<![CDATA[Nothing To Say Here - Shana\'s Book Reviews]]>Tue, 02 Jun 2020 14:47:53 -0400Weebly<![CDATA[5 Books to Help You (Temporarily) Escape the Real World]]>Wed, 01 Apr 2020 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/5-books-to-help-you-temporarily-escape-the-real-world
By Shana
For those who have had just about enough of the news and need to escape the real world (or at least escape the current version of the real world) here are a few lighter-hearted books (all books that I rated at five stars) that should distract and amuse:
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
by Samantha Irby
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These are a set of essays and if you don't mind some foul language, the occasional discussion of bodily functions, and absolute frankness, this might be for you. I absolutely love Irby and her irreverence and willingness to share what 99.9% of the population would find embarrassing is amazing.

A Study in Scarlet Women
by Sherry Thomas
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Clever gender-swapped take on Sherlock Holmes. It is a great historical mystery, and Thomas uses Victorian England to perfection as it exacerbates the plight of a woman who does not want marriage and wants a way to chart her own course. Charlotte Holmes is brilliant and not what you expect. Thomas introduces the characters we've come to love in the original Sherlock, but her take is (dare I say it?) far more interesting and engaging than Conan Doyle's. The entire series is stellar, it has a hint of romance, but the real stars of the series are the well-developed characters (and their interaction) and the suitably convoluted mysteries.

What If?  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe
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The title really says it all. It is lots of fun if you are of a certain curious and nerdy bent.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
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This is somewhat long, but can be listened to in fits and starts as each chapter mostly stands alone. Bryson is very funny and takes what is fascinating science and history and makes it entertaining and digestible.

Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
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The entire book is made up of the correspondence of one dryly sarcastic, put-upon creative writing professor. It is an acquired taste, but for those who have an inkling of the absurdities of academic life might find this tickles their funny bone.
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<![CDATA[6 Topical Books Perfect for Self-Isolation]]>Mon, 23 Mar 2020 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/6-topical-books-perfect-for-self-isolation
By Shana
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If folks want to read topically, I can suggest six books about pandemics, all worthy of five stars. Some highlight how government response impacts pandemic results, others how human activity is impacting disease, and one is the story of smallpox vaccination and shows what a boon vaccination is in saving lives.
SPILLOVER
by David Quammen
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I cannot overstate how much I LOVE this book. Might be my favorite book on the list. David Quammen is a science writer and so good. The book is about zoonotic diseases (diseases that have reservoirs in animal species and occasionally jump to humans -- Ebola, HIV, influenza, etc.). He doesn't just look at humans, but also discusses how diseases impact animals. It is vaguely terrifying but you can't put it down. He is so good at explaining scientific concepts and tells a great story. As a side note, his discussion of Ebola is much better and more scientifically grounded than Preston's (and a few years back he released the Ebola chapter separately with updates as a result of the most recent outbreak).

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON
by Randy Shilts
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​This may be familiar to many as an HBO made-for-TV mini-series.  But trust me, the book is better.  In fact, it is phenomenal. It will enrage you, but also fascinate you. It is very long, but it never feels long. Even though you generally know how things will turn out, the unraveling the mystery of HIV is utterly engrossing. It does an excellent job showing how patients, public health officials, researchers, public opinion, and politicians must all interact to identify and address pandemics.

THE COMING PLAGUE
by Laurie Garrett
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Written in the 90s, it remains relevant. Most of the research is still good, and it is a solid overview of infectious disease, especially those emerging because humans further encroach on nature.  Gripping and a call for action.  If the world had taken more of the suggestions in the book to heart, we would see much less death as a result of pandemic illness.

THE GHOST MAP
by â€‹Steven Johnson
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This is a historical account of one of London's worst cholera outbreaks. What makes it so fascinating is that it is specifically the account of one man who managed to track the source of the infection (mind you, this was before we understood germ theory). It is a wonderful book and the event acts as a model for how epidemiologists would later track infection.

