Tag: non-fiction


Review – A History of Ancient Egypt

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

Cover of A History of Ancient Egypt by John RomerA History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, John Romer

I don’t know much about modern Egyptology; it’s been a long time since I read exhaustively about the subject, and the books I referred to then were either for children or very out of date, albeit fascinating in their own way. (Christine Desroches-Noblecourt’s description of the treasures and items found in King Tutakhamen’s tomb held me spellbound for days at a time, and I frequently returned to it, fascinated by what we could glean of the boy king, and of Ankhasamen, his sister-bride.) This book kept some of the fascination of those books for me, though it deals with early Egypt, the very first pharaohs. That does mean it covers up to the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid, so it does include some of the very classic Egyptian things people think of, though not the gold-encrusted tombs of later pharaohs.

Because I don’t know much about modern archaeology in Egypt, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of Romer’s interpretations. There is an extensive bibliography, of course, and he steers away from some of the romanticised, imperialist assumptions of earlier theories. Still, at times I had no idea how solid a base his theories stood on: he seemed to spend a lot of time telling the reader what can’t be gleaned from the remains, and then building up some kind of story — a court organised around early pharaohs, controlling the flow of goods along the Nile — anyway.

On a purely stylistic level, it has some of the grandeur and wonder of the books I used to read, and finds wonder in the simplest carvings and burials as well as the feats of engineering, but the sentence structure… needs work. I don’t usually nitpick grammar, but there were far too many long sentences where the subject wasn’t clear, or which lost focus halfway through, or were fragments. Quite offputting.

I’m definitely interested in reading the follow-up volume, once it’s out!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Thinking, Fast and Slow

Posted 18 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel KahnemanThinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

This book is a well-respected one which has at its heart one main theory: that we have a certain amount of automatic routines in our brain which we rely on, as well as a more analytical way of thinking. The automatic routines are “fast” thinking, and they’ve served us well evolutionarily, allowing us to come to immediate conclusions in dangerous and ambiguous situations. The analytical way of thinking is “slow”, and correspondingly resource intensive, and we tend to only engage it when we have to.

So far, so good, and I don’t disagree with his findings and examples as generalisations. There’ll always be exceptions, for example being primed with the words “banana” and “vomit” does not make me associate bananas and vomit. Instead, I think about my lack of a gallbladder, because I know that a lot of the time when I’m sick, it’s nothing to do with the food I’ve eaten as such and just to do with the proportion of fat in it, thus meaning that I have learnt to de-associate food as a specific cause-and-effect for nausea. Tl;dr: exception that proves the rule. My routines have been rewritten to reflect my reality, and now that is the assumption I make when I’m thinking lazily.

The problem is that he goes into such excruciating detail of statistics, despite the fact that he knows from his own work that his readers have no intuitive grasp thereof — and me even less so, since numbers are a weak spot for me. And he uses examples based on the American educational system, which is also Greek (or Arabic) to me. And sometimes he’ll digress into discussing some theory from economics, leaving me frankly bored.

It’s worth reading, I think, but I might almost recommend you pick up one of the ‘thirty second’ or ‘simplified’ versions other people have written. The central thesis is fine, but the book drags on.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Seven Skeletons

Posted 14 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Seven Skeletons by Lydia PyneSeven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, Lydia Pyne

Received to review via Netgalley

Seven Skeletons is a very readable survey of some of the most famous hominid skeletons ever discovered. The choice of skeletons to discuss is interesting: it includes the known hoax, Piltdown Man, because like or not, that alleged find had a massive effect on the field for far too long. It’s not solely a discussion of each skeleton’s merits as part of the hominid ancestry, but also of their part in our culture and history. Indeed, the most important aspect is that it places each skeleton in context, viewing them as a part of a larger picture as well.

If you’re very familiar with the stories of hominid finds around the world, you may not find much new here. What I enjoyed was the contextualising, even to the extent of discussing speculative fiction based on the finds. That context is far too often ignored, considering speculative fiction is often right on the cutting edge. For a detailed analysis of each skeleton’s importance on an anatomical level, I’d look elsewhere, and it’d be a heavier read. This is more cultural and thus, for me, easier (though not necessarily more fun!).

