Genre: Non-fiction

Review – Sticker

Posted April 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Sticker

Sticker

by Henry Hoke

Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 152
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Stickers adorn our first memories, dot our notebooks and our walls, are stuck annoyingly on fruit, and accompany us into adulthood to shout our perspectives from car bumpers. They hold surprising power in their ability to define and provoke, and hold a strange steadfast presence in our age of fading physical media. Henry Hoke employs a constellation of stickers to explore queer boyhood, parental disability, and ancestral violence. A memoir in 20 stickers, Sticker is set against the backdrop of the encroaching neo-fascist presence in Hoke's hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, which results in the fatal terrorist attack of August 12th and its national aftermath.

Unfortunately, I seem to be having bad luck with my Object Lessons choices lately. I enjoy the ones which pick into the history of an everyday object and try to understand it, like Personal Stereo and Blue Jeans. I’m less a fan of the memoir type, and Henry Hoke’s Sticker falls into that category. It’s a life told through tenuous connections with stickers, from the stickers his mother put on bottles of dangerous household cleaning products to the parental advisory stickers on CDs and onward.

There’s absolutely a place in this world for this kind of memoir, and the story of a gay kid growing up in Charlottesville is a story worth telling. I want to be clear that it’s not that I don’t think the story should be told at all. I’m just not a fan of it in this series, and nor is it something I particularly seek out to read (nor memoir in general). Just not for me.

So, if you’re looking for something that discusses the history or wider cultural relevance of stickers, this ain’t remotely it. Which is a pity, because that book would be fascinating. This book is about Henry Hoke.

Rating: 1/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Posted April 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Ten Birds That Changed The World

Ten Birds That Changed the World

by Stephen Moss

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 416
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

For the whole of human history, we have lived alongside birds. We have hunted and domesticated them for food; venerated them in our mythologies, religions, and rituals; exploited them for their natural resources; and been inspired by them for our music, art, and poetry.

In Ten Birds That Changed the World, naturalist and author Stephen Moss tells the gripping story of this long and intimate relationship through key species from all seven of the world's continents. From Odin's faithful raven companions to Darwin's finches, and from the wild turkey of the Americas to the emperor penguin as potent symbol of the climate crisis, this is a fascinating, eye-opening, and endlessly engaging work of natural history.

Stephen Moss’ Ten Birds That Changed The World is a style of non-fiction I enjoy very much, where history gets illustrated through a focus on key things like archaeological items or, well, birds. Instead of being a straightforward timeline, such things can give a different view on well-worn events and times: an everyday view, or a less human view.

Much of this focuses on how humans have exploited and endangered birds, as one might expect, from climate change to more direct impacts. There are also interesting discussions about other things, though, like the fact that “Darwin’s finches” have become the focus of a sort of mythology around the figure of Darwin. In reality, the finches played little part in the germination of his theories, and were recognised later as the perfect example of his theories in action.

One thing I found a bit questionable was the focus on ravens as mentioned in what Moss referred to as one of the earliest stories, that of the Biblical flood. He’s wrong. The same story is told in the epic of Gilgamesh, also featuring a raven — and that epic was, of course, written before the Bible. It’s curious that he makes no mention of it, but perhaps it’s not very surprising at all since he matter of factly refers to “the birth of Christ” as a way of marking time (not just through using the term “BC”, but specifically stating that something happens “before the birth of Christ”). There’s a particular kind of framing there, subtle but noticeable, and it raises questions about the depth of Moss’ research when discussing mythological and legendary depictions of birds (at the very least), or about his ideological decisions in writing the book. Definitely a weird moment. Of course one’s beliefs shape how one writes and thinks, but a little objectivity is important when you’re talking about historical fact.

All in all, I enjoyed it, but perhaps not as much as I hoped to.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – A Fish Caught in Time

Posted April 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Fish Caught in Time

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth

by Samantha Weinberg

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 256
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago, and believed by many scientists to be the evolutionary missing link - the first creature to crawl out of the sea. Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer had thus made the century's greatest zoological discovery. But Smith needed a live or frozen specimen to verify the discovery, so began his search for another coelacanth, to which he devoted his life.

