Tag: non-fiction

Review – Ivory Vikings

Posted December 3, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie BrownIvory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings is ostensibly a book focusing on a famous archaeological find: the Lewis chessmen. The chessmen constitute multiple sets of pieces, though there are pawns lacking, and are carved from walrus ivory. Nancy Marie Brown attempts to look into who made them, and when and where the carving was done. She communicates this by taking each type of piece in turn (bishop, queen, king, etc) and discussing the pieces themselves briefly, and then ranging off into historical and geopolitical context.

Mostly, it doesn’t work for me. The book relies heavily on her Scandinavian location being correct, and it’s very plain she has one particular person in mind as the artist from the outset. A lot of the information is not relevant if her theory is incorrect, and her theory is far from proven (even though I agree that from the evidence as presented, it does seem likely).

I wanted something a bit more focused on the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t a bad read, but it dragged a little, because I’m not here for church politics!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Conan Doyle for the Defence

Posted November 25, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit FoxConan Doyle for the Defence, Margalit Fox

I read Margalit Fox’s books more or less automatically: I greatly enjoyed her book on the decipherment of Linear B, and something about the way she dives into a subject works for me. It’s broadly true in this case, as well, a book in which Fox delves into three things: first, the murder case that led to the framing of Oscar Slater; second, the detection methods and ideas of Arthur Conan Doyle, including his Sherlock Holmes books and stories; and thirdly, the way Conan Doyle investigated the murder case and advocated for Slater’s freedom. There’s a theme underlying parts of the book, which is the fear of the other which was entrenched in society at the time and led to unfair accusations of this kind — it feels very relevant to read this book now, when a similar fear of immigrants is taking over.

Fox writes sympathetically about both Conan Doyle and Slater, though they were very different men, and takes care to show us that both of them were human, with virtues and faults. Conan Doyle comes across as the better man, of course, because Slater was definitely involved in some less than salubrious escapades (though not ever murder or really anything involving violence).

I didn’t find it as fascinating as sign language or the decipherment of Linear B, but it’s still a worthwhile and interesting read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Akhenaten

Posted November 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas ReevesAkhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves

Although this book as billed as being a revolutionary interpretation of Akhenaten, I think that’s just hype. It’s certainly a thorough examination of the evidence we have, and of Akhenaten’s actions and methods, and it points out that there were sound political motives behind the move to Tel-el-Amarna to found Akhetaten… but most of this is stuff I’ve heard before. He talks about theories like the idea that the Amarna family had Marfan’s syndrome as if it was ignored and kind of niche… but even I (not an Egyptologist, not reading the scholarly material and not having any training whatsoever in that field — I have an interest, but not a particularly up to date knowledge) know about that. Perhaps this is due to him popularising it, but it seemed very odd.

There are other things that ring alarm bells, as well. He doesn’t utilise footnotes, so it’s hard to track down his assertions (there is a bibliography, but of course you don’t know what was the source for any particular idea). I did remember when I started reading this that the idea that Tutankhamun had been murdered had been recently pooh-poohed on the 2005 CT scan of the mummy, but I was prepared to hear some solid arguments based on some kind of evidence… and none were forthcoming. It’s clear that whole subject is muddied by post-mortem damage of the body, possibly in antiquity and definitely by Howard Carter, so I would’ve been sceptical of any offered theories, but Reeves avoided the subject as if it were not a serious stumbling block for any theory. His sole comment on the unreliability of the evidence is this (bolding mine):

If this interpretation is correct (and it has inevitably been challenged), the implication would be that Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the head and lingered, drifting in and out of consciousness, for some weeks. What is interesting is that the position of this supposed blow would indicate that the damage had been sustained intentionally rather than by accident — at a time when political manipulation of the god-king was the norm, and regicide a rather more common occurrence than the Egyptian state cared formally to acknowledge.

Whereupon he wanders off into speculation about Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. But… the challenge really needed to be discussed here, because it’s a serious one: although this book was published almost at the same time as the better scan in 2005 and he can’t have known about the results in time to change the book before publication, Reeves’ whole line of argument is so weak that it falls apart from that point because the CT scan completely dismissed the murder theory, and he had no counterpoints ready. If he’d addressed the uncertainty better, it would seem rather less like he builds his arguments on houses of cards.

As a consequence, he has several interesting theories which I enjoyed reading about, but as a consequence of his light hand with substantiation, I cannot trust. For example, I’ve never heard of the letter to Suppiluliuma being thought to be sent by Nefertiti, instead of the common interpretation that it was sent by Ankhesenamun. It makes sense, on the evidence here, but what has Reeves omitted because it doesn’t suit his racy narrative? Same with his re-interpretation of the kingships just prior to the Amarna period: he lays it all at the feet of Hatshepsut and her “greed” to become the ruler. Quite apart from wondering a little about Reeves’ personal views on women (we don’t hear about the “greed” of Ay or Horemheb in taking power after Tutankhamun’s death), I haven’t heard this elsewhere… and I can’t trust Reeves.