THE GREAT INFLUENZA
by John Barry
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This is the definitive book on the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.  It is also the book that made me generally interested in medicine, and specifically interested in epidemiology. There is a reason it is so often recommended and is considered a classic. You won't meet any better marrying of history and science.

THE SPECKLED MONSTER
by Jennifer Lee Carrell
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​This is the story of how smallpox vaccination began -- or more accurately, how it got adopted by the Western world. The author takes some liberties to flesh out the story, as it involves a handful of individuals. She fills in some blanks and posits believable dialog or interior thoughts of the main protagonists. This makes it a bit more novelistic, but works really well.
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<![CDATA[Mini-Review of Grunt]]>Sat, 22 Jun 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/mini-review-of-grunt
Author: Mary Roach
Rating: 3 Stars
Review By: Shana
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A rare miss (or at least slightly off target) for Mary Roach. Grunt has its high points, moments of genuine humor, and interesting vignettes. But, on the whole, the subject of war is not given to Roach's typical (and usually so effective) irreverent tone. It isn't so much that every topic covered in her book needs grave and solemn treatment - humor naturally bubbles up when talking about issues of body odor and bodily functions, of weapons premised on terrible smells. Instead, some chapters felt like Roach was trying to shoehorn serious topics into her trademark, light-hearted tone. When discussing IED maiming and penile transplants it just feels awkward when the tone is forced jocularity. If Roach had just let humor arise where it came naturally and let a few of the passages go by without forced humor, I think the entire book would have been better. Entertaining and informative, but not her best work.
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<![CDATA[Mini-Review of Between You & Me]]>Mon, 17 Jun 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/mini-review-of-between-you-me
Author: Mary Norris
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
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A fun romp through grammar, punctuation, pronunciation, and irreverence. Norris, a New Yorker copy editor, mixes the nitpicking exactitude needed for her job with an eye for humor and a flexibility not stereo-typically associated with those in her line of work. A wonderful ride for grammarians who don't take themselves too seriously and avid readers who'd like a peek into a copy editor's life.
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<![CDATA[Review of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World]]>Wed, 12 Jun 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/review-of-the-silk-roads-a-new-history-of-the-world
Author: Peter Frankopan
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Review By: Shana
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A sweeping history told from a perspective all too often lacking - that is, world history where the West is not the central player and its current dominance is not fated. Dr. Frankopan tells the engrossing and intricate history of the world from the vantage point of the vital Silk Road. This shifts the reader's gaze from a Euro-centric (and later American-centric) narrative to a broader vantage point, seeing power and commerce, politics and religion, as it coursed along the all-important trade routes connecting Asia and the Mediterranean. 
He begins his book by noting that it is Asia (which includes Egypt and areas that we more commonly think of as the Middle East) and not Europe that was the wellspring of civilization and empire. History does not begin with Greece and Rome, flow into the crusades, and lead inimitably to the Renaissance (which the author rightly points out was less of a rebirth than a birth). History goes back further and is centered elsewhere. 
He does not ignore Europe and America. The book studies the ebbs and flows of power, the wars and tectonic shifts of dominance, all the way into the 21st century. But by not taking the West as the starting point or epicenter, the story is richer and fuller, and explores how the West, Russia, the Middle East, India, and China all vied for the riches of the Silk Road, for the power of controlling the flow of goods (from silk in ancient times to oil presently). In doing so, he illuminates much of the history that has led to the unrest in the area, why the West remains invested, and how much of the current instability has its roots in centuries of intrigue. A vast and fascinating history, well worth the time and a welcome counterpoint to more limited world histories.
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<![CDATA[Mini-Review of The Silent Corner (Jane Hawk, Book 1)]]>Sat, 08 Jun 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/mini-review-of-the-silent-corner-jane-hawk-book-1
Author: Dean Koontz
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Review By: Shana
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Dean Koontz knows how to build an interesting premise: we meet Jane Hawk and we know from the beginning that she has suffered a great loss, that she is being pursued, and that all is not right in the world. Hawk is on leave from the FBI, cautious of surveillance, and appears to be skeptical about surviving for a few more months, let alone a few more years. 
