Category: Book Review

Book Review: In Cold Blood

Note: This post was written before I learned that what has long been claimed/believed to be a pure work of non-fiction, has been called into question by long-lost files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Here is the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the revelations contained in those files.
– EP 2/13/13
Well, I’m 46 years late to the party on this one, but I finally read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The first class I took here at UW was a literary journalism class with Deb Blum, in which we read and learned about some of the greatest narrative journalists. I have a long list of books mentioned or recommended in that class that I have yet to read, and when I find free time in my schedule I’ve been working my way through it. I decided last week to tackle Capote’s true narrative of a quadruple homicide, and I’m glad I finally did.

11In Cold Blood made me do some serious thinking about the amount of murder and mayhem my brain digests on a daily basis. My favorite television show is Criminal Minds and I watch it all the time on DVD or in reruns. I also read a ton of paperback murder mysteries as a way of relaxing my brain. I just read the Hunger Games, and the premise of that book (which is young adult fiction) is 24 teenagers fighting to the death for national television. Murder is a fairly common theme when I’m choosing entertainment, and honestly reading In Cold Blood made me feel sort of sick about it all.

I ended up feeling like In Cold Blood was too good, too entertaining. It was entertaining in a way that blurred the lines for me between real and not real, and I had to keep reminding myself that the events recorded by Capote really happened. Four people were murdered, and two more people were put to death to pay for those crimes. Six lives extinguished, and I read this for fun. It was unsettling. Even though it all happened so long ago, the murders happened in 1959 and the murderers were put to death in 1965, I feel like the book drove home the fact that there is a huge disconnect between murder for entertainment and murder as fact.

As far as being a journalistic piece goes, I was blown away by Capote’s attention to detail. Particularly in the first section of the book, before the murders occur I felt like Herb Clutter and his daughter Nancy were described so vividly. The account of how they died would not have had the same impact if Capote had not spent the time setting up how they lived. It is what gives the book all of its heartbreak. The storytelling is masterful and I feel like you can see a tremendous level of skill in the way the story is structured, to set you up, pull you in, and keep you reading until the last page. I had to remind myself while reading that Capote never met any of the Clutters. They were all dead by the time he got to the story, yet they are so alive in his words.

Capote actually did interview the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In the sections of the book dealing with their arrest, trail, and subsequent stay on death row I again had to remind myself that these were real people. Perry Smith really did kill four people for all of $40-50 while Dick Hickock stood by and cleaned up the evidence. I really can’t imagine Capote sitting with the men he describes talking about their lives and getting them to open up about all the things they end up telling him. To get to this level of detail it feels like Capote has to have become a character in the stories of Hickock and Smith, yet he is only mentioned once or twice and always as “the journalist.”

Pieces of writing are considered classic for a reason, and I’m glad I finally read Capote’s classic story of mystery and murder. You have to read journalism, good journalism, and lots of it to appreciate what a narrative journalist really does. It is a great book, but it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. Not because it is graphic (certainly not by today’s standards) but because the knowledge that every word is true will send your emotions rattling around.

Book Review: The Power Of Habit

I have a smart phone habit. My cue is the little green light that indicates I have a new message. My ritual is checking the phone to see what that message is and who sent it. The reward I get from doing this is the rush of immediately connecting through a text message, email, Facebook mention, or Twitter notification with people that I like or want to talk to. I had no idea this smart phone cycle had become habitual to me, until I read about it in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. His description of the smart phone cycle I just explained seems to fit me exactly, particularly because I don’t have to think about what to do when I see that little green light, I just check the phone without really thinking about it.

PowerofhabitIt would be accurate to say that The Power of Habit blew my mind. I walked away with that feeling of shock and awe you end up with when you finally understand something that seems so glaring and obvious now that it has been explained to you, and it has actually made sense. It is the feeling I got in seventh grade when the pythagorean theorem finally clicked in my brain after months of trying to understand it (well, maybe that was a little more exciting because my very relieved math teacher called for Jolly Ranchers all around to celebrate my breakthrough). Still, The Power of Habit blew my mind because now that I know what I’m looking for it is easy to identify the dozens of things I do out of habit, that I never really considered habitual.

Duhigg expertly explains that each habit occurs as a loop in our brain. There is a cue that triggers the habit, the routine (whatever action you do to perform the habit), and lastly the reward our brain feels from performing this routine. This habit loop takes place for different activities, at different times of day, and for different types of habits. Some habits we can easily identify because they are notorious for their negative effects like over eating, smoking, drinking to excess, etc. But there are many habits that are not detrimental, and in fact help us to get through our day without overloading our brain with decisions.

