Traveling book reviews

I was away last week on a trip to Finland to talk some nice people into using my super awesome software…. I may have phrased it differently to them. I also found time on that busy trip to be quite irritatingly ill so I apologise for missing my blog post last week. But I’m home again and on drugs, so back to business as normal.

Something I have never got on well with while travelling, is work. I know some people who rely on travel time to get paper or thesis review work done, but I’m not that guy. For me, travelling is the last remaining opportunity I get in my busy life to read a book.

So to go with the nice week of book reading I’ve just had, I thought I’d write up a couple of recommendations of books I’ve previously read and now think everyone else should read!

The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

the immortal life of henrietta lacks
Confession: I cried while reading this book

This book is odd to describe as it’s really a true story about a true story. The book is  primarily about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cancer cell line is responsible for most of today’s modern medicine. But this story is told through Rebecca Skloot’s quest to find out more about Henrietta, her family and give a modern context for the story.

The book is pretty dark at times and reflects the darkness in both the story of Henrietta and its continuing effect on her relatives – and particularly, on Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. But for every dark chapter of the story, Rebecca also manages to show the warmth and humanity behind the people trying to correct past mistakes and the family who has suffered from them.

I strongly support more openness in science and more accountability for misconduct and this book is a shining example of not allowing a shameful moment in science to be brushed under the carpet. Rebecca doesn’t call for revolution or promise to fix all the  wrongs, but she does expertly shine a big bright light on a story that should not be forgotten.

But I have always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors. Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime. I used to get so mad about that to where it made me sick and I had to take pills. But I don’t got it in me no more to fight. I just want to know who my mother was.

A User’s Guide to the Brain – John J Ratey

A User's Guide To The Brain
This cover should have had ‘Don’t Panic’ stamped on the front

The title of this book pretty much describes its content perfectly. This is a great pop. science book which requires no prior knowledge or reading materials, and is a fascinating insight into mental health research, neurology and what makes all of us occasionally say ‘penguin’ (that last bit might just be me).

A User’s Guide to the Brain is a discussion of various peculiarities of the human brain, told through some intriguing real life cases. Often what we know about the brain comes from people who for a variety of reasons, have problems or differences which provide insight into what we use our brain for.

The best example I have from the book is the story of Temple Grandin who has autism, and was determined to mitigate parts of her condition. She spent hours at a supermarket using the door sensor to help her judge how close she should get to people when talking to them (something that many autistics struggle with). I find this kind of outside the box solution fascinating and John Ratey helps explain the context and background around this kind of clever solution to a problem and why this can tell us things about the way the brain works.

There are more possible ways to connect the brain’s neurons than there are atoms in the universe. The connections guide our bodies and behaviours, even as every thought and action we take physically modifies their patterns.

Just a Geek – Wil Wheaton

Just a Geek
Intensely staring Wil Wheaton commands you to buy this book!

When I read Wil’s book I have to confess that it definitely got extra points by being the right book at the right time. This last year I have been struggling with job applications (a problem now doubly solved), getting to grips with running this blog, and having my second child. Wil’s book focuses on a time in his life when he was struggling with his acting career, dealing with step-kids and starting to discover his love of blogging and writing. Which is a pretty close parallel to my last 12 months. Seriously, reading it was eerie.

The book is a kind of autobiography, interspersed with his early blog posts – which he uses to highlight what he was going through at the time. It chronicles Wil’s attempt at an acting career after Star Trek, and his struggles with being not quite the right person for the job. Along side this Wil, describes the trials and tribulations of starting a blog, his desire for comments and feedback, as well as his thoughts of expanding into writing books (something I hear he is now quite good at).

I have to confess, while I knew of Wil Wheaton (I’m a bit of a TNG fan) up til reading his book, I’d never really seen anything else of his. I read the book pretty much at random because it was in a humble Ebook bundle I had bought, but I was surprised to get totally sucked in – and even more surprised to find it really touching. I think everyone feels a bit crushed after job rejections and Wil is very good at making it clear that you are not alone in feeling crappy about it.

I waited for three days – without my wife, step kids, or even my dog for company – for the call to come that I hadn’t booked the jobs. When it did, I took sardonic pleasure in the knowledge that, for once, I didn’t even come in second.

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