Category: Book Review

Book Review: Mastermind (In Defense of Dr. Watson)

One of the biggest perks about attending Science Online in person this year was that all attendees received complimentary books. I got my first choice in the book lottery – Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind How to Think like Sherlock Holmes – and I thought it was great. However, if anything, reading up on how to think like the famous detective caused me to react in a way that is the complete opposite of Holmes, full of sentiment, attachment and personal bias. I failed miserably in this first test of Holmesian thinking.
The reason I say I failed is because I spent Konnikova’s entire book wanting to leap to the defense of Dr. Watson, Holmes’ companion throughout his many adventures. Holmes is admirable, entertaining, and his mental process is fascinating. Of course it is interesting to try to dissect the way that he looks at the world and deduces so much information from such seemingly obscure details. The fact that he uses his ability for good is particularly impressive, but Holmes is also kind of a jerk. Endearing, but still obnoxious.

Mastermind-cover-new-pipe-198x300Holmes is arrogant and closed off. He keeps other people in the dark because it amuses him to see them struggle for the clarity he so quickly attains, all so he can have his dramatic unveiling at the end of every case. He takes extreme satisfaction in the dramatic unveiling of the solution to each puzzle. He lets the police take credit, yes, but not until he has fully satisfied his desire to see Lestrade or Gregson squirm. His disdain for the average person seeps through the stories. There is also that minor issue of the heroin addiction.

Watson doesn’t operate with the same mental dexterity as Holmes, but he is the character that I actually like. Holmes is the one I would hire to solve my next personal crisis, but Watson is the one I’d want to take out for a beer. It might be fun to imagine being Holmes, but I can actually relate to the human folly of Watson. He thinks like the rest of us do, and on top of that he’s a loyal friend and always bravely standing by at Holmes’ request with his pistol at the ready. He’s a soldier and a doctor – occupations I’ve always admired and respected.

Yet in spite of all of Watson’s good qualities, Konnikova throws him right under the proverbial bus. She makes no bones about her lack of admiration for the good doctor, even describing the “system Watson” way of thinking as: “Think of the Watson system as our naive selves, operating by the lazy thought habits” (Konnikova, 18.) I understand what Konnikova is getting at, Watson is the perfect example of the average person, but I bristled at the word lazy. Not because it isn’t correct – she fully backs up her reasoning with examples of Watson’s behavior in the various Holmes stories – but because I’ve attached myself to Watson the way you would a friend. How dare you call my friend lazy (even if he is!)
I found myself battling my sentimental attachment to Watson for most of Mastermind. One of the parts that riled me the most was Konnikova’s take on how Watson makes assumptions about Mary Morstan in The Sign of the Four. When I read the story, I thought Watson and Mary’s attachment to each other was romantic, especially the scene where the lights cut out and they instinctively reach for each other’s hand in the darkness even though they’ve only just met. Then Konnikova has to go and totally burst my bubble by dissecting Watson’s initial impressions of Mary, which I hadn’t realized were totally superficial (at best)

“Right away the good doctor has jumped from a color of hair and complexion and a style of dress to a far more reaching character judgment. Mary’s appearance suggests simplicity; perhaps so. But sweetness? Amiability? Spirituality? Refinement and sensitivity? Watson has no basis whatsoever for any of these judgments. Mary has yet to say a single word in his presence. All she has done is enter the room. But already a host of biases are at play, vying with one another to create a complete picture of this stranger” (Konnikova, 41.)

Well okay then, so much for romantic. It only gets worse. As Mastermind progresses Konnikova lays out an entire array of examples of Watson being confused, getting defeated, and settling for less than the most rigorous truth. In the shadow of Holmes, Watson is far from deserving of our praise, and certainly not one to be emulated. I see that the overall message of Mastermind is that all of us have an inner Holmes we can train, and if we work hard we too can possess those same mental abilities. Still, I walked away feeling a little slighted, much like the good doctor. I didn’t really want to see the character in that light. It is naive I suppose, but I could have done without Watson going under the microscope. Alas, once one’s eyes are open, they are open. 

If we take my sentimental attachment to Watson out of the equation, Konnikova’s book is an incredibly fun read that adds a wonderfully colorful context to Holmes’ thought process. I enjoyed it immensely and it really did open my eyes to the many ways we box in our own thinking. Recommended, although maybe not if like me, you find some solace in the sentimental way we react to our favorite characters.

Filling the Empty Page: Reading To Write

You’ve started a blog. Congratulations. Now what?

Of the many things I learned while in Journalism school, perhaps the bit of advice that I echo the most is that if you want to write well, you must read good writing. I’ve found this to be particularly true when blogging. If you want to blog about a topic it is extemely adventageous for you to be aware of what others have already said on the subject. It doesn’t do you or anyone else any good for you to produce content that is already out there (especially if your audience is smaller, and definitely if you don’t cover the topic as well as your peers.)

