Tag: non-fiction

Review – The Secret Lives of Colour

Posted July 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St ClairThe Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St. Clair

This was perfect for a kind of scatter-brained mood: the stories about each colour are short, and it’s easy to dip in and out. Actually, it’s better that way, since there’s some repetition here and there between the colours, and it can get a bit samey to just sit down and read multiples. It seems to be well sourced and squares up with what I know about the history of colour and optics, though admittedly that isn’t much!

I would definitely recommend reading it on a colour screen, or preferably in a physical book, where you can see the colours right beside the images. It was OK on my phone screen, but not great.

Overall, enjoyable and informative… but also kinda repetitive. Not something I’m wildly enthusiastic about, even though it came at a good time for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries

Posted July 21, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries by Donald R. ProtheroThe Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries, Donald R. Prothero

This one is quite an expensive tome, so I was pleased when the library got it for me in ebook! It’s not quite as good as being able to see the full-colour, full-size illustrations, but I’m not very visual so I was here for the text anyway. I could get a quick look at the interesting ones, and that’s enough for me; I recommend experiencing it in colour, though, and probably in pbook form instead of ebook.

Overall, it was… pretty much as I’d expect, from a fairly generalised dinosaur book: there was a lot that I already knew, with some nuggets that I didn’t, and different interpretations of some fossils while trying to portray a fairly broad consensus. There are some gossipy stories about palaeontologists and work in the field, enough to give you a little taste of the conditions fossils get collected in and the history around their study.

There’s nothing particularly surprising, if you’re interested in dinosaurs and tend to pounce on books about them… but for me it was nice to wander through the Cretaceous landscapes for a while and let it wash over me. It’d be great if you were interested in dinosaurs as a kid, don’t know much about them now, and would like a refresher that brings up to date whilst being informative and fairly thorough.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Invasive Aliens

Posted July 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Invasive Aliens by Dan EatherleyInvasive Aliens: The Plants and Animals From Over There That Are Over Here, Dan Eatherley

Invasive Aliens discusses invasive organisms that are not native to Britain and how they got here, how they affect their new home, and what that implies for the future. Some of the invasives we’ve embraced as our own (rabbits and buddleia) while others are hated (grey squirrels)… and others, of course, we know very little about.

I actually picked this up partly because one of the reviews on Amazon complained about “snide references” to Brexit and Nazis. For your pleasure, I’ve pulled out those three quotations! From the introduction:

Many Brits pride themselves as stoic defenders of a green and pleasant land, boasting a record of resistance against aggressors dating back centuries, be it weathering the Spanish Armada or defying Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. This patriotic fervour, and its clarion call ‘to control borders’, may in part explain the 2016 Brexit vote. Yet, a cursory examination of the natural world reveals that while many interlopers of the human variety have been kept at bay, our islands have throughout history been colonised by a succession of animals, plants, fungi and other organisms that apparently belong elsewhere. Indeed, it’s often hard to sort out the native from foreign.

Which doesn’t exactly make the book “political cant disguised as a book on nature”, to my mind, given it’s mentioned once in the commentary and almost never again. There’s one other reference to Brexit in the entire book:

The UK has often taken a lead; for instance, in banning the sale of certain aquatic plants in 2013. But the political imperative of maintaining and boosting frictionless international trade – Brexit or no Brexit – risks trumping concerns about the unavoidable corollary of that flow of goods and people, namely, the arrival of unwanted new species.

Oh noes, the politics. Picture me with my hand to my forehead, swooning.

Finally, the book wraps up with some thoughts about how we’re going to treat invasive species in the future, mentioning the contention of some people that invasives actually boost biodiversity, and trying to tease apart what policy could and should be — and I guess this particular paragraph could come off as a bit pointed.

Public awareness of the issue is higher than ever before, with sensational news headlines stoking our fears. Giant hogweed, introduced as a horticultural curiosity from the Caucasus mountains in the 1820s, has been recast as Britain’s ‘most dangerous plant’ with sap that ‘melts’ a child’s skin. ‘Monster goldfish’ are on the prowl. ‘Sex mad Spanish slugs’ are terrorising our gardens. Emotive terminology isn’t just the preserve of tabloids: even serious scientists will talk about ‘demon shrimps’ and ‘killer algae’ with a straight face. Some of the language has a xenophobic flavour: introduced plants and animals are ‘ex-pats’ or ‘immigrants’, which ‘pollute’ our pristine environment and need to be ‘bashed’ and ‘sent home’. Perhaps it’s telling that the Nazis were among the first to take against non-natives, drafting a ‘Reich Landscape Law’ in 1941 banishing exotic plants from pure German landscapes. Some argue that the current fixation with non-indigenous wildlife is bound up with subliminal, and not so subliminal, antipathy to arrivals of the human kind. Concerns about non-natives and immigration to our small, overcrowded island are, they say, all of a piece.

