Genre: Non-fiction

Review – Hands of Time

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

Review – Hands of Time

Hands of Time: A Watchmaker's History

by Rebecca Struthers

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Hands of Time is a journey through watchmaking history, from the earliest attempts at time-keeping, to the breakthrough in engineering that gave us the first watch, to today - where the timepieces hold cultural and historical significance beyond what its first creators could have imagined. Acclaimed watchmaker Rebecca Struthers uses the most important watches throughout history to explore their attendant paradigm shifts in how we think about time, indeed how we think about our own humanity. From an up-close look at the birth of the fakes and forgeries industry which marked the watch as a valuable commodity, to the watches that helped us navigate trade expeditions, she reveals how these instruments have shaped how we build and then consequently make our way through the world.

A fusion of art and science, history and social commentary, this fascinating work, told in Struthers's lively voice and illustrated with custom line drawings by her husband and fellow watchmaker Craig, is filled with her personal observations as an expert watchmaker--one of the few remaining at work in the world today. Horology is a vast subject--the "study of time." This compelling history offers a fresh take, exploring not only these watches within their time, but the role they played in human development and the impact they had on the people who treasured them.

Timepieces have long accompanied us on our travels, from the depths of the oceans to the summit of Everest, the ice of the arctic to the sands of the deserts, outer space to the surface of the moon. The watch has sculpted the social and economic development of modern society; it is an object that, when disassembled, can give us new insights both into the motivations of inventors and craftsmen of the past, and, into the lives of the people who treasured them.

An award-winning watchmaker--one of the few practicing the art in the world today--chronicles the invention of time through the centuries-long story of one of mankind's most profound technological achievements: the watch.

Rebecca Struthers is a watchmaker in the traditional mould, and The Hands of Time is a history of time (or at least, timekeeping) from that point of view. It’s not just about watches, but also about the things that shaped our need to keep time, and the times when watches have been showpieces, groundbreaking inventions, solutions to problems, etc.

It’s the kind of book I really love, focusing in on one object (a watch) to tell us about wider society, using the theme to discuss people and events of the past. I don’t know anything about watchmaking, I’m not personally very interested in it, and I don’t wear a watch — but I found Struthers’ reflections on watches and watchmaking fascinating nonetheless.

There was something focused and meditative about it, like spending all day carefully adding details to a very small model: I know real watchmaking is much more painstaking, but one can recognise the feeling, at least. It was very satisfying, even though I’m sure I’ve retained nothing about the actual process of building a watch.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Nefertiti’s Face

Posted July 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Nefertiti’s Face

Nefertiti's Face: The Creation of an Icon

by Joyce Tyldesley

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Little is known about Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen whose name means "a beautiful woman has come." She was the wife of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who ushered in the dramatic Amarna Age, and she bore him at least six children. She played a prominent role in political and religious affairs, but after Akhenaten's death she apparently vanished and was soon forgotten.

Yet Nefertiti remains one of the most famous and enigmatic women who ever lived. Her instantly recognizable face adorns a variety of modern artifacts, from expensive jewelry to cheap postcards, t-shirts, and bags, all over the world. She has appeared on page, stage, screen, and opera. In Britain, one woman has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on plastic surgery in hope of resembling the long-dead royal. This enduring obsession is the result of just one object: the lovely and mysterious Nefertiti bust, created by the sculptor Thutmose and housed in Berlin's Neues Museum since before World War II.

In Nefertiti's Face, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley tells the story of the bust, from its origins in a busy workshop of the late Bronze Age to its rediscovery and controversial removal to Europe in 1912 and its present status as one of the world's most treasured artifacts. This wide-ranging history takes us from the temples and tombs of ancient Egypt to wartime Berlin and engages the latest in Pharaonic scholarship. Tyldesley sheds light on both Nefertiti's life and her improbable afterlife, in which she became famous simply for being famous.

Joyce Tyldesley’s Nefertiti’s Face tackles not (as I think some other readers have hoped) who Nefertiti was, where she came from, what she might have been like, and how she died — though some of that is discussed as well — but the specifics of the famous limestone and gypsum plaster bust of her, currently on display in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It accepts the attribution to the artisan Thutmose (or at least to his workshop in Amarna), and has a guess at aspects of the life of Thutmose and his workmen as well as at the purpose and meaning of the bust.

