Genre: Non-fiction

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

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Review – Crypt

Posted March 8, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Crypt

Crypt: Life, Death and Disease in the Middle Ages and Beyond

by Alice Roberts

Genres: History, Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 352
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

In her previous two bestsellers, Professor Alice Roberts powerfully and evocatively revived people of the past through examining their burial rites, bringing a fresh perspective on how they lived. In Crypt, Professor Roberts brings us face to face with individuals who lived and died between ten and five centuries ago.

The stories in this book are not comforting tales; there’s a focus on pathology, on disease and injury, and the experience of human suffering in the past. We learn of an episode of terrible brutality, when hate speech unleashed a tide of violence against an ethnic minority; of the devastation caused by incurable epidemics sweeping through medieval Europe; of a protracted battle between Church and State for the heart of England – a battle that saw the most famous tomb in the country created and destroyed; and a tumultuous story, forged in the heat of warfare, that takes us out of the Middle Ages into the sixteenth century and the reign of Henry VIII.

In the Middle Ages, there’s barely a written note for most people’s lives. The information we can extract from archaeological human remains represents is an essential tool for understanding our history. Most of these dead will remain anonymous. But, in the thrilling final chapter, Professor Roberts introduces an individual whose life and bones were marked by chronic debilitating disease – and whose name might just be found in history…

I was really excited about Alice Roberts’ Crypt coming out, because I enjoyed both Ancestors (my review) and Buried (my review), and this essentially concludes the trilogy, making it a survey through time about burial practices and archaeological finds in Britain. Crypt in particular was extra-exciting to me because it promised to discuss palaeo/archaeopathology, meaning looking in more depth at how people died, including whether infectious disease may have been involved. There are three chapters (of the seven) which deal heavily with this, discussing leprosy (Mycobacterium leprae), the Black Death (Yersinia pestis), and syphilis (Treponema pallidum) — obviously right up my street as someone who is fascinated by infectious disease (and especially leprosy’s cousin, Mycobacterium tuberculosis).

It was everything I’d hoped for, discussing deaths throughout the Middle Ages and going pretty in-depth about the stories we can see written into bone, plus the ways we’ve been able to find the trace of infectious diseases that are less apparent, or potentially ambiguous. The methods used weren’t too much of a surprise to me (“fishing” for ancient disease DNA using primers definitely occurred to me as a possibility), but it’s still fascinating to see it discussed at a bit more length.

As usual, Roberts writes clearly and engagingly, though maybe I could’ve done with slightly less about Henry VIII’s Mary Rose — I get that context is important, but I’m just not that interested in the Tudors and their squabbles, and I think it could’ve done with a bit less about that.

One thing I do wish is that the book used numbered references. I know it’s for a wider audience, but it’s so hard to follow up any particular interesting claim if I can’t find the paper or book it’s from, even when a detailed references section is included (as here).

Still, I enjoyed it very much, and I wish I had three more lined up just like it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Notebook

Posted March 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 8 Comments

Review – The Notebook

The Notebook: A History of Thinking on Paper

by Roland Allen

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

We see notebooks everywhere we go. But where did this simple invention come from? How did they revolutionise our lives, and why are they such powerful tools for creativity? And how can using a notebook help you change the way you think?

In this wide-ranging story, Roland Allen reveals all the answers. Ranging from the bustling markets of medieval Florence to the quiet studies of our greatest thinkers, he follows a trail of dazzling ideas, revealing how the notebook became our most dependable and versatile tool for creative thinking. He tells the notebook stories of artists like Leonardo and Frida Kahlo, scientists from Isaac Newton to Marie Curie, and writers from Chaucer to Henry James. We watch Darwin developing his theory of evolution in tiny pocketbooks, see Agatha Christie plotting a hundred murders in scrappy exercise books, and learn how Bruce Chatwin unwittingly inspired the creation of the Moleskine.

On the way we meet a host of cooks, kings, sailors, fishermen, musicians, engineers, politicians, adventurers and mathematicians, who all used their notebooks as a space for thinking and to shape the modern world.

In an age of AI and digital overload, the humble notebook is more relevant than ever. Allen shows how bullet points can combat ADHD, journals can ease PTSD, and patient diaries soften the trauma of reawakening from coma. The everyday act of moving a pen across paper can have profound consequences, changing the way we think and feel: making us more creative, more productive - and happier.

Roland Allen’s The Notebook is, as the subtitle says, “A History of Thinking on Paper” — one that ranges pretty far tracking down where we began to use paper as a way to do things we can’t hold in our heads, as a tool for processing information, as a way to test things out, etc. It’s almost completely Western-oriented, focusing on areas like Italy, France and the UK for the most part, discussing various different strands of how notebooks are used. First for financial accounting, then for digesting popular culture and literature, and then evolving into diaries. It also discusses artists’ sketchbooks, the use of notebooks for collecting recipes, and of course, bullet journaling.

