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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

creation    Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford

Here’s a book title that I was surprised to find is not hyperbole. Science really is creating new life forms. Rutherford doesn’t mean cloning life forms we know. He means altering the structure and components of DNA and coming up with odd hybrids of life—such as a goat that excretes spider web silk in its milk.

The sorts of stories Rutherford tells are the ones that science fiction has often warned against, the monsters that come from the imagination of our Frankensteins. So, should we be afraid?

Rutherford, a geneticist, a writer and editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, and a presenter of programs for the BBC in the United Kingdom, is not particularly worried about the gains scientists have made in creating life. He regards this as “a golden age in biology.” This book, in part, takes the time to reassure the reader that all will be well. To do so, Rutherford even contends that the world’s best-known bogeymen (think Monsanto, for example) are not empowered to wreak havoc on our planet’s future.

Rutherford makes a good case for synthetic biology and synthetic genetics, but before he does, he reviews what is known about life and its origins. We take the tour of the history of life starting with the big bang and Higgs Boson (and the current experiment with the Large Hadron Collider to re-create that big bang), tour the development of the cell (and how mitochondria within cells point to a common origin of all life forms), and move through the structure of DNA, again, with a discussion of the evidence of a common origin for all life forms.

In addition, what it means to be alive is defined—well, sort of. A handy definition is “Life is a process that stops your molecules from simply decaying into more stable forms.” But I do like the longer version explaining Schrodinger’s argument; “Living systems are the continual maintenance of energy imbalance. In essence, life is the maintenance of disequilibrium, and energy as life uses it is derived from this inequity. . . . The entropy of the universe is bound only to increase, thereby ultimately creating a more balanced but less ordered existence.” Sounds almost philosophical, doesn’t it?

Rutherford tells the reader that “synthetic biology means different things to different people,” but explores it by looking at the world as a toolbox full of tools provided by evolution that are then available for creating new life-forms. One of the ways of creating these new life-forms is by altering DNA. DNA is shown to be a “data storage device” and scientists can now alter the available data.

Interesting  discussions of examples of synthetic biology include “Synthia,” a single synthetic cell created in 2010, and “Freckles” the goat, with her golden orb-weaver spider genetic code, which causes her milk to have spider silk in it. Of course, Rutherford discusses the value of these things—spider webs have important properties (they are very elastic and strong) that may be very useful in many applications.

There are reasons for man to explore changes in both plant and animal life. They have to do with feeding a hungry world as less and less land is arable in a more extreme global climate, and with medical advances that will save lives. But whether you agree with Rutherford that these changes are harbingers of a golden age or whether you want everything to go back to organic, it is important to know what is happening in our world. And Creation is a good place to start finding out.

High school housekeeping: I read this book partly because I am a curious creature and want to know about synthetic biology, but partly because I think it is exactly the kind of book that the designers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read—an ‘informational text’ if you will, one that has facts that could prove very useful to you.

Creation is very interesting and very informative. Rutherford’s writing is clear and he often uses analogies to language and to music to make points about science easier to understand. All of this is very helpful. So, would the average high school student pick this book up and read it, bringing delight to the lives of those Common Core Dr. Frankensteins?

Well—this is a book that many high school students would be fascinated by, especially those interested in becoming researchers or doctors. But it’s not easy, despite Rutherford’s lucid style. Students who have done well in biology class will have a much easier time with the discussion of the roles and components of DNA and RNA. Though not everyone is going to follow Rutherford’s argument for synthetic biology, those who can and do will be happily enriched.

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Full of Heart by J. R. Martinez with Alexandra Rockey Fleming    full of heart

You may know J. R. Martinez due to his fairly recent celebrity. In 2003, he was a nineteen-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only in the country for a month, and not yet battle-experienced, he was driving a Humvee when he hit a roadside bomb.

Martinez remembers this event in slow motion, saw his hands burning and then his face. When his fellow soldiers tried to pull him from the vehicle, his skin came away in their hands.

Martinez was a very good looking guy. He says that he was always afraid of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. When he first saw his burned face, he felt like Freddy. How would he ever get his life back?

The journey to getting his life back is the story of Full of Heart.

Martinez’s roots were not the kind that immediately lead to success. His mother was an illegal immigrant, who scraped together the money to come to the U.S. from El Salvador in hope of providing for her children, one of whom had no bones in her feet and, thus, couldn’t walk. Though Maria works like a dog, she makes some bad choices in men and finds herself with another child—J. R.—and a single parent. She does, however, makes some good choices in friends, and a few are a great help to her. They assist her in attaining legal status; eventually, she becomes a U. S. citizen.

