Tag Archives: non-fiction

Read: A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg


A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg is a non-fiction book that explains CRISPR cas-9 and its potential societal uses as well as implications. I first learned about this book after catching a tv broadcast with an extended interview with Doudna. Having heard about CRISPR in passing, the interview intrigued me and her succinct, easy-to-understand descriptions made me want to read her book which was being released soon.

While a non-fiction science book about genetics, the overall tone reads more like a narrative than dry facts. Since her career dovetails well with the emergence of gene editing and her role in its popularity, she and her co-author tell the story from her point of view, adding in additional information about what others were doing around the world for the same endeavor, as appropriate. The narration certainly makes it a much more readable book, despite its technical scientific topic. By presenting the science within a story, the content is approachable.

Also, briefly, the writing style is simple and straight-forward, making what could be an otherwise complicated topic easier to understand. The authors employ a wide variety of smilies, as well, in order to ensure that the reader comprehends the science. The clearly wanted everyday people, regardless of their familiarity with science, to read and discuss their book and the potentials and pitfalls of gene editing.

So, what is gene editing? It is the new method to make changes to anyone or any living things’ genetic code that controls traits. Previously, gene splicing (using the genetic code from one living creature to change another’s) was the leading technology. Gene editing can use one’s own genetic code with greater accuracy, ease, and less cost. Due to this, the field of scientists testing CRISPR cas-9 for gene editing has exploded in the past few years alone, and along with it comes amazing potential and worrying detriment depending how this technology is used.

The book itself is divided into two part: the tool and the task. The first part covers all of the technical science behind CRISPR cas-9 and gene editing. It is also the main story, covering Doudna’s career and the rise of gene editing. While it is dense at times, it is well written and not too overwhelming although it does have some jargon since it is difficult to get away from it entirely; but again, the authors explain the terms and procedures well.

The second part enumerates the potential benefits and pitfalls in four chapters that cover uses in food supply (both plants and livestock), medical treatments and elimination of certain conditions, risks and ethics, and finally the concern about abuse of the technology and unknown damage to society and humanity as a whole. The last two chapters begin to tease out a very important distinction when talking about gene editing: somatic versus germline editing. Basically, one of the main debates is where to edit just one person’s genes, such as with a cancer treatment, or to edit germ cells which is inheritable by future generations so that, say, everyone born with the edited gene already never gets that cancer. While gene editing is precise and very accurate, it is still an unknown as to what may happen by changing a gene for future generations or even introducing a gene to mosquitoes that would make them unable to reproduce and kill them off as a species so that they could no longer infect anyone with diseases. Another use could be creating “designer babies” with the exact traits and gender desired by the parents, or at least correcting particular genes to prevent certain conditions before they could develop. Gene editing is very powerful and could do great good or harm, depending on how it is used.

The authors intend this book to spark discussion among society, since they believe if and how gene editing with CRISPR cas-9 is used should be a collective decision. Whether or not that actually happens as more and more scientist explore the possibilities and companies see the money-making potential in this technology is another question.

Recommended?: Yes! I am certain that as testing continues, the general public will be told more and more about this incredible technology. This book is an excellent introduction to it and lays out a lot of information and questions to consider. If nothing else, it is very good food for thought. I wasn’t sure where I stood exactly and even after reading this book, I am still not sure. More to ponder as the technology continues to develop.

A crack in creation: gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution book cover


Pick your poison medium: Lore by Aaron Mahnke


Lore by Aaron Mahnke began as a podcast in March 2015. With booming success of the audio version, this year Lore has expanded to the visual medium as an Amazon mini-series and written medium as two books. Considering just how much research goes into each story, it is certainly wonderful that Mahnke is expanding Lore to these other mediums. There are also live shows, if you are lucky enough to live in or near a city on the tour. If you have never heard of Lore, you are now able to pick your poison medium and enjoy it however you prefer.

