Thursday Book Blogging

16 08 2007

I know the pace has slowed down a bit here over the last few days; part of it is because I’m trying to find papers/books to use for my review-paper-to-be, and part of it is because I’ve been lacking inspiration. There’s plenty to blog about, I just haven’t been especially motivated. Even so, here’s some notes on what I’ve been reading this week. I’ve been trying to take no more than two days to finish any one book, cramming as much information into my brain as possible. At the end of the summer I’ll do a big rundown of what I’ve read and what I think I can still remember.

Time Traveler by Michael Novacek

It’s all about the fieldwork, or at least this book is. Taking a look at a huge swath of Novacek’s career, the autobiography/pop-science book shows us the hardships and joys of working as a paleontologist in the field from the American West to Yemen to Mongolia. Much of the technical details about what was found and why it was important to science is left out, focusing instead on the process of becoming a paleontologist and attempting to conduct fieldwork in a variety of locales, although some of the earlier chapters of interspersed with explanations of basic geology/plate tectonics. Despite some minor errors in the text (i.e. Maiasaura is spelled wrong) and the section on Mongolia being way too short (I suppose I should pick up Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliff, also by Novacek, if I want those details), the book is a highly enjoyable and quick read that would serve as a good primer to anyone looking to get their feet wet in the field of paleontology. If you’re interested in “true tales of paleo”, I would also highly recommend Charles Sternberg’s autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter, and (to a lesser degree) Lilian McLaughlin Brown’s Bring ‘Em Back Petrified and I Married a Dinosaur.

The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right by Robert Lanham

I don’t normally pick up this sort of book, but it only cost $0.02, so I thought “Why not?” and read it aloud to my wife in one go. As if you couldn’t tell from the title, the book is a humorous attempt to get readers unnerved by evangelicals up to speed about what they think/do/believe/spend their money on, focusing on everything from the frighteningly absurd Left Behind series to the current trend of millionaire pastors & megachurches. While the book will certainly rile those with evangelical sensibilities, it is doesn’t discount Christianity as a whole, praising the “emerging church” movement and pastor Rob Bell (author of the book Velvet Elvis). Much of the book’s criticism is well-placed, pointing out such big-time scam artists like Creflo Dollar and conservative nutters like the mysterious Jack Chick, but the main flaw of the book is it’s lack of organization and tendency to repeat itself. When it’s funny, it’s hilarious, but they call Rick Warren the “Jimmy Buffett of evangelicals” so many times that it stops being funny by the end of the chapter. The book does get points, however, for noting how much of a slimeball Ted Haggard was before even before the big scandal broke (their jokes about “praying in the closet” are strangely prescient).

Also, quotes from real-life evangelicals (ranging from a young born-again girl to a Calvinist to the founder of the xxxchurch.com “Christian Porn Site” [it’s not what you think]) are interspersed throughout the book, but they’re usually placed in the wrong chapters or have little to do with what’s being discussed when they appear. If you can overcome these minor annoyances, pick up the book and put it in the bathroom’s magazine rack or take it along on a trip; I can’t say it wasn’t worth the money I paid for it.

Dinosaur Lives (which my wife always jokes should be Dinosaur LIVES!) by Jack Horner and Edwin Dobb

I thought this wouldn’t be a bad follow-up to Time Traveler (I try to read certain kinds of books in clusters so I can make connections between things), but overall Horner’s book has been rather disappointing. The book kicks off with Horner’s participation in the Jurassic Park franchise, listing what the filmmakers did and did not fix under Horner’s advisement. Some of the behind-the-scene information is interesting (i.e. a “lost shot” where we see the lawyer Gennaro’s disembodied leg with a Tyrannosaurus tooth stuck in it), but it would have served the book better overall if it was organized as an appendix or placed towards the end. Moving along, the book chronicles Horner’s forays in Montana in a very abstract manner, making it seem like Horner has got the “magic touch” when it comes to dinosaurs. While Novacek’s book was marked by occasional failures, persistence, and detail of what it was like to be trying to retrace the past, Horner’s book merely jumps from discovery to discovery, nearly all of them being a new species or otherwise notable. Given this fact, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that at one point Horner laments that a particular mosasaur find made over a decade before the book was published is still languishing in its plaster jacket in storage (as I’ve said before, you don’t have to go into the field anymore to make discoveries or find new specimens. Effigia is a testament to that, at the very least). Granted, going back to some of the prime fossil sites of the likes of Barnum Brown is a bit more of a “sure thing” than, for instance, Novacek’s essentially fruitless searching for dinosaurs in Yemen, but Horner’s book reads more like a list of accomplishments than a tale of paleontological discovery.

The illustrations also leave much to be desired. While Novacek’s book often took diagrams directly from technical papers (like one of the Psittacosaurus illustrations I used from one of H.F. Osborn’s papers yesterday), the dinosaur reconstructions in Horner’s book are a bit misshapen and overall sad. There are some official photos from museums, maps, and other more high-quality work in the book, but the book’s reconstruction of a Tyrannosaurus definitely didn’t resemble the skeletons I’ve seen of the animal. At present I’m about halfway through the book, although I can’t say I’m overly optimistic about the rest of it improving in overall quality, although I will try not to let the first half spoil the second if it indeed improves.


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2 responses

16 08 2007
Zach Miller

In a Jurassic Park 3 interview, Horner said that the largest spinosaur skeleton “we” know of was larger than tyrannosaurus rex. It was a super-predator. Yes. Paleontologists HAVE dug up not just one nearly complete skeleton, but MULTIPLE skeletons (for size reference, it being the LARGEST) of the enormous theropod.

Because back when JP3 first came out, it’s not like the only known Spinosaurus specimen, which was fragmentary to begin with, was blown to smithereens during WWII. And how many specimens of S. aegypticus have we dug up since then? What? NONE? Well, when you count isolated teeth, some possible vertebral fragments, and…oh yeah, there’s that premaxilla discovered a few years back…then…yup. AN ENTIRE ANIMAL.

Screw you, Horner.

(was that too harsh?)

17 08 2007
Friday Book Notes « Laelaps

[…] Book Notes 17 08 2007 Yesterday I wrote down a few thoughts on the first half of Jack Horner’s book Dinosaur Lives, and I can’t say the second half […]

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