Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book 28 – The Separation

By Christopher Priest

WARNING: this will contain spoilers, but with this unusual book, it won't much matter...

The novel begins harmlessly enough with a framing device - in 1999 historian Stuart Gratton embarks on research about these mysterious twin brothers with the family name Sawyer. It makes a point of saying how the historian is adopted. At some point, Stuart encounters Angela Chipperton, the daughter of one of the Sawyer brothers, who gives him copies of her father’s old journal notes.

But the meat of the novel is the back story of the twins Jack and Joe Sawyer. One is a WWII RAF pilot and the other is a conscientious objector. It doesn’t matter who is who since both are confused and get confused throughout the novel. Ok, fair enough. Also some historical facts about WWII are true while others are completely fabricated. Fine, I’m down with this alternate history stuff.

Now skip towards the end of the novel. I realized that Stuart Gratton is the illegitimate son of Jack Sawyer when Joe was having one of his alternate reality hallucinations, while Angela Chipperton was the product of another parallel universe. And then I realized Priest allowed two characters to exist in the same world when they shouldn’t. And then I went WTF? What the hell did I just read?

Thankfully I found this helpful essay by Paul Kincaid that really analyzes the structure of the novel and the author’s motive for creating such a complex, rug-pulling narrative by summing up in a simple sentence: It is not the narrators who are unreliable, but the worlds that they narrate.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed The Separation. Not only was it brilliantly written, but the nonlinear narrative, despite its elliptical surrealism, was quite absorbing and sucked me right in. But I must admit that Priest is a little too clever a writer for me. There is definitely a logic in how Priest deviates from narrative linearity and it’s a tribute to his skill that he can still maintain a connective suture with the reader, even if the reader doesn’t get everything. The amount of knowledge and detail in regards to WWII historical backdrop was a significant factor. But I lacked the patience and discipline to pay attention to the cues and clues that would have made the reading experience truly rewarding. And when I realized I should have been paying more attention, it was way too late, and I'm damn well not going to re-read the book to get my "oh yeah!".

For example, early in the novel there is a passage where after the Hamburg raid, Jack is driven from a convalescent hospital to a rehabilitation centre. About 300 pages later, Joe is riding in a Red Cross ambulance back to Manchester, but Priest recycles the earlier passage almost word for word. I would not have noticed this duplication at all if I had not found Kincaid’s essay! According to Kincaid, these parallel passages between Jack and Joe are one of a number of deliberate duplications where it may signal a time shift, or symbolize a developing crossover or overlap between the twin identities.

The essay further states “in a very important sense this is not a novel about separation but about unification.” The themes of separation and unification are constantly played out not just between the twin brothers, but between England and Germany, the motives of Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess, reality and non-reality, etc etc.

A very interesting and absorbing read this was, but The Separation ultimately lacked any emotionally satisfying resolution that usually comes with a more traditionally structured novel. My sentiments lie with what is outlined in this nicely pithy review as well as Olman’s review. Olman also points out that The Prestige is a much more satisfying read for unsophisticated empiricists like him since it lacks the twists and tricks of this book, so I would not hesitate in checking that out too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book 27 – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

By Matt Ridley

Ok, so this book was published way back in 1999. I especially like how on the final page the author makes a point of how this book will be out of date before it even gets published… and here I am reading it more than a decade later. That’s ok cuz I know next to nothing about genetics, and what little I know I’d forgotten in Biology 11. So really now I’m just a dozen years out of date as opposed to +20!

Genome is categorized as “popular science” but this doesn’t quite do it justice. Not only does Ridley explain scientific phenomena clearly and concisely for the average layperson, he also writes beautifully and eloquently. Even when describing homogentisate dioxygenase, a “boring gene, doing a boring chemical job in boring parts of the body, causing a boring disease when broken” it’s all quite fascinating. Right off the bat, he lays out what he wants to accomplish in Genome :

A coherent glimpse of the whole: a whistle-stop tour of some of the more interesting sites in the genome and what they tell us about ourselves. For we, this lucky generation, will be the first to read the book that is the genome. Being able to read the genome will tell us more about our origins, our evolution, our nature and our minds than all the efforts of science to date. It will revolutionize anthropology, psychology, medicine, palaeontology and virtually every other science.

This is not a book about the Human Genome Project –about mapping and sequencing techniques-but a book about what that project has found. Some time in the year 2000, we shall probably have a rough first draft of the complete human genome. In just a few short years we will have moved from knowing almost nothing about our genes to knowing everything.

He was right. The HGP completed this goal in April 2003. As the HGP website states: Though the HGP is finished, analyses of the data will continue for many years. And since I have a better understanding of genetics, I can see how the HGP will be busy for a while yet!

