“I couldn’t live a week without a private library – indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
My name is Catherine Puma, and this is my personal book review blog. I am constantly reading, and strive to give back to the book publishing community by reviewing the books I read. Writing reviews also helps stay focused on the craft of writing while I am reading, allows me to practice my writing skills outside of an academic or professional structure, and formulates talking points when I encounter people who have read the same books as I have.
I am currently a Research Assistant at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, DC, and I have a B.S. in Environmental Sciences & English from the University of Notre Dame. For the entirety of my life, my mind has essentially been split between the hard sciences or classic literature. I have an exponentially growing To Read list and am always on the lookout for books that’ll ensnare the senses and feed my intellect.
While most of my book reviews might be centered around the genres of popular science books or Western fiction traditions, I implore you to not hesitate in suggesting something for me to read. There is merit to so many different ways of reading, and I am interested in experiencing many. Since graduating from college, listening to audio books while completing tasks that occupy my hands (answering email, organizing files, doing laundry, cuddling my dog, etc.) has allowed me to continue endeavors to be constantly reading, even when I cannot shut myself away to read and read for hours on end without doing anything else. As much as I would love to do that sometimes, I have obligations as an employee, wife, daughter, sister, dog mom, roommate, and friend.
This first post is just a short introduction to how I approach the act of reading and then writing reviews of those books. Hopefully, this project will allow me to collate my thoughts on some of the things I have read recently in a constructive way. This blog will probably grow and change over time, and that is one of the beautiful facets of starting something new.
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe
REVIEW: 3 / 5 stars
Published in 2016, What a Fish Knows is a popular science nonfiction book that has been on my To Read list for a few years now. Jonathan Balcombe uses anecdotes, interviews, and studies he finds interesting to mention some of what humans have observed about the lives of our underwater cousins. While aquariums, household pets, and decorative koi ponds are also mentioned, most of the tales in this book are about wild examples from African cichlids, to Hawaiian cleaner wrasses, Atlantic goliath grouper, deep-sea lantern fish, and even some touches upon sharks and rays (my personal favorites).
I do appreciate the way this is structured. Different parts are about what a fish perceives, feels, thinks, who a fish knows, and how a fish breeds. These parts are then further broken up into chapters on various senses and stimulii, intelligence and problem-solving, social contracts and interactions, and sexual and parenting activities. This book does not have to be read in order, so although it’s a conversation-driven chapter book with few photos or charts/diagrams/maps, readers can skip to the topics they find most interesting.
However, although there are parts of this I really enjoyed and I did learn some interesting facts about different fish species, overall there is something off about the content’s presentation. What’s being said about fishes is important, but ethologist Balcombe’s tone is nearly unbearably pretentious, self-righteous, self-centered, and judgmental. He scoffs at experts and makes fun of the scientific process. He is anti-fisheries and vehemently vegan, but doesn’t have anything bad to say about decorative privately-owned aquariums or entertainment facilities like SeaWorld.
He’s entitled to his own opinions, but he spends too much time JUST being opinionated in this book. This would have been significantly improved if it stressed more on the end of explaining fish-facts.
While reading this, I kept thinking about the other popular science nonfiction books about fishes that are so much BETTER than this one. Top choices that come to mind include: – Mark Kurlansky’s Salmon, – Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, – Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish, and – Danna Staaf’s Squid Empire.
Overall, am I glad I read this? Sure, I guess. But I will be recommending many other books to people before I ever think of recommending this one.
HAPPY PRIDE MONTH 2020! I thought I would read and review Autoboyography by Christina Lauren to celebrate.
REVIEW: 4 / 5 stars
Five minutes after finishing this audiobook, I rated this 5/5 stars because I enjoyed it so much while reading it. However, upon reflection, I recognize a couple of flaws in the story and incomplete elements that require me to review this book at 4/5 stars.
Autoboyography is a contemporary Western USA high school story mainly told from the close first person POV of self-proclaimed recently re-closeted half-Jewish queer kid. Tanner is bisexual, and while out in CA, for his high school years in super-Mormon Provo, Utah, he is closeted again. This becomes challenging when he starts falling for the Bishop’s hot 19-year-old son, who also turns out to be an in-denial closeted gay kid.
The structure of this novel is centered around a senior seminar creative writing class, in which students have to write a first draft of a book manuscript by the end of the year, and Tanner writes about his relationship with Sebastian. As a creative writer myself who has done NaNoWriMo and taken some creative writing classes, I really loved the meta-structure of this book BEING the autobiography Tanner writes while experiencing this formative year in his life.
