Off The Bookshelf: A Fish Caught in Time – The Search for the Coelacanth

How about a new book recommendation for this year’s reading list? This one’s a little different from my other Off The Bookshelf entries as it’s actually a nonfiction tale, and a marine biology-themed one at that! I read this book last year for school, and I was so enraptured by this incredible true “scientific epic” that I had to share it on my blog.

So if you’ve never heard of the coelacanth, or you have but want to learn the details of its history, you’re in for a treat! I hope you’ll enjoy my review of this must-read book: A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg.

A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth, by Samantha Weinberg

Summary

A Fish Caught in Time tells the true story of the coelacanth (SEE-luh-kanth), one of the most mysterious and fascinating fishes (yes, “fishes) in scientific history, as written by English journalist Samantha Weinberg. Originally published in 1999 by HarperCollins, the book recounts the events surrounding this prehistoric fish, from the shocking discovery of a living specimen (Latimeria chalumnae) in 1938 to the discovery and study of a second species (Latimeria menadoensis) 60 years later. The narrative relates these events from the perspective of the researchers who dedicated much of their time and resources to studying this fish, all of whom played an important role in the amazing story of the elusive “King of the Sea”.

Review

I read this book last year in preparation for a Vertebrate Zoology class I had to help teach as part of my Master’s program. My lesson was about the Sarcopterygii class of fishes, so my professor lent me his copy of A Fish Caught in Time as supplementary material for telling the story of the coelacanth. By the time I was done, I was ready to teach an entire semester on this one fish. I never thought I would feel so strongly about any one fish, but then again, the coelacanth is no ordinary fish.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the first modern coelacanth discovered (Latimeria chalumnae), 1938

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the modern coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) she discovered in 1938

To summarize, the coelacanth was long thought lost to history by the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out three quarters of the plant and animal species living on Earth (most famously the dinosaurs). It was known only by its fossil record for (almost exactly) 100 years, until, to the world’s surprise and excitement, a living specimen was fished off the South African coast in 1938. Over the next six decades, the coelacanth would be the focus of global headlines, political plays, and scientific rivalries, all the while remaining an enigma to the world that it continues to captivate to this day.

A rare example of a nonfiction story told in a highly narrative form, A Fish Caught in Time does an excellent job of capturing the majesty and mystery of the coelacanth while staying true to the history of its discovery and study. Ms. Weinberg paints such a vivid picture of this 60-year-long story that I couldn’t help but be completely drawn in, as if I were living the story along with the real-life characters: the excitement of discovering the coelacanth wasn’t extinct after all, the rush to find out where it had been hiding for the past 65 million years, the desperation to not only capture a living specimen but keep it alive at the surface, the awe that only a lucky few in history have ever known of watching this deep-sea fish swim in its natural habitat. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s impossible to read this book and not fall in love with the coelacanth!

Arnaz Erdmann swimming with the Indonesian coelacanth

Arnaz Erdmann swimming with the Indonesian coelacanth (Latimeria menadoensis)

A fair note of warning: oftentimes the story focuses more on the researchers who dedicated their lives to studying the coelacanth than on the coelacanth itself. Readers who hope to gain an insight exclusively into the life of the fish may find this a bit off-putting, but then again, it hardly makes sense to attempt to recount the history around the animal without offering even a glimpse into the lives of the people who shaped that history. It’s much more than a story about a fish; it’s a lesson about what it means to be a researcher. It takes intelligence, curiosity, patience, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and an unrelenting passion for science, all of which shine through the pages of this brilliant narration of scientific truth.

Overall, A Fish Caught in Time is a captivating read that any science enthusiast will enjoy. I owe much of my appreciation for the coelacanth to this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a world of marine biology without being overwhelmed by the technicalities of it all. As quickly becomes evident from the first chapter, science doesn’t have to be fictional to blend well with creative writing!

Inspiration

I love science and I love a good story, but it’s rare that I get to enjoy both at the same time, or at least in the same book. A Fish Caught in Time offers an opportunity to glimpse the joy and passion that goes into conducting good science by presenting it in an enjoyable narrative format. Though much research has gone into understanding the coelacanth, A Fish Caught in Time never conveys that research in a manner too difficult for the layman to comprehend or appreciate, making it an unusual kind of literary gem: a scientific subject made accessible to the general public, that is, a community of non-scientific readers.