I didn’t really expect to be hooked when I picked up Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time. Fish aren’t a huge interest of mine, even coelacanths, and in many ways the book is quite biographical in detail, discussing the life of J.L.B. Smith and Margaret Smith in quite a bit of detail, along with some of the other personalities who searched for live coelacanths.

Nonetheless, I found it surprisingly riveting! And that’s always fun, when a book turns out to surprise you. And there are details about coelacanths too, and the controversies surrounding them (are they a missing link between the water and the land, for example? and do they bear live young, or not?), which the biographical details help to highlight and contextualise.

It also helps to make the political implications of coelacanths and their territories very clear; I hadn’t particularly thought about who might consider themselves to own coelacanths, and yet it’s very clear that various countries and localities and political bodies have tried.

If you’re looking for something that’s more of a deep dive into coelacanth biology and ecology, this wouldn’t be it — but it’s an interesting history of the moment the first recently-dead coelacanth was found, and what it meant, and what it led to.

Rating: 4/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Posted April 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time

by James Suzman

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 464
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Work defines who we are. It determines our status, and dictates how, where, and with whom we spend most of our time. It mediates our self-worth and molds our values. But are we hard-wired to work as hard as we do? Did our Stone Age ancestors also live to work and work to live? And what might a world where work plays a far less important role look like?

To answer these questions, James Suzman charts a grand history of "work" from the origins of life on Earth to our ever more automated present, challenging some of our deepest assumptions about who we are. Drawing insights from anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, zoology, physics, and economics, he shows that while we have evolved to find joy meaning and purpose in work, for most of human history our ancestors worked far less and thought very differently about work than we do now. He demonstrates how our contemporary culture of work has its roots in the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago. Our sense of what it is to be human was transformed by the transition from foraging to food production, and, later, our migration to cities. Since then, our relationships with one another and with our environments, and even our sense of the passage of time, have not been the same.

Arguing that we are in the midst of a similarly transformative point in history, Suzman shows how automation might revolutionize our relationship with work and in doing so usher in a more sustainable and equitable future for our world and ourselves.

James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time didn’t really go where I expected. It takes a very long view of work and starts before humans even evolved, down at the level of cells doing “work” and life acting ultimately to increase entropy (even as it appears to create order). He spends a long time discussing the early evolution of humans and human society, discussing hunter-gatherer societies (extrapolating back from currently existing ones to make guesses about earlier ones, which is always dangerous though probably justifiable).

When he eventually got round to farming societies, half the book was already gone, and he dashed madly onward to do industrial societies at a gallop. I felt like half of this book wasn’t on topic, and some of his promises weren’t kept in terms of what he was going to discuss. Either a lot of the first part needed to be cut, to keep things at a relatively surface-level throughout… or he needed to go just as in-depth on the second half.

There were some interesting titbits here, including contradictions to received wisdom about sexual selection that’s intriguing and which I want to look into further, but it just doesn’t come together well.

Also, the editing was very shaky in some places. Typos galore! Ouch.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Book Love

Posted April 7, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 3 Comments

Review – Book Love

Book Love

by Debbie Tung

Genres: Graphic Novels, Non-fiction
Pages: 136
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Bookworms rejoice! These charming comics capture exactly what it feels like to be head-over-heels for hardcovers. And paperbacks! And ebooks!And bookstores! And libraries!

Book Love is a gift book of comics tailor-made for tea-sipping, spine-sniffing, book-hoarding bibliophiles. Debbie Tung's comics are humorous and instantly recognizable--making readers laugh while precisely conveying the thoughts and habits of book nerds. Book Love is the ideal gift to let a book lover know they're understood and appreciated.

Debbie Tung’s Book Love is an easy enough read which blithely presents a certain picture of what it is to love books. There are definitely pages I relate to — like the one where she’s in the middle of one book, can’t wait to start a new one, and just lets herself read the introduction… which leads to reading the whole thing.

On the other hand, I feel like she leans into a particular sort of loving books where it’s as much an aesthetic as anything, to the point of being an affectation, and one that I think has become ever more popular because of phenomena like “bookstagram”, where half the time people want books to take pictures of them (hence, probably, the page where she insists on returning a movie edition of the book, and hence definitely the page about checking out book-related social media to “inspire” you to read more).

