Book review: by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler colours in the other, yin side of the Great American Novel. While some writers – mostly men – construct sweeping epics about the state of the world, she describes the human condition in exquisite details.

In Noah’s Compass (2010) a teacher on a cusp of retirement is fired, gets whacked on the head, falls in love with a woman that achingly reminded me of myself twenty years ago. In The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012)  a man is followed by a ghost of his wife. A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) describes the rise and dispersal of an all American family via the history of a family house.

Anne Tyler’s books are hard to put down. But after the downing, it is difficult to describe what it was all about and to pick it up again. The characters are fallible without redeemable features. Beyond prying, it’s hard to care about these random humans. The large picture of society is a negative space, absent like on Eastern paintings.

This is Chekov reborn as an American a century later. I never liked Chekov.

But it’s possible that I try reading Tyler’s book at a wrong time in my life. I tried to read ”Mrs Dalloway” when I was in my early twenties and couldn’t. The book rushed at me and drowned me, there was too much happening at once. I read it a decade later and loved it.

Maybe when I slow down in a decade or two and finally despair of the wider world, this will be the time to read the rest of Anne Tyler’s novels.

Book review: “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Suddenly I am fascinated by the book presented to me for the new year. Written by a Somali refugee that became a Duch member of Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Aly “Infidel”. She is two years younger than my brother, her grandmother is the age of my grandmother, the mother my mother’s. I can also emphasize with somebody who moved to the West from a different culture as a young adult.

The book is a well-written, detailed account of a personal journey and social history of East Africa the life at the end of the 20th century. The author’s father was in opposition to the dictator, who was trying to build Soviet-style “socialism” in Somalia. During her childhood, Hirsi Ali had to live in the capital and rural Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and later in Germany and Holland.

Mosaic of tribes, clans, and religions in African countries she describes is amazing. She vividly describes the rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, causes and development of Somali Civil War. The civil war in the Western press usually explained as “nomads against settled” or “Arabs against blacks”, but the author sees this in a completely different way: the clan against the clan.

The relationships within the clan are fascinating for me as somebody from a country with much looser nepotism culture. The personal name itself is more of a genealogy. Everyone is obliged to help the others belonging to the clan. Which sounds fabulous until you recognise the suffocating power of each decision making an impact not only on yourself but your family and wider clan.

The family relationship was complicated. The father married four times not always troubling himself with divorce: the first time the wife was Somali, then another Somali, then an Ethiopian, then the first Somali. There were children from each marriage and nobody was supposed to show any jealousy.

There was also a rural grandmother and mother, who tied and beat children with a stick and dumped all the homework on Hirsi Ali quite early. The grandmother arranged the genital mutilation of 6 and 4-year-old granddaughters in the absence of the mother. FGM was not the worst kind – the clitoris and small labia were excised and sewed up and sometimes all external genitals cut off. The consequences of this are also described, and terrible.

Women who have had unsuccessful sex – except virgins, I don’t know if there are such women – can imagine sensations when everything is sewn up to such an extent that the urine does not flow, but drips and this scar is broken by a penis.

Hirsi Ali is a very controversial figure, she was expelled from Holland, where she illegally obtained asylum. To escape the heart of darkness, anybody would lie and cheat.

But this is the case when the power of the work makes you close your eyes to the imperfection of the author as a person. Even if Hirsi Ali didn’t do a day’s work anymore the book more than pays back for the kindness of Duch people

Book micro-review: “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio de la Pava

I love reading “state of the nation = world”, cinder block like candidates for The Next Great American Novel that Meg Wolitzer witheringly writes about in ”The Wife”  by ‎Jonathan Franzen or ‎Jonathan Safran Foer.

Here’s another one, by the New York public defense attorney Sergio de la Pava ”A Naked Singularity”. Nothing to do with astrophysics, it’s dissecting the US judicial system. Jesus wept. Kafka also wept.

Book review: “X and Why” by Tom Whipple

It’s not often that word romp comes to mind while reading a popular science book. On the other hand, if the book is about ‘science of sex’, maybe it’s inevitable.

I think that the author, a Times science journalist, is trying hard to be objective. But the old stereotypes of male supremacy keep poking their ears above the hedge of selected scientific facts.  He avoids some cliches of gender science but slides into the other.