The bibliography is also impressively well laid out, including websites the author visited in order to get up to date information as he was writing his book. Not only does Ridley want to share the knowledge with his readers but encourages them to do research on their own, if they feel inspired to further their understanding. I can attest that as a non-sciencey layman, I have learned a good many neat things about genetics and how they play a part in the human condition. Here are just a few things that particularly struck me:

a) Ridley repeatedly states “genes are not there to cause diseases”. Read up on it if you want to find out more!

b) Genes don’t just work together but they can also conflict with each other, like a kind of battlefield between parental genes and childhood genes, or between male genes and female genes. This was “a little-known story outside a small group of evolutionary biologists. Yet it has profoundly shaken the philosophical foundations of biology.”

A quick google search of “genes in conflict” resulted in a recent scientific discovery that was published earlier this year in March:

Traits that help one sex can harm the other, resulting in conflicting evolutionary pressures on males and females…This battle of the sexes is thought to extend to the genetic level, with individual genes favoring one sex over the other. Some of the strongest evidence for these sexually antagonistic genes comes from studies showing that fruit fly lines with high reproductive success in one sex typically have low reproductive success in the other. Thus, if males in a particular line have many offspring, the females do not and vice versa.

The genes underlying this sexual tug-of-war, however, have been difficult to find. Now, Paolo Innocenti and Edward Morrow reveal this conflict's genetic basis by linking the expression of sexually antagonistic genes in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to the reproductive success of one sex at the expense of the other.

Pretty neat stuff! This goes to show that Ridley was onto something, since the theory of sexual antagonism as an important evolutionary force was open to debate in the 1980s, but it was only in the first decade of the 21st century that the subject has gained substantial attention.

c) I have wondered why people have different blood types and I’ve read articles about studies where men and women actually prefer the body odour of members of the opposite sex who are most different from them genetically. Since blood groups tend to be linked to cultural groups, this has not only provided insight into the history of human migrations, but since the 1990s they “promise understanding of how and why our genes are all so different. They hold the key to human polymorphism.” Ridley further states “Variation is an inherent and integral part of the human – or indeed any – genome”!

d) The fact that what we know as “personality” is to a considerable degree based on mere brain chemistry, in how our system manages serotonin levels. Romantics and spiritualists may cry “our behavior isn’t based on mere biological determinism!” and may never bother to delve any deeper than that since it’s easier to be in denial. But Ridley explains this does not mean, as it is usually assumed to mean, that our behaviour is socially immutable. Quite the reverse: our brain chemistry is determined by the social signals to which we are exposed. “Biology determines behaviour yet is determined by society.” He further clarifies by saying:

There are a score of different ways in which this one chemical, serotonin, can be related to innate differences in personality. These are overlaid on the score of different ways that the mind’s serotonin system responds to outside influences such as social signals. Some people are more sensitive to some outside signals than others. This is the reality of genes and environments: a maze of complicated interactions between them, not a one-directional determinism. Social behaviour is not some external series of events that takes our minds and bodies by surprise. It is an intimate part of our make-up, and our genes are programmed not only to produce social behaviour, but to respond to it as well.

e) “ … so close are the similarities between genes that geneticists can now do, almost routinely, an experiment so incredible that it boggles the mind. They can knock out a gene in a fly by deliberately mutating it, replace it by genetic engineering with the equivalent gene from a human being and grow a normal fly. The technique is known as genetic rescue. …Indeed, they work so well that it is often impossible to tell which flies have been rescued with human genes and which with fly genes.

This is the culminating triumph of the digital hypothesis with which this book began. Genes are just chunks of software that can run on any system: they use the same code and do the same jobs. Even after 530 million years of separation, our computer can recognize a fly’s software and vice versa. Indeed, the computer analogy is quite a good one.”

f) I have often wondered by different species of animals can have such different life spans. A trio of evolutionists separately put together the most satisfying account of the aging process: “Each species, it seems, comes equipped with a program of planned obsolescence chosen to suit its expected life-span and the age at which it is likely to have finished breeding. Natural selection carefully weeds out all genes that might allow damage to the body before or during reproduction… But natural selection cannot weed out genes that damage the body in post-reproductive old age, because there is no reproduction of the successful in old age… A mouse is unlikely to make it past three years of age, so genes that damage four-year-old mouse bodies are under virtually no selection to die out. Fulmars are very likely to be around to breed at twenty, so genes that damage twenty-year-old fulmar bodies are still being ruthlessly weeded out.” Well, how about that!

g) There is a little protein called P53 which is also known as ‘Guardian of the Genome’, or even the ‘Guardian Angel Gene’ because it regulates the cell cycle and plays a role in apoptosis, genetic stability (apoptosis is the suicide of cells and is Greek for the fall of autumn leaves – pretty ,no?). In fact, apoptosis is the most important of the body’s weapons against cancer, the last line of defence. But what’s interesting is that for a while, many people including specialists, did not fully understand how therapeutic cancer treatment worked against cancer. It’s only been quite recently that chemotherapy works not in killing cancer cells, but because it induces apoptosis by alerting P53 and its colleagues.

