Books Archive

Friday, March 7, 2008

Book Review - At the Water's Edge

The full title of this book is At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea. It was written by Carl Zimmer, and as the long title suggests, is all about those two dramatic transitions of life evolving into such distinct environments. This book was great - one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while. It was just the right blend of story telling, concepts, and evidence, and made for a very compelling read. In fact, I think I finished it in less than a week.

When I reviewed another book by Zimmer, the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, I commented that it wasn't very in depth. At only 176 pages, much of them filled with photos and illustrations, it was a little light on commentary. At the Water's Edge is very different in this regard. It's 304 pages, filled with small print, with only enough diagrams as are needed to illustrate a few key points. It's not a tome, by any means, but it certainly provides Zimmer with enough space to do this subject justice.

The book is divided into basically two halves - the first dealing with the transition from lobe finned fish to early tetrapods, and the second half dealing with the transition from mesonychids to dolphins and whales. As would be expected, both halves deal with the specifics of each of those cases - transitional forms that have been discovered, environmental pressures that would drive the transition, etc. However, mixed throughout the entire book are also sections on general theory. There's a nice section on development in the beginning, covering such topics as Hox genes and non-genetic factors; he describes exaptation; there's another section on cladistics; as well as sections on many other concepts related to evolution.

I learned quite a bit by reading this book. Even though I was already familiar with much of the general theory, Zimmer presented it in ways that made me think of things differently. He also introduced a few concepts, such as the evolutionary "quit point," that I hadn't thought of much before. Still, where I learned the most was in those specifics of the transitional forms between fish and tetrapods, and land mammals and whales.

I'll give one example of something very interesting I learned from this book. (In fact, this was the very first passage of the book that I read, when I first got it and was just thumbing through to see what it was like.) At some point, our ancestors must have developed lungs to breathe air, obviously. When we look at the world around us, most fish today cannot breathe atmospheric air - they rely on their gills to get oxygen from water, but also have organs similar to lungs called swim bladders, which they use to regulate their buoyancy. From that observation, you may be tempted to think that lungs are a modified swim bladder, which perhaps evolved to allow fish to survive in swamps or other oxygen poor environments. After all, what need would an ocean going fish have of lungs? I know that's what I had thought, but as it turns out, it's almost certainly wrong.

Continue reading "Book Review - At the Water's Edge" »

Friday, February 22, 2008

Book Review - Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

I already posted a brief review of this book in my review of the Lucy's Legacy Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I don't really have much to add, but I thought I ought to at least give that review some closure, since I'd only read 2/3 of the book when I wrote it. I also figured this would give me a good chance to get the review into my Books section.

The book is the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, by Carl Zimmer. I liked it. It's not very in depth - it only took me about one weekend to read the whole thing - so if you follow science news, you probably won't learn a whole lot from it. That's not to say you won't learn anything - I certainly did learn a few things from this book, but most of the information was a review of what I alread knew.

But, it does have lots of pretty pictures that make it worth the price. And I mean that in the best possible way - paragraphs are all well and good, and it would be impossible to teach evolution with nothing but glossy pictures, but it can be nice to have a page full of pictures of fossil skulls, to see with your own eyes the similarities and differences. Sometimes pictures do show things more clearly than words ever could. Plus, if you don't follow science news as much as I do, or happen to know a person who doesn't know much about human evolution, it makes for a very good overview. If someone doesn't want to read the whole thing, but they're willing to listen to you explain something to them, you can still use the book, and open it up to some of those pretty pictures to help illustrate your point.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle

In honor of Darwin Day, I figured I'd post a review of The Voyage of the Beagle, which I just recently finished reading. The edition I read was actually the one from The Folio Society, given to me as a gift, and not the one pictured at right from Amazon. The book is also available as a free download from Project Gutenberg as a text only version, or as html with pictures, or from The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.

There are many reasons to like this book. One can't ignore the historical importance, since this expedition gave Darwin much of the insight that would lead to developing the theory of evolution, but this book would still be interesting even if Darwin had gone on to do nothing after sailing on the Beagle. The book is basically the journal of a young man on a round the world voyage, visiting much of South America, Tahiti, Australia, and a few other places, describing all the different cultures, geographies, and animals that he encountered.