Somehow only facts that are non-threatening – at least in theory – for a straight man get an airing. The legendary disbalance in male and female fertility is demonstrated by amusing historical anecdotes of a Sultan of Morocco with his 600 sons and ‘wife of a Russian peasant‘ – she doesn’t have a name – who’s allegedly had 69 children.

The classic experiment “male students want to go to bed with strangers, females don’t” gets a long description. But the social explanations are barely mentioned and dismissed in this case and the other similar cases.

The author also allows women sexuality and infidelity as a norm, talking about two strategies – selecting a handsome rogue on the off chance of him changing his ways and long play in the chance of securing his desirable genes for her sons. He also talks about the fluidity of female sexuality – the cited research suggests that most women are bisexual. For example, 20 percent of modern younger women experimented with same-sex affairs while only 2 percent of the older women while there’s no dramatic increase for men.

Having read  Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “Testosterone Rex” the author quite suggest that everything is ruled by testosterone and as an average man has more of it he’s destined to rule the universe forever.  But the selection of facts suggests that – he keeps telling about men being the majority of CEO nudging towards the conclusion.

He does not nudge but bludgeons the readers by a Darwin quote about the eternal inferiority of women as a result of sexual selection. Surely, the father of evolution theory who lived when women were forbidden the higher education, cannot be wrong.

This is a book clearly written by a non-academic. If similar books (such as mentioned “Testosterone Rex” ) written of academics are often a dense read with meticulous referencing, this book conforms to journalist cliche. Chapters start with life stories, often only tenuously connected to the research. And research fizzles out.

You may think that as a card-carrying equalist (= feminist) I am biased. But without underlying ideas, the book is just a random collection of facts about human sex designed to earn the author some money. Oh, wait… the author is the journalist that earns his living by packaging facts for public consumption.

Is there a point in spending time reading this book? Sure, if you enjoy the facts and witty writing while being aware of the bias.

Book review: “Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson”

The eminent contemporary SF writer K.S. Robinson books are more miss (The Years of Rice and Salt2312) than hit (Mars trilogy, Science in the Capital trilogy) for me. But the hits are so good, that I’m willing to try anything by him. His latest book about a  generation ship, “Aurora” is a sort of hit, just like Galileo’s dream.

“Aurora” falls in an SF  Goldilocks zone. It has just enough action, just enough details, just enough of plot twists,  just enough of diverse real-world science to be educating as well as entertaining. The unusual narrator is a plus, as wells as a female protagonist, Freya, and her mother, Devi, who is “the closest the ship had to a captain.” The protagonist doesn’t have a classical love interest, which is also a plus in my opinion. If I cannot warm up to a sketchy, pessimistic Devi that never develops any deep relationships, it probably reflects my indoctrinated mind.

(contains spoilers)

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Book Review: ‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene

A few popular science books rise above the genre and become pop-stars of the book world – bestsellers. Even fewer among them change public discourse and, finally, culture. The Selfish Gene (TSG) by Richard Dawkins is one of these rare books. Published in 1976, TSG is not only still in print, but according to the a long, chronologically uninterrupted trail of stamps on the card inside of the 30th anniversary edition from my local public library, is still being read.

But despite all the fame (or notoriety?) of TGS, I have yet to meet a biologist under 40 who actually read the book. Before deciding to review it for BitesizeBio, I was hesitant about investing time in The Selfish Gene, suspecting that it would be a dated evolutionary biology book dumbed down for non-biologists. After reading it, though, I think there is a lot to appreciate about this book.

The title: runaway metaphor

Dawkins defines the selfish gene as follows:

“…In sexually reproducing species, the individual is too large and  too temporary a genetic unit to qualify as a significant unit of natural selection…

…[A gene] leaps from  body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink into senility and death… The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.”

In the preface, Prof. Dawkins writes that “The immortal gene” would have been a better title for the book, however (and this is true for the whole work) the caveats and explanations don’t stick in your memory: the metaphors do. It is ironic that the neodarwinist term “selfish gene”, introduced and explained in TSG, has achieved a similar level of popularity as another vivid but inaccurate arwinian metaphor, “survival of the fittest”.