h) Instinct versus learning. “The two have little in common, or so the behaviourist school of psychology would have had us all believe during much of the twentieth century. But why are some things learnt and others instinctive? Why is language an instinct, while dialect and vocabulary are learnt? “ Ridley’s book explains very eloquently!

i) How baffling and unique these protein-y genes known as prions are. Prions cause neurodegenerative disease, such as BSE (aka mad cow disease) in cattle and CJD in people. They are not only not like viruses, they replicate in a protein-like manner that nobody quite knows how exactly, thus undermining one of the messages Ridley has been evangelizing throughout his book, that the core of biology is digital.

Here, in the prion gene, we have respectable digital changes, substituting one word for another, yet causing changes that cannot be wholly predicted without other knowledge. The prion system is analogue, not digital. It is a change not of sequence but of shape and it depends on does, location and whether the wind is in the west. That is not to say that it lacks determination. If anything, CJD is even more precise than Huntington’s disease in the age at which it strikes.

More than a decade later after the publication of Genome, not much more is known about prion disease. Yet Ridley holds nothing but humble respect for mysteries that cannot yet be explained by science, he is still able eloquently explain how:

Prions have humbled us with our ignorance. We did not suspect that there was a form of self-replication that did not use DNA—did not indeed use digital information at all. We did not imagine that a disease of such profound mystery could emerge from such unlikely quarters and prove so deadly. We still do not quite see how changes in the folding of a peptide chain can cause such havoc, or how tiny changes in the composition of the chain can have such complicated implications. As two prion experts have written, ‘Personal and family tragedies, ethnological catastrophes and economic disasters can all be traced back to the mischievous misfolding of one small molecule.’

Another reason that compelled me to read this book is my self-education on the science of evolution. Many of the theories Charles Darwin had were proven by genetic discoveries in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that for the first time, evolution became genetic. In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins wrote what many evolutionary biologists at the time were just starting to grasp: that evolution by natural selection was not much about competition between species, not much about competition between groups, not even most about competition between individuals, but was about competition between genes using individuals and occasionally societies as their temporary vehicles.

When scientists started reading the code for life, they found that each gene is far more complicated than it needs to be: it is broken up into many different chunks with “long stretches of random nonsense and repetitive burst of wholly irrelevant sense, some of which contain real genes of a completely different (and sinister) kind.” In fact, 97 per cent of the human genome does not consist of true genes at all, but rather “a menagerie of strange entities called pseudogenes, retropseudogenes, satellites, minisatellites, micrsatellites, transposons and retrotransposons, all collectively known as ‘junk DNA’, or sometimes, probably more accurately, as ‘selfish DNA’. Some of these are genes of a special kind, but most are just chunks of DNA that are never transcribed into the language of protein.”

Nobody predicted that when we read the code for life we would find it so riddled with barely controlled examples of selfish exploitation. Yet we should have predicted it, because every other level of life is parasitized. There are worms in animals’ guts, bacteria in their blood, viruses in their cells. Why not retrotransposons in their genes?

So what does it all mean then? I suppose nothing and everything, depending on how you want to look at it. Once more, Ridley brings it all home:

The truth is nobody is in charge. It is the hardest thing for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate, cleverly designed and interconnected systems that do not have control centres.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book 26 – The Incredible Journey

By Sheila Burnford

A good animal story is always welcome, and this 1960 Canadian classic is no exception. This little novel was quickly consumed in a day while I was sick at home with an early autumn viral attack. Not only that, it takes place as summer is transitioning to fall - perfecto! In case you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about three friends: an old pit bull terrier (Bodger), a Siamese cat (Tao) and a young Labrador retriever (Luath) who travel almost 300 miles of Ontario wilderness to find their long lost human family.

Their journey is indeed incredible in distance as well as hardship and adventure. But what I like best about the story is that the animals never “talk” to one another. They are just ordinary animals that communicate realistically with body language and vocalization. Burnford made the brilliant decision to simply describe the animals’ actions and emotions in her deceptively straightforward and naturalistic style.

Burnford is also very knowledgeable about the personality traits inherent in popular dog and cat breeds, yet she endows each animal character with unique characteristics and histories. And of course special attention is given to the royal lineage of the Siamese cat, my favourite! She also writes of the affection and camaraderie the animals have for one another with a genuine fondness that is never phony or saccharine. It’s obvious she’s a big dog and cat lover.