So if you appreciate science and a good story based on true events, A Fish Caught in Time may be just the inspiration you need for your creative writing! It certainly has been for me; in my opinion, there’s never too much writing inspiration to be found in science!

Five More Books I Want to Read in 2016

Remember that list I shared last week of five books I want to read this year? Well, I just thought of five more. I feel a 2016 reading challenge coming on! It’s hard to say if I’ll be able to read all these books in one year, but I’ll definitely keep them on my list for future reading!

Just for fun, here are five more books I want to read in 2016. Enjoy!

6) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling

Fantastic_Beasts_and_Where_to_Find_ThemI recently received this book as a surprise gift, and I have to say I couldn’t be more thrilled to have it in my collection. The Harry Potter books were a huge part of my childhood, and no Harry Potter fan’s bookshelf is complete without the spinoffs! The best part is that the profits from sales of Fantastic Beasts go to Comic Relief, a charity Ms. Rowling has long supported that was founded to “bring about positive and lasting change in the lives of poor and disadvantaged people”. It’s been too long since I finished the main series, so I look forward to diving back into the magical world of Harry Potter! Of course, after I’m done with this book, I’ll have to tackle Quidditch Through The Ages next…

7) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering-HeightsIt’s this tragic love story between Cathy and Heathcliff, and it takes place on these really creepy moors in England, which I think represent the wildness of Heathcliff’s character. I totally get symbolism!

– Phoebe Buffay, Friends (Season 5, Episode 9 – The One With Ross’s Sandwich)

Yes, more period drama! This one’s another book that’s been sitting unread on my shelf for a while. My mother read Wuthering Heights a long time ago and recommended it to me because she enjoyed it, though she did warn me that it’s a rather tragic story. Just as well; I’ve always been one for a good dramatic tragedy!

The-Hunger-Games8) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I know, I know, I’m really late to the party on this one. The last movie isn’t even in theaters anymore (at least, not where I live)! I did buy the first Hunger Games novel in ebook format a while back; I just haven’t yet gotten around to reading it. I have been looking forward to immersing myself in some dystopian fiction, though, and since this one’s been on my to-read list for years and I’ve already seen most of the movies, The Hunger Games trilogy is almost certainly the best place for me to start!

Divergent9) Divergent by Veronica Roth

While we’re on the subject of dystopian fiction, Divergent is another title that piqued my interest some time ago but that hasn’t yet made it to the top of my reading list. I actually read the synopsis for this story well before the announcement of the first movie (which I haven’t even seen yet), and it definitely struck me as the sort of story I’d enjoy. The idea of a society divided into factions based on valued qualities is hardly a new concept (Hogwarts, hello?), but I find it always makes for a thought-provoking read!

Hamlet10) Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

It’s high time I got back into reading Shakespeare. Luckily, I have a complete single-volume collection of his works sitting on my shelf! There are several Shakespearean plays I’ve been meaning to read, and one of the plays at the top of that list is Hamlet. Yes, it’s another tragedy, as were the last couple of plays I read, but even though I would like to read some more of his comedies too, I just can’t resist drama! If I’m going to get back into Shakespeare, I figure why not start with the story that loosely inspired one of my favorite Disney movies?

Thus concludes my top ten to-read list! Now let’s see if I can take on the reading challenge this year! Thanks for reading!

What about you? What books do you plan to read in 2016?

Five Books I Want to Read in 2016

Ah, January, the month of new beginnings. I’m all for making New Year’s resolutions, even if most of them never make it past February. One of mine for this year is to read more books, and while it’s too soon to tell what new stories will have everyone hooked in 2016, there are some classics still sitting on my shelf that I’d love to start with.

So in no particular order, here are five books on my to-read list for 2016. Enjoy!

A-Game-of-Thrones1) A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Late to the party? You bet. I received A Game of Thrones for my birthday in 2014 and started reading it a little over a year ago, but with all the scientific texts constantly taking priority on my list, progress has been slower than I’d like. Still, it’s been a captivating read so far, and I’d love to be able to finish the book this year. Maybe then I’ll finally get into watching the series!

Pride-and-Prejudice_BN2) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This one has been on my to-read list forever, but I can never seem to get around to reading it. Pride and Prejudice is a timeless classic, and while I’ve seen the 2005 film more times than I can count, I imagine Ms. Austen’s literary masterpiece must be even greater in its novel form. If I’m going to read more period dramas in 2016, there’s no better book I’d love to start with!

