Tag Archives: Books

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.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, has already won awards and accolades as an exceptional piece of science writing/reporting as well as one of outstanding story-telling. As a biologist myself, I had put it on my “must-read” list because of its value as a reference into the history of life science. What I wasn’t expecting was what an intimate look into HISTORY it would be.

Some would call it a quirk of fate. Others would say it was merely an unusual set of circumstances that brought a woman named Henrietta Lacks, suffering from an advanced stage of cervical cancer, into Johns Hopkins Hospital at a time when researchers were scrambling madly to find a way to harvest a line of living human cells that would survive for more than a few days outside the body. And at a time when one of the most determined of those researchers was working in that very hospital. Dr. George Gey (pronounced “guy”) had been experimenting for years to find the best conditions for growing malignant cells outside the body, in order to study cancer. Most of his home-designed equipment was make-shift. His growth medium recipe was a work in progress. His wife, Margret, worked in the lab with him and designed protocols for handling tissue samples to reduce the possibility of contamination by outside sources. Still, they had not achieved success. If more time had gone by, Gey might have finally given up his decades long effort before having the chance to culture cells from Henrietta’s tumor.

That her cancer cells were even more distinctive than most was only discovered years later, when they were found to be contaminated with a type of virus that made them especially robust. Whether the virus was present when the cells were harvested may never be determined, but it means that the cells living today are far from identical to the first ones that reproduced themselves in George Gey’s lab. All of them bear the name “HELA,” though — the first two letters of her first and last names — the sample designation assigned to the first ones collected by Henrietta’s doctor and placed in the incubator by Gey’s research assistant, Mary Kubicek. .

But that’s all about the science. The human story is at least as compelling, and to some readers, may be even more so. Henrietta Lacks, her husband and children, were poor, under-educated people of mixed slave and slave-owner ancestry. Henrietta was remembered by her friends and family members as a cheerful, warm and loving woman who liked to go dancing when she had the chance. The difficulties of her life didn’t seem to weigh heavily on her until it became apparent that the cancer treatments she received were only adding to her illness and misery. Skloot’s depiction of these intimate details is heart-wrenching. She leaves nothing out.

Skloot also spares no detail in describing the culture in which all of this happened. It was the early 1950′s, a time when segregation was still the norm, and there were separate “colored-only” wards in the hospitals. That is not to say that the level of care was any less, although it may have been true in as many places as not, but the implication that sick, non-white people were viewed by some as human lab animals was there. Skloot describes the Tuskeegee syphilis study, in which thousands of African-American men infected with syphilis were enrolled in a research project to study how the disease killed, from infection to death. She doesn’t need to add that there was no excuse for such treatment at that time any more than now. The only redeeming virtue is that it was well in the past, and there are laws in place to prevent it from happening again.

I believe that most, if not all, of the researchers portrayed in Skloot’s book were motivated by a quest for knowledge and the desire to improve the lives of others, and that their insensitivity to the very human beings they acquired their research material from was an unfortunate by-product of the times they lived in. I’m not saying forgivable. They had no idea how little the Lacks family understood of what they were being told about the importance of Henrietta’s cells, what those cells were being used for, or even what the cells were, and the researchers didn’t seem to care about or to notice that fundamental lack of understanding.

One thing the Lacks family understood quite well was that a great deal of money had been made by others as a result of uses that had been found for those cells, and they had not seen a dime of it. And they were pissed off. I can’t imagine anyone not feeling a lot of righteous anger in their place. Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, became physically ill from the stress of dealing with the emotional backwash.

Skloot expands on the topic of how human tissues collected by hospitals during a course of treatment or diagnosis is later used. It is a topic destined to be joined at the hip with conflict for a long time to come. The conflict comes from the question of just who “owns” those tissues, who has a right to use them, and who has a right to profit from that use. Skloot uses a number of examples where researchers have used cells and tissues, with or without the donor’s knowledge or consent, and made handsome profits off those tissues, with or without the donor receiving a portion. Those examples all had different outcomes, and brought up the possibility for growth of a whole new legal industry. A lot of it won’t be pretty, I think.