For example, every morning I perform the same habit immediately after waking up. My alarm goes off (cue), I go to the kitchen and press the button on the coffee pot (routine), and I end up sitting at my computer with a warm mug while caffeine percolates through me and I wake up (reward). This type of habit can sometimes be thought of as the things we do on “autopilot” like driving to work by the same route, or checking your email at the same times every day. I had never thought of my everyday actions as habits, but once I was clued into the cue, routine, reward loop I was able to identify dozens of instances within my own behavior. It is quite obvious really, but I had just never looked at my life that way before. Consider my mind blown.

There is a tremendous amount of information in The Power of Habit, and Duhigg navigates it all with precision. I think reading this book could have value for anyone interested in their own behavior. It definitely held some insights for me as to why I do what I do. A good example of the type of stories told in The Power of Habit is this excerpt which ran in the New York Times magazine “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” about how customer behavior clues companies into things you would never actually tell them. In general, I would recommend this book because the examples and explanations are really interesting and the structure of the narrative drives the book forward in a way that never seems to drag on. It is an easy and informative read.

That being said I do want to take a moment to talk about the structure of the book from a writer’s point of view. I was personally impressed with the way this book is structured, with the different studies and stories cobbled together to create one strong explanation of what habits are, how they work, and what they do. The book is broken into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies. These parts contain three, four, and two chapters respectively. The chapters all tell multiple stories, which in my opinion serve both to provide context and examples for the scientific studies Duhigg discusses, while hooking the reader and forcing them forward through the text.

For example, chapter three opens with Tony Dungy a professional football coach (who won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts), and from Dungy goes onto Bill Wilson the found of Alcoholics Anonymous, then scientific studies of alcoholism, onto a girl who bites her nails, followed by an explanation of habit reversal therapy, back to Tony Dungy, then back to alcoholism, and finally wraps up with the conclusion of Dungy’s story. The chapter jumps around, and sometimes feels like you’re being teased with just bits and pieces. Still, none of this was ever confusing for me, I was always aware of where I was within the text.

All the different elements of chapter three are wrapped around the theme of how people actually succeed at changing their habits. The structuring of this chapter is smart. I wanted to know what happened to Dungy, that was the narrative I wanted to see play out. I was personally interested in Dungy, but the other content in the chapter – the discussions of alcoholism and nail biting along with the scientific research – framed the Dungy story so that it wasn’t just a story about a unique football coach, it was a story about what it really takes to achieve a change in behavior drastic enough to override our established habits. It all works together, beautifully.

With a well thought out and careful structure, perfectly chosen examples, and easy to understand scientific evidence The Power of Habit is an interesting, accessible and solidly researched piece of writing. It is entertaining for anyone looking to read for fun, and a great case study for writers looking to learn more about how to structure their own work.
Note: I was contacted by the author regarding the release of this book, and I accepted a copy compliments of Random House. Never did anyone try to influence what I would say if I decided to write a post about The Power of Habit. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Book Review: Blood Work

I recently made a trip home, and decided to grab a book from the UW Bookstore to keep me company on my flight. I felt like it was time to read another piece of narrative non-fiction, so I picked up Blood Work by Holly Tucker. The book is about the first human experiments conducted on blood transfusion. I have no background of any kind in studying blood transfusion or in studying European and medical history in the time period of the 1660’s. However, I was drawn to the book because I was intrigued by the way it was marketed on the jacket as, “a tale of medicine and murder in the scientific revolution.” It seemed like something that would keep me awake on my nighttime flight.

BloodWorkBookCoverAs it turned out, Blood Work was a perfect compliment to the material we are covering in my History of the Scientific Book and Journal class this semester. Of all the classes that I’ve ever taken, this is one of my favorites. It is in the special collections of the UW Library and we get to handle the real texts, but I digress. We were just looking at early copies of the Philosophical Transactions, the publication of London’s Royal Society and the Memoirs of France’s Academy of Sciences. These two publications, and their respective societies are an important part of Tucker’s book. Publication is the means of spreading information, and getting into the journal of a national science organization was the premier means of getting attention for your work – critical for the early blood experiments.

Blood Work tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis one of the first medical doctors to experiment with animal to human blood transfusions. At the time, blood transfusion was extremely controversial because medical knowledge was conflicted about what exactly blood did in the body, what it was made of, and how it connected to the essence or soul of a person. There were fears that transfusing animal blood into humans would create horrible hybrid human animals. This resulted in two strong camps, those in favor of blood transfusion who believed it had the power to cure a variety of problems including mental illness, and those of the traditional way of thinking who wanted nothing to do with blood transfusions. Despite the controversy there were researchers engaging in these experiments anyway, and Denis was one of Paris’ most famous (or infamous depending on how you see it.)