Jane-Eyre-Collectors-Library3) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Speaking of period dramas, this one’s another book given to me as a birthday present and that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I received Jane Eyre last year after my mother recommended it to me, and since my copy is in a pocket edition, I can at least keep it in my bag and do some light reading while I’m out and about. I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one too; a Victorian feminist coming-of-age story seems right up my alley!

The-Picture-of-Dorian-Gray4) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This book I received as a Christmas present a few weeks ago, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise as I have yet to indulge in the works of Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray was also recommended to me by my mom, and though it doesn’t seem like the first book I’d grab off the shelf in the store, the reviews of this Gothic classic have certainly left me intrigued. Knowing it was an incredibly racy work that pushed the boundaries of moral sensibility in its time, I can only imagine what an exciting read lies ahead!

Tree_Thinking5) Tree Thinking by David A. Baum & Stacey D. Smith

Yes, one of these books is not like the others. Tree Thinking is a nonfiction book that serves as an introduction to phylogenetics, and though I’ve already read part of it just to get my foot in the door of my field of study, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have as much knowledge of the subject as possible under my belt. It’s proven to be quite a pleasant read so far, which isn’t surprising for me; if I learned anything in my college years, it’s that evolutionary biology is fascinating!

What about you? What books do you plan to read in 2016? Any other resolutions you’ve made for the new year?

Off The Bookshelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

I know it’s been a while since I’ve shared a book on my Off The Bookshelf segment, so this week, I’m going to discuss one of my favorites. I’ve talked about this famous story in depth a few times before, notably to discuss five points that are often missed and the reasons why it’s a greater story than many people think. Once again, I’d like to revisit this classic tale of forbidden love, this time in a double dose. I hope you’ll enjoy this review of one of my favorite books off my shelf: Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story.

Romeo_and_Juliet_West_Side_Story

Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story

Summary

First published in 1965, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story comprises two stories in one: the stage play Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare; and the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story by Arthur Laurents. The book also includes explanatory notes for unfamiliar expressions in Shakespeare’s play and a foreword by renowned theater director Norris Houghton.

Romeo & Juliet tells the story of two teenagers in Renaissance Verona who fall in love despite the age-old feud between their families, but who are driven to an untimely end by fate and the violent circumstances surrounding them. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, West Side Story tells the same tragic tale of a doomed romance between young lovers, but updates the setting to modern-day New York and the protagonists to a white American boy and a Puerto-Rican girl torn apart by the racism-fueled rivalry between the street gangs with which they’re associated. As much for Romeo and Juliet as for Tony and Maria, love blossoms at first sight and against the odds, only to be threatened and destroyed by hatred that brings tragedy not just to the young lovers, but to their war-torn society as a whole.

Review

Romeo_and_Juliet_BookI first read this book as a teenager, shortly after watching the 1961 movie West Side Story as homework for singing lessons (I was to sing “Somewhere” at my first presentation). Long familiar with the plot of the original play, I had fallen in love with the story of forbidden romance and was eager to finally read Shakespeare’s timeless classic for myself. Of course, I’ve made my love for the story itself abundantly clear in the past, so this review will focus a little more on the format of this book than on the pieces within it.

What I find most interesting about this particular book is the way the same story is presented over two very different backdrops: one in Renaissance Italy, the other in 1950s New York. By combining both stories into one volume, Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story offers a unique way to visualize the tale of star-crossed young love across time. The similarities and differences between these popular pieces become clearer as the reader is able to quickly swap a scene in one play for its parallel in the other: the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets becomes a turf war between the Jets and the Sharks, the Capulet ball becomes the dance at the gym, the poetic exchange at Juliet’s balcony becomes a duet on Maria’s fire escape. Each story is beautiful in its own right, but I’ve found that to be able to compare and contrast them so easily makes the fundamental plot all the more fascinating.

West_Side_Story_MusicRomeo & Juliet was the first Shakespearean play I ever read, so naturally I was yet unfamiliar with Elizabethan English. This is where the notes in the back of the book came in extremely handy. Essential words and terms are referenced to the line with modern English translations and explanations wherever necessary, so the notes were a tremendous help when it came to deciphering the meanings within Shakespeare’s verse. It’s worth noting that they’re still helpful to any new reader who plans to read more of Shakespeare, as several of the expressions used in Romeo & Juliet commonly appear in his other works. Unfortunately, a similar device isn’t available for West Side Story, which relies on its readers’ familiarity with the music to be fully enjoyable, but this is merely a minor drawback to what is otherwise an equally stunning theatrical masterpiece.

