Best American · stuff I read

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 edited by Sy Montgomery, series editor Jaime Green

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Sy Montgomery, New York Times best-selling author and recipient of numerous awards, edits this year’s volume of the finest science and nature writing.

“Science is important because this is how we seek to discover the truth about the world. And this is what makes excellent science and nature writing essential,” observes New York Times best-selling author Sy Montgomery. “Science and nature writing are how we share the truth about the universe with the people of the world.” And collected here are truths about nearly every corner of the universe. From meditations on extinction, to the search for alien life, to the prejudice that infects our medical system, the pieces in this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing seek to bring to the people stories of some of the most pressing issues facing our planet, as well as moments of wonder reflecting the immense beauty our natural world offers.

It’s Best American time again! This year the Science and Nature volume was under direction from new series editor Jamie Green. All the pieces guest editor Sy Montgomery included are phenomenally written but taken together many of the middle pieces blend together. I’m not sure if the Alphabetical-by-Author arrangement of articles worked for this volume, especially since previous volumes had clever groupings. The balance of the included essays tips the book heavily toward pieces about nature and the environment (not surprising, given Montgomery’s own writing choices, but it felt much less of a spectrum this year). The standout articles fall to the end of the volume – Linda Villarosa’s “The Hidden Toll: Why Are Black Mothers and Babies in the United States Dying at More Than Double the Rate of White Mothers and Babies. The Answer Has Everything to Do with the Lived Experience of Being a Black Woman in America,” Ed Yong’s “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America ready?” and Iliana Yurkiewicz’s “Paper Trails: Living and Dying with Fragmented Medical Records.”

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic by Ben Westhoff

44643351Summary from Goodreads:
A deeply human story, Fentanyl, Inc. is the first deep-dive investigation of a hazardous and illicit industry that has created a worldwide epidemic, ravaging communities and overwhelming and confounding government agencies that are challenged to combat it. “A whole new crop of chemicals is radically changing the recreational drug landscape,” writes Ben Westhoff. “These are known as Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and they include replacements for known drugs like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and marijuana. They are synthetic, made in a laboratory, and are much more potent than traditional drugs”–and all-too-often tragically lethal. Drugs like fentanyl, K2, and Spice–and those with arcane acronyms like 25i-NBOMe– were all originally conceived in legitimate laboratories for proper scientific and medicinal purposes. Their formulas were then hijacked and manufactured by rogue chemists, largely in China, who change their molecular structures to stay ahead of the law, making the drugs’ effects impossible to predict. Westhoff has infiltrated this shadowy world, becoming the first journalist to report from inside an illicit Chinese fentanyls lab and providing startling and original reporting on how China’s vast chemical industry operates, and how the Chinese government subsidizes it. He tracks down the little-known scientists who invented these drugs and inadvertently killed thousands, as well as a mysterious drug baron who turned the law upside down in his home country of New Zealand. Poignantly, Westhoff chronicles the lives of addicted users and dealers, families of victims, law enforcement officers, and underground drug awareness organizers in the U.S. and Europe. Together they represent the shocking and riveting full anatomy of a calamity we are just beginning to understand. From its depths, as Westhoff relates, are emerging new strategies that may provide essential long-term solutions to the drug crisis that has affected so many.

Fentanyl, Inc. is a comprehensive look at the rise of fentanyl, fentanyl derivatives, and the myriad designer drugs and novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that have come in their wake. This is the next step in the opioid crisis, since the street heroin addicts have turned to is often cut with varying and dangerous amounts of fentanyls, often with tragic results. This book falls much more on the chemistry and business side of the story, rather than the law enforcement side, although the human cost of this epidemic is never far away. Westhoff met with manufacturers in China, makers of safe-testing kits in Europe, and researched the Dark Web.

Fentanyl, Inc. is out September 3.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land by Julia Blackburn, Enrique Brinkmann (Illustrations)

42922291Summary from Goodreads:
From the award-winning author of the memoir The Three of Us, a lyrical exploration–part travelogue and part history–of Doggerland, the area beneath the North Sea which, until 6,000 years ago, was home to a rich ecosystem and human settlement.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Julia Blackburn became fascinated with Doggerland, the stretch of land that once connected Great Britain to Europe but is now subsumed by the North Sea. She was driven to explore the lives of the people who lived there–studying its fossil record, as well as human artifacts that have been discovered near the area. Now, she brings her reader along on her journey across Great Britain and parts of Continental Europe, introducing us to the paleontologists, archaeologists, fishermen, and fellow Doggerland enthusiasts she meets along the way. As Doggerland begins to come into focus, what emerges is a profound meditation on time, a sense of infinity as going backwards, and an intimation of the immensity of everything that has already passed through its time on earth and disappeared.

