When I heard the news science writer Thomas Hager would be at my public library promoting his latest book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine I couldn’t wait to attend. I’ve been a fan of Hagers for years, ever since I read his 2006 book The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug.
So a few weeks after hearing this good news, I showed up at my small town library, grabbed a seat and much to my surprise watched the room gradually fill with attendees. At the appointed time, or a few minutes past it, our guest of honor took the podium and treated us to a selection of short passages from his latest book. He concluded things with an obligatory bit of Q and A followed by an equally obligatory session of book signings, and I used this as an opportunity for him to autograph my paperback copy of The Demon Under the Microscope. I’m happy to say Hager is a cool guy and it was a please to meet him! Later, I was able to secure a copy of Ten Drugs from the library and eagerly went to work reading it.
Some of Ten Drugs, especially the chapter on the origins of bacteria-fighting sulfa drugs was a review for me since it was the inspiration for Hager’s much earlier book The Demon Under the Microscope. But the chapter on first antipsychotic drug was not, and I was amazed to learn the how this drug it came to be, and more importantly how it was such a game-changer when used to treat the mentally ill. I also enjoyed learning the origins of pain-killers and Viagra.
The Demon Under the Microscope is a great book and therefore a tough act to follow. As a result, I enjoyed Ten Drugs, but maybe not as much as The Demon Under the Microscope. But to say this feels unfair, because a book, just like any other created work should stand or fall on its own merits and not those of its predecessor. So go read Ten Drugs, and in doing so learn about all the drugs that have changed history.
Late last year when I reviewed Ken Silverstein’s 2008 book Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship I mentioned in passing his 2008 book The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor. Over the years I’d heard rumors a Boy Scout managed to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard and someone had written a book about it. Reading Turkmeniscam put me in the mood to read The Radioactive Boy Scout and luckily for me, I was able to borrow a Kindle edition through Overdrive. Like Turkmeniscam, it’s a short book around 240 pages. But unlike Turkmeniscam, which isn’t bad, The Radioactive Boy Scout doesn’t feel like a magazine article that’s been padded into a book. I found it succinctly well-written and difficult to put down.
One of the major reasons I enjoyed The Radioactive Boy Scout is it’s hard not to root for David Hawn, the young man whose adventures Silverstein chronicles in the book. Here’s a guy with a crappy home life, complete with a mother battling mental illness and alcoholism. He’s socially awkward, but in spite of himself still manages to have a steady girlfriend. Academically, his grades are terrible. Outside of school however he’s a scientific prodigy. Hunkered down in his series of makeshift laboratories he spends his waking hours concocting his own energy drinks, self-tanning lotions and homemade fireworks. Using a 1950s era intro to chemistry book as his guide he created his own ether and conducted a number of experiments, many of them totally unsafe for an unsupervised teen working in an impromptu home lab.
Eventually, David’s obsession turned to nuclear energy. His dream was to create his own breeder reactor, that is a reactor that creates more fuel than it consumes. In the pre-Internet age of the 1990s he scoured libraries, hospitals, colleges and government agencies for helpful open source material, sometimes posing as a college professor. In his quest to obtain fissionable material he bought stuff through the mail, did his own prospecting and even told a hospital he needed a sample of a medical grade isotope to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Without revealing too much let’s just say in the end his ambitious project would attract the attention of not just local law enforcement but also several government agencies.
The Radioactive Boy Scout is must reading for all you geeks and techies.
Back in 2012 I offered up my impressions of Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 best-selling novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, a thoroughly enjoyable historical novel I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read until 10 years after it was published. Later, in 2013 I featured her 2003 follow-up The Lady and the Unicorn. While I didn’t enjoy Chevalier’s follow-up as much as its predecessor, it entertained me nevertheless. But more importantly it left me hungering for more of her fiction.
Luckily for me my local public library has a nice selection of her novels, one of which Remarkable Creatures, has intrigued me ever since I read reviews of it almost a decade ago. The story of two British women in mid-19th century England whose shared passion for ancient fossils puts them at odds with both the male-dominated scientific community and the local churches is too good a story for me to pass up forever. So, a few weeks ago during one of my weekend library visits I finally borrowed a copy of Remarkable Creatures and later that day went to work reading it. And just like with Girl With a Pearl Earring, I kicked myself for waiting so many years to finally read it.
Roughly 20 years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Mary and Elizabeth spend their days hunting for fossils along the beaches and hillsides of a small English coastal town. Mary, the younger of the two is a local and blessed with “the eye”, that is the uncanny ability to spot fossils that no others can. Elizabeth, a middle age “spinster” originally from London but shunted to the remote English coast by her family shares Mary’s love of fossil hunting but also serves as Mary’s mentor as well as go between, helping the lower class Mary navigate the confusing and intimidating world of the British upper class. Their passion, hard work and self-taught paleontological knowledge eventually reap significant rewards and led to budding notoriety. But alas, 1830s Britain is firmly a man’s world, and Mary and Elizabeth like all women in that age are not treated as intellectual equals no matter how talented they might be.