Full disclosure, I am not LDS (Latter Day Saints, AKA: Mormon) and do not know about the LDS experience outside of what I learned from reading Tara Westover’s Educated memoir (which is GREAT by the way, I highly recommend). However, my audiobook ends with a 24min interview with the authors, during which they describe interviewing LDS and ex-LDS members to make sure they got religious facts right, as well as staying in Provo, UT for weeks to get a feel for the town. As such, I trust they get LDS elements correct, but of course leave those criticisms to members of the LDS community.
As an LGBTQ book, I really appreciated the complex representations of bisexual, gay, allies, and non-supporters/homophobes in this story, and I think the authors do a great job of characterizing the main characters’ relationships with their respective parents. As a romance, I really loved some of Tanner and Sebastian’s scenes, especially how important hiking in the isolated mountains of Utah became to their routine as a secret couple. All of their intimate/kissing scenes are PERFECT! I loved how Sebastian’s experiences during these shone through even though told in Tanner’s POV.
Even so, there are some issues which prevent this book from being a 5/5 star review. #InstaLove is a cliche. Both Tanner and Sebastian have siblings, and while we get a good interaction or two with them, they aren’t mentioned at all towards the end even though they’re supposed to be “close” or whatever. Prom is a stickler stressful event discussed earlier on, but we never actually see Prom or find out what happens there. I know the authors wanted a happily-ever-after ending, but the “wrap-ups” seem sloppy and incomplete. I feel like a shorter book length was prioritized over properly winding down post-climax. I liked the POV shift 5/6ths of the way through the book and loved how Sebastian’s book tour is handled, but we never see the large life-changing decisions Sebastian makes which effect his career, relationships, school, and living situation. There is a huge time jump, so the last chapter feels more like a lazy epilogue.
Overall, many elements in this book were so sweet/funny.sexy and important to read. Tanner’s prose and perspective are the strongest sections of this work; the sloppy ending is its biggest weakness. I am so glad I read this, especially for Pride Month 2020, and now want to visit some of those Utah hiking trails!
How to Build Meaningful Relationships Through Conversation by Carol Ann Lloyd, The Great Courses
REVIEW: 3 / 5 stars
How to Build Meaningful Relationships Through Conversation is a series of 10 self-help lectures produced by The Great Courses, published by Audible, and performed by professional communications coach Carol Ann Lloyd. A truncated version of this could be given as a TED Talk, and that is kind of how it sounded.
This gets its value from its applicability to our daily lives, regardless of our age or employment status. I learned some helpful things to keep in mind during my own professional and personal communications. Bonding experiences with coworkers, peers, and networking events are really important. Certain pertinent topics include: understanding different styles of speech, managing technology in modern conversations, and having clear goals that you want accomplished as a result of a conversation before beginning.
One of the great things about The Great Courses is that listeners get to hear from the experts themselves. However, one of the very downsides to The Great Courses can be the fact that the experts give their own talks. This might not be so apparent if watching a video, but when a sore speaker delivers an audio-only performance, it can really sour the experience. I know it’s not something that Lloyd can really change, but I HAD to dock 1 star from my review because her voice was just so annoying. For a speaking coach, she has such a whiny way of speaking! I almost couldn’t stand it. This would be a lot better as a mini-book rather than an audio production.
One of my favorite parts of this its references to Shakespeare. He is a master storyteller and an excellent author to use for examples of conversation, because as a playwright, most of his renowned work involves characters speaking to one another. Lloyd’s “real life” examples are all conglomerate cases with white-washed white suburbia names, which is boring and offensive, so those were unpleasant for me, and as such I had to dock another star.
Either way, this is OK to listen to for some advice on how to have better conversations with others, especially for workplace professional settings. Wish I could get that annoying voice out of my head, though, so definitely only listen to once.
The Science of Sci-Fi: From Warp Speed to Interstellar Travel by Erin Macdonald, The Great Courses
REVIEW: 4 / 5 stars
This collection of 10 lectures about science commonly found in science fiction is great for any fan of classic and current sci-fi media, especially movies, television shows, and video games.
Scientific concepts discussed include, but are not limited to: – warp speed, interstellar travel, time travel, black holes, gravitational waves, solar sails, space and time dilations, and quantum physics.
Science fiction references include, but are not limited to, examples from: – Interstellar, Star Trek: Original Series, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Discovery, X-Files, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Bioshock, and Portal.
Professor Erin Macdonald, astrophysicist and science communicator, is the speaker of this series of The Great Courses lectures. She does a good job of explaining scientific topics, both general and more complicated. Her joy at these interesting topics and sci-fi examples is a pleasure to listen to.