It’s the kind of book I love, rambling through the topic and finding examples to discuss, casting them in their context, etc. I found the stuff about da Vinci’s notebooks particularly fascinating, for example (and giggled about the cursing of his terrible handwriting), and of course, Darwin’s notebooks and the famous “I think”.

My favourite chapter of all was the one about ICU patient diaries and how they’re used, though. I didn’t expect this book to make me cry, but the topic hit unexpectedly close to home here, and I found myself crying my way through the last few pages of that chapter.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this kind of thing — not just notebooks specifically, but also if you enjoy history through the eye of a single object or set of objects.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Hidden World

Posted February 29, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Hidden World

The Hidden World: How Insects Sustain Our Life on Earth Today and Will Shape Our Lives Tomorrow

by George McGavin

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

Insects conquered the Earth long before we did and will remain here long after we're gone. They outnumber us in the billions and are essential to many of the natural processes that keep us alive and that we take for granted. Yet, despite this, very few of us know much about the hidden world of insects.

In this fascinating new book, entomologist and broadcaster George McGavin takes a deep dive to reveal the unknown truths about the most successful and enduring animal group the world has ever seen, and to show the unseen effects this vast population has on our planet, if only we care to look.

McGavin explores not only the incredible traits that insects have evolved to possess, such as dragonflies that can fly across oceans without resting or beetles that lay their eggs exclusively in corpses, but also the vital lessons we have learnt from them, including how therapy using maggots can save lives and how bees can help grow rich tomato yields.

The Hidden World reveals the wonderful complexity of our relationship with insects, how they have changed the course of our history and how, if we continue to learn from them, they could even be the key to our future and survival.

George McGavin’s The Hidden World comes across as a bit of a grab-bag of random thoughts about insects, particularly given the random insertion of interviews with various naturalists and entomologists mid-chapter. Each one does go some way toward illustrating the point of the chapter, but it still breaks up the flow and makes things feel a bit disorganised.

For all that McGavin is clearly enthusiastic about insects, and dying to share all kinds of facts and figures about them… there wasn’t a lot new for me here. It’s more of a primer for people who aren’t already interested in insects (which generally I wouldn’t say I am, but I have read several other popular science books and studied a degree of medical entomology — so, of necessity, I probably know more than the average person).

So as always it’s enjoyable to read something by a person who is enthusiastic about their subject, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Posted February 27, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World

by Philip Matyszak

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

The ancient world of the Mediterranean and the Near East saw the birth and collapse of great civilizations. While several of these are well known, for all those that have been recorded, many have been unjustly forgotten. Our history is overflowing with different cultures that have all evolved over time, sometimes dissolving or reforming, though ultimately shaping the way we continue to live. But for every culture that has been remembered, what have we forgotten?

This thorough guide explores those civilizations that have faded from the pages of our textbooks but played a significant role in the development of modern society. Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World covers the Hyksos to the Hephthalites and everyone in between, providing a unique overview of humanity's history from approximately 3000 BCE-550 CE. A wide range of illustrated artifacts and artworks, as well as specially drawn maps, help to tell the stories of forty lost peoples and allow readers to take a direct look into the past. Each entry exposes a diverse culture, highlighting their important contributions and committing their achievements to paper.

Philip Matyszak’s Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World is a whistlestop tour of a lot of different nations/ethnic groups/tribes/etc who are known to have existed at some point, but who are less known now. Some of them are fairly well known now, I’d say, like the Hittites and the Hyksos (through their involvement with Egypt — though other stuff about them is less clear), while others are much more obscure.

Each group gets exactly the same number of pages, which I find pretty suspicious — some are undoubtedly padded out to reach the six page requirement, while others are short-changed. It’s beautifully presented, though, with lots of images all in colour, and it’s not a bad selection or bad as a whistlestop tour. One just needs to be aware that that’s very much what it is, and a little contrived at times.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lost Boys

Posted February 24, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Lost Boys

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment

by Gina Perry

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

The fascinating true story of one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the modern era — a real-life Lord of the Flies.

Competition. Prejudice. Discrimination. Conflict.

In 1954, a group of boys attended a remote summer camp where they were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonise each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic — and most controversial — studies: the Robbers Cave experiment.

Conducted at the height of the Cold War, officially the experiment had a happy ending: the boys reconciled, and psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated that while hatred and violence are powerful forces, so too are cooperation and harmony. Today it is proffered as proof that under the right conditions warring groups can make peace. Yet the true story of the experiments is far more complex, and more chilling.

