Tag: non-fiction


Review – Vikings

Posted 19 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Vikings by Neil OliverVikings: A History, Neil Oliver

It’s a rather odd experience, reading this soon after reading Francis Pryor’s work. Where Pryor minimises the impact of folk migration, Oliver highlights at least half a dozen occasions where the Norsemen did, in fact, invade or colonise. From apparently the same sources, they argue completely different things. Now, Oliver’s work is a bit more accessible than Pryor’s, I think; for a start, this ties in with a BBC series (though Pryor’s Britain AD had a tv series as well, I think) and is generally pitched at that level, avoiding tedious levels of detail like the exact sequence of archaeology — interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, but not always the most riveting reading.

It also features a lot of attempts at imagining the past and bringing to life the past: Neil Oliver’s poignant imaginings about Birka Girl, for example. For me, that has varying success — for example, it’s all very well to note that someone had a lavish burial in a highly visible place, but does that necessarily mean they were loved by the people around them? Maybe it’s guilt, or ritual sacrifice, or political show.

Still, generally Oliver manages to be both informative and entertaining. For myself, I wished he’d spent more time on Icelandic concerns, since he mentioned Iceland few enough times it has a one line entry in the index. One line! And yet Iceland is the place I know the most about in terms of preservation of contemporary evidence, the sagas, etc. And on that note, I could’ve wished for a bit more engagement with the sagas, especially since any lit student knows that they were preserved with high fidelity and not written centuries later — they were written down centuries later, but the stories themselves were far older and were communicated orally well before they were written down.

(Well, unless new research has found otherwise in the four years since my MA, but I haven’t heard or read anything to that effect.)

Enjoyable read, and an antidote to the idea that Vikings were nothing but bloodthirsty raiders.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Touch

Posted 15 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Touch by David J. LindenTouch: The Science of The Hand, Heart, and Mind, David J. Linden

Touch is a pretty fascinating book, delving into the importance of the sense of touch for us and what it would mean to lose that sense. It’s not just losing the sensation of your skin touching something, after all: touch receptors also play a part in interpreting pain, heat, etc. In a way, the book as a whole tells you about more than just touch, since it also gives a solid background in the nervous system and the brain.

It’s also pretty focused on stuff like orgasms and sensual touching, sometimes with fairly explicit (and somewhat unnecessary) examples, e.g. a description of a couple having sex. You may or may not find that helps your understanding; I found it intrusive to be told to imagine these things in which I have no interest! Particularly as some of these descriptions are addressed to you, the reader.

I felt that it got a bit scatterbrained at times — sometimes I felt that it wandered away from touch onto other aspects of our sensory experiences, though that’s almost to be expected. We divvy up our senses into some rather artificial boxes at times; just think of how linked scent and taste are. But mostly I found it interesting and easy to read.

Rating: 3/5

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 13 April, 2017 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

Ssh. It’s not Thursday yet. I’m in a magical bubble of time dilation, or something.

Cover of The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayWhat have you recently finished reading?

Juuuust finished my reread of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. My heart is broken, of course; he writes brilliantly, and the ending is so tragic and bittersweet. And ugh, I wish Rodrigo and Ammar could just… walk away, and not fight each other. It’s inevitable that they do, and that’s part of the heartbreak, but. Gah.

Cover of New Scientist: Where the Universe Came FromWhat are you currently reading?

With the usual caveat that I’m technically currently reading a lot of things, the top of my pile right now is The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. I had an ARC, but I saw a published copy in the local bookshop and grabbed it. Couldn’t resist. And now I’ve finally started it!

What will you read next?

I’m fairly confident, for some reason, that on Thursday morning I will start reading New Scientist’s Instant Expert: Where the Universe Came From. Because I haven’t been bending my brain with relativity enough already. Possibly this has something to do with how I can time travel so I’m still in Wednesday as I write this…

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Review – On the Origin of Species

Posted 13 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 11 Comments

Cover of On the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.

But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.

Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Britain AD

Posted 9 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Britain AD by Francis PryorBritain AD, Francis Pryor

From my perspective, speaking as an English Lit postgrad who concentrated heavily on Arthurian and medieval literature, Britain AD has two main weaknesses. The first is the fact that Pryor doesn’t understand or attempt to engage with the shift in language to form English. He suggests there is no reason to suspect mass migration of Angles and Saxons into the UK, regardless of accepted work by people like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza into the way population genetics tends to show that language, identity and genetics move together.

