John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.
Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)
He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.
Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.
Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, John Man
John Man writes good, light, easy to read pop history. I have no illusions that I’m reading about the latest cutting edge discoveries, or that I’m getting a deep critical look at all the possible sources… but a story is woven together that illuminates a bit of history, with a touch of the travelogue as well. I know that it annoys other readers that Man also writes about his experiences while writing a book — where he went for research, the almost-calamities experienced, etc, etc. Still, for a bit of light reading I don’t mind, and it’s certainly easier to digest than something more academic.
Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating subject: the name is so evocative, yet really all it conjured up for me was tent villages and conquest. I didn’t really have a good idea of the Mongol peoples and their context, except dimly refracted through fiction. And well, okay, John Man gives us little snippets of “faction” (as is his wont), but it is based on research and an understanding of what was likely.
So yeah, enjoyable and accessible. I wouldn’t use it as a source for something that needs scrupulous accuracy, but if you’re curious, it should be a good read.
At this point, I must admit I’m a bad judge of pop-science when it covers biology. To me this is a very easy read now, covering simple topics, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way a couple of years ago. If you’re interested in evolutionary biology, though, this is a very good primer on the science of Evo Devo: understanding evolutionary relationships through understanding the development of embryos, how certain genes work in causing large morphological differences even though almost the same gene can be found in a wildly different species.
I think if you have a reasonable understanding of genetics and how proteins are made, you should be okay here: it’s not requiring expertise, though it may take concentration to follow some of the reasoning if you’re not already familiar. If you are, it illustrates the principles nicely, and I imagine a full colour copy of the book (if it exists) would be rather physically gorgeous as well. There’s a lot of black-and-white images of butterfly wings, for instance, in my particular edition. The points could probably have been more clearly demonstrated with colour images where the differences are easier to highlight…
All the same, a fascinating book, whether you’re an expert or not (I think). Evo Devo is a bit of a buzzword for some biologists lately, and this book is worth the read for learning about that. I wish I’d read it before the module I did that included some of this stuff: it would have definitely made the learning part come easier!
I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.
Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.
Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, John H. Taylor, Daniel Antoine
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is a fascinating volume which peers beneath the wrappings of eight mummies in the British Museum’s collection, using state of the art CT scanning and reconstruction to do so completely non-destructively. The mummies are from different areas of Egypt, and different eras as well, from mummies preserved naturally through to mummies prepared using every trick of the embalmers’ trade. There are amazing images in this book, with various different views of each mummy, and additional notes explaining significant features (like poles used to stabilise detached heads, an odd metal(?) ring somewhere in the oldest mummy’s abdomen, etc. There’s also some background information of a fairly basic sort, if you already know a fair bit about Egypt — if you don’t, this volume gets you up to speed enough to understand the mummies, in relatively few pages.
One quibble I had was the constant insistence that male bodies in sarcophagi with female names were definitely put there by accident (either in antiquity or now). I’ll admit I don’t know anything about gender in Ancient Egypt, but gender has always been fluid and expressed in different ways in different societies. Probably some of the bodies are in the wrong sarcophagi, owing to the way their tombs were pillaged and the way collections were swapped about with little attention paid to provenance. But… just maybe some of the ambiguities might be best resolved by thinking about whether we’re looking at gender the same way. Clearly the wrapping and presentation of mummies reflected social roles as much as anything else, as demonstrated by the young girl identified as a temple singer, mummified and presented as a desirable young woman — the intent does not seem to have been to reflect a person accurately, at any rate. Who says they weren’t wrapped and presented in a way meant to represent who they were in life, rather than the bare details biology gives us?
I know I’m not an expert in that field, but I can’t help but think that some acknowledgement of that as a possibility would have fit in well. Instead, it felt as if everything was explained away as a mistake on someone else’s part, rather than a potential misunderstanding on the part of those investigating the mummies now.
Still a fascinating book, though; perfect for someone fascinated by mummies.
Pyenson is clearly obsessed with whales — with the idea of them, with studying them, with understanding them and sharing that understanding. In this volume, he does his best to share all those things: his enthusiasm for whales as much as his academic interest, his wonder at them as much as his understanding of them as part of their environment. He tours through whales of the past through their fossils (so if you’re a palaeontology nut, this one’s for you too!), whales of the present through observation and dissection (so if you’re into biology…) and whales of the future through trying to understand how they impact their environment, and what the seas might be like without them.
It’s a fascinating journey: whales aren’t one of the topics I read about obsessively, but I wasn’t going to pass up a book about them from the library, either. Pyenson’s style is breezy, and he manages to communicate wonder even about things that might sound kind of gross (like whale dissection). To my surprise, I think I was most fascinated by his chapter about the weird new sense organ he discovered in whales’ chins, via actually being there on a whaling station to see freshly killed whales being butchered. (He has mixed feelings about this, but correctly notes that sometimes, you have to use the opportunities you get.)
I’m not raring to go dashing off to become an expert in matters marine, which is the sign of a non-fiction book that really gets to me, but nonetheless there’s plenty of interest here for the armchair enthusiast. If the idea of these massive mammals takes your breath away a little bit, this book might just augment that.