It has been my experience as a science blogger for three years that what you write doesn’t have to be the most timely, exciting thing on the Internet. Sure, those studies and stories that are making waves are great to write about, and when I blog about things like dinosaurs farting themselves to death I get a decent amount of traffic. But why would anyone care what I think of a study on dinosaurs when they could head over to Laelaps and read what Brian Switek has to say about it? Why would anyone care what I think about an infectous disease story when the world has Maryn McKenna’s Superbug? Or any chemical story when Deborah Blum has that beat superbly locked down?

I don’t think there is much value to writing about things that others have already covered, and covered well, unless there is some angle or something I feel like I can bring to the conversation. For the record, “I agree” doesn’t add much to the conversation – unless a topic is controversial and someone is getting attacked by the trolls and you want to show solidarity. If I do have something to say, in most of those cases it would probably be more beneficial as a blogger (especially a new bloger) to add a comment to those existing posts and jump into the conversation than sounding off in my own diatribe. There are, of course, exceptions when I do think it is worthwhile to toss in your two cents about a topic. But, in general if you aren’t going to blog about the latest splashy story, then what ARE you going to blog about?

What has made the traffic on my blog spike, and has increased my profile as a blogger more than anything else that I’ve done is to write about what interests me the most. Simple, I know, but I think when you are just starting out as a blogger it can be easy to feel like you need to be talking about what everyone else is talking about. The way to get noticed isn’t to join the herd, the way to get noticed is to do something that no one else is doing. Writing about what you feel most passionate about, regardless of everyone else, will make you stand out. Writing about something that matters to you, and gets you fired up, is in my humble opinion the key to writing an exciting post. If you’re excited, it will bleed through your writing.

Offer readers something they can’t get elsewhere – whether that is a manifestation of your childhood obsession with Amelia Earhart, a series of interviews with people you find interesting, or ramblings on your love/hate relationship with learning to code. Find answers to the questions that are bugging you, like when I decided to find out why the Scientific American blog network is so supportive of fledgling science writers. Your blog is your corner of the Internet, so carve it out for yourself. Make yourself at home. You wouldn’t decorate your home in a style that everyone else likes just because they like it, so don’t do it to your blog.

bestsciencewritingonlineAll this isn’t to say that the ideas are just going to start pouring onto the page. Just about every week I spend too much time staring at the empty screen trying to figure out what it is I want to say, and what matters enough to warrant a post, and throwing out all my bad ideas before I hit on something with a spark. Which brings me back to the advice I started with: read good writing. The idea for this post came from reading a collection of blog posts called The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (fomerly known as the Open Laboratory) the brainchild of series editor Bora Zivkovic and 2012 edition guest editor Jennifer Ouellette. The collection gets my sincere recommendation – if you have any interest in being a science blogger, you should check it out. Reading the posts in the collection inspired me, and reminded me how important it is to worry less about what you think everyone wants to read, and more about what you want to say.

The sheer diversity of topics, of styles, and of voices in this book is pretty astounding, and drives home the point that writing about what excites you is so important to having a successful blog. Reading all of those posts didn’t make me want to blog about any of the topics, but it did make me want to emulate every one of those writers’ ability to draw on what interests them and write about it in a way that is beautifully their own. Whether than means giving a voice to a fungus fairtale, telling us a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet, or getting pissed off about the way the media ran with a story – all of the writers in The Best Science Writing Online 2012 gave me a piece of themselves in their posts. They are all great writers to be sure, but what makes the posts effective, makes them resonate, is the excitement and interest that they have in their subject whether they are writing about sperm, gin or pirates (really, you should read this collection.)

If you want to write a blog, find the time to read. I get ideas from other writers and other blogs all of the time. It’s never about copying the subject matter, the inspiration comes from putting my own twist on trends and ideas and figuring out what I want to say. I want to talk about what I read, so I write book reviews (even grossly out of date ones) and have started collecting weekly links of my Media Consumption. I want to share my passion for science so I interview researchers for Science For Six Year Olds. When I wanted to talk about grad school, and the job market, I did. When I wanted to write about pengiun sex (and then mention it in a job interview) I did. You don’t have to write about current science news to have ideas that are relevant and worth talking about. Reading other science blogs is the best way I’ve found to figure out what kind of science blogger you want to be and to figure out what fits for you. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is a great place to start.

If you were to go back in the archives of my blog and see what I wrote about when I first started, it is really nothing like the Science Decoded that I have today. I started out writing a daily post about a science story plucked from the media. I almost never do that anymore. These days I blog more about issues related to being a blogger and a writer than I do about actual topics in science. I think this shift happened because right now I feel more passionate about sharing my experience as a writer than I do about actually doing more science writing (I am priviledged enough that science writing is my day job, afterall.) That’s not to say that I won’t shift back to writing more about scientific research, or to writing about current science news. There is absolutely a need for that type of analysis and for having those conversations online, but I’m not going to force myself to have an opinion about something when there are so many other topics that I actually do have an opinion on. As The Best Science Writing Online 2012 reminded me, your blog should never be a chore. If you always write about what interests you, it won’t be.

