Category Archives: Reading

From the Land of Not-Quite

I live not-quite in a not-quite city, and it seems to suit me. All my life I’ve been not-quite sure who or what I wanted to be, so I have not-quite “arrived.” I was not-quite part of any group in school, and not-quite a great student – not-quite a rebel and not-quite an angel. Sometimes I feel like I’m not-quite even here. It’s a little like being almost a ghost – I sometimes feel like I can observe while unobserved, like the proverbial fly on the wall. But not-quite.

With people from all sides encouraging us all to “follow your passion,” and “do what you love,” I have not-quite been there or done that. And my problem seems to be that I’m not-quite sure which passion to follow – science or art, writing or painting, growing roses or building web sites. Let’s not forget reading. If I could kick back with a good book all day and make a living at it… heaven.

This past weekend I met someone you might call a guru of authentic living. Patti Digh is a writer/blogger that my friend, Tresha, has been following on line for some time. Tresha sent Patti some of her artwork, and one piece was published in one of Patti’s books – Four Word Self Help. Tresha gave me a copy of the book. Sunday, Patti Digh was going to be at a bookstore in Houston to chat and autograph her books, so Tresha asked me if I wanted to go.

Now Houston is not-quite on my list of favorite places to drive in my car on a warm day. My car is apparently going through menopause, and is prone to hot flashes – especially after I’ve been driving a while. So Tresha and I had to find a place where we could meet where I could leave my car – well away from the torture chamber that is the Houston freeway system. Did I mention that the air conditioner in my car doesn’t work? Yeah, that, too.

Anyway it’s a lot more fun to drive/ride into Houston with someone else, so we met in beautiful downtown Brenham, about an hour from where I live and two from Tresha’s home. And they have a handy public parking lot smack in the middle of the historic district – we sometimes meet there on a Saturday to eat lunch at “Must Be Heaven” and visit the funky little downtown shops.

But back to Patti Digh and why she’s in a piece about the “Land of Not-Quite.” I get the feeling she used to live here, too. Her 37 Days blog explains what happened in her life to cause her to want to leave the land of not-quite behind. She has since published books of collections of some of her blog entries along with contributions from some of her readers (like Tresha’s artwork). Her trip to Houston was part of a book tour for her latest book, What I Wish for You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life.

She greets everyone like an old friend, and so obviously is enjoying her life now, it’s hard not to wish for exactly the same thing. Except that nobody’s life is exactly like anybody else’s. None of us have exactly the same dreams or the same experiences in life that may have led us to live apart from those dreams. Let me tell you, not-quite achieving a dream is a hell of a place to be. Suppressing dreams to the point of losing all track of them is like some kind of psychic amputation, complete with phantom limb pain.

I’m struggling to reclaim my dreams, beginning with sorting through the dim storage areas in my mind to find which ones were the most precious and can still make me happy, and how I can rebuild the support structures to hold them up while I learn just how much I’m still capable of doing. For instance, the dream I shoved farthest back in the attic is a horse. I never got over my teenage crush on horses. I discovered that I’m not a natural-born rider, but I never got to spend enough time on horse-back to get good at it. On the other hand, I did get pretty good at falling off. The current condition of my back and various joints makes horse-back riding look like a bad idea.

And I’ve fallen in love with mules. They appeal to the basenji-lover in me. Mules are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for (as are basenjis), disinclined to follow orders that don’t make sense to them (ditto for basenjis), disinclined to let every little thing send them into a panic (as some horses are prone to do), and every bit as attractive. I could devote a whole blog to photos of mules and stories about them – if only I could get to the mules. When I went to the Texas Shootout last May, I felt like I’d found a little corner of heaven, but this year the event has been canceled due to the bad economy and high gas prices. I was planning to spend more than just the final day at the event, force myself to talk to more people, and hopefully get invited to a nearby farm to visit and take more pictures. Not going to happen.

I can’t travel far, especially in the warmer months, because of my menopausal car. It’s not as major a hardship for me as it could be for some people, because I’m quite happy to stay home and keep the Puppy company… and read. If I could make a living reading, that would be another dream come true. It might not be possible to get wealthy from it, but I’m working on learning to write great book reviews so that at least I may be able to get all my books free (and pre-publication) at some future date. I’ve already had several published at Story Circle Book Reviews. I don’t get paid, but I’ve already gotten a couple of free books.

For my third dream (and if I was talking to a magic genie, this would be my third wish), I would love to have a great big rose garden in my back yard. I have ideal conditions – a bald prairie where the roses could all get tons of direct sunlight and great air circulation. I would only grow roses that had won awards for fragrance, like Fragrant Cloud, Double Delight, Mister Lincoln, and that I could get enough blooms from to take some to sell at the weekly farmers market in Bryan. I would make little cards to go with the bouquets with the name and history of the rose, because I think that’s the best way to enjoy roses – knowing their personal histories.

