Tag: non-fiction

Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Posted September 15, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Posting this old review since the book is a Kindle Daily Deal today!

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time. Cancer scares me silly, so it’s not something I was able to do for a while, but I finally got round to it today. And in perfect time, because today I was an event marshal at a charity event raising money for cancer research, and tomorrow I’m running in that same charity event to raise money myself. (This seems an opportune moment to point at my fundraising page. Here.) I’m wearing a t-shirt tomorrow on which I’ve written the names of people who’ve died of cancer — my grandparents among them, but including people I’ve never known, people I’ve never even heard of. In fact, you can contribute names yourself in the comments to this review, if you like. Anyway, HeLa/Henrietta Lacks is the only one given special treatment, written larger than the others. Without ever knowing, she has contributed the most to cancer research and indeed to medical research of anyone living or dead. Rebecca Skloot’s book is important because it seeks to unearth what little information remains about the real Henrietta — a young black woman with cervical cancer — and how her legacy has affected the world, including her children.

Reading the one-star reviews, there’s a lot of concern about Skloot’s choice to document her personal activities in the search for HeLa, and the fact that she’s profiting from this story while pointing out the injustice of the fact that Henrietta Lacks’ children do not even have medical insurance. I’m not sure myself why she couldn’t outright give money from the profits on this book to the family, but she has set up a foundation. Most important is the fact that in writing this book she had the permission and cooperation of the family, who read the book in draft form and approved it. Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, repeatedly asks for this book to be written just as it is, telling the full truth about the family.

Skloot documents first the process of discovering the HeLa cell line’s potential, and moves on to the contributions made to scientific knowledge because of it. Slowly, her focus expands to examine the legacy of HeLa for the family, and the effect upon them. It’s pretty shocking reading, because this family was completely taken advantage of. Laying aside any ethical debate about whether the cells belonged to them and whether they could or should profit from them, they didn’t even understand what was happening. Nobody bothered to explain to them, even while taking samples from them to compare to the HeLa cells.

I don’t think this book is perfect, but it certainly succeeded in opening a dialogue. Maybe we should never have known who HeLa was — her genetic code has been published, arguably violating the privacy of her descendants too — but now we do know, questions about the race and class issues surrounding the family need to be asked. And judging from what the Lacks family are now doing in terms of talking about Henrietta, giving talks and so on, I think Skloot did a great thing.

There is a lot about the author herself in this book, because it was a personal journey; whether that’s to some degree appropriative is a good question to ask, and one I don’t feel I can answer.

Rating: 5/5


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Review – Eating the Sun

Posted September 8, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Eating the Sun, by Oliver MortonEating the Sun, Oliver Morton

I really wanted to like this and get on with the science in it. It is, after all, supposed to be popular science, and the biology of plants is something I’m really not well versed in at all. I did manage to understand some of the concepts — the flow of electrons and how that drives energy production — but overall, I found that it was a bit too high level for me. Although, it’s odd, because parts of it were very pop-sciency in the way they focused on the careers of scientists and how they untangled the mysteries of plant respiration. The first few were fascinating, but then it got bogged down in the detail.

Overall, I think someone with more of the basics than me might get on with this a lot better, but I didn’t have the focus for it — and Oliver Morton’s writing wasn’t as strong for me as, say, Richard Fortey’s. I’d read Fortey writing about paint drying and still be interested, while Morton’s writing was about on the level of watching paint dry.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Hidden Landscape

Posted September 3, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Hidden Landscape by Richard ForteyThe Hidden Landscape, Richard Fortey

Geology is not my thing, generally — in fact, aside from one other book, which was by Richard Fortey as well, I’ve generally found it quite boring. The attraction here is Fortey’s writing, which is clear and passionate. Beautiful, even. Most of that is the sheer enthusiasm and inventiveness with which he treats his subject: metaphors and vivid descriptions abound, even as he’s being very clear about the geological forces at work and what the features of the landscape mean.

