Perhaps unsurprisingly, very little of this was actually unexpected to me. There is some interesting and entertaining stuff — including the penguin facts — but some of it was fairly well-worn. Possibly that’s because I have read a fair number of pop-science books, possibly it’s because my parents raised me on a solid diet of David Attenborough, but… meh. Cooke’s writing isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have much of a spark, and I didn’t find it particularly entertaining. Actually, I kept feeling rather bored, and switching books to stay awake longer (to maximise the precious hour or two I spend reading in bed — and completely offline — at the moment!).
So… it wasn’t bad, but neither did it strike me as anything special.
Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.
Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.
This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.
Robin McKinley has written two rather different adaptations of Beauty and the Beast; this is the second, and perhaps more sophisticated one. There’s much more magic in this one, and more of a developed fantasy world for the story to take place in. It also departs from the basic story much more, introducing additional characters and motivations. While it makes for a much more rounded world, I found myself much less interested in it! Sometimes simplicity can work better, and this ended up feeling rather fussy to me. The whole tangle has to be explained at the end by a character who has barely previously appeared, and that also feels clumsy.
There is one aspect of this I prefer to other tellings, and that’s the fact that the Beast remains a Beast. The transformation to a man seems weird sometimes — or rather, the transformation to a man followed by an immediate marriage, especially when Beauty is described as being confused by and even timid by her transformed partner. It seems to make more sense this way, at least for this particular version of the story.
In any case, I’m glad I reread this, but I probably won’t do so again. I far prefer McKinley’s first version, Beauty!
Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.
However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.
That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).
I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.
The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.
Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!
The first time I read this book, I was vaguely resentful that it wasn’t about the same characters as the first book, and I briefly had the same sensation here. Becky Chambers is so good at creating characters I care about — even if I don’t like them necessarily — and it took me a while to switch gears. However, it was easier on a second reading, and I was quickly caught up in Pepper and Sidra’s stories once more.
In this book, there are two parallel stories: one follows a little girl who escapes from a scrap sorting factory and finds a derelict ship, still equipped with an AI who takes care of her, teaches her, and helps her escape that world. That girl grows up to become Pepper, and Pepper takes care of Sidra. Sidra was an AI, and now she has a humanoid body, and through the course of the book she learns to deal with that. There’s all kinds of great stuff going on about identity and embodiment and learning how to be content with what you are, all wound up in an emotional story about family and belonging.
So naturally, Chambers rocked it. She’s great at aliens, she’s great at figuring out what an AI suddenly thrown into a human body would be like, she’s great at making the reader care incredibly much. I’m not a big cryer in general, and even less so at media, but this book (and the first) makes me cry — and not in a bad way, because there’s so much warmth and hope and joy here, amidst the normal fears and worries of being a person in a world that isn’t always friendly.
I can’t wait to get on and read Record of A Spaceborn Few now. I know I’m going to be hesitant (give me the Wayfarer crew! give me Pepper and Sidra!) and that I’m going to end up loving them.
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey
This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.
I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!
My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)
We were watching the Petherbridge TV adaptations again, Brexit is terrible, and it was that kind of day. Of course I gave into the temptation — threw myself into it, more like, from Peter’s first “oh damn” to the denouement. When I review a book over and over again like this, I start to think about new ways to approach the review: it’s no good me telling you every time that this book is the first book in Sayers’ favourite series, in which Peter investigates the mysterious discovery of the body of a vagrant, shaved and cleaned up to look like a wealthy man, found in an architect’s bath wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez. You’ve heard that from me before.
So what really caught my attention this time was the fact that even here, with Peter being a new series detective, when a lot of other Golden Age novels settled for dealing with the puzzle and leaving the detective to enigmatically take care of themselves around the edges of the mystery, Sayers is doing interesting things. She discusses Peter’s character at length — the shell shock is a prominent feature, yes, but also she deals with the fact that he’s an aristocrat, and thus there’s something very public school about how he approaches crime. The scene between Peter and Charles during which they discuss the rights and wrongs of pursuing criminals is great.
What also struck me a lot this time is how casually anti-Semitic it can sound. There’s one line about Sir Reuben having “the shekels” to stop a deal that just… modern Twitter shudders at the phrasing. Sayers thought she was actually quite positive toward the Jewish characters, but… gah.
It remains entertaining, and I was glad to focus on the scenes that give Peter a little more depth — but I’m also excited to get to Clouds of Witness and onwards.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
After reading some non-fiction about Crete, I’m off to Delphi with a reread of My Brother Michael; Camilla is not my favourite of Stewart’s heroines (that’s probably Charity, from Madam, Will You Talk?), but the atmosphere is amazing, as ever.
I’ve also started on Becky Chambers’ Record of A Spaceborn Few, because it’s been sat by my desk for too long and I couldn’t resist. She’s broken the record and made me tear up in twelve pages. I’m getting susceptible! And finally-ish, I started on Nicola Griffith’s Hild, for my Habitica bookclub read. I really enjoy all the sensory stuff, the way Hild hyperfocuses on the scents and smallest movements around her, but I kept losing track of the politics when I was trying to read it last night.
What have you recently finished reading?
The last thing was my reread of Clouds of Witness, I think! And before that, The Bull of Minos — super out of date, and rather fanboyish about Arthur Evans and Heinrich Schliemann, rather than actually being informative about the Minoan civilisation. I can’t remember where that got recommended to me, but tsk, tsk, whoever/whatever you were!
What will you read next?
Well, I think I say this every week, but I really should get back to The Priory of the Orange Tree. I should load up my ereader and take it with me on the little trip to Belgium starting on Friday. Other than that, I’ve been rather wanting to reread Ancillary Justice, and to be quite honest, I seem to be reading more and more overall (including more from my backlog) after making a firm resolution to be like the Wimseys and do “As my Whimsy takes me”, and reread whatever I like.
Glamour in Glass follows the Vincents as, early in their relationship, they take a trip to the Continent to study and work glamour together with one of Vincent’s friends. This time, Kowal explores the way her magic system might affect pregnant women, while playing with the historical backdrop as well. The Vincents find themselves at risk from Napoleon’s followers, and their trip becomes less about the glamour and more about spying out what exactly might be happening — perhaps even betrayal from the people they call friends.
This was where the series took off for me, the first time I actually read this book, and while I’ve come to appreciate the first book, this is still where I would say the series really gets interesting. This is where Kowal starts to work out the implications of the magic and how it changes society, eclipsing the primarily romantic plot of the first book. I’d say the third book is even stronger in that sense, but this one is certainly nothing to sniff at, either. It’s all up from here, and this has really become a series I think about fondly.