Both Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story have had a profound impact on audiences: one for its poetic deconstruction of romantic ideals, the other for its dramatic commentary on the consequences of social intolerance. The presentation of both plays in one volume brings to light the true timelessness of Shakespeare’s classic, proving that the story of love born against hate will be forever relevant as long as people and society continue to be powerfully motivated by both.

Inspiration

Romeo & Juliet is the archetype of forbidden love thwarted by circumstance, so it’s no wonder the story has translated so well into the modern setting of West Side Story. Whether set between feuding families or warring street gangs, this tragic love story reads not only as the epitome of the passion and dangers of young romance, but as a lesson on how hatred kills. Perhaps for its universal themes of love, intolerance, and the cruelty of fate, the plight of the star-crossed lovers is a tale that has fascinated readers for centuries and certainly will for many more to come. It has served as inspiration for much of my romantic fiction, and to this day I indulge in it whenever I feel the need to satisfy my cravings for drama and romance.

For all the above reasons and more, Romeo & Juliet is and likely always will be my favorite story at its core, regardless of the characters, settings, and details that flesh it out. To be able to enjoy my two favorite versions of the story in a single volume is simply the cherry on top of a classic poetic delight.

Five Classic Christmas Stories from My Childhood

Merry Christmas Eve! It’s that time of year again, and what better way for writers to celebrate than indulging in some classic Christmas stories? Continuing from my review of Treasury of Christmas Tales, here’s a list of five Christmas-themed stories I enjoyed in my childhood. Enjoy, and have a very Merry Christmas!

Dr. Seuss - How The Grinch Stole Christmas1) How The Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is by far one of my all-time favorite Christmas books, which I’ve already made clear in the review I wrote of it last year. Dr. Seuss’s classic tale of the grumpy Grinch’s quest to ruin Christmas for the happy Whos and his discovery of the true Christmas spirit never fails to warm my heart whenever I read it. We even had the TV special on VHS to watch whenever we felt like indulging in some holiday entertainment with Seuss’s beloved characters. The Grinch is a fun story for children and adults alike, and we love it to this day!

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens2) A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Who doesn’t think of A Christmas Carol when remembering favorite Christmas tales? Reprinted and adapted multiple times since its first publication in 1843, Charles Dickens’ tale of holiday-hating miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his change of heart after an encounter with the Ghosts of Christmas may be one of the most famous and influential Christmas books ever written. I had read and watched quite a few adaptations for children when I was a kid, so to this day I remember it as a Christmas favorite!

3) The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffman

Nutcracker - ETA HoffmanOfficially titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the German fairy tale of the toy prince and the little girl who loved him is one that I remember fondly from my childhood, as my mom would read it to us when we were little. Aside from an adapted children’s book, we also had a couple of Nutcracker figures that we’d put out every December with the rest of our Christmas decorations (coincidentally, one of them eventually got a broken jaw, just like the Nutcracker in the story). Though there may not be much to tie this story to the season other than the fact that it takes place around Christmas, I still like to keep The Nutcracker on my list of holiday classics!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Robert L. May4) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Robert Lewis May

Why not add a little music to the list? Since its first publication in 1939, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been a common favorite Christmas story among children, and an even more popular song. I have fond memories of singing the background chant version with my sisters (“Like a lightbulb!”), sometimes for the whole family to watch during our annual Christmas presentations. Maybe this tale spoke to me for its message about being loved for what makes you special, or maybe the song was just that catchy, but either way, Rudolph has always been a holiday favorite of mine!

5) The Nativity of Jesus (a.k.a. “The Original Christmas Story”)

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” (Gerard van Honthorst, 1622)

With all the consumerism and stress surrounding the holidays, it’s easy to forget why Christmas is celebrated in the first place. That’s why the birth of Jesus is always on my list of favorite Christmas stories: without it, none of the others would exist! Chronological inaccuracies aside, I’ve always considered the account of Christ’s birth to be an uplifting tale that’s worth remembering every time Christmas comes around. I love spiritual and holiday stories alike, so the nativity of Jesus may very well be my favorite Christmas story of all!

What about you? What are your favorite Christmas stories? Any classics you remember fondly from your childhood?

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