So there it is. My recipe for a happy life. It may yet come about. I feel I may be moving from not-quite to almost.

Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto

They rode around the flight-line on blue bicycles wearing black caps with white letters that said “QC.” We called them “QC commandos” and other, less flattering names. The letters stood for Quality Control, and the guys that wore those caps were the bane of our existence. I was given to believe they would as soon write someone up as look at them. And by “write someone up” I mean write up an infraction of some regulation or other, which would go on our Air Force records. They were especially fond of infractions involving checklists.

We had checklists for just about everything, from launching the aircraft, through all the post- and pre-flight inspections, to refueling, installing the drag-chute, towing the jet to the wash rack or a hangar, etc, etc, etc. So, by association, checklists were seen as the bane of our existence. In reality, they weren’t that easy to use. They were all bundled together in a booklet about five or six inches wide by 11 or so long, and about six inches thick. The pages were in individual plastic sleeves to protect them from all the dirty, greasy crap they were likely to come into contact with through the course of a day on the flight-line. They were not light, compact, or “handy.” The print was necessarily small to get everything on those small pages, and the writing was typical of government technical manuals — over-done. My disdain for “checklists” was a learned behavior, even if somewhat justified at that point in my life.

Which is why I was curious about a book on checklists written by a surgeon. The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande goes on the list with the best books I’ve read this year. I think instinctively I knew that following a checklist for a lot of procedures was a better idea than just trying to wing it on memory alone, and this book bears that out. Gawande describes multiple instances where a written-out and checked-off set of steps for performing complex tasks made the difference between life and death. He doesn’t just stick to examples from his own medical specialty, either. His recounting of the “Miracle on the Hudson” was both an extraordinary story and a revealing view of why the pilot so consistently downplayed his “heroism.” After all, the pilot and the rest of the flight crew were only doing what was expected of them in the circumstances. They followed procedures that were written down and included in a checklist.

The book starts off with anecdotal stories of two surgeons swapping tales of hair-raising close calls in the operating room – about how a seemingly small item missed or a question not asked, a detail not known, nearly resulted in the death of a patient. That’s only the introduction. In the first chapter, Gawande recounts a story where everything went right, miraculously resulting in a drowning victim being restored to life. The two close calls occurred in large urban hospitals while the “miracle” took place in a rural hospital in a remote area high in the Austrian Alps. So what was the difference?

In researching the answer, Gawande discovered that the Alpine hospital emergency staff had devised a written protocol to follow whenever rescue crews notified the hospital that they were on their way with an accident or critical health victim. Knowing that lost time could mean lost lives, the hospital management handed the telephone-answering personnel and the rescue squads the power to coordinate what and who would be needed when the victim arrived. The EMTs would tell the hospital operator what kind of case they were bringing. The operator would then go through a list of specialists and other personnel to notify and tell them to stand ready. This was unprecedented. It put the power to orchestrate the first movement of the critical effort in the hands of those who normally were excluded from those types of decisions. And it worked.

As the second chapter opens, Gawande relates a story of a different kind of catastrophe. On October 30, 1935, Boeing was about to land a lucrative deal with the Army Air Corps to build the next generation long-range bomber for the U.S. Military. Although there was nominally a competition for the contract, Boeing was expected to be a shoe-in with its Model 299. The plane crashed almost immediately after take-off, killing the pilot and another crew member. The Air Corps chose the Douglas entry and declared the larger Boeing model “too much airplane” for one person to fly.

Although Boeing nearly went bankrupt over the event, a group of test pilots got together to solve the problem of “too much airplane.” What they came up with was a checklist for the pilot to use so he wouldn’t leave out any crucial steps in getting the craft airborne. The Boeing Model 299, renamed the B-17, went on to play a major role in the second world war.

According to Gawande, many industries are now “too much airplane for one person to fly.” Complexity has increased far beyond what even the most extensive training can prepare any one person to cope with on their own. Gawande uses a construction site for a high rise commercial building to show how the building industry has evolved from the “Master Builder” age, where one person was responsible for the design of a project and then personally oversaw the execution of all aspects of it, to a coordinated group effort requiring the expertise of many specialists. And he points to medicine as an example of a field still trying to make the “Master Builder” model work.

When a delegate from the World Health Organization (WHO) asked Gawande for his help in devising a way to make surgeries safer in developing nations, he at first didn’t see how it could be done. He had, by that time, seen that checklists could help reduce mistakes in some medical procedures, but considered surgery to have too many variables for a checklist to take into account. The checklist would be inconveniently long, or too vague, and would ultimately waste time. Still, he saw more instances where use of checklists in hospitals was lowering the incidence of surgical complications. Fewer complications saved lives, got patients home from the hospital sooner, and saved everyone money. Gawande decided to get his team together and try again to develop a workable checklist. The results of their efforts I’ll leave for you to discover. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Spring Break

Now that I’m back working in an academic setting, the words “spring break” are more than just an abstract concept, or a memory of something I used to do. I’ve had a lot of jobs, and some of the ones I enjoyed most were on university campuses, for more reasons than just the breaks in the school year.

