Tag: non-fiction

Review – Humankind

Posted January 22, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Human kind: A Hopeful History by Rutger BremanHumankind, Rutger Bregman

This was a really quick read which I found myself really enjoying. It’s a profoundly optimistic book, arguing that humans are generally inclined toward cooperation and care for one another, and highlighting the pitfalls (and manipulations inherent in) certain famous studies that people have relied on for a rather pessimistic view of humanity. We’re talking Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, and Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment — “I was just following orders”, “power will inevitably be abused”, “kids will go full Lord of the Flies if left alone”.

The criticisms of these are known elsewhere, based on methodology and skewed reporting (the experimenters put heavy pressure on the subjects of the electric shock studies, and many of the subjects didn’t actually believe there was anyone being shocked; the prison guards were heavily coached to behave the way they did by Zimbardo himself and a hand-picked guard, plus the guy who allegedly went crazy just wanted to get out of there and acted it; the kids were manipulated into fighting, but actually tended toward cooperation and reconciliation when left alone), and Bregman lays out the criticisms well. He’s not some lone voice in the wilderness here: if you read around, there are plenty of critiques of those old experiments, and attempts to reproduce the results have failed or had markedly less success.

He also picks apart the very well known “bystander syndrome”, by pointing out that one of the people who didn’t act in the famous case of Kitty Genovese’s murder was terrified of being found out for being queer, and instead ran to find someone else… who ran out of her home immediately and held Genovese in her arms until an ambulance arrived. Kitty Genovese didn’t die alone, and witnesses did call the police, who gave the reports low priority as the witnesses didn’t know what they’d witnessed was a serious attack.

At the same time, Bregman does acknowledge that these results were obtained and can be under some circumstances. It would be wrong to characterise his point as being that humans are always going to be good. In fact, he points out situations that bring out the worst in us, mostly (in his view) in line with the mismatch hypothesis: humans as a species didn’t evolve for this modern, technological world with crowded cities, neighbours you don’t know, etc.

His answer is not that we necessarily need to go back to pre-city ways of living. In fact, many of his suggestions are about bringing out the best in ourselves in the world that we have, with individual-level suggestions about trust, avoiding the news, not getting swept up in the latest outrage, etc.

I think he’s an optimist and an idealist, and his argument that we can’t be cooperative and good to one another without trust is difficult to refute in a world where suspicion seems like the best option. His most realistic suggestion is to live, as an individual, as trustfully as possible, and reach for the cooperative solution as much as you can. To do good openly, and spread that goodness by example.

Much of what he says is what I’d like to believe, and much of what he suggests is how I already choose to act, so of course the book plays into my bias. Still, I think it’s well-written, spiced with just the right anecdotes to make his point, and a good (and surprisingly quick) read — I tore through it. If he’s wrong, well, I’d like him to be right, and I think little harm will come from believing that he’s right.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing

Posted January 15, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Money by Jacob GoldsteinMoney: The True Story of a Made-up Thing, Jacob Goldstein

Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s not an exhaustive history, or a manifesto for any particular path forward. Rather, it’s a series of stories about money in different time periods, which in aggregate tell us something about how money developed and how its been seen over time. It includes some really clear explanations of why the gold standard isn’t ideal, why the financial situation in Greece was a potential disaster for the euro, etc; it makes things which I thought were complicated sound really simple by breaking them down and demystifying them.

However, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t have footnotes. There are endnotes, which are not traditionally formatted but do point to some sources… but not nearly enough and not really specific enough to be able to say “ah, this assertion came from here, which I can read for myself”. It’s breezy and light and definitely intended for someone like me who is only very mildly interested in the topic, and it does well at being appealing for that audience. Others with more knowledge will no doubt find it shallow/overly-simplified/etc.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Darkening Age

Posted December 31, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Darkening Age by Catherine NixeyThe Darkening Age, Catherine Nixey

The Darkening Age is a very readable book about a very depressing subject: the loss of knowledge, art and culture from the classical world when Christianity became mainstream. You often hear people saying that Christian monasteries preserved classical knowledge and literature, and it’s true — there are manuscripts which only survived because they were held in monasteries.

Unfortunately, as Catherine Nixey discusses at length, much more was destroyed by Christianity. Deliberately, purposefully, and with malice. Temples were torn down, books burned, inscriptions destroyed, etc, etc. If Christianity had truly been such a preserving force, we’d have a lot more than we do now, perhaps. Nixey goes through it step by step, the initial period of co-existence (and the fact that evidence suggests Christians were not persecuted nearly as much as they liked to think they were) and then the ramping up of hostilities, the sanctioned-and-encouraged utter destruction of “pagan” idols and temples, etc.