I’m not immune from the aesthetics of books, to be clear. A flat or a house isn’t a home to me until I’ve brought my books in, and I continue to love reading dead-tree books even as I adore my sleek and comfortable ereader. I love getting new books, and I love the smell of books. But I don’t get so precious about it: I’m fine with lending books or giving books away, with reading the movie tie-in edition, with being less conscious all the time of being a person who reads, and my ereader is a constant companion even though it doesn’t look as bookish.

Sure, I knew going in that this one would be all about books, but it’s suspiciously full of bookshops, coffee shops and fairylights too, and that grates a bit.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Spacecraft

Posted April 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Spacecraft

Spacecraft

by Timothy Morton

Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 144
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

Science fiction is filled with spacecraft. On Earth, actual rockets explode over Texas while others make their way to Mars. But what are spacecraft, and just what can they teach us about imagination, ecology, democracy, and the nature of objects? Why do certain spacecraft stand out in popular culture?

If ever there were a spacecraft that could be detached from its context, sold as toys, turned into Disney rides, parodied, and flit around in everyone's head-the Millennium Falcon would be it. Springing from this infamous Star Wars vehicle, Spacecraft takes readers on an intergalactic journey through science fiction and speculative philosophy, revealing real-world political and ecological lessons along the way. In this book Timothy Morton shows how spacecraft are never mere flights of fancy.

I really like the concept of the Object Lessons books — and it’s true that they don’t promise each book will be factual, just saying that each book is about the hidden life of an everyday thing. Nonetheless, the ones that aren’t really histories are often disappointing to me, and that’s so with Timothy Morton’s Spacecraft.

See, I’m not a big Star Wars fan. I saw the originals, and I saw the prequels, and I enjoyed them well enough, but I’ve not seen any of the more recent stuff, because I don’t watch many movies or TV shows at all and Star Wars just doesn’t draw enough enthusiasm from me. If it took me months to watch Good Omens (both the original series and then, after it came out, the second series), Star Wars has a “no hope” (see what I did there?).

This book is not about spacecraft. It’s about the Millenium Falcon, mostly, and a little bit about hyperspace, and a lot about object-orientated ontology (in which I have vanishingly little interest). I hoped I could get into it all the same, but… nope. To me, this is a waste of an option to write about what we understand about real spaceships, how they’ve impacted on our real lives.

Besides which, Morton’s narration just… went places. So many places. At seeming random. One topic would flow into another and I just couldn’t keep hold of the point.

Rating: 1/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – Ghosts in the Hedgerow

Posted April 1, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Ghosts in the Hedgerow

Ghosts in the Hedgerow

by Tom Moorhouse

Genres: Mystery, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 271
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A body lies motionless on the ground. Small, with a snouty head and covered with spines, it is unquestionably dead before its time. And all of those gathered around the corpse are suspect. So which one of them is responsible for this crime - and for the disappearance of many many thousands of hedgehogs in recent decades?

Is it the car driver, the badger, the farmer, the gardener ..? Who could possibly have it in for a hedgehog? In poll after poll they come out top as our favourite mammal. And yet their numbers are estimated to have halved in less than twenty years. Magnifying glass in hand, Tom Moorhouse investigates the evidence. On a vital mission to bring those responsible to justice, prevent further murder and save a species, he uncovers a story full of twists, turns and uncomfortable truths about the trade-offs that exist between humans and wildlife. But he can also see a solution.

Tom Moorehouse’s Ghosts in the Hedgerow tries to use the whodunnit format to interrogate what might be causing the decline in hedgehog numbers seen in the UK in recent years. It does undermine the whole premise right from the get-go by explaining that the decline is only really known anecdotally: hedgehog numbers aren’t really properly counted, and we rely on a bunch of estimates which aren’t really comparable between decades (e.g. between hunters trying to kill hedgehogs before they became a protected species, who would specifically seek them out, and now birdwatchers who may incidentally spot hedgehogs).

Nonetheless, he makes a convincing case that their numbers are declining (which I didn’t really doubt in the first place), and then trots through the suspects: road traffic, badgers, farmland bereft of hedgerows (in contrast to traditional farming), and home/garden design. None of the suspects are surprising if you’ve been at all awake to hedgehog ecology (which I have, as my parents have a hedgehog-friendly garden, and my garden is as well), and of course the final answer isn’t surprising either: it’s all of those things.

