Archive for the ‘Books’ Category



April 5, 2012

My aunt just sent us the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, upon which the Martin Scorsese movie Hugo is based. It is enormous — over 500 pages long, and resembling the later Harry Potter volumes in size and shape. Phil loves it.

He loves it in part for its numerous pivotal pencil-and-paper drawings. At various key points in the story, the text simply stops and the pictures take over the narrative, in a sort of tribute to silent films (which figure into the plot).

I think Phil also appreciates the book’s sheer size, and its seemingly endless supply of twists and turns. We can read it for a full hour, and at the end of the hour there are still plenty of pages left for next time.

I hope that, once we do eventually finish it, Phil will want to explore other giant books. Maybe even Harry Potter.


The Best of Times

December 29, 2011

My mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side have at least one thing in common besides my sister and me: an interest in and aptitude for writing. My aunts and uncles have written and edited works ranging from Don’t Tread On Me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman to A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota to an unpublished organic chemistry textbook. It follows that our favorite game to play at family reunions entails creating and judging opening sentences of novels.

WHAT IS NEEDED: a bookshelf full of books, four or more players, one pen or pencil per player, and plenty of scrap paper.

HOW TO PLAY: One player — the Reader — selects a novel from the shelf and reads the title, author, and cover blurb to the others. Then he/she writes the first sentence of the book on a piece of paper while everyone else composes an alternative beginning. The Reader collects all of the sentences, mixes them up, and reads them aloud in random order. Everyone besides the Reader picks the sentence he/she thinks is the real one. One point is awarded for guessing the real first sentence; one point is also awarded for writing a sentence that someone else chooses. If nobody’s choice is correct, the Reader gets two points. Play continues until every player has had a turn as the Reader.

We didn’t invent this game, but we don’t know where it came from or what it is called. This Christmas I decided that we should give it a proper name, at least for intra-family purposes, and my proposal to call it “The Best of Times” (a reference both to Charles Dickens’ most famous lead-off sentence and our enjoyment of the game) was accepted by a majority of the Family Council.

My father, with his knack for conjuring up plausible geographical features, is the perennial champion. He didn’t play on Tuesday night, though, allowing me to carve out a rare victory, which I clinched with this hypothetical opening to Clive Cussler’s Treasure: “The secret to navigating out on the open sea is to ignore the compass and trust the sextant.” That’s not true, but it has a ring of authenticity and two people fell for it.

My Uncle Scott has also achieved a kind of notoriety for his opening sentences. On Tuesday, when Angela’s Ashes came up, he wrote, “Mount St. Angela really blew her stack.”

In another game, years ago, a turn was devoted to Too Late The Phalarope. Scott offered, “The phalarope was running late — very late.”

In our family, that’s right up there with “It was a dark and stormy night.”


My favorite book of all time

November 15, 2011

Continuing with my recent theme of “sorting through stuff from the basement and reflecting on it,” today I dusted off The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, written by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in 1973.

It’s more of a scrapbook than a “real” book; it consists mostly of images of 1950s baseball cards accompanied by musings about the players pictured. But it’s really, really funny, plus it perfectly captures what it’s like to be a kid obsessed with baseball. Which I was, back in the early to mid-’80s.

Some choice excerpts are below. They are awfully harsh at times; however, as the authors say in the Acknowledgments section, “We know only too well that we could not have played baseball half as well as even the most inept players mentioned herein. We know that much better than you, in fact. We tried.”

Jay Hook was a lanky engineering student from Waukegan, Illinois, who looked like Wally Cleaver and pitched like Zazu Pitts. With the New York Mets teams of 1962-64 he compiled records of 8-19, 4-14, and 0-1, for a three-year cumulative total of 12-34, which might on the face of it seem rather horrendous unless you stopped to consider that Craig Anderson, the staff’s beefy boy wunderkind in residence, had a record of 3-20 over the same time span and that Roger Craig, the stopper, if that is the proper phrase under the circumstances, had a two-year record of 15-46. The back of Jay’s card is the very soul of discretion regarding these notable statistical deficiencies, stating in part: “Jay pitched better than his record indicated in ’63.” (All things taken into consideration he would have had a pretty tough time pitching any worse.) “Jay’s a member of the National Rocket Society too!”

…Hook once wrote an article for “Sport” magazine explaining why a curve ball curves. He had a hard time getting the message through to his arm though and was forced to retire in 1964 when he could no longer get even his own teammates out during spring training intersquad games. He spent eight years in the major leagues and never had a winning season. His final won-lost totals were 29-62, with a lifetime ERA of 5.23.

I’d sure as hell like to read a scientific explanation of that.

