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Book Review of: Trace Your Roots with DNA

We highly recommend Trace Your Roots with DNA, if you have an interest in genealogy.

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Review of Trace Your Roots with DNA, a genealogy and genetics book by Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola

This book explores the convergence of genetic research and genealogy, and provides its own convergence of the academic with the practical.

Some people make a life's work of tracing their family roots. I'm not one of those people. But a few years ago, my sister researched our family's immigration on the paternal side and found the account we'd been told our whole lives simply wasn't true. So when I saw this book, I thought it might be interesting. That's exactly what it turned out to be--in spades.

The authors took care to make the book readable to both novices and experienced genealogical researchers. As I have no experience in genealogy, I very much appreciated Part I. It gave me a good background, so I could understand and enjoy the rest of the book. Folks who already knew the basics  could skip over Part I, without missing out on something of value to them.

This modular organization of Trace Your Roots is something I want to explain a bit more, by looking for a moment at a different genre. One of my pet peeves with computer books is most of them are either extremely basic throughout so you get bogged down in boring detail, or they are so advanced you just can't move forward. The correct approach is to include a primer on the basics for those who need it, and then write the book as though everyone knows the basics. I was pleased that Trace Your Roots took this approach.

Moving beyond the primer (which addresses genealogy and then genetics), the book takes one subject at a time and explains it in a clear and interesting way with examples and anecdotes.

In Part II, we start with tracing roots along the paternal path. There are two basic reasons for taking this path. The first is biological--the Y chromosome. The second is cultural--many cultures, especially in the West--preserve the paternal surname. There are some twists in this approach, though, and the book explains what they are and how researchers handle them.

The next topic is, as you might expect, tracing roots along the maternal path. The main reason for taking this path is biological--the mitochondrial DNA. I was fascinated by the explanation and implications of this. And here's a tidbit. The father's contribution (Y chromosome) contains nothing essential, which makes sense when you realize that female offspring don't have Y chromosomes (and so don't pass along the paternal line). The mitochondrial DNA, however, is very different in that respect and in other ways as well.

Part II also explains where various genetic groups seem to originate and why. Chapter 5 contains a fascinating account of a man who had made his African American heritage a major part of his life and identity. But through genetic testing, he discovered he had no African American heritage--what he "knew" was based on faulty family lore.

Where Part II delves into tracing next of kin relationships, the implications cover a wide area of interests. This kind of research affects everything from paternity suits to family reunions to identifying natural parents. Consider one anecdote the book revealed. An adopted child of unmarried parents finds her natural father, and they develop a close relationship. But, she struggles for years to find her natural mother. She uses the tracing techniques in Part II and finds her mother. But, the mother denies the man is the woman's father--and genetic testing proves he's not. You'll read other accounts where truth seems stranger than fiction, as well.

Part III puts the paddle in the water. It's here where you see how to apply the knowledge gained in the previous pages. This part explains how to join or run a research project, how to contact research participants, how to persuade people to donate genetic material and information, how to interpret test results, how to share results, and how to obtain the shared results of other research. If you want to research your roots, this part of the book will save you hours of frustration.

The final chapter of the book explains current trends and extrapolates them into some interesting predictions. The appendices are valuable to those engaged in genetic or genealogical research. There, you'll find a comprehensive guide to resources (magazines, books, societies, forms, Websites, software), a directory of DNA testing companies and DNA testing products, and a comprehensive glossary. The book is also well-indexed, making it a good reference tool for your bookshelf.

If you are involved in any research into your lineage, Trace Your Roots with DNA is a "must have" book.





About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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