I am very thankful for this book, for the incredibly thorough job Skloot did in researching it, and the graceful, respectful job she did in telling it.She has recently compounded its value by forming the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a public charity set up to help Henrietta’s descendants afford health care, college tuition, and other services they might not otherwise have access to, as well as help other needy families “who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.” I heartily applaud her efforts.

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.

Book review — The Cure

It has been my pleasure this summer, to have a chance to read a couple of books by first-time authors. One was Written in Stone, by Brian Switek, which I reviewed previously, and the second was The Cure, by D. L. Webb. Both authors have had a lot of writing experience prior to launching their full-length books, and it shows.

The Cure opens with a young journalist/editor named Nicole Rogé wanting to celebrate having a promising interview with a New York City magazine. She has been asked back for a follow-up, an indication that she has made it onto the short list. Nicole and her roommate, Natalie Randall, meet at their favorite bar, where Nicole is immediately drawn to a vividly handsome man with icy blue eyes, who seems to be taking far greater notice of her than she would normally expect. According to Nicole’s inner demons, Natalie is likely to claim his attention as soon as he notices her. But that doesn’t happen. She finds it unnerving and exhilarating at the same time.

From the perspective of the man, Vincent Duval, we learn that he is drawn to Nicole on a level that has nothing to do with her appearance, as if he has no control over his attraction. But he is afraid of harming her if he lets his attraction override his caution. Why? Because, as we soon learn, he is a vampire, over a hundred years old.

The two begin an odd relationship. Nicole is ready to take Vincent to bed almost immediately, while Vincent keeps calling a halt right in the middle of heated make-out sessions. Nicole is repeatedly left feeling humiliated, frustrated, and convinced that she has just done something that will make Vincent walk away and never come back. Except he keeps coming back.

It seems vampires are able to detect their soul-mates through this overwhelming attraction to an individual, accompanied by unique pheromones that give the object of their attraction an alluring fragrance that only they can smell. Apparently, vampires also give off pheromones that only their one true mate can detect. There is also a kind of electrical charge that passes through both individuals every time they touch. Once a vampire finds this soul-mate, he or she is hooked for life – and death – basically eternity. But there’s a catch to the eternity part. They both have to be vampires, and Nicole is a mortal human.

That she eventually becomes a vampire is inevitable, which throws another kink into the story, as Vincent shortly afterward discovers a “cure” that can make him fully human again. When he does, the roles become reversed. Nicole must be restrained to keep from killing Vincent in a runaway passion, and Vincent must re-learn how to live as a human, and must keep a safe distance from Nicole. I’ll leave discovery of the resolution to this dilemma to the reader.

A third, and minor, subplot involves Nicole’s great grandmother, who disappeared as a young woman, leaving a bereft husband and children to go on without her. Nicole’s mother had been trying to track down evidence of what happened to her, and passed along her collection of documents to Nicole. Most of the older statements and letters are written in French. Lucky for Nicole, Vincent lived his mortal life in France and is fluent in the language. As he helps Nicole with the translations, he begins to realize a connection between himself and the missing great grandmother, which I will also leave for the reader to discover.

Webb keeps the shifts from first person (Nicole) point of view to third person (Vincent) separated by changes in type-face from standard to italics, and thankfully, she maintains one viewpoint for periods of time that span several pages – no jumping from one head to another in the middle of a paragraph or scene. First person point of view is quite restrictive. The author doesn’t have the luxury of revealing what any other person is thinking, except through their actions and the things they say, and misunderstandings can only be resolved through action and dialog. I think a lot of people feel that using first person point of view is self-indulgent and lazy, but I don’t agree. It takes discipline to stay out of the heads of the other characters, and I see what I consider an excess of viewpoint-hopping in a lot of books. There is no way for the point of view character to know what is going on across town, for instance, or what is happening to another character that is not present. At one point in the story, Webb breaks this rule, and I was disappointed by it. Fortunately, it was near the end of the book, but I don’t think the story would have suffered if she had simply left the scene out. Instead, she made an end run around the rules, and for me the story did suffer for that. For a first novel, I consider The Cure a win.

