Book Review: Rigor Mortis by Richard F. Harris


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Undermines Tomorrow’s Medicine by Richard F. Harris

It seems like every other week a new study hits the news: Red wine cures cancer, coffee is terrible for you, taking vitamins is crucial for good health, red wine might actually cause cancer, caffeine in small amount is good for you, vitamins are worthless. With this whirlpool of conflicting information coming rapid-fire into the public sphere, one could certainly forgive the average person if they stopped paying attention, or even started to doubt everything they hear from a scientific source.

In Rigor Mortis, former NPR science journalist Richard F. Harris seeks to illuminate the systemic problems which underlie this phenomenon. Especially in this political environment, such an undertaking is a double-edged sword. It would be too easy for someone to take the basic concept: that there are structural problems within the field of medical research, and leap wildly to the conclusion that science itself is deeply flawed. However, the current situation within the scientific community needs to be addressed. Improvement can only be achieved with honest admissions of fault, greater transparency, and dedication to change. In this regard, Harris’ book does the field more good than harm.

The current crisis has been labeled one of reproducability. Flawed research, lack of standardized methods, and inadequate analysis, combined with the chaos of working within living systems, result in a nigh-impossibility of one lab successfully reproducing the results of another. The causes of this are multifaceted; lack of training in laboratory and statistical methods, the dog-eat-dog nature of research funding, the press by Universities to “publish, publish, publish” with more regard to quantity of work than quality. Right now, it pays far better to be first to be right.

Harris’ book isn’t just a condemnation of the state of the field, he provides concrete adjustments and changes that can be made to improve the quality of research being done, and shares the stories of those within the field who are working towards those ends. The emphasis here is that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As more and more researchers begin to deal honestly with the flaws of their research and seek solutions, the benefits for medical research, and for doctors and patients, will be profound.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

I’ve been a fan of Douglas Preston’s fictional work for years, so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to read one of his non-fiction titles, especially with how closely this fits within my own wheelhouse (my education is in anthropology, and Husband studied Maya archaeology).

Welcome to the jungles of the Mosquitia region on Honduras; an area so remote, large swathes of land have been untouched by humans for hundreds of years. The jungle is thick and forbidding, and venomous snakes, hungry jaguars, and deadly diseases have dissuaded most from exploring the region. But rumors persist. Rumors of a great white city (La Ciudad Blanca), filled with untold riches, brought low in ages past by hubris and curses. These tales of “the El Dorado of Central America” have inspired explorers (ahem, looters) since the time of Hernán Cortés to try to find the fabled city. Repeated failures, plus a good deal of hucksterism, relegated the city to the realm of fiction and myth.

Enter LiDAR, which uses pulsed laser beams to detect objects, and a filmmaker with an obsession.  LiDAR shows its capabilities when it is used to uncover a lost city in the Cambodian jungle, and filmmaker Steve Elkins elists it as the perfect way to prove or disprove the myth of the white city. When scans of the vast jungle reveal structures hidden in a remote and nigh-inaccessible valley, Douglas Preston accompanies a team of scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, etc., are choppered in to study the Lost City.

It sounds like the tag line to a thriller or an adventure story (and certainly could be the plot of one of Preston’s fictional books), but this really happened. Preston tells the story like an adventure novel, needing little embellishment to emphasize the danger and the excitement of journeying into an area uninhabited for centuries. In addition to the story of the lost city, Preston also provides the reader with a brief look at Honduras’ turbulent (frequently due to meddling by the United States) history.

In the book, Preston himself laments the difficulty in walking the line between writing for those without an anthropology background and making sure your work is culturally sensitive and avoids colonial overtones. Overall, Preston does well walking this line, despite the sensationalism of the book’s title. He discusses frankly the controversy surrounding the venture and does a wonderful job presenting an archaeological discovery in an interesting and accessible way. The book is also replete with information relevant to us in the present day. The Maya civilization (the word Mayan is used only for the language) vanished as an entity prior to the Spanish invasion. Instead, the culture was brought low by a combination of environmental degradation and societal inequality (sound familiar?).

In all, this book is a definite recommendation for any lover of history, anthropology, or Central American culture. But I think even the casual reader will find a lot to like in this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Lost City of the Monkey God will be available for purchase on January 3rd, 2017.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

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The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

The bloody, horrific battles of World War I ended in 1918, leaving battered nations and shattered families to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to continue on. As the 1920s began to roar, the Spiritualist movement, a pseudo-religion based upon making contact with the departed, came into prominence. The mediums who were the face of the movement offered reconnection with family and friends lost beyond the veil.