Lore is a combination of folklore, ghost stories, murder, and of course uncertainty. Mahnke, along with his researcher, relies on history as the basis for the tales that he tells. Some have more evidence and hard facts, while others are only supported by hearsay and speculation. All of the stories are told with as many details as possible with the atmosphere of a scary story.

As a podcast, each episode of Lore has a theme with a main story and a couple of related ones, made all the more spooky with music and sound effects. Plus, Mahnke’s voice and pacing adds another level of creepiness, making it all the more enjoyable. It’s the type of podcast that makes the listener lean in, captivated by each word especially because of such a great storyteller.

The first of the book series, which currently seems to be just two books, The world of Lore: monstrous creatures was published on October 10th, 2017. Borrowing a copy of the library, I couldn’t wait to dig into more Lore. What I didn’t realize beforehand, though it makes sense now, is that the podcast has largely contributed to the book. For most people, this won’t be an issue but having listened to every single episode of the podcast, the stories in the book were all to familiar to me. Although there is “additional content”, it’s not specified what that is and after skimming through the book, I didn’t feel like reading it. However, the few illustrations that are included are certainly gorgeous. Set to come out on May 29th, 2018, the second book in the series is titled The world of Lore: wicked mortals. It’s an interesting division of the stories: vampires, ghosts, and Robert the Doll, etc., in one volume and the murderous, fiendish humans in the second. If I wasn’t such an avid listener and lover of the podcast, these would be great reads.

If neither the podcast nor the books suit your fancy, you can get your feet wet with the Lore mini-series that began streaming on Amazon on Friday October 13th, 2017. They couldn’t have picked a better release date! Once again, many popular tales from the podcast were reused for the tv show but the visuals they use are stunning and creative. It’s a mixture of hand-drawn, stylized animation, historical documents and photos, and of course live-action acting. At first, I wasn’t sure about it, again still loving the podcast best, but each episode is very well-done and truly brought to life as a tv show. Granted, I skipped the one about the history of lobotomy because that was eerily enough as a podcast episode, I enjoyed the rest of them. My favorite of the six is the “Passing notes” episode about the Spiritualist movement, although “Black stockings” about Irish changelings is a close second. While the podcasts for these stories are good, something about the acting and additional visuals makes them even more chilling. Plus, Mahnke still does the narration so it contains his atmospheric nature too. I am sure that he will get a season 2 with Amazon–let’s just hope it’s sooner than later!

Recommended?: Yes! For history lovers, scary story fans, and anyone who enjoys great storytelling. Some tales might give you a fright and question the creaks in your home but for the most part they shouldn’t keep you from missing too much sleep. A handful are a bit gruesome, detailing murders or medical procedures, but there aren’t too many of those. For the most part, they feel like campfire tales, or the inspiration for the original Grimm fairytales, macabre in nature more than anything else. Despite October being over, do yourself a favor and pick your poison medium for Lore and enjoy–just maybe not alone in the dark.

Read: The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates by Wes Moore


The other Wes Moore: one name, two fates is a fascinating that is part memoir and part biography about two men from Baltimore growing up at the same time with the same name. As the subtitle suggests, their lives diverge and are polar opposites despite their oddly similar beginnings.

The audiobook is read by the author himself, which makes the story even interesting. It is a great way to enjoy the book since Moore does a wonderful job of reading and has great dynamics and intonation. Listening as an audiobook also adds more emotion to the story since there are many difficult times and passages for both men.

Despite having eerily similar family situations and starting environments, each Wes Moore makes decisions early on that set them on different paths but it isn’t until middle/high school that their lives become set. The author could have ended up like the other Wes Moore if his mom hadn’t made drastic changes and stretched their financial resources to ensure that his life was better than hers. He was sent to military school that in fact straightened him out whereas the other Wes Moore didn’t have the same opportunities and his mom struggled to support their family so like his brother he began dealing drugs to make copious amounts of money and couldn’t quit it for good then ended up in prison after a robbery was interrupted. Clearly environment as well as nurture played important roles in shaping both of their lives, for better and worse.