Secondly, he doesn’t know the subjects he’s talking about nearly well enough. I’d be happy to defer to him on the archaeology of King Arthur, but when it comes to the textual history, I know my stuff — and Pryor has enormous gaps. For example, he speaks of Sir Thomas Malory introducing the ‘Holy Blood’ aspect of the Grail legends… heedless of the fact that Robert de Boron pre-empted Malory by two centuries. (And possibly the Vulgate cycle did too — I don’t have my copies handy to check and I don’t trust online sources to steer me right!) He also utterly ignores the existence of the Saint’s Lives that mention Arthur and the Welsh folk tales.

These might not be important to the way Pryor views Arthur, but I think it’s always been clear that the Arthurian legends are more fiction than fact — so if you’re going to talk about them, you really need to understand the fictional aspects and how the legends developed. Pryor simply does not, and that puts all the rest of the book on shaky footing for me.

The same applies when it comes to understanding whether or not there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion or settlement or anything of the kind. He never manages to account for the rise of the Anglo-Saxon language. He talks about the spread of ideas instead, yet if that were the case, we’d expect to see much more influence from the Celtic languages on English in names for basic, everyday things. Why do we say “bread”, then, from Germanic brood, instead of bara? Why is it a “church”, from cirice, and not eglwys?

I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Pryor’s theories don’t accommodate the way languages work at all — and to be convincing, they must.

Then there’s the fact that he picks which genetic study he proves because, and I quote, “It also supports my own theories — which is an enormous point in its favour.” This may be intended as flippant, but still, that is not the way to critique studies, especially ones which are outside your area of expertise. You can’t pick which theories you like based on which one agrees with your own theory, or it becomes horrifyingly circular.

Where he speaks about archaeology, I don’t have the tools to criticise — and he is well known and well thought of, so I’m sure he’s at least along the right lines. But where it crosses things I do understand — genetics, linguistics, and most of all literature — I find Pryor’s grounding very shaky. I enjoy his writing, but can’t give him more stars than this because his thesis is just too questionable. And it really makes me question whether Britain BC was all that, although it was more deeply grounded in archaeology.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Catching Fire

Posted 4 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard WranghamCatching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham

I know I’ve been reading and reviewing a lot of non-fiction lately, but this is probably one of the more entertaining and accessible of the bunch in style. It’s a convincing idea: what caused humans to be able to evolve such big brains and short digestive tracts, compared to other species? The answer, according to Wrangham: first the ability to hunt and eat raw meat, then control of fire for cooking meat.

It’s a very readable book, making all the science and history easy to follow. For me, it was an enjoyable read, though not exactly revolutionary; I was aware of most of the ideas already, since I’m fascinated by human evolution. It pulls together various different threads of the story, bringing together evidence from different ways of understanding human evolution.

(Oh, but if you don’t believe in evolution, this… will not be the book for you. That’s definitely an assumption of the book.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain BC

Posted 3 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Britain BC by Francis PryorBritain BC, Francis Pryor

Having read Francis Pryor’s Seahenge, and of course knowing his work on Channel 4’s Time Team, I was very interested to read this. The prehistory of Britain is mostly not my main period, at least where it applies to the Stone Age, but it is the focus of about half of this book — and of much of Pryor’s interest. That’s fine with me, because though it might not be a period of literature and known culture, it is the period of henges and causewayed enclosures, burial mounds and early humans. It helps that Pryor’s enthusiasm is obvious throughout, and his writing is approachable.

(I can actually understand the people who find it dry — when you’re not that interested in the subject, anything can drag, and Pryor does spend a fair amount of words on flints and the evolution of their form and use. But for me, that enthusiasm carries it.)

His theories and interpretation of the evidence more or less goes along with the other work I’ve read, for example from Mike Parker Pearson, who wrote an excellent book on the conclusions of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Beyond that, I’m not really qualified to comment, though I do find myself wondering somewhat about his opposition to the idea of any mass migration happening from Europe. The thing is, mass migration must have happened sometime, or there’d be nobody in Britain even now. It’s true that we’re pretty sure now that invasion is the wrong term, and that often the spread of ideas was more important than the spread of people. But there are genetic differences between the Welsh and the English, language doesn’t change as completely as from the Celtic languages to the Anglo-Saxon language without some kind of impetus… I mean, the people in Britain today are not going to adopt French unless there’s suddenly a big need for us to communicate with people speaking French — and that isn’t likely to be talking among ourselves unless there’s a significant presence and intermarriage with French speakers. There’s also the influx of Anglo-Saxon mythology and attitudes; Beowulf is not a native British poem by any means, and there are plenty of parallels between English and Scandinavian languages and culture which don’t exist between the Welsh (for example) and Scandinavia.

