Tag: non-fiction

Review – Snowball in a Blizzard

Posted August 2, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven HatchSnowball in a Blizzard, Steve Hatch

Snowball in a Blizzard is a great examination of something that goes overlooked far too often — or blown out of proportion in ways that serve weird fringe agendas: the fact that very little in medicine is certain, and it’s not possible to put numbers on many/most things about biology. People forget that when looking for certainty about how to reduce their risk of cancer, or blow it up into something quite different when they want to argue against the importance of vaccines… and it’s really important to understand why there is uncertainty in medicine and what it really means, if you want to make truly informed decisions about your own healthcare. Informing people about this is Steve Hatch’s aim here, and I think he does a great job.

There are one or two points which have suffered a bit in time — for instance, the Rosenhan experiments that he leans on heavily to make a point or two have been discredited, with Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender arguing pretty convincingly that Rosenhan falsified much of the data in his study, which was never run in the way he described. There are also some references to SARS, which are pretty apocalyptic… But broadly speaking, Hatch’s points hold true.

There’s some really fascinating stuff here that I knew very little about. For example, screening mammography — mammograms for people who have not discovered lumps or had any other symptoms of breast cancer — is, on balance, probably harmful for most people. This doesn’t mean that diagnostic mammography is a bad thing, but the indiscriminate screening of everyone in certain groups includes far too many people who are at too low a risk of cancer. Thus, false positives are common, and a lot of mental distress results — and sometimes worse, with people even ending up having unnecessary mastectomies.

Hatch explains the statistics underlying evidence-based medicine really well. I don’t have a good instinctive grasp of statistics, and never have, and this book helped some of these concepts lodge in my brain — which was nice, because I had an exam coming up at that point on exactly some of these types of statistics. I think it would be really useful for anyone who wants to understand better how uncertainty in medicine works and what that might mean for making decisions about your own care.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Fabric of Civilization

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

Cover of The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia PostrelThe Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made The World, Virginia Postrel

This book looks at fabric not as an art but as a piece of technology, a scientific endeavour. Separate chapters discuss various themes: how the first thread was made, and the impact of selective breeding and experimentation in finding threads long enough to work with, for instance. I found the chapter on dyes particularly interesting, to be honest.

There was one thing that I found kind of weird, and that was some of the perspectives Postrel takes. Like she defends the low-paid status of women who spun thread because it would be cost-prohibitive to pay them more — cloth would be too expensive if people were paid more, so it can’t be done (instead of valuing people’s work at what it’s worth). And she’s very much automatically on the side of the middlemen who sold cloth for others, saying they were unfairly treated by people who didn’t know the worth of what they did? (Rather than what is more likely which is that it’s a bit of both.) It hits weirdly for me.

The chapter on new fabrics was pretty fascinating as well. I’d kind of like to see this on Great British Sewing Bee: here is this new fabric, here are its properties, make something out of it.

Anyway, overall pretty enjoyable and informative; I wish I was a bit more visual so I could understand exactly what’s going on in some of the descriptions, but that’s not the author’s fault — I can never picture anything, no matter how well you describe it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth

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

Cover of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas MorrisThe Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, Thomas Morris

The answer to most of the “mysteries”/”curiosities” here is “someone was mistaken or lying”. I was hoping for some weirder tales, to be honest, and some of this is really just “hur hur people swallow weird things sometimes” and “lololol someone put WHAT up their butt?” I was raised by a doctor, none of this is a shock to me, though I’m gonna provoke an internal wince in anyone in my family by just mysteriously leaving one word here: “lightbulbs”. (It’s probably worse than you’re imagining.)

It’s a fun enough light read, though for me it really harped too much on obvious hoaxes, misunderstandings and just the weird things people do that isn’t particularly interesting except that it’s sex-related and idiotic so it’s a reliable source of humour for some people.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Walls

Posted July 26, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Walls: A History of Civilization by David FryeWalls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick, David Frye

This book has one major thesis, which it argues fairly well: walls made civilisation possible. Walls are contrasted against wars, with warmongers living a more day-to-day existence and wall-builders creating culture, politics, philosophy, technology, etc. As you read it, at least, it seems pretty convincing — but of course, Frye chooses his examples carefully, and doesn’t provide any counter-arguments of times and places where people created art without being walled in, had complex social contracts that allowed for safety and self-expression without carefully delineated borders.

