Books, February 2017

This is shaping up to be the year of anything-but-novels. 13 books so far this year and just 4 have been novels – last year, they were half of what I read. And the one I did read this month was not a typical novel either…

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Colbert

I am constantly delighted by the tightly focused nonfiction book, sometimes called a microhistory. Sweeping histories of entire wars or comprehensive coverage of whole fields of science have never really done it for me, because they completely miss the actual experiences of the people they cover. (That’s not to say there’s no place for a book about the entirety of World War 2 or similar, but that’s not the perspective I need or want. Given sales figures, I seem to not be alone.) Equally, I find it highly engaging when nonfiction authors appear as players in their own investigations – Mary Roach is particularly skilled at this. And it’s a good thing, too, because the unending parade of human-caused extinctions is enough to break my heart already and I couldn’t have gotten through it without that narrow focus and humanizing author presence. We’re really terrible to our planet. Like, really awful. How many more species are we going to kill?

Topic: life science. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

Pretty Monsters and Other Stories, Kelly Link

I got this collection on a recommendation from someone who had read some of the author’s other work, but not this, on the basis that “it’s like Neil Gaiman, but with more kids.” And it was, superficially, like Neil Gaiman but with more kids, and Link has a beautiful command of language which I am always in favor of. But I found it difficult to connect with many of the characters or scenarios. I think this may have partly been because while only hinting at the monster can be extraordinarily effective, here a lot of the creatures and threats came off more as vague and unformed than sinisterly shadowy. I found myself very lax about whether the protagonists survived because most of them didn’t really feel like people and threats didn’t feel very threatening. This is all purely subjective, unlike many of the reasons I ding books (such as being lamely written or kind of a slog) which are a little more quantifiable, but this is my website and I pick the books. That all said, the vampire story knocked my socks off.

Genre: horror, character study. Format: short stories. Rating: 2/3

Scientific Feuds, Joel Levy

This was a cool idea, but I was frustrated with how adversarial it made science seem. The biggest adversary I face most days is an empty coffee pot (though in the larger scope, funding even small projects is a constant struggle, please give us money). I would have preferred if the author had stuck to cases where one or both of the parties involved really were, or were being, jerks, as opposed to people who just disagreed. There’s productive scientific debate, and then there’s people sabotaging rivals’ samples or having people arrested (true stories many times over). One of those things is a feud, the other is just a day in the life in a profession founded on proving things for the first time.

While normally I’m perfectly fine with nonfiction books not being illustrated, I thought the lavish photo spreads really added to the core of bringing a human, if overly dramatized, element to the practice of science. Seeing what scientists look like contributes hugely to that! Though, as a retrospective of influential scientists of history, it really underrepresented the contributions and presence of non-white non-male scientists, as they weren’t (and often still aren’t) getting enough attention and standing. The study of history (of anything, not just history of science) is critical to understanding how we came to the present and are moving forward into the future, but it does compound the lack of diversity then into now, as the featured players in history are even more disproportionately white, male, or both.

Topic: history, science. Format: essays. Rating: 2/3

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly

Much ink has already been spilled on the absolute unmitigated masterpiece that is this book and its movie. What I will add is to thank the stars (see what i did there) that this overlooked group is finally getting the accolades and attention they deserve, and can stand as role models to children who usually don’t get to see scientists who look like them – women, not white, working parents, all ages. Through fictional and nonfictional media, visible representation of minorities – especially intersectional groups, like the black women mathematicians and engineers who faced (and defeated, some) roadblocks qualitatively different from white women and black men – makes a huge difference to the confidence and career aspirations of children, especially young children. I am so pleased this book/movie has rocketed (see what i did there again) into the national consciousness, as one small step (i’m so clever) in the fight against public and professional stereotypes of who, at the most fundamental level, can be a scientist. The truth is that the only people who lack the capacity to be a scientist, are the ones who believe they decide who deserves to be a scientist.

Topic: history, biography, science. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

Sorcery and Cecilia, Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

I have read many an epistolary novel, but I have never read one that was written by two authors actually writing letters back and forth as the characters. I’m in awe that they pulled it off, and then did so again twice more for sequels!

One of the great struggles of modern life is that my social networks are scattered across not a city but the world, and unlike our fearless protagonists, my friends won’t be coming back home at the end of the social season. For many of them, my home isn’t theirs. Most of them, when either they or I move, I won’t live in the same place as them again. At risk of sounding melancholic, I understand the urge to write a letter to distant friends, because that category encompasses most of my friends. And then to have exciting events like a theft and conspiracy on your hands, instead of just everyday life, plus you live in a world with magic? You’d take my writing desk over my own dead body, which would be just another murder for me to write letters about. The narrator-protagonists, each written by one of the two authors, are charming and active, and the letters have the kind of genuineness that comes from them actually being very real letters between the authors. The world details gradually filling in over time erupt into a truly satisfying conclusion.

Genre: mystery, relationship. Format: (epistolary) novel. Rating: 3/3

Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson

There wasn’t a whole lot that was news to me of Olson’s advice – I have already been thoroughly sold on the importance of narrative in scientific storytelling, and the need to mercilessly sacrifice comprehensiveness and occasionally precision in science communication to the public. That’s not to say that I don’t strive to be right – but if the choice is to ballpark a number and be memorable, vs. get it precisely correct and have everyone forget what I said immediately, I will always choose the former. Science literacy is overwhelmingly poor – not because people don’t have the capacity (they do!), but because science education largely succeeds at making people intimidated by science far more than it does actually teaching them science. This is unfortunate given that science, technology, math, medicine, and engineering are increasingly inescapable, and better understanding of science reasoning and knowledge can lead to more career paths, better individual and business decisions, and better long-term governance. This book, and my other adventures in science communication during graduate school, are only encouraging me to take on this challenge. (We CAN do better!)

Topic: science communication. Format: nonfiction. Rating: 3/3

Angels and Visitations, Neil Gaiman

I picked up a compilation of Neil Gaiman’s rare and out-of-print work recently – mostly essays and standalone short stories, but there were a couple of collections like this as well. Honestly, if you only read We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” and “Murder Mysteries,” the collection would be worth it. “Wholesale” is one of my most favorite short stories of all time, and you should read it, but perhaps not alone at night.

Genre: idea(s). Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3 for the winner stories, the rest are fine too

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