Some of the formatting was awkward, but I put that down to reading an advance copy on my Kindle. I imagine those issues will be smoothed out for the published version, especially the print edition.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Home

Posted 4 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Home by Francis PryorHome: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory, Francis Pryor

Unlike the more focused Seahenge, Francis Pryor’s Home tries to cover a lot of ground — no less than looking at the roots of family life in the Neolithic world, and its development through to recorded history. There’s a lot of evidence to look at, but a lot of it doesn’t deal directly with the home: in fact, Pryor discusses Seahenge and Stonehenge at reasonable length, as well as other potentially sacred places and practices that we don’t now fully understand (or in some cases, understand at all). It somewhat ties in with what I’ve been reading recently about Celtic culture, and the development of infrastructure in Britain, though it covers a lot more centuries, so it was interesting to see where it dovetailed.

Unfortunately, I think the fact that there’s sections about burial practices and the like detracts from the central theme, even though it does relate to how a home life might have been seen and how individuals were treated. Pryor’s willingness to speculate about all these things makes the book seem a little overstuffed at times — reiterating ideas from Seahenge and from Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehengethen discussing Pryor’s own digging experiences, and then talking about a hoard found somewhere else… It lacks focus, I think, which is a shame.

It’s still a fascinating book, and Pryor writes well and interestingly, but it feels like the material could equally constitute most of Britain BC, which I haven’t yet read but intend to. It isn’t just about the home; we don’t have enough evidence for that, as much as we would wish it. Instead, questions about ritual and beliefs about death intrude at all times, partly because these are things we are more fascinated to know, and only partly for the way it reflects on the living of life.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Posted 2 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too MuchThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett

Originally reviewed March 11th, 2011

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is definitely the wrong title for this book, because that’s really not what this book is about. The love of stories is something I can relate to, easily — or even the love of beautiful first editions. The amoral antics of a thief who wants to have books as a status symbol, and the wishy-washy morals of the story-hungry writer, are not something I can sympathise with as much. And I increasingly worried about the latter. She could have reported thefts of books worth thousands and thousands of dollars; she could have reported credit card fraud; she could have helped to discover where Gilkey hid the books.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure that she would do that last — and I knew she didn’t report the thefts or the fraud. She becomes an unreliable narrator, I think. I mean, humans already tend to be, because even the most honest of us have fallible memories. I was almost more interested in that increasing swing to being on Gilkey’s side.

In any case, as a book, it’s easy to read, though not exactly glittering prose. It’s a collection of recollections and personal musings, none of which I found particularly interesting. The more interesting figure of Ken Sanders, the “bibliodick”, was rapidly written out as he began to notice the author’s growing bias and unethical practices.

Rating: 2/5

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The Princess Who Didn’t Eat Cake

Posted 1 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Princess Who Didn't Eat Cake by Lynn O' ConnachtThe Princess Who Didn’t Eat Cake, Lynn E. O’Connacht

Once upon a time, people who weren’t interested in sex (or who weren’t interested in sex to the expected level, or people who were only interested in sex with very particular people) found each other and realised it was a thing, and started to support each other and make a space to talk about how it affected them. And it was great, because it made people a little less alone.

But it’s not always obvious to everyone that this describes them, that this is a useful community to have, etc. So if you’d like to understand a little more about it via the medium of a fairytale, Lynn O’Connacht has got you covered — and the booklet also includes an essay explaining things a little further, and a list of fiction which contains characters who share this experience. The focus in this case is specifically demisexuality, but honestly I think it’s something relevant to anyone on the asexual spectrum, or anyone curious about it.

Disclaimer: I helped to edit the non-fiction essay, and Lynn is a friend of mine.

You can find the ebook here! You’ll be pleased to know that it’s “pay what you want”, so if things are tight, you can still pick it up.

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Review – Reading in the Brain

Posted 1 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Reading in the Brain by Stanislaw DehaeneReading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene

This was a really, really fascinating read, and surprisingly easy to grasp considering the technical subject. I actually read it surprisingly fast, and it was definitely the sort of book that provoked a lot of turning to my partner to ask “did you know that…”. It also made me ask a ton of questions of my mother about how I learned to read, why I learned to read late, etc, and honestly had me wondering if I should volunteer for a study on reading — the methods of reading and learning to read that Dehaene mentions don’t seem to apply to me, despite the studies backing up his hypotheses.