As I said, granted I’m not exactly neck-deep in the latest research, but this book was originally published in 2005, and I haven’t heard most of these theories elsewhere since. At this point, I wouldn’t believe a thing he says without a pinch or two of natron and some supplementary sources.

I also think it’s irresponsible of the publishers to republish a book from 2005 without revision, while stating on the back that it is a “revolutionary” interpretation (which certainly assisted my previous impression that it was a new book). It’s over a decade old and parts of it have been proven to be castles in the sky, folks.

ETA: Slightly amended due to finding out the publication date listed on the source I checked was wrong, and this was originally published in the same year as the CT scan.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – It’s All In Your Head

Posted November 9, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of It's All In Your Head by Suzanne O'SullivanIt’s All In Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan

The title of the book gives it away: this is a series of case studies, essentially, covering cases of psychosomatic disease. In it, as in O’Sullivan’s other book, she discusses the cases of various past patients and how she concluded their symptoms were not neurological disorders, but instead signs of a conversion disorder. I think the title is a bit of a disservice, because O’Sullivan is strongly against the kind of dismissal the phrase implies. She believes that (most of) her patients with this issue are truly distressed, truly experiencing pain and disability, and truly require medical help. Though it’s not a physical disorder of the nerves, it is something that should and must be treated in order to allow people to resume normal lives.

Understanding of psychosomatic illness and health anxiety is lacking in many doctors. Part of it is overwork: crowded clinics do not appreciate the sight of someone hoving into view with yet another anxiety-related illness of nebulous symptoms and solely psychological origin. But people like that, all the way along the scale from the lumps and bumps that trouble me to those whose brains paralyse themselves, all deserve compassion and treatment, and O’Sullivan’s book strongly advocates for that. She is firmly against the impulse to second guess a patient and assume they are faking.

That said, of course she makes herself come across as preternaturally patient with this kind of thing, and very sure about her diagnoses. She does discuss uncertainties now and then, but for the most part she is very certain of herself. Most of the cases she mentions are very clear-cut, and it makes it all seem very easy. In reality, things are muddier.

The chapter on ME/CFS has many detractors and as many people who shout that it is pure truth. Lacking the professional background or the academic reading on the topic, I can only say that I was under the impression that the graded exercise she recommends was in fact proven to be unhelpful, and that both sides in ME/CFS discussions can get very fraught and very disinclined to admit the truth of anything the other says. At the very least, O’Sullivan’s sympathy feels real, and she does intend to diminish the suffering of people with ME or CFS; she merely questions its source, and does not believe that a psychological source of issues means weakness or that you can just snap out of it.

It’s not deeply profound if you’re looking for the science of all this, though she does discuss what is known and the history of psychosomatic illnesses. It’s mostly of interest for really understanding the bananas things our brains can do to us. An enjoyable read, but not for me a groundbreaking one.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Women & Power

Posted November 5, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary BeardWomen & Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard

The discussion of the female voice (literally) in the halls of power, the first essay of this book, is absolutely great and exactly within Beard’s professional ambit. She discusses perceptions of the female voice, and how the dislike of “shrill” women has been embedded in us in what we consider to be foundational texts for Western civilisation (Homer, etc). I saw someone on Twitter just the other day realising that they disliked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s voice in exactly the way Beard discusses.

The second essay is a little less focused, I think. She looks at some great parallels in literature and such, but it feels a bit less focused and conclusive. (Not that the first essay particularly comes to a rousing conclusion, beyond “we need to be conscious of this”…)

I suppose part of the problem is that no one really has these answers. It’s a worthy read for posing some of the questions, and for showing some of the workings we may not even think about, nonetheless.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Border

Posted October 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Border by Diarmaid FerriterThe Border, Diarmaid Ferriter

This book professes to explain the importance of the Irish border, and to delve into its importance in the Brexit negotiations. I thought this was something worth informing myself about, because my knowledge of Irish history of any era is fairly limited, and I want to be better informed. This… is not a good place to start, I think: it throws names of politicians and political parties at you rapid-fire, and expects you to already have much of the context in mind. That makes some sense in a book focused on the border, but I’d still start with a bit of context to help orient people who are picking the book up for the reasons I did.