In Hope, Arkansas (yes, the home of Bill Clinton), J. R. (Rene) dreams of being a football star. He carries that dream to Dalton, Georgia, where football is king. He’s not very big, but he’s determined and makes the high school team more because of his positive mindset than his talent. He works hard and improves on the field, but allows his grades to slide, ending his plan for a college scholarship. After this, Martinez decides that the army is for him.

Martinez is a prankster, full of good humor. But one of the things he learns in the army is “when you break the rules, you will be caught.” He spends a lot of time being ‘smoked’—doing endless push-ups and other drills. Once in Iraq, Martinez reflects on the strangeness of the country—how different it is than anything he’s ever experienced. But he is not there long before he is injured and shipped out for treatment.

Once Martinez begins his rehabilitation, he is reborn—this is a new life for him and he will succeed or fail based on his will and hard work. That he succeeds—in a larger-than-life way, wildly, improbably—is the crux if this story. His interviews with 60 Minutes and Oprah, his work on the soap opera All My Children and his eventual win on Dancing with the Stars are all sort of fantastical. But Martinez still regards his most important work as being a spokesman for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he recovered from his injuries.

High school housekeeping: Martinez’s story is as much a coming-of-age tale as the story of overcoming an injury. He’s young, a bit immature, and directionless when he is injured. He grows up very fast. This biography is pretty short—about 240 (physically small) pages. The writing is very accessible, and most high school students should have no problems reading it. I think most will be inspired as well.

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breaking night     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach  stiff

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.”—The opening sentence of Stiff

If Mary Roach weren’t so funny and—well, curious—some of the strange subject matter she chooses for her books might seem like fodder for a sick voyeur. But she is funny—and probably one of the most inquisitive people alive. Her desire to know about things becomes the reader’s desire to know. This is especially true in Stiff. I don’t think I am as spooked by dead bodies as some are, but before I read Stiff, I can’t say I ever thought of them as interesting. Now I do. And I’ve had the chance to think about my own body and its fate once I die.

Dead bodies—cadavers—are very useful to us. Scientists and researchers have always needed them. Through study of  the dead, people have learned that blood circulates and that the heart is the pump that keeps it moving, that the brain is the center of thought. Bodies donated to body farms, where corpses are left out to decay under various conditions, help investigators understand rates of decomposition, which is useful in murder investigations. Bodies or their parts can be used in understanding how land mines injure people. Doctors use “beating-heart’ cadavers in organ transplants. Did you know that corpses were used to test the guillotine?

In the history of the world, humans in several cultures have attributed magical or medical powers to dead bodies or dead body parts, and countless graves have been robbed to provide those parts. (OK, lots of graves were robbed for science as well, and there are some wild tales about that in this book.)

To me, one of the most interesting things that cadavers are used for is in test crashes and weapons testing. Yes, there are those ‘dummies’ for car crashes, but they can’t quite replicate what happens to people. (According to Roach, for every cadaver used to test and develop airbags, 147 lives are saved.) And then, we need to know what happens in airplane accidents, too. Bodies can be used in simulated air crashes. The information learned has helped investigators in deciding if a plane accident was truly an accident due to mechanical failure or the work of terrorists. Bodies can also be used to test bullet-proof vests and other equipment meant to save lives.

Despite her great sense of humor, Roach treats cadavers with respect, including all of the ones she meets in researching this book. Others who work with dead bodies—folks in medical school (you’ll be happy to know that your surgeon practices on dead bodies before s/he tries out new skills on you), researchers, morticians—all appear to have the same respect. Even the people who crash bodies to learn about car and plane accidents have a protocol of respectfulness that both surprised and comforted me.

Although we hate to think about it, we all die. Stiff addresses the (philosophical) problem of what we should do with our dead bodies. This goes far beyond the choices of burial or cremation. There are many opportunities in scientific research. And for those who want to be buried, there are new considerations of having a ‘green’ burial, one that is ecologically sound. Sort of like composting. The same is true of deciding in favor of ‘water reduction’ (or, less euphemistically, ‘tissue digestion’) instead of cremation, another sterile and less-polluting choice.

Crazy as it seems, our dead bodies can be as useful to humankind as anything we do while living. Finding out just how useful is the wild ride that is Stiff.

