Tag: non-fiction

Review – Scoff

Posted September 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Scoff by Pen VoglerScoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that a book purporting to be a history of food and class in Britain does itself verge into snobbery now and then, but I was a little annoyed by it all the same. You can feel the judgement dripping off Vogler in what she includes and what she doesn’t — and for the most part, it’s not about British food at all, but the food that English people will eat. A single token reference to bara brith, a few potatoes and a quotation or two from Sir Walter Scott don’t make this British. I think there’s more about French cuisine here than Welsh, Scottish or Irish, and there’s classism going on in the very choice of examples she keeps harping on (Austen, Thackeray, etc).

There are some interesting titbits here, but I found the format of the book really annoying — you really don’t have to link each chapter to the next through a tenuous lead-in, and you really don’t need to make me hop around the book to read other sections.

I don’t know from personal experience whether all of her research is correct, though I saw one or two reviews on Goodreads suggest that she’s a bit off base about some things. She does at least have a fairly exhaustive set of references, should you want to look something else up.

I found this, in the end, surprisingly tedious for something that so clearly catered to my current, randomly acquired interest in food history. I was riveted by the history of white bread in America, so it’s not the subject that’s lacking here — it’s the delivery.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Chaucer’s People

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Chaucer's People by Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, Liza Picard

Chaucer’s People is pretty much what it says on the tin: a history of the lives of an assortment of everyday people through the frame of The Canterbury Tales. She discusses the various pilgrims and what they did for a living, what they ate, where they lived, the clothes they would have worn, etc. She digs into some of the details Chaucer gives us about them, and draws out what they mean.

One thing I have to note is that it rarely touches on the lives of everyday people, the people who couldn’t afford to go on a pilgrimage. The title is a bit of a contradiction because people who could go on pilgrimage weren’t everyday people! So it’s not as complete as it might sound.

In any case, I’d bet it’s a really good companion to reading The Canterbury Tales — I was somewhat hampered at times by the fact that I last read it when I was an English lit student, a good ten years ago. Because it wasn’t fresh in my mind, sometimes I didn’t have quite enough context, which is reflected in how much I enjoyed reading it.

That said, there’s a lot of detail that doesn’t require you to know or remember anything about The Canterbury Tales.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How to Read a Paper

Posted September 13, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Read a Paper by Tricia GreenhalghHow to Read a Paper, Tricia Greenhalgh

This is chiefly useful if you’re planning on reading papers in order to apply them to a medical context: it basically teaches you how to use the concepts of evidence-based medicine. However, it can also be useful for those who have to read papers in general, because there is a good discussion of how to read the statistics without getting overwhelmed and weirded out — and it has some hints about what to watch out for in terms of poor methodology and bad data manipulation.

It’s a slow read, of course, but it’s a worthwhile one if that sounds like something you might need to apply in your work or study!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Library: An Unquiet History

Posted September 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew BattlesLibrary: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles

The idea of a history of libraries and all they’ve meant to people is an appealing one — probably to many bookworms! It’s great that this one focuses on the way libraries have been more than just quiet places out of the way of history. I can’t say that this particular book actually worked out for me, though. It felt scattered, and not as engaging as I’d hoped — and I’m a big lover of books, and of books about books.

I ended up just… feeling meh about it, I’m afraid. It hasn’t stuck very well in my head since I finished it, and I wasn’t very compelled to keep reading it. I don’t think I read a single bit aloud to my wife, either, which is usually the sign I’m really enjoying non-fiction.

I read this before I read Burning the Books, but I’d recommend the latter if you were to read just one. It’s not quite the same focus, but pretty similar, and it covers more ground.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – How Emotions Are Made

Posted September 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman BarrettHow Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett

The first half of this book is great. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her subject well, dissecting previous evidence as well as her own research and synthesising them into her full theory. In summary, she posits that emotions are not something pre-formed in the brain, not something genetic, and not something you can point to on a scan. Instead, each instance of emotion is constructed from all kinds of different inputs, in the moment, and may not look anything like another instance of the same emotion if the subject is put in a brain scanner. This makes sense of a lot of things, and makes perfect sense to me — in fact, it starts to seem totally obvious!

She also mentions the “illusion of free will” almost in passing, in a way that made the lightbulb click on for me. I always hate the idea that I don’t have free will, and that “I” am essentially forced to act in a certain way — or more accurately, have no option to act in a different way — by combinations of my upbringing, culture and biology. But the point is that “I” am constructed by all those things anyway, and there is no real separation into “conscious” and “unconscious”, where the “unconscious” isn’t really me. The unconscious part is me as well, and even if it does things without waiting for the conscious me to weigh in — even though the body starts to act before the “decision” to act is consciously made — then… that’s still me. It seems obvious in retrospect, and is completely in line with everything else I believe (mind/body dualism has never been for me).

Why I never saw it that way before… well. Like Robert Sapolsky says in his book Behave, people tend to imagine their conscious mind as a sort of homunculus directing the brain’s actions, and it’s not really the case — but it’s a powerful illusion. It’s that idea of a homunculus separate from the rest of the brain that makes it feel like there’s a problem.

I’m not entirely sure I’m coherent here, but I really appreciated Feldman Barrett’s aside about that. It made things click into place for me.