That does of course involve some contextualisation for people who might be coming to this fresh, so it includes a chapter about Akhenaten and the establishment of Amarna. Tyldesley rather squashes the hope that Nefertiti was equal to Akhenaten in some way, pointing out her position in the art is usually subordinate to his, and her exceptional actions like smiting enemies are always in the context of his absence — disappointing, but a good analysis.

Obviously there’s always the conjectures about where her tomb might lay (or have lain), and about who might’ve been related to whom and how among the Amarna family.

There is also inevitably discussion about repatriation, which Tyldesley seems somewhat against (claiming that the exhibition of the bust in Berlin benefits Cairo by encouraging people in their love of Egyptian archaeology, and thus boosting tourism). Ho-hum.

Overall, I found this one enjoyable, though obviously aimed at a popular audience. It does have footnotes and a fairly detailed bibliography; always a good sign.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Out of the Depths

Posted July 15, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths: A History of Shipwrecks

by Alan G. Jamieson

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 320
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Out of the Depths explores all aspects of shipwrecks across four thousand years, examining their historical context and significance, showing how shipwrecks can be time capsules, and shedding new light on long-departed societies and civilizations. Alan G. Jamieson not only informs readers of the technological developments over the last sixty years that have made the true appreciation of shipwrecks possible, but he also covers shipwrecks in culture and maritime archaeology, their appeal to treasure hunters, and their environmental impacts. Although shipwrecks have become less common in recent decades, their implications have become more wide-ranging: since the 1960s, foundering supertankers have caused massive environmental disasters, and in 2021, the blocking of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship Ever Given had a serious effect on global trade.

A highly illustrated voyage through shipwrecks ancient and contemporary.

There are parts of Alan G. Jamieson’s Out of the Depths which are fascinating, particularly in the last few chapters where he begins to talk in a bit more detail about excavation and ownership of wrecks. It does feel like the first chunk of the book — and the majority of it — is a long list with some scant details about as many wrecks as he could think of. There are some interesting examples, but it can get samey.

It did get more interesting as he got onto more modern wrecks, where we know more about the causes and the human factors, and can say more about survivors, who might be at fault, etc. At least, that’s how I feel, of course: if what fascinates you are the ships themselves, then this might be right up your alley. It’s hard to judge.

It felt a bit uneven, ultimately, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that it isn’t one of my particular interests. (I’m fascinated by underwater archaeology, but less fascinated by how things got underwater, I suppose.) But I can imagine it being a fascinating read and a good resource.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Garden Jungle

Posted July 11, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – The Garden Jungle

The Garden Jungle

by Dave Goulson

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 288
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

The Garden Jungle is about the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, between the gaps in the pavement, and in the soil beneath our feet. Wherever you are right now, the chances are that there are worms, woodlice, centipedes, flies, silverfish, wasps, beetles, mice, shrews and much, much more, quietly living within just a few paces of you.

Dave Goulson gives us an insight into the fascinating and sometimes weird lives of these creatures, taking us burrowing into the compost heap, digging under the lawn and diving into the garden pond. He explains how our lives and ultimately the fate of humankind are inextricably intertwined with that of earwigs, bees, lacewings and hoverflies, unappreciated heroes of the natural world.

The Garden Jungle is at times an immensely serious book, exploring the environmental harm inadvertently done by gardeners who buy intensively reared plants in disposable plastic pots, sprayed with pesticides and grown in peat cut from the ground. Goulson argues that gardens could become places where we can reconnect with nature and rediscover where food comes from.

For anyone who has a garden, and cares about our planet, this book is essential reading.

The Garden Jungle is Dave Goulson’s paean to the richness and diversity we can create within our own gardens. Some of what he describes feels beyond out of touch — I have no idea if he realises how unlikely it is for other people to own enough land for a whole orchard, but you couldn’t tell from reading it — but his enthusiasm is genuine. He’s mostly interested in the insects, to be honest, with only brief mentions of other wildlife (like hedgehogs) that can thrive in our “garden jungles”. I’m pretty certain one thing our own tiny wildflower meadow is doing is providing shelter to the local hedgehogs as they forage, and that’s great.

