Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.03

A month wherein my tastes in reading ran as wide a gamut as my music collection set to unrestrained random shuffle. . .

The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment – Jessica Wapner. I kind of read this for work, not assigned but as related to this new knowledge area. Since starting at the new job, I’ve had to come up to speed quickly on various aspects of biotechnology, and I thought this might be a good way to get a focused history of one drug born from the evolution of gene-based research and therapies, presented in a narrative, non-textbook way. And the book was very good for me in this regard.

Was it well-written for the type of information it was trying to impart to lay-people? Hard to say. There were more “characters” throughout the book than there are in a Game of Thrones novel, and Wapner did a good job of repeating the contributory discovery each person had made whenever she went over the next step in the research trail. This repetition was helpful to keep in mind the progression of scientific discoveries over the 40 years recounted in the book. However, Wapner was also prone to repetition on a wider scale, frequently saying the exact same thing in two concurrent sentences, with only slight structural and vocabulary changes. While I understand the need to possibly describe a scientific concept in various ways to make sure the audience gets it, there were multiple instances in which this repetition had nothing to do with explaining science. I think a good deal of these sentences could have been edited out of the book without having any impact on the scientific descriptions. Conversely, there were also sections of a more scientific nature that really would have benefited from an attempt to re-phrase a sentence, but these were perversely missing.

Having learned so much over the last few months, I’m certain I was able to follow the descriptions of the various scientific discoveries better than I would have before. Even so, Wapner did a reasonable job of presenting the information for a general audience. I can’t say I’d recommend this specific book to anyone for pure enjoyment reading, but I think the background it provides will benefit me as I continue working in the biotech industry. There are several other books of a similar nature on my to-read list, but I see no need to go from one to the next without a little break in between. And so, . . .

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon. Let’s call this dessert following a vegetable-heavy dinner. I had been thinking about trying out the first book in this series following the grand convergence of recommendations and our trip to Scotland last fall. As I mentioned way back in January, for many years my primary opportunity for reading was the time spent on airplanes, for which light entertainment that lasts for hours was the perfect prescription. Faced with a lengthy flight for a weekend trip this month, I decided to allow my grey matter to have a little fun.

Boy has it been a long time since I’ve read an honest to god romance novel. I used to read them with wild abandon back in high school, but they trailed off along with the rest of my reading over time. There was substantially more character growth, not all of it pleasant, in this book than in other romances I’ve read.

Other than one episode in the middle of the book where Claire goes disappointingly off the rails with a wildly out-of-nowhere incorrect assumption, it was nice that the main characters didn’t suffer much from the misunderstandings and miscommunications that usually plague couples in this genre. It was also in the middle of the book that the story took an unpleasant turn toward a punishment and ownership motif that I could have done without. Fortunately, it was short-lived and moved on to a better direction.

While I don’t think the idea of an historical romance in which a 20th-century woman is cast back in time would normally be my cup of tea, I quite enjoyed the story and didn’t find it strained my ability to suspend disbelief. The writing seemed a bit stilted for the first several chapters, but I either got used to it, or Gabaldon had a better flow once Claire ended up in the 18th century.

What did cause a wee bit of disbelief on my end was when Claire allowed Randall to get the upper hand in a particularly crucial scene near the end. She had kept her wits about her so well throughout the entire book that the idea that she wouldn’t at least grab a weapon and stand guard over the unconscious villain was almost cripplingly inconsistent, particularly given the extremely high stakes in this moment. Her lack of awareness of the need to give Randall another tap on the head as he started to rouse is much to blame for the suffering borne in the next chapters.

While not necessary for enjoyment of the story, I was still glad to have read it after having learned some of Scotland’s history and geography on our trip last fall as it gave me a better connection to some of the finer details.