What I liked most about this book was that while well researched and factual about science and the time period, the narrative was extremely strong. This is a vivid story with great characters struggling not just to further medical research but also to make a name for themselves, with their reputations and all that goes along with them at stake. You will learn a lot of history, not just medically, but of the time period. You certainly won’t be bored by details. The narrative is well crafted and engaging.

I loved seeing the work that went into researching this story. You can tell Tucker really did her homework to try to unravel the mystery of what happened to the patient in Denis’ most famous animal to human blood transfusion. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the patient dies and it calls into question the safety of blood transfusions. The incident serves as proof for those medical doctors opposed to blood transfusion research to have the experiments, and thus Denis, shut down. However, there is a question about whether the transfusion killed the patient, or more sinister means were employed in a conspiracy to tank the research. The incident resulted in blood transfusion itself going on trial.

This book was enthralling. I was reading in a busy environment, and had to put it down several times out of the necessity of moving around and traveling. I was able to keep coming back to it though, because my interest was peaked enough to want to find out what happened in the end. This story has mystery, a conspiracy, and science. I was certainly hooked. This isn’t really a fun read, not the kind of thing you’d want to take to the gym or the beach, but it is definitely interesting and worth the time if you’d like to learn something new about research in the 17th century, and be entertained while doing it.

One of the things that left me thinking after I’d put the book down was Tucker’s epilogue where she compares the blood transfusion experiments with modern day stem cell research. Blood transfusion is now a standard medical procedure (though not interspecies, we’ve learned that human to human blood transfusions are the way to go because the body can reject the blood of another species). However, it was greatly feared when it was first proposed, and that fear set the research back years. I thought the corollary to how stem cell research has been perceived by certain groups was a strong one, and it certainly got me thinking about how research that might seem “extreme” these days may be viewed in the future. Overall, I’m glad I read it.

Book Review: Science Ink (and An Argument For Print)

For the holidays my parents gave me a copy of Carl Zimmer’s latest book Science Ink. To say I loved it would be an understatement. Which is why I see no point in reviewing it. There would be nothing balanced about my comments, I just think you should read it. However, Science Ink inspired me in another way, so stay with me for a moment while I make a different point.

Science-InkScience Ink isn’t like any old book. I coveted Science Ink. I wanted to hold it, to feel the cut outs in the cover, absorb the colors, and let my hands glide over each page as I turned it. The subject matter of the book; science tattoos, what they mean, and why people get them; is fascinating. I was completely absorbed in each little story, and found something new to learn on each page. I already want a tattoo, and it made my mind swim with the possibilities. But what I took away from Science Ink more than anything else, was the sheer beauty of the book.

The design of Science Ink is breathtaking. I thought it was just spot on. I honestly don’t know what I would change about it. The pictures are beautiful, but beyond that – the font feels ancient and perfect, the colors are vibrant but somehow dark the way I think a book about tattoos should be, the cut outs in the cover are a clever surprise, and the rough texture of the red spine with its gold lettering is completely satisfying. The smooth mat of the page excellently frames each photograph, with just enough sheen to make it feel fresh and new. I was even obsessed with the index for crying out loud. Now, if this is starting to sound like a love letter to a book, that’s because it is. Not just to a book, but to a PRINT book.

I get the purpose of digital books, I do. I envy my Mom and Dad, who have a Kindle Fire and and iPad respectively, while I’m still living in the dark ages flipping pages with my whole hands rather than just the tap of a finger. I’ve commuted to and from New York City on the train and subways enough times to know that carrying around a book like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (which I did for two months this past summer) is a neck ache waiting to happen. Not to mention the ecological benefit to going paperless and saving all the resources (trees, water, energy) that go into making print books. I wouldn’t mind having a digital platform to read on, I think it is definitely the way to go. Still, I argue that there are some books that just can’t be done justice with a PDF or a picture on a screen.

Science Ink is one of those books. Not that I would ever encourage any of you digital readers to skip it – the stories behind science tattoos are clever, meaningful, funny, and astounding (as they should be) – I just think that the print version is worth taking in yourself. Reading it was an experience that attacked multiple senses, and I just don’t think it would have been the same if I hadn’t been holding the book in my hands. The subject matter is art, and I’m sure that has a big part in making the book so beautiful. But for me, the design set the book apart, and sent it soaring right over the top.

The experience of reading Science Ink, brought me back to a topic I played around with last semester in my multimedia journalism class. UW recently opened a new wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, and I interviewed the director Russell Panczenko about the role of an art museum in a digital world. I had some problems with the piece, chief among them that I don’t know if I really got to the heart of the issue. I guess what I was trying to communicate – which Science Ink helped clarify in my mind – is that just because digital platforms make it easier to read books or look at paintings, doesn’t mean that the multi-sensory experience of taking in a piece should be forgotten. That is what print books and art museums have that a little screen just doesn’t. I’m all for moving forward with technology, I just don’t want to lose my senses in the process. That is the point.