The only thing I didn’t like was that Macdonald kind of talks down to her audience in the first one or two lessons. She says, “Don’t worry, hang in there, I’m getting to the sci-fi part soon” multiple times, as though she’s addressing a bunch of idiots who can’t follow a 30min scientific discussion. Someone who listens to this should WANT to know about the science behind their favorite sci-fi franchises. Macdonald speaks mostly to people who spend more time at COMICCON than reading a book, which I found annoying, but oh well.
Overall, though, this was fun to listen to. Kind of like a long form podcast. Macdonald speaks well and carries audiences through her lectures. I was pleasantly surprised that more recently released examples, such as those from “Star Trek: Discovery”, were mentioned. I would recommend to all those interested. I would have personally enjoyed more science and less sci-fi discussion, but maybe that’s just me.
The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen, an Audible Original
REVIEW: 2 / 5 stars
This nearly 2 hour Audible Original audio performance is an investigative journalistic piece in which Anne Helen Petersen interviews 4 people about their experiences and how they dealt with burnout. I appreciated that Petersen spoke to two men and two women, and each had very different employment obligations to give different perspectives on the same topic.
The best part of this is the discussion on social media personas and how self-marketing strategies dictate people be funny, witty, happy, and relevant online all the time. This can be quite taxiing on the emotional well being, to have expectations of “always being on” even for recreational activities.
Even though there are some good nuggets in this, it doesn’t really educate the audience on the scope of what’s being discussed or offer any sort of conclusion. Petersen assumes that burnout only applies to millennials, and doesn’t recognize the difficulty of older generations trying to keep up with those who grew up with social media technology.
There are some scattered pieces of advice on how to manage burnout, but this piece doesn’t seem like it would significantly help someone actually experiencing burnout. Even more so, Petersen does not explicitly explain this supposed “crisis”, so this doesn’t seem like it would be useful to anyone who isn’t already aware of what burnout is and how it affects people. As such, it is extremely difficult to determine who this is supposed to be FOR. I won’t be recommending it to anyone.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier
REVIEW: 4 / 5 stars
This deep dive journalism work into the development process behind making video games is so fascinating! I loved listening to this, almost couldn’t stop listening, and recommend it to anyone who plays even just 1-2 video games a year. I am glad I listened to this audio book on my computer, so I could Google certain video games to remind myself what the subjects look like.
If you are interested in reading this, I recommend you to do so over the next few years. This is the kind of important topic that will need to be re-addressed every 10-15 years because all the examples here are relevant to today’s situation but new games are released every single year and the industry is constantly evolving. Many of the topics discussed here, such as crunch culture and the gender representation gap, could be different in 15 years, or they could be the same. Either way, it could be interesting to explore.
The video games mentioned here include, but are not limited to: – Uncharted 4, – Destiny, – Stardew Valley, – Shovel Knight, – The Witcher 3, and – Star Wars 1313.
Each video game development history is discussed in its own chapter, which I thought a logical and clean way to structure the book. I appreciated that not all of the video games mentioned are from the same genre. And while App development is mentioned in one paragraph, this kept to PC and console games, which helped to keep the field of references focused.
This book definitely allows me to appreciate the challenges of developing the video games I know, love, and am looking forward to. I also have a greater understanding of the sheer diversity in management and development style that went into these games. Some include: Stardew Valley being completely developed by one guy, Destiny’s relationship to the Halo series, Shovel Knight’s team of 5 democratically split guys, the power of E3 and Kickstarter, Witcher 3’s proud Polish heritage, and how Star Wars 1313 “served at the pleasure of George Lucas” for better or worse.
This is such an engaging read, and so relevant to so many people’s lives!
I give this only 4/5 stars, however, for two main reasons. First is the fact that this ages itself so soon after publication, because the examples are so specific. These are great, but there are no general overview introductory chapter on the industry, which would have better set these examples into a larger context.
Second is that it sort of just ends, without any concluding chapter about how the industry should improve its operations. Schreier is great at reporting, but only gives us the current state of things. He doesn’t reflect on anything. Does he think the crunch culture should be changed, and if so, how? I don’t know; he never says.
The Golden Orchard is a novel in which heart, family, food, friendship, and time travel are in abundance. This audio book is only 5 hr 15 min long, so I wasn’t expecting a very profound story, and thus was pleasantly surprised at the depth that this goes into. I definitely recommend to all those who might be interested in this.
Although this table is categorized as suitable for those nine years and older, the quality to which this is written makes it applicable to adult listeners as well. The subject matter includes middle school group projects and classroom crushes, but it also deals with grief, loss, determinism, neglect, and Alzeimers Disease. The family dynamics are so believable, and I loved how the protagonist becomes more mature as she learns how to navigate the “friend-Maya” and “family-Maya” parts of herself.