All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot. An absolutely charming read, as generations of other readers have already found. It’s actually very surprising that I’ve never read the series before, but as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m making up for lost reading time in this new era of commuting-by-bus. I watched and loved the old BBC series when I was a kid and found much familiarity in the first book. While I know Steve will always think of Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor, he will always be Tristan to me. I don’t recall the TV version of Siegfried being quite such the charming ladies’ man, but it has been many years since I watched it. I have the series on DVD and may need to pop it in soon to re-visit it.

One thing I did need to get used to was the exceedingly minimal through-line of the book. This is basically a loose collection of independent stories from Herriot’s first two years as a country vet. Other than the changing of the season, there is very little to suggest any kind of chronology to the events. Each story stands on its own without much, if any, link among them. Once Herriot meets Helen about halfway through the book, there are Helen courting-related stories scattered among the remaining chapters that greatly help to push the book into a cohesive work.

The collected stories feel makes this an excellent book for bedtime reading, where you may want to read one chapter without getting wrapped up in a series of cliff-hanger chapters. I generally prefer a little more progression in my reading materials, but this certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book once I stopped trying to find something that was pushing the story forward.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War – Max Brooks. Let me start by just saying that the book is nothing like the movie; to say the movie was based on the book is just to say that they are both about a world overrun by zombies. Other than the detail of Israel building a protective wall, I can think of nothing else that’s the same between the two creative entities. The zombies in the book don’t reanimate in 12 seconds, they don’t ignore sick people, and there is no epidemiological race to find a vaccine. The zombies aren’t fast and they don’t build ant-like ramps to overtop walls. In fact, I almost think I can pinpoint where in the book that movie notion might have come from, and it was when someone was talking about hearing that the swarm was approaching fast and worrying about them literally ramping up, but it turned out the fast-moving swarm was a group of desperate humans trying to crash the compound gates. All that’s to say, that there is no comparison – is the book or the movie better – unless you look at them as completely different entries in the zombie oeuvre.

The book is a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie apocalypse after humanity has beaten back the ravaging tide and is starting to rebuild lives, communities, and nations. The interviewer is virtually non-existent in the text, letting the interviewees tell their stories with little direction. It’s actually a bid odd that I read this directly after All Creatures Great and Small because this book, too, could almost be seen as being a compilation of completely separate, individual stories. I say “almost” though, because Brooks does a good job of creating a through-line and linking the stories together even though they are seemingly unrelated.

And it’s not just that the collection of interviews follow a chronological timeline starting from the early days of infection, through the days of refugees and military defeats, finishing as the active fighting has wound down. Brooks binds the stories together through little details. A Chinese interviewee talks about the collapse of a dam being a turning point in that country’s approach to managing the crisis and, in the next interview, the commander of the International Space Station mentions watching the dam collapse from orbit, or seeing the legendary Indian general’s famous battle (mentioned several interviews earlier) via satellite feed. Details like these are enough to create a satisfactory link among the interviews with dozens of otherwise unrelated individuals.

It was also a very neat exercise that Brooks took in examining how the zombie apocalypse could play out in just about every nation or human circumstance you could imagine: from South Africa to the U.S., from the wartime economic rise of Cuba to the horrors of the catacombs in Paris, from the ISS to a submarine to a refugee camp in northern Canada. The book presents a series of hyper-local, very personal experiences that tie together to explore something close to the entirety of the human experience in the case of a zombie apocalypse (or other catastrophic pandemic or societal crisis/failure if you’re not into the zombie thing).

It’s not a particularly scary read; perhaps that’s strange for a zombie novel, but the fact is that the interviewees all survived. There is no immediate danger, you know they get out. Their comrades might not have, but the speaker always did. If you are looking for a heart-pounding thrill that makes you jump when the house creaks, this won’t be it. But as a pseudo-documentary exploration of global politics and civilization, it’s a very enjoyable read.

One Comment

  1. I’m amazed you never read the James Herriott books too. I read most of them as bedtime diversion, and woke Dad up because the bed was shaking with my laughter.

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