I don’t have the historical knowledge to properly argue the point, but I suspect that Frye’s version is pretty lopsided. I don’t want to romanticise unwalled cultures either, but by and large humans are more complicated than simple dichotomies like this.

Still, I found it an entertaining survey of world cultures where this did seem to play out, and it’s certainly a very readable book. I wish he’d gone more into the modern relevance of walls, but I don’t think it much suited his thesis to discuss Trump’s wall — hardly a beacon of culture-creation — at great length.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Never Greater Slaughter

Posted July 20, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Never Greater Slaughter by Michael LivingstonNever Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England, Michael Livingston

I studied ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, a poem included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as a piece of literature, back when I was an undergrad. I knew a little of the real history, of course, because I do think it’s important to understand the context that literary works come from — but I’d never dug into the detail, and this book was a great opportunity to do just that, and one I really enjoyed.

Livingston does a great job not only of making his case for the location of Brunanburh (though I’m sure I’d find other accounts persuasive, and don’t particularly have a horse in the race) but of providing the context for what made the battle so important, so crucial, that it ended up being remembered in verse recorded in a chronicle. He avoids fictionalising too much, apart from in one of the final chapters during which he tries to reconstruct the battlefield somewhat — and he manages to write engagingly, so that I read this almost in one go. (Okay, I had to stop for work, but I happily would have sat and read it straight through.)

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the book, but I note that he does include footnotes and sources to help support his argument, and he also responds to some of the counterarguments to his ideas, which is usually a good sign. It’s popular history, in the end, but I feel like it matched up pretty well with what I do know, and his quoted translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem match my own pretty well (so I trust either his knowledge of the language or the translation he’s working with, for that part).

For me, this was part nostalgic delight (but how good is my Anglo-Saxon now? ah, not so hot), part genuinely good read, and partly, yeah, curiosity about where he’d nail down as the site of the battle. I think he has me convinced, though I’d be interested to read rebuttals.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Pandora’s Jar

Posted July 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Pandora's Jar by Natalie HaynesPandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes

I picked this up somewhat on a whim, and then was hesitant to actually get round to it — I couldn’t quite say why. Which was silly, because once I picked it up, it immediately sucked me in: Haynes discusses the original portrayals of ten women from Greek mythology, what they meant to their original audiences and what they’ve come to mean. It’s not solely about rehabilitating them, but about looking again at them and everything they’ve meant — it doesn’t lionise Clytemnestra, even though it points out that her vengeance has some preeeetty solid reasoning behind it, for example.

I enjoyed the close reading of various texts, including some I knew from studying classics. I’d never viewed Phaedra so sympathetically, I must admit, even though I read the same version of Hippolytus (though I, too, found Hippolytus himself absolutely unbearable, ugh). Haynes often discusses the subtleties of translation, displaying an easy knowledge of the texts in their original form which frankly makes me jealous. (Not for nothing did I consider studying Classics next.)

I think of all them, I found the chapters on Medusa and Medea the most interesting — Haynes digs into the heart of their stories and displays it all, the good and the bad, and some of it may surprise you. Some of it is sadly unsurprising (surprise, patriarchy!). I found pretty much all of it fascinating, and it makes me a lot more interested to read Haynes’ fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Food: The History of Taste

Posted July 17, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Food: The History of TasteFood: The History of Taste, ed. Paul Freedman

This is a fairly academic volume, it feels like; it reminded me of reading essays about literature through history or something like that. The chapters are written by different people, so they vary in how fascinating (or not) they might be: I did like the late chapter about the development of restaurants, which added nicely to what I knew from William Sitwell’s whole book on it.

I must admit that given how academic it felt, I kind of zoned out a lot with this, and I ended up continuing to read because it was mildly enjoyable rather than because I was really retaining information. If you’re interested in more vibrant popular-history stuff on the history of food, this isn’t it: the academic feel keeps it rather dry, and at least one of the essays simply regurgitates its sources in huge chunks rather than doing a lot of interpretive work.

It was okay, but not something I’d hold onto myself — but depending on your level of interest and knowledge on the subject, it might be just the thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ancestors

Posted July 14, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Ancestors by Alice RobertsAncestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials, Alice Roberts

To get my nitpicking out of the way, the subtitle is really inaccurate. There are a lot (a lot) more than seven burials discussed here: I wouldn’t be surprised if it managed to get up to seven burials per chapter, though I wasn’t counting. It makes sense, in a way: many prehistoric remains are fragmentary, and they can tell us more in aggregate — which does lead me to my other peeve with this book, which is that many of the examples were actually not even British. Sure, each chapter discussed British remains as well, but there’s inevitably a lot of discussion of other burials, including quite a bit of detail about places like Shanidar.

