Book Review: Conscience and Courage by John Hawkins

Author: John Hawkins
Title: Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry
Publication Info: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (2019)

This is a book I read for research at work.  It is a biography of the Dutch-born Henri Termeer who emigrated to the US to study at UVA’s Darden School of Business.  He then entered into the emerging biotech industry the blossomed in the Boston and Cambridge area in the 1980s. Termeer joined the startup Genzyme Corporation in the early 80s and soon rose to president. (Personal note: when I first moved to Boston in the late 90s I worked as a temp at Genzyme).

Termeer focused Genzyme on orphan diseases so-called because even though they are life-threatening illnesses they affect fewer than 200,000 people and thus there is not a lot of people and resources put toward treating the diseases.  Termeer’s patient-focused approach won him accolades due to the life-saving nature of Genzyme’s treatments.  But the success came with the high costs of research and development, expensive ingredients, and only a small number of patients to share the costs of some of the most expensive drugs in the world.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

Author: Kate Racculia
Title: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Publication Info: HMH Adult Audio, 2021

Tuesday Mooney is a researcher at a hospital in Boston who looks into the backgrounds of prospective donors.  When an eccentric millionaire, Vincent Pryce, dies at a fundraiser, it kicks off a city-wide treasure hunt for the deceased’s fortune.  Tuesday teams up with her best friend Dex, her teenage neighbor and mentee Dorry, and Arches, the charming son of another first family of Boston.

There is a lot going on in this book with the treasure hunt a fun main plot around which various subplots orbit.  For one thing, Tuesday is dealing with her best friend Abby going missing (and presumably dead) when they were teenagers.  She can still hear Abby’s voice talking with her and advising her as an adult.  Arches, meanwhile, has famously had his wealthy father go missing in a boating incident 6 years earlier, the truth of which is something he is grappling with.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

I think the many stories going on within the novel make it needlessly complicated.  But it’s still a fun mystery/adventure/paranormal/romance novel with a lot of great Boston details.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Author: Bram Stoker
Title: Dracula
Publication Info: Archibald Constable and Company (UK), 1897

Reading Dracula for the first time makes me realize that I didn’t know Dracula at all!  The film adaptations have never quite captured the book.  I read this as part of Dracula Daily which sends out each diary entry, letter, and news article on the date that each entry is given in the novel.  For about seven months, along with thousands of other readers on Tumblr, it’s been like a giant book club as we slowly read this book a bit each day.  It’s a fun way to read a book since I gained a lot of insights from other readers’ observations and memes.  Oh the memes!

The novel’s format is very interesting, allowing perspectives from several characters (and some we don’t get to hear from at all). And the characters are really great too, especially the two women.  Lucy Westenra is Dracula’s first victim upon arriving in England, and Mina Harker around whom a team of vampire hunters coalesce.  In fact, Mina is given credit for assembling and transcribing all the diaries and letters, so Stoker essentially gives her authorship.  All the men are interesting too, from Mina’s gentle but determined husband Jonathan to the Dutch polymath Abraham Van Helsing to the American cowboy Quincey Morris.

It’s a really interesting narrative with a lot of twists and turns and quite different than Nosferatu and Dracula, and other adaptations.  There’s a basic wholesomeness to love and friendship among the Harkers and their friends that I just didn’t expect from a 19th century novel or a vampire story.  Anyhow, now that I’ve read it once, I’ll definitely want to read it again.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White

Author: Richard White 
Title: Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2012, c2011.

Richard White’s expansive history documents the creation and (mis)management of the transcontinental railroads that spanned the Western United States, Canada, and Mexico from the 1860s to 1890s.  White argues that the transcontinentals were largely a speculative endeavor that built railroad lines where they weren’t needed and failed to build a demand for their use once constructed.  While railroads are often credited with the creation of the modern corporation, White provides many examples of how the transcontinentals were disorganized, operating at cross purposes, and ultimately failed companies.  What the railroad companies were good at was making money by building with other peoples’ money, the root of modern finance.  This of course was coupled with a lot of corruption and control over politicians who saw that the railroads were generously subsidized.

The protagonists (perhaps, the villains?) of this work are the capitalists who lead the railroad companies including  Charles Francis Adams, Jay Cooke, Collis P. Huntington, Tom Scott, Leland Stafford, and Henry Villard.  But the greatness of this book is that it looks at the transcontinental railroads from many perspectives including construction workers, railroad workers, anti-monopolists, local politicians, union organizers, and Native Americans.  Some of the best parts of this book are the “A Railroad Life” mini-chapters that offer a case study of an individual’s life experiences with the railroad.  White also writes in a engaging, sometimes snarky, style that make reading about 19th century finance and corruption fun!

