Category: Book Review

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.

Book Review: Jurassic Park

I’m about two decades late to the party with this book review, but considering I was two years old when Jurassic Park was first published my interest in dinosaurs, genetics, etc. needed a little more time to develop. I have finally read Michael Crichton’s iconic Jurassic Park, and not really surprising anyone I loved it. I have been exposed to the cultural premise of Jurassic Park my whole life, but I’d never read the book or seen the movie, so really it was like my first exposure to the story in its entirety. I found my Dad’s old copy from back when it was first released and decided to rescue it from the book donation bin. I’m glad I did.

200px-JurassicparkIn case you live under a rock and are thus unaware the premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists develop a way to pull dinosaur blood samples out of mosquitoes fossilized in amber. The blood is used to decode the genetic sequence for a variety of dinosaurs and they are then grown and hatched in a lab. An eccentric billionaire funds the project because he believes he can make billions by using the dinosaurs as the main attraction in a theme park. What could go wrong genetically recreating dinosaurs for a modern day tourist attraction? Everyone involved in the project thinks nothing could go wrong, yet things do go awry on the island where the theme park is built causing much dinosaur related havoc.

I can only speculate what reading the book when it was first published must have been like and how I would have perceived the ideas and lessons in the context of early 90’s technology. Still, even in our current age of high speed genome sequencing I think the warnings in Jurassic Park continue to hold true. Things go wrong because the people working on the dinosaur project don’t give nature enough credit. They think there can’t possibly be a way for their fail-safe measures (creating only female dinosaurs and making them lysine dependent) to be overcome by the dinosaurs. They doubt the intelligence of the life forms they create and their ability to adapt. They also don’t appreciate that they have created something new instead of just recreating the past.

The desire to profit off the dinosaurs is the main priority, leading to a lack of understanding about them and the process that created them. Living in an age of even more advanced scientific ability, I think remembering that there can always be unexpected outcomes with any scientific experiment is important.   I am a firm supporter of genomic research, but the key word there is research. Creating a profitable enterprise like the one in Jurassic Park shifts the priority from understanding to economics. Understanding should always be the goal with scientific inquiry and processes, because if we are going to use technology to manipulate, change, or create we need a firm grasp on the what and the how.

Ultimately I think what I took away from Jurassic Park was a sense of respect for science and nature. We can’t take ability for granted. Ethics are important. Why we do things matters as much if not more so than just our base ability to do them. While I know (obviously) that Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, I think it gives a reader a lot to think about regarding research and real-world applications, even after so many years. It is also pretty entertaining, the plot is great but the characters are also well developed and it is definitely action packed. I now need to find the time to watch the movie, and read The Lost World. I’m totally hooked. Have you actually read Jurassic Park? Just seen the movie? How old were you? What did you think? I’d love to know what other people thought when they first encountered the story.

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius

Generally when I become clued in about a new author I try to read their work in the order in which they published it. I guess there is no real reason other than I like to see the evolution of the writer as it occurred, their interests, style etc. I do not always succeed at doing this, as is the case with Dave Eggers. The first book of his that I read was Zeitoun, followed a few months later by What is the What? I recently got a copy of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I was going to read it in Germany, but then I didn’t. I had good intentions. Anyway, I just got around to reading it and now I feel conflicted.

tumblr_l7tef8fihn1qaouh8o1_400Conflicted because I’m somewhat in awe of Eggers’ ability to put his subject’s voice at the front of his other books, when the memoir shows that his own voice is so strong. The author’s voice in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is nothing like the voices you get in Zeitoun and What is the What? I think I’m just having a hard time reconciling the fact that all of these books were written by the same person. I’m also not sure which voice it is that I find the most appealing. Eggers as he presents himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is simultaneously appealing, astounding, and revolting and you know he did that on purpose.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir, so as such it chronicles the period in Eggers’ life right before the deaths of his parents and the years following in which he takes over the responsibility of raising his younger brother. Eggers has a lot of self loathing going on, and while I love his honesty his feelings about writing about himself hit a little too close to home for me. They made me uncomfortable because I had to think about things I didn’t want to think about. Writing about yourself is weird. Writing about the people you know is even weirder, especially if they are going to find out you’ve been writing about them. I joke all the time with my parents that I’m going to turn their lives in a book and that is what is going to win me my first Pulitzer and launch my career. Eggers didn’t win the Pulitzer for this one, but it was a finalist. He did something I’ve always jokingly yet seriously considered doing and it freaked me out.

