Archive for January 2014

A Book Review: Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

0393316009.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_This is a very lovely, well written group of stories. I enjoyed them a great deal. Each story in this collection shares a theme in that each gives a glimpse into the life of a scientist, focusing more on their humanity than on their scientific discoveries. Barrett’s stories touch on Mendel, Wallace, Linnaeus, Darwin, and others. Most times, when we learn about the famous scientists of the past, all we are taught is an equation. Or a theory. Or a law. Maybe some dates for context. This always bothered me a little bit when I was in class. Sometimes I’d wonder about these people and the conditions that they lived in that allowed/forced them to come up with their great ideas. Barrett seems to have had similar feelings. By extensively researching these scientists and the times/surroundings that they were immersed in, and mixing in her prodigious writin’ skills, she was able to produce stories that had both a very high degree of authenticity/realism and were a delight to read. These are certainly works of historical fiction, with fabricated relationships and conversations and other details, but nothing feels forced or phoney. I don’t know that Barrett’s primary goal was necessarily to humanize these men and women (mostly men, sadly, because sexism) and make them a bit more relatable/understandable, but that’s certainly what I took away from this collection.

Also, in some of these stories, she opts to write about fictional men and women of science instead. By sharing their (made up) stories, and comparing/contrasting these more humble figures with notable scientists, Barrett strips away a lot of the fantasy that surrounds many of the historical thinkers of the past. We are reminded that these historically important figures weren’t demigods… they were just people. Intelligent and charismatic, certainly, but just people. She even takes the time to remind us that just because these folks were brilliant, they were far from omniscient. For example, in one of her stories about Carl Linnaeus (the man considered to be “the father of modern taxonomy and ecology”), she highlights Linnaeus’s belief that instead of migrating, migratory birds hibernated underwater during the winter months, returning to the surface once ponds and lakes thawed.

Anyway, my favorite stories in this collection are The Behavior of the Hawkweeds (which touches on the discoveries of Gregor Mendel) and the titular story/novella Ship Fever (which looks at the Typhus epidemic of 1847 on Grosse Isle, Quebec from the viewpoints of both a doctor and a patient). If you like science or scientists or historical fiction or short stories or quality writing, this collection is almost certainly something that you’d enjoy.

4.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 34.3
Books read in 2014: 10

A Book Review: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

0802143334.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I did not particularly enjoy this book. While parts of it felt very well written, the overall pacing was pretty dreadful and the writing style was inconsistent. It was the kind of novel where you’re just reading along and everything seems okay (or maybe even good), and then all of a sudden there are some sections that don’t really make any sense, but they include some interesting/strange/emotive phrases, so you just go with it and trust that things will be tied into the rest of the story somehow later, but then you finish the book and look back and you’re just like Why???

Maybe I just haven’t thought about it enough yet to “get it”, but some of those rough sections felt almost like patchwork writing exercises that were roughly inserted into the novel because they either sounded cool or encouraged a particular emotion or something. But they weren’t really related to anything that was going on. So I guess maybe my issue with this book is that it didn’t feel polished?

Also, something that didn’t reallllly take away from the quality of the work, but was still fairly irksome, was the fact that the novel was littered with medical jargon to the point that it was distracting and encouraged skimming/skipping. The inclusion of so many ~obscure technical terms seemed like a dubious choice as this is not a novel that relies on scientific/medical accuracy for ANYTHING. I understand that the author completed a pediatric residency at Cal; I do not understand why he felt it necessary to copy so much of the vocabulary out of his medical textbooks into this story. Maybe he just wanted to lend authenticity to the hospital setting or something?

Overall, this was somewhat of a chore to read. However, it did have its nice bits, and I did read all 600+ pages in about four days, so it was at least somewhat compelling… I won’t say that I regret finishing it, but I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone else.

2.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 30.1
Books read in 2014: 9

A Book Review: Volcano by Shusaku Endo

c9b085fd50c16dd597845745067444341587343This novel does a very good job conveying the inner turmoil a person encounters when they are forced to doubt that which they believe in the most. In this case, the protagonist has spent 20+ years monitoring a volcano in southern Japan. He has collected reams and reams of data and has come to the conclusion that the volcano has become dormant and will never erupt again. Based on his conclusions, people have started building at the base of the mountain. And then he retires. And then he starts to see (hallucinate?) signs that the volcano might not actually be dormant…

So what would you do? You could second-guess yourself and issue warnings to the builders/people near the base of the volcano, potentially saving thousands of lives. But this would mean admitting that your life’s work has likely been for nothing. Ignoring/sacrificing your wife and children to pursue your research was all for nothing. You’d lose honor and credibility and bring shame to your family. Alternatively, you could say nothing. And hope and wish and cross your fingers that the mountain doesn’t erupt and bury people in burning lava. Neither of these options is particularly attractive.

As someone who has done a lot of research in a laboratory setting, I can relate to the allure of ignoring data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis. Being right is such a nice thing! Especially when you’ve staked a portion of your reputation on your findings. But that’s not how science works, so…

Anyway, this book is pretty good. The pacing is nice and while the translation feels a little hokey at times, overall it’s very readable. Especially for something that is so introspective. I’m happy to have read this and I look forward to reading more Endō in the future.

3.5 stars! (out of 5)

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Miles run in 2014: 26.8
Books read in 2014: 8

The Meat I Eat #1

So I wanted to try and eat not a lot of meat this year. So far, I’m doing a pretty good job. I’ve only had it once.

Because my meat eating frequency seems like it’s going to be low this year, I’m gonna try chronicling every instance of meat-eating. Just to kind of establish a baseline and look at my habits and my eatin’ tendencies.

Sunday, January 18th, 2014, ~5pm:

I had some buffalo chicken “dip” while watching football (the Seahawks game) with a group of friends. One of my buddies prepared the dip (which consisted of shredded chicken, cheese, Frank’s Red Hot, and ranch dressing all mixed together and baked) during the first half of the game in the kitchen and then brought it out during the 3rd quarter. It smelled really good and spicy+chicken things make up most of my favorite meaty foods (I’m lookin’ at you, buffalo shishtawouk).  I did think about abstaining, because I was trying to go meatless throughout the entire month of January, but then I didn’t. We scooped up the dip on tortilla chips. It was very, very good. Hot and cheesy and spicy. My stomach maybe did a hurt a little bit later, but that was just as likely caused by some of the other non-meaty junk food.

So, yeah. 29 days in and only one meaty snack so far. We’ll see how well I keep this up in the future.

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Miles run in 2014: 24.0
Books read in 2014: 7

Book Reviews

I read quite a few books over the course of a year. (I keep a ~detailed summary of all my book readin’ over on LibraryThing.) Sometimes when I finish reading something, I’ll feel like writing up a somewhat thoughtful book review. I think I’ll post these reviews here.

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Miles run in 2014: 12.3
Books read in 2014: 5