Unlike Earth: An Intimate History, this book discusses solely the geology of the British Isles. It touches on most areas as it does so, going through Scotland and Wales, Cornwall, East Anglia, some of the small islands offshore… It’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but it goes from the oldest rocks of our islands to the newest, discussing their formation and weathering, and what that means for the landscape and the future. It might be surprising that even in a book originally published twenty years ago, there’s a lot of discussion of the potential of climate change to completely alter our landscape, but I think that’s because it takes a long view (necessarily so!). Whether climate change is man-made or not isn’t important: it happens, either way, and part of the story of geology is climate change.

Honestly, I take away as little understanding of schists, gneisses and nappes as I started with; it’s the kind of information that won’t stick in my head. But I enjoy the way Fortey presents it, and so thoroughly enjoyed it even knowing I’m not going to retain the information.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Selfish Genius

Posted August 29, 2014 by in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of the Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-BakerThe Selfish Genius, Fern Elsdon-Baker

If you’re looking for pure drama, sorry, the title is just intended to be flippant. If you’re looking for a genuine, in depth critique of Dawkins’ work and public persona — everything from his published research to his way of communicating with the public to his attitude in The God Delusion — then you might well enjoy this. Fern Elsdon-Baker has a scientific background and is an atheist, and has some fairly large bones to pick with Dawkins, while acknowledging at the same time his work in the field, his intelligence, and the accessibility of his popular science books.

Mostly, Elsdon-Baker respects Dawkins, and just disagrees with the way he chooses to express himself, pointing out that he often acts as though science is right now, rather than a subject which is always growing and making new discoveries. There’s some critique of his actual ideas as well, though, and this isn’t some kind of tone argument — Elsdon-Baker firmly believes that there is a correct way to communicate science to the public, and Dawkins isn’t doing it.

The writing is clear, and Elsdon-Baker makes it constantly clear on what grounds she criticises Dawkins, on the background to the various issues discussed, and the fact that this is an opinion, and most of it is not factual. I enjoyed reading it, and not just because I think it’s high time someone criticised Dawkins professionally and thoroughly.

Rating: 4/5

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted August 28, 2014 by in General / 0 Comments

What have you recently finished reading?
The Selfish Genius (Fern Elsdon-Baker). It critiques Richard Dawkins from the point of view of another scientist who is also an atheist, which makes it quite interesting — the title is meant to be just a glib reference rather than a particularly accusation. I need to write a review of this, but I’m going to mull it over a bit longer first.

What are you currently reading?
As usual, way too much. I most recently picked up We Are Here, a thriller by Michael Marshall; I’ve read some of his SF before, but not his thrillers. So far, I’m enjoying the writing style, but I don’t know how much I’m going to like the thing as a whole.

There’s also Black Unicorn (Tanith Lee), which is, shockingly, my first Tanith Lee read. I’m intrigued so far. It’s quite short, so no doubt I’ll finish it soon.

What will you read next?
Well, I got a book on photosynthesis and its importance for/impact on our world today — Eating the Sun (Oliver Morton) — which, along with my books on genetics, prompted my dad to suggest I must be planning to create Groot and Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. So just for that, I think that might be up next.

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Review – The Naked Ape

Posted August 26, 2014 by in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Naked Ape by Desmond MorrisThe Naked Ape, Desmond Morris

I think the concept of this approach to humans as an animal like any other is a brilliant one. We are prone to thinking of ourselves as a species apart, when we’re not, and even if we were, we could do with putting back in our places sometimes — being human doesn’t mean we’re more worthy than any other creature, all of which have their own adaptations to deal with the environment they find themselves in. We’re particularly versatile, yes, but because we evolved that way, not because of some special merit.

Anyway, while the approach is interesting, and Desmond Morris’ writing is engaging, this is definitely out of date. He keeps a few too many of his human expectations kicking around, like expectations of gender roles and sexuality. It is a really old book, which explains it, and it could undoubtedly do with some updating.