For such a heavy subject, it really is a very readable book, and I pretty much tore through it. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive, and other reviews are right to point out that there were other causes of the loss of texts, destructions of temples, etc.

The author is a journalist, rather than a historian, and the text is pretty much uninterrupted by footnotes/sourcing, so definitely be aware that it’s very much a popular history, and flavoured by opinion, rather than being an academic work. I found it an absorbing read!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Fate of the Ninth

Posted December 29, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Fate of the Ninth by Duncan B. CampbellThe Fate of the Ninth, Duncan B. Campbell

I’ve always been fascinated by the Ninth Legion, at least ever since I can remember, because of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (a story that I’m pretty sure was told to me until I could read it myself, though my mother liked Warrior Scarlet best). This is obviously less thrilling, since it’s non-fiction, and there’s a lot of detail about how the Roman army worked, etc… more than I could remember in one go, really: in some ways, I kinda just took the author’s word for it about the minutiae.

It did make me sad to learn from this book that the origin story of The Eagle of the Ninth is based on a wrong interpretation of an archaeological find– the eagle found in Silchester was more likely decorative, perhaps on a fort, rather than being the eagle of a legion.

Despite destroying the basis of a favourite book, I did enjoy this. It pieces together the story of the IX Hispana through the textual records they left behind — their stamps on tiles, the name of the legion on commemorative stones that discuss the careers of various Roman consuls and other officials — rather than through more exciting archaeology. If you’re not super interested in how Roman inscriptions can help date historical events, or the IX Hispana legion, it might not be of much interest, though! It’s a little dry for that.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Little Gay History

Posted December 27, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Little Gay History by R.B. ParkinsonA Little Gay History, R. B. Parkinson

This really is a little book, but it’s still interesting. It uses the British Museum’s collections (with a little bit of help from the British Library) to discuss how same-sex desire has been portrayed in art and literature. It’s not an exhaustive account, and many cultures leave no mark: I’d say it’s best viewed as highlighting some interesting objects (and some of the lacunae where we can’t say), rather than as any kind of complete narrative.

For me, there wasn’t a lot that I didn’t know about, or which surprised me if I didn’t, but it’s a good opportunity to get a closer look at the objects: the images are full-colour, and most pages enlarge some of the interesting details to take a closer look. The focus is on gay men, partly due to the limitations of any collection and the general invisibility of women in the archaeology of certain periods, but there are some references to genders outside the binary, and to portrayals of female same-sex desire.

It’s worth noting that quite a few of the images are explicit. In addition, some of them are Greek/Roman, so some of the men portrayed are teenage boys (since there were sanctioned and encouraged relationships between boys and older men).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – River Kings

Posted December 21, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of River Kings by Cat JarmanRiver Kings, Cat Jarman

River Kings touches on a few topics surrounding the Vikings that I haven’t read much about elsewhere: their role in creating and maintaining the slave trade, for one, and then a brief (but fascinating to me) reference to using bioarchaology to understand the spread of disease, including a theory that the Vikings helped to spread leprosy and smallpox. I’d love to read more about that (in pretty much any period, to be honest).

The format of the book is fairly simple: Jarman chooses an item from a dig in Britain, at Repton, and follows its path to where it may have originated. How did a carnelian bead make its way from the east to Britain? The story allows her to touch on a lot of topics along the way: first the Vikings’ presence in Britain, and then their raiding and trading in general, and then further back along the bead’s journey. She explores the customs and capabilities of the Rus (Vikings by another name), and their role in affairs in Constantinople and beyond.

It’s a pretty effective structure to explore a bit more about what the Vikings did and why. It doesn’t cover all possible topics, but nor does it limit itself too much. I found it pretty enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Diagnosis

Posted November 28, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Diagnosis by Lisa SandersDiagnosis: Solving the Most Baffling Medical Mysteries, Lisa Sanders

Each chapter of this book is a little précis of a case, with the key details you need for figuring out what exactly happened, should you have the knowledge and experience — and of course some flavour text, because where would we be without knowing that a young girl was an athlete, or a straight-A student, etc, etc? The stories are pretty short, each illustrating a medical mystery (to one degree or another — some of these I guessed, and others I’d have no idea about).

