Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, Tim Spector
I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, since it mentions the widely ridiculed Lamarckian theory of inheritance, and the subtitle “Why You Can Change Your Genes” might sound a tad self-helpy. Luckily, it is actually a sound examination of current epigenetic theory, based on MZ and DZ twin studies looking at heritability. It makes an excellent follow-up to James Watson’s DNA, in that it moves on from the gene-centric view of biology to the more nuanced ideas we have now.
I’ve always been fascinated by epigenetics. The whole idea is what made me interested in potentially becoming a geneticist: the idea that Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong, that events within a person’s life can be passed on to their children and grandchildren. (The famous giraffe neck example was unequivocally wrong, however.) The example given then, and raised in this book, is that of potential epigenetic changes caused by IVF treatments, and the general lower health of children conceived via IVF.
What really fascinates me now is that maybe my anxiety issues are related to the methylation of some of my DNA, preventing transcription of some proteins. And that would probably be a self-feeding process, with stress causing the original methylation and then decreased availability of a particular neurotransmitter causes more anxiety (less ability to regulate emotion) and more stress. If I could only remove those methyl groups from my brain cells, I could stop taking my medication and get on with my life. If I could magically go into research right now, that is undoubtedly where I’d go.
The book covers a lot of different topics — sexuality, gender identity, athletic ability, talent, religious belief — and manages to do so without stepping on too many toes, to my mind. It presents a much less deterministic version of genetics and the epigenome than Watson’s DNA does, which people may find more palatable.
It was basically the sort of book where I spent a lot of time texting people saying “did you know…?” I found it an easy read, and it has copious amounts of footnotes and opportunities to do further reading. Another one I heartily recommend!
This is much, much better than James Watson’s 1968 The Double Helix, which is full of unbearable ego and sexist opinions. It even contains a chapter which explains the discovery of the double helix sans most of the commentary that made the earlier book annoying. Watson has definitely matured, thank goodness, and into a man I wouldn’t mind discussing genetics with. For example, he emphasises choice for pregnant women who know their babies have genetic disorders, insists that women have a right to decide on abortion which it is barbaric to deny, which I wouldn’t have predicted from his earlier book and which suggests a more liberal outlook than I expected.
In terms of the science alone, minus any comments on the writer, this is an excellent primer on DNA, covering most of what we currently understand about DNA. Being published nearly a decade ago now, it doesn’t comment on newer discoveries like the epigenetic control of gene expression, but it does cover just about everything in my college level online genetics class right now, with the added benefit of being something you can take at your own pace and without the horrible quantity of math that actually putting theories into practice requires (for example, he talks about finding a gene by reference to its association with a marker: I can calculate that if you give me half an hour, a calculator and a piece of paper — and allow me to cuss a good bit). It’s accessible to the layman, I think, but I still found it of interest despite my genetics classes and general interest in the field.
Some books leave me feeling that I’ve taken the wrong path in life. This is one of them. We know so many amazing, beautiful, astonishing things about DNA — and we have so much more to learn. This book made me long to have taken the other path in which I forced myself through the sciences for my A Levels, took a degree in genetics or something related, and became a geneticist. Watson clearly evokes the potential for this knowledge, and makes me wish I could add whatever intelligence I have to the process.
Skip The Double Helix, except as a historical document, but I do recommend DNA: The Secret of Life with little reserve.
I was hopeful about this one when the publicist contacted me via my blog to offer me a copy. Chris F. Holm and Adam Christopher blurbed it, and I’ve certainly enjoyed their books. Plus there was a reference to similarities between the main character and Matt Fraction’s Clint Barton, which… hmm, I don’t really see.
Anyway, the problem with this is for me, it felt like a pretty standard detective story in style, tone, plot, characters… There’s nothing surprising about an alcoholic PI, though Pete Fernandez is a bit more the worse for wear than most. One aspect I did like was some of the relationships in the story, like Pete’s with his ex-girlfriend. That felt a bit more nuanced than typical for these stories.
It’s a quick read, and if you have a particular affection for the genre or the city-scape of Miami, then it might be worth checking out, but if your tastes in crime fiction are more for the excellent outliers and stuff that breaks the mould, then I probably wouldn’t go for this one.
Batwoman vol. 1: Hydrology, J.H Williams III, W. Haden Blackman
So here I am, jumping into another New 52 title. I was mostly interested in Batwoman/Kate Kane because I know she’s a lesbian, but I knew very little else about her, so it was a bit tough to just jump right in here, even though the New 52 is supposed to be a reboot.
I enjoyed it, though; I like that in contrast to what I normally think of when I think of the Batfamily, without supernatural elements, here we’ve got Kate Kane basically going through an episode of Supernatural. It’s interesting reading that at the same time as I’m getting into Batgirl — and I like that there’s plenty of stuff around in Kate’s normal life, too. More than Batgirl’s, maybe; I got more of a sense of the wider world surrounding Kate, anyway.
The art looks really cool; I love the red/black look Kate’s got going on.
Captain America: The Red Menace, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Javier Pulido, Marcos Martin
Yep, I get the feeling I’m going to love Brubaker’s entire run on Cap. This was a lot of fun, even when it brought in players I’m not terribly familiar with — Crossbones and Sin, Union Jack and Spitfire; actually, they made it more fun. I liked the interactions between Union Jack, Spitfire and Steve, and I actually found myself weirdly rooting for Sin and Crossbones in that messed up way where, well, it’s kinda not her fault she’s completely nuts, and they take such bizarre joy in the destruction they cause.
