I’m so behind on reviews that it’s been a while since I read this, oops. I’m not a huge fan of jellyfish, but I can be entertained greatly by reading about something I don’t know even if I’m not already a fan, and such was the case here. Jellyfish didn’t particularly strike me as interesting, biologically, and they still don’t hold much fascination for me in themselves — but the book definitely grabbed my interest and kept it. There’s lots of interesting facts, albeit I couldn’t immediately verify the ones I checked up on (the claim, for example, that there’s a jellyfish that zips its mouth shut so tightly that trying to forcefully unzip it simply rips the jellyfish’s face).
It’s a little prone to wandering into autobiography, with some filler chapters like the one about how to prepare jellyfish to eat, but this is pop science: one expects that kind of detail and filler when you’re talking about as vague a subject as this. Going into it with that level of expectation, it was generally entertaining, full of the sort of facts I like to randomly tell my wife, and a quick read.
I’m just going to confess something here: I didn’t finish this. It seemed to be exactly what it purports to be from the title: a short (yep) history (yep) of Europe (yep). It doesn’t try to be particularly exciting about it, and I found that I felt like I was just being hurtled through the canonical key points of European history. Sure, that’s mostly what I expected, but a better prose stylist would have made it more interesting, and an insightful historian could have found some illustrative moments that aren’t in the standard playbook.
As it is, I felt like I was cramming on history for a test, and I ended up letting it go back to the library. More than that, I got the impression that Jenkins is fairly anti-EU, and other reviews confirm that. Given that I still believe in the European Union, me and this book weren’t destined to have a fruitful relationship.
Magic and Religion in Ancient Egypt, Rosalie David
If you’re looking for a comprehensive but readable survey of the beliefs of Ancient Egyptians over time, this should definitely do the trick. It’s an overview, not an in-depth dive into all the ins and outs, so if this is actually your area of study, you’ll obviously be wanting to go somewhere else — but I wouldn’t say this is really aimed at the casual reader, either. You need to have an interest in the topic, at the very least, or the level of detail would be too much.
I wouldn’t say the book is brilliant, and its style is definitely not “unputdownable”, but the topic was interesting enough to carry it for me. And I enjoyed David’s approach, which took things in chronological order and looked at the way religion changed with politics (and/or the way politics changed with religion).
Inheritors of the Earth is a shockingly optimistic book given the premise: it’s a discussion of the impact of the Anthropocene — of the impact of humans on the world. It’s a huge impact, from pollution to changing the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth to fossil fuels to climate change to global travel… We’ve imported new organisms to every continent, mixed formerly separate species, annihilated species… There is no doubting that, whatever you think of that, humans have irrevocably stamped our mark on the Earth. Chris Thomas doesn’t shy away from that in the least, but he does have a new and more optimistic outlook on it.
The premise of this optimism is basically this: in many ways, globalisation and change have created more diversity, not less. We’ve created niche environments and species have changed to exploit them. While there have been extinctions, there has actually been a net gain in number of species. And as Thomas points out, the world has never been static. We’ve counted up species as they were in 1970 (to take one arbitrary date) and forgotten that that is arbitrary, that it’s a still from a very long movie in which everything, absolutely everything, is in motion. Avengers: Endgame has got nothing on Earth.
To me, the optimism is well-grounded as far as it goes. We can safeguard diversity by moving animals to habitats they can survive in; we can make space for species to survive alongside us. We can limit our impact on the world from now on, we can use technology to safeguard species… as long as we don’t feel too beholden to one static idea of how the world’s ecosystems should work, there’s still plenty to work with. Thomas also reminds us, as readers, that humans are natural. Everything we do is part of Earth’s ecosystem, and as with all other changes to the Earth, we can be adapted to.
I think he’s probably more optimistic than a lot of people, and more optimistic perhaps than I feel, but I agree with Thomas that there is a world to save, and that trying to slam on the brakes now isn’t the way. More change is inevitable, and we have to work within that. I do recommend this book as a way to get a change in perspective — one that reminds us there are ways forward, even as we pass the points of no return.
King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham
Much as I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I’ll be a little more rigorous. Higham’s book methodically examines every claimant for the original model for King Arthur, from Lucius Artorius Castus to the myths about the Narts, mostly focusing on the theories about a specifically historical Arthur. He examines each claim thoroughly, discussing its merits… and where each and every one falls down. The vaunted similarities between myths are barely similarities, the alleged likelihood of transmission to Britain is shaky, and so on and so forth. History isn’t my beat, but wherever Higham touched on the fiction that built the Arthurian mythology, he’s correct (as far as my knowledge and memory goes; it has been some years for me, admittedly).