It’s a fun read, and some of his footnotes made me smile. I was a bit less enraptured than I was by his book about bees, to be honest; I couldn’t say what would’ve made it better, but perhaps a little more attention to continuity between chapters. It’s a bit funny to read him in one chapter telling you that garden centres are selling plants laden with pesticides that will kill the insects in your garden, and in the next suggesting that you can go to buy plants at a garden centre and just look at the ones the insects land on… I’m certain that both are good suggestions in their way, but, hmmm.

I was interested by his stance on non-native plants. I personally feel that in some cases we’d be merely closing the barn door, and also that if we want anything to grow and thrive at all, we may need to bend with the conditions. The way humans ferry seeds about has been a part of how nature works for a very long time — it’s hard to draw a line now and say “this plant is a native, even though it was brought to the UK by the Romans” and “this plant is non-native, because Victorians brought it”. In the end, we need to focus on what thrives, and nurture as much biodiversity as we can — wherever it will grow. Goulson is rightly cautious about that, but not as preachy as some can be, accepting that some non-natives fill a valuable niche here.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Petra: The Rose-Red City

Posted July 8, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Petra: The Rose-Red City

Petra: The Rose-Red City

by Jean-Marie Dentzer, Christian Auge

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 128
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Deep in the desert of Jordan lies the hidden city of Petra, one of the greatest marvels of the ancient world. Carved from rose-red rock, Petra’s monuments, dwellings and temples were for centuries the centre of a splendid civilization.

Later the city fell into ruin and its location was lost, until the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812. Petra’s mysterious beauty and dramatic story have long captivated the imaginations of historians and art lovers. Excavations by the authors Christian Augé and Jean-Marie Dentzer provide new information about this unique city.

Before reading this, I knew very little about Petra — I’d seen a few images of it, knew roughly where it was, etc, but I didn’t know anything about the Nabateans and their lives in their city. Christian Auge and Jean-Marie Dentzer’s Petra: The Rose-Red City is a pretty slim volume, but richly illustrated, and carefully contextualises the images in terms of what we know.

Which is less than I expected, to be honest. Not much archaeological work had been completed in and around Petra relative to the size of the ruins at around the time of writing, and preservation work had barely begun, if at all. I’d love to find something more up-to-date about Petra, but it was fascinating to get this glimpse.

That said, sometimes the organisation of text, images and captions left something to be desired. The pages are very busy, and the flow is unintuitive sometimes.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The History of the World in 100 Animals

Posted July 5, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The History of the World in 100 Animals

The History of the World in 100 Animals

by Simon Barnes

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

We are not alone. We are not alone on the planet. We are not alone in the countryside. We are not alone in cities. We are not alone in our homes. We are humans and we love the idea of our uniqueness. But the fact is that we humans are as much members of the animal kingdom as the cats and dogs we surround ourselves with, the cows and the fish we eat, and the bees who pollinate so many of our food-plants.

In The History of the World in 100 Animals, award-winning author Simon Barnes selects the 100 animals who have had the greatest impact on humanity and on whom humanity has had the greatest effect. He shows how we have domesticated animals for food and for transport, and how animals powered agriculture, making civilisation possible. A species of flea came close to destroying human civilisation in Europe, while the slaughter of a species of bovines was used to create one civilisation and destroy another. He explains how pigeons made possible the biggest single breakthrough in the history of human thought. In short, he charts the close relationship between humans and animals, finding examples from around the planet that bring the story of life on earth vividly to life, with great insight and understanding.

The heresy of human uniqueness has led us across the millennia along the path of destruction. This book, beautifully illustrated throughout, helps us to understand our place in the world better, so that we might do a better job of looking after it. That might save the polar bears, the modern emblem of impending loss and destruction. It might even save ourselves.

I really enjoy books that try to tell a history through a number of objects or people or, in this case, animals. Simon Barnes’ A History of the World in 100 Animals is more or less that, but it was marred for me by the fact that I couldn’t actually determine any governing organisation here, not even alphabetical. The stories did all pick up on the theme of how humans have interacted with animals, of course, but they didn’t lead into each other — animals which shared a similar theme could be separated by most of the book. They weren’t organised by type of animal, or location, or type of interaction… any organising principle that I could think of.

