4 Nov 2009

Monthly Reading: October'09

Quite a few loans this month (some of which I haven't finished yet)... it's nice to be around other people with similar literary tastes so I can discover new material or fulfil a guilty pleasure. ;o)

So here's what was on my night stand this month: The Seven Daughters of Eve, The Private Patient and The Constant Princess.

VERY interesting! It's a memoir of sorts, written by a geneticist who unravelled the secret of mitochondrial DNA, or at least discovered how useful it could be in charting human history and how to sample and analyse it even from very ancient remains. Written for a lay audience (i.e. not scientists) it does a wonderful job at explaining some of the basics of genetics as well as the role/function of mitochondria and the discoveries/deductions/theories established through mitochondrial DNA.
What makes mDNA so special? Well for starters there's much less of it than nuclear DNA so it's easier to do numerical analysis. But what's really interesting is the fact that it is inherited exclusively from our mothers! How's this? Well mitochondria are organelles present in our cytoplasm. And our fathers only provide part of their DNA in the head of the spermatozoid which fuses with the nucleus of the ovum... which is why our nuclear DNA is 50/50 maternal/paternal (basis for all sexual reproduction). The sperm doesn't add anything to what's already in the cytoplasm of the egg. So Bryan Sykes has taken this fact and emitted the theory that we're all descended from a single mother... and proceeds to demonstrate how almost all Europeans (and Americans of European descent) are in fact the descendants of Seven women who lived around the Mediterranean coast during the final ice ages (he also proves we're not descended from Neanderthals and provides an explanation for the colonisation of the Polynesian Islands by humans, solving an age-old Asia vs South America question). He gives these women names - Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, Jasmine - tells us whereabouts and when they lived, and then gives us "his" imagining of their story.

image from www.tsakanikas.net

So, ok, I'm a biologist and with my fascination for Genetics in college (got an A+!) this was bound to interest me... but trust me, it will captivate you as well! The friend who loaned it to me isn't a biologist at all, she's an English professor and she told me about this years ago and how great it was. And boy was she right! :o)

Picking up several of P.D. James's novels in the local library here in Liège (amongst their limited selection in English) re-awakened my faded interest in criminal/police mysteries... and I think I've read almost all of her books in the intervening years (including a very interesting memoir). Those I couldn't get in the library I ordered off Amazon.
This is her latest, came out last year in hardback, I just got hold of the paperback version. But could it be her last? Could this be Dalgliesh's final case? She certainly made it feel that way! And when you stop and think about her age (90-how many?) you kind of get this sinking feeling that this may be indeed our last encounter with the poet-detective from Scotland Yard (or the Metropolitan Police as it's apparently now called).
As usual a good read, although a bit easier than previous ones to figure out. I particularly enjoyed how we got to meet the victim and one of the suspects well before the murder, got to understand certain aspects of their personalities and their relationships that later on the police get all mixed up. It illustrates how little the police really know about the victims, how much is left to speculation, and how much they get wrong.

Hmm... Sad to say (considering how much I enjoy stories around the Tudor period and the historical figure of Isabella of Spain), but I really didn't like this book! For one thing I have a similar problem that I already had with "The Other Boleyn Girl" which is the language... it just feels too modern to be a good fit. That and I don't think they're particularly well written. But at least with TOBG there was a bit more meat on the bones of the story, more characters, better developed. Here it all centres around Katherine of Aragon and the rest of the cast is completely secondary. And I just couldn't quite click with her. Then there are all her interior monologues some of which just don't make historical sense and most of which slow the story down or are downright annoying!


  1. Genetics as bedtime reading? Scientists!

  2. ;o)

    but in my defense it made for a very interesting genetic story!


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