Mary Roach is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. Not only are the subjects she chooses to write about fascinating, but her writing style is both humorous and educational. She takes topics that most people don’t think about or want to think about, like dead people and digestion, and makes you want to learn more. I am always amazed at the people she finds to interview, the resources she uses and the topics she chooses to discuss. Gulp is all about our digestive system from one end to the other. Your average person doesn’t really want to know that much about the processes of the alimentary canal. As long as things are working properly we are ok in our ignorance. Not Mary; she wants all the dirty little details and she wants to share them with us. After reading several of her books I really do believe poop might be one of her favorite subjects since she incorporates mention of it in a lot of her books. I learned many things in this book: cows chew a mouthful of food up to 40 times; rats and rabbits eat their poop to get needed nutrients and without it their growth will be stunted; Elvis died due to an enlarged colon and constipation. Seriously! There is a disease that causes your colon to not push things through which causes it to be enlarged and you to have constipation. There are documented cases of 28 inch colons (average is 3 inches or so). Elvis could change waist sizes by several inches depending on whether he had gone to the bathroom that week. While these things might seem like stories you would read in the National Enquirer, Roach backs them all up with research studies and interviews of scientists. I will definitely continue reading everything she chooses to study as I haven’t found a clunker yet.
Temple Grandin does for Autism what Susan Cain did for Introversion. Grandin shows us the strengths associated with Autistic and Asperger’s syndrome, citing research showing superior ability to focus on details. She suggests that we quit seeing only the deficits, but acknowledge that some characteristics are actually strengths. Her attention is limited to high-functioning end of the spectrum while, the lower end of the spectrum is given short shrift. She backs up most of her arguments with scientific research (though a few times, she just says “That doesn’t make sense” without showing why). Interesting, but not as enjoyable as Animals in Translation.
This book starts out interesting enough. Did you know they’ve found cancer in Dinosaurs brains? and that mammals are more likely to get cancer than reptiles. But it ends there. No mysteries were unlocked, no important information to take away. I was really hoping for something along the lines of Racing to a Cure, where the author looks at a type of vaccine, where they take your fighter blood cells, expose them to the cancer and then inject them back in your body, and the fighter blood cells, then do a much better job of attacking the cancer.
Wolves Unleashed, is a nonfiction book that takes the reader on an incredible journey into the lives of wolves. Andrew Simpson is our guide on this journey. Andrew is an animal trainer for Hollywood and his animals have been seen in numerous films. Besides the story, there are fascinating pictures of the wolves. This is a must read for anyone who enjoys animals.
Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin presents a dazzling exploration of how life co-evolved with the changes in our planet.
Cool things I learned:
Camp Century, a U.S. Army cave city carved inside Greenland’s glacier before they realized that glaciers move and would ultimately crush the base.
How algae made the earth habitable for other organisms because they produce oxygen.
Blake’s quote ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour’ is an apt description of this book, encompassing both the awe and wonder of the universe and life.]
Scientist John Medina presents 12 basic principles on how your brain works. He illustrates how you can apply these principles to improve your life. Medina uses stories to demonstrate how these principle work. Some of the principles include: the best way to exercise your brain is actually physical exercise – not cross-word puzzles or Sudoku, or special computer games, rather aerobic exercise! it improves cognition and cuts the risk of dementia in half; the brain is incapable of multitasking that involves dividing one’s attention; we learn and remember best through pictures not through words – so chuck your old text-based power-point presentations and create new ones filled with graphics and pictures. He also discusses learning from 1 form of sensory input – visual or auditory – versus 2 forms of input – visual AND auditory – and how multi-sensory learning is quite superior to a single mode of input. In connection with his discussion on sleep, he highlights the time period with the highest # of accidents 3-5pm in the afternoon.
I enjoyed learning about the way our brains work, Medina’s writing is clear, engaging and infused with a sense of humor.
Medina knows what holds people’s attention, and knows how helpful narratives are to explaining impersonal research studies.
Now you know why I include so many graphics in my reviews!
Interesting book on the history of salt. It is amazing what is now so plentiful that we throw on our roads as a de-icer was once a precious and rare commodity that caravans crossed the desert for and created empires. Salt discusses methods of salt extraction, uses of salt as a preservative and seasoning, and the practical applications of salt in industry. Fun fact for the day; salted fish sauce has long been a flavoring used by societies from the Romans and Greeks in antiquity to the cuisine of southeast Asia and China today and initially, our favorite condiment catsup was an anchovy tomato sauce until the Americans and the British moved away from having fish in the sauce.
