Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose
How lucky do you gotta be to have a name like that when you’re an author? Honestly, I hope it’s not a penname — it’s just too perfect.
The book, however… Well, I was hopeful when I read the first chapter. It talks about the value of close-reading, which I’m very much agreed with. I was taught close-reading by Professor Martin Coyle, and especially when it came to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was revelatory. There’s so much there if you just focus deeply on the words of a text — references, clues, imagery, that you just might not register if you read fast. And I agree with Prose’s fears that literature is being taught as a mass of conflicting theories, to the exclusion of really understanding the nuts and bolts. While I am a new historicist, new/practical criticism has always been a huge help to me — and it continues to be so, even in understanding scientific writing.
If you’re interested in that kind of reading, though, I’d recommend Martin Coyle and John Peck’s Practical Criticism and Peck’s How to Study a Poet. You can also pretty much teach yourself by just looking hard at a poem — circle things that seem significant, underline, draw maps of how it works… You’ll likely see the value of it pretty quickly if it’s a way of thinking that will work for you. (And, bonus, both books are especially good if you want to learn how to communicate what you find via close-reading.)
However. The rest of the book mostly consists of extracts of what Prose has decided is “good writing”, almost all of it from very literary examples, and then her discussion of it. To me, this isn’t the way to learn how to read like a writer — if that is what this technique achieves — but just the way to learn how one writer reads. Not quite the same thing. It’s also notable that there’s no sign of genre fiction in here at all. Ms Prose, I do suggest you pick up some fine genre stylists; perhaps Ursula Le Guin? You might get a whole new education.
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, Sue Armstrong
This is a good survey of the study of the p53 gene: one gene which turns out to have quite a bit influence on whether or not cancer develops in the body. It features some science, some history, some characters, and generally clear explanations of exactly how the science all works. It’s evident that it’s written by a journalist and not an expert, but that’s usually the perfect level for a casual reader anyway.
Now, if you don’t find cancer and how it progresses interesting, this will probably be lost on you. But if you have any interest, the background covered here is quite important to understanding cancer as a disease. It covers stuff like the “two hits” theory, why some children can be born with cancer, etc, etc. Enjoyable might be the wrong word for it, but I found it easy to read and informative.
Natural Histories, Brett Westwood, Stephen Moss
If you’re pretty well versed in natural history and biology, this book won’t hold many surprises for you — though it might have a few titbits you’re unaware of. It’s certainly very readable, and the cover design is pretty darn awesome. And slightly creepy, in that way which things of nature can be. (I mean, have you ever seen a rabbit’s skull? Erk.)
It might be more enjoyable if read alongside or as a recap for the radio programme it was based on. As it is, it seems to hop around the animal kingdom rather randomly.
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s just that the book isn’t really a good fit for me. And it did hold a few surprises.
Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Gwendolyn Leick
After reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book, I was eager to read more about Mesopotamia — a place and culture which has influenced so much of humanity’s subsequent history, but about which we often know all too little. This book looked like the perfect way to get more information: it discussed the building of early cities, which includes so much of what’s relevant to humanity. Interaction, education, religion, etc, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s badly written. Or rather, it’s overwritten: sentences meander along to conclusions which don’t always make sense, or which could have been put much more cogently. Suppositions go unsupported, instead phrased in a kind of hopeful, artistic way.
For example, Leick mentions the lagoon beneath the first city, Eridu. She links this to vessels found in presumed temples throughout Mesopotamia, containing water. Okay, I can go with that; I’ll trust your link there. And then:
Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memry of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.
What Middle Eastern buildings? What centuries? What are the links that would cause that memory to be retained? What’s the evidence? Why are you saying this, is it important? Or is all of this speculative, more poetry than history? Without being able to judge that, the whole thing falls apart somewhat. Combined with the overly abstruse sentences, and I found myself unconvinced it’d be worth my time. I didn’t finish the book.
I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong
If you’ve already read books like Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes, a lot of this info won’t be new to you. However, Ed Yong’s enthusiasm and wider range — dipping into the microbes of other animals and even insects — is a joy. He also provides a counterpoint to some of Blaser’s more hysterical ideas about the loss of microbes. He agrees that microbes are important, and that our relationships with them are complex. But he doesn’t accept that we’re totally doomed. There’s tons of research into repopulating our guts with beneficial microbes, prebiotics and probiotics. No doubt things are in the pipeline which will make a difference.
Yong is significantly less hopeful about the potential of procedures like faecal transplants — though the results have been encouraging in cases of C. difficile infections, the potential for treating inflammatory bowel disease seems more limited. It’s not impossible that a refined version of faecal transplants can help to rebalance the irritated and inflamed gut systems of people who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases… but so far, the data isn’t there.
With his enthusiasm and interest, Yong makes me want to hurry the heck up, get my biology degree, and get stuck into researching on exactly these topics. One thing is for sure: our microbiome is incredibly important, and we need more research. Our gut microbes can affect our overall health in so many ways — mental health included — that I foresee a lot more time being spent on this in labs in the near future. And I hope I’ll be one of the people working in one of those labs.