Time Song by Julia Blackburn was a middling read, for me. It’s a book that tries to do many things – an anthropological exploration and history of Doggerland, a memoir of the author’s fascination with artifacts and anthropology of older human culture, and a collection of poems (Time Songs) inspired by paleontologic and anthropologic scientific works – and doesn’t quite grasp any of them. The memoir jumped around making it hard to follow. Blackburn digresses a lot. She meanders down historical paths with other random amateur and professional anthropologists and their collections of artifacts which introduced a lot of “characters” who never appear again. The interruptions of the poems felt unnecessary. The drawn maps weren’t easy to read or orient (for reference Doggerland was a stretch of land between The Netherlands and the coast of Great Britain that was exposed during the Ice Age). Blackburn’s sentence-level writing is beautiful, though.

Time Song is out on Tuesday, August 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #1)

42117380._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

Look at that pretty, pretty cover. The story for The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is pretty rad, too.

Our astronomer-heroine Lucy – who performed all the mathematical calculations for her astronomer father – is at the end of her rope. Her lover has just married, her artist-brother is being a hypocritical jerk, and she’s running out of money. She jumps on the opportunity to translate a critical work of astronomy from French to English and presents herself to the widowed Countess of Moth.

Our embroiderer-heroine Catherine would like to get this business finished so she can wash her hands of her late adventurer-husband’s affairs. He had been volatile and unappreciative but Catherine is in need of something to do. So the young woman who turns up on her doorstep for the position of translator is an intriguing – although somewhat dismaying, Catherine has had enough of scientific ambition – surprise. After a few missteps and one scathingly patriarchal Society meeting later, Catherine determines that she will fund Lucy’s translation of the book herself in opposition to the Society translation (by a male translator, naturally).

Over the course of the months that Lucy lives with Catherine, diligently working away at the translation, the two women grow closer to one another. Lucy never makes it a secret that she is attracted to Catherine, but for Catherine – who defined herself sexually in terms of, well, she was married to a man and had an affair with a man so she likes only men, yes? – becoming entangled with Lucy in a non-professional sense means that she will have to re-examine past relationships to see herself in a new light. There is a beautiful scene where she examines some of her embroidery work – Catherine is a gifted fiber-artist who can create a portrait with her needle and silks – in light of the realization that she is also attracted to women.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics was a wonderful summer romance filled with lady scientists and artists taking down the patriarchy. Waite sort-of signals the Big Reveal plot-twist at a Royal Society debate ahead of time, so I did catch it, but it was a delicious piece of “eat crow, dudes” nonetheless. Lucy’s and Catherine’s relationship was so lovely to see develop and also to see them have growing pains related to class, wealth, and jealousy. There are even small side plots where Catherine and Lucy help lift up other women scientists and artists.

(Note: I read my galley while waiting on an Amtrak train that was supposed to arrive at 830pm but didn’t arrive until almost 11pm and I was stuck in the crappy train station starting around 5:30pm. This book kept me from murdering people. High praise, I’m sure, lol.)

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is out today in ebook! Mass market paperbacks are expected July 23.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and I had a copy pre-ordered on my Nook OF COURSE.

mini-review · stuff I read

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek

40594415Summary from Goodreads:
Our bones have many stories to tell, if you know how to listen.

Bone is a marvel, an adaptable and resilient building material developed over more than four hundred million years of evolutionary history. It gives your body its shape and the ability to move. It grows and changes with you, an undeniable document of who you are and how you lived. Arguably, no other part of the human anatomy has such rich scientific and cultural significance, both brimming with life and a potent symbol of death.

In this delightful natural and cultural history of bone, Brian Switek explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these artifacts of mineral and protein are all we’ve left behind.

Bone is as embedded in our culture as it is in our bodies. Our species has made instruments and jewelry from bone, treated the dead like collectors’ items, put our faith in skull bumps as guides to human behavior, and arranged skeletons into macabre tributes to the afterlife. Switek makes a compelling case for getting better acquainted with our skeletons, in all their surprising roles. Bridging the worlds of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics, Skeleton Keys illuminates the complex life of bones inside our bodies and out.