I can only really react to this book via my own personal experience/understanding, so this is going to veer off into anecdata a lot. On a purely intellectual level, it seems as if Dehaene’s theories are sound (although I’m not sure his model of synaesthesia is correct). Some of his phrasing was… mildly offensive to me, for example describing synaesthetes as “mostly not crackpots”. Why on earth would an intelligent person, a scientist, even connect synaesthesia with delusions? I know uninformed people sometimes do, but a scientist should know that the brains of synaesthetes genuinely cause them to experience (for example) words in colour, and not talk about them being “convinced” that they do, or describe them as “mostly not crackpots”.

Anyway, on an anecdotal level, Dehaene’s model doesn’t fit me at all. I didn’t/couldn’t learn to read via phonics. At all. I was eventually got reading via essentially the Whole Word method, and I still don’t connect graphemes and phonemes well at all. If I see a new word, I don’t actually think at all about how to pronounce it; I get the meaning from context, and mentally tag the image of the word with it. I only think about how to pronounce a word when I eventually find cause to say it (and then I will more often than not get it wrong). Dehaene not only thinks that doesn’t work as a way to learn words, but the model of dyslexia he proposes is essentially focused on that inability to connect phonemes and graphemes. By the logic in this book, I should be a very limited reader — yet from as quickly as a year after finally learning to read (and I waslow), I was routinely getting the reading score of an adult, and reading adult books fast and voraciously.

Probably there’s some crossover in the fact that I’m synaesthetic; as a child, I apparently complained that the books school gave me to learn from “tasted bad”. And given how terrible my visual skills (particularly the ones located in the same area of the brain Dehaene identifies as the brain’s word form area) are, I’ve got to wonder if maybe learning to read without the phonetic route caused more of my brain to specialise in reading than average.

In any case, it’s a fascinating topic and Dehaene’s book is mostly very readable and, as far as I can tell, mostly inoffensive — though the way he talks about synaesthetes makes me wonder if dyslexic people might also be less than pleased with the descriptions here. I’m definitely going to look up other pop science (or maybe even some studies) about how reading works in the brain; I’d like to know if any other theories describe my way of reading better, and what developments have emerged since this book was written.

Rating: 4/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 30 August, 2016 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a freebie around the theme “back to school”. I’m sure there’s plenty of YA novels out there people are recommending that involve schools, so I’m gonna take the other way and send y’all back to school — with some non-fiction books I think are awesome.

Cover of A History of the World in 100 Objects Cover of Pompeii by Mary Beard Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot Cover of Shaking Hands with Death by Terry Pratchett Cover of The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins

  1. A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor. The objects are all in the British Museum, so there’s definitely some problems with a very Western viewpoint, but I found it all fascinating and MacGregor does acknowledge the issues. There’s a little bit of history from all over the world here, even if it is only a very little bit in some cases.
  2. Pompeii, by Mary Beard. Going from the general to the hyperfocused, Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii is a fascinating survey of what we know and can guess about Pompeii.
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. If you haven’t read this, I definitely recommend it: it’s a fascinating look at the development of cancer research, and the debts incurred along the way. There’s a lot of issues about race and consent that are worth considering.
  4. Shaking Hands With Death, by Terry Pratchett. Or the longer book which contains that essay, A Slip of the KeyboardI’m wholly supportive of the initiative to pass laws on assisted suicide, and Pratchett’s words are to the point and heartfelt.
  5. The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins. This book is really the best of Dawkins — mostly devoid of sniping at religious people, and concentrating on the science. The Ancestor’s Tale tells the tale of human ancestry, back through countless common ancestors. Provided you believe in evolution, this might be the least controversial Dawkins book, since as I recall it doesn’t propose any new theories either.
  6. Spillover, by David Quammen. Are you scared about the idea of a pandemic? We’re making them more likely all the time, and this book is a very good look at how and why.
  7. Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina Perry. Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments are so famous that the findings have spilled out of psychology and into general knowledge. But Gina Perry examines the evidence from the experiments and raises some serious questions about Milgram’s ethics, and even his results.
  8. Stonehenge, by Mike Parker Pearson. Pearson was part of a huge project at Stonehenge to reinterpret the evidence and expand what we know. His theories are pretty well supported by the archaeology, on which he did a lot of work.
  9. Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. Our brains are really, really weird. Like, turns out that there are autoimmune disorders of the brain which can mimic various psychological problems, and pass almost under the radar — instead, Cahalan’s condition was dismissed as borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, etc. And yet she was curable, with antibiotics. It just goes to prove we don’t know everything yet.
  10. DNA, by James Watson. Skip Watson’s admittedly historically important The Double Helix unless you want to be enraged. DNA has much the same information and a lot more, while being more accessible and less sexist.