Far From the Tree is perhaps the greatest non-fiction book that I have ever read. It is luminous and extraordinary, lucid and clear eyed, heartbreaking and redemptive. A spare description is to say that Far From the Tree is about parents of exceptional children and their relationships with their children, the medical and educational communities, societal systems, and the greater world itself. Those few words though fail to even begin to capture the complexity of emotions, personality, and humanity that this book about. Framed by an introduction and a summation, each of the ten chapters deals with a specific condition; some of them conventional disabilities like autism, deafness, or down’s syndrome, and others less easily cataloged, like prodigies, criminals, and children of rape. Solomon draws from forty thousand pages of interviews he conducted over a decade with parents, children, doctors, educators, activists, and researchers. He discusses not only the spectrum of each condition but also the causes and treatments. He cites both cutting edge science and historical precedents. He debates controversies of limb lengthening, cochlear implants, sexual reassignments and executing children. But at its heart, Far From the Tree is about parent and child. What is it like to have a child that is vastly different than you, with experiences you can never really understand, who will likely fail to achieve the basic milestones of life? The parents in Far From the Tree run the gamut of reaction, some become activists and tireless supporters of their children, some try to endure to the best of their abilities, and some institutionalize, abuse, or even murder their children. Solomon never flinches from the complexity of his subject’s lives. The chapters on transgender children and the children of rape are especially heart-rending. Solomon is gay which gives him great insight into being a very different person than a parent expected and also is a parent which gives him the emotional insight of child-love. Far From the Tree is far from an easy read, it is long, extremely dense, and often emotionally wrenching. It is though an extremely worthwhile read that will touch your soul.
Inside of a Dog is a must read for any dog lover. It is a beautiful and engaging book not just about the relationship of people and canines but about dogs themselves and how they perceive their world and how we crazy hominids fit into it. Horowitz balances cutting edge scientific research about dogs and other canids with personal anecdotes of dog owners. Inside of a Dog is not your typical anamorphic dog tome but a fascinating insight into the umwelt of all things dog.
You probably think you would notice if a Gorilla came onto a basketball court, and beat its chest-center stage right? Actually chances are pretty good that if you were counting bounce passes versus aerial passes, you would miss the gorilla – yep 50% of people don’t notice the gorilla. We think we know how our minds work, but this proves to be an illusion. Know exactly where you were at, and who you talked to on 9/11? We feel pretty certain about our memories for these things, but again, the more certain we are about our memories, the less likely they are to be accurate. Read this book to figure out where your blind spots are!
What do you call a physician? a doctor that only treat 1 species. Ha! This joke informs the divide between human doctors and doctors that treat animals aka veterinarians.
Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers suggest we have a lot of scientific/biological information we can learn from the veterinarians. Monkeys also suffer cardiac arrest, octopi and stallions also self-mutilate. If we know how to treat these problems in animals, surely some of this knowledge can be transferred to human patients. It appears that dinosaurs got brain cancer, so knowing that cancer has been around for so long may shed light on what causes and how to treat diseases like cancer.
If you like Temple Grandin, you might like the book Zoobiquity.
Paul Tough explores how we often overestimate how important cognitive skills are compared to self-control or emotion regulation. These skills turn out to be particularly important for children living in poverty, who experience more trauma than other other segments of society.
These skills Tough terms character include the ability to work hard toward a goal and stick to it in the face of adversity and setbacks, the ability to rebound after failure, the inclination to do one’s best even in the absence of obvious external rewards, the ability to delay gratification. I think of honesty, compassion, kindness, etc as character.
There is an interesting chapter on a low income school with a fabulous award winning chess team. One of the youngsters becomes a grandmaster as a teenager, obviously a smart kid, but is unable to score well on a high school entrance exam, because he lacks basics like where is Australia on a map.
Tough posits that early interventions will be more successful if they focus less on cognitive skills and more on self-control and emotion regulation. He also looks at ways children from rich families need to learn how to fail.
Every country has it’s historical myths and legends. England has the Tower of London which is know as the Bloody Tower. It’s said that if the ravens leave the Tower Britain will fall. The author of this book did a lot of research about the birds and their relationship with British history. Since they have to clip the ravens wings to keep them from flying away there is no evidence that proves they won’t leave willingly. So for the tourists sake they keep several in cages at night and let them roam the Tower grounds during the day. Since humans are so willing to believe animals and birds are approachable they also have named the Ravens and let the tourists feed them. Ravens are black so some superstitions say they are evil while others think of them as scavengers helping to keep the streets clean. Most say they are a nuisance but with tourists flocking London every year I doubt they will get rid of them.