This is another timely book even though it is several years old. In a way, it reminds me somewhat of Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and is a good pair to it.

Recommended?: Yes, for anyone who enjoys a memoir and is interested in reading about two very different lives of black men from Baltimore. It is a serious book but there is a lot to learn from it and certainly worth a read.


Read: March: book one by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell


Continuing the trend of graphic novels, I recently finished reading Congressman John Lewis‘ March: book one. Lewis played a large role in the civil rights movement and marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This book is part of a trilogy and the final one was published earlier this summer.

March: book one takes place on inauguration day on January 20th, 2009, as Lewis ready himself in his office for President Obama’s swearing in. However, it’s only the backdrop of this first book, as most of the action takes places during Lewis’ childhood and the start of the civil rights movement. The story ends in April 1960 and in the present, Lewis just leaves his office to head outside for the ceremony.

Similar to Maus and Persepolis, March uses the form of the graphic novel as a conduit for the serious and often violent history of the civil rights movement. It’s a great medium for showcasing important scenes in a visual form, with concise story and dialogue to explain. This makes for an accessible, inviting read for what could be an otherwise dense and detailed non-fiction book. Perhaps this way it will attract more readers and hopefully younger ones who likely don’t know about the history or don’t know much of it. 

With a trilogy, the story is allowed more time to develop. For this first book, while it spans many years of Lewis’ personal history as well as the beginning of the civil rights, not much happens. This book feels like it’s just getting started as it wraps up. The end feels too abrupt but then again, the subtitle conveys that there will be future books. As a stand alone, it feels incomplete although they seem to have done a good job with it. 

Recommended?: Yes but I have a feeling that all three books will need to be read together. This book covers Lewis youth and the Woolworth lunch counters demonstrations along wth Rosa Parks. It’s really the tip of the iceberg but the story and sketches are so well done. I can’t wait to read the next two!
March graphic novel cover

Read:  Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Everyone has something to say about Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. At the time of this post, just Googling the title turned up mostly book reviews and interviews with the author, all from different websites and publications. It seems that the awareness of shootings is at an all-time media high, based on my own perceptions, that paired with several high-profile deaths of young black men shot for little to no reason, Coates’ short book arrived at an opportune time for a world craving answers, or at least a dialogue about why these particular incidents were still prevalent. I heard about the book from an interview with the author on the podcast This American Life and in the episode, Coates’ friend talks with him about their drifting away from each other as Coates’ fame grew.

So, I checked out a copy from the public library and was shocked at its size–the book is a squat and thin, like a small coffee table book. However, despite its lack of size, it packs a punch. The book is actually a candid letter to his son, who is 14 I believe, about the cruelty and unfair assumptions made still today about black men. He is both reluctant and anxious to share his knowledge and direct experiences with his son, not wanting to perpetuate the cycle and hold him back with the ideas of restrictions but yet being driven to ensure that his son understands the depths of the dark side of the world and the American historical contexts as a way to explain the skewed view and violence of black boys and men today. While life today in America is better in many ways, the dark past and habits remain ever below the surface and still arise.

While the topic is difficult to read about, especially since a black father is unveiling the reality of America to his son as to what it is like to live as a black man with everyone watching you all of the time, assessing, and judging you, Coates is a wonderful storyteller which gives the book an easy flow. Do not mistake this for saying that the book is a fun, quick read. It’s neither. But that makes it an even more important and impressive work. It is emotionally charged and taxing to read at times, making it potent and forcing the reader to address the issues Coates warns his son about.

Though it is only 150+ pages, and the book is half-sized remember, I had to put it down frequently because it made me so sad to read. As a woman, I too think about my surroundings and what ifs, so on some levels his stories and incidents that he experienced resonated with me but his fears cut much deeper and consistently with sometimes constant worry, from the sounds of it, whereas mine are occasional and fleeting, situational instead of engrained. For this reason, I had to return the book after a month and could not check it out again, since everyone wanted to read it. So, I waited a few months for my turn with the eBook and made myself finish it before it expired. I am so glad that I did.