This book is seriously outdated, but that’s almost irrelevant since what I really wanted was a book with a general, accessible history of archaeology to just sink into. Ceram provides: he covers various great civilisations (Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, South Americans) and discusses some of the early work done in digging up and restoring their monuments. He’s often admiring of the adventurers who found them, while noting that at times they did more harm than good (something we feel even more strongly now) — there’s a great sense of adventure about some of the people and events he describes, though he does so in a scholarly tone that others might find dry. I enjoyed the range of choices here — e.g. it doesn’t just go for Petrie, Carter, Champollion, Schliemann… but digs into some names I knew less well.
There’s tons more to learn about all the sites and civilisations Ceram discusses, and much of the information here has been updated. For example, we don’t think in terms of slaves building the pyramids anymore. Still, there’s a great deal here to whet the appetite: a glimpse of the wonderful things as seen by those who were very close to their early discovery, but synthesised into a greater narrative about the progress of archaeology.
Not for everyone, but perfect for the mood I was in at the time. I think my favourite bit was the section on Egypt: like it or not, that was my first archaeological love. That said, I want to do a ton more reading about the archaeology of the Americas, which this book inspired me to pick up.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte
If you’re not really up to date on the modern science around dinosaurs, this is a pretty good way to catch up. It doesn’t go into enormous amounts of detail about any one dinosaur, and it’s honestly rather more surprised about feathered dinosaurs than I would think is warranted at this point, but it makes for a good overview. There is a lot of personal detail here about what made him interested in dinosaurs, various scientists, etc, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and though I didn’t twig at the time, other reviews mentioning that it seems like a total boys-only club are quite correct.
It’s nothing astounding and not really in-depth enough to have wowed me. More of an adult’s version of a pretty basic intro to dinosaurs. That has its place, but not really on my shelves!
A lot of the men I know dislike the idea that Solnit has a point in the title essay, but she really does. There’s an attitude amongst some men — usually of a certain age and status — that they know better than any female-shaped person they might be talking to. I get it when working support, I get it when talking about my academic interests, and yep, I’ve had it on this blog. Bibliophibian = female = doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
I recently had someone explain drug-resistant tuberculosis to me. I’d just completed six months of research into drug-resistant tuberculosis, how it arises, how it persists, and how it can be treated (for my BSc dissertation). The person in question was someone on a forum who had, in their own words, “not done any biology since my GCSE”. I’ve had people explain to me (wrongly) that Sir Gawain was a symbol for x and y in Arthurian myth — I have a master’s degree in English Literature, and my dissertation for that was on… well, you can guess, right? Their qualification was that they’d read T.H. White’s novels. I can’t remember what White had to say about Gawain: pretty sure White didn’t come into my dissertation at all due to being almost entirely irrelevant to my theories (I mean, at least read Malory and Chrétien before you pontificate, dude).
The point is, it’s a real phenomenon. I’ve never had a woman do that. Granted, there are also many men who will accept that I have the expertise I claim, but the same as Solnit’s examples, there are also plenty of men who don’t. And it’s rare to get an apology for those assumptions made.
So the title essay of this book definitely strikes a chord. The other are a little more uneven: I wasn’t that interested in the one on Virginia Woolf, for example. Solnit writes clearly, and hedges her assertions round with reminders that she really isn’t saying all men do x or all Americans are racist or anything else. She’s pretty moderate in that regard.
It feels like a collection padded out with a few random pieces that sort of maybe fit together, mostly in order to publish Men Explain Things to Me. It wasn’t a bad read, but… meh.
I’m pro-GMOs, so you could say it’s typical that I’d like this book, and I’m really the only kind of audience it would reach — but I think Lynas is genuinely attempting to dispell myths and introduce other people to the actual science behind GMOs, for all that. He was himself once very much anti-GMO, and participated in the crop destructions and demonstrations against people who tried to grow genetically engineered crops in the UK; he was “converted” by actually looking into the science behind it, and finding that behind the scaremongering, there’s very little real science.
He does also (perhaps somewhat weirdly) mount a defence of Monsanto; some aspects are like a case study of the problems of GM crops in action, but at other times he seems to be conflating the rise of GM crops as a whole with Monsanto — not quite the same thing; one doesn’t need to defend Monsanto to prove that GMOs are no threat. (Although he’s also not wrong that many of the kneejerk claims against Monsanto are on shaky ground. For example, the idea that Monsanto deliberately sell sterile seeds in order to force farmers to purchase new seed every year. That idea is just poor understanding of genetics: the second generation of seed may not actually carry the Roundup-resistant gene, in the same way that the seeds of hybrid crops don’t necessarily breed true.)
Lynas writes well and clearly, and often evocatively; his struggle with becoming pro-GMO isn’t drawn out in angsty detail, but it’s plain that it wasn’t an easy change for him and that he made the decision based on facts he could no longer ignore. Perhaps for some people, his presentation of the known facts will be enough to tip the scales. I’m somewhat doubtful (I think a lot of people who are anti-GM will automatically reject this book as being by a sellout, particularly because of the defence of Monsanto), but maybe it’ll help. If you’re on the fence, it should definitely help to clarify your views.