* * *

The most impressive personal record in baseball history is the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio. The second most impressive personal record in baseball history is the winning of 20 games by Ned Garver with the 1951 St. Louis Browns. In recording this feat, which must rank in terms of sheer miraculousness somewhere in between Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters and the raising of Lazarus, Garver became the first pitcher since 1924 to win 20 games with a last-place ball club. And he only lost 12. In fact those 20 victories were 38 percent of the entire Browns’ total for that year.

Now when a good hitter is with a bad ball club he’s basically all right. If he is at all competitive then all the losing might get to him and he’ll probably be a bit short in the RBIs and runs scored, but still he’s going to get his hits and everybody will know what he’s worth. But a good pitcher with a bad ball club is just plain screwed. Nobody scores any runs for him, nobody makes the big hit. The outfielders kill him with errors and the infielders lack any kind of range. The management is bitter and insulting. The crowds are sparse and often hostile. Even his friends are likely to turn against him. He is surrounded by ineptitude and indifference. Discourtesy and discouragement fill his days. And nobody ever does anything to try and shore up his morale. He is like Sviatoslav Richter playing with a Salvation Army band. There is no telling how good Garver might have been with a good club but after five or six years with the Browns, whom their owner Bill Veeck has often referred to as the worst team in the history of major league baseball, he wasn’t much good for anything. The last time I saw him his right arm was two inches shorter than his left, he looked like he was going to pass out every time he threw a slider, and he wasn’t throwing hard enough to break a soft-boiled egg against Willy Tasby’s skull.

* * *

Then there is the case of Rich Rollins, who, it seems to me, was a rookie third baseman with the Minnesota Twins about fifteen minutes ago. Well here I am still sitting around like a fool waiting for him to reach his potential and it turns out he’s been retired and coaching for the past several seasons. I thought he was just out of the lineup with the chicken pox or something, and all this time he’s been turning into a senior citizen behind my back. So anyway, what I really want to know is, if Rich Rollins is now an old man, does that mean it’s too late for me?

* * *

Whenever my father would take us up to Canada during summer vacations, we would always pass through a small sleepy potato-farming town in northern Maine near the Canadian border called Cherryfield — the sort of place that was inhabited exclusively by lobster fishermen and grizzly bears. Over the main street of the town — which coincidentally was the only street in town — there was a huge white muslin banner strung between the Flying A Gas Station sign and the front of the McKeither Brothers Dry Goods Store that proclaimed in faded red script: WELCOME TO CHERRYFIELD, MAINE, HOME OF MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER CARLTON WILLEY. For this reason, and for none other that I can possibly think of, I have always been a fan of Carlton Willey’s. And even though, in the manner of all my particular and special sporting favorites, he has always managed somehow to disappoint me, I cannot help thinking that nothing he could do, no matter how dismal or mediocre, could ever prove disappointing, in any way, shape, or form, to the people of Cherryfield, Maine.

* * *

The Golden Greek. An All American quarterback at Boston University, a fancy fielding, home-run hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, a tall, handsome, clean-cut son of immigrant parents, a good student, an all-around athlete, a youth leader and a teen-age idol, Harry Agganis was the epitome of the American dream. The day that he died of leukemia at age 25, in 1955, I was attending a performance of the Big Brother Bob Emery television program with a group of my fellow Cub Scouts. I can still remember the oversized headlines in the Boston newspapers and the feeling of stunned incredulity they aroused in all of us. Up until then death had been something that only happened to animals or in the movies or to bank robbers or people who had fires in their houses or to the old. But Harry Agganis? If something like this could happen to Harry Agganis then what was to become of us?

What indeed?


“Relentless Forward Progress” is a balanced, wise training manual

August 23, 2011

The creator of says that you can run far too, and he has written a great book to help you on your way. In Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons, Bryon Powell manages to keep things simple without being overly simplistic. Perhaps most admirably, he imparts reasonable suggestions rather than inflexible dogma.

A good example of this thoughtful approach is Powell’s treatment of the “10 Percent Rule.” After defining it (“You increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent week-to-week”), he goes on to comment,

…You, too, should apply the 10 Percent Rule more as a guideline than as a commandment. That’s not a ticket to add 15 miles to your total mileage week after week. Instead, it’s a call to recognize the arbitrary nature of what constitutes a training week, the arbitrary nature of the rule being exactly 10 percent, and the increased irregularity of weekly mileage in ultramarathon training.

Similarly, Powell provides week-by-week schedules, as many how-to-train books do, but he also takes special care to explain how these may be adapted to individuals’ needs and lifestyles. For someone who has had success with a particular marathon training schedule and is now moving up to 50K’s, Powell suggests simply tweaking the familiar marathon schedule to emphasize the long runs more, reduce the frequency of speedwork, and keep the speedwork intervals relatively long.