This spring break really took me back in time, though, to one year when I was a student at the local university. At the beginning of the week I went to a local bookstore and bought a copy of every book by Anne McCaffrey that I didn’t already own. I spent the rest of the week with my backside planted in my recliner and my nose buried in one book after another. All day, non-stop, until I finished the last one. I ended up with a magnificent headache, but I didn’t care. I’d been transported to a different part of the universe every day, without having to buy a ticket or pay for gasoline. This year I got a couple of new books to read, although my taste in fiction has changed somewhat, and I read a lot more non-fiction. And I have to get up out of my chair more often to keep my creaky old joints from taking a set.

Something else that’s new is that now I also like to write about the books I read, not so much like the book reports I wrote back in grade school, but more like some of the reviews that I’ve read that have made me decide I wanted to read something new. Writing about them also helps me remember some of the details of the story better — did I mention my creaky old brain, yet?

I thought I’d sit down and make a list of some of my favorite authors through the years — most of whom have been women, not surprisingly. Here are a few:

  • Marguerite Henry – who wrote Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, and other books about horses.
  • Dorothy Lyons – wrote Silver Birch, Midnight Moon, Golden Sovereign (also about horses).
  • Jim Kjelgaard (not a woman) – when I ran out of horse stories, I read about dogs, like Big Red, Irish Red, Outlaw Red. (Wait, is there a pattern emerging here?)

Those carried me up through junior high school, then I got into the “gothic mystery/romance” realm with books by Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Jane Aiken Hodge.

After I read The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, I discovered a whole new fantasy world, and Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, and my all-time favorite author, C. J. Cherryh. Of course I can’t leave out Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, or Joy Chant. I even occasionally read fantasy and science fiction written by men, like Roger Zelazny, or R. A. Salvatore.

For mysteries I used to read Dorothy L. Sayers “Lord Peter Wimsey” books. Then I discovered Elizabeth Peters, Lynda S. Robinson, and Lauren Haney. These three not only have wicked story lines and fascinating characters, they take me where I most want to go — on this planet at least — Ancient Egypt. Robinson’s and Haney’s stories are actually set during ancient times — during the reigns of Tutankhamun and Hatshepsut, respectively. Peters writes about a family of archaeologists digging around the sites of ancient tombs during the years leading up to Howard Carter‘s discovery of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. What fun! They can’t write new books fast enough for me. I just finished two of Haney’s most recent ones, have to wait until next month at least for another by Robinson to come out. I guess I’ll just have to content myself with more non-fiction in the meantime. And keep myself occupied writing blog entries with a million links to install.

Coming Soon…

Along with a few other changes around here in my new home, I’ve added a widget in the sidebar where I can show some of the books I’m reading or have read recently. Some of the ones that are there now are ones I’ve written reviews for, and a few that I’ll be reviewing soon. All the images have links to Amazon.com, where you can buy a copy of the book if you’re interested. If you do buy the book using that link, Amazon makes a small “donation” to Crazybasenji. How cool is that? Right now, that’s my only “affiliate” membership, and the only “advertising” I’ll do on this blog.

Crazybasenji is my muse, and it is still evolving. I began the blog with a half-baked plan, and then changed it, changed it again, then stalled out for a while when I was stressed out over the no-job situation and didn’t want to write every post about how terrified I was.

But that’s in the past. I’m not out of the woods, yet, employment-wise, but I’m seeing a little more daylight. And I’m starting to get a feel for writing book reviews, so I’m going to be posting more of them. If you want to recommend a book for me to read and review, leave me a comment. Keep in mind I prefer science non-fiction, science fiction, murder mysteries, everything else, and romance. (Did you catch that? Everything else before romance?) Any more I prefer non-fiction over fiction in just about every sub-genre. Maybe it’s an age thing. I’ll be interested to see suggestions.

A biography of Louisa May Alcott

This is a book review I wrote this summer. It was previously published in a newsletter on the Long Ridge Writer’s Group web site, but since the online version of that issue is no longer available, I figured it would be okay to publish it here, now.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern

First published in 1950, reprinted in 1978, released as a second edition in 1996 with an introduction by the author, and reprinted again in 1999, this book has had almost as long a life as some of Miss Alcott’s own stories. Small wonder, considering the enduring popularity of Miss Alcott’s works, that people continue to want to know what her life was like. Also considering what a masterful job Ms Stern did in telling the story of that life — leaving nothing out — it’s also small wonder the Chicago Tribune declared that the book would “stand for a long time — perhaps permanently — as the authoritative work in its field.”

