Tag: non-fiction

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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Review – Biased

Posted January 17, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Biased by Jennifer EberhardtBiased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, Jennifer Eberhardt

Although the subtitle says it’s science, in many places it’s more history, autobiography and anecdote. There are some bits of science — brief explanations of studies and statistics — before it launches off back into historical context or modern contextualisation, but the science is rather thin on the ground.

It’s not bad because of that, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think others might also be expecting more focus on bias in general, through not noting that subtitle: it really is just about race relations, and 99% of it is about race relations specifically in the US. I’d have loved to see more general explorations of bias and the science of bias, and how it relates to humans encountering the “other” in all kinds of ways.

I imagine for a US reader, particularly a white US reader, this could be pretty revelatory. For me, there was some context I wasn’t aware of, some anecdotes that were interesting, but it wasn’t new to me, and none of the science that Eberhardt does explain was surprising to me. It’s adaptive for people who are alike to stick together; no surprises there.

There is some minor attempt to pave a way forward in this book; a few mentions of initiatives that have worked and what might underpin them. But mostly it just lays out the problem.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Venus & Aphrodite

Posted January 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Venus & Aphrodite by Bettany HughesVenus & Aphrodite, Bettany Hughes

This looks more substantial on the shelf than it actually is; I read it in about 90 minutes, though it’ll take more time to follow up on some of the things I’m interested in and maybe follow up some of the bibliography. It’s a sort of biography of the goddess, from her origins as Ishtar through to her afterlife as Venus in the world of razors and the silver screen. It’s not that there’s nothing new to me here, but it feels like without the chapter breaks and introductory quotes and images and rather spaced out text, it would be a much slimmer book.

However, I did learn some interesting things; I hadn’t known, for example, that Astarte and Aphrodite were so strongly linked on Cyprus (I thought it was a bit more vague), and I definitely didn’t know about the female-bodied bearded versions of Aphrodite. Elsewhere those images do seem to be interpreted as referring to Hermaphroditus rather than Aphrodite, but the descent from Astarte sort of suggests that as being a later development, perhaps as Aphrodite became more and more an object of desire instead of the powerful, war-linked goddess she was as Astarte. Hughes definitely describes the statues as definitively being of Aphrodite-Aphroditos, at least. I’d love to see more clarification on that, but the chapter on this was so short.

Enjoyable, then, and an easy read, but not very in-depth.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Sorting the Beef from the Bull

Posted January 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Sorting the Beef from the BullSorting the Beef from the Bull, Nicola Temple & Richard Evershed

This book is about the science of food fraud — the way food fraud is committed, hidden, and detected. It has chapters on various staple foodstuffs, from meat (Horsegate, of course, but also other meat-related frauds like the injection of extra water into meat so that the consumer pays for water in the alleged weight), spices (you don’t want to know what happens with many ground spices), wine (mostly affecting rich people, but also some of the lowest end stuff), oil (olive oil is a big target), milk… Apparently it’s endemic in the UK, at least in Lancashire, that pizza takeaways almost universally do not use mozzarella — it’s not even cheese at all, with actual cheese only being added as a flavouring. And if you’re in the US, I have bad news about the likelihood that any red snapper is actually red snapper. 80% odds say it isn’t.

Most boggling to me, the idea that you can make a synthetic egg that fools people to the extent that they’ll crack the eggs, fry them up and consume them. (You can tell they aren’t real eggs because they lack a membrane inside the eggshell. That’s about it, to hear these authors tell it.)

It’s not just horror stories, of course: the authors also discuss the science at work in detecting these frauds, and the best ways for a consumer to avoid them. Mostly, it comes down to awareness, buying things whole (fish with the heads on; whole spices; recognisable cuts of meat, etc) buying seasonally, and buying locally from sources you can trust.

It’s all a bit horrifying, but fascinating as well. Definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Return of the Black Death

Posted December 13, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Return of the Black Death by Susan Scott and Christopher DuncanReturn of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer,Susan Scott, Christopher J. Duncan

Full disclosure: I was sceptical before I even picked this up from the sensational title. You’ve got to go a seriously long way to convince me that the Plague is the “world’s greatest serial killer”, even if we accept that a disease should be considered in such an anthropomorphic light. Let me introduce you to your friendly neighbourhood Influenzavirus A, my #1 vote for “disease most likely to have the means to suddenly eradicate humanity”.

I picked it up because an author tweeted a thread of things she would never let anyone change her mind about, and one of the items was that she doesn’t believe the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis. Now, infectious disease is one of my special interests, and I already happened to know that Yersinia pestis has, for example, been isolated from plague pits. So I asked her for evidence of the claim, and she pointed me to this book.


