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Red Headed Femme
"I think, therefore I'm single." --Lizz Winstead
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two excellent science books in a row. This is a wonderful thing.

I picked this book up at the library mainly because of the magical word in the title: D*I*N*O*S*A*U*R*S. I've always loved them; one of the first toys I ever had was a battery-operated, six-inch-tall, motorized Tyrannosaurus Rex. Press one button on the controller, and the little green guy would walk forward, with enough noise to raise the dead; press the other button, and he would roar. As I remember (this was in the Late Cretaceous era, you know) you couldn't press both buttons at the same time.

It didn't matter. I had absolutely no use for dolls, preferring my various plastic dinosaurs and my noisy, cranky T-Rex.

So this book, needless to say, was right up my alley. I didn't even know what a "trace fossil" was when I started it. Trace fossils, as I was to learn, are everything dinosaurs left behind other than their bones: their fossilized footprints, claw marks, trails, body and/or feather impressions, eggs, nests, burrows, toothmarks, gastroliths (stones swallowed by some dinosaurs to aid in digestion), as well as fossilized feces, urine, and vomit. I didn't know such a specialized field as ichnology, or the study of these trace fossils, existed.

Needless to say, such a deeply technical book can get high, dry, boring, and incomprehensible very quickly, if the author permits it. That is the genius of Anthony J. Martin: he never lets his material get out of hand. His love for what he does shines through from the first page to the last, and because he wants to share that love with his readers, he communicates complex scientific concepts in an clear, understandable style. More than that, he writes this book with a sense of humor, so much so that I giggled and cackled throughout.

I mean, when's the last time a science book made you laugh out loud?

As a matter of fact, reading this book made me realize what was wrong with my previous review, Ellen Willis' Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I started Dinosaurs Without Bones while I was still struggling to finish Willis' way-too-serious tome, and the contrast was immediate and obvious. There are some subjects, be they dinosaurs or Bob Dylan, that need to be approached with humor, or you'll just bog your readers down.

Willis falls into this trap. Martin doesn't.

I haven't included quotes in my reviews before, but I'm going to for this one, just so you get the flavor of the writing. This comes from my favorite chapter, chapter 8: "The Remains of the Day: Dinosaur Vomit, Stomach Contents, Feces, and Other Gut Feelings."

Assume that every dinosaur pooped. If so, not all of these end products of dinosaur digestion were preserved in the fossil record. But you will have a load taken off your mind when you know that those found thus far have not gone to waste, nor remained the butt of jokes.

The author is punnier in some places than in others, but the whole book is like this. Who knew piss, puke and shit, along with all the other trace fossils, could be so entertaining?

Anyone who loves dinosaurs will love this book.

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My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a helluva time getting through this book. If it had been fiction, it would have been bashed against the wall before page 80. But because it's an essay collection, subdivided into sections entitled "The World-Class Critic," "The Adoring Fan," "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Navigator," and "The Sociologist," with the essays grouped around those themes, I thought, well, I'll just go on. Surely it'll get better.

Sadly, it really didn't.

Ellen Willis was a pioneering female rock journalist, with the bulk of her musical work taking place in the sixties and early seventies. Her favorite subjects were Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Janis Joplin. Speaking strictly from a technical point of view, she was a good writer--her essays are intelligent, thoughtful, and on point. Unfortunately, the very first essay in the book, "Before the Flood," (1967) about Bob Dylan, magnifies her biggest flaw: her complete lack of humor regarding her subjects. (To be fair, I think it should be MANDATORY that anyone who writes about Dylan approach him with a healthy sense of snark--otherwise, the writer inevitably starts to sound as ponderous and pretentious as his/her subject.) Her droning voice was well nigh impossible to wade through, and what little affection I have for Bob Dylan had all but vanished by the end of the piece.

This way-too-serious tone marred the rest of the book. To be sure, a music writer doesn't need to have the frantic, attention-deficit-disorder style of, say, a Lester Bangs, but a few cracks about the absurdity of stardom and/or the music business in general would have been appreciated. In fact, the best section of the book, by far, is when she brought feminism into the mix. (But there still had to be a downer essay about Bob Dylan in this section to nearly ruin it, dagnabbit.) She talks about bands/artists such as the Joy of Cooking and Ms. Clawdy that I've never heard of, and describes them so eloquently it makes me want to search for their music. Her voice is more focused and eloquent in "The Feminist," and a couple of observations even approach the wispy edges of humor!

I believe there are a few more collections of Ellen Willis's essays out there, and one focused on feminism might be worth picking up. I'm sure classic rock aficionados will appreciate this one. Unfortunately, for me it didn't cut it.

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"A Diarist...with a Megaphone"
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