Winged Obsession by Jessica Speart – Book Review

Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler by Jessica Speart
Published by William Morrow Paperback, an imprint of HarperCollins

As a new agent at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, Ed Newcomer is determined to make a name for himself and thus is initially disappointed when his first major assignment has to do with butterfly smuggling. Bugs? Really? He can’t be assigned to protect bald eagles or something? Quickly, though, Newcomer realizes that this could be a very major case, that Hisayoshi Koshima, the man he is investigating, is perhaps the world’s top smuggler of butterflies and might just be a target that Ed can take down. From there, the story gets increasingly strange, as Ed finds himself pulled into Yoshi’s butterfly smuggling world and works to build a case against him.

Winged Obsession is a very interesting work of narrative nonfiction and a fascinating peek inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency. The story seems to falter a bit early on, mostly because the writing is not initially as smooth as it might be, but Speart is a good enough storyteller that before too long her narrative takes over and the reader becomes enmeshed in Newcomer’s fight to stop Koshima’s devastating trade in butterflies while at the same time trying to hold together his marriage. Particularly interesting is the look at how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency operates and just how much they try to do on a tiny budget. The budgetary constraints tie the hands of the agents frequently, Newcomer had trouble even getting set up with an undercover cell phone for his operation.

Although the writing is slightly weak initially, Speart is quickly able to draw the reader into her story of high-stakes butterfly trading. Her research was thorough, which helps bring the story vividly to life. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina – Book Review

Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five by John Medina
Published by Pear Press

As a (now former) teacher and a math/science nerd, my husband has a significant fascination with brain-based learning research, thus it was only natural that he read John Medina’s Brain Rules, followed by his Brain Rules for Baby. When we found out that we are expecting this summer (before we learned that we are expecting twins), he pulled Brain Rules for Baby off of his shelf and stuck it at the top of my TBR pile, then proceeded to pester me about it any time he saw me reading anything else at all.

Here’s the publisher’s description of exactly what the book is about:

What’s the single most important thing you can do during pregnancy? What does watching TV do to a child’s brain? What’s the best way to handle temper tantrums? Scientists know.

In his New York Times bestseller Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina showed us how our brains really work—and why we ought to redesign our workplaces and schools. Now, in Brain Rules for Baby, he shares what the latest science says about how to raise smart and happy children from zero to five. This book is destined to revolutionize parenting. Just one of the surprises: The best way to get your children into the college of their choice? Teach them impulse control.

Brain Rules for Baby bridges the gap between what scientists know and what parents practice. Through fascinating and funny stories, Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and dad, unravels how a child’s brain develops – and what you can do to optimize it.

I am very conflicted as to how I felt about Brain Rules for Baby. On the one hand, it is full of fascinating and potentially helpful information for parents to understand how their children’s brains work and how their choices can influence their children’s brain development. On the other hand, it often comes off as if Medina is talking down to parents and Holy Mother of Metaphors is it ever overwritten. As far as the talking down, I don’t think that this was a purposefully disparaging move on Medina’s part. As a developmental molecular biologist he clearly needed to phrase things in layman’s terms to make it accessible to most parents, but I think he underestimated the education of parents who would be interested in a book on brain-based learning and parenting and often oversimplified or over-explained.

The overwriting may also be a symptom of Medina’s not knowing exactly how to approach the audience of this book. The main problem with his prose (there may have been others, but this one drove me so to distraction that it was all I could do at times to glean the important information he was presenting, syntax and the like were beyond me at that point) is his severe overuse on metaphors. There is a general, overarching gardening metaphor that in and of itself could be quite useful, and might of been had he primarily stuck to that. Instead, he seemed to just use whatever metaphor presented itself first for any general topic – at times I counted up to four discrete metaphors on a single page. In addition, many of the metaphors used are not particularly edifying, but instead add an additional layer that needs parsing, such the explanation, below, of the workings of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex:

This is oversimplified, but think of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex as the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco (emotions) to its northern neighbor, Marin County (just the facts, Ma’am). Here’s how some scientists think the traffic generally flows:

  1. An emotional reaction occurs. When a child’s brain is confronted with a moral dilemma, San Francisco is alerted first. The child’s deep, mostly unconscious circuitry generates an emotional reaction – a Post-it note.
  2. The signal is carried across the bridge. That message is spirited across the VMPFC, the cellular Golden Gate connecting lower and higher centers of the brain.
  3. Fact centers analyze it and decide what to do. The signal arrives at the neuroanatomical equivalent of Marin County. The child’s brain reads the note and makes up its mind about what to do. It judges right from wrong, critical from trvial, necessary from elective, and ultimately lands upon some behavioral course of action. The decision is executed.
    – p. 233-234

That reference to a Post-it note comes from a metaphor Medina utilizes earlier in the chapter. I really think he’s making this much wordier and more complicated than it needs to be. Perhaps he feels that the metaphor makes it easier to remember, which might be the case if they were used sparingly and if they were much simpler, but in this case it simply distracted me from what he was really trying to get across.