In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores the experiment and its consequences, tracing the story of Sherif, a troubled outsider who struggled to craft an experiment that would vanquish his personal demons. Drawing on archival material and new interviews, Perry pieces together a story of drama, mutiny, and intrigue that has never been told before.

I really enjoyed Gina Perry’s book about Stanley Milgram’s most famous experiments, Behind the Shock Machine. It shook up the received wisdom about Milgram, and made it clear that he interfered with the data he was presenting, cherry-picked what he wanted to share in order to make his own interpretation inevitable, etc. It’s a book that’s stuck with me, though it’s been a few years since I read it now.

So I was eager to dig into The Lost Boys, which discusses the experiments on groups of young boys made by Muzafer Sherif, designed to play out his theories about how groups can turn on one another and then be reconciled. The book discusses these theories, and then goes off into trying to understand Sherif himself and where these theories came from.

It never manages to be as surprising and illuminating as Behind the Shock Machine, though I did find it interesting, and I think that’s because Sherif’s conclusions are less well-known. I knew about Stanley Milgram’s work like it was in the air (bearing in mind of course that I’m a particular kind of voracious reader and learner), and his work is so well known in the field, so shaking it up makes a real buzz. In this case, less so, and it’s less shocking to find that an experimenter we’re consistently shown manipulating his subjects to get the results he wants was, well, manipulating his results to get what he wanted. That’s apparent early, so there’s no shock going into the deep-dive. Muzafer Sherif would have liked to believe in his own mythology, but for my money he was no Milgram.

It all comes out as a somewhat uncertain book, leaving Perry ambivalent about how to interpret the impacts of the studies on the lives of the participants. She suggests that it was formative for them, that the studies were unethical, but it all comes out much more muted than her conclusions in Behind the Shock Machine.

I’m glad I read it, but my worldview hasn’t been upended.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Bone Chests

Posted February 22, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Bone Chests

The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons

by Cat Jarman

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 356
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

In December 1642, during the Civil War, Parliamentarian troops stormed the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, intent on destruction. Reaching the choir, its beating heart, the soldiers searched out ten beautifully decorated wooden chests resting high up on the stone screens.

Those chests contained some of England's most venerated, ancient remains: The bones of eight kings, including William Rufus and Cnut the Great - the only Scandinavian king to rule England and a North Sea Empire; three bishops; and a formidable queen, Emma of Normandy. These were the very people who witnessed and orchestrated the creation of the kingdom of Wessex in the 7th century; who lived through the creation of England as a unified country in response to the Viking threat; and who were part and parcel of the Norman conquest.

On that day, the soldiers smashed several chests to the ground, using the bones as missiles to shatter the cathedral's stained glass windows. Afterwards, the clergy scrambled to collect the scattered remains.

In 2014, the six remaining chests were reopened. A team of forensic archaeologists, using the latest scientific methods, attempted to identify the contents: They discovered an elaborate jumble of bones, including the remains of two forgotten princes. In The Bone Chests, Cat Jarman builds on this evidence to untangle the stories of the people within. It is an extraordinary and sometimes tragic tale, and a story of transformation. Why these bones? Why there? Can we ever really identify them? In a palimpsest narrative that runs through more than a millennium of British history, it tells the story of both the seekers and the sought, of those who protected the bones and those who spurned them; and of the methods used to investigate.

Cat Jarman’s The Bone Chests takes the investigation of the chests of bones held in Winchester Cathedral as a starting point to explore some of the events that began to form what we know now as England. (Blurbs and so on talk about “British” history, but it really isn’t. There’s a handful of references to Scotland and one that I can remember to Wales, and pretty much no reference to Ireland at all.) Jarman discusses the figures that may now lie splintered and scattered in the bone chests, the kings, queens and bishops that shaped what we think of as the Anglo-Saxon period.

I had been hoping, I’ll admit, for a lot more discussion of the analysis of the actual bones. But that’s relegated to little slices in between the overall narrative of “this is how England was formed, through this king and that king and sometimes a queen or two”. That’s something that I’ve read elsewhere — sometimes with slightly different details, it’s true, but in general, a history I was fairly aware of already. But a focus on the bone chests and the process of sorting through them, trying to identify who is there and what we can find out about them — that would’ve been really interesting.

So it was okay for what it was, and it’s certainly very readable, but I was hoping for slightly more focus on the promise of the title.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Soonish

Posted February 18, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve And/Or Ruin Everything

by Zach Weinersmith, Kelly Weinersmith

Genres: Non-fiction, Science
Pages: 368
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

What will the world of tomorrow be like? How does progress happen? And why do we not have a lunar colony already? What is the hold-up?

