Tag: non-fiction


Review – Politics: Between the Extremes

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

Cover of Politics: Between the Extremes by Nick CleggPolitics: Between the Extremes, Nick Clegg

Once upon a time, I was a Lib Dem voter — in fact, I was one of the values-driven, idealistic voters who chose a party based on my values instead of on political realities, like how likely they were to be able to beat Labour in my area. (Answer: they weren’t, it would’ve been impossible, and indeed the place where I grew up is still a pretty safe Labour seat.) I suppose to some extent I still am: I’m unlikely to vote for certain parties based on their stated values, even if they somehow came up with a policy I agreed with strongly (like electoral reform, perhaps). So I wanted to see what Nick Clegg had to say for himself and for his party’s time in government.

It’s pretty defensive of the Liberal Democrat position, unsurprisingly; at times slipping into self-pity, I think. Clegg vividly defends the Lib Dem policy of compromise with the Tories, and claims that he was sidelined by the Tories in order for them to present a picture of a Tory-led government. Behind the scenes, says Clegg, the Lib Dems exerted a disproportionate amount of influence. This may well be true, and it makes sense that they did compromise; idealist or not, I know that politics must involve some compromise, especially in a coalition between the left and the right. I just don’t agree with some of the compromises made.

Clegg seems naively surprised by the extent to which the heart rules the head in the public’s political decisions. He expects a liberalism based on cool reason and logic — despite the fact that his own rise was a highly emotive thing, driven by the hopes of young voters. He’s right that he should have taken more control of the political narrative and shaped it, but I don’t know to what extent that would have helped the Lib Dems in the specific situation in which they found themselves.

His personal-level musings aren’t the key feature of this book, but he does show a healthy respect for David Cameron, and a disgust for Michael Gove that warms the heart. Ultimately, of course he tries to justify what the Lib Dems achieved, or didn’t, during the coalition. But he also makes a fairly convincing case that we need more compromise, more coalitions; we need to temper the current tide of conservatism with a revitalised liberalism. I’m sure from his comments on the Labour party that he doesn’t expect to see Corbyn doing it… in fact, it’s not very clear where he does hope for it to rise from.

I suppose the only answer left is: you and me. Writing this review in advance, just days after Trump became the President-elect of the United States, I don’t know what to say. I wonder what the world will look like politically by the time this goes live!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Art of Language Invention

Posted 1 January, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Art of Language Invention by David J. PetersonThe Art of Language Invention, David J. Peterson

Though this is written by the linguist behind Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, this isn’t a populist cash-in type of book. It goes into the history of conlangs (constructed languages) a little bit, and then delves deep into all the ins and outs of creating a convincing one — from phonology to grammar to script. It’s fascinating, if sometimes a little hard to follow for someone who isn’t interested in building their own invented language, and thus doesn’t have something to apply the ideas to.

The book covers a lot of ground by including some case studies of invented languages as well (Dothraki, unsurprisingly, included). Less usefully for me, it includes phrasebooks for some invented languages.

Ultimately, I think you have to be pretty darn into conlangs to get much value out of this, but it is a fascinating subject.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Posted 29 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 12 Comments

22318578-1The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

I’m not usually one for self-help books and such, and pretty much only read this because I had a reading challenge prompt of reading something in the genre. That said, at least I picked something useful; to a great extent I agree with Marie Kondo’s ideas about minimalism and only owning objects you really love. The suggestions for how to tackle your space are great, and the reminders about not just shipping it off to a parent’s house and so on are important. (That isn’t tidying, it’s cluttering up someone else’s house.) Some of her suggestions about understanding that an object has already fulfilled its purpose were interesting too — I like the idea that a gift has achieved its purpose as soon as you’ve received it, for example.

Some of it gets a little too… woo, for me. I’m not knocking a view of the world that imbues everything with spirit, but it doesn’t work for me, and it sometimes just stretched my credulity too far. If you’re strongly opposed to the idea of talking to your belongings and thanking them for their service, this might not be a good book for you at all — you’d spend too much time scoffing.

I do like the ideas and methods to a great extent, though, and I’ll be keeping that central question in mind as I clean out my wardrobes and such: “Does this spark joy?”

I did stick my fingers metaphorically in my ears and la-la-la through the bit about throwing books away. There were some reasonable points, actually — no matter how excited I was to receive a book back in 2011, if I haven’t even touched it since then, am I really likely to read it? But. But. Books.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Genome

Posted 28 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Genome by Matt RidleyGenome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley

Genome is somewhat out of date by now, published back in 1999. Bearing that in mind, it was a pretty good read; sometimes, the themes Ridley chose for a particular chapter weren’t all that closely tied to the chromosome he chose, and issues like that, but that’s the problem with our chromosomes. The information isn’t distributed neatly across our chromosomes: in fact, those of us with a Y chromosome have one that does almost nothing overall, despite the fact that it affects carriers’ phenotypes so markedly.

It’s mostly informative and tries hard to avoid reinforcing certain misconceptions — like the idea that a gene codes for a disease, or that things are as simple as a single gene coding for a single trait. A lot of the anecdotes are familiar to me from previous reading, but it’s still interesting to see them presented in this way. It’s pretty modern-human-centric: I mean, if you’re going to look at our autobiography of a species, then I think at least a little time needs to be given to the past of our species. People so often want to know how closely we’re related to Neanderthals.

I think Ridley’s tone is a little dry, though; given that and the fact that the book is a little out of date now, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking for a quick and up to date whip around of what we know of genetics. If you have a more general, patient interest, though, why not?