I also loved how damn happy Steve was when he realised Bucky really was alive and nearby. That bit where he picks Sharon up and twirls her around — just lovely.
The little flashback comic in the middle was good, too, Bucky being Bucky and getting to see the Howling Commandos and more of how Steve was involved with the war.
I’m torn on this one. It was spellbinding, but in a soft, dusty way — Alcestis as a character is too obedient for most of her life to have any colour to her. The bit in the Underworld is still quite colourless, quite literally, except for Persephone. I was actually more interested in the relationship between Hades and Persephone than that between Persephone and Alcestis. I wanted to understand them, what made them tick, what made them volatile.
I understand that there’s actually a degree of historical accuracy here to way a real Alcestis would’ve lived, just with the gods treated as a rational part of everyday life as well, but she seems so meek and resigned — until she’s in the Underworld. I can appreciate the liberation of a female character from a stifling traditional role that must have been so flattering to the men in that male dominated world, and it makes sense it could happen in the Underworld, where the rules of life don’t apply.
I guess in summary, I just didn’t fall for it. There were some lovely sections, gorgeous imagery, and there was some interesting interplay between characters, but all in all it didn’t work for me.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Michael Lark, John Paul Leon
The film cannot come out soon enough. I need more Cap in my life. I have a wishlist of things I would like to see directly translated from book to movie — though many things will have to be changed, of course, to fit with MCU canon, there should be room for stuff like the “who the hell is Bucky?” moment. I’m looking forward to Falcon, who I haven’t seen before reading this TPB.
I also have a list of things I don’t want to happen, like that ending where Bucky just disappears leaving Steve believing he might be dead. Aaaah.
So in short, Brubaker is an amazing writer for Captain America — there are some moments where he just nails everything Steve is. The art’s good, too, and it all comes together really well in terms of pacing.
I don’t really get people who don’t like Steve. I mean, I can see plenty of reasons not to like the character, but the nobility and drive of him… It gets me right in all my feels.
Hmmm, The Origins of Virtue is an interesting examination of the possible evolutionary causes of virtue, mostly defined here as altruism. It works quite well as a supplement that falls somewhere in between three of my current classes on Coursera: one with an anthropological bent, one largely genetic, and one about morality. It draws some of those themes together quite well, for me, and explains some of the studies — and some of the pitfalls of the studies, and wishful thinking.
It’s also pretty well written: it’s divided into both chapters and sections, which makes it easy to digest and keeps the argument focused.
On the other hand, it’s a little old now (1996), and Ridley’s ideology is very obvious to the attentive reader, although camouflaged by his scientific tone. At least the last chapter unveils his ethical principles: anti-government, anti-socialism (including such familiar institutions to Brits as the NHS), pro-small collectives and curated communal living. To be fair, he does analyse some of the ways this falls down, but he mostly focuses on why government-run things doesn’t work.
I mean, I love the NHS unashamedly. I went from the diagnosis of gallstones to medication to having my gallbladder removed in the process of a couple of months, without paying for anything at the point of use, at a time when I couldn’t support myself and was in agonising pain. Throughout my life I’ll pay back into that system with my taxes, and I don’t begrudge it at all, whatever Ridley’s conclusions told him.
I had trouble with Invisible Cities. It’s beautiful, light, a dream of a soap bubble of a book, insubstantial and for me, really difficult. I can appreciate the writing, the dreamy nature of the book, but I can’t love it. It just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe written by Catherynne M. Valente it would have worked for me — her use of language has weight, somehow — but in this translation at least, no, Calvino didn’t work very well for me. It’s gorgeous, but I quickly got impatient with it.
It’s still a worthwhile read, I think, but don’t look for a story here: that’s not the kind of book this is. It’s more like a dreamscape.
Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection, Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf, Vincente Cifuentes
I very much enjoyed my first foray into Batgirl — certainly much more than I did the volume of Batman I choked down a while back for a class. Barbara Gordon is fun, and I have a thing for redheads anyway, I liked the art and her interactions with Bruce Wayne, and it’s a good introduction for someone new to DC.
I had two nitpicks. One, I didn’t think terribly much of the villains. They seemed almost too easily dealt with, like Gail Simone was starting Batgirl out soft because of the point I’m about to get to. It kind of makes sense, since she is being reintroduced and she is portrayed as needing to get back into the game here, but. Eh. I didn’t really care about the villains, put it that way. It felt a little bit rushed, too, though when I flipped back through it didn’t seem too bad. Maybe because the villain I was more interested in, Gretel, had less space.
The other thing was, well… why did we have to have a miracle cure for a disabled character? I don’t know much about Barbara Gordon or how prominent she might have been as a disabled character, so maybe there have been other issues building this up, but just jumping right in and finding that she was completely paralysed and then got better “miraculously” (as several people point out), it just didn’t feel right. I thought I was okay with it at first, given the way she talks about the time in a wheelchair and insists she’s not delicate now she’s out of it, but it didn’t quite add up for me.
Still, enjoyable, and I’ll pick up some more Batgirl when I get chance.