The only piece of writing I’ve ever done about myself and my family was to write down my September 11th story. We all have one and with 10 years separating me from those events I felt the need to have it written down somewhere. I pitched it, felt guilty about possibly benefiting from a story about a tragedy and about my family, and was more than a little relieved about the rejections that came back to me. Then I also felt rejected by the rejection and was sad that a story that meant so much to me wasn’t going to be heard. I think you can see the same mixture of emotions taking place in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Although Eggers’ story ended up quite successful.

My perception was that he desperately wanted the story to matter to someone other than himself. I feel like that is perhaps a characteristic of all writers, we want what matters to us to matter to you. More so when we are talking about ourselves. My story of September 11th and of my relationship with my parents feels like the most important story I have to tell. But the idea that what is so important to me wouldn’t matter to anyone else, and is not even comparable to the tragic tales of the rest of the 6 billion people in the world makes my feelings about the story fall flat. Then again, despite all of Eggers self-flagellation about everything his book was really well received. Perhaps because we all enjoy watching a car crash. All of us are voyeurs, we cannot help but be curious to peer inside the tragedies of others. But that still doesn’t make my story matter.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius left me feeling unsettled. It is brilliantly brutal. It reads the way I’d like to someday be able to write. It also reads like the diary of someone with more than a few screws loose. I find this impossible to reconcile with the pitch perfect precision of Zeitoun. I now feel like I need to go read everything else by Eggers in an attempt to understand someone I will never actually know. He is not just the author, he is his own character, and I cannot help but be compelled to continue as a voyeur. I want the author’s voices to make sense, but perhaps there is no way for it to make sense. Perhaps the beauty of the whole experience is in seeing the author’s ability to unleash himself with such incredible force in one book, and disappear completely into the background in another. Regardless, I’m impressed and I recommend his work highly.

Book Review: Moby-Duck

Recently I departed on my first trip to Europe, to visit a friend who was studying abroad in Germany (Bonn, to be exact.) I traveled armed with several books lest I get bored on my flights or train trips, and one of these books was Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. I really, really want to be able to tell everyone I know to go read this book, but I can’t. It was hard to get through, I kept stopping and starting and coming back to it, reading in short bursts which I don’t usually do because I could only focus on it for small intervals. I feel like someone who isn’t really invested in the subject matter would be likely to put it down and not go back to it. But even though I don’t think it is for everyone doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Actually, I liked it a lot.

cover.moby-duckMoby-Duck starts with the seed of a great story, one so great it has been misinterpreted and told erroneous many times over the last decade. In 1992, a shipping container fell off the back of its transport ship in the Pacific Ocean. The container was holding small plastic bath toys, sets containing a beaver, a frog, a turtle and a duck. These bath toys, set afloat in the ocean traveled the high seas, and ended up washing ashore in high numbers on the Alaskan coast. Hohn is really captivated by the idea of the bath toys, particularly the rubber duck, lost at sea and ends up quitting his job as a teacher to chase the story and find out how far the ocean could have carried the toys. There were rumors that they had washing up in Maine, which would have meant traversing the arctic. It’s a good little story, if you don’t mind the fact that the ducks didn’t actually end up in Maine and Hohn spends the majority of the book chasing a figment of a duck. I really didn’t because this book is about much more than bathtub toys.

If you can see past Hohn’s sometimes difficult to relate to fascination with the rubber duck, you will start to notice though that this isn’t actually a book about rubber ducks. Sure, the science is there. It includes plenty of facts about pollution, plastics, and ocean currents. But really this is a book about fatherhood. Only speaking from my point of view as a 20-something woman who has no children, it feels like the book, the whole fascination with the ducks is Hohn having a hard time with becoming a father. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to be a father, the relationship with his son that he describes in the book is very sweet, but ultimately I think what the duck represents is childhood – Hohn having to let go of his and focus on making his son’s the best it can be.

One of the most likeable parts of the book is Hohn himself. While his self-deprecating descriptions of his participation in his various sea-faring adventures can get a little tedious (we get it, you are not particularly adept at this) at the same time you can’t help but feel a little jealous. Jealous that while you sit at your day job doing all the things you are supposed to, this guy had the balls to quit his job and travel through Asia, Hawaii, Alaska and the Arctic because he was just interested in something. Would you want to do that? I would. I respect Hohn for going in search of his own adventure, for chasing his own personal white whale, and for having the guts to do something unexpected.

