Tag: non-fiction

Review – Words in Time and Place

Posted 7 October, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Words in Time and Place by David CrystalWords in Time and Place, David Crystal
Received to review via Netgalley

I’m surprised at other people actually reading this cover to cover in only a couple of sittings: for me it was much more the type of book that you dip in and out of. A curiosity, but not something deeply riveting. Trivia, I suppose. I did find Crystal’s introduction to the whole book and to each chapter interesting, but the lists and lists of words are rather hard to just sit and read, for me — it’d be like reading a dictionary or thesaurus for fun; it can be interesting to look up particular things, but I don’t know anyone (as far as I’m aware!) who’ll sit and read straight through.

For me, it was particularly interesting because it puts some Old/Middle English expressions in a better context than the simple translating dictionaries ever did, and makes some surprising links between the years and other languages. Though I think if he’d gone to Anglo-Saxon poetry, he’d have found some more fun ones for his section on death: I’m fond of ‘sweordum answefede’ (put to sleep by swords), which caused some consternation in class when we were trying to translate it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Seahenge

Posted 3 October, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Seahenge by Francis PryorSeahenge, Francis Pryor

Archaeology is not some exact science, with answers to give to every question if we only look hard enough. It’s partly our own fault: we’re overpopulating the Earth, and in the meantime we’re destroying great swathes of the archaeological record. We only have fragments of the past, some larger than others — Seahenge being one of the latter, far ahead of potsherds but perhaps more mysterious — and while archaeology has some light to shed, I find it best to accept up front that no one can offer a complete answer, and that if anyone claims to be certain, they’re speaking beyond the evidence in almost every case.

Francis Pryor’s book handles this pretty well, in my books, though I have no doubt there’s people out there who wish he’d stop equivocating. Much of this book involves setting this in context, linking modern and ancient lives and landscapes, and then using what evidence that offers to spin theories — theories that could be upset by the next find out of the ground, in some obscure peaty corner or air-tight chamber stumbled upon by chance.

Bearing all that in mind, I found this book fascinating. I have no personal expertise to say yay or nay to any of this — my own research interests lie in a later period, with the dawning of literature, which is in conversation with archaeology more than you’d think — so I took Pryor’s words more or less at face value. Some of his ideas seemed too sketchy, too much based on a gut reaction, but even so his description of the excavations, his impressions of them, the way they came together to synthesise an understanding of the anicent landscape… it’s all fascinating, and I would happily read more.

If you’re looking to learn specifically and solely about the place we’ve dubbed Seahenge (which was not actually built on the beach, and wasn’t in such close proximity to the sea) then only a couple of chapters of this book are of direct interest. But why you would want to look at something like this in isolation when it’s clearly part of a larger story and can only be understood in those terms, I don’t know.

One thing you may feel is that Francis Pryor has too much to say about himself and his team, particularly his wife. I enjoyed it, given that his thought processes were influenced by everything around him. A bare-bones description of the sites and the endless work of extraction and preservation would seem terribly boring to me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Life

Posted 1 October, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Life: An Unauthorised Biography by Richard ForteyLife, Richard Fortey

This isn’t my favourite of Fortey’s books, possibly because I’ve read similar types of books by other writers before, so he isn’t bringing me a new subject I don’t expect to like in the same way as he was in his books about geology, or a key passion of his as in his book about trilobites (though trilobites have their place here, too, as you’d expect with Fortey). Still, I enjoy the way he writes and the way he draws together his themes, and this isn’t a bad book — it’s just that he and others have covered a lot of this ground before.

Actually, my favourite history-of-evolution type book is Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. (When Dawkins sticks to science, he’s great. When he decides to comment on twitter, rarely so.) That’s just a quirk of the way he organises it, though, while Fortey’s method is a little less organised, lingering on things of special interest to him. Which is fine, but didn’t work so well for me in this case. That, and he doesn’t deal with DNA as much as I’d like, because that’s my special interest and not his.

Nonetheless, Fortey knows his stuff and how to make it enjoyable, though I think I can understand people who complain about his writing style not being easy — I tend to take it slow and savour it, myself.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole

Posted 29 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Down the Rabbit Hole by Allan H RopperReaching Down the Rabbit Hole, Brian Burrell, Dr. Allan Ropper
Received to review via NetGalley

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole is a really fascinating book. It’s a little fictionalised, so we get dialogues and little portraits of character, enough that we can care about the cases discussed. Dr Ropper is pretty much everything an ideal doctor should be: knowledgeable, capable of acting fast, capable of explaining complex processes clearly, intuitive, willing to listen, willing to admit he’s wrong… At every stage, he emphasises to the reader and to the residents he’s teaching that each case is individual, that the right answer for one person isn’t the right one for the next, and so on.