Reading this novel as a former evangelical Christian, it was the faith versus science aspect of the novel that intrigued me the most. As Mary and Elizabeth uncover more and more fossilized remains of strange and never before seen creatures they and other fossil aficionados begin questioning their religious beliefs. Why would God create a species of animal just to let it die out? If, on the other hand, the fossils are of animals that haven’t gone extinct, why is it no one has seen any of these animals alive anywhere in the world? Lastly, with the very existence of fossils indicating the earth is hundreds of thousands if not millions of years old, could it be the world wasn’t created in six days and isn’t 4000 years old?
While I enjoyed Remarkable Creatures more than The Lady and the Unicorn I must say Girl With a Pearl Earring is still my favorite of the three. It’s left me wanting to read more of Chevalier’s fiction. Thanks to my public library there’s a good bet you’ll see more of her novels featured on my blog.
Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.
As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.
As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.
Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books. One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”
If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.
Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.
Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.
To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.
Some of you might remember late last year when I reviewed Frans de Waal’s fascinating look at the world of animal cognition Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? What I didn’t mention in my review is both Goodreads and Amazon suggested I follow-up de Waal’s book with another one, namely Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers’ Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health. Since I love reading about diseases how could I resist any book that proclaims the surprising similarities shared humans and animals when plagued by the same diseases. Inspired by their suggestion I easily found an available copy of Zoobiquity through my public library. To Goodreads and Amazon I say good call because I enjoyed this book.
Published in 2012, Zoobiquity is a collaboration of cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers. One day Natterson-Horowitz paid a visit to the Los Angeles Zoo to examine a monkey in the throes of heart failure. During the examination she was counseled by the attending zoologist to be careful, lest she frighten the stricken monkey thereby inducing capture myopathy. Later, the author learned capture myopathy bore a striking resemblance to Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, an affliction suffered by humans when forcibly restrained in hospitals. This commonality served as the inspiration for her and Bowers book.
Each of the book’s 12 chapters is devoted to a specific disease or disorder that’s shared by animals and humans. Before I read Zoobiquity I had no idea dinosaurs could get brain cancer or many koalas are infected with chlamydia. Nor did I know BRCA1, the genetic mutation that causes breast cancer is not only carried many jaguars but also many Jewish Ashkenazi women. While many humans engage in various acts of self-harm like cutting there are horses, dogs and birds that also engage in similar kinds of odd behavior like self-biting and hurtful overgrooming.
Zoobiquity succeeds for several reasons. One, because it’s well-written and fast-paced it’s a pleasure to read. Two, it cover a lot of ground, examining a wide array of creatures from across the animal kingdom. Three, the concept alone that humans and animals share much in common disease-wise makes for fascinating reading. I was surprisingly impressed by Zoobiquity and there’s a good chance it might make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.
I was happy when my book club elected to read Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy because I’d heard great things about it for months. Happier still once I found an available copy through my public library. And yes, happy again was I to have enjoyed her book.
Cathy O’Neil’s life story is almost as interesting as the book she’s written. After earning a PhD in math from Harvard and spending a little time in academia she went to work as a quantitative analyst or “quant” on Wall Street. After a few years working for a hedge fund she left the industry horribly disillusioned, upset and angry the algorithms of big data were being misused by the rich and powerful, especially those in the financial and home mortgage industries against the powerless. So angered by all this O’Neil lent her services to the Occupy Movement in hopes of bringing those injustices to light. This book grew out of O’Neil’s fight for justice.
According to O’Neil, those holding the upper hand in society like district attorneys, banks, insurance companies, credit bureaus and pre-hire investigation services employ complex and little understood algorithms designed to maximize profit and/or improve efficiency. Unfortunately, more often than not those being scrutinized by these algorithms tend to be society’s most vulnerable: accused criminals on trial, poor or working poor in need of loans or affordable insurance, and job applicants. This is all made worse because outside of a relatively small pool of industry experts no one in the general public comes close to understanding how any of this highly technical stuff works.
Weapons of Math Destruction is a breezy read that still manages to cover a lot of ground as it addresses in detail how big data is abused by a diverse array of industries and organizations. Because it takes a long, hard looks at both the injustices inflicted, as well as the rich and powerful guilty of committing them Weapons of Math Destruction makes a great follow-up book to two other books my book club also read, specifically Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. If you consider yourself an intelligent and informed person I’d strongly encourage you to read all three of these quality books.