Author interview — First novel

Densie L. Webb recently published her first novel, The Cure. My friend, Tresha, knows Densie from SheWrites, a website devoted to women writers and readers. Tresha asked me if I would review the book and interview the author for my blog — to go along with the other author interview and book reviews I’ve published here. I said sure. I finished the book a month or so ago, and recently sent a list of questions to Densie to serve as the interview. Here they are along with her answers.

On your blogs you describe yourself as a non-fiction writer trasitioning to fiction. What is your background as a non-fiction writer? Did you write articles or technical peices? How long were you doing that before deciding to start writing fiction? What drew you to writing to begin with, and what now draws you to fiction? I’ve been a freelance, nonfiction nutrition/health writer for more than 20 years. I’ve written for just about everything from newspapers, newsletters, magazines, websites, blogs, corporations for both consumers and health professionals. I only started really trying my hand at fiction a little over 2 years ago. I guess the main thing that drew and still draws me to writing is language. I just love words and adore a well-turned phrase.

The Cure is a vampire romance story with a little mystery thrown in. What made you choose that genre? Are you a fan of the Twilight series? Does the vampire romance genre have a set of unspoken guidelines for what you can and can’t have your vampires do? (My exposure to vampire fiction is mostly limited to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
I’ve always been a sucker for vampires (no pun intended, actually), long before Twilight hit the scene. My daughter, who was 13 at the time, got into reading the Twilight series and gave them to me to read and it renewed my interest. I started writing The Cure before the Twilight phenomenon really exploded. Everyone sort of creates their own rules these days as to what vampires can and can’t do, though I think Stephanie Myer’s vamps are the only ones without fangs. Some can go out in the daylight, some can’t, some can live on animal blood, some can’t, some sleep in coffins, others in the basement, some are romantic figures, some are just animalistic killers. It just depends where you want to take it.

What other genres do you enjoy reading? Are you going to write another vampire novel, or do you plan to branch out into other areas of fiction?
I love to read, but I guess women’s fiction is my favorite. The last two books I read were Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (yes, it’s a woman). I think she’s a genius. She has some of the richest emotional writing that just sort of sneaks up on you. I’ve only read two of her books (I cried and lost sleep over both of them) and I think she has about 7. I have number 3 (A Perfectly Good Family) here that I’m going to start right away. Also just finished reading The Stuff That Never Happened by Maddie Dawson, which I really enjoyed. My other favorite author, who is quite different, and not an author of women’s fiction by any stretch of the imagination, is Augusten Burroughs. He’s best known for Running With Scissors, but I think Dry is my favorite of his. I’ve read all of his books. Oh, and speaking of vampires, I read The Passage by Justin Cronin and Blood Oath by Christopher Farnsworth, neither one of which is a romance, and both have very different takes on vampires.

I’m actually working on another book now, which has nothing to do with vampires. It involves a young woman’s serendipitous encounter with a celebrity and how it results in her becoming the target of a celebrity stalker. I’ve done quite a bit of research on celebrity stalkers for it and it’s fascinating to read, like rubbernecking at a car wreck. You can’t turn away.

How was your self-publishing experience? Will you self-publish all your future novels, or will you use that experience to find the right print publisher in the future?
It was truly educational. I published on Smashwords and Kindle and did a hard copy with CreateSpace on Amazon. I was able to do the layout, etc for CreateSpace on my own, because it requires only a pdf. But I had to hire someone to do the formatting for Smashwords and Kindle. My eyes were already crossing with the CreateSpace formatting. Just couldn’t face two more. Each one has its own requirements. If I finish my celebrity stalker story, I’ll query agents first and if nothing comes of it, I may go the self-publishing route. It’s all changing so fast, though, that may mean something totally different than it does now by the time I get to that point. It’s doubtful I’ll ever earn back my expenses for formatting, but, as I said I learned a lot and I’m quite glad I followed through and did it.