I’ve had the book sitting around for over a year, when it suddenly seemed like a good idea to read it. After I tried a few H. P. Lovecraft stories, I was ready for something more down to earth. One of my co-workers remarked on the change when I left the book out on a desk at work.

“Wow. H. P. Lovecraft to Louisa May Alcott. Now there’s a study in contrast.”

Actually, Miss Alcott wrote her own share of sensational thrillers. While not in the same league as Lovecraft’s macabre horror fantasies, they were still a dramatic enough departure from stories like Little Women and Jo’s Boys that she published them under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard.

When she first approached publisher James T. Fields with a collection of poems and fairy tales she had written, he told her, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Fortunately for posterity, and for those of us who have enjoyed at least her most famous stories if not the infamous ones, she didn’t listen.

This book reads more like a novel than a biography. Ms Stern is able to paint clear pictures of what life was like in the mid-nineteenth century as well as show us a portrait of a remarkable childhood. Young “Louy” Alcott’s acquaintances as she grew up in and around Concord, New Hampshire may have had some influence on her literary inclinations. She and her sisters and some of their friends were taken on picnics to Walden Pond by “Mr. Thoreau,” who taught them natural history and wood-lore. She was always welcome in the library of “Mr. Emerson,” a man who, on more than one occasion, helped the financially challenged Alcott family to lease or purchase a place to live. “Mr. Hawthorne” purchased and renovated one of the Alcott’s previous homes, and his children were frequent playmates of Louisa and her sisters.

I had always tended to think of people like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Louisa May Alcott as larger-than-life characters who existed just outside my mundane version of space and time. This book doesn’t really diminish the larger-than-life aspect while it shows them to be real people, interacting with each other as real neighbors and members of a small community.

As the book spun out the life history of Miss Alcott, it also marked the significant events of those times in this country — the Civil War, the Women’s Sufferage movement, and the Centennial celebration of the nation’s independence. Some of what was also current during those times may have been significant to those involved, but history would record it differently, if at all. Because as she got older, Miss Alcott had a variety of health issues, and she tended to try the latest crazes in “cures.”

A preoccupation with health and fitness is certainly not unique to our current generation, nor are fads in methods to maintain said fitness and health. While some of the efforts she attempted seem only quaintly misguided, others appear downright dangerous from current perspective. And as her health worsened, so, it seems, did Miss Alcott’s judgment in choosing a course of treatment. While “modern medicine” wasn’t as modern at that time as now, it still looked to me like she was placing her hopes in the hands of quacks. I found it difficult to read the last few chapters, as she grew more and more weary of living, since she was only as old as I am now when she died.

On whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I could find no fault with Ms Stern’s style, and she obviously did an exhaustive job of research. “The Alcott Bibliography” at the back is 25 pages, “Notes on Sources” fill another 43.  So if the biography itself doesn’t satisfy you, there is plenty more material to hunt down. I may just re-read Little Women, and then try on some of the blood and thunder thrillers of A. M. Barnard.

In which I interview a newly published science writer

 

Book cover art

A good book on paleontology

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs at Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at Dinosaur Tracking Blog. Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits
and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

Thank you, Brian, and all the best success with your continuing writing career.

I’ll be posting my review of the book here in a few days.

 

 

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Centra
l Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavoisier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie al
l those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official photo credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

in; } –>

Recently I had a chance, for the first time, to read a book before it was published. I hope it is the first of many such opportunities, because I love to read, would love to find a way to make my living just reading all the time. I know one way to do that is to write book reviews, so I volunteered to help a new author launch his first book, in the hope that I might also launch myself into a new reading and writing career field.

The book is Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, and the author is Brian Switek, a young man I’ve never met, but have come to know by reading his blog over the past year or more, and by following him on Twitter, where he is @Laelaps. His blog of the same name used to reside at Scienceblogs, the site maintained by the now defunct Seed magazine. That’s where I was browsing one day when I noticed an article title that mentioned Stephen Jay Gould – the late science writer and Harvard University professor whose essays in Natural History Magazine I had been a fan off for over fifteen years. I read the article, left a comment, and bookmarked the blog so I could come back and read other articles. Switek also published photos he took of animals at the Central Park Zoo and other zoos, and one of his photos, of a snow leopard, became a subject of several of my own blog posts, as I photographed my process of painting a watercolor of the cat.

Earlier this year, Switek moved from Scienceblogs, and now blogs Wired Magazine, and for the Smithsonian at DinosaurTracking.com(?). Still, he managed to work in the time to also write a book that neatly encapsulates our historical fascination with fossils and what they’ve come to mean in our ongoing search for our organic origins.