As such, it felt like a bit of a weird read, whipping from one topic to another. There are certainly ways to organise this kind of book (chronologically, for instance), which would’ve made it flow better.

That said, there are certainly some fascinating stories of human interaction with animals (and it is pretty much all about human interaction with animals in one way or another). Where I know my stuff, it’s accurate, though the utter lack of footnotes or bibliography is worrisome.

It’s beautifully presented, with matte colour images accompanying many (if not all) of the stories).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic

Posted July 3, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic

Dragons, Heroes, Myths & Magic: The Medieval Art of Storytelling

by Chantry Westwell

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 384
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Journey through magical fairy tales, chivalric adventures, mystical events and celebrated foundation myths.

Trace how folk traditions and the manners of courtly love have developed through generations and across continents and how the most celebrated of ancient stories have become even more fantastical with age.

Chantry Westwell has used her profound knowledge of the Library’s illuminated manuscript collections to explore some of literature’s most enduring and multi-layered stories, together with the deep history of the books and chronicles in which they were first preserved. These powerful tales are presented alongside some of the most exquisite examples of art to survive from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries as medieval artists responded to the inspiring storylines with their own works of supreme beauty.

Chantry Westwell’s Dragons, Heroes, Myths and Magic is all about medieval manuscripts, and specifically their illustrations and illuminations. It focuses on how they were used to illustrate stories, and each chapter explains and attempts to contextualise the famous stories.

It’s unfortunate that Westwell presents some things as fact which I know to be merely theory (such as the origin of the word grail, and linking it with certainty to “Celtic” antecedents), and for some reason actually states as fact that the Arthurian legends are based around a real historical person (of which there is simply not one shred of proof). It would be hard to be an expert on all the different stories included in the manuscripts discussed here, and possibly Westwell should’ve stayed in her lane if she wasn’t sure — or, if these are her opinions, then she should have presented them as such. So, read with caution.

It’s also notable (and gross) that she privileges English sources over Welsh ones, listing Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory ahead of ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ — you could be forgiven for thinking that the Welsh tales came later, since she mentions them after a bunch of English ones, and gives them only a single paragraph.

That’d be all very well if she were merely confining her remarks to the illuminations, but of course she isn’t. Given that I cannot evaluate her level of knowledge on all of these topics, it’s difficult to know if I can recommend this book. The fact that it’s clearly for “laypeople” (so to speak) doesn’t excuse it; I don’t consider that a reason to be sloppy. Still, it’s a beautifully presented book, with full-colour illustrations, and makes for a lovely object.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Exposed: The Greek and Roman Body

Posted June 27, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Review – Exposed: The Greek and Roman Body

Exposed: The Greek and Roman Body

by Caroline Vout

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 432
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

The Greek and Roman body is often seen as flawless - cast from life in buff bronze and white marble, to sit upon a pedestal. But this, of course, is a lie.

Here, classicist Caroline Vout reaches beyond texts and galleries to expose Greek and Roman bodies for what they truly were: anxious, ailing, imperfect, diverse, and responsible for a legacy as lasting as their statues. Taking us on a gruesome, thrilling journey, she taps into the questions that those in the Greek and Roman worlds asked about their bodies - where do we come from? What makes us different from gods and animals? What happens to our bodies, and the forces that govern them, when we die? Vout also reveals the surprising actions people often took to transform their bodies - from sophisticated surgery and contraception to body oils, cosmetics and early gym memberships.

You've seen the paintings, read the philosophers and heard the myths - now here's the classical body in all its flesh and blood glory.

First things first: as a physical object, Caroline Vout’s Exposed: The Greek and Roman Body is beautifully done. There’s lots of images included, arranged around the text in a usually sensible manner, and in colour. (I generally don’t ever look at the glossy included pages in books, in part because I wouldn’t retain any impression of the image while reading as I don’t have any kind of “mind’s eye”, so this worked especially well for me.) It’s really well presented in sections that make good sense.

In terms of the written content, I found most of it surprisingly familiar. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprise: I’ve read plenty about the Greeks and Romans, if not directly about their bodies and their perceptions of their own bodies, and I did study classics up to A Level. But still, I’d kind of expected more surprises, e.g. around attitudes to disability… There were some titbits that were new to me, but mostly it wasn’t.

Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good summary: I found it an enjoyable read, and as I said, very well presented. Sometimes it felt like it was a little less in-depth than I’d like, and I didn’t (personally) hit that level of “huh, interesting!” that made me want to go and tell my wife about it, which is my real marker for interesting non-fiction, but it makes for a pretty good overview and summary, and is likely more surprising to people who’ve done less reading on related topics.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Email

Posted June 21, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Email

Email

by Randy Malamud

Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 184
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: two-stars
Synopsis:

Do you feel your consciousness, your attention, and your intelligence (not to mention your eyesight) being sucked away, byte by byte, in a deadening tsunami of ill-composed blather, corporate groupthink, commercial come-ons, and other meaningless internet flotsam? Do your work life and your social life, hideously conjoined in your inbox, drag each other down in a surreal cycle of neverending reposts, appointments, and deadlines?

Sometime in the mid-1990s, we began, often with some trepidation, to enroll for a service that promised to connect us-electronically and efficiently-to our friends and lovers, our bosses and merchants. If it seemed at first like simply a change in scale (our mail would be faster, cheaper, more easily distributed to large groups), we now realize that email entails a more fundamental alteration in our communicative consciousness. Despite its fading relevance in the lives of the younger generation in the face of an ever-changing array of apps and media, email is probably here to stay, for better or worse.

Randy Malamud’s Email is a bit of a meditation on email and what it can be used for, with some glimpses into the history of the medium… but mostly it’s a little sceptical, a little dismissive. Now and then he gives into the wonder of the fact that we can almost immediately contact people all over the world and say anything… but mostly he harps on the fragmented focus, the lack of profundity, etc.

As someone who kept in contact with my now-wife mostly only through email for long months when they were teaching in a remote area in Finland, I think Malamud’s vision is sorely lacking. I had whole 100-email threads with friends full of ideas and chatter, which is the only reason I know that after 100 emails in a thread, Gmail starts a new one. I’ve written stories with other people going back and forth by email.

Of course I work with boring, transactional emails every day — and of course those emails aren’t wonders of the world. But I think there’s a lot more to it than Malamud’s willing to see, and more history he could’ve dug into. I know I always harp on about Personal Stereo and Blue Jeans as being my favourites so far from this series, but I crave more books like those two.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – This New Noise

Posted June 20, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – This New Noise

This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC

by Charlotte Higgins

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 288
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

'The BBC, to my mind at least, is the most powerful British institution of them all, for, as well as informing, educating and entertaining, it permeates and reflects our existences, infiltrates our imaginations, forms us in myriad ways.'

Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian's chief culture writer, steps behind the polished doors of Broadcasting House and investigates the BBC. Based on her hugely popular essay series, this personal journey answers the questions that rage around this vulnerable, maddening and uniquely British institution. Questions such as, what does the BBC mean to us now? What are the threats to its continued existence? Is it worth fighting for?

Higgins traces its origins, celebrating the early pioneering spirit and unearthing forgotten characters whose imprint can still be seen on the BBC today. She explores how it forged ideas of Britishness both at home and abroad. She shows how controversy is in its DNA and brings us right up to date through interviews with grandees and loyalists, embattled press officers and high profile dissenters, and she sheds new light on recent feuds and scandals. This is a deeply researched, lyrically written, intriguing portrait of an institution at the heart of Britain.

The BBC is a British institution, and one which has been agonised over a lot. It sometimes feels like that’s something which happened only in recent years, but Charlotte Higgins’ This New Noise makes it clear that we’ve agonised over the BBC for as long as it has existed — and we’ve never had the halcyon perfect days that I think many people imagine. It’s always been what it is now, and as contentious as it has been now.

At times, I think Higgins tells the story a bit out of order, making references to events she explains properly later. This might work well for someone who has been alive for a bit more of the BBC’s lifespan, but I was not yet very engaged with the news for some of these! I also wasn’t really aware of the various directors-general, so just mentioning their names didn’t really contextualise things.

It’s still an interesting history, especially where it discusses people I didn’t know about at all, whose roles have been forgotten, like Hilda Matheson. She sounded pretty great (though of course it’s easy to make idols of people). All in all, an enjoyable read, and a useful point of view.

Rating: 3/5

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