For this review, I'll quote heavily from The Voyage of the Beagle, letting Darwin speak for himself, to give the reader a better idea of the language of the book. But first, let's get the somewhat confusing background out of the way. Darwin went along on the second survey expedition of the HMS Beagle. The first expedition, begun in 1826, consisted of two ships, the larger HMS Adventure, captained by Phillip Parker King, and the smaller HMS Beagle, captained by Pringle Stokes. Stokes committed suicide near the end of the first expedition, and 23 year old Flag Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy was named as temporary captain of the Beagle. On the second expedition, begun in 1831, only the Beagle returned, and as FitzRoy had proven himself well enough as temporary captain on the first expedition, he was given command of the ship for this second expedition. Worried about becoming depressed and suffering the same fate as Stokes, FitzRoy invited Darwin along for the journey so that he could have someone to talk to. As survey expeditions, the main purpose was acquiring data to produce nautical charts. Darwin had a slightly different agenda, as a naturalist, collecting many samples of the flora & fauna and taking many notes along the way. After the expeditions' completion, a four volume account was published, titled, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle. The third volume of this narrative was written by Darwin, and titled, Journal and Remarks, 1832--1835. Darwin's volume proved to be so popular that the publisher, Henry Colburn of London, decided to publish it as a stand alone book, renamed, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. The book was published several more times under several different titles, but is most commonly referred to today as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Continue reading "Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle" »

Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review - The Frog Princess

At my daughter's request (read begging), I recently read The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker. The book is the first of a series, and I've already promised my daughter that I would read the whole series, so I will post a full review then, and this entry will only be a short review. (Maybe - depending on how the rest of the series shapes up, the final review might not be all that detailed, either.)

This is definitely a children's book - between the Harry Potter, Eragon, and Golden Compass series of books, I've been reading quite a bit of young adult fiction recently, and this book is nowhere close to the level of any of those books. So, don't expect too much. Personally, I thought it was predictable, the characters rather one dimensional, the story not too well developed, and some parts just plain corny, but it was still entertaining, had a few humorous parts, and at least it didn't take very long to read. BUT, I'm not the target audience. My eight year old loves it, and has gone on to read the other books in the series. She's just finished Once Upon a Curse, and started on No Place for Magic. But, keep in mind that she's not reading it entirely voluntarily. For school, she has a weekly reading log, and must read for at least 100 minutes a week for full credit. Still, a few weeks, especially when she was nearing the end of Once Upon a Curse, she's read for longer than she's had to, just to see what was going to happen in the story. I've also heard her laugh out loud a few times while reading the books, and a few times she's liked a passage so much that she's asked me to read it.

So, I guess the verdict is that if you're looking for a book for a child that's graduated from some of the simpler early readers (like the Junie B. Jones series), but isn't quite ready for young adult fiction, yet, then this series may be good for them. It's certainly rated very high on Amazon, and my daughter very much enjoys it. However, it's been so long since I've read any other children's fiction (like one of my favorites as a kid, Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It), that I don't really know how it compares to what else is out there.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Golden Compass, His Dark Materials

I took just a little too long in getting to this review - the books aren't as fresh in my mind as they could have been. I apologize for that, but I still think that some people might be interested in my general impressions, especially considering that the first movie will be coming out shortly. Plus, it's not like I was planning on doing a detailed summary of the entire plot.

Something to get out of the way right at the beginning, is to say that if you're a devout Christian, and you don't appreciate criticism of your religion, these books aren't for you. They're a kind of anti-Chronicles of Narnia, and certainly don't present Christianity in the best light. Now, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you too much, and you can appreciate a work of fiction based on a modified version of Christianity, read on...

His Dark Materials is a trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It consists of three books, The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights in some other countries, notably the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The story focuses mostly on a girl named Lyra Belacqua. She's from a universe very similar to ours, but not quite the same. The most obvious difference is that in her universe, people's souls are tangible, in the form of animal companions known as daemons, that accompany the people throughout their lives. The difference that I personally thought was most fascinating, and which was actually one of my favorite parts of the entire trilogy, is the way events had played out slightly differently in Lyra's world. For example, science and technology had developed at slighly different rates than in our universe, with scientists studying quantum mechanics, but with cars not yet having been invented. These differences also affected political & cultural aspects of the world - for example, the Muscovites living in what we would call Russia, and "New France" still being in use to describe Canada (in fact, there's a Wikipedia entry on some of this terminology).

At the start of the story, Lyra had lived her whole life so far at Jordan College, Oxford, as an orphan raised by the professors. When the Lord Asriel visited the college, Lyra snuck into the meeting where he discussed a strange "Dust" that he'd been studying in the polar regions. Not long after, the beautiful Mrs. Coulter arrived to take Lyra into her custody, to give her a proper education and upbringing. The morning she was to leave, the headmaster of the college secretly called Lyra to his office, and gave her a strange device. Without time to give her proper instruction, all he could tell her was, "It is the Alethiometer. It tells the truth. As for how to read it, you'll have to learn by yourself." Later that day, she left Oxford, and her adventure began.

All in all, I liked the books, but didn't consider them great. Perhaps my expectations were too high. I bought them largely on the recommendation of several commenters on another blog, in a discussion on the last book in the Harry Potter series. Most of those commenters considered the Dark Materials trilogy to be far superior. I also started reading the novels knowing that they were critical of Christianity, and with my recent "deconversion," I really wanted to like a book with that type of theme. Unfortunately, these books weren't the masterpieces I had hoped for. The style of writing took a while to grow on me - the books didn't grab me right from the very beginning. The ending also left me a little less than completely satisfied. I appreciate that Pullman didn't give it a Disney, and they all lived happily ever after, ending. But, it almost seemed to me that he forced some of the negative outcomes. It was as if he had decided from the outset that his story was going to have a bittersweet ending, so he had to invent the plot devices to get it there.

Before you continue reading this paragraph, I should give a spoiler warning. I'll try not to give away anything too big, but this paragraph may give away a little more than some readers would like to know... Probably the biggest thing that bothered me about this story, is that it still set humans as being apart from other animals (and the related sentient beings from parallel universes, but I'll just call them all "human" for this discussion, so I don't have to keep putting that disclaimer). It was only humans that had souls and daemons, and only humans that got to go to the afterlife. Why? Perhaps this had something to do with trying to stay as close as possible to the framework of Christian mythology, or Milton's Paradise Lost, upon which much of Pullman's story is based. But, if you're going to break from that mythology enough to have God as merely the first sentient being, and not the actual creator, it would seem to me that you're pretty free to change the mythology as much as you want. And especially for the purposes of this discussion, if you're going to have humans evolve, why would you show them as being fundamentally different from other animals, when in reality it's just differences of degree. For a story coming from this perspective, I would have liked to have seen humans portrayed as just another animal in the grand scheme of life. As long as I'm in this spoiler paragraph, I'll also point out that I had a problem with Lyra's entire motivation. She had the alethiometer, knew how to read it, and could understand when it wanted her to do something. But, when much of the theme of the book seemed to be to question authority and orthodoxy, why did she naively trust the alethiometer? How was she to know that she wasn't being manipulated by some nefarious entity?

Still, as I said, I liked the books overall, and there were many aspects worth commending. As I've already mentioned, despite the forced feel, I appreciate that Pullman gave it a bittersweet ending, when it seems that too many stories I read are sugar coated. And I very much enjoyed the alternate history that he developed for Lyra's world, and the setting it created. Aside from that, my favorite part was the character development. There wasn't a stark divide between good and evil. Characters did good things and bad things. Some did more good things than others, and some did more bad things than others. Obviously, we were supposed to sympathize with Lyra and her cause, but you could still follow the motivations of those on the other side. And even after the story was over, you're still not exactly sure who to like and who to dislike.

So, in the end, I would recommend these books, and not just because I'll earn money if you buy them through the links I provided. In fact, if you do follow those links, you'll see that all three books are rated at least 4 stars on Amazon (for now, at least - we'll see what happens as they get more publicity due to the movies, and if certain people start giving them poor ratings due to philosophical differences). They tell a pretty good story, and do get you thinking about some interesting topics. Just don't expect too much out of them, and you won't be disappointed.


Selling Out