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Book Review: Breed by Chase Novak (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Peter Ganim)

October 2, 2014 5 comments

Red outline of a woman's pregnant body against a black backgroundSummary:
When Leslie married Alex, she knew they both agreed on wanting children.  What she didn’t realize, though, was how fiercely Alex, the last son in a long line of wealthy and powerful New Yorkers, would want only their own biological children.  He’s willing to try anything to get them biological children, and she feels she can’t deny him one last-ditch effort with a doctor in Slovenia that a couple from their infertility support group swears worked for them.  And the woman has the baby bump to prove it.  So they fly off to Slovenia, and from the first instant in the doctor’s office, Leslie feels that something just isn’t right….

Review:
I’m a real sucker for evil pregnancy/children stories.  Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are two of my favorite movies.  So when I heard about this new take on a classic trope, I knew I had to try it out.  The book ends up being much less about pregnancy and more about the perils of genetic modification, providing an interesting twist on the evil pregnancy trope that carries out through the childhood of the babies that were conceived.

Essentially, the parents’ genetics were so messed up by the treatments performed by the doctor that they start turning into something different from human.  Something a bit more animalistic.  The children, of course, also have some of this animalistic genetics, but most of the differences don’t show up until puberty.  This allows the children to be innocents for most of the book while their parents have gone off the rails from their very first treatment.  My favorite part of this book is how it offers a smart critique of pushing our bodies to do something they don’t want to do.  Where is that line?  How far should we push things with science and at what point will using science make us something different from human?  And is that something different going to necessarily be better?  Leslie clearly feels that her children were ultimately worth everything she, her husband, and their bodies went through, but the book itself leaves the answer to that question up to the reader.

Beyond this concept, though, the actual execution of the characterizations and the plot get a bit messy.  The writing can sometimes wander off onto tangents or become repetitive.  Some aspects of the plot are explored too much whereas others are glossed over too quickly.  The book starts out tightly written and fast-paced but toward the end of the book the plot gets disjointed and goes a bit off the rails.  Part of the issue is a bit of a lack of continuity regarding just how messed up Leslie and Alex actually are by the treatments.  Are they still at all human or are they completely untrustworthy?  Is there any possibility of redemption for them?  At first both seem equally far gone but then Leslie seems to pull back from the edge a bit, thanks to a MacGuffin.  It’s hard to be frightened of the situation if the frightening aspect of the parents comes and goes at will.

Similarly, in spite of the book wanting us to root for Alice and Adam (the twins Leslie and Alex have), it’s hard to really feel for them when they come across as extraordinarily two-dimensional, particularly Alice.  Children characters can be written in a well-rounded way, and when it’s well-done, it’s incredible.  Here, though, Alice and Adam seem to mostly be fulfilling the role of children and not of fully fleshed characters.

Most of these issues are more prevalent in the second half of the book, so it’s no surprise the ending is a bit odd and feels like it leaves the reader hanging.  I was surprised to find out there’s a sequel, as I thought this was a standalone book.  On the one hand I’m glad there’s another one, because the story isn’t finished.  On the other, I’m not a fan of such total cliffhanger endings.

Overall, the first half of the book offers up a thrilling and horrifying critique of just how far people should be willing to go to get pregnant.  The second half, however, is not as tightly plotted and drops the well-rounded characterization found in the first half of the book.  Recommended to pregnancy and/or genetic modification horror enthusiasts who may be interested in a different twist but won’t be disappointed by a cliffhanger ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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The Neuroscience of Autism and Learning Disabilities (Science Librarian Boot Camp 2012 Tufts University)

Instead of inundating you with my notes from yet another professional development session, I decided to select out my favorite part to share with you all.  Out of everything I did in the Science Librarian Boot Camp, I enjoyed the Neuroscience presentations the most.  So, here they are. Enjoy!