Favorite Passages:

“How, when powerful people can on close examination seem so ignorant and inept; how, when so much work is done stupidly, shoddily, haphazardly, and selfishly; how, then, does the modern world function at all? It is no wonder that religious people see the hand of God and economist invent the invisible hand.” – p. xxxii

“The transcontinentals were not so much about earning revenues from moving people and freight as about finance and politics. Finance and politics were in the late nineteenth century about networks, and networks, in turn, were functions of family, friendship, and information.” – p. 96

 “Nineteenth-century Americans were not shocked by the corruption of the press; neither were they surprised that businessmen cheated, lied, and stole; what worried them was the corruption of the republic. In the Gilded Age, Americans feared the republic had become corrupted – diseased, decaying, and dying. They identified the source of this corruption as monopoly, and they made monopoly synonymous with the corporation.” – p. 98

“Both the Southern Pacific and the Texas and Pacific were so dependent on credit that they resembled two large and angry men trying to fight while on life-support. Both corporations carried immense debt, and both depended on steady infusions from existing subsidies, bond sales, and loans. Each flailed at the other, each trying to maintain its own lifelines while cutting off those of its opponent.” – p. 106

“The exclusive right to build a railroad was more valuable than an actual railroad in a newly settled agricultural region because an actual railroad in such a region would lose money until the population grew thick enough to provide the traffic necessary to turn a profit.” – p. 212

“Railroads remained largely speculative enterprises meant to make a profit through their financing” – p. 215

“What seemed a single corporation was the tool of four men – and eventually four families – who grew increasingly divided, bitter, and distrustful.” – p. 266

 “The trouble with good accounting and transparent reporting was that it made visible, to railroad commissions and investors, what the railroad wished to be invisible. This was why the practices railroad men encouraged with one hand, they sometimes blocked with the other.” – p. 273

 “There was little logical reason why a corporation was considered a single rights-bearing person while a union was merely a collection of rights-bearing individuals. The legal reason was that corporation had chosen to incorporate, but in organizational terms there was little difference between a union such as the American Railway Union and a corporation.” – p. 420

Railroaded is not a kind of Robber Baron redux. The railroad corporations that I have examined here were unsuccessful and powerful. My guys could be ruthless, but their corporations were failure constantly in need of subsidy and rescue. They fascinate me precisely because they do not fit into our usual way of seeing things. And, in part, this book has been a study of how the unsuccessful and the incompetent not only survived but prospered and became powerful.” – p. 509

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

Author: Eva Jurczyk 
Title: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Narrator: Hannah Cabell
Publication Info: Poisoned Pen Press (2022)

Liesl Weiss is no sooner named the interim director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at a university in Toronto when things start to go wrong.  A rare Plantin Polyglot Bible is supposed to be the library’s latest prize acquisition but it is missing and the only one who had seen it is the previous director who was incapacitated by a stroke.  Liesl comes to the realization that the Plantin was stolen and it could’ve been an inside job.  Was it Miriam, a librarian who suddenly stops showing up for work just before the book went missing?  Or could it be Francis Churchill, a rare books expert who Liesl is rumored to have had a fling with?

In addition to trying to solve the mystery, Liesl has to deal with people questioning her ability to do the job as a woman.  The university president certainly doesn’t want to make the theft made public because it would frighten off donors.  Working in an academic library myself, the absolute most accurate part of the book is the university’s need for reputation management and placating wealthy donors above everything else.  But it’s also a great mystery with a very satisfying conclusion.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford

Author: Ross Welford 
Title: Time Traveling with a Hamster 
Narrator: Bruce Mann
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016)

“My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty-nine, and again four years later when he was twelve. (He’s going to die a third time as well, which seems a bit rough on him, but I can’t help that.)”

Al Chaudhury is a nerdy 12-year-old growing up in the North of England who is off Indian and Welsh heritage.  He lives with his mom, her boyfriend Steve with whom he doesn’t connect well, his goth half-sister Carly with whom he does not get along, and his genius Grandpa Byron.  On his twelfth birthday, Al is given a letter written by his father Pye before his death four years earlier.

Al is tasked with finding his father’s time machine and traveling back to 1984 when the young Pye suffered an accident that would contribute to his early death decades later.  Pye was unable to do it himself because the rules of time travel prevent the same person from appearing twice at the same time.  In this very sweet story, Al makes several attempts to figure out the time machine and how to fix the past, while forming a bond with his father as a boy his own age.  And yes, he travels with Alan Shearer, a pet hamster that was also a birthday gift.