It’s a fun idea for a format, but if you’re already interested in hedgehogs, there isn’t much new here. The exact details of how hedgehogs and badgers interact were new to me, but that was about it. However, if you don’t know much about hedgehogs, other than finding them cute, then this could very well be a fun and easy way to learn more, and learn about how to make a difference to them.

To sum it up very quickly: cut holes in your fences so hedgehogs can pass through, use strimmers with caution, don’t use autonomous lawnmowers, rewild your garden, put out some supplementary food for them and a bowl of water, and try to convince other people to do the same (while writing to your MP etc etc about making changes in law). And don’t drive a car, especially not as it starts to get dark and through the night, when hedgehogs roam.

Rating: 3/5

Tags: , , , , ,

Divider

Review – Pill

Posted March 29, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Pill

Pill

by Robert Bennett

Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 176
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: one-star
Synopsis:

"You are what you eat." Never is this truer than when we use medications, from beta blockers and aspirin to Viagra and epidurals-and especially psychotropic pills that transform our minds as well as our bodies.

Meditating on how modern medicine increasingly measures out human identity not in T. S. Eliot's proverbial coffee spoons but in 1mg-, 5mg-, or 300mg-doses, Pill traces the uncanny presence of psychiatric pills through science, medicine, autobiography, television, cinema, literature, and popular music. Robert Bennett reveals modern psychopharmacology to be a brave new world in which human identities- thoughts, emotions, personalities, and selves themselves-are increasingly determined by the extraordinary powers of seemingly ordinary pills.

I usually enjoy the Object Lessons series, but they’re pretty varied in what they contain — the best (in my views) as the ones that act as microhistories, looking at the development of a thing, what it means to people, etc. Pill doesn’t really do so, though: it does try to explore what a particular type of pill (psychiatric medication) has meant to people, without much of the scientific/medical side of things. Largely, Bennett spends the time recounting the events of TV shows, books, etc, with a minimum of actual commentary. The character did this, then that; another character said this about it; this is how things ended.

It’s really boring to read, and it doesn’t help — for me — that Bennett’s obviously deeply ambivalent about the use of psychiatric drugs, but uses these fictional examples as if they’re truths. They aren’t. Fiction is fiction. And yes, sometimes it reflects reality and comments on reality (and medication in real life can have side effects, or not work, etc), but Bennett seems in danger of forgetting that the characters aren’t real, and their struggles aren’t real.

He reveals in the last chapter that he has bipolar disorder himself, describing some of his manic episodes, but clearly yearning for them as well. Psychiatric medication, he believes, changes his personality, mutes his creativity, etc. You can tell by reading that he’s within an ace of unprescribing himself from his own medication — and by his own admission, chaos will undoubtedly ensue if he does.

All in all, the book is more of a summary of various movies involving psychiatric conditions, followed by a confession of instability and uncertainty on the part of the author. The final chapter alone feels a lot more worthwhile than the regurgitated plots, though it’s inconclusive and perhaps not quite coherent.

Rating: 1/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider

Review – The Walnut Tree

Posted March 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Walnut Tree

The Walnut Tree - Women, Violence and the Law: A Hidden History

by Kate Morgan

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 319
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

'A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more they are beaten, the better they'll be.'

So went the proverb quoted by a prominent MP in the Houses of Parliament in 1853. His words - intended ironically in a debate about a rise in attacks on women - summed up the prevailing attitude of the day, in which violence against women was waved away as a part and parcel of modern living - a chilling seam of misogyny that had polluted both parliament and the law. But were things about to change?

In this vivid and essential work of historical non-fiction, Kate Morgan explores the legal campaigns, test cases and individual injustices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras which fundamentally re-shaped the status of women under British law. These are seen through the untold stories of women whose cases became cornerstones of our modern legal system and shine a light on the historical inequalities of the law.

We hear of the uniquely abusive marriage which culminated in the dramatic story of the 'Clitheroe wife abduction'; of the domestic tragedies which changed the law on domestic violence; the controversies surrounding the Contagious Diseases Act and the women who campaigned to abolish it; and the real courtroom stories behind notorious murder cases such as the 'Camden Town Murder'.