Following the inexplicable suicide of her husband (a Marine), she's pursuing a private investigation and trying to find the links in strings of unlikely suicides. The book moves quickly, but what starts with a mild suspension of disbelief soon requires the reader to move from suspension to excision. Many of the thriller clichés are at play here - shady conspiracies, ever-present surveillance, rich and powerful adversaries, mad (or at least megalomaniacal) scientists (technological and biological), and a heroine who the author repeatedly reminds us is drop dead gorgeous. The number of fortuitous escapes and increasingly murky layers of plot are fun in a "turn off your brain" kind of way, but I can’t say I have any interest in jumping any more sharks by continuing this (currently at five books) series.
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<![CDATA[Review of The Day of the Triffids]]>Mon, 03 Jun 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/review-of-the-day-of-the-triffids
Author: John Wyndham
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
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This science fiction classic has aged remarkably well. It is not quite so groundbreaking or sweeping as George Stewart's "Earth Abides," but like that bellwether and progenitor of post-apocalyptic fiction, Wyndham's slimmer novel has a deep thoughtfulness and an observant eye for human behavior. Likewise, its deconstruction of modern civilization is less bombastic and more realistic than 21st century entertainment likes to project. 
In "The Day of the Triffids," an astronomical event strikes most of the earth blind (humans and other animals alike). At first (and as a first time reading this novel having never watched any of its myriad live action iterations) I found myself a bit confused, thinking that the eponymous triffids must have something directly to do with the astronomical event. But it soon becomes clear that the triffids pre-dated the events outlined in the book, with them being something of a curiosity and mystery - three-pronged carnivorous plants with the ability to move.  
As we come upon our narrator, Bill, we find that these plants have spread across the earth, but that they are generally herded and controlled by humans, who currently see them as mildly hazardous (but only if ignored). Once humanity is struck blind, however, the triffids seem to have their day (per the title, which might better be Era of the Triffids or Rise of the Triffids). Humans cannot see them coming, cannot continue to cultivate and hobble them. Coupled with the general breakdown of society, the coming years see infestations grow. 
Though the triffids represent a clear, present, and constant threat, the main thrust of the book is Bill's experience in this new world where the vast majority are struck blind as one of the handful who retained his sight. His background as a biologist working with triffids means he has some inkling of their capabilities, but most of the book is more about his view of societal dissolution and the small bands of humans building new lives, and less about the triffids. Through him we see human groups with disparate approaches, giving Wyndham the opportunity to comment on what underpins civilization and the vagaries of human nature.  
All in all, it is a successful book, with the good, bad, and ugly of humanity on full display. The triffids, while a major force in the new world, perhaps do not deserve the headline treatment of the title. Still, a good read for SF lovers who enjoy visiting the foundations of the genre.
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<![CDATA[Mini-Review of What a Fish Knows]]>Fri, 31 May 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/mini-review-of-what-a-fish-knows
Author: Jonathan Balcombe
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
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A wonderful book, shaking the reader out of any thoughts of fish as lesser beings and imbuing them with emotion and complexity. Balcombe's writing is energetic, and his synthesis of rigorous science and personal anecdotes makes this book a pleasure to read. While there has been an ever widening sphere of animals that humans recognize as having feelings and being worthy of concern and even respect, fish have stubbornly stayed outside that embracing regard. But Balcombe will jolt the reader out of the centuries old idea that fish are mostly senseless, with poor memories and not much of interest to humans. Just because they cannot emote in the ways most likely to grab our attention (namely, by whines and cries, due to their underwater habitat), this book opens up their world to us and is well worth any curious reader's time.
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<![CDATA[Mini-Review of A Curious Beginning]]>Sat, 25 May 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/mini-review-of-a-curious-beginning
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Rating: 3 Stars
Review By: Shana