“Genetics of Neurodevelopmental Disorders,” Dr. Anthony Moncao, Tufts University

  • Genetics studies Genes. Neurodevelopment studies Proteins and Regulatory DNA. Imagining studies the Brain.  Psychiatry studies Behavior.
  • Genes aren’t determinative.  They interact with the environment.
  • There is very strong evidence that genetic factors increase risk.
  • Susceptibility genes–genes that with environmental factors increase risk for these diseases
  • How do we find susceptibility genes?
  • Identify a chromosomal translocator and neurodevelopmental disorder.
  • Copy number variants –> Deletion or addition/duplication of material.  We all have these in some variation but in some instances they hit important areas.  They are inherited or de novo (neither parent had it).
  • What is “strict” Autism?
  • Impairment in: verbal and nonverbal communication, reciprocal social interaction, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of interest (don’t ilke change)
  • Onset before 3 years
  • male to female ratio: 4 to 1
  • Autism Spectrum includes Asperger Syndrome, PDD-NOS (removed from DSM5)
  • Autism Spectrum has a combined incidence of about 1%
  • 5% of Autism Spectrum disorders are comorbid with Fragile X, Tuberous Sclerosis, Down’s, muscular dystrophy, and other Mandelian disorders.
  • What are the genetic factors in Autism?
  • heritability is about 85 to 92%
  • rate among siblings is 3 to 9%
  • It is one of the most strongly genetic of childhood-onset psychiatric disorders.
  • No evidence yet for genes with variants in all forms of Autism.
  • Hardly any two autistic kids are gonna be the same (genetically).
  • Many of these genes are important in synapses.
  • Cadherin 8 (CDH8) is probably the culprit in these microdeletions.
  • Variable expressivity –> a deleted gene can cause multiple different outcomes (autsim, learning disorder, etc…) so evidence is strong environment is a factor
  • Future prospects include: Cohorts, sequencing, translation, use of rare CNVs diagnostically, genetic counseling, early intervention for sibs, CNVs may help us predict the outcome.
  • Projected future difficulties include: CNVs are common, so we have to be sure the one we’re calling Autism really is.  Ethical issues of testing children before they have any symptoms.
  • Autism has very complex etiology.
  • Collaboration is important to make progress.
  • Specific Language Impairment.
  • Just as frequent as dyslexia/autism.
  • It is a difficulty acquiring expressive and/or receptive language despite adequate intelligence and no physical problems (ie deafness).  Problems in producing and comprehending speech, problems reading, normal nonverbal IQs.
  • It has an almost 100% heritability.
  • Inheritance is simple but complex phenotype.
  • The damaged gene –> FOXP2
  • A transcription factor.
  • Important in how the rest of the gene is regulated.  Kind of like a master switch.
  • Not the gene for speech (found in nonverbal species but important in vocalizations.  Mice won’t squeak properly.  Songbirds can’t learn songs if it is damaged.)
  • FOXP2 inhibits CNTNAP2 from being expressed (Sitting on it and not letting it make RNA).
  • Where is FOXP2 expressed in the brain? In the basal ganglia, phallus, cerebellum (motor centers).
  • Chimps are more similar to mice than humans in this gene.
  • FOXP2 is a regulatory gene.  Its downstream targets offer entrypoints into neural pathways involved in speech and language.
  • Developmental Dyslexia.
  • It is a diagnosis of exclusion.
  • 5% of schoolchildren have it.
  • Males are 3 to 4 times more effected than females.
  • Gene variant is two times as frequent in dyslexics as in controls.
  • Variants in KIAA0319 repress the expression of the gene.
  • These variants increase risk in reading problems in the general population.
  • May inhibit migration of neurons to the right are of the cortex.
  • ectopia–small bundles of neurons in the wrong area of the cortex
  • 4 dyslexia susceptibility genes have been found so far.
  • All 4 play a role in neuronal migration and/or axonal growth.
  • DNA is not determinative.  There are many other factors involved.

“Neuroimaging of Children’s Brains,” Dr. Jean Frazier, UMass Med

  • Goal: To explore how neuroimaging techniques provide insight into potential biomarkers for childhood onset neuropsychiatric disorders.
  • Basic principles of brain development: structures start small, get big, then get small again
  • 8 to 14 is an important age range.
  • They exuberate then prune, and it is the pruning that is important.
  • The more complicated a process is the more potential it could go awry.
  • Pruning is guided by “use it or lose it.”
  • The exact timing varies by structure.
  • birth to 3–time of rapid intellectual, emotional, and physical growth of brain and brain wiring
  • by age 6–95% of brain development completed
  • 8 to 13–2nd major brain growth spurt
  • 13 to 20s–pruning to organizing, especially in frontal cortex.
  • We can measure things that require energy using: PET, SPECT, fMRI, EEG, MEG
  • What MRI can tell us: structure, metabolites, blood flow, connectivity
  • MRS–noninvasive, analytic method to measure chemicals within body parts
  • If we are going to fully appreciate what is going wrong in brains, we have to fully understand what is going right in brains.
  • Whereas gray matter gets pruned, white matter increases.
  • Less gray matter, brain becomes more efficient.
  • But what happens in atypical development?
  • More blood flow in amygdala of depressed and anxious.
  • amygdala–governs ability to modulate our affect
  • Bipolars have abnormal connectivity in brain, especially in areas dealing with affect regulation and attentional capacity.
  • Application to Autism?
  • Recommends “Localization of white matter volume increase in autism and developmental language disorder” in Annals of Neurology by Herbert et al
  • Children with autism have more white matter.
  • Tracks most severely affected in Autism are growing/changing just after birth.
  • Biomarkers are a distinct characteristic that is an indicator of a particular biological condition or process.
  • Maybe the genetic risk factors are indicators of the dysfunction not the disorder.
  • Both schizophrenia and autism symptom is social withdrawal.
  • 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls (1 in 88 children) have Autism Spectrum, according to study from 2008
  • Inhibition of GABA and excitation of Glutamate are associated with autism.
  • Tuberous make too little of a certain protein. Fragile X makes too much.
  • Glutamate levels are higher in Autism.
  • Biomarkers could be used as predictors for treatment response.

