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Books! Books! and more Books!

In this post, the FeminaSci team discusses some of their favorite books, musings, and graphic novels.

What book are you reading right now?

Erin: I’m currently reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a creative nonfiction work that provides a historical account of the gene. It addresses topics from the theory of a mechanism capable of passing information from one generation to the next, to understanding its structure and code, and grappling with the ethical implications of these findings. Dr. Mukherjee’s prose breathes life into the scientists behind these discoveries, and relates them to each other chronologically. Additionally, he adds the personal story of mental illness in his family, allowing the reader an insight into his work and scientific pursuits.

Chelsea: I picked up A People’s History of Science by Clifford Connor from a pile of books my environmental planner friend Phil Silva was carting off to the used bookstore. The title reminded me of other books on unsung heros (e.g. A People’s History of the United States and America’s Women). I’m a fan of the author’s thesis that documentation of science’s achievements has undervalued and overlooked the contributions made by artisans and laborers. It reflects my own experiences working alongside my highly-observant farming friend and handy tinkerer buddy. I wouldn’t have come up with my pertinent research ideas or executed the experiments without them, yet recognition in the academy for their work is often relegated to the acknowledgements section of a journal article. I think Connor is right – science research involves many hands, the investigations are inspired by a variety of sources, and credit isn’t always properly given. This was an interesting book with a “democratize science” message that I’d recommend to readers looking for a historical perspective on science progress. And for folks looking for current discussions on the intersection of science and social justice, I’d recommend checking out Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s Decolonising Science Reading List.

Armanda: Currently on my bedside table sits Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. Yong’s witty and engaging writing style immediately draws in the reader as he paints a picture of his favorite endearing animal, the pangolin, an animal "that looks like a cross between an anteater and a pine cone." We soon learn that pangolins, and all animals alike (including us humans), have a "microscopic menagerie" of diverse microbes living on and in us, and that we have a lot to thank for these symbiotic critters. In the last decade, the transformation of technological applications have opened up avenues to study microbes as never before, changing a lot of how we practice medicine and our understanding of the connection between our microbiome and human behavior. As a trained microbiologist, I admire Yong’s ability to take some rather complicated feats of science and easily enlighten the readers about the wonderful world of microbes and how they shape our lives. I am only about half way through the book as of now, but wholeheartedly recommend it for those curious about the organisms that allow life as we know it.

Mallory: I am also reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, a smart account of complex and intimate relationships with the microbial world. I’m also frantically attempting to finish Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series before this summer’s release of what will undoubtedly be the best fantasy western of all time!

Sheila: I am a big fan of manga and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so when I recently found a manga series that gave a new twist on Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes tales, I jumped at the chance to read it. The Young Miss Holmes series by Kaoru Shintani stars Crystal “Christie” Margaret Hope, the genius niece of Sherlock Holmes. Set in the same late 19th century era as the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie is bored by the etiquette lessons and other stereotypical preoccupations required of young girls her age. She is well beyond the intelligence of her peers and also hopes to help her famous uncle. Christie displays the same uncanny attention to detail as her uncle, and her enthusiasm to track down the culprit gets her into trouble with those who believe she is overstepping her bounds as a young lady. However, her maid and governess loyally stand beside her and are geniuses in their own way. I admire how Shintani works Christie into popular Sherlock Holmes short stories such as the Red-Headed League.

Looking back at the first book in the Young Miss Holmes series, it sets a good example for young readers (I found it in the young adult fiction section of the book store). Christie’s character challenges the status quo of what it means to be a young lady in 19th century England and now in modern America. She is encouraged to use her wit for good, and while as surprised as he is at her interest, her uncle embraces her detective skills. She is creative, respectful of others, and genuinely curious about the world around her. I empathize with her and Sherlock Holmes’ search for logic and rationality. I would recommend the first Young Miss Holmes book to anyone who loves mysteries and is thinking about stepping into the world of manga and graphic novels.

What other fiction/nonfiction books would you recommend to our readers?

Mallory: Dear readers, I urge you to delve into the feminist science fiction genre. Feminist science fiction tackles themes such as gender, sexuality, race, and environmentalism, and is a terrific way to transport your brain to others worlds while critically reflecting on modern social structures. Ursula K. Le Guin is a heavy hitter in this genre and one of the first women to win both the Hugo and Nebula best novel awards for her 1969 Left Hand of Darkness. Left Hand is a beautiful and elegant piece of hardcore literature that touches on many feminist themes. For starters, there are no white people. The protagonist Genly Ai is a black male from Terran (i.e. Earth) who travels to the planet Genthen as ambassador of the Ekumen, a coalition of humanoid life. Genthen, also known as Winter, is a very cold planet, and its inhabitants are brown (most similar to Inuit (or Tibetan) people). Genthians are ambisexual, or intersex; they are both male and female. Left Hand is a thought experiment for what happened when Le Guin “eliminated gender, to find out what was left. Whatever was left would be presumably, simply human.” Furthermore, sexual drive is essentially absent and only surfaces during kemmer, when pheromones drive normally androgynous Genthinas to a male or female form. (See this essay calling out the predominate heteronormative and masculine-centric themes.) What is left when there is no sex? A brilliant narrative exploring loyalty during a time of political unrest, religion, friendship, and connection to the natural world. An exploration of duality. “Light is the left hand of darkness; and darkness the right hand of light,” something to consider in these days dominated by the opposition between the Left and the Right, when we could use some extra light.

Sheila: Other manga and graphic novels (GNs) I have enjoyed reading include (in no particular order): Chi’s Sweet Home (manga; in Japanese but is easy to understand even if you do not know Japanese), Scott Pilgrim (manga), Watchmen (GN/comic), Logicomix (GN), Maus (GN), Persepolis (GN/graphic autobiography), Epileptic (GN/graphic autobiography), and Habibi (GN) as well as other GNs by Craig Thompson.

Armanda: Did you know that the microbes living on your left hand differ from those on your right? Rob Knight’s TED book Follow Your Gut is a fun, short read full of microbial facts alongside quirky illustrations. Written by one of the founders of the microbiome revolution, Knight includes personal stories, like introducing microbes from his wife’s vaginal canal to the skin of his newly born daughter in order to simulate the initial microbial colonization of vaginal childbirth, making it an engaging read. I would also recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore's Dilemma, National Geographic magazine, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic books, which continue to instill a desire for space exploration in the kid within me.

Erin: I would also recommend adding All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne, to your reading list. The first is a masterfully written fictional account of two children during WWII. It follows two characters, Werner, an orphan who joins the notorious Hitlerjugend; and Marie-Laure, the blind daughter of a locksmith who is employed at the Paris Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure is steeped in the culture of natural history given her ties to the museum. For her birthday she is gifted a braille copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Having not read the Verne novel previously, and as a recommendation from my mom, I was eager to see why Doerr included this story. After reading 20,000 Leagues I still don’t have a great answer, but it is remarkable to read Verne’s story given the scientific historical context of the time. It was published a few years after the discovery of electricity, and proposes an all-electric ship (the Nautilus) about a century before building something like it was feasible. Yet, the science in this book is surprisingly accurate, and Professor Aronnax, an involuntary ‘guest’ aboard the ship, provides amazing taxonomic information about the sea life they witness, albeit incredibly dry as a 21st century reader. My enjoyment of Doerr’s novel was not hindered by my lack of familiarity with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues, but they make an interesting pair when read together.