Less than sum of its parts?

In Dawkin’s book, a species (including humans) is reduced to a population, population to an extended family group, –a family group to an individual, and an individual to a gene, which absolutely defines the organism. There is no emergence between different levels: a “gene” equals behavior.  This simplified picture is put across forcefully, with an erudition and conviction that are typical for Dawkins, who, since TGD and a chain of relatively less well known popular books (The Extended Phenotype, anyone?) has gradually become an embodiment of non-compromising atheism. Having read “The Selfish Gene,” I can understand why my local librarian told me that TSD forced him to doubt the existence of the free will, despite Dawkins’ declaration that:

“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”

Meme

Another, perhaps even more significant contribution of “The Selfish Gene” to the cultural discourse and, as a result, vocabulary, is expanding of the idea of an immortal replicator from biology to culture and coining of the term “meme”:

“…a new kind of replicator has recently emerged…unit of cultural transmission… meme. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashion…”

Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin.
If Thomas  Huxley was called “Darwin’s bulldog” Richard Dawkins has acquired reputation of  “atheism bulldog” since publishing The Selfish Gene (Photo: Wikipedia)

Is TSG dumbed down?

According to the preface, the book was intended for three types of readers – lay persons, experts (who were predicted by Dawkins to use phrases ‘with the exception of’ and ‘ugh’) and the inbetweeners – students. I am probably an expert – I did think ‘with the exception of’ a lot.  Depending on your field of study, you may want to skip the pages on the origin of life or genetic code or population genetics – but if you know and can write about all this (and virtual machines, theory of consciousness, game theory, social insects, caddis flies, naked mole rats) accessibly for the general public, you are probably Dawkins himself.

Is it dated?

Sometimes, especially reading at the end of day while commuting, I found the explanations convoluted. A few of the concepts, such as the idea that most of the genome doesn’t have any function and represents “selfish” or “junk” DNA, are dated too. It is a pity that the author was not allowed to update the book – the clarification comments added to the anniversary edition are often more interesting than the original text – so 35 years after its first publication “The Selfish Gene” is more of a historical document than a state-of-the problem treatise it had been once.

Is TSG worth reading?

Definitely, if you are a student – it will expand your erudition and will give you a fine example of how to write engagingly and avoiding a single math formula about complicated science.  If you are an “expert”, read it if you are interested in philosophy of science and historical books or want to be ready to discuss the selfish gene or a meme at a dinner party.

Have you read TGS? What did you think?

Book information

Title: The Selfish Gene

Author: Richard Dawkins

ISBN-10: 0199291152

ISBN-13: 978-0199291151

Book review: ‘How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper’ by Robert A. Day and Barbara Gastel

Many a PhD student was overjoyed to hear that his results will be published, only realising that  despite all ‘mock paper’ style assays, (s)he doesn’t know how. It is usually done “show me the first draft and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it”. This is especially daunting if English is not your first language. But there are books to help you with this.

One of them is  ‘How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper’ (HWPSP – I love an abbreviation as the next biologist and the book recommends to use an abbreviation if the item is mentioned more than 3 times in an article). I have access to the 6th edition of  and the 7th exists already, so it must be one of the better ones. And should be, written by two Professors –  R. A.Day taught courses in scientific writing to under- and postgraduate students at the University of Delaware  and  B. Gastel teaches several subjects including  Biotechnology at  Texas A&M University.

Some titles oversell the book, ‘How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper’ undersells it.  The book is not only a comprehensive guide written in very clear language to  the usual sections – Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion (according to the book authors it has a handy mnemonics IMRAD).  HWPSP also gives an overview of almost all writing  occasions a scientist could meet, starting with posters, conference communication, CV, cover letter, thesis writing and finishing with book chapters, grants, recommendation letters writing. There is also a valuable chapter on scientific style, including a sub-chapter on English as a foreign language. The wide coverage means that there is not many details and some of the content is just common sense, but rare person suffers from the surplus of the practicality.

The literature list at the back will help you to find more details about particular aspects of scientific writing. For example  I read the relevant part of  HWPSP and then found an article about how to write a book review. I don’t know if my review is better than the earlier ones, but I feel more confident in writing them now.