People disagree as to whether speedwork is an important component of ultramarathon preparation, and Powell covers both sides of the issue through opposing essays by Ian Torrence and Geoff Roes. Many other “sidebars” by guest authors are also included throughout the book, providing additional perspectives without disrupting the book’s overall flow. Especially noteworthy are the foreword by Eric Grossman, which explains ultrarunning’s appeal in terms of its connections to ancient rituals, and the afterword by Meghan Hicks, which describes how 50K to 100-mile runners may find pleasure in ultra-related pursuits such as adventure runs, endurance snowshoeing, fastpacking, and stage races.

The overall tone of fairness and openmindedness does not prevent Powell from offering his personal opinions on various contentious issues. For example, he is not a fan of daily running streaks (“I feel there are times when it’s best to take a break from running”) or of rapid ascension to the 100-mile distance (“I question the need to either run a 100-miler as your first ultra or to progress through the 50K, 50-mile, and on to the 100-mile during your first season as an ultrarunner”). These views, judiciously stated, give the book a personal touch and a bit of humor (“Before race day, before to give your crew adequate instructions…. If you’re unlucky enough to be on my crew, it means an eight-page single-spaced document supplemented by individual briefings”).

My complaints about the book are fairly minor. While a few other ultra-related books are mentioned, some sort of annotated bibliography at the end would be helpful, especially for newbies wondering what else they could or should read. This bibliography and the text itself would do well to incorporate primary research literature, since investigators like Martin D. Hoffman of UC-Davis have conducted numerous studies of ultramarathoners. Finally, I found the book’s appendix (written by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee) to be an overly evangelical look at barefoot running, in contrast to the evenhandedness of the rest of the book. The appendix says or implies that forefoot striking is more energetically economical than heel striking even with shoes on and that barefoot running is right for everyone regardless of his or her biomechanics, among other points. I remain skeptical.

These are minor quibbles, though. The book is organized well and devotes adequate space to all major topics (gear, nutrition, environmental challenges, race-day logistics, etc.) without getting bogged down in minutia beyond what rookies should know. If you’re new to ultras and want to learn from a book in addition to or instead of a coach, Relentless Forward Progress would an excellent choice.


Are those the only options?

November 11, 2010

George W. Bush has just released a memoir called Decision Points. Among various customer reviews and so forth, the book’s page also includes the following:

BushTales or VeggieTales?


Calves & thighs & breasts & hair

July 18, 2010

It may be silly to visit an art show solely because of the title, but, as a runner and ex-muscle physiologist, how could I resist a photography exhibit called Calves & Thighs? It’s in Madrid (where I spent some time for work this past week) as part of PHotoEspana 2010.

To my disappointment, the subjects of Juergen Teller’s photos did not include athletes. The featured legs — mostly those of fashion models and Teller’s friends and family members — seemed rather ordinary. I guess the name of the show, rather than indicating a fascination with anatomy per se, was meant to be playfully ambiguous.

photo by Juergen Teller

The title of Debra Jarvis’ latest book (which I read while in Madrid), on the other hand, is wonderfully transparent: It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer. So is the book itself, a warm and funny account of her experiences as both a chaplain for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a breast-cancer survivor. The cover does give me pause, however. The author is flipping back her mane in a confident, glamorous way, as if to say, “It’s not about the hair — but still, darling, don’t you wish you had mine?”

It's not about the hair -- or is it?


More on “Born to Run” (the book)

March 27, 2010

On February 2nd, I posted an entry that scolded Christopher McDougall for his treatment of injury rates among runners. That entry was supposed to be a lead-in to a more general evaluation of McDougall’s book Born to Run, which I haven’t had time to write until now.

The short version of my review is that I agree with what Dan Zak said in the Washington Post:

A relentless and experienced reporter, McDougall dramatizes situations he did not directly witness, and he does so with an intimacy and an exactness that may irk discerning readers and journalistic purists. “Born to Run” uses every trick of creative nonfiction, a genre in which literary license is an indispensable part of truth-telling. McDougall has arranged and adrenalized his story for maximum narrative impact. Questions crop up about the timing of events and the science behind the drama, but it’s best to keep pace with him and trust that — separate from the narrative drama — we’re actually seeing a glimpse of running’s past and how it may apply to the present and the future.

