Tag: non-fiction

Review – Exploring English Castles

Posted May 9, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Exploring English Castles by Edd MorrisExploring English Castles, Edd Morris

I’m sure this makes a reasonable coffee-table book, as there are some lovely photographs of castles within its pages. However, it either needed to go the whole hog and pay a photographer (instead of using Shutterstock images), or it needed to spend more time on the text, partly on editing it into an interesting narrative, and most especially on proper sourcing. The author is an enthusiastic, not an academic, from what I can tell — which puts his speculation on somewhat shaky footing.

It’s basically a hobbyist’s tour of a few castles he likes, and that’s okay, but I was thinking of something more like Marc Morris’ Castles.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Rules of Contagion

Posted April 13, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Rules of Contagion by Adam KucharskiThe Rules of Contagion, Adam Kucharski

The Rules of Contagion is slightly out of my wheelhouse, being less about infectious disease and more about the principles underlying all kinds of contagion. Certainly, there are many examples taken from infectious disease, and it’s a rather on-the-nose choice to read in the current climate (for posterity: I write this review in the midst of the UK’s lockdown to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2)… but a good amount of it is discussing other ways of “going viral”: computer viruses, internet memes, and even failure in the financial sector.

I found it reasonably clear and easy to understand, and luckily the math content is pretty light and more theoretical than anything. I did feel sort of like it got stranded in the weeds, though: I wasn’t sure where it was going, and as a consequence, I wasn’t sure whether we got there or not.

In the end, it sort of felt like I was being told a series of cool anecdotes and snippets from research, without them being entirely related to each other. There’s no ur-theory of contagion here, just a ramble connecting some various strands of contagion theory together. That’s not uninteresting, but it feels a little unsatisfying!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – What’s Your Pronoun?

Posted April 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She by Dennis BarronWhat’s Your Pronoun? Dennis Baron

What’s Your Pronoun? discusses something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, for good or bad: the humble part of speech we call the pronoun. Despite what some idiots protest, everybody uses pronouns all the time: I, you, she, he, they… They’re ubiquitous in speech and have been stirring up people’s emotions for years, whether it be wanting a neutral indefinite pronoun (for when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re referring to), or perhaps (like me) wanting to be addressed using a definite neutral pronoun (when someone doesn’t want to reveal their gender, or doesn’t identify with any).

Barron mostly discusses the former, because that’s something that he feels English is lacking (and which he has a fairly marked preference about, judging from this book). He goes over the numerous attempts to invent neutral pronouns, and some of the societal drivers behind that like denying women suffrage, getting used to women taking equal part in public life, and now the greater acceptance in Western society (the examples mostly stick to the US and the UK) of people who prefer to be gender-neutral.

It gets a little stodgy at times, personally, because I don’t care exactly when every different neopronoun was coined, and I’m less interested in a neutral indefinite pronoun (which English speakers usually solve with singular “they”, even if they believe that to be ungrammatical) than in a definite one. Baron is definitely behind singular they all the way, by the sounds of his arguments in this book, whether it be definite or indefinite: in answer to the cries of grammatical issues, he points out that singular “you” is a much more recent coinage, and one nobody even murmurs about these days.

I found it fairly readable, with some chapters being very absorbing and others getting a bit bogged down. If you’re interested in grammar, I’d recommend it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Unthinkable

Posted March 1, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unthinkable by Helen ThomsonUnthinkable, Helen Thomson

Unthinkable is a journey through some non-neurotypical brains. It’s a bit of a mix, actually; some of them have neurological conditions, while others are more psychiatric, and others straddle the border. In part, it illustrates the difficulty in drawing a line between the two. Most of the cases in this book weren’t new to me (or at least, I’d read about similar ones before), although Thomson approaches each person with sympathy and a determination to try and understand them and how they think.

They’re still interesting stories, even though they’re not surprises to me, and there were some details I wasn’t aware of — for instance, the man who believed he was dead was found to have very little brain activity, when scanned, more like someone in a coma than someone alive and walking around.