Get your PI to buy the book for the lab – it will save  a lot of students small embarrassments of starting letters with Dear  Sir (Madame), which ruined countless chances for an interview and increase chances of your poster winning an award. Or you may like it so much that you buy it yourself and it’ll accompany you in your future career – no section on writing Nobel Prize speeches, but I think this is amply compensated by the great humor and pictures: I wish I knew where to get something like this for my articles.

Book Review: “Coalescent”, by Stephen Baxter

Cover of "Coalescent: Bk.1: Homo Superior...

Cover via Amazon

This is not just one book, but loosely connected, two and a bit – a historical novel, a biological thriller and a science fiction short story – under one cover.

The historical novel is about a girl growing up in Britain in the 5th century A.D., while the Roman rule disintegrates. Now, I am not a fan of historical novels – when I’ve tried to read them a couple of times before, I’ve been disappointed by how modern the characters’ thinking was. And if I want to know about history, I’d rather read a popular history book. However, this novel did not contradict anything I’ve read about the Roman period and, in fact, added a lot of details to the picture I’ve had before. Moreover, the narrative seemed as real as any “true story based” fiction.

This “reality” or “believability” is part of Stephen Baker’s trademark – anybody who has ever lived in Edinburgh and wanted to brush up on their geology should try reading another of his Sci-Fi books, Moonseed, and you will never look at Arthur’s Seat with the same eyes.

But I digress, back to Coalescent.

The biological thriller, set in a near future, is a Dan Brown-escue (in a good way) story about a man looking for his long-lost sister and discovering a Puissant Monastic Order led conspiracy. The most interesting detail is that at the heart of the conspiracy is biology with some emergent theory thrown in. The motto of the Order is:

      • Sisters matter more than daughters.
      • Ignorance is strength.
      • Listen to your sisters.   

        Worker bees

        Worker bees – E.O.Wilson thinks that humans have a similar capacity to live and work together as an meta-organism  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Book Review: “Like a Virgin”, by Aarathi Prasad

Virgin Mary and Jesus, old Persian miniature. ...

Virgin Mary and Jesus, old Persian miniature. In Islam, they are called Maryam and Isa.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Modern humans about sorted their contraception, but  the reproductive options are still limited to the variations on the  “egg + sperm = baby”.  The amazon review of Aarthy Prasad’s book has promised that it “delivers an astonishing exploration of the mysteries of sex and evolution past, present, and future” and I was mostly interested in the present research summary and  the blue sky options.

Unexpectedly, I liked the historical account of research into reproductive biology.  It’s interesting to realise how women’s role in reproduction was considered   a passive receptacle of male “vital power” –  a whole embryo had been found by some “scientists” curled up in the sperm head.  At the same time inability to conceive or produce a male heir ( the story of Henry VIII and his 6 wives comes to mind) had been repeatedly blamed on women.

The “present” part of the book is full of truly astonishing  facts about human and animal reproduction biology – I was very impressed by hyenas and a woman who accidentally got pregnant while lacking the vagina. ‘Like a Virgin’ contains the best description of three layers of embryo I’ve ever seen and description of epigenetic programming of placenta development is really fascinating.

But as the book approaches the modern pioneering research, the narrative is flagging, disintegrating into  a patchwork description of different labs’ research in progress and other topics loosely connected to human reproduction in XXI century. It jumps from reproductive materials trafficking  to surrogate agencies in Mumbai, to ovaries transplantation, to solo parents – individuals who choose to have and raise children without   a partner. The true virgin birth in mice described on one page – the field of non-canonical reproduction is simply not mature enough to write a book about.

The question I expected to be covered, which  Dr.Prasad doesn’t ask,  is why do we want to have  a virgin birth?  The explanation proposed is that solo parents will ultimately want  the sole (pun intended) source of genetic material. May be I am not narcissistic enough, but I wouldn’t want to produce a second generation  copy of myself, either through cloning or a virgin birth – one of  the joys of the sexual reproduction is the lottery of similar and new features of the child.

So if you are interested in a collection of amusing facts about reproductive biology,   I recommend you to read the book, but if you interested in the state of art in the field of reproductive biology – try Nature reviews instead. And sorry but I can;’ recommend anything comprehensible about the ethics of human reproduction.