I really appreciated how food, home cooking, and family histories were all woven together here. My upbringing is Sicilian Italian and Cantonese Chinese, so food is imperative to our self identity as a social unit. From the book description, I didn’t get that the main characters are South Korean, but maybe someone more familiar with the culture would pick up on “Halmunee” being Grandmother in Korean. Most of my prior knowledge of Korean literature comes from The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I really appreciated the primarily Korean cast in this.
Overall, this is a lovely read with great world building and solid heart. The messages this conveys are sound advice for us all, not just children. This is the best Audible Original I have experienced all year so far, and it is not one I will soon forget.
Amy Tan’s popular The Joy Luck Club is a treatise of the Chinese American mother-daughter experience that is still applicable today. This novel’s debut was so poignant because there wasn’t anything else like it on the market. She wrote of her own experiences, so this work was relatable to what everyone of her generation was going through. But there are still plenty of Chinese born immigrants and first generation Chinese Americans, and as those Chinese Americans have their own children, they can share this book as an example of what their childhood was like.
Tan’s greatest strength is her sense of character. The main protagonist in The Joy Luck Club is collecting stories from her “aunties” and their daughters, so every chapter is from a different person’s perspective. Not only does each character have a different background, but they each bring something new to the table in their different ways of adjusting to American life. You really get the sense of each character’s believable internal personhood. This is the most evident when both the mothers and their daughters recount similar events in their own chapters. The Joy Luck Club is a practice in reconciliation in its approach to understanding one’s American and Chinese ways of thinking and bridging the generational gap.
This book was written by mothers and daughters for mothers and daughters, so naturally the female characters are going to be center stage. Even so, I was troubled by how men were handled in this work. They are annoying younger brothers, fathers who do everything just right and love the mother’s cooking, or most commonly, white boyfriends/husbands that just don’t understand what their girlfriends/wives are going through. I cannot recall one successful Chinese-American & American marriage–or any Chinese-American & Chinese marriage–featured here. Men in The Joy Luck Club exist to be fed, married, escaped from, divorced from, or otherwise generally forgotten. In this aspect of life, the story is lacking, and for this I only granted it 4 stars.
Nonetheless, this is an important modern work that I would recommend to most. The narrator for the Audible edition was good, and I am glad I read this. I have not yet watched the movie adaptation, but I hope to be able to soon.
The Girl Beneath the Sea: Underwater Investigation Unit #1 by Andrew Mayne
REVIEW: 4 / 5 stars
This contemporary crime thriller set in Miami, FL and its surrounding waterways is a great read! I really enjoyed this. The main protagonist is a part-time marine diver for MiamiPD while working towards a PhD in Underwater Archaeology, which mainly involves bringing up dumped bodies or evidence to assist cops in their investigations.
This is one of those audio books that I purchased right after listening to the audio sample. The narration performance is perfect, and the descriptions of diving, the ocean, and marine animals are marvelous. The audio sample also happens to be the book’s opening, so the beginning is really compelling. I felt that all of the tense and action scenes were really well done. I almost couldn’t stop listening!
Full disclosure: I am looking forward to summer, am moving to Miami towards the end of summer, and will be getting certified as an open water diver sometime this year. As such, I was probably either biased in favor of this novel, or I had high expectations.
I loved all the diving scenes! These descriptions are more what I was looking for when I read Ladyfish by Andrea Bramhall earlier this year. The two main characters in Ladyfish are supposed to be Florida Keys divers, but diving scenes are lack luster, rare, and unnecessary to the plot. In The Girl Beneath the Sea, however, the diving scenes are compelling, well structured, believable for the characters to be doing, and important to the progression of the investigation.
Although I enjoyed this and would be willing to consider a sequel, this book is not perfect. The protagonist does a great job as a salvage diver for the task force she’s assigned to. But she’s also supposed to be in a PhD program? She mentions her adviser and analyzing finds in the lab once or twice, but she never mentions going to classes, doing homework, developing her thesis, conducting independent research, applying for funding, etc. I know the book sweeps up into a criminal conspiracy that is action-packed over a week or two, but she doesn’t seem worried about grad school at all. This doesn’t sound like ANY grad student I know. Maybe this’ll be more important in other books in the series, but in this one, it was lacking.
In addition, Sloan (the protagonist) is supposed to be really close to the Chief of her task force, but she doesn’t seem broken up about having to not work with the task force she’s used to during this difficult and stressful time. I wish there was more explanation–or at least emotional processing from Sloan’s perspective–about why she has to find out what’s going on from outside the law. And when the worst of things gets blown over, why doesn’t she just go back to her previous assignment? I would have liked more proactive decision making on her part with the career shift at the end.