The second half of the book is more about the applicability of her theories, and it worked less well. There are good examples there of dissecting how her theory works, but in the end her conclusions are familiar ones. That said, her view of constructed emotion, and the ability to impact how your emotions are constructed, give people rather more responsibility for their brains that scientists like (since I mentioned him already) Sapolsky seem to do. That’s interesting and useful.

Overall, I found this really interesting, but the applicability chapters dragged a bit.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Consider the Fork

Posted September 10, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Consider the Fork by Bee WilsonConsider the Fork, Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork is a look through history at the utensils humans have used for cooking and eating, from knives and forks to the ovens that we prepare food in and our control of fire/heat. Each chapter themes itself around one of these implements, and discusses the changes through history and between cultures.

I found it broadly interesting, but… somehow it didn’t quite keep my attention in the way I expected. I suspect part of it is because I’m not a cook, nor particularly interested in eating food for its own sake. For whatever reason, food and the culture surrounding food is what has caught my magpie interest for the moment, but I don’t have that deep connection to the right pan or the knife that perfectly fits your hand that I think some cooks do and which Wilson seems to have in spades. Also, I think Wilson’s writing style just doesn’t quite work for me, which is fine.

I did finish it, though, and find that in several places I wanted to tell other people the interesting facts I just learned. It’s not bad at all, and I think there are people for whom it would be deeply fascinating. It just didn’t quite click with me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Invention of Murder

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

Cover of The Invention of Murder by Judith FlandersThe Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders

This could easily have felt really prurient and invasive, given its focus on the various bloody murders that fascinated Victorian society — or too bloodless and dry despite the topic, if it got too academic. I found that Flanders steered a perfect path; it might still be too dry for those who are mostly interested in the murder part of it, but I found it really fascinating, especially as someone who studied the development of crime fiction in novel-form (mostly in the following century).

Flanders does hop about in time a little bit, which gets frustrating and a little confusing. It’s partly because the chapters are grouped thematically, which mostly does work, though since it marks a progression over time then maybe it could have been managed a little better. There are lots of examples to illustrate the trends being discussed, plus images where appropriate as well.

There’s lots of referencing at the end, which is always reassuring in a non-fic work like this. All in all, I’d be happy to read more by Flanders.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Whole Picture

Posted September 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Whole Picture by Alice ProcterThe Whole Picture, Alice Procter

I have very complicated feelings about museums. I love the British Museum’s eclectic wonders, but it’s a museum built on the theft of valuable and spiritual/religious artefacts, the pilfering of dead bodies, and all the other things that people have felt entitled to do and take because colonialism is a hell of a drug. I feel like I at least have a responsibility to think about it, so books like this are a great opportunity to do so.

It’s not a book all about how this and that was stolen, but a book about how we can respond to that. It discusses some of the responses people have created that reflect on colonialism, and the degrees to which they’re successful, as well as discussing some of the older art and objects and how they’re presented to people — sometimes with context, sometimes with misleading context, and sometimes without comment.

It’s a fairly easy book to dip in and out of a chapter at a time, and I found it pretty enjoyable. I did have to keep looking up images and photos to get the full context, because any images were not great on my ereader’s screen. I don’t know how good they are in a printed copy of the book.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Burning the Books

Posted September 6, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Burning the Books by Richard EvendenBurning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, Richard Ovenden

Burning the Books was really readable, and a bit broader than maybe I expected — it isn’t just about book burnings, but also about the importance of archives, of the kind of information people don’t necessarily expect to be useful. It mentions all kinds of historical events, more and less well-known, which help to give a broader scope of how libraries and archives have impacted people (for good and ill, but often in the end for good — Ovenden mentions the key roles of archives in the reconciliation process for torn nations, like the availability of the Stasi’s archives in East Germany).

It went a bit broader than the similar book I read recently about libraries, but it is mostly focused on books/knowledge as collected and curated by libraries and archives. It’s not super interested in other forms of knowledge, and it doesn’t really touch on modern issues of book bannings (frequent in the US, for instance, enough to spawn Banned Books Week).

Overall, quite enjoyable (insofar as learning about attacks on knowledge is enjoyable; interesting may be the better word), and as far as I can tell, it’s well-researched.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Sirens of Mars

Posted August 23, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Sirens of Mars by Sarah Stewart JohnsonThe Sirens of Mars, Sarah Stewart Johnson

The Sirens of Mars is partly the history of science about Mars, and partly about the author’s relationship with Mars. That’s a bit of a trend in popular science, and to be honest, I’m starting to really dislike it — at least when it veers from the writer’s career and things they worked on (pretty relevant) to things which are not really relevant (giving birth to a child). It’s not supposed to be your autobiography; it’s billed as a book about Mars.

Despite finding that aspect frustrating, I mostly enjoyed this. It is a touch biographical about scientists like Sagan as well, but at least that told me things I didn’t already know (e.g. I hadn’t known about Sagan’s struggle with achalasia). There were some details of the Mars missions and the people around them which were new to me as well — I didn’t remember anything about Phoenix at all, totally overshadowed by Curiosity in my memory, I suppose!

What we know about Mars has been filled with missteps where we dreamed more than we could actually detect, like the canals and Sagan’s dream of fast-moving creatures that we wouldn’t capture with a camera. This book is an interesting, if slightly meandering, recounting of that journey and where it has brought us. It might be unsatisfying to some that there’s still a lot of science left to do on Mars, and we don’t have solid answers to some of the questions Johnson discusses. I love the idea that we always have more to learn, though.

Rating: 3/5

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