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Meet Veronica Speedwell, a lady of mysterious parentage and odd (at least for Victorian England) appetites (read: science, rationality, and the occasional romantic dalliance). Upon the death of her guardian aunt, she is flung into intrigue as some burly and unsavory ruffians appear determined to kidnap her. A rather dapper and avuncular elderly gentleman comes to her aid, whisking her away from the countryside to London, and placing her in the care of his trusted, if surly, friend Stoker. Stoker, of less mysterious but perhaps bastardly parentage and fallen out of aristocratic favor, likewise besotted of science, and ever-honorable takes it upon himself to protect her. What follows is a decidedly cheeky, mildly predictable, tale of uneasy friendship, evasion of ruffians, mystery detanglement, and hints of romance to come (unsurprising, as Raybourn is a noted romance author). Not paradigm changing, but very enjoyable.
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<![CDATA[Review of Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes]]>Mon, 20 May 2019 04:00:00 GMThttp://nothingtosayhere.com/shanas-book-reviews1/review-of-warnings-finding-cassandras-to-stop-catastrophes
Author: Richard A. Clarke & R.P. Eddy
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Review By: Shana
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Cassandra of Greek myth had the gift of prophecy but the curse of never being believed. In this book, authors Clarke and Eddy turn to modern day Cassandras - those who warn of dire events but whose warnings are unheeded. The book starts with multiple chapters, each dedicated to a different catastrophe. Each catastrophe is explained, with the authors outlining the factors that made each disaster particularly harrowing, followed by an introduction to the individual or individuals who predicted the event, tried to get the powers that be to mitigate it, but were ignored. This ranges from the Madoff scandal to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear calamity, from the rise of ISIS to the formation of Hurricane Katrina and its fallout. In each instance, the authors have interviewed the Cassandra in question, parsed the technical expertise that underpinned the predictions, and examined the impact (short and long term) of failing to take the warnings seriously.
The second half of the book looks to the future. Bridging the past predictions and future warnings is a chapter where the authors introduce their "Cassandra Coefficient". They use this coefficient to examine how likely it is that a person making a prediction is a Cassandra (meaning they have the expertise and grounding to understand the potential for cataclysm and make predictions that will likely come to pass). They build into the coefficient a number of factors, including how complex the underlying issues are, if decision-makers that could avert disaster are diffuse, and whether the predictions is so novel and dire that others have trouble comprehending it or taking it seriously.
Having articulated their coefficient and the way it can be used to differentiate between a Chicken Little and a true Cassandra, they turn to six issues that may pose existential threats to humanity if they are both true and underestimated or ignored. The authors use these potentially looming threats as case studies, aping the chapter structure in the first half of the book but inserting a discussion of the Cassandra candidates' coefficients rather than a discussion of why they may or may not be right. In doing so, the authors look at the threats of AI, pandemics, rising sea levels, nuclear winter, the internet of things, meteor strikes, and gene editing. These chapters not only crystallize nascent threats, but in many instances act as overviews of cutting-edge technologies and science (with the exception of pandemics, which instead reintroduces the reader to the world that used to be the norm - where illness lurked around every corner).
Overall the book is well done. It covers a wide range of issues and has the perfect amount of detail to leave the reader well-versed in past and future threats. The content is interesting though unsettling. Though some of the potential disasters have lower probabilities in any given lifetime (meteor strike), others are either always possible and have happened before (pandemic) or are already in progress (sea level rise). This gives the reader the not unwarranted feeling that we are not doing enough and may even be too late.  
My biggest complaint in their book is the failure to mention or synthesize some of the work of Dan Gardner and Philip E. Tetlock (Superforecasting, 2015), which looked at predictions and made the point that experts in a field are often terrible at prediction. In that book, they examined why hedgehogs (those with deep knowledge in one area) are often unable to have the perspective needed to truly and objectively weigh and measure facts and sources. Such experts often become over-invested in certain theories or practices, and that results in less accurate predictions and a failure to adapt their predictions as necessary or properly evaluate new information. In Superforecasting, the authors examined how foxes (those with less in-depth knowledge but a willingness to constantly question their conclusions) often were better at prediction. This cuts against one major part of the Cassandra Coefficient, which talks about ability to be a first order thinker, bringing new ideas to bear and being data driven. I wonder if some of the most effective Cassandras will not be strictly experts in a field, but those with some expertise but no pure investment in one line of thinking. Nevertheless, well worth a reader's time.
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