Book Review: The Emperor of all Maladies

Due to my new job as a writer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute I now find myself writing on a cancer biology beat. I feel like there are two ways to cultivate a beat, either you can grow into a beat by developing the background knowledge and sources over time, or you can be tossed into a beat and have to do your homework very quickly to get up to speed. Obviously, taking a job at DFCI forced me to take my basic knowledge of cancer research to a higher level very quickly.

I still have a long way to go before I’ll feel comfortable with my cancer bio knowledge, but I’ve learned a lot from all of the great articles and books I’ve been reading over the last two months. One of the books I read on the recommendation of a colleague who said it really helped her when she started on this beat, was The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A former DFCI fellow, Mukherjee is a physician, scientist, and writer. He wrote The Emperor of all Maladies in 2010, and it received a tremendous amount of acclaim including the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

the-emperor-of-all-maladies-a-biography-of-cancer-1439107955-lVery rarely in a book review do I say that I think everyone should read a book. More often I recommend books with caveats that if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, don’t like nonfiction, have trouble staying focused, etc perhaps you won’t enjoy a book as much as I did. I am recommending The Emperor of all Maladies for everyone, regardless of what you normally read or are typically interested in. This book, and Mukherjee himself, deserve every ounce of praise that has been heaped upon them. There is a lot of information in The Emperor of all Maladies, and depending on how and where you read it might take you a long time to get through. It will be worth it.

I learned so much from this book, not just about cancer but about how to tell a long, complicated narrative in a way that is factual while still compelling. The patient narrative that the book starts and ends with brings a personal touch to the book, but the physicians, activists, and researchers interwoven into the story by Mukherjee also make this a deeply personal story. I think one of the biggest achievements of this book is being able to meld science and history to provide a foundation for the cast of characters that drive home the human impact of cancer.

The Emperor of all Maladies is masterful at doing something that so much science writing on the web and elsewhere fails to do – it provides background and context for all of the claims that it makes. Granted, developments that have advanced our knowledge of cancer biology aren’t particularly controversial, but it is still necessary to illuminate the scientific process and make clear how these discoveries come to be. This book is just solid in so many ways. The structure is great, and very effectively drives the narrative forward. The personal stories add so much to the overall understanding of cancer and its impact. The science and medical information is clear and easy to understand.

There is just so much that you can learn from this book. I don’t think I’ve come across another resource that was as interesting and entertaining while being as informative about all of the issues involved in cancer than this one. I recommend it to everyone because cancer is something that affects us all, if you don’t have it yourself then you know someone who has had to face that diagnosis. The Emperor of all Maladies really is a biography of cancer, and the crash course that I think we all could stand to go through for a better understanding of this disease.

Book Review: Newjack Guarding Sing Sing

When I try to explain to friends and family why I prefer to read nonfiction I usually tell them it is because the best stories are the ones that are true. Yes, making things up and presenting them in a way that is creative, entertaining, eloquent, and even beautiful takes skill and talent. I’m not arguing against fiction in general, I will certainly concede that there are wonderful works of fiction. There is definitely something appealing about getting lost in a made up world. However, it is my personal experience that I find myself more compelled and moved by stories that I know are real.

newjack-guarding-sing-ted-conover-hardcover-cover-artI’m of the opinion that what happens in real life can be so fascinating that you can be transported completely into another time and place within this world rather than the Middle Earths or Panems of fiction. We see the world from a point of view that is shaped and focused by our own experience, knowledge and understanding about the way that things work. But the scope of my world is narrow. There are a lot of things in this world that I know absolutely nothing about. In a lot of instances, this is because I have had a very comfortable life. I want to understand the rest of the world, but can you ever really understand something that you haven’t experienced yourself?

