Monthly Archives: December 2018

*** The Tangled Tree by David Quamen

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life discusses three new ideas in biology: a new domain of creatures, Archaea, the proof that genes can transfer “horizontally” and not just from parent to child, and the realization that our microbiome may be more important than the rest of our bodies. All that puts into serious question the orderly tree of life we all learned in school.

The author spends rather too much time describing various scientists, sometimes with satisfying results (I did not know that Lynn Margulis was once married to Carl Sagan, who from this account was a cad when young) and other times not so much (Carl Woese’s feuds with pretty much everyone). His descriptions of labs and sometimes dangerous lab techniques are always welcome and lively, however. A long book but worth reading.

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* Farsighted by Steven Johnson

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most has some highly entertaining moments, as when the author reminds us of Charles Darwin’s pro & con list for marriage (on the pro side, “Charms of music and female chit-chat These things good for one’s health–but terrible loss of time”. How charming! He did get married, for the record.) But other statements are suspect, as when he claims that New Yorkers were unable to make a sounds decision on filling out a lake because “we simply did not have the conceptual tools to imagine the decision [] two centuries ago”. I find it hard to believe that our ancestors could not make sound decisions (or that we are making decisions any better than they are!)

One aspect that prevented my enjoying the book more was the author’s main example of good decision making, that of whether to raid the compound where bin Laden lived in Pakistan, and his general love of military, macho examples. (He does try, in the last part of the book, to give more nuanced emotional examples, but they are all based in literature and rather closed to those who have not read the books he quotes). I agree with his plea to teach decision making in school, but not from that book.

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*** In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is a novel with evidently strong autobiographical themes, in which the hero finds himself caring for his newborn, premature daughter after his partner dies unexpectedly and suddenly. The first part, in which he finds himself literally running back and forth between the NICU and the intensive care unit, while trying to understand what the physicians are telling him and forgetting to take showers or change his clothes, is breathtaking. And his Kafkaesque battles with the Swedish social security administration, which does not seem to be able to recognize that his daughter is, in fact, his daughter, as proven by a DNA test, and needs to be placed in foster care, are terrifying. The rest of the book is not as accomplished, probably because the flashback memories are less exciting, but that first section is worth it!

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*** Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien

If  you thought that Amelia Earhart was the only early woman pilot, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History will show you four more, all with extraordinary lives and extraordinary luck to survive (at least for a while) the hecatomb of deaths at a time when planes could easily catch on fire, lose engines, or just get lost in the fog. (One of the five, Louise Thaden, once had a job identifying suitable barns who roofs could be marked with their approximate locations to help aviators.)

Their flying exploits are interesting enough, but I found the other stories in the book even more intriguing: how they got to learn to fly, how they supported themselves, whether as social workers (Amelia Earhart!), successful salespeople of planes or real estate, or writers, and how their families (mostly) helped them succeed. And they needed the help, as the  times were not favorable to female pilots. Amelia Earhart initially gained fame for crossing the Atlantic in a plane piloted by men, as women were thought unable to pilot or navigate, let alone both, even after they proved that they were quite capable in races that (finally) admitted both genders.

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** Heart by Sandeep Jauhar

Written by a cardiologist, Heart: A History recounts the evolution of his specialty, starting with the very erroneous views of the Ancient Greeks, through Harvey, who discovered, as he says, the how of  blood circulation but not the why — and various mavericks including Forssmann, who came up with the idea of authorizing the heart, catheterized his own and was fired for it, then went on to win the Nobel Prize for it, decades later.

The author wrote two rather dark memoirs before this book, Intern and Doctored, and there are memoir-like moments in this book, not always completely successful. The historical sweep is effective, however.

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*** Chemistry by Weike Wang

The heroine of Chemistry is suffering in a doctoral chemistry program (from which she will soon withdraw) and she can’t cope with her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, which seems to demand too much, too soon. The story describes her breakdown and slow healing, with a stream of consciousness re-discovery of what matters in her life. It’s a rather inspiring book despite the upheavals she has to go through!

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** The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

The author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma has spent his entire professional life working with victims of trauma: veterans, victims of child abuse, and victims of adult trauma. The book is divided into part, one that describes how trauma literally transforms the brain, the other in which he shows hopeful therapies for trauma victims. I found the first part fascinating, especially when he explained both the explosive rage that trauma victims can exhibit and the numbing, unresponsive patterns that others show, because they have lost touch with their own bodies.

Since the reactions to trauma can take so many forms, it’s difficult to treat trauma victims (that is, when the therapist tries to treat the root cause; the author bemoans the fact that, too often, therapists only attempt to treat symptoms). From yoga to theater, meditation to neurofeedback, treatment abound. It’s discouraging to read that therapists seem to have very little idea of what will work for a particular patient, and in any case it takes months or years to see real progress. Psychiatry has much to discover.

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