As part of the book launch, Switek asked some of his Twitter and blog followers to review the book on their own sites, and also interview him and publish the interviews on their websites. Several interviews have already been published. Today is my turn, and the questions I sent him and his responses are below.

Q.  What came first — the interest in paleontology and other sciences, or the desire to be a writer? Did you ever consider majoring in journalism with a minor in science or some combination like that in college?

The desire to be a paleontologist, definitely, but that’s probably because my affinity of fossils started when I was about five years old or so. I still remember arriving at Disney World with my parents when I was around that age and bugging the hell out of them to see the dinosaurs at EPCOT’s “Universe of Energy” exhibit before we even fully unpacked.

My interest in becoming a writer came much later. In high school I tried writing a novel about giant killer sharks – I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time and was fascinated by prehistoric sharks – but I only got about three chapters in before I tossed it out. It was awful. I realized that I wasn’t very good and forgot about being a writer. Even after I started blogging, I was somewhat doubtful about my ability to break into serious writing, and it has only been within the past year that becoming a professional writer has seemed even close to being a possibility.

I never considered a journalism or writing major in college. I wasn’t really interested in it and assumed there was no place for me. I wasn’t interested enough in politics, crime, regional events, or other regular newspaper fodder to consider it seriously. I just started doing what I loved doing through my blog and
fell into science writing.

Q.  How much of an influence was the writing of Stephen Jay Gould? What was the first book/article of his that you read and when? [I admit that when I first started reading Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine, I had a hard time following the thread all the way through. One minute he would be talking about Antoine Lavossier, and the next he’d be talking baseball box scores, or something equally unrelated (or so it seemed to me). But I finally figured out that he would tie them together at some point, and the “unrelated” bit was actually a good metaphor for the point he was trying to make. Reading his essays made me a better reader in a lot of ways, as well as increasing my interest in evolutionary science.] Do you try to emulate his technique of using specific examples — even if they don’t seem relative — to illustrate the larger principles that you’re trying to get across?

What I read fuels what I write, and Gould’s essays have been a regular part of my science literature diet for the past few years.

I can’t recall the first thing I ever read by Gould, but the most important was the first essay in the collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech about how the 18th century naturalist Johann Beringer was duped by a set of carved stones made to look like real fossils. I had never heard the story before, and the essay made me realize how many wonderful stories there are in the history of science if only you care to look. That’s one of the chief lessons I learned from Gould – the importance of going back to the primary sources as often as possible and not just accepting the standard stories summarized in review papers and textbooks. Futhermore, I enjoyed Gould’s ability to take something personal or seemingly ancillary to his main point and, as you said, tie that in to some larger pattern of evolution or the fossil record.

I don’t actively try to emulate Gould’s writing style, especially since I am not as culturally and artistically aware as he was. I think that was a large part of Gould’s appeal – his ability to pick examples from the humanities and tie them to science – but I am not nearly as well-rounded. Nevertheless, I like the technique of picking a small story or quirk of history and using that as an introduction to some larger point or lesson. I hate going from the general to the specific – I much prefer to give readers a foothold with a small story and then show them how that story fits into a wider framework where the context of the multiple bits and pieces can be seen. That’s what I did with each chapter of Written in Stone. I tried to find a single event or person which might seem unrelated to the bigger story but transitions nicely into the main flow of the narrative.

Q.  Your selection of topics included in the book covers a wide range, both in different species and across time. All illustrate our fascination with — and longing to find — those elusive “missing links” and/or evidence of “progress” in evolution. How many more stories could you have told, and how hard was it to narrow the field? Of the ones you had to leave out, what story would be your first choice to include in a larger work? Are those going into another book, or on your blog?

That book could have been a multi-volume set, especially since I tried to incorporate historical background with new science. I probably could have re-written the same book at least twice more using entirely different examples, and I am sure that further discoveries will continue to add to the pool of transitional forms.

I didn’t have much trouble narrowing down the set of examples I wanted to use, though. I knew that I wanted to focus on vertebrate paleontology and to pick transitions which put living organisms in context – the kind of transitions which fascinated me as a child but which have changed so much with new information. The evolution of early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans were classic examples which appeared in many books and museum displays, so I wanted to dig back into those stories to see how our understanding has changed.

Given that I focused primarily on vertebrates with close living relatives, there was a lot I left out. I might go back at some point and cobble together something from some of the examples and ideas I left out of this book, but I need a good story to tie all those examples together. There was at least one smaller story that I reluctantly removed from Written in Stone due to space issues, though. I really wanted to outline the big picture of primate evolution – from their origin through the radiation of apes just prior to the origin of the first humans – but I had to cut it because the hominin chapter was already too long as it was. I also wanted more space to talk about how perspectives of evolution changed during the early 20th century – the widespread appeal to mechanisms other than natural selection – but there was not a good place to talk about this at length.