There are a couple of very good chapters on Parkinson’s and ALS, some fascinating things like the fact that an ovarian teratoma can cause seizures and all sorts of neurological symptoms, etc. At every turn, it demonstrates the complexity of the brain, the limits of our understanding.

What nearly spoiled it all for me was the fact that Ropper really does revert to talking about hysteria. When I quoted a section to my mother, a psychiatrist, she texted back to ask if the book was written in 1899 — that’s how out of date that section seems. For the most part, he even seems sympathetic to these patients, which is more than I can say for a lot of people who dismiss hysteria/psychosomatic illnesses/conversion disorder, etc. But in this case there seems to be a barrier in his thinking: he sees a young woman with a teddy bear, and he immediately chalks it up to hysteria. Whatever her symptoms: hysteria is the answer. Sure, he dresses it up as “conversion disorder”, but what he means is still pretty much the Victorian hysteria. He uses that term as a direct synonym for conversion disorder, psychosomatic problems, etc.

And it’s exactly that attitude that makes life difficult for people who have mental illnesses, insight and even a glimpse of the way that people are going to look at them. If I’m going into a doctor’s office with some problem, I prepare myself for the inevitable questions about my levels of anxiety, my depression during the last few weeks, is there anything at home I’m struggling with… Because there’s a diagnosis of GAD and depression right there in my file, I know that nine out of ten doctors will listen to my symptoms and hear only psychosomatic. And some of those will even blame me for that — me, the thinking rational person — even though I could no more help it than I could pick the stars out of the sky.

I started having horrible stomach pains in 2010, my second year of university, at the same time as I started a pretty steep descent into anxiety. Doctors were reasonably sympathetic, but continually told me that what was happening to me, whatever it was, just happened because of my anxiety. Here’s a pill, take it and everything will go away. And I believed them: the pain had to be in my head, because I have an anxiety disorder. I knew they wouldn’t believe in the pain and so I didn’t either.

Even at the point where my physical symptoms were completely blatant, when you could do a physical exam and precisely locate the source of the pain, my GP was reluctant to send me for an ultrasound because, in his opinion, I was probably just stressed about my master’s degree. He repeatedly asked if I was happy, if I was sure I was doing the right thing in my career, while I was trying to ask for pain relief. When eventually I pushed hard enough, he sent me for an ultrasound, warning me that I was wasting everyone’s time.

My gallbladder was packed with stones, and the only option was to remove it.

At one point in this book, Ropper discusses signs and symptoms. Symptoms are what the patient reports; signs are what the physician observes. Don’t stop listening to the symptoms just because you think you can see the signs. Don’t get blinded to one thing because another has already been diagnosed.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Wherever You Go, There You Are

Posted 27 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-ZinnWherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn

If you’re looking for something about meditation and mindfulness that’s devoid of spiritual interpretations and the like, this is one of the closest approaches I’ve seen that still focused on the meditation aspect and not just generally being “more aware”. It has some helpful suggestions for visualisation, including details not just of picturing things but of feeling things, like his suggestions for standing meditation of imagining yourself as a tree, the part where he mentioned approaching the practice with dignity, etc.

Overall, I doubt it’s going to convince anyone who is highly sceptical to begin with, or help anyone start a practice ex nihilo. But it’s worth reading, and sitting with, and thinking about, if you can put aside scepticism and just try it.

One thing I especially liked was that Kabat-Zinn doesn’t have any thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots about this. There’s recommendations, suggestions, but also reminders that any moment of mindfulness in the day, however short, is valuable.

Rating: 3/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 27 September, 2014 by in General / 12 Comments

I haven’t gone on such wonderful buying sprees this week, but I did go to two different libraries (go on, guess how many library cards I have). So it is not particularly a small haul, all the same. And I did get some books — my partner spoils me.


Cover of Graceling by Kristin Cashore Cover of Fire by Kristin Cashore Cover of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Cover of The Language of Spells by Sarah Painter Cover of Fair Game by Josh Lanyon

I read Graceling a few years ago, and liked it well enough, but I wasn’t bowled over. I’m going to give Kristin Cashore another chance, evidently; my ex-housemate Ru will be pleased with me. The Language of Spells was a somewhat random choice, while Fair Game is necessary for me to read last week’s review copy of Fair Play.

Review copies

Cover of Unborn by Amber Lynn Natusch Cover of Riding the Unicorn by Paul Kearney

I tried to have restraint this week, see?