The book is also beautifully written. Hohn writes like an English teacher, but in this case it works. His romanticizing of the ducks and the sea works in this book whereas in a different story I think it would drive me a little nuts. The descriptions of what he sees and experiences are pitch perfect for me. For example:

“One imagines, before setting sail, that seafaring promises excitement or romance but on calm tropical seas, the hours pass through one’s mind like cubic meters of water through a manta trawl, leaving a sprinkling of impressions snared in memory’s gauze.” (pg. 168)

Overall, Moby-Duck is a good book, it is well written, it has a great cast of characters, and there are a lot of interesting facts in it. Looking at it as a story about rubber ducks, will leave you disappointed. You have to see it for what it is, Hohn’s own adventure tale as he comes to terms with his life at home. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but I enjoyed it and would certainly recommend it to people with an interest in the ocean, in pollution, or in personal narratives. I would recommend this book for people who normally read narrative non-fiction. There was a lot of good in it, even if it did take me a while to get through.

UnMarketing A Science Writer

I’ve mentioned before that I’m taking a class this semester on social media for the life sciences. This class has been a crash course in the internet. Before taking this class, I considered myself relatively savvy about the internet. I’ve been blogging for a year and a half, on Twitter for a year, I’ve written a dozen E-Newsletters for my day job, hell I’ve even been to 4Chan and back. Still, however much I knew about the internet I was grossly uninformed about how to engage with people online. Reading Scott Stratten’s book UnMarketing for this class has me convinced that the most valuable thing you can get out of the internet is engagement. If you checked out my book review of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I talked about having my mind blown by something painfully obvious. UnMarketing took that sensation to a new level.

unmarketing_book_coverThe idea of UnMarketing is that traditional methods of marketing don’t even come close to the kind of success you can have if you just start listening to and interacting with people. Simple enough, right? Well then why aren’t I doing it? I’m a science writer, looking for a steady job. I’ve tried, and failed, to freelance my work in the past. I’m firmly convinced that my freelance failure had everything to do with marketing myself in traditional ways. UnMarketing is about making connections with real people. You make those connections based on mutual interests, you build a relationship around it, and later down the road you’ll be in a position to help that person or they’ll be in a position to help you. People will be way more likely to give you a chance if they trust you and they like you.
That lecture about how to freelance? All those tips about getting to know the publication, introducing yourself sincerely, writing a persuasive pitch letter… didn’t amount to a hill of beans for me. I didn’t sell anything, I ended up posting the articles I was trying to sell here instead. What all the people who tried to help me find freelance success were trying to tell me was to UnMarket myself, and it went right over my head. I thought I got it, but clearly from my results I did not.
You want to get yourself published on a specific website? Find out who runs that website’s Twitter account, follow the official account, follow the editors, follow the writers. Throw some link love in the direction of those people. Comment on things they say. Use them as a case study for a blog post. If you mention them, and tell them you mentioned them, odds are high that they’ll start trying to figure out who you are and what you’re saying. They’ll look at your blog and website, and if you have solid content to back yourself up, they’ll probably follow you in return. Build a relationship where you can start asking them questions. They’ll get to know you and how you operate. Then, when you have an article to pitch instead of your email getting immediately deleted they’ll recognize your name and at least give you some consideration.
Well, duh. I feel like dozens of people have been trying to explain all that to me for the last two years, but it took Scott Stratten’s book to shift those puzzle pieces in my brain into alignment. This is a business book, the majority of the examples have to do with corporations and sales, but I still think every writer should read UnMarketing. Writers are selling their brain and what they can do with it, and I firmly believe it is a lot harder to sell an intangible product. (I suppose my brain is tangible, technically, but I’m not going to let you poke around in it to figure out if you want to invest your time, reputation, money, etc.) UnMarketing was so worthwhile as a writer because so much of the content applied to what I am trying to do as I establish myself online.
The science writing community is tremendously strong online. If you want to get into this industry, you need to be on Twitter and you need a website or a blog because that is where the people you need to convince to give you a chance are, that is where the people you are going to learn from are, and that is where the people who are going to read what you write are. UnMarketing is the best guide that I’ve read for how to get yourself into that community and show people what you’re made of without falling flat on your face. It takes a really honest look at things like transparency and the term best seller, dealing with trolls and even how annoying captchas are. Stratten just calls bullshit on so many things that I’ve seen online but wasn’t sure how to handle. I really wish I read this book years ago (it only came out in 2010) but better late than never.
If none of that convinced you that science writers need to UnMarket, let me just say that the book is also wonderfully written. By that I mean that Stratten has a very clear and distinct voice. You will walk away from reading feeling like you just had a conversation with the guy. I will also say that my favorite part of the entire book was the footnotes. When I write my Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece (you know, someday…) I’m going to have footnotes like that. I read every single footnote because the funny commentary contained in them was awesome and unexpected. I enjoyed reading this book, and I found a tremendous amount of valuable information in it – that’s just a win all around.