In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what's coming next -- from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach's trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.

New technologies are almost never the work of isolated geniuses with a neat idea. A given future technology may need any number of intermediate technologies to develop first, and many of these critical advances may appear to be irrelevant when they are first discovered. The journey to progress is full of strange detours and blind alleys that tell us so much about the human mind and the march of civilization.

To this end, Soonish investigates ten different emerging fields, from programmable matter to augmented reality, from space elevators to robotic construction, to show us the amazing world we will have, you know, soonish.

I didn’t love Kelly and Zach Weinersmith’s Soonish as much as I liked A City on Mars: I think that’s partly because the latter is much more of a deep dive, whereas the chapters here are necessarily a bit shallower, since they’re looking at multiple different technologies, and don’t have the time to get into the nitty gritty as much. There’s also some information (and even jokes) that feels repetitive if you’ve already read A City on Mars already, as well.

That said, they pick an interesting raft of likely technologies and start picking into why we don’t have them yet, why they feel within reach, and what we need to figure out to make them reality. The tone is fairly light, but they explain things pretty well.

After a certain point the humour does start to grate a bit, I must admit; I didn’t find that in A City on Mars, and of course, your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Digging Up Britain

Posted February 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – Digging Up Britain

Digging Up Britain: Ten Discoveries, A Million Years of History

by Mike Pitts

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

Digging Up Britain traces the history of Britain through key discoveries and excavations. With British archaeologist Mike Pitts as a guide, this book covers the most exciting excavations of the past ten years, gathers firsthand stories from the people who dug up the remains, and follows the latest revelations as one twist leads to another.

Britain, a historically crowded place, has been the site of an unprecedented number of discoveries--almost everywhere the ground is broken, archaeologists find evidence that people have been there before. These discoveries illuminate Britain's ever-shifting history that we now know includes an increasingly diverse array of cultures and customs.

Each chapter of the book tells the story of a single excavation or discovery. Some are major digs, conducted by large teams over years, and others are chance finds, leading to revelations out of proportion to the scale of the original project. Every chapter holds extraordinary tales of planning, teamwork, luck, and cutting-edge archaeological science that produces surprising insights into how people lived a thousand to a million years ago.

It took me a while to get through Mike Pitts’ Digging Up Britain, because there’s a lot to take in. Pitts discusses various sites across Britain representing dozens of discoveries each, and tries to analyse what they mean, reimagine their contexts, and also provide the context of the modern excavations, the techniques used, etc

The book is illustrated by maps, black and white images, and two inserts of colour images too — I didn’t always find myself flicking through to look at those, because I was more interested in following the sense of the text, but it does let you get a look at what’s being discussed, and adds a bit more context.

In the end, I wasn’t too surprised by any of the findings discussed: after growing up eagerly awaiting new Time Team episodes, I’ve stayed a little big plugged in to the big archaeological discoveries. That said, sometimes later analysis has discovered fascinating but not newsworthy things, so I learned some new stuff too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Glitter

Posted February 13, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Glitter

Glitter

by Nicole Seymour

Genres: History, Non-fiction
Pages: 184
Series: Object Lessons
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

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

Glitter reveals the complexity of an object often dismissed as frivolous. Nicole Seymour describes how glitter's consumption and status have shifted across centuries-from ancient cosmetic to queer activist tool, environmental pollutant to biodegradable accessory-along with its composition, which has variously included insects, glass, rocks, salt, sugar, plastic, and cellulose. Through a variety of examples, from glitterbombing to glitter beer, Seymour shows how this substance reflects the entanglements of consumerism, emotion, environmentalism, and gender/sexual identity.

Broadly speaking, I really liked Nicole Seymour’s Glitter. Love it or hate it, glitter is everywhere — and some of the hatred of glitter sometimes seems more like an “ew, I’m not gay!” or a performative “ugh, I’m like those other girls”, “I’m not a child”, etc. Seymour makes this clear, regularly referencing how important glitter is to members of the queer community, for various reasons.

I’d have liked a little more detail on one or two points — there are lots of references to what glitter is made of, the effort to make it biodegradable, etc, but I’d have loved a little more detail on the options, what people are using, etc — but overall I found it pretty good.

It did also make me think. I must admit to not being a great fan of glitter myself, but I couldn’t honestly say why. It’s relatively harmless (Seymour points out that the impact on the environment of the plastic variety is fairly tiny, and of course not all glitter is made from plastic), and a little bit of sparkle does people no harm. I suppose I find it a little bit cringe when people attribute absolutely magical things to it, which at times I think Seymour’s at risk of doing.

Rating: 4/5

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