Book Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

August 9, 2010 4 comments

A woman's face and the face of two children.Summary:
Late at night at a party, a gentleman offers to read a ghost story.  He claims this story occurred to a woman he knows personally.  The narrative then switches to the governess’s voice, and she tells of going to work at her first job as a governess caring for an absent uncle’s nephew and niece.  Upon arriving there, she discovers that the property is haunted by the ghosts of the former governess and her lover….or is it?

Review:
I loved the prologue about the party.  It’s full of clearly intelligent and world-wise people, which is rare of the Victorian era.  I was then disappointed when it switched to the governess’s voice.  She is painfully innocent and frankly annoying.  She frequently waxes lyrical about how simply delightful and angelic the children are to an extent that it made me sick to my stomach.  I frankly would have given up on the story if it wasn’t for the fact that it was my audiobook download, the reader had a pleasant voice, and it’s very short, so I figured, why not finish it?  I now am glad I did.

Upon arriving at the end, I found myself wondering if I’d missed something, as I was a bit confused about what happened, and my mind does wander sometimes when listening to an audiobook.  Since it’s a classic, I decided to look a bit at the literature guides online just as I would have gone into lecture in university excited to hear what a professor had to say about a work that I found confusing.  Well, lo and behold, apparently critics have had two distinct opinions on what exactly happens in the story pretty much since the day it was published.  I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that James intentionally wrote it as ambiguous as to whether the ghosts actually exist or the governess is insane.  It can either be read as a straight-up ghost story with some sexual innuendos or as a commentary on the ill effects of the tight-laced Victorian culture on women.  That’s kind of cool, and for the record, I prefer the insane governess reading of the story, as I think that’s actually more creepy than the ghosts.

After reading the commentary and about James’ opinions in general, I realized that James probably found the governess as annoying as I did.  I enjoyed the prologue, and the prologue was a reflection of James and his friends.  This makes so much sense now!  I am certain if I had approached this book with the knowledge of James’ criticisms of Victorian society that I would have enjoyed it much more than I did approaching it as a straight-up traditional ghost story.

Overall, this is a story that will be best enjoyed by readers who thrill to the challenge of ambiguous tales and who are critical of Victorian era mores and norms.  It is not exactly the right fit for readers looking for a traditional ghost story, however.  I also feel it necessary to add that I believe this story is not ideally suited to being an audiobook.  Due to the ambiguity, certain passages lend themselves to a desire to be re-read that is not so easily pulled-off when being listened to.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch, iPhone, and iPad

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The Vaccination Paranoia

December 8, 2009 2 comments

For a while now there’s been increasing rumblings of a vaccination controversy.  Apparently this is coming more to the fore-front as Newsweek saw fit to publish an article arguing for the benefits of vaccinating your children.  I know to some of my friends and colleagues in the healthcare community, this anti-vaccination movement seems to be coming nearly out of thin air in the last few years.  They are confused as to why any parent would argue against vaccinating their child in a Western nation.  While I absolutely agree with them, this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere for me.  Until I started working in hospitals, I myself wasn’t vaccinated. *

My parents, mainly my mother, were part of the first wave of the anti-vaccination crowd.  Their reasons for not wanting me to get vaccinated were officially religious.  They believed that your body is the temple of the living god, and therefore you should not purposefully inject anything harmful into yourself.  To them, even though a vaccination is a gentled-up version of the virus, it was still perceived as injecting harm.  In the fundamentalist crowd the leap to “this lighter version of the virus will allow my child to build antibodies so the strong one won’t harm her” just wasn’t made.  I’m not sure if they didn’t believe the science, didn’t understand it, or just didn’t think it was necessary.  Whatever the case, a vaccine was injecting a virus into your body, and that was wrong in the eyes of god so that was that.

