Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: December, 2006

Book Reviews: Lab Lit, Whodunits, Excessive IMs

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray

This collection of short stories is no longer than the typical book, but it took me a while to finish it. That’s the problem with short stories even though I profess to prefer this form of fiction due to my short attention span for anything mediocre. Once you’ve finished a short story, there’s nothing to stop you from not beginning the next one. But in A Few Short Notes, I didn’t stop after I’ve finished a story, I stopped in the middle of one. “All the Rivers in the World” was the weakest of the bunch–probably because the focus continually shifted between two characters making me feel like I was having a bit of insomnia.

I would describe Murray’s stories as “lab lit”, a bit akin to Andrea Barrett. The stories are tied together with science infused with humanity and culture clashes. Many of Murray’s characters are Indians trapped between ambitious Western upbringings and traditional backgrounds. In “The Hill Station”, a microbiologist used to sterile American labs gets a culture shock when she heads to the Indian subcontinent to combat cholera first hand. A young man struggles to understand how his mother’s ambition to become a famous paleontologist splinters his family in “White Flour.”

Another major theme present throughout the stories is the characters’ attempts at reconciling their training in systematic rigor with the messiness inherent in real life. This is exemplified by “Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man” where a young man’s desire to please his beetle-collecting father ultimately leads to his brother’s fatal enlistment into the Vietnam War. In the short story “A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies”, an aging surgeon, shaped by stories of his adventurous grandfather, jeopardizes his marriage by burying himself in butterfly collecting rather than taking risks.

In all, I enjoyed most of the stories in this collection. Murray manages to blend natural history and biology into some literary food for thought without bogging down on the technical and pedantic.

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Get a Clue by Jill Shalvis

Breanne Mooreland is having a very bad day. She gets dumped at the altar (for the third time), loses her luggage on her way to a mountain lodge, gets snowed in, and her honeymoon suite is already occupied by someone else–Cooper Scott, a burned-out vice cop on a much needed vacation. To top it off, Breanne stumbles upon a dead body at the lodge.

Mostly, I found the relationship between Breanne and Cooper annoying. Actually, it was Breanne who was annoying. I’m sure getting abandoned at the altar and having all the other mishaps happening would certainly make one depressed, but her constant hang-ups and whining made her sound like an unlikable and spoiled brat. There wasn’t even enough development of her character in the novel to really make her sympathetic to the reader. In other words, Breanne was a pampered chick-lit stock character who neither grew nor sufficiently acknowledged her own short comings.

The mystery in Get a Clue is intriguing although not all that original. The deceased is the universally hated lodge manager thus making everyone present a suspect. But the clues weren’t sufficient (or even necessary) for a reader to really figure out what was going on. Without giving anything away, the solution was more of a deus ex machina rather than any logical deductions that one could make. As a romance or as a mystery, this novel unfortunately flounders on both counts.

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Why Do Men Fall Asleep After Sex? by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg, M.D.

If you’ve read the first book, Why Do Men Have Nipples?, this is more of the same thing. I will say this though, if you found the first book irritating, you’ll find the sequel even more so. Interspersed between sections are transcribed instant messages between the two authors–some of it discussing their bad reviews on Amazon. I found them funny in the first book, but by this time it gets a bit tiring. It doesn’t help that those IMs are lengthier giving the impression that this is just a gimmick, a one-trick pony.

There were a few questions in which I was interested to read the answer to: What are those dust particles you sometimes see floating in front of your eyes? and What makes self-tanner work? come to mind. But I already knew the answers to many of the other questions, which leads me to ask, exactly who is the intended audience?

If you like Leyner and Goldberg’s brand of sophomoric, eclectic, and somewhat crass humor, this is a riot. Otherwise, this is the perfect gift for kids with wrong-headed notions about sex, people who need some convincing that all the wives tales that they believe are hogwash, and those who want to step into a bit of medical science without being confounded by too many esoteric terms. As for all those obscure scientific journals that are cited, I’m feeling a bit dubious….