It’s silly, but I did have to laugh when Thomson mentioned someone “watching manga”. Yikes.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How To Argue With A Racist

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Argue with a Racist by Adam RutherfordHow to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford

I’ve enjoyed Rutherford’s work before; he communicates clearly, and he’s clearly delighted by the intricacies and weirdnesses of DNA and inheritance. In this book, he tries to provide people with the tools to argue back with some key racist talking points about skin colour, intelligence, milk-drinking, ancestry and proficiency at sport. For the most part, he doesn’t argue with a specific study or source of an idea, but offers up general points. It’s actually a very ineffective way to argue with anyone who’s going to ask for evidence, however true his points are; you can explain to a horse how to get to the water, but it’s not going to go and drink no matter how long you talk at it. Or, as my grandmother says, “You can’t educate pork.”

Really, the main problem is that some people are never going to believe you, even if you can talk the hind leg off the proverbial donkey and you can provide the sources. It’s not really clear who benefits from this book — mostly, I guess, people who know people who are sat on the fence, but can listen to reason. If you know any of those, I’ll send you my copy (assuming I haven’t already sent it to someone else) and best of luck to you!

It’s still clear and engaging, but preaching to the choir (by definition, if it’s aimed at people who want to argue with racists) and without a really clear guide to how to use these talking points. Vaguely replying “yes well everyone is related to everyone else if you go back through the family lines to the 16th century” doesn’t cut it for most racists.

If you’re on the fence and you want to understand why Ashkenazi Jews aren’t inherently more intelligent than other people and African runners aren’t inherently better at sprinting than anyone, it might be useful!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Great Pretender

Posted February 28, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Great Pretender by Susannah CahalanThe Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan

I was fascinated by Cahalan’s previous book, Brain on Fire, which documents her hospitalisation for psychosis that turned out to have been caused by encephalitis, prompted by an immune disorder. For a while, Cahalan was lost, but she found her way back, and The Great Pretender is in part prompted by those experiences. Looking at patients with mental health issues, she’s found herself wondering how many might be suffering from brain inflammation in the way she was, and how many could be cured partially or wholly by the same treatment. That’s how she found out about David Rosenhan’s famous study, which was born from a very pertinent question: “How can we tell the sane from the insane?”

Rosenhan’s study sounds simple: he sent nine pseudo-patients, one of them being himself, into a psychiatric ward with a simple description of non-dangerous but troubling symptoms. They all claimed to be hearing voices which said things like “hollow” and “empty”, but they dropped these symptoms as soon as they were actually in the ward. They all emerged from the wards — some after nearly two months — with diagnoses of schizophrenia.

Cahalan found this electrifying: how could psychiatrists not tell the pseudo-patients were perfectly sane? For the same reason as she was originally diagnosed as psychotic, partially: there’s no actual physical diagnostic criteria you can run someone through to prove one way or another whether they are suffering from a mental health disorder. (The DSM, a diagnostic manual, was updated to include a lot more diagnostic criteria as a direct result of this study; the issues are different now, though there are still deep issues with subjectivity and bias.) And also because all kinds of ordinary actions could be interpreted as insanity when seen in the confines of a psychiatric ward. A person taking reams of notes on everything the nurses do might be a pseudo-patient, but your first thought is probably that they’re paranoid and keeping track of the nurses as part of their out of control fear and attempt to control the situation!

In any case, Cahalan found the study fascinating and began to dig in… which is where it all began to fall apart. This isn’t a small study that no one knew about; this shaped mental health policy for years, and despite the protestations of some mental health professionals reading this book, it’s still in people’s minds. (I knew about it as a layperson, and I only had to say “Rosenhan” for my mother, a psychiatrist, to know what I was talking about.) And yet Cahalan’s investigations call it into question. It seems very likely that Rosenhan faked much of the data, as very few of the pseudo-patients could be found. One who was had a markedly different experience in the wards to the one reported, and was allegedly removed from the study… though his data still remained in the published version.

There are all kinds of little inconsistencies that pointed Cahalan to this conclusion, and I think the length of my review shows my enthusiasm and interest for the digging work she’s done here, interviewing the study participants she could find and searching for the others. She calls into question the study’s truthfulness, but not, in the end, its validity. Rosenhan’s observations struck a chord for a reason, after all. Was it bad of him to lie and fake data like this? Of course it was. But maybe psychiatry needed that.

