Tag: non-fiction


Review – Maus

Posted 16 April, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Maus, by Art SpiegelmanMaus, Art Spiegelman

It’s hard to figure out how to rate or review this. I mean, do you rate it as art? As a story? Or as non-fiction? As something in between, that nonetheless tries to express the truth? I quite liked Spiegelman’s style: the panels were maybe a little too busy at times, but the drawings had character and life.

More importantly, I think in writing his father’s story, Art Spiegelman managed to capture something we can be prone to forget: the Jews were not necessarily all nice people, all innocent victims and young girls like Anne Frank. There were greedy Jews, Jews who survived because they were quick-thinking and put themselves first, Jews with horrible opinions and so on. Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek isn’t a pleasant character in many ways, but what he goes through and the finer aspects of him show us that it doesn’t matter what kind of people the Jews who suffered and died were, they didn’t deserve Auschwitz and Dachau and all the other concentration camps. We don’t need an idealised innocent young girl to know what happened for the horror it was — that might make it easier on us, but to me it’s equally important to remember collaborators and cowards, the everyman and the rich banker and even the ones who stole each others’ food or lorded it over them to survive. Half of those horrors were created by the conditions anyway.

Which is to say… there were no perfect people. It’s a mistake to forget that, to forget that we’re still talking about humans all their messy glory. Maus reminds us pretty firmly that horrific things can happen to people who aren’t that nice themselves, and remain horrific.

So all in all, I don’t know that I like it much, but it’s one of those things where I have to consider the work that went into it and what it says, what it does, more than my personal enjoyment or not.

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Review – Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction

Posted 15 April, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction by Paul BahnArchaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Paul Bahn

This was okay, but honestly? If you’re interested in archaeology, watch out for the “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” course to run again on Coursera. It covers a lot of the same issues, but in more depth, with more examples, and obviously with the chance to interact with a lot more people/opinions (even if you just watch the videos). The assignments help you focus on and get to grips with the techniques and discussions.

This book is… much more basic. It’s very informal, often very personal to the author (as where he sneers at theories he doesn’t agree with, or makes snide comments about other people working in the field). There are some useful bits, and it’s certainly an easy (and very brief) read, but mostly I think you’d be better investing a bit more time in this, via Coursera or via other, better books.

One section that rather riled me was the whole bit about “feminist archaeology”, mostly using those scare quotes. Bahn falls into pretty much every pitfall in talking about feminism, claiming for example that the history of men is now going to be ignored, and comparing women to slaves who will want to be masters. Right. Thanks, dude.

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Review – Just Babies

Posted 8 April, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Just Babies by Paul BloomJust Babies, Paul Bloom

I’ve read one of Paul Bloom’s books already (How Pleasure Works) as well as being part of his Moralities of Everyday Life MOOC on Coursera, so a lot of the psychology experiments and arguments were not at all new to me.

Just Babies is, like Bloom’s other work, accessible to the lay reader, written without frills and complications. Bloom sets out his argument quite simply, without over-complicating anything. Overall, I find it hard to say what I think about this book specifically, since I was already aware of Bloom’s ideas and already had opinions on them. There’s certainly nothing I violently disagree with, for all that Bloom is much more of a utilitarian than I am.

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Review – The Normans

Posted 29 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Normans: From Raiders to Kings by Lars Brownworth The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, Lars Brownworth

I thought I knew a decent among about the Normans. I mean, I’ve read a couple of books focusing on Normandy’s rulers, and obviously I don’t think a British schoolchild gets all the way through education without getting the date 1066 hammered into them and at least a vague idea about William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book.

But! This actually goes a bit further and looks at other Norman rulers, who pushed into Italy and Sicily — something that I wasn’t really aware of as stemming from Norman origins. I’ve read bits about this before, but never from this perspective. I knew nothing about the descent of the family or the web of feuds between them, Byzantium, various popes, and the German kingdom/s of the time.

All in all, pretty interesting, and well-written. I’m not sure about “witty”, which another review mentions, but it isn’t a chore to read. It does seem to have a reasonable number of sources and footnotes, which is another thing that makes me wary when it comes to popular histories. All in all, glad I won this from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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Review – Marketing the Moon

Posted 28 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Marketing the Moon by David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. CernanMarketing the Moon, David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. Cernan

Lots of photos and so on in here! I imagine it’d be a big glossy book to own, although I just had it from Netgalley. It’s more about marketing the space program, as you’d expect, than about the actual space aspect itself, though there’s plenty of snippets of information, and it does look at the astronauts themselves as part of that marketing effort.

If you’re an Apollo enthusiast, it’s worth picking up, I’d say. It’s certainly accessible and informative.