Book Reviews: Blogging and Steampunk

The Rough Guide to Blogging by Jonathan Yang

Why bother reading about something that I already know how to do? Well, for one thing, even if you’re an expert, I bet there’s always something new to learn. Or at least that’s what you’re hoping that might be the case when you pick up the book. In the case of blogging, the use of the technology is extremely simple. Anybody can Google “blogging” and get how-to sites that can explain everything without shelling out money to buy a how-to book (or in my case, wasting time by going to the library to get the book). But if your internet searching skills aren’t up to par or you’re somewhat apprehensive about the whole internet thing in the first place (although you have heard about this thing called a “blog” and you want to start one so you can be hip just like everyone else), The Rough Guide to Blogging is a good place to start as any. However, if you want to learn about the nuts and bolts of blogging and aspire to be a coding guru–look elsewhere.

It’s inevitable that I would be comparing The Rough Guide to another how-to blogging book that I recently read. But while the other one made me think more of a Sears catalogue than a book, The Rough Guide actually amused me. Sure, there is also a list of popular blogs where newbies should go read to get a feel for blogging before jumping into it (although the list itself is nowhere near as extensive as the Blogosphere book)–but it’s really the writing style that I enjoyed.

Anyone can read about what blog hosts are available or how to do podcasts, but I think it’s the smaller things that make a how-to book more than just a glorified manual you might get with your new toaster oven. I really liked how Sitemeter was referred to as a tool in which you can “start stalking those who stalk you” or the tidbit that LiveJournal has a mascot–Frank the Goat–I didn’t know that even though I’ve had a LJ account for a while! And I learned something too: blogs in which the authors co-opt the identity of fictional characters or celebrities are actually called “fantasy blogs.”

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The Demon’s Daughter by Emma Holly

In a city reminiscent of 19th century London, dingy alleys, gas lamps and Victorian mores clash with the introduction of a technologically advanced alien race called the Yama–or as they are colloquially called by humans, demons. But as the Yama are physically superior to humans, there is a need to police any who decide to take advantage. Inspector Adrian Philips is one of the few humans who have been enhanced by Yamaish technology in order to keep the criminal Yama in check–but his acceptance of alien technology in order to protect other humans comes with a price–he’s disdained by his former wife and he’s viewed as tainted by the rest of society.

While searching for a missing child, Adrian is attacked and wounded. The notorious artist Roxanne McAllister finds and tends him. As their relationship unfolds, they both struggle between what they want and what society dictates–that their stations are too different for them to be together. Overall, there is the theme of two clashing societies: human and alien. Humanity lives in a precarious position with Yamaish technology and physical superiority looming over them with only the Yama’s disgust of human emotion that keeps them from being conquered. Both Adrian and Roxanne are trapped between the two–Adrian is enhanced by Yama technology while Roxanne discovers that she is half demon from her human mother’s liaison with a Yama diplomat.

There’s surprising complexity in this steampunk erotic romance (yes, even the combination of genres is surprising–and quite a feat since the author managed not to throw in everything and the kitchen sink). Although the relationships between the protagonists and with their estranged families are depicted well, Holly somewhat stretches the believability of the menace that threatens the balance between Yama and human and that glues the plot together.

Belated Meme

The Thursday Threesome: Happy New Year!

Onesome: Happy–New Year to you and yours! …any plans for this weekend? Dick Clark? Guy Lombardo? Early to bed?

No particular plans.

Twosome: New–year, old year. Is this the year you take up skiing? …or knitting? …or vacuuming every other day? Do you have any major project you’d like to tackle? (Sure, ‘resolutions’ count…)

I make no resolutions or proclamations about beginning anything. That way I don’t disappoint anyone (or myself) if I happen to fail at any of those endeavors.

Threesome: Year–end chores? Do the lights and decorations come down this weekend? …or are you already “done with Christmas”?

Of course Christmas is over.

Happy Holidays!

And Merry Christmas! Don’t stay on the computer too long.

Links and a Meme

December Animalcules. Check out this microbiology-themed carnival over at Aetiology.