Recommended?: Yes. Everyone and I mean everyone, especially all Americans, should read this book. In fact, it should be required reading. The content is adult, as Coates do not shy away from describing the brutal, violent American treatment of black people. Some passages here and there may be too much for high schoolers but if allowed, this could be a great book for discussion, especially with today’s unfortunate current events. All adults not in high school, though, need to spend the brief time reading this book and considering their actions in the world. There are many endearing and heartwarming passages, as this is a letter to his son, and will also warm your heart with his fatherly love for and efforts to protect of his son.

Read: Joseph Anton: a memoir by Salman Rushdie


In a recent episode of the Dinner Party Download podcast, Salman Rushdie confided that he was tired of being asked about the fatwa and that after publishing the memoir, he doesn’t really get any questions about it now. It’s true, the 650+ pages of  Joseph Anton: a memoir by Salman Rushdie cover the minute details of his life, or lack of one, during the height of the fatwa. After reading it, there is certainly nothing more that I need, or want, to know about that time in his life; if anything, it was TMI (too much information) but then again that was the point.

The book spans from Valentine’s Day, 1989 to year 2001 in which attention shifted from the individual focus on Rushdie to worldwide discussions on terrorism. The Guardian has many articles curated about Rushie and the fatwa, including an article from the day after it was made. For the entire course of those 12 years, Rushdie was under the constant watch and protection of the British government and for much of that time was restricted in his travels, even being banned from certain airlines as they feared the unknown of carrying him.

To start off, even though this is a memoir, Rushdie writes about himself in the third person. Initially this seemed very stuffy and self-grandising, however, to remain hidden he did have to take on a persona and was deemed “Joe” by the officers protecting him so he decided on the name Joseph Anton so that he could set up accounts and still conduct business and pay bills while not raising concern. For the most part, once the reader gets used to this point-of-view, it is easy enough to follow although it gets a little confusing at parties or with other scenes in which “he” could apply to another person; Rushdie constantly uses either first or full names for other people so “he” usually refers to himself (Rushdie). Maybe distancing himself from his hidden persona made it easier for him to write about but part of me just wanted Rushdie to use first person for a more intimate read and experience–although I’m not sure how much more intimate it could have been considering how detailed he is in his nearly day by day accounting of the events. For me, it constantly felt like he was writing about someone else and not himself due to the use of third person which wasn’t as satisfying as if he would have used first.

The tone of the memoir is mainly journalistic and factual but there are times, either about particular topics or people, in which Rushdie’s anger is evident but that probably shouldn’t be too surprising after all that he went through for so long. At times, he was discouraged from speaking out or in defense of himself while others continued to criticize his writing and denounce him. This book was his outlet to set the record straight by telling his complete side of the story, finally.

Despite the long-windedness of some of the passages, or the rattlingly off of famous people whom he wined and dined with when he was allowed during this trying years (many of whom helped protect him and champion him), Rushdie’s writing style shines though here and there throughout the book, especially at the end. I think of him as a descriptive writer who is able to capture an essence in a poignant sentence or paragraph, packaging a gem of knowledge in an often wondrous sentiment. It is more pronounced in his works of fiction, obviously, since this focuses on a different sort of narrative and story. He wanted it to be true to his experience, rooted in reality, and he certainly pulled it off.

I have met Mr. Rushdie twice, once in undergrad and once at a library conference. At ALA, I had him sign my paperback copy of The Satanic Verses with a bookmark two-thirds in. He remarked, “People still are reading this.” In Joseph Anton, he discusses at length how difficult it was to get the paperback published, how it took years, so I appreciate my copy much more now knowing its history and struggle that went into printing it.

