Friday, June 6, 2008

Summer reading

As you all disperse to pastures new for the summer, how about a recommended summer reading thread? The only rule is that the books have to be, however tenuously, related to biology.

Add any recommendations by posting a comment on this post (or a new post if you have lots). Thanks to Chris for inspiring this with his recommendation of one of Kurt Vonnegut's last books, Galapagos. Quotes and links are from, a convenient source of information on books even if you don't end up buying them there.

'Serious fans of Vonnegut's wry and ribald prose will welcome this tale of the devolution of superbrained humans into gentle swimmers with small brains, but others may find this Darwinian survival tale too packed with ecological and sociological details that trap the story line in a series of literary devices, albeit very clever ones.'

Discovering Vonnegut used to be a college rite of passage, one that I hope continues.

Another Vonnegut classic is Cat's Cradle which contains the fictional 'Ice-9' - a type of water that is solid at normal temperatures AND converts regular water into the Ice-9 form. This is often used to explain the mechanism of the prion proteins that cause diseases like CJD, BSE and Scrapie.

One of Vonnegut's most entertaining novels, is filled with scientists and G-men and even ordinary folks caught up in the game. These assorted characters chase each other around in search of the world's most important and dangerous substance, a new form of ice that freezes at room temperature. At one time, this novel could probably be found on the bookshelf of every college kid in America; it's still a fabulous read and a great place to start if you're young enough to have missed the first Vonnegut craze.

For light and funny summer reading you can't go far wrong with Christopher Moore. I think everything he has written is worth reading but Fluke has perhaps the most biology links.

Nathan Quinn, a prominent marine biologist, has been conducting studies in Hawaii for years trying to unravel the secret of why humpback whales sing. During a typical day of data gathering, Nate believes his mind is failing: the subject whale has "Bite Me" scrawled across its tail. Events become even stranger as the self-proclaimed "action nerds," Nate, photographer Clay, their research assistant Amy, and Kona, a white Rasta (a Jewish kid from New Jersey), encounter sabotage to their data and equipment. They also observe increasingly bizarre whale behavior, including a phone call from the whale to their wealthy sponsor to ask that Nate bring it a hot pastrami and Swiss on rye, and discover both a thriving underwater city and the secret to what happened to Amelia Earhart.

Many of Christopher Moore's books are set in the fictional Californian town of Pine Cove, which is suspiciously like Cambria.....

Jay Hosler is both a biologist and a talented cartoonist. The Sandwalk Adventures is the story of a conversation about evolution between Charles Darwin and a follicle mite named Mara living in his left eyebrow. If that sounds a bit wacky, it is, but the book is very clear and you'll learn a lot about both Darwin and evolution. You can read about his books and order them, if you are so inspired, at his website. If anyone asks me really nicely and promises to give it back I'll lend you my copy.

For reasons that could take (and probably have taken) a whole thesis to examine, a number of comic book characters regularly cover environmental topics: Swamp Thing, Toxic Avenger, Dr Strange and the Silver Surfer to name just four.

But perhaps the most environmentally conscious 'super hero' is Paul Chadwick's Concrete. In two different graphic novels he addresses first the environmental movement as a whole (particularly the
more radical side) and then he takes on population growth (again addressing some of the more radical viewpoints). In both books, the readers responses give valuable additional viewpoints.

Japanese comics have also covered environmental issues. Perhaps the best example is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I don't think I could begin to summarize the story. Oh, go on then: Joan of Arc like character helps defend people and planet, including lots of giant insects and toxic fungi, from warring factions. The story is collected in a 7 volume set or you can rent the movie, based around the first two books, by fimmaker and illustrator Hayao Miyazaki.

1 comment:

Vincenzo said...

The Mismeasure of Man- Gould

Your Inner Fish- Shubin

Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest- Sterelny

The Dialectical Biologist- Lewinton and Levins