Cover of Spillover by David Quamnem Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry Cover of Stonehenge by Mike Parker Pearson Cover of Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan Cover of DNA: The Secrets of Life by James Watson

Tahdah! I know it’s a rather eclectic mix; that’s how my brain works, I’m afraid. Any of these catch your eye?

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Review – The Undivided Past

Posted 29 August, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Undivided Past by David CannadineThe Undivided Past, David Cannadine

I’m not sure if I’ve totally grasped the point of this book, because if I have, it seems very simplistic: basically, that none of the great dividers between people (religion, nationality, class, gender, etc) are actually as divisive as we think, and that they haven’t been historically either — that men and women have cooperated in societies before now, that Islam and Christianity have coexisted, etc, etc. If there’s really a trend for historians to claim that’s not so, then it does make sense to offer a counterpoint, but it’s not really a point of view I’ve ever seen. While people might not have been talking about intersectionality under that name for so long, I think it’s always been obvious that it exists.

So, in that sense, Cannadine’s book reads as though he’s setting up a series of strawmen to knock down. Of course religion doesn’t divide us wholly — nor does it unite us, as he shows by talking about the quarrels between Catholics and Protestants, or Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Of course there’s been cooperation between genders, between nations, and of course there has been conflict between them. To me, a lot of this seemed very obvious, and hardly worth spending so much ink and paper discussing why it proves that no one identity divides (or unites) man.

If the call is ultimately for unity, one still has to wonder — on the basis of what? Humanity? But the time is coming, if it hasn’t already come, where we could dispute the boundaries of humanity. If you rely on machines to survive, are you human? Are your interests aligned with “humanity”? Once almost any organ can be replaced with an artificial one, is a person in receipt of a lot of those surgeries still human, with the same preoccupations and needs as the rest of us? (My answer would be yes, but it’s a thing which has yet to be debated politically and socially, outside of science fiction.)

Also, I think it’s already showing its age, and it was published in 2013. There’s been no movements based on male identity, according to Cannadine — but Men’s Rights and GamerGate have been a thing. And there’s no modern feminism? What about EverydaySexism, etc?

The book is still a worthwhile survey of the divisions between us and how significant (and not) they’ve been, but if I understood the thesis correctly, then it’s not exactly groundbreaking.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Celts

Posted 25 August, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Celts by Alice RobertsThe Celts: Search for a Civilisation, Alice Roberts

This book was written to accompany a BBC series that I haven’t seen, but that doesn’t seem to detract from it any. I seem to be seeing a lot of people lately considering the issues of Celtic identity: how do we pin it down? Is it based on language, material culture, genetics? Is it really a thing? I’ve been to the temporary Celtic exhibit in the British Museum, as well as read this and — for contrast — Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths, which views Celtic identity as very contiguous across Europe. (It is reassuring that most of the facts here chimed with Robb’s claims, if you’d like to believe in his theories!)

This book surveys evidence from all over Europe, eventually coming to the conclusion that Celticness might have originated in the West and spread east, rather than the other way round. It also pours cold water on the idea of human sacrifices (though it doesn’t mention some of the archaeological evidence about Boudicca’s revolt and the claims of human sacrifice and barbaric practices around that), with what I think seems like justified scepticism. Roberts points out that we’ve got a fundamental problem where the literature is interpreted in ways which prop up the interpretation of archaeological finds, at the same time as those archaeological finds are held up as truth in interpreting the literature.

Overall, Roberts is relatively unconclusive, if conclusions are what you’re looking for. Celtic identity is a bit of a morass, and its modern importance to Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Cornish people may well be a very recent construct. That makes it no less powerful, and there’s something understandable and powerful in modern people looking back to our ancestors and trying to understand them, claiming to be a part of them. After all, we must be.

Rating: 4/5

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