Tag: non-fiction


Review – The Copernicus Complex

Posted 10 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Copernicus Complex Caleb ScharfThe Copernicus Complex, Caleb Scharf

Ostensibly, this book is about a simple question: are humans alone in the universe? It has to go the long way around to come to any answers, exploring other arguments by way of figuring out whether the Earth is or isn’t rare in the universe and whether or not life is as tightly constrained as some people say, but the core principle of the book is that we need to find a middle ground between the current main ideas — the Copernican view that we can’t be unique, and the Rare Earth view that says life in the universe must be unusual.

Mostly, my wife got to watch me mutter “yes, obviously”, and I’m tempted to quote Lord Peter on Chief Inspector Parker here — it takes Scharf a desperately long time to someone who already has a somewhat formed opinion to “crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion”. That conclusion, in the end, is basically where I stand: not enough data, come back later (with a side of Scharf being pretty sure that neither extreme is going to turn out to be correct, with which I disagree — I think it’s all up for grabs at this point).

So anyway, if you want to know why I came to the conclusion I’ve written in my science blog recently (i.e. “we don’t know and we can’t know based on the current data we have”), this book has a good roundup of the evidence. Scharf isn’t bad at explaining it.

But if you’re looking for answers, I find it as unconvincing as all the other attempts at answering this question.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Pale Rider

Posted 6 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Pale Rider by Laura SpinneyPale Rider, Laura Spinney

Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.

I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenzabut in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.

There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.

However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Fayke Newes

Posted 2 March, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Fayke Newes by Derek TaylorFayke Newes, Derek J. Taylor

Fayke Newes looks like a gimmicky book, and it’s true that it lacks a references section entirely, so it’s difficult to evaluate the depth of the research. What I read tallies with what I already know, but it’s impossible to trust a serious non-fiction book without references or at least some “further reading”, and it raises my eyebrow a little that the book suggests teaching children to distinguish real news from puffed up misinformation… and that book does not itself have the basics I would consider important for evaluating whether a piece of writing is accurate. (Though admittedly I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and need to start adding sources on my science blog posts.)

Taking it with a pinch of salt, though, it’s an interesting survey of the press vs power — the media vs the mighty, in the other alliteration it uses a lot — from Henry VIII to Trump. It discusses how the press have clashed with governments in the past, discussing how the media has made and broken politicians… and how they’ve been complicit in hiding things from the people during situations such as wartime. This is pretty much the main theme of the book: is the press speaking truth about power to inform the people, or aligning with it in order to deceive them (regardless of the intent behind the compliance)?

It’s odd, given that the book ends with a paean to a long history of marvellous unbiased reporting, that mostly the incidents it mentions sound very much to me like the press is mostly biased and prone to falling in with the wishes of the rich and powerful. Taylor suggests that unbiased, well-trained reporters are going to save us in this age of misinformation — in the concluding chapter of a book with example after example of the press being owned by the rich and dictated by their demands, or cheerfully complying with government bans to send home encouraging untruths during wartime, etc, etc.

I think we do need some well trained and unbiased reporters we can trust to tell us the facts. I’m not convinced by his arguments into believing that those reporters exist, or rather that when people with that ambition do exist, they have a platform and are able to tell us a damn thing people with power don’t want us to know.

Interesting book, but has several blind spots about the implications of its own content.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith

Posted 27 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith by Mary BeardHow Do We Look / The Eye of Faith, Mary Beard

This volume is a slightly odd book in that the two halves aren’t really related, except by being companions to the same TV series, Civilisation. The first half looks at how the human body has been portrayed throughout history — so both what we look like and how we see ourselves — and the second half discusses portraying the divine, iconoclasm, and art history through that lens.

It’s a pretty quick read, with illustrative photos: this is a companion to a TV series, after all, not an in-depth academic treatise. That shows in the relatively broad, shallow approach it necessitates, but it’s nonetheless an interesting book. Mary Beard’s a good writer and respected academic, and the book does come with Further Reading and References, so it’s not as slight as it might look.

Nonetheless, there’s not much to say beyond that! Both topics are interesting, and I’d be glad to read more in-depth discussions — by Mary Beard or someone else.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

Posted 20 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by SWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali

My experience of this book is positive, but it is about rape, all kinds of rape, and it’s not skimpy on the details. If you’re going to find the topic of rape viscerally upsetting, please don’t read this review! I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe, although I think the book in itself is potentially really helpful.