Now, I don’t want the writing issues to completely overshadow the fact that Brain Rules for Baby really is chock full of interesting and useful information about the brain development of children in utero to about five years old. There is enough good stuff here that I would tentatively recommend it to parents of small children interested in developing their parenting style around brain-based research, but I wouldn’t ever pick it up just to learn fun and interesting new things, because of the annoyances of the writing.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage – Audiobook Review

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage, narrated by Sean Runnette
Published in audio by Tantor Audio; published in print by Walker Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury


From the publisher:

A History of the World in 6 Glasses tells the story of humanity from the Stone Age to the 21st century through the lens of beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola. Beer was first made in the Fertile Crescent and by 3000 B.C.E. was so important to Mesopotamia and Egypt that it was used to pay wages. In ancient Greece wine became the main export of her vast seaborne trade, helping spread Greek culture abroad. Spirits such as brandy and rum fueled the Age of Exploration, fortifying seamen on long voyages and oiling the pernicious slave trade. Although coffee originated in the Arab world, it stoked revolutionary thought in Europe during the Age of Reason, when coffeehouses became centers of intellectual exchange. And hundreds of years after the Chinese began drinking tea, it became especially popular in Britain, with far-reaching effects on British foreign policy. Finally, though carbonated drinks were invented in 18th-century Europe they became a 20th-century phenomenon, and Coca-Cola in particular is the leading symbol of globalization.

For Tom Standage, each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilizations. You may never look at your favorite drink the same way again.

Thoughts on the story:

Tom Standage has a fascinating story to tell of how our history has shaped what we drink, which ends up shaping our history again. Both the book and the argument were well-laid out, progressing logically through each of the six drinks and through human civilization, as one drink gave rise to another. Different technological and cultural advances precipitated the rise of each of the six drinks, and each of them further shaped culture in its own way. It should be noted, though, that this is less a history of the world than a history of Western Civilization, beginning with the early farmers in the fertile crescent and moving ever westward. Of course the east does get a mention, particularly when tea is involved, and coffee came to Europe from the Arab world, but in both cases the use of the beverage in Western Europe is the main focus. This is not necessarily a bad thing if one is prepared for this, but at the same time it would have been nice to have a more worldwide lens based on the title.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Sean Runnette is a great narrator of nonfiction. His delivery is clear and his voice easy to listen to, with just the right amount of interest added in his inflection. There was occasionally an issue with the quality of the recording, some of the edits were noticeable, but overall they didn’t negatively affect the listening experience.


A really fascinating way of looking at our shared history. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Paradise Lust by Brook Wilensky-Lanford – Book Review

Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic

When Brook Wilensky-Lanford learned that a relative of hers had, in his younger days, searched for the Garden of Eden on Earth, she was a bit perplexed. After all, her family definitely did not subscribe to Biblical literalism. As she began to dig a little further into his motivations, however, she found an entire subculture – both religious and secular – dedicated to the discovery of the Garden of Eden. Soon Wilensky-Lanford was on a quest of her own, to discover the breadth of the mania for Eden.

Paradise Lust is a comprehensively researched look at humankind’s desire to return to an Edenic paradise – whether that paradise represents unity, civilization, or progress to any given supplicant – mixed with just a hint of humor and sarcasm. The subjectivity of humor could be a problem in a nonfiction book such as this, but Wilensky-Lanford does a fabulous job of separating the historical record from her own opinions.

It is simply fascinating how many different motivations have driven people to search for the Garden of Eden, particularly the fact that there were secular, not only religious ones. Similarly fascinating is the number of Eden-seekers who have placed paradise in the New World. Columbus, for example, believed he located the Garden in Venezuela, and more than one group has claimed its existence in middle America.

Wilensky-Lanford is an engaging writer, and brings a great deal of clarity to the profusion of quests for Eden. That people continue to search for the Garden on Earth is not an idea that would have ever occurred to me, but regardless, Paradise Lust makes for an intriguing read. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via NetGalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk – Book Review

Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, & Language From the Insect World by Marlene Zuk
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Animals can tell us much about ourselves. We can study their gene, their reactions to stimuli, their behaviors in order to better understand the vagaries of humanity. Studying adorable mammals tends to cause anthropomorphizing, which can confuse results. Studying insects, however, does not tend to result in any romantic notions, which is part of the reason that Marlene Zuk is so fascinated by them; although she finds them captivating in their own right as well. In Sex on Six Legs, Zuk endeavors to share with the rest of us myriad things she believes make insects so worth our attention.

Insects play a special role in our use of animals to help us understand ourselves, as I argue throughout this book. Because they are rarely cared for by their parents, and usually live relatively solitary lives without the input of others, the behavior they exhibit as adults is largely controlled by their genes. -p. 143

Zuk is extremely successful both in her attempts to make insects interesting and to shed light on just what complex creatures they are, and just how much many of their behaviors mirror our own. For example, Zuk discusses in the first chapter the extremely few species that engage in true teaching, one of the hallmarks of which is that information is passed on at some cost to the teacher, simply allowing children to mimic actions is not sufficient to count. Surprisingly, none of our simian relatives meet this distinction:

That teaching happens in ants and not monkeys or apes is unsettling for the same reason I love studying insects: it’s all about getting to the same destination with different modes of transportation. -p. 33

And who knew just how complicated bee dance language is?

The length of the run is correlated with the distance of the food from the hive, while the angle of the bee’s body relative to vertical indicates the angle between the sun and the food source…. In other words, bees seem to have symbolic representations for the distance and direction of the food, which fits many if not all of the criteria for an actual language. -p. 214

Sex on Six Legs is not merely didactic, however, but entertaining as well. Zuk brings a measure of her own personality into the book, recounting her fondness for earwigs and other insects, as well as a good degree of humor.

At some level, everyone with siblings understands the urge to murder them. -p. 167

Sex on Six Legs is an incredibly interesting and educational book, although readers do run the risk of seeming insufferable spouting off insect knowledge to anyone who will listen. Zuk succeeds in granting a new appreciation for the six-legged creatures, although it doesn’t make me want to see them in my house any more than I did before.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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