little more typical of most Koreans who were sent there for re-education/reform.

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, by Melanie Kirkpatrick (2 stars). Don’t even bother. I have a lengthier, rantier review on Goodreads, but the gist is this.  Kirkpatrick only highlights those who help North Koreans escape, not the refugees themselves or their stories. She has serious views about Christianity being the only way to help refugees, she calls children of kidnapped North Korean brides sold to Chinese men “half-and-half” (they aren’t dairy products!), and she has no qualms supporting the idea that there needs to be some kind of moral qualification before an escapee deserves help and assistance. For example, the Christians she discusses refuse to help those “with blood on their hands.” Even if, say, a prisoner is “promoted” to guard–receiving MUCH NEEDED extra food or clothing–and then follows orders that result in beatings or even execution of fellow prisoners. It’s not like the guy had any choice, and it’s not like the DPRK has EVER made a habit of teaching basic morality or decision making skills to their citizens. You follow The Party and The Kim, and everything else can send you to the gulag with no trial and no warning, for an undetermined amount of time. Ugh. I was so bugged by this. Skip this book.

Additional Recommended Reading: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick; Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim; The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

Charles Darwin

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (4 stars). Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day? Authors Desmond and Moore incorporate a ridiculous amount of research in this book pulling from political and historical documents, vast correspondence between anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and hundreds of newspaper articles, journal essays, research publications, and books of natural scientists around the world. They explain in detail the history of the Darwin family’s fight against slavery both in the British Empire and the America’s, they carefully lay out the political and social landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in regards to buying and selling human beings. And to exhaustive detail they point out how during the mid-19th century scientists, scholars, and theologians were debating against each other on the truth behind race, creation, humanity, and our origins. SO. FASCINATING! I also realize that at nearly 500 pages it is not for the feint of heart or the casual reader. But I absolutely loved it. A book about Darwin AND abolition?! Sign me up. And if you could manage to add a few chapters about North Korea or volcanoes that’d be perfection, thanks.

Additional Recommended Reading: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human Animal, by Jared Diamond.

American Slavery

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (5 stars) Read this book. Read it right now. There are very few first-person narratives from women who endured the tortures of slavery in the American South, Harriet Jacobs’ memoir tells the story unique to women, especially mothers, and their particular difficulty in escaping slavery and leaving their children. The plights of young women with regard to leering masters, jealous wives, and bearing half-white children who then “follow the mother” and become slaves on their white father’s plantation, sold as cattle at his whim. Harriet’s story of escape is heartbreaking, and in many ways mirrors that of Anne Frank and her family. Harriet is hidden for 7 years in a tiny garret of her grandmother’s house. She cannot stand up, she has no fresh air, no sunshine, and she does not come out. She lives above her family and children listening to them as they grow, listening to her master speculate on her whereabouts, watch her children and brother be thrown into jail for months in hopes of her returning to slavery…and she remains silent until there is a safe time for her to escape…again, SEVEN YEARS after she was in hiding. After Harriet is reunited with her children and her brother in the northern states she encounters a different type of racism, she is still viewed as less than white people and must navigate those issues, all the while worried that her master will come and drag her and her family back to the South. Seriously, read this book. Now.

Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (5 stars). I had so many feels while reading this book! Published in 1853 the language can be a little cumbersome, but after a few pages I fell right into the rhythm and descriptions. This first-person account covers Northup’s life as both as a free black man in New York, and life as a slave in Louisiana. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, beaten savagely anytime he protested that he was, in fact, a free man of the North. Northup’s sparse style lets the reader come to their own conclusions and feelings on the subject of slavery, and I appreciate that this was a very fact-driven narrative instead of an emotional treatise. I think the only way it could have been accepted in the literary world of it’s time would have been as it was, any additional elaboration would have been viewed as adding to the truth. This is a time when the vast majority of whites didn’t think Africans and African-Americans had feelings, intellect, or emotions; that they were, in fact, no more human than cattle or pigs. I kept thinking how many people today are kidnapped or tricked into some kind of slavery, whether indentured servant, sexual worker, or otherwise. Many of those first-person stories are written in a heartbreakingly sparse style, giving fact after fact with little elaboration on how that made the victim feel. Read this book, please. So very, very moving.

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois (4 stars). This is a collection of long-ish essays Du Bois wrote about various aspects of life for the newly emancipated slaves in the South. Their difficulties in gaining any kind of economic freedom, their utter lack of civil rights and due process, and the laws and culture in both North and South that continued to set them as less-than. This is not something to sit down and read through, but read an essay and think about it, about the education opportunities and how that affected the former slaves who were not allowed to be literate, and the newly free young people who desperately wanted to learn but had very few opportunities due to such low economic circumstances in their families lives. This was so heartbreaking, and I saw the seeds and beginnings of so many of the issues we still grapple with today.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (4 stars). This is a very quick read/listen, but absolutely worth it. In the same vein as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I loved) this was one of the earliest books that gave the majority of free, white citizens some kind of idea that slaves may actually have their own feelings, emotions, and personalities. That they may love their children or their husbands and wives, that they may actually *want* to be free to govern their own lives and decisions. It is baffling to think that once upon a time these very basic ideas of humanity were completely absent. And, as I look at the news/media, sometimes it seems like we may not have come as far as a whole population as we like to believe.

Additional recommended reading: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas; Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela.

Harriet sig

Harriet the Bookaholic: February 2015

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.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Giver, by Lois Lowry; The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker.

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.

Harriet Reads Darwin_feistyharriet_Feb 2015

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 (,, 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.


Harriet sig