That said, the book also showcases how far the pendulum has swung the other way, with prisons in the US absorbing many of the people originally cared for in specialised wards. And Cahalan keeps putting her finger on the sore place, again and again: we still can’t tell the sane from the insane, not really. We still don’t know the physical causes of much mental ill-health, and diagnosis requires an experienced clinician with a checklist of behaviours — and even they can be fooled by an autoimmune disease.

It’s perhaps not as gripping as Brain on Fire, but I enjoyed it and highly recommend it, and find myself largely in agreement with Cahalan’s conclusions.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Five

Posted February 23, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Five by Hallie RubenholdThe Five, Hallie Rubenhold

I didn’t really expect to find this riveting; it really isn’t my period of interest whatsoever, and I’m not hugely into murder stories. But, after all, this isn’t about the Ripper, but about his victims, and Rubenhold brings sympathy and painstaking research to the task. I’ll admit I haven’t fact-checked her on anything (given that it isn’t my period), but assuming she’s done the work — and the bibliography certainly suggests that she did — then it’s a wonderful window into the lives of five women who are only remembered because of their brutal murders, whose real lives and attributes were eclipsed by gossip and sensationalism.

That said, I have a serious issue with the way Rubenhold frames all this. Her urgent mission throughout — restated countless times — is to assert that almost none of the five victims of the Ripper were actually prostitutes. She states again and again that they weren’t prostitutes, that we’ve eclipsed their real lives and motives and struggles in our remembrance of them as such. Which is fair enough; the correction of the record by sketching out their actual lives is a welcome one. But, I got the strong impression that Rubenhold feels that the women are worthy of more attention because they weren’t prostitutes (apart from Mary Jane Kelly, who clearly was, and who gets perhaps the least attention in the book; not coincidentally, perhaps).

And that’s bullshit. If they’re worthy of understanding and remembering, it’s as whole people, and that would be true whether they slept with no one or half the population of London. They’re not more important because they weren’t prostitutes, and Mary Jane Kelly isn’t less important because she was. They were people, and no one has any right to murder anyone regardless of how they earn their money.

For the most part, Rubenhold is sympathetic to the plight of the women, noting where things went wrong for them and points where things may have turned around. (I’ll note again that she did not do the same for Mary Jane Kelly, who was actually a prostitute.) She details their everyday lives with pity and care, and she writes well. But I’m left just a little bit uncomfortable about that constant implication that it matters whether they were prostitutes. At the time, it did, because it shaped their whole lives, and their deaths as well, and because it may well have mattered to them. I can understand rehabilitating them for that reason.

But even if every single one of the five was a prostitute, they should still be interesting to us now for the exact same reasons as they are interesting to Rubenhold. It speaks poorly of her if she thinks that sex workers are automatically less interesting than everyone else, and that is very much the impression I got.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – When The Dogs Don’t Bark

Posted February 22, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When the Dogs Don't Bark by Angela GallopWhen the Dogs Don’t Bark, Professor Angela Gallop

I picked this up on a whim because it looked like it could be my sister’s thing, and I never object to more random information about all kinds of topics. Angela Gallop is a well-known forensic scientist who has worked on several famous murder cases; this is a sort of professional memoir, barely touching on her personal life, but digging into her opinions on forensic science, her part in expanding forensic science services in the UK and eventually worldwide, and her involvement (sometimes tangentially) in various cases.

It’s a little bit of everything, really: she talks about setting up her business, and that butts up against the horrible details of bloody murders and the less than fascinating references to board meetings. It feels rather unfocused, sort of like there’s the kitchen sink at all: there’s certainly plenty of interesting anecdotes, but the wealth of examples sometimes bogs down her theme. Where you expect her to be contrasting two cases, they turn out to be remarkably similar and prove the same point. It’s not terribly written, but I’d tighten it up ruthlessly and make her add in an organising theme.

She does have something she wants to say about forensic science: “it’s more complicated than you think, it needs funding, it needs to be impartial, and it needs to be done in context”. But those cautionary notes for the understanding of and the future of forensic science get a bit lost when suddenly she’s complaining about the perils of borrowing money to start a company and how things could have gone wrong there. The book’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not just about digging into the story behind investigating specific crimes, but it’s so heavy on those details that it feels like maybe that was the original point.