Despite those snippets, I promise the rest of the book is actually focused on exactly what it suggests — those are the sole references to Brexit or Nazis in the entire 326-page volume, and politics in general impinges very little beyond the mention of initiatives here or there to eradicate this or that organism, due to impacts on the environment or native species. And, you know, I do wonder if these remarks put their finger on something.

Overall, despite my overall feeling of entertainment about that review, the book felt a little bogged down. The chapters are roughly themed (e.g. around freshwater invasives), but the examples start to feel like a succession of “and ANOTHER thing” — just as I felt it was wrapping up toward a conclusion, we’d look at another example (and it probably wouldn’t add much). Personally, I’d have refined the chapters down a bit and stuck to 2-3 examples per chapter to illustrate the points and the particular difficulties facing a certain part of the ecosystem, and overall slimmed things down. Even finishing the chapters off with some tables of other relevant invasives would have given all the examples in a way that’s a bit easier to digest…

It’s not unenjoyable, taken in short bursts, but my attention did wander quite a lot. The author’s voice is not super-engaging, even though he explains well and chooses good examples. Maybe I also suffer from knowing this stuff a little too well; reading popular science is sometimes the equivalent of shouting “HE’S BEHIND YOU” for an entire play, for me. Bit of a problem of preaching to the choir, except it’s a very opinionated choir (with some facts backing up its opinions) that is not sure they are wholly against invasive species as a general principle.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How Contagion Works

Posted July 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How Contagion Works by Paolo GiordanoHow Contagion Works, Paulo Giordano

This book is really a short-ish essay, broken up into very short segments, written very early in the course of the pandemic. It explains — very briefly — some of the numbers and concepts that render COVID-19 a global concern, and tries to contextualise some of the public health measures being taken.

For me, it’s very basic, of course: I know what the R-nought is, I know why it’s important, and I know what it isn’t. This is much more for a layperson, something on the level I might write on my science blog, with a touch of personal reflection as well. It’s mildly interesting to me, but I suspect it’s of much more value to people who are newer to these concepts. Given that, I can’t say it was more than a curiosity for me, or something that sticks in my head — but it may be better for others in encapsulating and explaining some of the ideas we need to get a handle on right now.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The COVID-19 Catastrophe

Posted July 3, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Covid-19 Catastrophe by Richard HortonThe COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, Richard Horton

The COVID-19 Catastrophe was written by the editor-in-chief of The Lancet. Most of the papers I needed to cite in my dissertation on tuberculosis were published in The Lancet, if the name doesn’t mean anything to you; it’s a prestigious medical journal, and Horton himself has a medical degree and a BSc in physiology. He knows whereof he speaks, in other words, and in this book he tears into the failings of governments (mostly the UK, somewhat the US) in coming to grips with the pandemic.

He is very clear in discussing these failings, though he more or less ignores the idea that China had any role to play here. There’s one brief reference to the doctor who tried to raise the alarm and was cautioned by the police, if I remember correctly… but if he does mention it at all, it’s a very bland reference with no further digging into why that occurred, and whether if people had listened at that point, we’d be in this position now. That’s a pretty grave lack.

If you’re curious for his position on matters in the UK, here he doesn’t hold back. I needn’t go over it all again, but suffice it to say that our government was slow to react, loath to give things the weight they deserved, and too quick to lift restrictions. People have died, are dying and will die as a result of the government’s actions; they are massively culpable for a lack of leadership and clarity. And he doesn’t even have to get onto the mess with Dominic Cummings, probably revealed as the book was already going to press.

The final section looks at what we can do to handle future pandemics better: as he rightly points out, this is only the first, and more are inevitable. Other books have done a better job on the whys (Spillover, by David Quammen) and hows (The End of Epidemics, by Jonathan D. Quick), but it’s not a bad high-level summary.

I do worry that one of his final remarks (that COVID marks an end to “sovereignty”) is going to be a massive red button for some people that leads them to just ignore everything he says. I don’t think he’s wrong; I think fragmenting into separate nations with wholly different ways of handling the virus is far from ideal, and I think the WHO has too little power (it has historically received so much of its funding from the US that its policies always have to consider “will this annoy the US?” first and foremost) and funding. We need more unity, not less, if we want to have all this trade and mixing of peoples between different countries… which Britain needs, because we don’t produce everything we need… and that call for unity clashes really badly with current politics.

