Monthly Archives: December 2015

*** How To Clone A Mammoth by Beth Shapiro


Written by a biology professor, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction is a very serious book about bringing back to life extinct species. It discusses the technical challenges (with, I imagine, simplified discussions of what were for me head-spinning topics such as non-homologous end joining of DNA strands — yikes!),  along with the ecological and ethical questions of whether we should attempt to bring back animals at all. Which animals should we bring back? what problems may be solved or created by bringing them back? It’s a lot more complicated that a touch of genetic engineering. Even if we could bring back the mammoth of the title, how would we manage to bring back enough of them so they could function as they need to, in a group? Could they really change the climate of the Arctic, and, if so, that of the entire planet? A wonderful book, even if you must skip the technical parts.

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** Delicious Foods by Janes Hannaham


Delicious Foods is a strange story of drug addiction and modern-day slavery, with an attractive boy-hero — and a masterful, chilling first chapter. But the story is just too strange for me, and the world of drug addicts not just depressing, but incomprehensible as they allow themselves to be controlled and treated in ways that they know are unacceptable, in their lucid moments, of which there are not enough…

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** Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter


Anne-Marie Slaughter worked for Hillary Clinton as director of policy planning, her dream job, when she famously quit “for family reasons” — which she explains more fully in Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. One of her sons was struggling and she felt it best to go back to her Princeton professor job so she could be home in the evening rather than in Washington, D.C. all week. She also tries to analyze how childcare complicated gender equality in the workplace, with mixed results in my opinion. First, her experience is that of a highly skilled, highly paid professional (with a matching husband) and when she tries to expand the discussion to low-paying jobs, it feel quite awkward. Second, she brings back the old chiches of women just wanting to be home with their children and wanting to be good housekeepers. I guess I did not fall into that particular cauldron when I was young (and she only supplies anecdotes to bolster her theory, not robust statistics).

Still, she has some excellent points, in particular about how we as a society are much more tolerant about girls taking on traditional masculine habits than the other way round, and how companies assume that their family-friendly policies are worth advertising to female candidates and not male candidates.

We’ve got a long way to go.

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** Inequality by Anthony Atkinson


Inequality is not the Piketty book (The Economics of Inequality), but it is also written by an economist who, laudably, attempts to identify solutions to the growing economic inequalities in the world, although he focuses mostly on the UK, where he lives, and to a lesser extent the US.

It’s difficult to imagine a duller book written for the general public. A good third of the book focuses on defining metrics for inequality. Of course there are many ways to define income and to compare incomes, but 100 pages seems a bit much. And the graphs are just horribly formatted. Surely there are ways to present the same information in a more attractive form.

The practical recommendations are just about as unattractive as the initial analysis. Can the author possibly believe that paying a basic income, no questions asked, to every citizen would pass the most basic political test? Still, the book has the immense advantage of carefully backing up each recommendation with detailed, quantitative data. It also reminds us that inequality is neither unavoidable nor incurable — though a more politically astute set of solutions would certainly be required.

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*** The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips


The Beautiful Bureaucrat reminded me of 1984 and, especially, of The Handmaid’s Tale. It starts with a wonderfully rendered soul-wrenching job search in a tough job market, and for a while I thought that the story may be one of the last recession, but it’s much, much more bizarre. Along the way we question not just the job market  but also marriage, government, and bureaucracy. I found I had to suspend disbelief a little too much to step into the story, but once there I liked what I found.

 

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** The Shift by Theresa Brown


I had loved Theresa Brown’s other book, Critical Care, as well as her newspaper columns, and I was somewhat disappointed by The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives, which claims to retell a single shift, and perhaps there was such a shift once, but it feels staged, somehow, as a careful composite. Still, the story oozes with realistic description: of the locker room where she leaves her bike shoes so her hospital shoes and their germs never pollute her house, of the idiotic patient-tracking systems that were not designed with busy nurses in mind, and of the strange power relationships between doctors and nurses. This is not a particularly hopeful book, and not only because it takes place in an oncology unit: the health care system appears as disjointed as it is in reality, with obvious consequences for the patients and their families. But to have a nurse like her by one’s side…  That’s the hope!

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* 1/2 Beyond Words by Carl Safina


Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel mixes inspiring stories of animals, mostly elephants, wolves, and whales, as observed in the field by long-time observers, with long rants about conservation and the limitations of scientific studies in the area of animal cognition. I could have done without the rants, which obscure the stories and occasionally put the author in an anti-science mode that seems downright silly. Still, the stories are wonderful and clearly suggest great intelligence and complex family structures in the three main groups he describes.

 

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** The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum


The Drowned Boy is a young boy who drowns in his family’s pond under suspicious circumstances. His father is overcome by grief while his mother wants to immediately rebuild her life. The police will have to work hard to find the truth.

The strength of the story is not so much the plot (although it twists nicely, to the very end) but rather the psychological study of the parents and the family of the mother.

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*** The Speechwriter by Barton Swaim


The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics is written by the ex-writer for Governor Mark Stanford, of “walking the Appalachian Trail” fame. It is written in an even voice, telling the story of a difficult job at a tumultuous time, and it does not focus on the scandal, not particularly. Instead, the author explains how he made a systematic study of his boss’s (bad) writing style so he could really write like him and how he ghost-writes letters to the editor, all a little different from each other but on the same theme, to influence issues. And in the wake of the scandals, how he had to rewrite scores of templates for thank you letters that all alluded to integrity…

A very interesting look at what happens in the back offices of politicians.

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** How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt


How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy walks us through the invention of the MP3 format and how it killed CDs and moved the distribution of music to electronic channels, often pirated ones. The author follows the inventors of the format, German scientists, various industry actors including peer-to-peer file-sharing services, and an employee of a CD-manufacturing plant who perfected the art of stealing pre-release CDs and selling bootlegs copies. I found the systematically breathless intertwining of the stories annoying, but the overall tale is fascinating, especially for those old enough to remember CDs!

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