Overall, I found this an engaging and entertaining story. I recommend to those who think they might be interested in this premise. The narrative voice and setting for this piece are definite strengths.
Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of their Common Fate by Mark Kurlansky
REVIEW: 5 / 5 stars
Salmon by Mark Kurlansky, the historian author renown for his books Cod, Salt, and Paper, is the best nonfiction book I have read thus far this year. This book looks not just into the history of the salmon fisheries around the globe, but also into what we know and still do not know about different salmon species’ biological and ecological requirements for survival. The environmental concerns we need to contend with when studying and managing this magnificent fish include: – habitat loss to dams or logging, – industrial pollution, – climate change, – hatcheries, and – fish farms.
Many salmon fishing practices, as well as traditional recipes, are mentioned. Fishing communities and industry socio-political histories of England, Scotland, Ireland, the Northeast United States, the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, Alaska, Kamchatka, Japan, Norway, and Iceland are all given due attention. Reading this book gave me a greater appreciation for the complicated life cycle these fish go through, as well as the rich diversity in cultures that have respected such an impressive resource down through the centuries.
As an historian, Kurlansky is well suited to present his research on the historical trends of salmon fishery management, because rules and regulations have been primarily guided by socio-political environments of the region rather than the biology of the fish being managed. This is especially true for hatcheries, which pose risks to local wild populations, are deemed successful without supporting evidence, and ignore the necessity of place-based rearing of salmon. Because the early environment is so essential to salmon life cycle success–salmon spawn in the spot on the river in which they were born–hatchery salmon are often unsuccessful, do not know where they need to go to spawn, and likely wander into other rivers where they compete for space and mates with the wild salmon already living in those rivers naturally. Fish farming is also not an adequate substitute for wild populations, because of the higher risk in disease transference for fish living in close quarters, escaped diseases and fish mixing with local wild populations, and the inherent pollution of farming practices.
An ethologist or vegan could rather easily get a book about salmon sold, in which fishermen are scapegoated as the reason salmon populations around the world are in decline. But Kurlansky doesn’t do that. Instead, he looks at history and facts about salmon management to point out that banning all fishing on certain rivers and in certain seas has not brought back salmon in those areas. Salmon populations are still in decline, and they only begin to recover in regions where their environment has been restored.
Salmon are not going to thrive in polluted, dammed up rivers with no trees nearby to keep the water cool enough and which attract the insects crucial to feeding young developing fish. Humans subsisted on mainly salmon for generations before the industrial revolution. Logging, farming, and hydroelectric dams have simply devastated salmon habitat, from Scotland to throughout the Pacific Northwest. The wild populations in Alaska and Kamchatka are the most abundant in modern times because those regions are colder than most people prefer to live in and do not have land conducive to farming. The land where there are still more bears than people correlate to the best rivers for salmon.
Yes, humans are consuming a lot of salmon. But the fishermen and women catching wild salmon are not to blame for our insatiable appetites for this powerful fish’s tender flesh. I have great respect for these impressive fish, as I have tremendous respect for the harsh conditions small independent fishermen and women work under.
Policy makers, environmentalists, and biologists need to focus resources on managing and restoring natural salmon habitat in order to truly care for this species. Salmon are f***ing tough! They don’t need to be hand-reared and coddled and spoon-fed. They will come if their rivers are clean and clear and cool. We just need to get out of their f***ing way.
My favorite chapter was that about Native American cultures and fishing practices, especially the Nez Perce tribe and those that fed Lewis and Clark so much salmon that they got physically sick from it, haha! The Nez Perce were intelligent and skilled fishers who had a thriving trade network with other tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest centered around their salmon economy. White Europeans thought the Native Americans weren’t tapping into the natural resources of the land because there weren’t roads and farms everywhere. But the Native Americans were prosperous and knew what the land had to offer. They fished tremendously every year! They just didn’t kill ALL the fish like the Europeans because they didn’t cut down all the trees and pollute the rivers.
*sigh* Will we ever learn to take care of our environment? How we act today will determine if we survive tomorrow. Our survival as a species is as integral to the health of our planet as the salmon’s survival is. Hopefully, books like this one and people who internalize and champion its messages will help us get our heads out of our own asses.
Salmon has an exquisite production value and I highly recommend people get it in hardcover. The photography and artwork are magnificent. Such a joy to experience. However, because it is on the larger side, I didn’t read it as fast I would have if it were a trade paperback I could carry in my purse or onto the beach. Just something to keep in mind if you get this. I loved it and look forward to Kurlansky’s other works someday.