But them’s the breaks. Pandemics don’t give a fuck about Brexit. If anything, it makes it easier for them as it erodes cooperation, goodwill and information-sharing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Posted June 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah PriceWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Leah Price

This book is less concerned with what’s inside books and more about what we do with the actual physical book. Leah Price is a book historian as well as a literary critic, and the reason I bought this book was for her insights on how we read and how you delve into how people in the past read. With some old books it’s easy: you can tell by whether the pages are cut or not. In cookbooks, you might be able to tell from where the pages are stuck together or splattered with ingredients. There’s also folded-over corners, of course, and just letting the book fall open and see where it opens to… Price talks a little about these considerations, but mostly this isn’t what the book is about.

She discusses the physical form of a book in the first chapter, the joys of pre-owned books and scribbling in the margin, and even how those habits have evolved over time. Much as we like to think of the book as a well-worn and traditional object, we haven’t always read from folded wood-pulp paper folded into covers, and our habits around books have changed accordingly. Books haven’t always been affordable, either: subscription libraries where people clubbed together to buy and share books were once very common. Scribbling in the margins and doing underlining was a lot more common before modern libraries discouraged the practice.

(I fear Price wouldn’t think much of my shelves, which are loaded which books kept in almost mint condition, even when I’ve read them. I think she’d see them as lacking personality and even love, instead of finding my rather obsessive, jealous, hoarding love of books on every single shelf. Not much room for nuance in her words here, approving most of books where she can clearly see the fingerprints of previous readers.)

Price also discusses the big one: pbooks versus ebooks. She’s fairly nuanced, and mentioned some fascinating insights about how different countries consume their ebooks. (In France, apparently, mostly via laptop screen; in the UK, dedicated readers giving way to reading on phones.)

She’s also got some things to say about the uses books are put to, discussing the book prescriptions service provided in Wales (which I’ve used!) and so on. To be honest, this seems like a bit of a mish-mash of subjects, and it doesn’t really come together very coherently. I was most interested in the first chapter and her commentary on ebooks, and I’m glad to have picked up her term for physical books (pbooks) — way easier to say than “dead-tree books” — but… overall… I wasn’t that enthused? It took looking at the contents to refresh my memory on what she even said, which isn’t a super great sign.

In the end, I’m not sure what she wanted to say and whether she ended up saying it.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – How To Be An Antiracist

Posted June 21, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. KendiHow to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi

Received to review via Netgalley

I think a lot of people are picking this up expecting it to be a handbook, from the title — a list of actions you can take, a discussion of prejudice and the prejudiced things people can inadvertently do: something, in short, that tells you what to do. It isn’t that. How to be an Antiracist is a memoir, which charts the journey of Kendi himself through both racist and antiracist thoughts, through all the things that shape his response today. There are definitely things here that can point to what you need to do (primarily taught through example: one of the important things to do is reflect on how your thoughts and actions could contribute to or fight against racism), but it isn’t a recipe book.

Which is good: I don’t think any single book can tell us what needs to be done, because Black people are not a single organism with one mind. Kendi believes that racism against white people is possible, for instance, which I know a lot of Black people disagree with (using the definition that racism requires power). Kendi lays heavy stress on changing racist policy (a term he prefers to “institutional racism”) rather than confronting racist people or even racist actions. His theory is that social attitudes are informed by what policy dictates: he suggests that the changing of minds and hearts will come after a change in law, and changes to laws should not be held up to wait for the changes of attitude.

Kendi’s also looking mostly at the way racism operates in the US; my impression is that while there are commonalities, things play out differently in different countries because of the different histories and policies. If you’re going to read just one book on racism, I’m not convinced this is the right choice for everyone, even though the title makes it sound like a panacea.

It’s true too that it isn’t just a memoir: Kendi sets out each chapter carefully, beginning with a definition and then using examples (often from his own experiences) to illustrate the problem, how it affects people, and how he grapples with it and has grappled with it in the past. In some ways, you can treat it as a template — because you can go through it and substitute your own experiences or those of people you know, and understand the same issue from where you’re standing. But still, I’d say it’s primarily memoir, and that accounts for the fact that it can be a little repetitive (we see the same issues and themes examined in different parts of Kendi’s life) or unfocused.

For me, there were some snippets of history and culture that were new to me, partly because I’m not from the US; I think it’s also worthwhile on that level, though it isn’t a history book and doesn’t delve deeply into it.

Overall, my feeling is that it’s a worthwhile read, alone or as part of a little self-taught curriculum of books about racism and how it impacts people — and how to be better, taught through example.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Science of Monsters

Posted June 13, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Science of Monsters by Matt KaplanThe Science of Monsters, Matt Kaplan

Part of the entertainment factor of this book is the fact that it takes its theories too far. After explaining Chimaera legends as the result of animals wandering into a tar pit and becoming fossilised in a weird tangle, the author goes on:

And Chimera was hardly alone. If a horse went down to a tar pit for a bit of water, got stuck, died, and was subsequently fed upon by a vulture that also got stuck in the tar, that would provide an explanation for the legendary Pegasus. Some art even shows Chimera battling with Pegasus. Was this linked to a find of fossils that people could barely make sense of?