If you don’t know much about microbes, fear not: Yong’s writing is clear and accessible, with no technobabble. I think this book would be totally accessible to anyone with an interest.
Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
Despite my mother’s interest in space and all things to do with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, I never knew about the ‘computers’ who supported the US race to space. The history I knew was all about the big shots: the astronauts, the program director, even the doctors… It was a white, male history. And it was a history that was worth knowing, no denying: the astronauts and scientists it covered worked hard and achieved amazing things.
But there were women behind them, and black women at that. Reading this, it was a little unbelievable at times that none of them ever showed up in the histories I read before. And sometimes it was unbelievable to read about racism, segregation and sexism and then see such a recent date on it.
If you know someone who says women have never achieved anything, well, this book’s for them. If you know a black little girl who wants to be a scientist? This is for her, too. If you want to be more informed about women in STEM? You guessed it.
It’s not always the most focused read, covering as many women as Shetterly could get concrete details on. She didn’t just cover their lives when at NASA, but their time pre-NASA and even pre-NACA. It leaves you with a lot of names to keep track of, but it’s worth paying attention. I appreciate the way Shetterly puts the women into their social context, showing how they also had families to support, how they helped other women and black people around them, how they were involved in the wider societal change of the time. All of these women are worth reading about — and I think I’m only sorry they didn’t each have a book to themselves.
The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch
The Epic of Gilgamesh is some of the oldest literature we have access to, so you’d be forgiven for imagining it must have had a huge influence on subsequent mythology. The truth is, it was only rediscovered relatively recently, via archaeology, decipherment and a fair amount of politics. And of course, money. David Damrosch’s book discusses both the epic itself, its themes and context, and the archaeological and political process of bringing it back to light.
Despite the fact that it’s talking about archaeology, political manoeuvring and the long process of decipherment, The Buried Book manages to be entertaining and even gripping. I was certainly hooked, anyway. Damrosch does a great job of making it accessible and interesting, and pulling out facts that are both pertinent and interesting. You’ll learn a fair amount about Mesopotamia from this, not a little about British archaeology and the process of deciphering an ancient language, some interesting titbits about various personalities you’d never heard of before… and of course, about the epic itself — which is well worth reading.
In fact, if you’re thinking about reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’d recommend reading something like this first. Get some context on where it came from, where its been, and how people are still using and relating to the story told now. Then grab a translation and settle in.
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, David Hone
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a pretty entertaining survey of everything we currently know about tyrannosaurs — not just T. rex, but the related tyrannosaurs. That means it includes dinosaurs we don’t always think of as tyrannosaurs, but which are classified as types of tyrannosaur because of their close relationship to T. rex. The book is upfront about the fact that the information in it is going to be out of date before long — though not, I think, from the perspective of a layperson.
A lot of the info is stuff you may well already know, like the fact that T. rex was most likely feathered. But this book discusses it in detail, going into parts that were likely to be feathered, where the tyrannosaurs might have been scaled as traditionally depicted, etc. There are various different cases where there are theories about the tyrannosaurs that can’t be proven one way or another, and this book goes into them in detail. It discusses the evidence and findings, bringing them together into an entertaining and informative package of pure tyrannosaur-related awesomeness. It never got too dry or anything; I found all of it interesting and relevant.
Like all the best dinosaur books, it made me want to run out and become a palaeontologist, somehow. And it also made me crave overviews of other dinosaurs — can I have a book like this about the sauropods, now? Please?
The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean
The Disappearing Spoon is not quite as entertaining to me as Sam Kean’s book on neuroscience, but it’s still reasonably fun and definitely an easy read. There’s all kinds of random facts, and he makes things like electron shells very clear — even for me, with my brain’s stubborn refusal to grasp it all. He writes with humour and enthusiasm, pulling out interesting characters and discoveries from the history of the Periodic Table and its elements.
I’m just not as into chemistry/physics as I am biology. Even organic chemistry. I should be, but, alas. So I found that this dragged a bit — for me. It’d probably be unfair to assume it’d drag for you as well, if you’re actually a fan of chemistry.
The Secret Library, Oliver Tearle
This is a beautifully presented book, at least in the hardback — the dustcover is lovely, with a keyhole cut into the front and edged with silver, and the book is nicely bound. It’s not quite as meta as the binding of Keith Houston’s The Book, but it’s still a lovely object that will make a good gift for book lovers of your acquaintance.
In terms of content, it’s fairly shallow: it’s a whistlestop tour, as it says several times, so the facts here are more on the level of trivia than anything in-depth. If you’d like a survey of literature and weird facts relating to literature and literary figures, it’s a good one. It made for a good book to read on the train, too, as you could easily dip in and out of it. There was no need to keep track of things too closely.
I think I hoped for more, but honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting.