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.
Possibly I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much of the history of papermaking and paper usage is focused on China and the surrounding countries, but I was still somehow surprised — and I definitely hadn’t known about the key role Buddhist sutras players in popularising paper there. I did enjoy that the book didn’t just focus in narrowly on paper-making, but discussed its usage, the people who used it, and explained the contexts. It’s one of those books that might seem to be a microhistory, but in the end tells you a lot about various different things.
Of course, in later chapters it discusses the Reformation and the rise of literacy in the population, and the invention of the novel. But a lot of it isn’t about the West, which is… actually, probably a good thing for a complacent Westerner like me to run into. Paper was already established, understood and used fully well before we started printing Bibles and novels on it. It’s obvious, when you say it like that.
I found Munro’s style pretty compelling and definitely clear, and I enjoyed the fact that he didn’t hurry to the more familiar parts of paper’s history.
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, John Romer
Oh, yay, I have now discovered there’s going to be a third volume of these. Despite some reservations when I read the first volume, I find Romer’s writing pretty clear and engaging — though honestly, for me it would be difficult for someone discussing tombs and chapels and the statuary and pomp of the Egyptian courts to actually become boring. From the reading around I’ve done, Romer is accurate and thoughtful, working with the knowledge we actually have of the Middle Kingdom to discover as much as he can, without getting carried away and deciding everything is ritual, mysticism and slavery, as people are prone to do when considering Ancient Egypt.
The book has an extensive bibliography and notes, so it’s easy to look things up for more information. Personally, for all that I love the lavish description of tombs and the decoration of temples — and especially the importance of hieroglyphs — this book does feel very long (it kind of is very long, but it feels longer than it looks, if that makes sense). So it might not be for you if you’re more interested in a quick overview: it’s definitely detailed. I find it fascinating, though, even though a lot of the description washed right over me and won’t be socked away into long-term memory. It’s interesting just to read.
Essentially, this book is about getting past partisan divides and trying to find some kind of objective overarching morality that everyone can apply and understand, a “metamorality”. For Greene, the answer is very clearly utilitarianism, and he makes a spirited defence of that point, countering many of the standard objections to utilitarianism and clearing away the misconceptions. He starts by defining the problem, of course: discussing how we make moral decisions, using trolley problems (“trolleyology”) as the “fruit fly” of morality experiments.
He talks about ideas you’ve probably read elsewhere, sounding very much like Jonathan Haidt’s “rational tail wagging the emotional dog”, and talks about the basis of this in the human brain. There’s a lot of unpicking of why we have two levels of response to moral situations, and when each one comes into play, which is fascinating in itself, but not new to me. The defence of utilitarianism was, for me, the important part of the book. I’ve always had a bit of a kneejerk reaction against it, and Greene does a good job of dissecting why that happens, and countering that perception.
He also has some very good discussion of how to balance the ultimate aims of utilitarianism with being a fallible human being with emotional wants that feel like needs (even in cases where they’re not).
Overall, worth the read, and I do think he has a good solution here for a system of metamorality that isn’t perfect (he doesn’t seem to think a perfect metamorality exists or is possible), but can be applied and understood by everyone, and which serves our needs for 99.999% of our problems in the real world.