Here is that museum piece, I’d be interested in any comments/feedback. In the meantime, go read Science Ink! Or check out Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom, where there is a great archive of science-related tattoos, and get a little inspiration for your own body art. No seriously, go read Science Ink

Book Review: Devices & Desires

I thought it was amusing that the first condoms in history were made from the casings of animal intestines. Yet, when I tried to share this information I was met with the typical head shaking, and entreaties to find different reading material characteristic of me sharing new found knowledge with friends. In my post about Mary Roach’s Stiff, I mentioned how my friends don’t find the interesting tidbits I gleaned about cadavers to be proper cocktail conversation. Well, the same goes for all the interesting tidbits I gathered from reading Andrea Tone’s Devices & Desires.

I am taking a history of science course this semester on the history of women and health in America. As a grad student in an undergrad class, I have to complete extra work to make the requirements. One of the extra assignments was to read and discuss Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America with the other grad student and the professor. I am a fish out of water in this class, having no background whatsoever in women’s issues (aside from, you know being a woman myself), and while I was aware of the timeline for the development of contraceptives there was a lot about them I didn’t know. Thus my excited, and apparently gross, interest in what I learned from the book.

DandDDevices & Desires can be broken roughly into three sections: condoms, the pill, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). The section about condoms was by far the most interesting and engaging. My professor (Karen Walloch) suggested that perhaps this was the section that Tone researched for her thesis, and while that is just speculation it does seem to be the part of the book that the writer was most invested in. Fun fact: when scientists first developed a way for rubber to be shaped and thus used as condoms, companies that today we associate with tires (Firestone, BF Goodrich, Goodyear) all dabbled in condoms.

My favorite chapters in the book dealt with the military’s stance on condoms during WWI, and how they eventually had to cave and endorse them because the health care cost of venereal diseases was through the roof. The book had a few different advertisements and propaganda posters for servicemen urging them to stay away from women that I found highly amusing. Apparently just say no, and taking the moral high ground are no match for a dame in a dress.

After the condom chapters the book tackles the birth control pill. While I found the information interesting, I felt like it fell a little flat. For such a controversial topic, that had such a drastic impact on women’s lives I think Tone could have infused the writing with more personality. It just wasn’t as colorful as the condom chapters. As a science writer, I did really appreciate the description of the research process that went into making synthetic hormones and how these were tested. The initial testing on the pill was done in Puerto Rico, because the researchers/financiers thought there wouldn’t be as much controversy and public push back. They were very wrong. But, if you aren’t interested in the scientific process, I feel like these chapters might drag on for you as a reader.

From the pill, the book moves on to the IUD. Tone focuses on a particular IUD, the Dalkon Shield. I was really shocked by this part of the book. Shocked, and really kind of outraged that I hadn’t heard about this health scandal. In the 1970’s the Dalkon Shield was the cause of more than 200,000 lawsuits due to a high percentage of severe injury among its users. The design of this IUD made it a ticking time bomb that women were sticking into their bodies. Infections (and subsequent Pelvic Inflammatory Disease) caused by the materials used in the device caused severe damage to women’s reproductive systems (even sterility), the device could also perforate the uterine wall, and women who did get pregnant while wearing the device often had children born with severe birth defects.

Lawsuits against the A.H. Robbins Corporation (who marketed the Dalkon Shield) won millions of dollars in damages for women and families that had been affected. The real tragedy in the Dalkon Shield scandal is that the company was well aware of the device’s problems. Internal documents and studies proved that the company knew the device was dangerous, and marketed it anyway. As a result of the scandal, in 1976 the Medical Device Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act mandated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first to time test and approve of medical devices.

It is important to note that the major flaw in the Dalkon Shield: a porous, multifilament string that was basically a highway for bacteria straight up into the uterus, isn’t a part of IUDs currently on the market. I know several people who use IUDs and am relieved to know that the devices have been improved since they first debuted on the contraceptive scene. However, the Dalkon Shield story really made me stop and think about the human cost of not only contraceptive devices, but all new medical breakthroughs.

As much as I learned from and was moved by reading the chapters about IUDs in Tone’s book, these chapters left me wanting more. I felt like the book ended very abruptly, and that there was still a lot that could have been said about the topic. My professor pointed out that when you are writing a book like this, you have to choose a place to stop, otherwise you could just go on and on. I understand that, but I think the book could have ended more smoothly.

Overall, I thought Devices & Desires was a great read and I learned a lot from it that I hadn’t been aware of otherwise. The book was a little disjointed in parts, and you have to be invested in seeing it through (and apparently not squeamish) but if you come from an uninformed background like mine, I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something new.