Of course there was the other layer thatnon-fundamentalist parents who are anti-vaccination today are also claiming today–the contents of the shot are harmful and at best dumb the kid down, at worst give them Autism or paralyzes them.  Frankly, if this was true, we’d have an epidemic of Autism and paralysis right now.  We obviously don’t.  Most of my public school graduating class was vaccinated, and they were the most intelligent graduating class from my school in ten years, with a record number attending high-ranking colleges.

Even after I had deconverted, thereby losing the religious concern, I still for a long time believed that vaccinations were a big government conspiracy.  We’re seeing this concept now with the H1N1 vaccinations.  There are groups out there saying at best that the pharmaceutical community created the virus so they could profit from the vaccine and at worst that the vaccine will kill or maim all the poor people (or a certain race of people or whatever group the person making the claim is part of).

I know from my own experience that these claims are being made out of fear and ignorance.  People who don’t understand science, were never properly taught science, or who were raised to fear outsiders make claims like this.  Any educated person knows that the scientific community works incredibly hard for the greater good.  What an insult to the scientists who worked to make the H1N1 vaccine to claim that they maliciously created the virus just so they could sell a vaccine!  Claims like this about vaccinations are the same as claiming that the scientific community is evil–a community that works hard every day for the greater good of individuals and society as a whole.  Frankly, yes, I believe the government is messed up in many ways, but one of the things they do right is to support the scientific community, yet these paranoid groups see this support as a conspiracy.  The scientific community is not the government, and just because the government endorses something the scientific community is doing does not make it evil.

What we are seeing building today is the result of a failing educational system and increasing paranoia.  Our society is by and large encouraing paranoia and panic at an increasing rate.  You just have to remember America before 9/11 and after 9/11 to know exactly what I’m talking about.  I’m not going to be all conspiracy theorist about this, but our society is increasingly uneducated and afraid.  Instead of seeking to raise calm, rational, scientific individuals we’re turning into a bunch of paranoid, uneducated, panicking people making bad decisions for the future.  Knowledge and logic impart calm and peace.  I know this from personal experience.  When I thought that schizophrenic symptoms were caused by demon possession, I walked around afraid.  When I learned the biological basis of schizophrenia and the treatments available, I was no longer afraid.  The same is true for the vaccination paranoia.  It is a symptom of a lack of general public knowledge about science.  They are wrong, but there is no quick fix for this.  The answer is an educated, rational populace, and that is going to take time and effort.

*  My father claims he snuck me off to get one round of vaccinations when I was a child.  I don’t remember this, however, and we all know there’s more than one round of childhood vaccinations.

Banned Books Week

September 25, 2009 13 comments

Banned Books Week, the ALA’s yearly anti-censorship awareness campaign, starts tomorrow.  I hadn’t really thought much about it or paid much attention to it as I work in a special library.  We don’t exactly do the sorts of themes that public libraries do.  My GoogleReader had an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal that raised quite a few relevant issues with the theme that I hadn’t thought about before.

Muncy points out that traditionally censorship is seen as the government prohibiting their citizens from possessing or gaining access to something within the borders of that country.  China’s censorship of the internet is called to mind.  He then points out that public libraries are technically branches of the government.  In addition he points out that most of the “banned books” being celebrated this week have in fact only been challenged by patrons, usually patrons concerned about their children reading/viewing these materials.

You know those moments when you suddenly realize you’ve been indoctrinated into believing something that doesn’t make sense?  Reading this article gave me one of those moments.  Muncy is completely right.  When was the last time the US government–any branch of it–banned a book from being in the United States?  Um….I can’t even think of a single time in the last one hundred years at least.

Don’t patrons have a right to express their opinion regarding library holdings?  It doesn’t mean librarians have to acquiesce to these opinions, but shouldn’t patrons have the right to express them?  Aren’t librarians supposed to cater to their community?  Clearly if only one patron doesn’t want a book in the holdings but many others do, we shouldn’t remove the book, but what would be the harm in putting some sort of parental warning sticker on the book?  The parent could tell the kid “don’t read books with that sticker,” then it’d be up to the kid to be obedient.  Like it or not parents actually do have the right to censor what their kids are exposed to.  Would any librarian complain about a parent preventing a child from viewing porn?  No.  So why do we get all upset when a parent doesn’t want their child reading a book that has the n-word or that has a gay couple in it?  It may go against our politics, but our politics are not supposed to come into play when doing our job.  We are here to serve our patrons whether we agree with their political opinions and manner of raising their child (within the confines of the law of course) or not.