That said, the details are interesting and her style isn’t bad, just a bit flabby. I mildly enjoyed it, but felt it could’ve been more impactful if it knew what it was.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – West Nile Story

Posted February 4, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of West Nile Story by Dickson DespommierWest Nile Story, Dickson Despommier

I came across this because I was trying out various science podcasts and tried listening to some of the early episodes of This Week in Virology (link goes to the episode about West Nile virus). I was curious to dig in a little more, and lo and behold, this book was on Kindle Unlimited. It discusses the earliest outbreak of West Nile virus in the US, which happened in New York during a hot, dry summer, and was somehow transmitted there from Israel. The podcast actually fleshes out the theory a bit more, while this book focuses on a wider look at the virus, its ecology and implications.

It’s probably a fairly dry read if you’re not interested in emerging infectious diseases, but since I am, I quite enjoyed it; I found it fairly simple, so if you’re just interested in diseases for the sake of it without a professional interest, I think it’s completely understandable for a layperson. It was a little basic for me at times, in fact.

Overall, it was a little scatterbrained somehow; it wandered off into discussing other diseases like malaria, without really tying it into the discussion of West Nile very well. I’d probably recommend the podcast over the book for that reason, but it was still interesting to dig in a bit deeper on some of the points mentioned in the podcast.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Because Internet

Posted January 27, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochBecause Internet: Understanding How Language is Changing, Gretchen McCulloch

Because Internet discusses various ways the internet is changing language, including how that has changed between generations. If the idea of language-change makes you clutch your heart in horror, then this won’t be the book for you: McCulloch is fascinated by the changes to language and thinks it is wonderful, pointing out that teenagers using all-lowercase and “lol” on the internet has not actually changed formal writing one iota so far. If you’re looking for outrage and someone to worry about the malign influence of emoji on communication with, McCulloch’s not your friend.

If you just want to read her observations and analysis about how people use emojis (they replace gestures in spoken language! we’re using text to communicate conversationally now, so we’re replicating aspects of verbal communication through the tools available like emoji!), how different generations of “internet people” use language, and turn-taking in chats, without assuming these things are bad, then voila! This probably is for you.

I’ve seen people complain that it was dry, but I found it very engaging; it probably depends somewhat on your initial engagement with the subject, and also on your usual reading fare. If you’re used to reading non-fiction, I doubt it’ll be any problem, but of course, your mileage may vary. I found that McCulloch’s excitement shone through.

I think a mistake some people are making is to think that because some aspect of the way they communicate online contradicts McCulloch, she must be wrong. From this blog, you’d never guess if the current trends are minimal punctuation, all-lowercase writing and SHOUTY CAPS for emphasis; obviously, I’d be an exception. (For reasons you can easily figure out: I have three degrees, including two in English Literature, and thus am highly trained in how to do formal writing and the historically “proper” use of the English language; I’ve been writing fiction since my early teens; I’m a reader, so I’m exposed to a lot of formal writing; I’m used to using HTML and Markdown to use italics for emphasis… it goes on.) She’s not describing you, Individual McInternetPerson: she’s describing trends, and for the aforementioned trend, you don’t need to spend long on Tumblr to find many, many examples.

I think there is something in the complaint that she’s a little prone to description rather than analysis. It does also get a bit “here is a history of the trends in language on the internet”, with some brief explanations of why that should be. I still found her enthusiasm in doing this and her particular viewpoint on it interesting; I hadn’t thought about emoji as gestures, or encountered the understanding of the internet now as where teenagers — dispossessed of the places they used to hang out due to rules against loitering — aimlessly talk rubbish to each other all day. It’s clear when you say it, but I don’t think I’d consciously stopped and thought about it.

Like I said, there’s no alarmism about the death of the English language — no prescriptivism about how grammar ought to be — so if that’s what you want, you might find yourself wanting to throw the book across the room. I just nodded a lot, and read a fair number of lines out to my wife because wow, that’s right! that’s how it works!

Rating: 4/5

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