And I want to thank Densie for taking the time to answer these. I enjoyed her first published novel and will post my review of The Cure in a few days. So stay tuned.

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.

Written in Stone: the review

As I stated in my previous post, I recently had a chance to read a review copy of an upcoming science book. It is due for release this Friday, and you can order a copy now from several book sellers. I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it, if you have an interest in paleontology, evolution, or the history of science. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek, has all those things and more.

The book begins with a recent news story – recent paleontology news, that is. A fossil was described that “could be” the elusive, and conclusive, missing link in the human family ancestral chain. In fact, the find, and the fossil, were rather shamelessly promoted, hyped, and hinted about, all the while being kept from the eyes of the scientific community – all but the team of scientists who had prepared and described the fossil, at any rate. “Ida,” as the fossil was informally named, was a beautifully preserved specimen of a small, female, primate some 47 million years old. As this story unfolds, it illustrates several themes that weave through the rest of the book. One is that scientists are all looking for answers to big questions. It’s why they are scientists. They are driven to search for the truth, even if and when it goes against their previous assumptions about how the world works. But scientists are also human. The tendency to interpret findings to fit those previous assumptions is sometimes too much of a temptation to overcome, whether they are conscious of doing it or not. And there have always been scientists who make no pretense about using the data to support any view of life other than one about which they have already made up their minds.

In the case of this book, the answers are truly some of the biggest in the natural sciences: Where did we come from? Who are our ancestors and what did they look like? What can fossils tell us about the ancestors of other creatures with whom we share the present-day earth? And the real nail-biter in my mind – are birds really dinosaurs? There is also the question of whether or not the progression of life-forms through the fossil record shows a progression in another sense, that of evolution from “lower” forms, like simple invertebrates, to “higher” forms, like us. And although evidence reveals that even “simple” invertebrates are quite highly evolved and adapted for their role in nature, there will always be those who want a way to justify placing the human race at the top of some pinnacle of evolutionary achievement.

Switek tells the human stories along with the scientific throughout the book. He digs into the history of the science and finds the personalities that go along with the names. Most students of evolutionary biology are familiar with Charles Darwin, and know something about his life. But Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Othaniel C. Marsh, Georges Cuvier, and others are just names, or, at best, shadowy figures at the edge of the stage. Switek has given them substance. He details the conflicts some had with each other, as well as some of the outstanding collaborations.

Each chapter is a separate case study in the history of evolutionary paleontology, using the keystone examples that most of us are familiar with from some course or other in biology. The story of the Archaeopteryx fossils and the debates over the evolution of birds from dinosaurs and whether birds started to fly from the ground up or the trees down is a good example. The feathered fossils, one of which was on exhibit recently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, are billed as “icons of evolution.” That presence of feathers has now been confirmed on a number of dinosaur fossils has added weight to the placement of birds in a much closer relationship to dinosaurs than would have been considered when the Archaeopteryx fossils were first discovered.

Another “icon of evolution” for many of us has always been the story of evolution of the horse, from the tiny Eohippus – or “Dawn Horse” (now classified under an older name – Hyracotherium), to our present-day horses, zebras, and their relatives. Presentation of the evolution of horses as a steady march from one form to another – from the small, many-toed forms, to the large, modern ones with their single toes – has consistently misrepresented the true story of the ancestry of modern horses. Some of the forms that are shown in a line leading from smaller to larger, actually co-existed at some point in the past and are not closely related. A more accurate portrait of the horse family is of a bush, with many of the branches containing the smaller forms dying out along the way.

Also included in the book is the chapter describing the search for the true evolutionary path of whales, which have been shown through recent molecular studies to be more closely related to hippos than to groups previously proposed as their ancestors. This points out another theme important to Switek, that the field of paleontology has something to contribute to other disciplines in evolutionary science, as well as being able to be enriched by knowledge from those other disciplines.

For anyone with a keen amateur interest in paleontology, this book has everything one could hope for in a single basic reference. There is history, drama, and all the major players – the fossils themselves – telling the stories that are much larger, and much more interesting, than merely a tale of “missing links.”

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.