Recommended?: For those who are fans of Rushdie or anyone curious about his time during the height of the fatwa threat. The last chapter, which covers 2001, becomes more of an essay on the changing of the world at that time and the pivot of the event of 9/11 for everyone. The part that truly impresses me is that Rushdie was able to recover and continue writing his novels even while the threat was still looming. His book Fury was published on September 11, 2001 oddly enough and due to the events that day, came to have more meaning and nostalgia than he had meant for it. I have wanted to read more of Rushdie and I think Fury will be my next of his.  

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie book cover 

Read: Every love story is a ghost story: a life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max


I’ll be honest, this book took me a long time to get through. It was a marvelous, meticulous, fascinating read that was also dense and complex. A work to steep oneself in, taking the time to truly understand the literary life along with the personal path of David Foster Wallace (DFW). Or, to put it a different way, reading it any faster would have fried my brain with the overload of details and tangents that entangle the entire book. To offer D.T. Max the highest compliment, Every love story is a ghost story: a life of David Foster Wallace, reads like DFW’s Infinite jest, with beautiful, jam-packed sentences, ever-moving story and scenes, and the requisite multitude of jarring and subdued endnotes that keep the reader flipping back and forth to break up the reading experience. Nicely done, Max, nicely done! This biography masqueraded as fiction most of the time, as it was so well-crafted and focused on telling a rich tale, which I loved because I am not typically a fan of non-fiction.

This sense of familiarity between Max with DFW creates a closeness for readers, taking us on the life and literary journey as it is told. The literary portion entwines with the biographical details to show that both inform each other for DFW, which feels genuine and likely the truth for DFW. We sit with him in his apartment, walls covered in written passages of his current writing endeavor along with his correspondence with author friends, as he struggles to work and his dogs run a-muck. We contemplate with him about the influence and inspiration of other writing on his own. Having not read all of DFW’s works that Max discusses, I felt like I missed out on the insight of Max’s literary criticisms for those works. For the portion about DFW writing and publicizing Infinite Jest I felt much more connected to the story, having read that work. Max has an amazing ability to succinctly interpret and offer profound criticism of DFW’s writing in powerful sentences that hint at a depth below the surface comment. This became apparent to me during this portion, so I want to now read other DFW works and re-read corresponding passages in this book to understand them both better.

Max conveys DFW in all of his complexity, which I appreciate because I completely changed the image of DFW in my mind from very little about what I actually knew about him. DFW struggled in many aspects of life, even with his writing, but he forever strived to be better, remain sober, and a genuine person. His personal change and growth during his lifetime is incredible and he shared his lessons with anyone he could, including young writings who were as idealistic and cocky as he had been. Max provides a clear, factual, and balanced perspective on DFW and his life, which is refreshing because it never becomes emotional nor feels distant. It is as if we are living life along with DFW and that is the sign of a true writer, when they fade from the pages and the reader is caught up in the writing and people.

The biography is crafted as if it was written by a close friend or even sibling, and in a few instances as if by DFW himself due to the amount of insight and deep knowledge not only about what DFW’s personal history but also his inner thoughts and feelings. Throughout reading this, I believed that Max and DFW knew each other very well, however, Max admits in the first sentence of his acknowledgments at the end of the book that he never actually met DFW, merely saw him once from afar. That makes this biography all the more profound and stunning, since 5 of the 6 pages of acknowledgements list the names of everyone who knew DFW well and contributed stories, letters, notes, and personal history about then man that they loved and admired, despite the likely pain and sadness that the remembrances caused even a couple of years after his suicide. Max represents DFW’s personal struggles matter-of-factly and builds subtly towards what could be an emotional, dramatic climax but Max resists sensationalism, ending simply and plainly with great respect for DFW and his work.

Recommended?: For those who love DFW, are interested in learning more about him and his life, anyone wanting to read his work but hasn’t yet (as this is a good taste of what he and it is like), and fans of biographies or literary criticism. Okay, let’s through in aspiring, or current, writers since this is a well-written book and DFW offers much advice throughout. If you enjoy and can finish this biography, you are ready for Infinite Jest. Keep in mind, both require two bookmarks (one for endnotes in the back).