Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kraken: the Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

Every time I've told people that I've been reading a book about squid and other cephalopods over the last few days, I've been met with weird looks.  "Why?" has been everyone's question.  And indeed, why choose to read Wendy Williams' Kraken: the Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid

My answer: research purposes.  I was interested in various cephalopods for a world-building project I'm working on, and so went looking for an adult book on them at the library.  Well, either the library or on Amazon.  Wherever I started, it led me to the library and Williams' book. 

Right from the beginning, I was hooked.  Williams' voice was perfect, keeping my interest with her facts, all the while weaving in the story of Julie Stewart's research of the Humboldt squid.  I'll admit, I was a bit worried that the science would overwhelm me (as I have felt in a couple of the books I have started reading but have yet to finish).  But luckily, high school biology seems to have come to my rescue (however I managed to remember this stuff is a bit of a mystery...), coupled with my more recent studies in psychology.  Between the two I managed to follow along rather well with the science of squid.

There were a few things that I found quite surprising.  While being very different from us, cephalopods (and squid in particular), have given us great incite into how our own brains work.  Even more impressive, much of this incite has come quite recently, the last forty or so years.  One squid, Loligo pealei, is a tiny creature with a very large axon; that axon is much bigger than a human axon, making it much easier to study.  Thanks to that squid, and stronger microscopes, we have been able to see exactly what happens within an axon.

But beyond the brain stuff, the whole book was filled with interesting things about cephalopods.  From their colour-changing skin to their puzzle-solving abilities, this was a perfect introduction to them for me (who had very little knowledge of them prior to reading this book).  My one issue is that I often had a hard time keeping the researchers straight - Williams went back and forth between them (and there's quite a lot of them)!  But other than that, I really enjoyed reading Kraken.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Blue Blazes

I saw Chuck Wendig's The Blue Blazes at work awhile ago.  I thought it sounded interesting, so rather than take it out at the library, I decided to buy it on my Kindle and read it at my leisure.  And after reading the No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs, I really wanted to read some fiction; while I have lots to choose from, in the end I decided on the Blue Blazes.

The Blue Blazes is the story of Mookie Pearl, a mountain of a man.  He's part of the New York Organization, the mob that controls, among other things, Cerulean, aka the Blue Blazes.  Cerulean is one of the five pigments rumoured to be in the underworld.  And the underworld is below New York City; years ago the Sandhogs blasted into it while building tunnels, revealing a world of gobbos and the like.  Those in the know struggle to keep the underworld out of our world, all the while grabbing Cerulean for themselves.  You see, Cerulean has some unique properties: it allows you to see the gobbos and other creatures for what they really are; it also allows you to find more Cerulean.

So anyway, Mookie Pearl.  His world falls apart when his Boss announces he's dying of cancer.  To make matters worse, his daughter is stirring up the pot, talking the other gangs into going against the Organization now that the Boss is weak.  And just when things seem bad, all hell breaks loose, leaving Mookie in the middle and unsure where to turn.

A really neat touch is that, at the beginning of each chapter, there are scraps from the journals of John Atticus Oakes, the self-styled Cartographer of the Great Below.  His journal entries tell of his adventures mapping the underworld and searching for the other four pigments.  I thought these were a really neat touch, and I always looked forward to reading them.

But overall I had a really hard time connecting with the story.  I liked a lot of the characters, but something about the book just didn't keep me interested, especially in the first half of it.  I was originally thinking it was the writing style, as this is the first book by Wendig that I've read.  But I came across a review on Amazon where the reviewer said that they liked his other books, but had a hard time connecting with The Blue Blazes.  I also came across an interview with Wendig, where he says the "hardest thing for me was that this book was very, very worldbuildy [...] The trick was to not let the worldbuilding be the story driver."  After having read that, I actually think that was the biggest problem about the book: the story didn't seem to really get going until around halfway through the book, quite possibly because of all the worldbuilding that needed to be crammed in.  But I am glad I actually finished The Blue Blazes, rather than stopping halfway through.  As I said, the characters were all rather interesting (particularly Mookie) and the story took some interesting turns.

Monday, February 10, 2014

No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs

Dan S. Kennedy's No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs, Second Edition, was brand new at the library last week.  I saw it and thought it sounded interesting.  So I took it out and started reading.

As the title suggests, Kennedy offers a lot of useful tips for entrepreneurs to manage their time wisely.  Many of his ideas may seem radical and counter-intuitive in ways, such as advocating that you set your own rules for other people to respect - if they refuse, then you may not want to do business with them.  Likewise, you should eliminate people he dubs "Time Vampires" from your life.  At the beginning of the book, Kennedy says that you might not want to use all of his methods, and that is fine as it is your life.  But his methods have worked for him and the countless other people who have used them, so it's probably worth a shot to try them.

That being said, I very quickly found I didn't like Kennedy's writing style.  I don't know how many times he would tell you to check out the discussion from one of his other books rather than actually discussing whatever point he's making.  He also constantly advocated for services and methods from his friends and clients.  All of this made me feel like he was constantly trying to sell me something; I really resented it.

So all in all, I thought this book was okay for the time management tips, but I disliked it because of the writing.  If you're an entrepreneur who is looking for help getting to the next level, you'll probably find this book rather helpful.  But I'm sure there are other books on time management out there that aren't trying to sell you things as you read.  Unfortunately I cannot recommend anything because this is the first such book that I've read.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

Both my brother and mom recommended that I read Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  Bauby had a stroke and was almost completely paralyzed; all he was able to move was his left eyelid.  And so he did the impossible: he managed to write a book about his experiences being locked inside his body. Bauby's speech therapist, Sandrine, is the one who set up his means of communicating with the world.  She laid out the alphabet with the letters in order depending on their frequency of use within the French language; you read off the alphabet and Bauby blinks when you get to the letter he wants.  Through this labourous process, Bauby was able to write this book with the help of an editor, Claude Mendibil.  While the premise was very interesting, I admit I was somewhat skeptical: would the book be as good as my family made it out to be?

The answer was a resounding "yes."  Despite his condition, Bauby makes the best of his situation.  Sure, at times he is angry, or sad at what can no longer be.  But as he says, "I am alive, I can think, and no one has the right to deny me these two realities." His attitude brought to mind an essay I recently read by David Garrett on excuses for writing; Bauby was clearly one of the people, like T.I. and Bruce Dickinson, who don't make excuses and accomplish amazing things in life.  Things that many of us think we "don't have time for."

Bauby's observations and memories really pull you along, making The Diving Bell and the Butterfly a hard book to put down.  His writing is beautiful, but even more beautiful is the sense of appreciation for life that the book instills in you after reading it.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a short book (I managed to read it in under three hours).  But it really is the type of book that everyone should read.  While I do not yet own a copy, I am hoping to get one: this is the book I want on hand to reread if I should ever feel hopeless and depressed because it will make me appreciate that things aren't as bad as they may seem, and that you can always make the best of your lot in life.