I love time travel stories and really enjoyed this messy, heartfelt adventure even if it makes me feel old that traveling to 1984 is treated as the distant past.  Grandpa Byron is a great character and reminds me of my own grandfather who tried to get me to read a book about learning memorization skills. And this is a light spoiler but I love that this is the only time travel story other than Back to the Future where changes in the past lead to a more positive future for the protagonist.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa

Author: Sôsuke Natsukawa
Title: The Cat Who Saved Books
Narrator: Kevin Shen
Translator: The Cat Who Saved Books
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2021)

High school student Rintaro Natsuki is orphaned after the death of his bookseller grandfather.  Already shy and nerdy, Rintaro stops going to school and isolates himself from the world as he prepares to close up his grandfather’s bookshop and move in with an aunt.  He is surprised by Tiger, a sarcastic talking tabby cat, who tells him that he is needed to save books and leads him into a magical labyrinth within the bookshop.

On three adventures, Rintaro engages in metaphorical confrontations with a collector who keeps books behind glass, a scholar who disfigures books with notations, and an Amazon-style corporate president who treats books as a commodity.  Rintaro also starts forming a connection with a girl from his high school named Sayo.  It’s a sweet narrative that anyone who enjoys books, cats, and coming of age stories should enjoy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Vietnam

Author: Ocean Vuong
Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Narrator: Ocean Vuong
Publication Info: [New York, NY] : Penguin Audio, 2019

In this poetic, nonlinear narrative, the narrator – nicknamed Little Dog – writes a letter explaining his life to his mother, Hong.  The story is based on Vuong’s own life, who like Little Dog is the grandchild of a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier, emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a refugee, and is raised by a single mother.  The center of the narrative is Little Dog’s teenage experience of coming out gay and his first relationship with a boy named Trevor.  The language in this book is beautifully deployed in describing ugly things, from Little Dog’s grandmother Lan’s experiences in the Vietnam War to Trevor’s narcotics addiction. From the pain, Vuong is able to extract a novel of beauty.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Bangladesh

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Startup Wife 
Narrator: Tanha Dil
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021

Asha Ray, the child of immigrants grows up feeling like an outsider in the United States, but blossom into adulthood as a talented computer scientist.  While working on her PhD, she is reunited with her high school crush, a white American named Cyrus.  They fall in love, get married, and begin working on an app built on Cyrus’ idea of creating rituals around non-religious things that people are passionate about.  Working in a startup incubator in New York City, Cyrus begins to emerge as a charismatic celebrity tech guru, while Asha and her work are pushed to the side.

I have to say I waited too long after finishing reading to write this review because I’m forgetting the details.  But I do recall initially enjoying the book but losing interest as it went along.  Nevertheless it is an interesting take on “bro culture” in the tech world that discriminates against women and people of color as well as the immigrant experience.  There are also parts of it that oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  I suspect that my engagement problems with this book were more my fault than the authors so your mileage may vary.

Rating: ***

Book Review: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1 by Andrew Hickey

Author: Andrew Hickey
Title: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1: From Savoy Stompers to Clock Rockers
Publication Info:, 2019 

Last fall I discovered the podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and it has become a must listen for me.  Presented by English author Andrew Hickey, it is a meticulously researched and well-produced in-depth study of popular music.  Each episode focuses not on one song but on the musicians, songwriters, and producers behind that song including samples of their work (not just the title song) and songs that influenced this work. Hickey is very good at debunking the myths of rock music and revealing the much more interesting history of the genre and the people behind it.  This includes acknowledging the innovations of Black musicians whose contributions were often appropriated by the white music industry and later historical revisionism.

Right now the podcast is at episode 153, but this book covers the first 50 podcasts.  This very early history begins in 1938 with the jazz, jump blues, rhythm and blues, Western swing, vocal groups,  and other artists who created the many elements that would become rock & roll.  This volume ends in the mid-50 just after the first generation of rock & roll stars such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis Presley.  The book, and the podcast, is easy to follow in the chapters/episodes on each song, but it is also an ongoing story that winds through the whole project.  The individuals who manage to pop up again and again and different times and places, and the way they influence and collaborate with one another is one of the fascinating elements of this history.

I can’t recommend the podcast and the book more highly!

Favorite Passages:

One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Artists like Duane Eddy and John Lee Hooker just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not?

But people will always want to push against those constraints. And in the 1950s, just like today, there were black people who wanted to make country music. But in the 1950s, unlike today, there was a term for the music those people were making. It was called rock and roll. For about a decade, from roughly 1955 through 1965, “rock and roll” became a term for the music which disregarded those racial boundaries. And since then there has been a slow but sure historical revisionism. The lines of rock and roll expand to let in any white man, but they constrict to push out the women and black men who were already there. But there’s one they haven’t yet been able to push out, because this particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.

This series is about the history of rock music, but one of the things we’re going to learn as the story goes on is that the history of any genre in popular music eventually encompasses them all. And at the end of 1955, in particular, there was no hard and fast distinction between the genres of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2