Skeleton Keys is a fun overview of the history of the human skeleton and what it can tell us about our past. Switek’s background is in non-human paleontology so he comes at the subject with an interesting mix of experience and self-education. He covers some famous cases of identification (such as when the skeleton of Richard III was positively identified) as well as the ethics of treating the skeletons of people who once lived as curios and objects to keep in museums. I think Switek did an excellent job presenting all the information here with due respect for indigenous cultures and striped back the history of racist and misogynist ideology which has permeated study of human skeletons.

Skeleton Keys is out Tuesday, March 5, in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD

39893608Summary from Goodreads:
At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Joshua Mezrich creates life from loss, transplanting organs from one body to another. In this intimate, profoundly moving work, he illuminates the extraordinary field of transplantation that enables this kind of miracle to happen every day.

When Death Becomes Life is a thrilling look at how science advances on a grand scale to improve human lives. Mezrich examines more than one hundred years of remarkable medical breakthroughs, connecting this fascinating history with the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of his transplant patients. Combining gentle sensitivity with scientific clarity, Mezrich reflects on his calling as a doctor and introduces the modern pioneers who made transplantation a reality—maverick surgeons whose feats of imagination, bold vision, and daring risk taking generated techniques and practices that save millions of lives around the world.

Mezrich takes us inside the operating room and unlocks the wondrous process of transplant surgery, a delicate, intense ballet requiring precise timing, breathtaking skill, and at times, creative improvisation. In illuminating this work, Mezrich touches the essence of existence and what it means to be alive. Most physicians fight death, but in transplantation, doctors take from death. Mezrich shares his gratitude and awe for the privilege of being part of this transformative exchange as the dead give their last breath of life to the living. After all, the donors are his patients, too.

When Death Becomes Life also engages in fascinating ethical and philosophical debates: How much risk should a healthy person be allowed to take to save someone she loves? Should a patient suffering from alcoholism receive a healthy liver? What defines death, and what role did organ transplantation play in that definition? The human story behind the most exceptional medicine of our time, Mezrich’s riveting book is a beautiful, poignant reminder that a life lost can also offer the hope of a new beginning.

When When Death Becomes Life came across my pitch emails a few months ago, I marked it down as a to-read immediately. A history of medicine, specifically transplant medicine? Sign me up.

Mezrich presents a history of solid organ transplantation alongside his own memoir of learning to become a transplant surgeon (mostly kidneys and livers). Each road was long and hard and Mezrich is very honest about his own path as a surgeon. If you know anything about this branch of medicine, it comes with significant risk of failure and he also gets into the ethics of listing patients with significant co-morbidies or addition. Mezrich includes two chapters where he presents the stories of some of his recipients and of the donors and their families. If you are not moved by those stories you have no soul.

This is also a reminder to consider marking “Organ Donor” on your driver’s license and having that conversation with your family. We are unlikely ever to have a “voluntary opt-out” policy in this country, so patients in need of a transplant are reliant on people, mostly their loved ones, consenting to donation when the situation arises.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

audiobooks · Chemistry · stuff I read

The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

43228964Summary from Goodreads:
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times -bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

The Poison Squad is a very good overview of the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the political struggles of the era which are, annoyingly, still the same struggles today. “Regulation stifles business and prevents us from making as much greedy money as possible” versus “please stop trying to poison the populace with unknown food additives, pesticides, chemical dyes, etc.” (you can guess what side I come down on). It’s a bit dry in places but since I tend to listen to audiobooks on 1.5-1.75x speed I didn’t notice as much.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library via Libby.

mini-review · stuff I read

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Called the work of “a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose” (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, “anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love,” by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take “us on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most profound, moving books I have ever read. I read it twice through cover-to-cover. Kimmerer seamlessly twines together the scientific rigor of botany and ecology and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Potawatomi to make the case that humanity should work in concert with the natural world to be good caretakers of the earth and work to reverse some of the scars we’ve left behind us. Some essays are more fluidly narrative, telling of creation stories or of memories from when her daughters were small (the maple syrup story is a favorite). Others take a more businesslike tone, with Kimmerer as teacher.

If you’ve read Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, or even Rachel Carson though Kimmerer doesn’t go in for the shock value, then Braiding Sweetgrass is a step along the same path, but with a different way of walking.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.