Muncy is right.  Banned Books Week highlights censorship where there really isn’t any.  Why couldn’t Banned Books Week highlight actual censorship worldwide?  Books that have actually been banned by various governments, for instance.  For that matter, why couldn’t we have a Controversial Books Week?  That could show how powerful books can be ala the pen is mightier than the sword.  Books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin that stir massively strong feelings in people would be such a wonderful tool for opening up dialogue.

Of course I am against censorship, but patrons voicing concerns about holdings isn’t censorship.  It’s their right as a public government-funded public libraries serve.

Overprotected

There is a distinct socioeconomic difference between two parts of the MBTA system:  the commuter rail and the bus.  The commuter rail consists mostly of middle to upper class, white collar, white Americans.  The bus is, well, everyone else.  Suffice it to say, when I ride the bus, which is often, I’m generally in the statistical minority.  In fact, the other night I was the only white person on an almost full bus, as well as the only woman besides the bus driver.  I’m perfectly comfortable riding both, although I must admit, I generally get better stories from riding the bus.  The other night I overheard a hooker planning out her evening on her cell phone.  I digress, back to my point.  I can’t help but notice some distinct differences between the two groups of riders.

When I commute from my abode in the morning, I take the commuter rail.  When I commute from my man’s abode, I take the bus system.  Every morning that I take the commuter rail, there is a white teenage boy on my train car.  He’s probably about 15, clearly on his way to some sort of prep school.  His mother makes him wait in her car with her until the train is pulling up, then she waits to pull away until he is on the train.  He’s often pushy to the other passengers, never respectful to older men and women.

Every morning that I ride the bus, I wind up waiting for a bus connection.  A black boy, who’s probably about 8 years old, almost always is waiting with me.  He’s got his backpack on and breakfast in one hand.  I’m not entirely certain why he’s taking public transit instead of the school bus to school, but there you have it.  He waits for the bus alone.  He rides the bus alone.  He hits the stop request tape himself to make sure the bus driver stops at his stop.  He often reads a magazine on the bus and is always quiet and respectful.

Clearly, whoever the 8 year old’s mother is, she trusts him to get his own butt to school in the morning and to do it safely.  She (or somebody) taught him how to be respectful in public.  Conversely, the 15 year old’s mother doesn’t trust him to get to the train himself, or even to get on it in the morning.  She’s probably tried to teach him to be respectful in public, but the lesson clearly hasn’t sunk in.

An 8 year old is behaving more maturely than a 15 year old.  I can’t help but think that people rise to the expectations you put out.  Now, maybe the 15 year old’s mother tried to give him more responsibility, and he failed so she feels she can’t trust him anymore.  I seriously doubt it though.  What I’ve seen among the middle to upper-class in Boston is a distinct overprotection that leads to a lack of maturity among their children.  Mommy and daddy might think they’re protecting their kids by always having an adult there every second of the day watching, but what that really communicates to the kid is “Mom and Dad don’t trust me,” and “If they don’t think I can handle this on my own, I must not be able to.”

I know some people are probably upset reading about an 8 year old taking the transit system alone.  However, it’s the morning commute.  It’s not like it’s 10pm at night or something.  Nobody can protect someone else perfectly.  Random bad shit happens to kids; it’s a fact of life.  Isn’t it better to teach kids to be self-reliant?  The 8 year old’s mother has clearly taught him valuable life skills.  He can handle getting himself places without her help.  Imagine how much more confident he’ll be when it comes to things like choosing a college in the future.  Since his mother trusts him, he trusts himself.  I doubt the 15 year old will take any agency in such important life decisions.  If he can’t be trusted to do something as simple as his morning commute on his own, how could he possibly make more important decisions on his own?

I know there’s some risk involved in the 8 year old commuting on his own, but I firmly believe that the overall life lesson he’s getting far outweighs any risk.  People don’t grow, mature, or self-actualize if they’re never challenged.  If life is rosy and easy, there’s no reason to.  When these middle to upper-class parents think they’re protecting their kids, they’re really sabotaging their future.  It’s too bad they can’t see it.