He then goes on to use tar pits to explain sphinxes and Scylla: “Indeed, if there is a monster that stands as evidence that the ancients were looking at fossils of multiple animal skeletons jumbled together, it is Scylla.”

He does nobly admit right after that that “this requires tar pits, and Greece (and the rest of Europe) doesn’t have any”! Yes, that would be a bit of a problem for this theory, but it’s okay — he then posits trade routes as bringing the stories to Greece…

The problem with this book is that there is a lot of truth in it: it discusses gigantism in humans as arising due to tumours in the pituitary gland and suggests that could be the source of some monstrous legends; it points to fossils and tar pits as origins of various monstrous legends and ideas; it points out that giant predators were around in the past. However, it leans on these ifs and maybes — and on a good deal of special pleading — and takes it way too far. Maybe we imagined Cerberus because a giant slavering dog with three heads just seemed scary, you know? No need for three wolves to be swept off to sea together and fossilised as a jumble of bones with three heads.

In the end, I got tired of the exercise for my rolling eyes and put this down, relieved that I never paid for it and instead borrowed it. Whew. If you’re interested in some of the potential scientific seeds of monster stories, there are definitely nuggets of truth here. I learnt that the pituitary tumour thing actually ran in families due to a genetic disposition, producing families of giants! I learnt about some monsters I didn’t know that well! But… I have serious questions about the author’s seriousness here: his Chimera and Pegasus idea really begs for us to ask whether he thinks the fights between King Kong fighting Godzilla were inspired by film-makers finding an enormous ape fighting an enormous reptile in a tar pit? Or does he recognise that while the monstrous can (probably always does) grow from seeds of reality, probably a lot of ancient story-tellers were just thinking up ways to scare the shit out of each other, create amazing spectacles for artwork, or just tell a good story.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken

Posted June 10, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's BrokenStories of the Law and How It’s BrokenThe Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister writes under this pseudonym in order to speak frankly — and in this book they let loose on the state of the legal system in Britain. The poor management of CPS, the decimation of legal aid, the Innocence Tax, and all the ways that the government (not just the Tories, but perhaps mostly) have messed up our adversarial system, prioritising statistics over justice… while arguably failing to properly prosecute many cases as paperwork slips and overworked CPS employees fail to come up with the goods.

The title might trick you into thinking that this is going to be juicy gossip about defending the indefensible and prosecuting the most egregious crimes, but instead the Secret Barrister has several bees in his bonnet (or wig, as the case may be) and they really let it rip. I barely understood our legal system before, and now I know two things: 1) I’m writing to the chocolate teapot I have to call my MP, for all the good he does (Dan Jarvis, I’m looking at you and your constant banging on about veterans like they’re the only constituents that matter; are you planning on replying to any of my letters anytime soon?) and 2) staying the hell away from the courts.

I don’t know how my sister can want to be a lawyer, ye gods. I mean, obviously it’s not all criminal law, but… yipes.

And yes, there are one or two awful stories of justice gone awry, if that’s what you’re interested in. But instead, I recommend it as a way to get a handle on what our legal system really does, how it ought to work, and a little about what the government could be doing about it. It isn’t always an easy read, but the Secret Barrister writes clearly; law isn’t always something you can feel passionate about, but I am fully convinced of the Secret Barrister’s dedication to their work… and their desire to improve our system.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Language Myths

Posted June 7, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter TrudgillLanguage Myths, ed. Laurie Bauer, Peter Trudgill

Language Myths is a short and sweet collection of essays from various linguists, ruminating on various language myths from the incredibly specific (“Maori is an inferior language because you cannot use it to discuss astrophysics”) to the words on everyone’s lips (“kids are ruining the English language with their sloppy usage”). Most of it will be unsurprising to anyone with a spec of linguistic knowledge, and the level of interest and depth varies depending on the linguist writing the given essay and how good they are at putting their point across.

I don’t agree with some other reviewers that all the myths are strawmen, because I’ve heard exactly these arguments coming from people who hate language change, think that young people are undermining the pure clarity of the English language as it was spoken When I Was A Lad, etc, etc. Some of the myths feel a little more awkward, though, and I suspect that it because it is the particular linguist’s bugbear, and they just really wanted to write about that specific thing.

It’s not mindblowing, and the quality varies a little, but it’s still a decent primer on some of the things that linguists have to say about common perceptions of how language works.

Rating: 3/5

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