It helps, of course, that his arguments come out strongly in favour of the common-sense conclusion that Arthur is a legend, as many legends are, with many sources and very little agreement between those sources about the kind of man/king he allegedly was. He’s also using some good common sense when he points out that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean any crazy theory could possibly be true. And he doesn’t just state why this is so: he goes through it, explaining why one translation should be favoured over another or how likely an interpretation is.
For my money, this is an excellent analysis of the ideas about a historical Arthur and in many ways of the claims for various fictional sources as well. Ultimately, if you long for Arthur to be real, this book won’t satisfy. If (like me) you’ve long understood that Arthur works best as an ideal, a chimera, a changeling who can be all things to all people, then you’ll be well satisfied that there seems to be no evidence that will pull the Welsh Arthur from my clutches or the Roman auxilliary from Sarmatia from anybody else’s.
This is a pretty slim volume which introduces the latest in gene editing technology, mostly but not exclusively referring to CRISPR, and its potential uses and implications. I was a little surprised there isn’t more to say about it, but Carey’s explanation of how CRISPR works is beautifully easy to comprehend (enough to make me update my own mental way of explaining it) and her analysis of the state of the art is pretty well on point as far as it goes.
Despite the boundless optimism I’ve seen around CRISPR, for all its potential it hasn’t changed the biomedical world yet (though labwork has already been transformed, as I understand it), and Carey is rightly cautious-but-optimistic in tone. My main complaint is just that I wanted more.
This is really out of date; practically a period piece in itself, full to the brim of fanboying over Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. It does raise some interesting points about Arthur Evans’ work, at the very least, suggesting that some of his restorations — like the use of concrete — were entirely necessary. I’ve read a lot of later work implying that his restorations were rather unsupported by the evidence, but the explanations here for at least some of them seem sound.
It was kind of an interesting experience to read about those two archaeologists in a positive and approving light. And kind of funny, too, that I was recommended this as a book about the Minoans and really it was rather more about Mycenaeans, of the two, and overwhelmingly more about fanboying Schliemann and Evans.
In search of a more informative book actually about the Minoans…
Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn
If this were sold as a novel, I probably wouldn’t have been so annoyed with it. However, it’s sold as non-fiction, despite doing the most amazing reaching to try and describe authentic episodes of Catullus’ life — nothing you could argue with as obviously untrue, but who knows where he ever walked up towards the Forum cursing the heat, or whatever anecdote like that first caught my eye? Dunn writes as if partially fictionalising the subject matter, while disarmingly taking the non-fictional stance of “perhaps” and “surely he felt that” and so on outside of the weird fiction scenes.
It’s a mixed approach and it’s probably true that that keeps some people more engaged, and that some people even prefer it. I don’t like being told that Catullus did this and did that part of the time, and then “maybe” and “perhaps” and “probably” the rest, when the things the writer says did happen are completely unknowable, and the maybes and perhapses are things Catullus actually wrote about.
Also, I know people have praised the close-reading of the poetry in this book, but I did better close-reading that some of this in the first year of undergrad alone. Most of it struck me as completely obvious — even facile. I’d take that with a pinch of salt, given I disliked the book, but… still.
Life in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies
This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.
It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!
This book is about the impact humans have had on the world, and perhaps more accurately, it’s about how we pinpoint when that impact really began and whether we should consider the human impact to have started a new geological age for the Earth. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here about exactly how humans have changed the world: the Columbian exchange which is leading to the homogenisation of ecosystems, and climate change, of course, but also the deeper impacts to the carbon and nitrogen cycles.
There’s also a lot of rather tedious discussion of how exactly the committees to define geological time are set up, and that I could have done without. I don’t mind some information about that, but I don’t need to hear about the endless infighting and bureaucracy created in such detail! I’m actually interested in how humans have impacted the planet, not the process by which we decide whether to commemorate that by naming a geological era the Anthropocene.
There’s several instances of really bad editing in this volume, too — typos, sentences which don’t quite make sense, etc — which gives it quite a careless overall effect. Some useful information and theories, and some stuff I didn’t know from elsewhere, though!