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Predictably Irrational

Posted 24 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Predictably Irrational by Dan ArielyPredictably Irrational, Dan Ariely

If the brain is predictably irrational, then the books which warn us we aren’t the rational creatures we hope are also predictable. I don’t think there was a single circumstance in Ariely’s book I wasn’t already aware of from one experiment or another, one summary or another. That said, Predictably Irrational is well written and easy to digest; there’s no technobabble, and everything is presented in a very readable and readily understandable format. It’s not Dan Ariely’s fault that I’ve read all this stuff before.

If you don’t know much about the topic of the way our brains work, and how counter-intuitive it sometimes is, then this is a good place to start. Unfortunately, that means I don’t have much to say about it — it didn’t hold any surprises for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – This Is Your Brain on Music

Posted 19 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel LevitinThis Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin

Despite loving singing, and having been good enough to perform and not have people run away, I know very little about music. Not that Levitin would be a snob about that, from the sound of this book, but it still forms a bit of a barrier to understanding when someone starts talking about semitones. I can sing C on demand, and I know when something is out of tune — what more do you want? (Although unlike most people, I have a bad sense of timing, apparently: I routinely sing slower than the original version of anything I’m performing. Most people apparently preserve the timing of the version they know best. Trivia!)

So anyway, the music side of this passed me by, mostly, despite the primer in the opening chapters. But the neuroscience behind music is fascinating, and Levitin explains it well. There are a few sections which drag as he spends too long explaining things, but on the other hand he references a wide selection of music, applying what he’s talking about to songs people often know. (Which again led me to wishing I knew more music, but this time popular music — I think I got one out of every five references? And my acquaintance with Bowie is pretty darn recent.)

I feel like the best people to appreciate this have a bit more music theory and a bit less neuroscience in their background, but nonetheless, I found it an intriguing read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt

Posted 17 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Cleopatra by Joyce TyldesleyCleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley

This book is a solid biography of Cleopatra, appreciating her cleverness and ability as a politician, and examining how the world at the time reacted to her. It’s perhaps a little drier than people would hope — how could you make Cleopatra so academic, when she’s such a colourful figure? Well, I don’t mind that at all, and I enjoyed the way it contextualised her achievements and dissected the myths surrounding her. It delves into the background of her rule and her city, as well, giving a picture of Egypt under the Ptolemies.

I’ve enjoyed other books by Tyldesley before, and though it’s not one of my areas of expertise, I have found her books well-written, referenced and clear. That’s more than I can say for some other Egyptologists who write for the pop-history crowd. Other than that, I don’t have much basis to make a judgement, but I found this one enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Gut

Posted 11 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Gut by Giulia EndersGut: The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, Giulia Enders

Gut is a fun light read; it’s not in-depth or academic at all — it doesn’t even have an index! — but it is fun and informative for a layperson. There’s no technical stuff here that isn’t explained, and there’s a fairly light tone to all of it, sometimes quite irreverent. Sometimes, however, you can’t really say it’s irreverent because it’s full of an enthusiasm and awe for our digestive system and everything it can do.

My main quibble was that it was too casual, too light, too much for the layperson. This wouldn’t be my chosen field even if I wanted to, but with just a couple of other books covering similar topics under my belt, a lot of it was just boring. (For example, for stuff on microbes, go for Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser, instead. Much more informative and in-depth, albeit not so easy a read.)

It’s fun, and it probably works well for the intended audience; I’m just not that audience, really. I did learn some interesting facts, and the diagrams/illustrations are pretty fun.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Gulag Archipelago

Posted 9 December, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Flashback Friday review from 13th September, 2010

The Gulag Archipelago is not a book I think you can really read for pleasure. It’s heavy, heavy stuff, and it is — to the best of anyone’s ability — non-fiction. It contains a lot of stark truths about Russia — Stalin’s Russia, and after — and the conditions in the camps. We know plenty about the camps in Germany, and yet even now, decades after this book was published, I knew little about this.

I could as easily shelve it as ‘horror’ as I could ‘non-fiction’ or ‘history’.

Despite that, it’s not unrelenting. There’s hope — the very fact that I read this says there’s hope: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s been heard. And there’s a kind of dark humour, on nearly every page, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of events and of people.

Definitely worth reading, if you can brace yourself for it. I read an abridged translation, but the author worked with the translator/abridger on it, as far as I can gather, so it could be more cohesive and easier to read than the original volumes. Even just dipping in and out of it, a chapter here and there, is better than not reading it at all.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Rare Earth

Posted 30 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rare Earth by Brownlee & WardRare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee

Having read David Waltham’s Lucky Planet, there isn’t much in this older book which is new to me, even though he recommended it for further reading. It’s less up to date, of course, but that’s because it’s older — and at least it does acknowledge stuff like the Viking lander biological experiments, which Waltham did not. If you’re interested in the evidence that’s out there for the fact that our planet might be rare indeed in producing complex life, I’d recommend Rare Earth over Lucky Planet. The science is solid and thorough, and well explained.

My problem with all books like this is always going to be: we have a sample size of one. How can we extrapolate anything? Sure, we know that intelligent life like ourselves can’t exist in a solar system that doesn’t have the right kind of habitable zone. And yeah, we think carbon is the best possible atom to base biochemistry on. But we only think or know these things because that’s what we need, that’s what we can use, under the conditions in which we find ourselves observing. (In other words, it’s the weak anthropic principle.) None of the data presented convinces me that we can do more than guessing in the dark on this subject.

That’s not a reason not to be curious, of course, but it’s also not a reason to give up looking. Obviously, we won’t find anything if we don’t look. It doesn’t make Rare Earth less worth reading, but it does mean that I think readers should stay aware that Ward and Brownlee have made up their minds, and are presenting only the evidence supporting their case. I honestly don’t find either side convincing, though you, of course, may differ.

Rating: 4/5

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