In the end, I couldn’t finish it. I found the style too dry and it just wasn’t calibrated for the level of knowledge I went in with. I’m sure it’s fine if you’re interested in the topic already, but then, a primer on the topic is why I thought the book would be useful, so it’s a little misleading in terms of the jacket copy.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Gendered Brain

Posted October 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Gendered Brain by Gina RipponThe Gendered Brain, Gina Rippon

Gina Rippon and other writers like Cordelia Fine between them attempt to totally rip to shreds the idea that there are such things as “male brains” and “female brains”, writing convincing critiques of studies which are then just as convincingly critiqued in their turn. It’s difficult for someone outside the field (even someone with a biology degree that included modules on human biology and on “the science of the mind”) to know how to pick this apart, and I worry that a lot of the time we go looking for someone who supports our view, and then believe them because they sound most convincing. (And of course they do! It’s easy to convince someone of something they already believe.)

In terms of the book itself, Rippon’s not as engaging as Cordelia Fine; I actually got a little bored and bogged down at some points. It definitely wouldn’t be my first choice as a primer for a pop-sci book that’s sceptical of the pink-brain-blue-brain debate. There are some interesting sections: the discussion of attitudes toward menstruation is particularly interesting, as it suggests many of our negative ideas about menstruation (including PMS) are culturally received. (Then again, Rippon doesn’t engage with the genuine issues of people with conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, which very clearly make periods exactly the misery people fear.)

In terms of the evidence presented, I think some of the debunking is useful for sure, and the reminders that some of these differences are actually vanishingly small. However, Rippon uses examples of women with high testosterone, and possibly other intersex characteristics as well, without bothering to think about whether it’s the binary that’s serving us poorly. We know that biologically, sex is a spectrum with groupings around two points, not two separate and wholly discrete categories. I’d love to see more work dealing with that and what that might mean; this book ain’t it, because it tacitly accepts from the start that there are men and women, and that everyone can be sorted into one of those two boxes.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Making Eden

Posted October 13, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Making Eden by David BeerlingMaking Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet, David Beerling

I picked this up on the strength of The Green Planet: in that book, Beerling’s fascination with and passion for everything to do with plants was palpable. It was a really good book, and he wrote clearly for any audience. Making Eden is perhaps a little more technical, or just a little less polished: I honestly found it a little dry, overall, and I can’t say I loved it nearly as much. Obviously I’m a bad judge of what works for people without a scientific background, but once or twice I found myself getting lost, so my feeling is that it probably misses the target a bit.

It is fascinating to think about how plants made that step from the oceans to the land, though, and it was a worthwhile read to understand a bit more about that. The importance of fungi doesn’t surprise me, though I was pleased to get a chance to read a bit about the experiments that more or less proved it. That leads neatly into Beerling’s final chapter, which… discusses the impact of humanity on plant diversity.

I get it, it’s an important subject, but at this point with me you’re not just preaching to the choir, you’re trying to teach them a song they already know — and it’s not even a more specialist look than perhaps I might read elsewhere, because it’s just 20 pages at the end of a book on its own topic. It’s boring. I know why it’s there; perhaps it’s even irresponsible not to put it in there somehow. But… none of it is new to me, and this book didn’t excite me enough in general to really get over that.

So, overall a bit disappointing. It’s still readable, but I didn’t find it compulsive reading like The Emerald Planet, and it didn’t get me excited.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The History of Life in 100 Fossils

Posted October 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A History of Life in 100 FossilsThe History of Life in 100 Fossils, Paul D. Taylor, Aaron O’Dea

This isn’t entirely a coffee table book, but it is a little sparing on details — sometimes I really wanted to know how a certain fossil was formed, and they don’t mention it, or their related text is barely related to the actual fossil they’re presenting. And of course, there are fossils I’d like to see discussed and aren’t, and some I wouldn’t have put in my personal lineup of the history of life. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to see someone else’s choices, and follow the timeline of the development of life through their examples.

And of course, some of the fossils are just flat-out gorgeous.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fascism: A Warning

Posted October 11, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright

Part memoir, part political treatise, part history, Madeleine Albright’s book does a quick overview of Fascist regimes in history, taking in the obvious ones, digging into how they took power, legitimised themselves, and made it difficult to get rid of them by dismantling constitutions and laws. Most of that isn’t new to a casual student of history, though some of the details are, but then she moves into some of the more recent dictators and fascists of the world. In some cases, the leaders discussed don’t fit the definition of fascism as stated by her, and sometimes it feels more like the title should be Dictators: A Warning.

Her bias, as a former member of the Clinton administration, is obvious, but her respect for George W. Bush is a rather welcome note in that. Her lack of respect and trust for Trump is explicit, though she stops short of calling the Trump administration a fascist one (granted, the copy I read is from 2018, so her views may have updated somewhat since).

There’s some fascinating insights from Albright based on her experience, including of living leaders (Putin, for one), and her direct experience in Czechoslovakia. As I was reading it, I was thoroughly absorbed by her conversational and clear style. I do doubt how well it translates for people across the party line. (From the look of Goodreads, not well.) Interesting, though not entirely new to me in terms of what fascism looks like.

Rating: 4/5

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