Sally Walker does a wonderful job explaining the discovery of Kennewick Man and what was discovered from his remains. She writes on a level that anyone can understand and she provides enough scientific and historical information to make the subject really interesting. I especially liked how she wove the discoveries of other Paleoamerican remains into the narrative. She also provides lots of information and documentation for the discovery with the back matter of the book.
I have always been fascinated by the fight between religion and science. In my mind, the two are not mutually exclusive as some would believe. I am a firm believer in scientific discoveries and scientific fact, but I can’t help believing that God could have been behind everything as well. There is no reason to say that there was no divine spark that started it all. We will never know for sure and I somehow think it is unscientific to dismiss something just because it can’t be proven or disproved. In my mind, science and faith coexist just fine. I think the Bible is a book written by men over a long period of time and as we all know men are not infallible. They can change things to fit the times or their own beliefs. Does this mean the Bible is wrong or shouldn’t be followed, of course not, but it does mean that a literal interpretation is not the best way to use it. If you use the Bible as a guide for your faith there is no reason to discount scientific discoveries; they can fit with biblical readings just fine.
Montgomery takes the story of Noah’s flood from Genesis and tries to find evidence of it in the geologic record. This book is part history of geology and part investigation of Noah’s flood and I think it works on both counts. It seems, from this book anyway, that geology came about because of biblical investigations specifically flood investigations. Biblical scholars wanted to prove Noah’s flood so they started looking at the rocks and the rivers and the geology of the earth to find their evidence. What they mostly found was proof that Noah’s flood didn’t work exactly like it says in the Bible. They found many flood stories throughout history and the world, and the found evidence of local catastrophic floods but not the world-wide flood from Noah’s story.
I like how Montgomery goes through the entire history of geologic research and how it has changed through the centuries. I also thought he did a great job showing how religious teachings and thought have progressed and digressed through the years as well. I especially found it interesting how modern Creationists are actually just recycling ideas from centuries ago that have since been disproved by both science and the religious community. I think his main conclusion was that science and religion can coexist as long as people are willing to let them. This was a well-thought out and interesting book; maybe a little dry at times but it was about geology so what do you expect.
Our bodies can go through a lot when we are dead and Mary Roach discusses it all. This book takes a look at the life of the human cadaver. Roach tells us what happens when you donate your body to science (you are probably going to be used for surgery practice), how bodies are used for crash test dummies, head transplants, crucifixion studies, human composting and so much more. The life of the human cadaver is fascinating, often gross, but never boring. I can say the same thing about this book. Not the best thing to read while eating, although I did, but it will definitely keep you interested. I loved the chapters on ancient medicines made from human remains and human secretions and human excrement and a whole lot of other things you don’t want to think about. I found the crash test dummy chapter and the airplane crash chapter equally fascinating. But nothing can really top the human head transplant chapter. That was some seriously page turning stuff! This book will make you think about your remains and what you want done with them. Will you go for the traditional burial, cremation, human composting, or donate your body to science?
Wonderful book on evolution for elementary age students. This book has clear and concise chapters on everything from DNA to continental drift to fossils to diseases. The illustrations are wonderfully clear and bright and really fit the text. Of course, there is so much covered by the book (basically everything that falls under evolution) that it only skims the surface on each topic. But there are a lot of wonderful tidbits of information in here that I wasn’t aware of. I never thought of the study of diseases and drug-resistant bacterias as evolution but it is. I didn’t realize there were 60 different kinds of honeycreepers in Hawaii and that they all came from finches. There is lots of good info in this book and all of it is a good jumping off place for the study of evolution.
Winner of the National Book Award in 1952 this non-fiction book about all the water on planet Earth and how it affects all life and how we affect it holds up surprisingly well. Well written and smooth flowing though it is full of science facts and terms. This book will make you care about the seas, the oceans and all of the water cycle and why corporate and city pollution do matter.
Haunting, well written text on the damage done by pesticides to the land and water well all depend upon for everyday life. First written as 3 articles in The New Yorker in 1962 Rachel Carson shows her expertise not only as a marine biologist but also as a lyrical writer. She draws you in. She is credited with starting the environmental movement mainly from discussions that arose from this book. Even though it was written 50 years ago her concern for the environment and the responsibility we all have to take for how we affect it is still relevant today. I did not know before reading this book the there was a classic environmental book but this is it; deserving the title both as a work of science and a literary work.