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review 2015-10-20 06:19
what happens when you put lots of drunk male fruit flies together?
Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior - Jonathan Weiner

Gay fruit fly sex, of course.  Enjoyable, well written, thought provoking with many details that I will probably forget.

This history of behavioral genetics is primarily presented as professional biography Seymour Benzer, a scientist who rejected the more lucrative field of solid state electronics to study the behavior of fruit flies. Benzer comes off as a part quirky professor, part inventive genius, and truly driven by the love (?, is that right) of his chosen field. The title comes from reducing behavioral genetics into three essential components - time, love and memory.


Time - we learn how the notion of clocks are built into our DNA
Love - more like mating patterns, but ok.
Memory - not just memory, but the ability to learn and change behavior because of it

Behavior is complex and understanding it is difficult. There is quite a bit written about the experimental approaches used and how behavior was broken down. Aside from the science, you learn some charming quirks that brings back memories of reading The Double Helix in high school (man those guys played a lot of tennis!). There are many featured players, including Watson and Crick of DNA structure fame.

Most important, it dances around the question of nature versus nurture. No conclusions are given, and as this was written 15 years ago, if any were they would probably be OBE by now.

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review 2015-09-25 07:47
history through story
New York - Edward Rutherfurd
A showcase of New York history from 1664 to the present day, told through the stories of several New York based (mostly old money Anglo and Dutch) families.   I initially found it very frustrating because the narrative would switch to a new character/generation just as something interesting seemed to happen.  There isn't a plot in the traditional sense, and once I accepted the tempo, I started to enjoy it more.  Don't feel bad if you completely forget character names because they come and go.
Linking the people and stories together was a wampum belt, initially given to Dirk van Dyck by his Native American daughter Pale Feather.    The belt gets passed down though the generations and sometimes crosses family lines and becomes the symbolic thread weaving everyone together.  It was an interesting device, but I found it slightly ironic that the meaning of the belt quickly got lost, all the while one of the later characters laments  that 'kids these days don't really know the history of New York".  
This was a book club read, suggested by a member who recently visited  New York who realized that she didn't know much about the city and was interested in learning.  This is the perfect book for that.   It was super long, but easy to read and does a good job of hitting on many of the important  eras and events in the history of New York.   It sadly ends on September 11, 2001, which coincidentally the same day I finished the book, 14 years on.
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review 2015-09-21 05:50
short stories are not my thing
Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh - Mo Yan,Howard Goldblatt

Reading this was a good exercise in expanding my personal, hopefully not too xenophobic, horizons. This collection of short stories had an interesting preface by the author, a mini autobiography describing his passion and inspiration for writing. He describes his early childhood during the cultural revolution and how he developed a resilience to adversity. He also describes the fact that he has no formal training, let alone Western influences on his writing. This is important, because you really must do a mental reset in order to appreciate and hopefully enjoy the stories.

All the stories I appreciated. Only a couple of them did I actually enjoy. In several cases, I didn't get the meaning or symbolism. I'm not a short story person. Add to that the fact that several had a magical realism flavor, and my enjoyment was destined to be an uphill battle. All the stories seemed to end abruptly. Needless to say, this was not my reading happy place.

Thoughts on the individual stories...

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh. A laid off worker gets creative in funding his retirement. This was mostly light hearted, but did have a few dark moments.

Man and Beast - I'll be honest, I didn't get this one. A cave, a fox, Japanese, rape.

Soaring - a wife bird gets shot with an arrow and killed. I am sure there is meaning in the perils of freedom.

Iron Child - Kids eat iron and turn into iron... iron zombies? This story might be making some sort of statement about state run industry, poverty and neglect. Or it might just be a fanciful play on a childhood memory of feasting on coal.

The Cure. This story was creepy and disturbing. It featured public execution and organ harvesting. Corruption too, with a father offering the services of his 18 year old daughter to a public official, o_O. IDGI

Love Story - This one had the best line in the entire book... Tall girl, short boy — tits in the face, what a joy. What I want to know is, did this rhyme in Mandarin?

Shen Garden - journey to a mysterious garden, meaning lost on me.

Abandoned Child. Well that was depressing. This story tackles ham fisted one-child policy as well as the deeply ingrained misogyny of Chinese culture.

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review 2015-08-23 00:03
heavy drinking ahead
Dziewczyna z pociągu - Paula Hawkins

4 1/2 stars. There's a reason this is such a popular book this year, it's a good old fashioned page turner. I actually read this earlier this year and I decided to listen to the audio for an upcoming bookclub meeting. I think I enjoyed it more the second time around because it gave me opportunity to study the characters a bit more. TGOTT is ostensibly a who-done-it suspense read, however, it's the characters that make it engaging. Especially Rachel. God bless Rachel, she just can't help herself.

I love a good literary drunk. As much as heavy drinking is portrayed in fiction, most authors really don't capture it well. More often than not, characters drink to excess with little or no consequence. Maybe there is mention of a hangover, but rarely do characters drunk dial, break things, or hurt themselves, all common foibles associated with heavy drinking. For anyone who has dealt with alcohol abuse on one way or another (and who hasn't?) you know there is constant struggle, constant regret, and constant rationalization happening. By the way, if you are fortunate enough to have not experienced this, I recommend Drinking: A Love Story.

So back to Rachel. Rachel is an alcoholic, and that plays a major role in the book. Even when she's not drinking, her addiction drives her. Some of her decisions and actions are embarrassingly painful to watch. Man oh man, did this author nail Rachel's struggle. On the surface, Rachel is seen as pathetic, washed up, and unstable. Rachel's drinking is fodder for the smugness found in the other characters, especially Anna. This is how everyone perceives Rachel, the quintessential unreliable narrator:
But what is really important, for which I applaud the author, is that she does have good qualities and she isn't a lost cause, she is human.

I'm not going to go into the mystery or other characters other than to say that they are all pretty unlikable, which for this sort of book is a really good thing.

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review 2015-07-21 07:30
it is with great relief that that I throw this onto the DNF pile
No Stopping Train - Les Plesko

Apparently this author (RIP) didn't think plot was terribly important.  His writing was lovely and sometimes evocative, but nothing happened.  I stuck with it for about 200 pages, and was curious enough to go discuss it at book club.  Apparently it wasn't just me and I gladly dropped the unfinished book into the return bin on my way out of the library. 

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