High school housekeeping: Stiff is an engaging introduction to how research works in real life. I think it’s the kind of book the framers of the Common Core are hoping you’ll read. Putting aside their naïve disdain for fiction, they are right about the need to also read this sort of nonfiction—it will open a new window on reality and may pique your interest in science. All in a book that you can’t put down.

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los angeles diaries

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown

 

 

James Brown begins with that phenomenon of nature that all of us here in the Inland Empire know: the Santa Ana winds. We’ve seen the uprooted trees and downed powerlines in front of our schools, the smashed fences in our backyards. And we know about and fear the fires, and that less natural phenomenon, the arsonist.

 

And so Brown begins by speaking directly to our experience, and continues to do so. Though heartrending, many of the details of his biography are not so uncommon. There are the crazy lives he and his siblings lived with their unbalanced mother, his drug abuse at an early age, his alcoholism and the way it wrecked his marriage. That he not only survived all of this, but later moved on to have a creative life would be reason enough for me to recommend the book to you.  Well, that and the fact that Brown doesn’t waste any time blaming others for his addiction and missteps.

 

Fortunately, there is so much more here, packed into a tightly narrated work, in what feels like a group of loosely-woven short stories, organized not by chronology but through emotional connections.  For example, the thoughts on the Santa Anas lead to the story of Brown’s mother leaving him in the car while she runs out to set an apartment building on fire, an act which costs a life.

 

The book itself is littered with (well-deserved) praise from many famous people, but the comment by Janet Fitch is the one that struck me as closest to my experience with The Los Angeles Diaries: “Oddly inspirational, the tale of the last man standing.” In part, Fitch is referring to the fact that both Brown’s sister and brother committed suicide. This is certainly a story of survival—and of survivor’s guilt. That is it so well written is the bonus that makes me want to hand it to you when you when come in to the library for a biography.

 

Since I am dealing with high school and with assignments, I want to add the housekeeping details that only pertain to our particular situation: The Los Angeles Diaries is exactly 200 pages long—that is, the exact number of pages that many teachers use as a minimum requirement. This, I know, will thrill some of you. Since each chapter reads like a stand-alone story, I don’t think you’ll have any problems stopping and starting; you won’t get lost, and each new day’s reading will be a sort of fresh tale. Oh—and you are going to love the story about how the alcohol-addled Brown, in hopes of making up with his wife, buys her a pot-bellied pig.

 

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no easy day

No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer

The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

As you read the sub-sub title above, you know why this book has been a bestseller, available even at Costco, where everyone can pick it at deep discount. Who doesn’t want to know what really happened in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

Mark Owen—a pseudonym, meant to protect the mission, although Owen’s real name is very easy to find online—was there. And he gives the reader all the thrilling, frightening details of the night Bin Laden was killed and its aftermath. You can follow the story by studying the accompanying illustrations of the compound showing who was in which building and where one of the helicopters crashed at the outset of the mission. It’s heart-smacking stuff.

But before Owen gets to that story, he details the long history of his life as a Navy SEAL—of becoming a member of SEAL Team Six, of the many missions he participated in, including the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of his service is the grind you’d expect it to be, with details on all the equipment special service members use, on how they store and pack it, on the patterns of their training, and how they develop friendships among their members.

I’d like to say that all of that description is breathtaking stuff because—well, who doesn’t want to have nothing but praise for a hero? But the truth is that I think those many chapters before the Bin Laden raid will have the most appeal to teens thinking about service to the country—whether in special forces or not.

I think it’s OK to tell the truth and say that much of this is pedestrian stuff. I probably should have read it in a few sitting, but I kept walking away from it, starting (and finishing) another book, then coming back. I made the mistake of not looking through the photos of military equipment, such as guns and helicopters, that are in the middle of the book until I read to the middle. I suggest you look at these and read the descriptions before starting the book.

I ended up liking No Easy Day as a whole because the truth is that being a hero isn’t something that happens overnight. The fact that Owen went through years of training, some of it grueling (some of it boring), and also had to be in the right place at the right time before he could participate in the mission are important things to know. If you think you can just walk into military service and do this sort of thing, then you must read this book for a reality check. Lots of preparation for big events (and I’m thinking in any walk of life, not just military) is about being willing to slog through the training and practice.

Owen is grateful for the service of many elite forces—the SEALs and others who work with them, such as EOD specialists. He is donating much of the proceeds from the sale of this book to organizations that help these folks, such as the All in All the Time Foundation. And he gives us ideas of how we can support our troops—ideas that beat the heck out of throwing a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car and calling it a day.

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Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan  Until Tuesday

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

 

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