The title pretty much encapsulates what the book is about: Sohaila Abdulali thinks that rape has been a taboo and difficult subject for too long, leaving too many struggling in silence, and now is a perfect moment to let in some more light and talk about the issue. This isn’t some academic pronouncement from on high: Abdulali herself was the victim of a violent rape, many years ago — something she is frank about, and an experience that retains its horror in the telling, although it is now an event she has healed from.

Despite that, she’s matter-of-fact, in a way that means my primary feeling about the book was not horror or despair or any such emotion, but the hope that I think she wanted to convey. I found the whole thing oddly comforting: she recognises so many different kinds of rape, so many different reasons and reactions and aftermaths. There’s no one right way to have been raped, here: she accepts all kinds of stories, whether it’s a child being raped by someone they trust or a prostitute who tried to say no after money had already changed hands. There’s no one type of victim she thinks is more justified in being hurt and feeling unsafe, no situation she singles out as being better or worse than another. Honestly, to me, the narrative here says: “What happened to you was bad, whatever it was. It’s awful, but we can look at it and unpick it and it doesn’t have to be this one big monolith dominating your whole life. But whatever it is, it’s okay.”

The book did have a couple of downsides — at times it felt a little scatterbrained, unfocused in its approach. It’s very personal, rather than being just academic or just political or just feminist — it’s Sohaila Abdulali sitting down and taking a look at the world, and making sure some things we keep in the dark are really seen for what they are and what they mean. She has plenty of statistics to quote, but in the end it feels like she’s sitting and working through a mass of trauma — not all her own — conversationally, opening up a space for it, and making us see it. Perhaps it makes sense, in that way, that it’s a little disjointed at times.

I’m very glad I read it. It sounds like a heavy topic, but somehow in Abdulali’s hands, it’s not. Or rather, it is, but it’s one we can handle, and must handle, and stop trying to look away from (either from fear or from respect for victims).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stitches in Time

Posted 12 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stitches in Time by Lucy AdlingtonStitches in Time, Lucy Adlington

Stitches in Time is a delightful look at the clothes we wear and how they’ve developed over time, from the general fit of women’s clothes down to the specifics of fashion. A lot of it I knew already, partly from the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee (I cannot wait for a new season of that! and oh hey, it starts tonight!) and partly from other books, but it was still a charming read and a nice break from the awful things that happen in fiction. Adlington writes clearly and sometimes wittily, and it’s a good tour through history in general as well at times, contextualising what exactly drove fashion.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Molecules at an Exhibition

Posted 8 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Molecules at an Exhibition by John EmsleyMolecules at an Exhibition, John Emsley

This started out fascinating, but started to wear on me. Basically, it’s a ‘gallery’ of various molecules that are important in one way or another to human life. There are nutrients we require, poisons that kill us, fuels we use, things that make useful objects, etc, etc. It’s possibly better just being dipped into than read cover to cover; I certainly got tired of all the fuels and the relatively similar titbits about some of the elements. It’s not bad, but it didn’t keep me very interested either.

I’m hoping his book specifically on poisons is more up my street…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ninja

Posted 7 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ninja by John ManNinja, John Man

Ninja is another travelogue-ish, easy to read history of a broad and fascinating topic, in this case the history and afterlife of ninjas in Japanese culture. It felt more scatterbrained than Man’s other books, and was more of a chore to read; I wasn’t really impressed, and although there were some very informative chapters about actual ninjas and what they did, there’s a lot of fluff about traditions and stories about ninjas that didn’t really add up to much.

Of Man’s books, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this; if there’s a better book out there about ninjas and their history, I think I’d actually like to read it, please.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Breaking the Maya Code

Posted 4 February, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. CoeBreaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe

This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.

Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.

The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Seahenge

Posted 29 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Seahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum by Charlie WatsonSeahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum, Charlie Watson

A short and beautifully illustrated book on Seahenge, mostly focusing on the practical issues of how it was made, how it was found, how it was excavated, and the hard facts discovered since from analysis of it. There’s less concentration on the speculations about a ritual landscape in the area, etc, than you find in Pryor’s book on the same site, and a lot more illustrations and photographs. The two complement each other, I think, though I am reading them quite far apart — this is much more ‘just the facts, sir’ than Pryor’s book, while Pryor did the work of interpretation.

If you’re just looking for some background on Seahenge, you’re definitely safe with this one!

Rating: 4/5

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