Library books

Cover of False Colours by Georgette Heyer Cover of The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen Cover of Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer

Cover of Surrender None by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Liar's Oath by Elizabeth Moon Cover of Tempting the Gods by Tanith Lee

Cover of Bad Things by Michael Marshall Cover of The Mighty Thor by Matt Fraction Cover of Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Cover of Seahenge by Francis Pryor Cover of Discovering Dorothea by Karolyn Shindler

More Heyer, which surprises no one; I keep meaning to read Sarah Addison Allen and since I’ve misplaced Garden Spells, I may as well start there; archaeology! paleontology! and… Matt Fraction. My usual hectic mix.

What’s everyone else been up to?

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Review – The Human Age

Posted 26 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Human Age by Diane AckermanThe Human Age, Diane Ackerman

I got a proof copy of this from Bookbridgr, so I’m not sure how many of the issues are going to be dealt with before the completed book is rolled out. There were still a lot of errors at this stage — a bit where some words were struck out, problems with punctuation, etc. I think the purple prose will be there to stay, though; the writing isn’t terrible, but it’s rather overloaded, and I’m not keen on Ackerman’s flights of imagination. It’s one thing to imagine the trace we’re leaving on the earth for future archaeologists, it’s another to imagine those future archaeologists. That’s science fiction, which I don’t have any argument with, but I don’t tend to like it when that crosses over into my supposed non-fiction.

Ackerman picked an interesting topic, though, and aside from the blizzard of adjectives, this book is an easy read. It’s not a pessimistic humans-are-destroying-the-world sort of book; at one point she mentions the idea of (some) industrial landscapes being beautiful, which is apparently a growing tourist thing in some parts of the world.

Her chapters are short, though her sentences are long, and all in all it’s a quick one. I’m not impressed by her writing style, but I would like to read more on the same topic with a similar outlook.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Rewire Your Anxious Brain

Posted 23 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Rewire Your Anxious BrainRewire Your Anxious Brain, Catherine M. Pittman, Elizabeth M. Karle

Received to review via Netgalley.

I didn’t read this from cover to cover, as I’ve read other books like it before. My main interest was in seeing how solid the scientific basis of this is — one of the authors has a PhD, but I could have a PhD in literature, which would by no means qualify me to speak on neuroscience — and how helpful I thought it might be for other people who end up in the same position I’ve been in. The good news is, from my knowledge of science and my intimate knowledge of anxiety disorders, there’s a lot here that’s useful. It doesn’t just focus on targeting the conscious part of anxiety generated by the cortex — which people often try to target on its own, with CBT — but also acknowledges the contribution of the amygdala.

Generally, it seems a sympathetic and credible book that someone with curiosity and determination could work through to help cope with anxiety, whether it’s a full blown disorder or just something that crops up more often than you’d like. It’s not an exhaustive reference book of information mentioning every single disorder, every single type of medication, but it is somewhere to start. And it quite rightly encourages the reader to get the help of medical professionals, and it doesn’t dismiss the uses of medication.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Crochet Answer Book

Posted 22 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Crochet Answer BookThe Crochet Answer Book, Edie Eckman

Note: Received to review via Netgalley.

The Crochet Answer Book is a great resource, especially for people who are just beginning to crochet or who know the basics and want to add some embellishments. It has very clear illustrations and explanations, and shows pretty much everything from both a right-handed and a left-handed perspective — having tried to teach a leftie to crochet, I definitely appreciate that and would probably use this in future rather than trying to crochet left-handed myself or something like that.

Especially useful for me is the stuff about gauge, because I’ve never made anything that needed me to pay strict attention to that. I’m not sure about “answers to every question you’ll ever ask”, but this is definitely a good resource and worth picking up if a Q&A style book seems likely to help you.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Peas & Queues

Posted 18 September, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Peas & Queues, by Sandi ToksvigPeas & Queues, Sandi Toksvig

I’m not sure what other people were expecting with this: luckily, I approached it for exactly what it is, a book which offers advice on all sorts of situations and how to navigate them with dignity and politeness. Sort of like Captain Awkward, but more formal, and less tailored to a specific individual or situation. It contains all sorts of advice from dealing with family life to what to do at weddings and funerals.

It even touches on some etiquette that seems obvious when you hear it, but which people genuinely do miss. Like asking a lesbian couple about their sex life and which of them is the man — just don’t. If you wouldn’t ask the question of a straight couple, don’t ask it of a gay couple. A lot of Toksvig’s advice boils down to not putting other people in awkward situations (e.g. like public proposals where there’s an obligation to say yes or look ridiculous) and respecting other people’s privacy.

Pretty solid. And it’s sometimes interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes useful — and sometimes, as all generalisations are, not useful. At least Toksvig acknowledges — repeatedly — the importance of context rather than a rigid set of rules.

Rating: 3/5

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