I never saw the 1963 Disney adaptation and I’m curious about it, but would never bother with the 1993 remake since they cop out with voicing the animal characters.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Book 25 – The Stepford Wives

By Ira Levin

There’s already been two movies based on this novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Published in 1972, Levin captured the zeitgeist of his time with this dark, satirical thriller. It’s been nine years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out and sparked a new wave of feminism in America. In 1969, Friedan helped organize the nation-wide Women's Strike for Equality and then in 1971, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus.

So it’s not surprising that Levin references Friedan a few times in his novel. The Stepford Wives is also a horror story about the extent of what certain men are willing to do to prevent women from taking away what they feel is theirs by right. Although there is no outright hatred toward women expressed by any of the male characters á la Stieg Larsson, the undercurrent of creepy misogyny is definitely felt throughout the book.

When Manhattan couple Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move into the quiet suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut, it seems they have timewarped back at least a decade. Walter and the kids seem to be happily adjusting to their new home, but for Joanna, there’s something about the Stepford community that isn’t quite right.

Hmm, could it be that the only thriving club in town is the men-only Men’s Association? How archaic is that? And why are all the housewives in the neighbourhood obsessive-compulsive housecleaners? And despite scrubbing floors well into the night how do they manage to look so perfectly coiffed and maintain their knockout figures? But what really makes Joanna suspicious is that none of the Stepford hausfraus are the least bit interested in forming a women’s club with her!

The Stepford Wives, in this day and age, does come across as a little simplistic and naïve. But I think the novel was quite successful when it came out, mostly because it hit the right note at the right time. The novel’s title even entered into the modern American lexicon where a Stepford wife is used to describe:

1.) a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband's bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.
2.) a wife who is cookie-cutter & bland in appearance and behavior, like an attractive robotic doll devoid of emotion or thought.

Hmm, with the cultural phenomena of Japanese men vacationing with and even marrying their $16,000 silicone sex dolls, perhaps Levin’s novel is not so archaic after all! In any case, it was an enjoyable story with a nice pace, tight structure, good characterization and a nicely ambiguous ending. Perfect for a movie adaptation - I may even check out the 1974 version some day (not so sure about the newer one).

P.S. this 1973 Fawcett paperback edition was acquired at a neighbour's garage sale for a whopping 25 cents.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book 24 – The Girl Who Played With Fire

By Stieg Larsson

Even though Chainon had $1 books out on the street for August Main Madness, I went inside for the non-discounted books anyway. At the end of the month, you never know if someone moving house will be offloading some books or what. My instincts proved right – I hit pay dirt – before my eyes lay a pristine paperback of The Girl Who Played With Fire as well as a hardbound of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Since I wasn’t interested in owning a hardcover, I just got the former. I would later regret this and become The Girl Who Kicked Herself For Not Getting The $4 Hardcover When She Coulda!

While still inside the thrift shop, two old ladies saw TGWPWF in my hand and had to comment on the fact that they have read all three Millenium books and how much they enjoyed them. The first was a francophone lady who worked there and she told me the books are “so much better than the movies” and the latter was an English visitor: “I love it when a book keeps me up all night!”

I mean, I liked The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo well enough, in a gripping and page-turning way, and enjoyed the parts where Lisbeth kicks some men-hatin' ass. But it was also at times cheesy and fantastical, and the themes too simplistically tied together. I guess I like my suspense to be more subtle and grounded in reality. That was part of the reason why I held off on getting the hardcover. Maybe I was in a better frame of mind, but TGWPWF proved to be ass-kickingly awesome! It helped that the 2nd book focuses on mysterious Lisbeth Salander instead of “Mikael fucking Blomkvist”, who thankfully beds only one new conquest this time instead of every frackin' female character that makes an appearance in the storyline.

Anyway, in the 2nd book, Larsson really fleshes out the character of Lisbeth as well as her entire back story. The novel starts off about a year later with Lisbeth vacationing in the Carribbean - alone of course. Larsson really takes his time describing Lisbeth’s almost day-to-day activities and has her involved in a murder-mystery side story that is not directly connected to any later events in the novel. In fact, that section could well be its own short story. When Lisbeth returns to Stockholm, there is a lot of detail about her apartment hunting and shopping for furniture and new car (since she’s now armed with Wennerström’s billions) in her methodical, calculated way. This may be deadweight to some, but I found this “Lisbeth makes a life for herself” section quite fascinating and in fact, this may be my favourite part of the book! I wonder if the two old ladies I met thought the same?

Soon enough, Lisbeth gets herself into trouble. Big Trouble with a capital T! I won’t say anything more, except that Larsson does a great job juggling the other characters and storylines to make it all mesh. And of course, he makes attacks on his favourite hot button issues, including the media machine à la Season 5 of The Wire.

I will repeat again the manner in which the novel ends really left me with bitter regret that I did not buy the 3rd book when I could have. Unlike the first book where everything was tied up neatly, the ending of TGWPWF really left my hanging! Damn I should’ve just gotten the hardcover!