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Review – Dry Store Room No. 1

Posted 27 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard ForteyDry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey

A lot of reviews comment on how dry they found this book, but I rather enjoyed it. I like Richard Fortey’s style of writing, despite his tendency to ramble and get distracted. It’s more of a biography or history of the Natural History Museum than a chronicle of the science that goes on there, but there’s some of that, too.

I liked the sense of exploring a wonderland — Fortey plainly finds everything in the Natural History Museum a delight and a revelation, and I shared in that. He got in some apt comparisons, too, like comparing the museum’s storage to Gormenghast.

I was vaguely aware of most of the broader details here about trends in collecting and displaying, but most of the details about the actual scientists and curators were completely new to me. This book has a distinctly gossip-like feeling, which I didn’t mind at all.

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Review – The Biggest Bangs

Posted 25 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Biggest Bangs by Jonathan KatzThe Biggest Bangs, Jonathan I. Katz

This is supposed to be written for a layman, or so the introduction says, but it pretty much made my eyes cross with the technical stuff. I mean, I can follow the explanation of how gamma rays free electrons which then cause damage to neighbouring atoms, and then the energy of all this and the ‘healing’ atoms makes the other element glow with heat, but I have a limited amount of tolerance for pages on pages explaining the difficulty in getting a direction for the gamma ray bursts from that.

Just, generally, too much information for me. I suspect that someone more interested in astrophysics would enjoy it more, but mine is a casual interest. I’m most interested in gamma rays when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are studying them to locate an object of immense power in the hands of most emphatically the wrong person.

(Or if there was a description of the effect of gamma rays on DNA. That too would’ve got my attention as surely as a giant green ragemonster.)

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Review – An Introduction to English Poetry

Posted 24 March, 2014 by Nikki in Academic, Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of An Introduction to English Poetry by James FentonAn Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton

This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry.

We disagree on quite a few things — his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as “not English” (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer’s Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn’t mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas’, but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have “done them right” than he suggests.

Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.

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Review – Survivors

Posted 23 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Survivors by Richard ForteySurvivors: The Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind,
Richard Fortey

I enjoyed this enough that I’ve reserved the other books by Richard Fortey that my local library has. He has a somewhat rambling style, though, which might not be to your taste. I enjoyed the ride, in general; in terms of the science, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, concept-wise, but some of the animals and habitats Fortey described were new to me.

It was quite personal to him, in a way, covering stuff he’s particularly interested in and documenting his travels to find these creatures (to the extent of talking about sipping gin and tonic from a plastic cup while sat on the balcony of the inn at Yellowstone). That might be less than interesting to some, but I did quite like knowing about the wider habitats surrounding these creatures, and the human context that they’re so often really close to, maybe even endangered by.

The inserts with colour photos are nice: words generally work better for me than pictures, so I wasn’t that interested, but it does give you a glance at some of the stranger, more anciently derived creatures of our planet.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 20 March, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
Fiction-wise, it was Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge, which I loved to bits. If I had to come up with an immediate comparison, I guess Franny Billingsley’s Chime comes to mind — some similar ways of dealing with human/Other interaction, plus flawed families that feel real.

Non-fiction-wise, it was How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom, which, well, I love my science so his very clear, very accessible, very basic style disappointed me a little.

What are you currently reading?
Many things, as usual. Two ARCs have reached the top of my not terribly orderly pile: The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Natasha Mostert’s The Midnight Side. Because of the very nature of the twists I’ve been promised in the latter, I think I’ve figured out the story and I’m not desperately impressed, but will finish it. Don’t know if I’ll review the other two books I was approved for by her, though. The Wizard’s Promise is so far fun, though I think I like the protagonists of The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish better.

Next down on the pile (if you think of it in terms of archaeology, with strata, you wouldn’t be far wrong) is Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. I’m not head over heels in love with it, but I recognise Cath’s fannishness and also her social awkwardness, and I think I might end up liking it. Although one review I read pointed out the chronic boundary pushing going on around Cath, and now I can’t stop seeing it. It’s really setting my teeth on edge.

Still reading Tam Lin, The Thirteenth Tale, Retribution Falls, etc, etc.

What do you think you’ll read next?
It’s been pretty well established that I don’t have a clue. But I’m looking thoughtfully at the book I got from the library on zoonotic diseases, and I’m thinking of finally getting to Maus and Persepolis, to prove that I r serious graphic novels reader, as well as a fan of superhero comics.

Although I did also get a Marvel Now Journey into Mystery: Featuring Sif TPB, so there’s plenty of the latter due to go on, too. I should finish reading Dark Reign: Young Avengers, too.

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