I try to keep track of what winds up on the cutting room floor, so to speak, so that I can pick it up again if I see a use for it later. Where it ends up will depend on what I’m working on – my blog is a writing lab where I experiment with different ideas, but in books and articles I try to be more selective about the examples I use.

Q.  What other scientific fields do you write most often about, aside from paleontology? Do you have any plans to write full-length books about those subjects, or do you prefer to write shorter articles and blog entries about them?

I think of myself as more of a natural history writer than a strict paleontology writer, and I regularly write about animal behavior and ecology. After all, understanding the lives of extant animals will help us better interpret the life of the past. I am especially interested in the ecology of predation – how predators hunt, what happens when they are removed from an ecosystem, and how their interaction with prey species drives evolutionary change. Much of my college training was in the “ecology and evolution” major, as well, so I try to incorporate that perspective in my writing.

I don’t have any plans to write a book specifically about ecology, but I have at least two ideas which tie paleontology, ecology, and other perspectives together. One involves the controversial topic of “Pleistocene Rewilding” – using elephants, lions, and other exotic species to turn North America to the way it was 13,000 years ago – and the other would be an in-depth look into the natural history of hyenas. I honestly don’t know when I am going to write those books, but I hope to get to them eventually.

Q.  You have published a lot of nice photographs on your blogs. Have you thought about professional photography as a complement to your writing career?

I have, or at least I have thought about putting together a big photobook in which I pair essays with my own photography. Unfortunately my photography skills are nowhere near good enough to pull that sort of project off. I have been meaning to take a few classes and get better, but right now I don’t have the time and don’t have the money to get the kind of equipment I would need to tackle a project like that. That’s another idea which is resting on the shelf. Still, I have an article coming out this winter in Inside Jersey about searching for dinosaurs in the rock of Wyoming and I took all the photos for that piece. It will be my first official ph
oto credit, and with any luck it won’t be the last.

 

Of chocolate, ScienceBlogs, and Pepsi

I recently came to the sad conclusion that I must give up eating chocolate. In all its forms. Entirely. That’s a whole food group kicked out of my diet. Because I tended to overindulge, and it started making me sick. I won’t go into detail. Let me just say that the consequences of eating chocolate became increasingly unpleasant over the past several months, to the point of some acute pain. Poor, pitiful me.

It is often the case with addictive behavior, that what you crave will kick your butt sooner or later. It’s why there are twelve step programs for so many things that so many of us do in non-addictive ways. I mean, we all eat (stop and you die, in fact), but food addictions are not healthy, hence, Over-eaters Anonymous. Then there are the alcohol addicts, drug addicts, sex addicts, solar eclipse addicts (I don’t think the last group has a 12-step program yet, though). People recognize and get help for their addictions or they don’t get help and they get in trouble with the law, or with health issues, or in car versus tree arguments, or they develop some kind of physiological symptoms of substance rejection like mine. My stomach started saying “no more chocolate, or I will make you pay, and pay, and pay!

For a while after I discovered Science Blogs, a site maintained by Seed Magazine that hosted a lot of great blogs about all kinds of science written by scientists, I was an addict. I could burn up an entire day reading the different blogs, the comments — and some of the comments were like blog entries themselves. And then I’d kick myself for not spending that time doing something worthwhile in the world.

I tried subscribing to the combined RSS feed for ScienceBlogs so that I’d get a chance to read samples from all of them. I was overwhelmed. I skimmed some, skipped a lot. Then I learned how to “mark all as read” so when I found 400 articles waiting for me (which would sometimes happen if I didn’t check in for a few days), I could just deal with them with a mouse click instead of the endless scrolling and scanning. I felt bad about not actually consuming more of the content, but there was just too much.

As with chocolate, I finally had to just stop cold. I started following a couple of my favorites on Twitter and Facebook, so that I could follow links they posted to articles that looked interesting. Because at the time I was trying to figure out how to make blogging profitable for ME, at least a little; I was trying to find a “day job” so I could keep it while I learned how to make a living doing something I love, because “they” always say, “keep your day job” when someone expresses an interest in trying to make a living in a way other than the accepted norm. It always helps if you actually have a day job that you can keep. Duh.

What I eventually found was in fact an evening job — or at least a late afternoon job — and is only part time, but could actually work out better in the long run because it leaves me with enough energy to work on my other projects. But I digress.

Last week, I read a tweet by Laelaps, one of the Sblings I follow, to the effect that “David Dobbs is leaving SB, and I’m thinking I will, too.” What? So I went to David Dobbs’ Twitter page and read a few tweets, and then I followed a link to a Science Blogs article about how there was going to be a new nutrition blog on SB, authored by employees of Pepsico. And many bloggers were up in arms over it. They questioned the logic of their blog administrators in allowing what they called “advertorial content” on the site, which would lower the credibility of all the other writers. I followed the arguments back and forth for days. It didn’t take long, after ten or more writers left as a direct result of the decision, for the SB overlords to cancel the Pepsico blog (or Pepsico pulled out to avoid more negative press).