If you’re particularly attached to notions of humans as being sacred, set apart, etc, you won’t want to read this. And if you have any sexual hangups, you won’t want to read this, either — there’s a whole chapter on sex. Granted, it’s a very old view of sex, considering it only in terms of adaptations (dare we whisper to Morris that homosexual behaviour could persist in a population simply because it feels good and only strict monogamy would mean that any ‘gay gene’ would die out?), but still, it can be fairly explicit.

I don’t agree with Morris on many aspects, but his attempt to study humans as animals must be commended.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Monster of God

Posted August 25, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Monster of God by David QuammenMonster of God, David Quammen

I enjoyed Quammen’s Spillover more than this book, but that’s not to say this wasn’t an interesting read too. In a similar way to Spillover, Quammen takes the reader on a tour of the world. He doesn’t just report on predators from afar, but goes to get close up and personal with them, and with the people who’ve really spent time in their environment. It’s still a little difficult to believe he could understand these animals or even that way of life with such short exposures, but he did his research and spoke to the people who did know, which puts him ahead of people who theorise from afar.

What I liked particularly about this one was that he pulled in threads of literature, history, sociology… all kinds of ways of understanding the complex impact alpha predators have on us, and the impact we have on them. It’s obviously very human-centric still: all of these alpha predators have been impacted by human encroachment on their territory. I don’t know if there’s any alpha predator in the world not feeling human pressures, but the relationship seemed particularly close/fraught here, with the animals Quammen picked.

It’s a bit of a dense read, but still interesting.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise

Posted August 18, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Coral by Steve JonesCoral: A Pessimist in Paradise, Steve Jones

Starting with coral and working his way around, Steve Jones covers a lot of different topics to do with evolution, geology, the environment, and the impact us humans are having on said environment. This was probably the most compelling of his books that I’ve read, but I have to say I still didn’t find it breezy: fascinating as coral is in many ways, it’s not that fascinating to me.

Also, Jones clearly has a thing with Darwin — it’s not exactly that he copies Darwin, but he certainly emulates his works and interests, trying to present them anew to this century’s audience. Something about the way he’s always harping back to Darwin is starting to get on my nerves.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Y: The Descent of Men

Posted August 16, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Y: The Descent of Men by Steve JonesY: The Descent of Men, Steve Jones

This book is another of Steve Jones’ updates/responses to/homages to Charles Darwin’s work. It’s probably remarkably different in many ways, in terms of the content, but it is an interesting read. I do think Jones goes a bit too much into gender essentialism — I played rough with my sister and the local boys, which the female-bodied are allegedly hard-wired not to do — and sometimes his constant reiteration that the Y chromosome is dying out seems a little hysterical, like maybe it might give fuel to the men’s rights people.

And if he could maybe stop talking about promiscuous gay men causing the spread of AIDs in every book, that’d be great. (I don’t care how true it may be, straight people get AIDs too, thank you very much.)

There is interesting stuff here in terms of genetics, foetal development, even the development of the human race as witnessed by the Y chromosome. Honestly, though, I’m not finding Jones’ work that fun to read — it seems to drag on forever — so once I’ve finished the last one I have out of the library, that’ll be it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Jurassic Mary

Posted August 15, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters by Patricia PierceJurassic Mary, Patricia Pierce

I couldn’t resist grabbing this when I came across it randomly in the library. I was hoping for more books on dinosaurs, but I’ll take a biography of an amazing female scientist any day. The unfortunate thing about Mary Anning is that she wasn’t treated as the professional she was. Or, rather, she was accepted as a professional fossil hunter, but she wasn’t given the recognition she deserved. And unfortunately, a lot of what we know about her is framed by the male geologists and scientists who relied on her.

Still, Patricia Pierce does a decent job of bringing Mary Anning to life and pointing out how amazing her achievements were, given her social context. I could do with less speculation about her romantic life, about which there appears to be not a shred of proof. Maybe she just wasn’t interested? But that didn’t take up too much space: it just struck me as falling into the trap of seeing Mary Anning the way her contemporaries would’ve, with too much emphasis on her being a ‘spinster’.

Rating: 3/5

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