I guess what I had hoped for was a book that really focused in on seven specific exemplary burials, and was quite exhaustive about those, discussing all the different factors we know about that specific individual, that specific grave. At least, that’s what I expected with the subtitle, at least. So, it isn’t that. There is quite a bit of detail about some of the burials, including some fascinating ones I didn’t know about, but it is really much more of a general survey of prehistoric burials, mostly in Britain, but using burials in Europe and further afield to help contextualise them. Which also makes sense, but is not how the title sounded.

Despite those peeves taking up a lot of my writing space so far, I did really enjoy the book. There are some burials here which really intrigue me, like the full chariot burials, complete with horses. Roberts mentions some ideas that really fascinate me, like the idea that maybe offerings to the water were actually funerary offerings, not offerings to abstract deities. She suggests that some of the “missing” dead (we would expect to find more prehistoric remains than we do) could have been cremated and scattered on water, with offerings thrown in after them — or even that bodies could have been placed on rafts with their belongings, and then the offerings ended up in the water when the rafts deteriorated.

It’s an interesting idea, at least, and the book had a few such titbits. Although I knew a little about most of the burials she discusses, if not all, there was definitely some new material in here and stuff that surprised and fascinated me. Worth the read!

Oh, and I’ll just bet the section on interpreting sex/gender in burials reaaaally chapped some people’s hide. Ahaha.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Posted July 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa RandallDark Matter and the Dinosaurs, Lisa Randall

Welp. This book is a lot of dark matter, and not much dinosaurs. Which is more or less what I expected, of course: the title is a really obvious gimmick. And yet, I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had just been billed honestly. Dark matter itself is fascinating — why do we need to drag the dinosaurs into it?

Well, the author’s contention is that dark matter may explain the alleged periodicity of Earth impacts by meteorites (a theory which I believe is actually in question and has always been a bit of a niche theory — at least in the pop science I’ve read before). She takes a great deal of time explaining the solar system and the formation of the universe, then a bit of time explaining meteorites, then finally gets round to explaining dark matter. By this point, two thirds of the book are done, and she finally introduces her own theory. Finally, in the very last chapter, we finally hear why she’s linking dark matter and dinosaurs.

It’s not badly explained or uninteresting, it’s just very badly titled. I was pretty sure there would not be much by way of dinosaur content, but you do have to live up to this kind of title a bit better than that, to avoid confusion. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for — too much time spent on the “this is how the universe came about” which I’ve read eleventy-three different times, and at least twice this very year. Randall doesn’t have the charisma to really carry that off, for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Reinventing the Wheel

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

Cover of Reinventing the Wheel by Francis and Bronwen PercivalReinventing the Wheel, Bronwen and Francis Percival

I thought this would be a great companion to The Cheesemonger’s [safdf], though probably more academic and less rich in anecdote. It was probably equally as rich in anecdote, and though the authors’ passion is clear, it somehow didn’t come through nearly as well because other parts of the book felt so dry. It also doesn’t help that they’re very judgemental about what constitutes real cheese, how cheese should be made, how cheese should taste, and yes, also how you should buy and enjoy cheese.

I’m sure the experience they describe as being the only way to eat “proper” “real” cheese is very enjoyable, if expensive and time-consuming; it’s the way they present it as the only way, and as a moral choice, that somewhat bugs me, because it blames consumers and producers for problems introduced by a capitalist system in which profit is more important than most anything else. I’m not sure that if everyone did try to live the way they say cheese should be made, bought and eaten whether that would actually work.

Possibly they’re right, but being judged for enjoying Mexicana Cheese or Applewood or whatever I bought from the supermarket just gets a little wearing.

In any case, it’s a good overview of how pasteurisation and anti-microbial measures have nearly killed the old ways of making cheese, and how that can in many ways be a bad thing. They discuss the fact that the balanced microbial communities in milk that hasn’t been pasteurised — at least in the past — tended to keep each other in balance and avoid some of the spoilage problems that modern cheese is prey to.

Their passion is clear, like I said, but it didn’t make me want to go and eat cheese like Palmer’s book did.

Rating: 3/5

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