Like Zak, I think that some of the book’s general themes ring true irrespective of the liberties taken with certain details. In the following passage, for example, McDougall expertly captures the sense that running can feel like the most natural thing in the world — that, indeed, we were born to do it:

Even though I haven’t read The World According to Garp in twenty years, I’ve never forgotten one minor scene, and it ain’t the one you’re thinking of: I keep thinking back to the way Garp used to burst out his door in the middle of the workday for a five-mile run. There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.

As I came across various questionable details in the book — some minor, some not — I started to wonder whether McDougall is simply a good storyteller who has no understanding of hypotheses, evidence, and biases. I don’t think that’s true, though. The following excerpt, among others, suggests that the author is quite capable of distinguishing speculation from genuine evidence:

Privately, David Carrier knew the Running Man theory had a fatal flaw…. The problem was this: Chasing an animal to death is evolution’s version of the perfect crime. Persistence hunting (as it’s known to anthropologists) leaves behind no forensics — no arrowheads, no spear-nicked deer spines — so how do you build a case that a killing took place when you can’t produce a corpse, a weapon, or a witness? Despite Dr. Bramble’s physiological brilliance and Dr. Lieberman’s fossil expertise, there was no way they could prove that our legs were once lethal weapons if they couldn’t show that someone, somewhere, had actually run an animal to death. You can spout any theory you want about human performance (“We can suspend our own heartbeats! We can bend spoons with our brains!”) but in the end, you can’t make the shift from appealing notion to empirical fact if you don’t come up with the goods.

This is followed by a riveting account of persistence hunting as experienced by Louis Liebenberg of South Africa, who accompanied a tribe of Kalahari bushmen on numerous hunts.

But while McDougall may have some understanding of the scientific method, his book seems oblivious to numerous facts that don’t quite line up with the story he’s trying to tell. This passage from page 79 is as good a place to start as any:

Ultraunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied: women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody.

Let’s consider each of these three claims separately. First, “women were stronger than men.” McDougall mentions examples such as Ann Trason nearly winning the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100, but the bulk of the evidence shows that the best women are not closer to the best men than you’d predict based on their differing speeds in shorter races. Let’s take two of America’s most prestigious ultras, the JFK 50 and the Western States 100, as examples. The women’s course record for JFK is 43 minutes slower than the men’s record, and the closest any woman has come to the male winner in recent years is 38 minutes — Anne Lundblad in 2005, chasing Howard Nippert. At Western States, the women’s record is a full two hours slower than the men’s record, and 2006, when Nikki Kimball finished 69 minutes behind Graham Cooper, is the only recent year where any woman finished in the top three overall. My point is not to diminish the achievements of these or any other women, but simply to note that there’s no great mystery here. The fastest men are faster than the fastest women, just as you’d expect.

How about the statement that “Old men were stronger than youngsters”? There is some truth in this; as runners age, they lose speed more rapidly than endurance, so some major ultramarathons have been won by people in their 40s and 50s, whereas that is rarely seen at major marathons. Skipping ahead to page 239, though, McDougall makes a big deal of the fact that the average 2004 New York City Marathon finish time of 19-year-olds was the same as that of 64-year-olds. How can that be true? Well, among other factors, most of the country’s fast 19-year-olds aren’t running the New York City Marathon because they’re on their college cross-country teams, preparing for conference championships and such. If you held a special marathon limited to 19-year-olds and 64-year-olds, and offered large cash prizes for the top finishers, my money would be on the 19ers.

The statement that “Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody,” likewise, is not completely wrong but certainly overstated. The accomplishments of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, the “Stone Age guys in sandals,” are impressive. But when McDougall declares, on the basis of the 1993 and 1994 Tarahumara victories at the Leadville 100 (a fairly high-profile race, but not one resembling a world championship), that “The Tarahumara … had proven themselves, indisputably, the greatest ultrarunners on earth” (page 104), he’s going way too far. Can’t we marvel at their strength and spirit without pretending that they have no rivals in the rest of civilization?

Having shared trails and sidewalks with Scott Jurek for the last decade or so, I know him fairly well, and McDougall’s (flattering) portrait of him is largely consistent with my impressions. But is Jurek really one of America’s most reclusive ultrarunners, as McDougall claims on page 133? No way. Reclusive people don’t maintain official websites with their contact information, and they certainly don’t host trail running camps open to the public. McDougall also says that getting to the Copper Canyon Marathon (in the Tarahumara’s homelands) was so risky that “No elite runner would take the risk; it wasn’t just career suicide, it was suicide suicide.” I don’t really believe that either. Jurek may be a free spirit, but he’s not the kind of guy who’d risk his life for a race. Furthermore, to make the Tarahumara-vs.-Jurek race seem as monumental as possible, McDougall presents Jurek as “virtually unbeatable” (page 125). That was basically true for 100- to 150-mile races between 1999 and 2008; the showdown with the Tarahumara, however, was only 50 miles, a distance at which Jurek loses as frequently as he wins, in part because he uses these “shorter” races as tune-ups for the really long ones.