Exploring the 19th- and early 20th Century legal history that influenced the modern-day stances on issues such as domestic abuse, sexual violence and divorce, The Walnut Treelifts the lid on the shocking history of women under British law - and what it means for women today.

Having loved Kate Morgan’s book on the laws surrounding murder, I was prepared to quite enjoy The Walnut Tree — though, being a history of the rights of women through discussing the laws and legal cases that shaped them, it was bound to be pretty grim in some ways. And of course it was: it’s not easy (and nor should it be) to read about the way men used to be allowed to abuse women and deprive them of liberty, and how women were faulted for all kinds of things in order that people shouldn’t have to convict the men in their lives of anything.

Still, Morgan tells the story through well-chosen cases that illustrate a lot of the anxieties and questions in people’s minds at the time, and she manages to bring it all to life in a way that I (at least) find very readable and enjoyable. She has a knack for settings things out clearly and engagingly, and I enjoy this tactic of taking a legal-eye view of things.

That said, of course (as I mentioned), it does discuss some horrible cases and some very unfortunate women — abused, kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered. It’s saddening and infuriating, and sometimes it’s worse to think about the fact that some of these excuses and attitudes can still be found today. “She was asking for it”, “it was a crime of passion”, “she owed me”…

Not a comfortable read, but one that I found fascinating.

Rating: 5/5

Tags: , , , ,

Divider

Review – Doctor

Posted March 15, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Doctor

Doctor

by Andrew Bomback

Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 176
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

A 3-year-old asks her physician father about his job, and his inability to provide a succinct and accurate answer inspires a critical look at the profession of modern medicine.

In sorting through how patients, insurance companies, advertising agencies, filmmakers, and comedians misconstrue a doctor's role, Andrew Bomback, M.D., realizes that even doctors struggle to define their profession. As the author attempts to unravel how much of doctoring is role-playing, artifice, and bluffing, he examines the career of his father, a legendary pediatrician on the verge of retirement, and the health of his infant son, who is suffering from a vague assortment of gastrointestinal symptoms.

At turns serious, comedic, analytical, and confessional, Doctor offers an unflinching look at what it means to be a physician today.

Some of the Object Lessons books are histories of the object under discussion, peeking into history through a very specific lens. Andrew Bomback’s Doctor instead looks at being a doctor right now, with only a little historical context in the form of his musings about his idolised father. There’s some contrast between being a doctor now and how it used to be, and some discussion of how doctors navigate the world — all alongside his experiences as a father, how his profession impacts his children, etc. It’s more of a memoir than anything: how enjoyable you find it will depend on how you find Bomback as a person, to some extent.

Bomback Jr isn’t one of those doctors perpetually driven by “making things better”, and his frustration with some patients — his contempt, even — drips off some of the pages. Without thought, he lists the patients he dislikes, ending with: “healthy, never sick, never really needed to see me, but convinced there is something wrong that I am yet to find”. He hates those patients more than the patients who refuse to comply with his treatment plans.

It’s fashionable and easy to hate on those with health anxiety (“hypochondriacs”, “attention seekers”), but consider: there is something wrong with us. That fear that we can never quiet is ultimately the problem we need help with — and it’s a doctor’s job to get to the root of the problems we present to them, and to help us, because they have the expertise to see what we do not. There are options: addressing underlying trauma, providing lifestyle advice, and yes, medication too.

If you don’t know that, if you can’t see that, if you just casually dismiss those people as not needing help, well… you’re a shit doctor, and you should feel a deep shame. And sure, he’s mostly concerned with patients’ kidneys rather than general practice, and maybe he himself can’t help with health anxiety (though I notice he was happy to prescribe Xanax if his patient’s wife said he needed it), but he can at least have some damn humanity and recognise that fear, rather than complain about them because their fear makes them question his vaunted expertise.

So needless to say, I did not end this book thinking “ah, Dr Bomback sure is a nice guy”, which I’m sure is what he’d like people to think. I know what he’d think of me, and I am profoundly relieved he’s unlikely to ever have to treat me. I’d hate to get on his nerves by so rudely having medical trauma.

Rating: 2/5

Tags: , , ,

Divider