I ask this most rhetorical of questions because I recently finished reading Ted Conover’s 2000 book about the New York State prison system Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Conover is the kind of writer that I think anyone who has ever dreamed about writing nonfiction thinks that they would love to be, until you realize exactly what he goes through to get his story. Combining anthropology with nonfiction writing Conover has made a career out of becoming his subject. Two years ago I read his first book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes, for which he became a hobo and rode around the country in the cars of freight trains. For Newjack, he went through training to become a prison guard and spent a year working in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Talk about being transported into a completely different world, within our world.
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what the inside of a prison is like, but Conover can. He created a completely different life to infiltrate Sing Sing and become a part of the prison. I don’t think I’ve ever read another writer’s work that so successfully opened a door to give readers a look inside a type of life that many of us will never even come close to understanding. The drama of Newjack is entirely wrapped up in the fact that it really happened. Conover isn’t just retelling stories; he’s telling his own story wrapped up into his subject. You can feel his fear, his stress, his exhaustion, his amusement, his appreciation for the kindness of others, and his strong desire to try to understand.
A book like Newjack illustrates my opinion that the best stories are the ones that are true. Not only did it increase my knowledge and understanding about a place, a system, and people that I would never on my own come into contact with, but it also tapped into the rawness of the human experience. The darkside of reality seethes through Newjack. It pushes you forward, and combined with the knowledge that it all really happened it opens up a world within the world. It isn’t really a fun read, but I think it is a necessary read. I recommend Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, and am looking forward to checking out Conover’s other work.

Book Review: The Perfect Storm

I have been told by many teachers and writers more experienced than I, that one of the best ways to create good writing is to read good writing. This is a lesson I find easy to embrace considering I love to read. One of the first classes I took at UW-Madison was Deborah Blum’s literary nonfiction course, in which I spent the semester enveloped in the work of some great narrative nonfiction writers. One of those writers was Sebastian Junger, whose 2010 book War I’ve written about previously and recommend.

When I discover a writer that I enjoy I try to go back and read their other work. I’ve done this with Dave Eggers reading Zeitoun, What Is The What, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I decided to give another of Junger’s pieces a shot and added The Perfect Storm to my Summer reading list. The Perfect Storm was published in 1997, and is the book that made Junger famous. It pieces together the last days of the swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, which disappeared during a 1991 storm off the coast of Nova Scotia with all six crew members on board. I don’t believe in spoilers more than two decades after a story breaks, so I’ll go ahead and tell you that apart from some fuel tanks and some debris the boat has never been found, and its crew drowned.

perfect-stormWhen The Perfect Storm was released Junger was called the next Hemingway. I certainly am not enough of an authority on Hemingway to weigh in about whether that is an apt comparison but I can say that Junger is masterful in the way he tells the story of the Andrea Gail. Communications on the boat were suspended in its final hours, so there is no definitive record of what happened. The last communication from the boat was on the evening of October 28, 1991. After that, what happened to the boat and her crew is open to interpretation. But interpret, Junger does. Based on research on the storm and weather patterns, about the Andrea Gail and how she was built, about swordfishing and what an experienced Captain like the Andrea Gail’s Billy Tyne would do when faced with the weather conditions Junger pieces together a likely scenario for what the Andrea Gail and her crew went through in that storm.

As a work of nonfiction that tells a story where no one knows for sure what happened, I think The Perfect Storm really works. Junger is honest with the readers that the only way to try to understand what happened to the ship is to understand everything else about the circumstances surrounding her disappearance. He achieves this with an amount of elegance and grace that does justice to the tragedy that unfolded while still presenting hard facts along with probable outcomes as evidence. I found the recreation of what it is like to be on a sinking ship, knowing you are going to drown to be particularly poignant.

“They’re in absolute darkness, under a landslide of tools and gear, the water rising up the companionway and the roar of the waves probably very muted through the hull. If the water takes long enough, they might attempt to escape on a lungful of air- down the companionway, along the hall, through the aft door and out from under the boat – but they don’t make it. It’s too far, they die trying. Or the water comes up so hard and fast that they can’t even think. They’re up to their waists and then their chests and then their chins and then there’s no air at all. Just what’s in their lungs, a minute’s worth or so.”

I think that what makes Junger’s recreation so plausible and acceptable is that he presents options, while still writing with definitive language. I think the book is honest, and raw and that is what makes it work. You can also tell that Junger really did his homework and talked to so many people and read so much about what it is like to be on a boat that he is able to explain the different scenarios. The fact that the scenarios all end up with the same outcome also adds an element of strength to Junger’s recreations. He states it so plainly that it gave me chills, “Tyne, Pierre, Sullivan, Moran, Murphy, and Shatford are dead.”

I recommend The Perfect Storm to anyone. The technical aspects of boat design and mechanics coupled with weather patterns and the physics of how together they affect a boat at sea are so well interspersed with narrative that the story holds your attention the entire way through. I thought the book was easy to get into and handle, while still being able to draw you back over and over if you need to put it down or are reading while traveling. I felt like I learned the basics about fishing, boats, weather, rescue protocol, the physics of the ocean, and the social side of fishing life. There is so much information it opens up a different world for readers, which I think makes it really worth your time.

It is also worth noting that The Perfect Storm was made into a film in 2000 starring George Clooney as Billy Tyne and Mark Wahlburg as Bobby Shatford. I haven’t seen it, and thus have no recommendation to give but from the trailer it looks like some cinematic liberties were taken with the story while still making an interesting film. I’ll be putting it on my ever-growing list of things to see when I have more time.