Tangled Bank #69. It’s the War on Christmas Edition. But don’t worry, the posts listed in this carnival are all about science, not holiday bashing. I just think the host is not so subtly hinting that he wants a vacation in the tropics.

What’s Noka Worth? Excellent take down of some very high priced chocolate. Of course, this won’t stop people from buying it just to show off how much money they’re willing to throw away.

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The Thursday Threesome: Plenty of time

Onesome: Plenty– of time, take a deep breath. Overnight/Saturday delivery could work for you… So could a trip a few hundred miles away if you’re into shopping on Sunday! How are you doing? Do you have it together?

I have things together as much as they can be.

Twosome: of– all the states, I’m hearing the worst reports from Ohio! It has no snow! No snow, no Christmas! What’s to be done? Is it looking like the normal Christmas weather there for you?

It’s typical weather where I’m at. Which means no snow. And I totally do not agree that Christmas must have snow. If you need snow to have Christmas, your priorities are screwed up.

Threesome: Time–Time? Good grief, the 24th is days away, and most men haven’t even awakened a sense of urgency as yet. Is anyone done, finished, wrapped and resting?

Er, no. And I think all this shopping and blatant conspicuous consumption is idiotic. I’m going to go bake a cake.

Yes, I’m cranky.

The Writer Ratio

People’s perceptions of who reads what are definitely skewed. But what about authors on the publishing end? Do authors self-segregate into particular genres or do editors have some say in what kind of author get published?

I came across the Broad Universe Bean Count which has some very interesting statistics on how many women and men are published in the speculative fiction field. Of course, compared to the romance genre (where most men still work under pseudonyms or with female co-authors), science fiction and fantasy appears to be a bastillion of equality. But nonetheless, the numbers aren’t that great. It’s true that over the years, the percentage of women winning awards has gone up, but for most of them, the split is still not fifty-fifty.

Some other observations: Male reviewers prefer to review books authored by other males. The majority of stories in anthologies of speculative fiction are by male authors. However, is it possible that this is also a function of how many female speculative fiction writers are present in the first place? The membership of SFWA is not an accurate indicator of how many writers there are–you have to get published first before you can be a member. But according to Strange Horizons, about a third of their submissions were from female writers. I am very curious as to whether this is true or the exception compared to submission statistics to other magazines, agents, and editors.

And another question: Does the sex of the authors also influence what kind of readers are drawn to a genre? With the quality of writing being equal as well as the male/female ratio of writers in whatever genre–would this equalize the readership as well? Or will people still be too hung up on convention and formula to read a book for the story?

The Game Show People Are Getting Desperate

I just heard an advertisement on the radio about a TV game show called Identity where you have to guess among a bunch of strangers who is a fashion model or Nobel Prize winner, etc. My first thought was that this was stupid. You know they’re going to trick you by not pandering to the stereotype. The blue-haired lady with the poodle? She doesn’t knit–she runs a tattoo parlor in Santa Monica. The person who won first place in the National Knitters Competition is the buff guy in biker leathers. Asian guy with glasses? He’s the hip hop artist. The physicist you’re looking for is the blonde popping the bubble gum.

Who Needs A Green Thumb?

Over at Pruned, a landscape and architecture blog, there are a couple of posts on gardens in a petri dish. (Via Metafilter – I couldn’t resist, even if everyone else has already seen it.) I can tell you one thing: pouring agar is a lot easier than digging around in the dirt.

Pay No Attention to the Musing

I recently discovered Better Fonts and my fingers got itchy for a redesign. Particularly of the domain’s front page. I’m sort of getting tired of the valkyrie with the sword because she’s not actively mowing anyone down.

This also spurred me to finally update my layout page after, um, two years. There were some layouts I had to go and retrieve from the Wayback Machine. And after a trip down memory lane, all I can say is: dang, I feel unimaginative.

Oh the Fun

Heh. I just found out today that I will be TA’ing a micro course next term. Stay tuned next year for my observations on cluelessness, hijinks, overachieving pre-meds, and if we’re lucky, some undergrads actually getting excited about science.

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Sorta related: Frog Dissection Kit. I think this would make a cool holiday gift for budding bio geeks.