I spent more time on the SB site in three days than I had for the past year. I was on a binge. Sad thing is that the surge in readership for the site as a result of the controversy still brought in a lot more readers. And some people will say there’s no such thing as bad advertising when the results are more sales — or more interest. It certainly worked with me. Now I have to be smart and start doing my own work again, hoping I can make something that will matter not just to me, but will affect others the way chocolate and Science Blogs have affected me. LOL

Return to Amber, part two

Okay, so I meant to write this review and get it up here on my blog a couple of weeks ago — it was supposed to follow the first review in somewhat shorter order, but you know how it is with the best laid plans and so on (you know you’ve heard the quote, modified from Robert Burns so we can actually understand what the frak it says). Mule shows and bird migrations had to be commented upon first.

When I read the second five books in the Chronicles of Amber, I noticed one thing pretty quick. Not nearly as much smoking. I thought, well, maybe Mr. Zelazny had quit smoking (to tell the truth, I don’t know for a fact that he ever smoked in the first place). There were a few mentions of pipes. Apparently, Corwin’s son, Merlin (Merle) would occasionally puff on a pipe, but not cigarettes. But as I got past the first part of the first book, even the pipes disappeared. To be sure, there was a lot of moving around, running, fighting, and such — not a lot of leisure time for a smoke — but I started to wonder. I finally realized that a book of matches had played a crucial part in one scene in the 3rd (or was it the 4th?) book of the elder Chronicles. (Sorry I don’t have the books in front of me — they had to return to Lubbock.) And from that point on, there had not been as much smoking in those books, either. Ah hah! All the attention on smoking might have been just  a mechanism to ensure those matches were on hand when they were needed, and no one would be going, “Wait! Where did those matches come from? That’s cheating!”

People who tend to gobble up science fiction, like people who gobble up other genres, get quite good at spotting inconsistencies in the stories they read. And woe to any author who asks too much in the “suspension of disbelief” category. Even if that weren’t true, and readers just didn’t notice one or two inconsistencies,  a writer shouldn’t get lazy, and expect his or her readers to forgive them for sloppy writing. It ends up being sloppy story-telling.

There was still plenty of other-worldly scenery in these books, mostly seen while passing through between this world, Amber, and the Courts of Chaos. The Courts were mentioned in the first books, but we didn’t get to really see the place until the final book. I wanted to see more. The sequel series, centered around Merlin, who’s mother was of noble Chaotic blood, featured a lot of Chaotic settings. (I like chaos. It’s fun to watch. I think it’s why I have basenjis.)

There was also a lot more emphasis on describing various magical powers. Considering that Mr. Zelazny was writing these books in the late 70’s – early 80’s that’s not surprising. Wicca magic, psychic readings, tarot cards and astrology were all the rage about that time. He was cashing in on a sign of the times. Aside from that, though, the story holds up as well as the first five books. I’m glad I got the chance to read them all.

Return to Amber

It was a very long time ago, when I first made the journey to Roger Zelazny’s fantasy world in The Chronicles of Amber. It was, in fact, sometime in 1984. Why do I remember the exact year? Because I remember reading the book in the laundromat at the front of the R.V./mobile home park where I was living temporarily in my parents’ travel trailer after I started working at the Fort Worth Zoo (and 1984 was when I was there). The book was a hardback edition of the complete Chronicles — all five books in one volume — that I don’t even remember whether I owned or had borrowed from someone. I remember reading while I waited for my washer to finish, while I waited for my clothes to dry, and after I put my clean laundry away when I got back to my temporary home. I remember having massive headaches after spending hours with my eyes glued to the pages. And I remember that that is when I had to start wearing prescription lenses. Boo.

When I started re-reading the original five books, now included in a massive paperback tome that holds all TEN Amber novels, I remembered a lot more of the stories than I thought I would (except how all the conflicts were resolved). It’s always good to have a little of the original surprise at the end, even though sometimes knowing exactly how things turn out doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of re-reading a good story.

I remembered that the stories were complex, the plots convoluted, the settings complete to the smallest detail. And there were a lot of settings. Amber and its Shadows are like many other planets all layered on top of our mundane world. There are no space ships involved, but there is plenty of travel from world to world, from reality to reality. I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the journeys.