Into this tumultuous time period stepped two men, both rationalists at heart, yet destined to take very different paths through Spiritualism. The first was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle had lost his brother and cousin in the Great War, and his son to influenza shortly thereafter. Through several mediums, Doyle had managed to make convincing contact with his dead son and his brother, and hereafter became one of the most vocal proponents of the Spiritualist movement. The second man was Harry Houdini, world famous magician and escape artist. Houdini had never really recovered from the death of his mother years before, and had set out on a quest to speak with her again across the veil. Houdini’s trained eye and his experience with legerdemain exposed every medium he visited as nothing more than a fraud. Houdini would make it one of his life’s missions to expose fraudulent psychics.

The book focuses on the eponymous “Witch of Lime Street,” a woman named Mina Crandon. Unlike most psychics of the day, Mina was a member of the Boston Brahmin social elite, and pretty, vivacious, and charming. Multiple scientific researchers would declare her work genuine. Houdini’s quest to unmask her as a fraud would become an obsession.

This book is a well-written, immersive history of a fascinating period in American history. For the first time, modern scientific principles were being applied to old-school supernatural phenomena. Scientists and laymen were seeking the answer to the “ultimate quest”: could life after death be conclusively proven? Jaher handles the subject well, maintaining mystery while providing a scientific expose, no mean feat. Jaher used primary source material for most of the content of the book, and this shows in the vivid (and occasionally contradictory) portrayals of the major players.

I would highly recommend this book for any history buffs out there. But even for those who don’t usually take to nonfiction, Jaher’s writing is accessible and entertaining, making this a good pick for any interested in the subject matter.

A copy of this book was provided by Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. The Witch of Lime Street is currently available for purchase.

For more information about the book, click here

For more information on the author, David Jaher, click here

Book Review: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill


Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

 

You’ve read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and the like, yes? You’ve read any number of the countless mysteries, romances, and adventure stories that are set in the Victorian Era, yes? Well, Therese Oneill is here to answer the questions you didn’t even know you had. The questions you probably wouldn’t even admit to wondering about.

For example, how are you going to get dressed? What does your underwear look like? How do you answer nature’s call? How should you act on your wedding night? How do you keep you husband from bringing back syphilis when he’s out on the town? If you’ve ever wanted to know what Victorians used for toilet paper (LOTS of different things), what you would do when you got your period (try not to panic), what causes consumption (everything) and/or what causes hysteria (everything else, but especially your uterus), then this book is meant for you. Therese Oneill provides a deeply researched, richly detailed look at how women lived in the 19th century. Oh, and she’s hilarious to boot.

Oneill reminds me a great deal of Mary Roach. Her approach is thorough and scientific, but her focus is on those aspects of life generally (and purposefully) left out of the narrative. Oneill’s funny, irreverent tone is sometimes at odds with the subject matter (how easy it is to get committed to an insane asylum, just how limited your life will be, just how common marital infidelity is), but she tackles each subject with gusto, and in these more serious moments, we learn to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

This book is perfect for history buffs, for anyone in love with the era, or for the merely curious. I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. You will thoroughly enjoy this book, and you will learn a hell of a lot in the course of reading it.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Unmentionable will be available for purchase on October 25th, 2016.

 

 

Book Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

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Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ By Giulia Enders

 

“The gut is our body’s most underrated organ. This is its inside story.”

Gut is a rollicking ride through the vast organ that is the human digestive system. Enders takes us through the whole thing from top to, er, bottom, and from inside to out.

The book is similar in tone to Mary Roach’s book: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, but where Roach excels at going into the kooky culture behind the science, Enders gives us the low down on the anatomy and physiology of our most ignored organ (appropriate, as she is–at the time of this writing–a medical student). We move through the structure of the various components of the digestive system, on to the structure of the nervous system which services the gut, and make a nice little stopover with the microbiome: the bacterial cells living in our gut that outnumber our or human cells by 9 to 1.

Enders has that rare and precious gift: she is able to impart knowledge in an engaging manner. Many, many nonfiction writers would kill for her delivery. The entire book is written in a wry, accessible tone, making Gut the most fun your going to have with your colon for quite a while. In addition, the book is cunningly (and humorously) illustrated (by Jill Enders) throughout, treating us to images of ballerinas toe dancing on slices of cake, babies diving through a sea of bacteria while being born, and the immune system fitting bad bacteria with little hats, among many, many others.

Gut gives us the best of science writing. You will learn quite a bit while perusing this book, but you won’t realize it right away. I’m almost sad that Enders is seeking a career in medicine, I hope she’ll still find time for her writing; the world needs more books this fun.