So I’m somewhat sceptical about the suggestions in this book that the British have more or less been the same people for such a long period of time. There are definitely things which have survived which point to a closer and less adversarial relationship between the incomers and the residents of Britain, but incomers there must have been.

When it discusses archaeology, it’s probably on safe ground. I’d be less sure when you also need to consider non-physical culture and language.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Deadly Companions

Posted 2 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Deadly Companions by Dorothy H. CrawfordDeadly Companions, Dorothy H. Crawford

If you’re looking for a book about how human history has been shaped by microbes, and to some extent the evidence from microbes about our own development, this book is definitely going to be of interest. It’s not just diseases, though it does mention a lot of them; it does also touch on some of the more harmless microbes we’ve been carrying around. And of course, it talks about how we’ve shaped the evolution of microbes, as well.

If you’re a nut about this kind of topic, this isn’t very in depth and I don’t think you’re going to learn much from it. Something like David Quammen’s Spillover hits some of the same points while going a bit more into depth. But it’s a well-written survey of the subject, perfect for a layperson.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Death of Caesar

Posted 31 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Death of Caesar by Barry StraussThe Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss

I was interested to read The Death of Caesarsince I’d read Barry Strauss’ work before — his book on Spartacus, for one, and the one on the Trojan War. I was less impressed with this one — it’s still informative and interesting, and it even pulled out things I didn’t know about the Ides of March and Caesar’s life in general. For example, if I’m thinking about the Ides of March, I’m thinking about Brutus and Cassius, and not about a guy called Decimus who didn’t even make it into Shakespeare’s version properly. And yet Strauss brings Decimus back into the foreground, pointing out how close he was to Caesar. If Caesar’s last words were “et tu, Brute?”, then he was referring to this Brutus: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.

But. The book didn’t have quite the energy I remembered from the book on Spartacus, and things seemed to drag on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t only cover the death of Julius Caesar, but also somewhat of the rise of Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus). It seems to wander a little from the point — but then, how would you write a whole book about the Ides of March? And doesn’t it make sense to cover the political fallout and the fate of the assassins?

So possibly I’m just being picky, but this didn’t feel as riveting as Strauss’ other books. Interesting, though, definitely.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Gaia

Posted 29 March, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Gaia by James LovelockGaia, James Lovelock

When I’ve heard of the Gaia theory before, I’ve usually heard of it in a sceptical sort of context that criticises the tree-hugging idea that Earth has a soul. That is not actually the main thrust of Lovelock’s argument at all: instead, what he argues is that Gaia, or Earth, is a self-sustaining system with in-built feedback loops which hold it more or less steady and capable of supporting life.

If you’ve studied climate or geology or even the water cycle, you know that he’s not wrong about the self-sustaining system. There’s so many negative feedback loops which keep things in check — some of which are, of course, threatening to be sabotaged by the action of one particular upstart mammal species with delusions of grandeur. We’re a part of the system, of course, but one which may have got out of hand. Or maybe not; maybe our intelligence will help rein us back in. We can only hope.

The point is, Lovelock’s not saying anything about a cosy loving Earth Mother spirit watching over us. Though his language in this book is sometimes poetical, and his sense of wonder at nature is clear, he’s talking about self-regulating, self-sustaining systems. He’s talking about the fact that the world has checks and balances in place which bring Earth into equilibrium, even though other factors — like the sun’s energy output — have changed over time. And okay, at some points he goes off on a tangent about whale intelligence and a hypothetical future in which whale brains give us technological advances, but the science here isn’t wrong.

There’s nothing actually revolutionary or tree-hugging here. It’s just true. Call it Gaia or call it a complex set of feedback loops; whatever you’re comfortable with, I guess. I do wish I’d read Revenge of Gaia instead, since this is horribly optimistic that humans will pull our collective fingers out and stop damaging the planet. I suspect Lovelock’s less sanguine about that prospect now.

Rating: 4/5

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