It’s very light, of course, but for a layperson it’s perfect, and illustrates some of the weirdnesses of bodies and diseases. I found that it actually made me a little anxious, partly because of the trappings of characterisation and life situations that were given for flavour — it makes it all too easy for me to imagine the same situation happening to me and my loved ones. Nonetheless, I powered through, and thought it was pretty interesting and well-written for what it is.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Breaking the Chains of Gravity

Posted November 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Breaking The Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira TeitelBreaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA, Amy Shira Teitel

The problem with the early history of missiles, which came to enable space exploration, is apparently that it’s mostly about Nazis. Wernher von Braun ends up being the main focus of the narrative because he was deeply involved in rocketry all along, and unfortunately the author takes a tone that sees him as a visionary, nobly defending his precious and important project…….. by becoming a Nazi, accepting slave labour to assist in building it, and — she doesn’t mention this, somehow, mysteriously — being accused along the way of actively helping to torture prisoners.

Many ordinary people got caught up in the Nazi party, but most of them wouldn’t try to defend themselves by claiming their project was too important to abandon. Hiding behind the importance of his project is what skeeves me out more than anything with von Braun — and what skeeves me out with Amy Shira Teitel is how little she bothers to grapple with that fact. You’re writing about a Nazi, and that requires careful handling, and for the love of God you should not be suggesting that the ends (protection of the missile programme) might justify the means (the brutal use and torture of prisoners), even inadvertently. You should be so careful about that that the accusation could never arise.

Amy Shira Teitel… was not. Her enthusiasm for rocketry is clear, but her judgement is sorely in question. In addition, because I could not possibly care less about fucking Nazis, I found a lot of the book difficult to read and frankly tedious. Oh! It’s another explanation of how clever von Braun is and how carefully he protected his team of scientists from dying in the war! What a shame he couldn’t do anything about the torture and deaths that facilitated his programme.


Rating: 2/5

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Review – Spitting Blood

Posted November 9, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Spitting Blood by Helen BynumSpitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis, Helen Bynum

I was enthusiastic for this book, because I’m enthusiastic about tuberculosis, but my actual research for my dissertation only extended to the current state of affairs in the UK (with a sprinkling of context from other countries that helped explain patterns of prevalence). Unfortunately, it’s very dry, and kinda lacking in real… judgements about the narrative. Like it’ll discuss a particular type of treatment, but only historically, without reference to whether it actually worked, what the off-target effects might be, why it might work on the occasions that it did actually work.

It does have some scientific detail, but it’s more along the lines of why people thought x and y. As the narrative gets toward the present day, there are some more details — and some I didn’t know, like the fact that the need for multi-drug regimens was known pretty early on. I thought the reason resistance arose was because monotherapy was used exclusively until quite recently, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

(Part of the complication is that TB is just really very tricky, without any need for monotherapies giving it the chance to mutate. It has great efflux systems to pump most types of antibiotics out of the cell, it gets inside your macrophages and then makes the phagosome unable to fuse with the lysosome so it can sit pretty inside your cells, and it has a whole bunch of potential mutations that allow it to neutralise the main antibiotics in some way or another. This info isn’t in the book, this is from my dissertation, though.)

Anyway, it filled in some of the background knowledge I lacked, but it was dry and lacked urgency. I found Kathryn Lougheed’s Catching Breath far better back when I first read it, when it was the book that got me interested in TB to begin with!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Chasing Aphrodite

Posted October 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph FrammolinoChasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino

Chasing Aphrodite is not just about the “Aphrodite” statue that proved a flashpoint for the Getty Museum after it became clear it was most likely looted from a site near Morgantina. It is, as the subtitle says, about the looted antiquities, the changing attitudes toward that, and the long legal cases that forced American institutions and collectors to change their acquisition policies and return looted art. In some ways, it’s a biography of Marion True, a curator at the Getty who was instrumental in the acquisition of many of the looted antiquities, while also becoming a strong voice for restoration and refusal to purchase such items.

I found it surprisingly suspenseful — if that’s the right word. I wanted to find out what ended up happening; I didn’t remember enough about the events described (many of which hit the news when I was a teen) to remember how things worked out exactly, though it was obvious that the Getty were running their collective neck into a noose. The narrative is fairly dispassionate but nonetheless makes it deeply obvious that what the Getty were doing was wrong, suspect even under their own lax policies.

As a note, the book isn’t pro-repatriation per se. It seems fairly ambivalent about other repatriation requests, like the Elgin Marbles, striking a note that seems to call some of that type of request “unreasonable”, at the end. It casts Marion True as a fairly sympathetic figure in many ways, despite her deep culpability. She was at least as deeply implicated as other figures at the Getty, and a little honesty and self-examination might have helped her weather the storm.

Still, really fascinating.

Rating: 4/5

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