Catching 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.)
Britain 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.
Deadly 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.
The Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss
I was interested to read The Death of Caesar, since 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.
Gaia, 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.
Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose
How lucky do you gotta be to have a name like that when you’re an author? Honestly, I hope it’s not a penname — it’s just too perfect.
The book, however… Well, I was hopeful when I read the first chapter. It talks about the value of close-reading, which I’m very much agreed with. I was taught close-reading by Professor Martin Coyle, and especially when it came to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was revelatory. There’s so much there if you just focus deeply on the words of a text — references, clues, imagery, that you just might not register if you read fast. And I agree with Prose’s fears that literature is being taught as a mass of conflicting theories, to the exclusion of really understanding the nuts and bolts. While I am a new historicist, new/practical criticism has always been a huge help to me — and it continues to be so, even in understanding scientific writing.
If you’re interested in that kind of reading, though, I’d recommend Martin Coyle and John Peck’s Practical Criticism and Peck’s How to Study a Poet. You can also pretty much teach yourself by just looking hard at a poem — circle things that seem significant, underline, draw maps of how it works… You’ll likely see the value of it pretty quickly if it’s a way of thinking that will work for you. (And, bonus, both books are especially good if you want to learn how to communicate what you find via close-reading.)
However. The rest of the book mostly consists of extracts of what Prose has decided is “good writing”, almost all of it from very literary examples, and then her discussion of it. To me, this isn’t the way to learn how to read like a writer — if that is what this technique achieves — but just the way to learn how one writer reads. Not quite the same thing. It’s also notable that there’s no sign of genre fiction in here at all. Ms Prose, I do suggest you pick up some fine genre stylists; perhaps Ursula Le Guin? You might get a whole new education.
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code, Sue Armstrong
This is a good survey of the study of the p53 gene: one gene which turns out to have quite a bit influence on whether or not cancer develops in the body. It features some science, some history, some characters, and generally clear explanations of exactly how the science all works. It’s evident that it’s written by a journalist and not an expert, but that’s usually the perfect level for a casual reader anyway.
Now, if you don’t find cancer and how it progresses interesting, this will probably be lost on you. But if you have any interest, the background covered here is quite important to understanding cancer as a disease. It covers stuff like the “two hits” theory, why some children can be born with cancer, etc, etc. Enjoyable might be the wrong word for it, but I found it easy to read and informative.
Natural Histories, Brett Westwood, Stephen Moss
If you’re pretty well versed in natural history and biology, this book won’t hold many surprises for you — though it might have a few titbits you’re unaware of. It’s certainly very readable, and the cover design is pretty darn awesome. And slightly creepy, in that way which things of nature can be. (I mean, have you ever seen a rabbit’s skull? Erk.)
It might be more enjoyable if read alongside or as a recap for the radio programme it was based on. As it is, it seems to hop around the animal kingdom rather randomly.
This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s just that the book isn’t really a good fit for me. And it did hold a few surprises.
Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City, Gwendolyn Leick
After reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book, I was eager to read more about Mesopotamia — a place and culture which has influenced so much of humanity’s subsequent history, but about which we often know all too little. This book looked like the perfect way to get more information: it discussed the building of early cities, which includes so much of what’s relevant to humanity. Interaction, education, religion, etc, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s badly written. Or rather, it’s overwritten: sentences meander along to conclusions which don’t always make sense, or which could have been put much more cogently. Suppositions go unsupported, instead phrased in a kind of hopeful, artistic way.
For example, Leick mentions the lagoon beneath the first city, Eridu. She links this to vessels found in presumed temples throughout Mesopotamia, containing water. Okay, I can go with that; I’ll trust your link there. And then:
Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memry of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.
What Middle Eastern buildings? What centuries? What are the links that would cause that memory to be retained? What’s the evidence? Why are you saying this, is it important? Or is all of this speculative, more poetry than history? Without being able to judge that, the whole thing falls apart somewhat. Combined with the overly abstruse sentences, and I found myself unconvinced it’d be worth my time. I didn’t finish the book.
I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong
If you’ve already read books like Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes, a lot of this info won’t be new to you. However, Ed Yong’s enthusiasm and wider range — dipping into the microbes of other animals and even insects — is a joy. He also provides a counterpoint to some of Blaser’s more hysterical ideas about the loss of microbes. He agrees that microbes are important, and that our relationships with them are complex. But he doesn’t accept that we’re totally doomed. There’s tons of research into repopulating our guts with beneficial microbes, prebiotics and probiotics. No doubt things are in the pipeline which will make a difference.
Yong is significantly less hopeful about the potential of procedures like faecal transplants — though the results have been encouraging in cases of C. difficile infections, the potential for treating inflammatory bowel disease seems more limited. It’s not impossible that a refined version of faecal transplants can help to rebalance the irritated and inflamed gut systems of people who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases… but so far, the data isn’t there.
With his enthusiasm and interest, Yong makes me want to hurry the heck up, get my biology degree, and get stuck into researching on exactly these topics. One thing is for sure: our microbiome is incredibly important, and we need more research. Our gut microbes can affect our overall health in so many ways — mental health included — that I foresee a lot more time being spent on this in labs in the near future. And I hope I’ll be one of the people working in one of those labs.
If you don’t know much about microbes, fear not: Yong’s writing is clear and accessible, with no technobabble. I think this book would be totally accessible to anyone with an interest.