Jurek is not the only ultramarathoner portrayed with less-than-perfect accuracy by McDougall. As a group, he says that ultrarunners “don’t get hurt and never seem to burn out” (page 190), but I can think of many examples to the contrary. I’m also skeptical when McDougall says that a Norwegian sailor named Mensen Ernst ran from Paris to Moscow in 14 days in 1832, averaging 130 miles a day, and then ran from Constantinople to Calcutta in two months, averaging 90 miles a day (page 201). I don’t know what source McDougall relied upon for this information, but he should know better than to accept these numbers unquestioningly, since they would be far superior to the world records of Yiannis Kouros, the greatest multiday runner of the modern era.

Finally, there is McDougall’s deep-seated distrust of the running shoe industry. He says that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot” (page 168). He supplies a quote by Dr. Dan Lieberman linking running shoes to knee injuries but cites no peer-reviewed scientific studies to support this grandiose accusation. A more mainstream perspective, provided by Dr. William L. Jungers in a “news & views” piece for Nature, is that “There is no hard proof that running in shoes, especially hi-tech or PCECH (pronation control, elevated cushioned heel) versions, causes injuries.”

I could go on and on, but I think my general concern is clear. Misleading statements like those above make me wonder about McDougall’s reporting on topics that I don’t know anything about, like the Tarahumara people themselves. Although the Tarahumara are apparently a fascinating and admirable people, I’m not sure I can fully trust McDougall’s descriptions of them. Is it true that the Tarahumara get outrageously drunk at parties (page 15), yet have no problems with addiction or crime (page 14)? Perhaps — or perhaps that’s yet another exaggeration.

I admit to being fussier than most people in expecting a high level of factual precision. But for those who think that near-perfect accuracy is incompatible with entertainment value, I give you The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. This story of the quest for a sub-4-minute mile is told marvelously but with careful attention to detail. All quoted conversations are from previously published sources or Bascomb’s own interviews, and the extensive bibliography makes clear the meticulousness of his research. Born to Run is a good book, but The Perfect Mile is better.


Zen and the art of bicycles

July 16, 2009

I’m in Singapore for a meeting on malaria research, and I just finished a book my boss brought with him: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. It’s about how to give effective presentations (e.g., with PowerPoint slides) and is full of good advice (much of which is also available online at Garr is the Roger Ebert of slide-show reviewers: even when you disagree with him, his arguments are expressed clearly and worth considering.

Many of Garr’s tips relate to his advocacy of simplicity, compelling images, and succinct storytelling. As I flipped through the chapter on sample slides, I realized that his examples sort of reminded me of some slides I had made recently — not for a science talk, but for two picture books for and about my son: The Wheels On The Bike and If You Give Phil A Cookie.


It would not be completely accurate to summarize Garr’s advice as, “Design your slides as if they were pages from a children’s picture book.” But I don’t think that’s way off the mark, either.


Pop-up books have come a long way since I was a kid

February 19, 2009

Mommy? is a marvel of paper engineering, and Phil was captivated by it. But maybe we shouldn’t have looked at it right before bedtime.


A fantasy fulfilled

January 11, 2009

In the novel Timeline by the late Michael Crichton, the character Andre Marek, a medieval historian, practices jousting as a hobby. What a quaint way to spend one’s free time, right? Yet this arcane and archaic skill becomes rather handy when Marek finds himself time-traveling back to the 14th century and being challenged to a joust!

I wonder how many runners out there harbor a fantasy that something similar will happen to them — that, one day, somebody’s life or some important cause will depend on their ability to run fast. That running, in addition to being healthy and fun and all that, will prove useful.

I like to pretend that running is useful for commuting, but that’s not really true. If the goal is to travel between home and work as quickly, cheaply, and safely as possible, cycling and busing are superior options. Except…

Except when it snows like crazy, as it did several times in Seattle last month. The roads were a mess. It was dangerous to drive and impossible to cycle. Bus service was severely reduced and delayed. And yet I didn’t miss a single day of work. I wasn’t even late. When it was time to go to work, I just put my backpack on and started running, as usual. Ditto for returning home in the evening. The snow on the sidewalks added 3-5 minutes to my 6-mile runs, but I saved about that much time at intersections, where there was no need to stop for the (nonexistent) motor vehicle traffic.

Maybe using my bipedal prowess to get to the lab on time wasn’t such a big deal. Still, it was hard not to feel smug as I ran past the abandoned cars and buses.