Since I’ve learned a lot more about writing fiction in recent years, I have also been appreciating Zelazny’s story-telling abilities more this time around. I thought it might be easier to categorize things a bit. As in:

1.   Characters and Point of View (POV). It’s all written in first person POV. A lot of people don’t like this. I’m not one of them. First person narrows the perspective on the story to the point that anything that surprises or mystifies the main character is going to surprise or mystify the readers. We don’t get to see inside the minds of the other characters (a style I think is often overused). All you need to know is the title of the first Amber novel — Nine Princes in Amber — to know there will be some serious family conflict going on. Seeing everything through the eyes of just one of those princes — Corwin — means you have only his experiences to go on when it comes to sorting out the good guys and bad guys, and you don’t get to find out which ones he might be wrong about until he finds out himself. I think it’s kind of cool.

2.   Tension. I never really appreciated how important it is to keep the pressure on the characters at all times in order to keep moving the story forward. I used to wonder why these poor saps had to keep stumbling from disaster to catastrophe to apocalypse and back through the whole book until I learned that some people would actually stop reading if such was not the case. Really? I always had the attitude — and I don’t know where I got this — that once I started reading, I had to finish the book — no matter what. (Maybe it was kin to that parental decree that I had to eat everything on my plate, even if some of it made me gag.) And showing the tension’s effect on the character with a line like this is priceless: “A hot bath, a full meal, a bed would be very good things. But these assumed an almost mythic quality…” It’s a short little passage, but it speaks volumes about the character’s condition.

3.   Setting. Nothing can beat a thorough job of world-building. A lot of fantasy novels include maps to help us locate all the story locations relative to each other as we travel through them. That would never work with Amber. Sure you could draw the mountain, Kolvir, with the palace atop it, and label places around it like Arden and Garnath, but it wouldn’t be enough. There would be no way to show all the Shadow worlds, and you couldn’t really have Amber without all its Shadows. Anyway, they’re all too fluid to restrict to one spot on a two-dimensional map. No. You have to build the map — the concept — of Amber in your head.

4. Interesting, if somewhat annoying. Like some other classics of science fiction and fantasy I’ve read recently, there are some details that seriously date the first five books. There’s a whole lotta smokin’ goin’ on. Every time they turn around, these guys are lighting up. Cigarettes, pipes, what have you. Considering the fact that Roger Zelazny died just a month past his 58th birthday, I have to assume the fictional habit was a direct mirror of his own. Too bad. He would be 73 now, if he’d lived (in fact, yesterday would have been his 73rd birthday). Who knows how far he might have been able to carry the Amber saga. I’ve only just finished re-reading the original five books, and the first chapter of the first of the second five, so I have no idea whether the conclusion to this round is the final word — I’ll just have to wait and see.

Ant Feminist

I have a friend who studied history and languages and women’s studies while I was studying zoology and mammalogy and ornithology and a whole bunch of other ologies relative to wildlife. We often trade books back and forth. Although we both like some of the same science fiction titles, our tastes in non-fiction don’t line up so much. So we try and broaden each other’s horizons.

And I wander into traps.

Once when she asked me if I liked a book she’d loaned me (which I really did like), and I started waxing enthusiastic, she stopped me.

“But what did you think about how the author …something something …slighted women …something something?”

“Huh?” I frantically tried to reconstruct the book in my mind, but all I could see were cave paintings (the subject of the book). “What part was that in?” I asked, lamely.

“Oh, in the first chapter.”

First? Chapter? So I had completely blown the race before I even crossed the start line. And this happens all the time. I tell myself, well, the author is a product of his time, his generation, and I’ve read so many of the same lame patronizing passages that my mind’s ear just tunes them out. I mean, the words leave their images on my retinas; the messages go up the optic nerve to my brain; the sentences make sense grammatically. But no whistles blow to awaken Fluffy, the three-headed militant feminist watch dog. It might as well all be harp music.

On the other hand…

As I mentioned before, I recently picked up The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, and re-read it. For some reason, after I bought it at the used book store, I read the first few essays, then put it down for several months. When I picked it up again, I read practically straight through, then went back and re-re-read the first essays. And I think I know what happened.

Several of Lewis’s essays mention, or even feature, ants, bees, or termites as representive organisms for whatever biological point he’s making. Lewis refers to individual ants, bees, termites as “he.” The first time I came across one of these, I had a knee-jerk response. I wanted to jump up, fling the book against the wall and scream “YOU STYUPID, MISOGYNISTIC, MALE CHAUVANIST PIECE. OF. SHIT!!! ALL. WORKER. ANTS, BEES, TERMITES. ARE. FEMALE!!!” But I hate to mistreat books, so I didn’t. Plus, the guy’s dead.

Point is, I told my friend about it and she said, “That would’ve gone right by me. I would not have noticed.” So now I don’t feel so bad. It’s a point of reference thing, and she and I have way different points of reference. From a purely rational point of view (I do try to be rational, sometimes) the same platitudes apply. He was a product of his time, his generation, and he was writing to/for a predominantly male audience. Those old habits were just not that easy to change.

The question now becomes, are we making any real progress in changing them today?