From the start, it was not very rigorous or scientifically accurate? They’ve claimed that HIV is completely understood and under control and causes no panic, for one thing. (I wrote my dissertation on tuberculosis, so I can guarantee you that no HIV isn’t fully understood, because if we could, for example, understand how it and tuberculosis enable each other, that would be really helpful. We have theories, but as of a year ago, we don’t really know for sure.)

And then they make absurd statements like this: “…by all the rules of infectious diseases, when the Black Death was finished it should have disappeared.”

What?! Have they never heard of animal reservoirs? Re-introduction from the original sources? Endemic diseases? Fast-adapting diseases like influenza that change their surface proteins and thus evade immunity? Infectious diseases almost never just “disappear”, though there may be an outbreak in a new species due to chance contact that doesn’t reoccur that might look like disappearance.

What rules of infectious diseases can they possibly be referring to?

I mean, how many diseases do you even know of that have been driven extinct after much effort by humans doing so deliberately? That’ll be two: smallpox and rinderpest. (Smallpox is the only human disease to be eradicated, and with the aid of a highly effective vaccine and extremely persistent vaccination campaigns, it took 11 years of intense campaigning. We have so far been unable to repeat the effect on other target pathogens.)

And there’s this one: “[Measles] is not a danger to well-nourished children in the developed world.” Measles, which can kill (yes, even in the developed world), and furthermore wipes out your immune memory as well as depressing your innate immune system. And they think that Ebola literally liquefies your internal organs.

And then, you know, I read the immortal words stating that “it came as a great surprise to learn” that Iceland had effective contact with the rest of Europe in the 15th century, and also suffered two major outbreaks of the Black Death. Do they just… know nothing of history? At all? Clearly not: they also referred to a manuscript from 1404 as “ancient”…

I had more quibbles. Honestly, I was made out of quibbles about this book. I do have some lingering questions from good points they raised about the vectors, since they claim that rats/fleas of the type that could transmit bubonic plague were not present in Britain and certainly not in Iceland. It’s clear that their claim it was simply too cold in Britain for bubonic plague to survive is untrue, since studies since the publication of this book with reliable controls have found Yersinia pestis in plague pit remains in Britain, but that still makes me wonder about the vectors.

I’d also like to see independent verification of their work on the incubation period of the Plague, which according to their calculations aren’t at all like the modern Yersinia pestis (which is not genetically that different from the medieval version). However, the shakiness of their grasp on facts elsewhere leads me to doubt just about everything they say.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – Ivory Vikings

Posted December 3, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie BrownIvory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings is ostensibly a book focusing on a famous archaeological find: the Lewis chessmen. The chessmen constitute multiple sets of pieces, though there are pawns lacking, and are carved from walrus ivory. Nancy Marie Brown attempts to look into who made them, and when and where the carving was done. She communicates this by taking each type of piece in turn (bishop, queen, king, etc) and discussing the pieces themselves briefly, and then ranging off into historical and geopolitical context.

Mostly, it doesn’t work for me. The book relies heavily on her Scandinavian location being correct, and it’s very plain she has one particular person in mind as the artist from the outset. A lot of the information is not relevant if her theory is incorrect, and her theory is far from proven (even though I agree that from the evidence as presented, it does seem likely).

I wanted something a bit more focused on the pieces themselves, I’ll be honest. It wasn’t a bad read, but it dragged a little, because I’m not here for church politics!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Conan Doyle for the Defence

Posted November 25, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit FoxConan Doyle for the Defence, Margalit Fox

I read Margalit Fox’s books more or less automatically: I greatly enjoyed her book on the decipherment of Linear B, and something about the way she dives into a subject works for me. It’s broadly true in this case, as well, a book in which Fox delves into three things: first, the murder case that led to the framing of Oscar Slater; second, the detection methods and ideas of Arthur Conan Doyle, including his Sherlock Holmes books and stories; and thirdly, the way Conan Doyle investigated the murder case and advocated for Slater’s freedom. There’s a theme underlying parts of the book, which is the fear of the other which was entrenched in society at the time and led to unfair accusations of this kind — it feels very relevant to read this book now, when a similar fear of immigrants is taking over.

Fox writes sympathetically about both Conan Doyle and Slater, though they were very different men, and takes care to show us that both of them were human, with virtues and faults. Conan Doyle comes across as the better man, of course, because Slater was definitely involved in some less than salubrious escapades (though not ever murder or really anything involving violence).

I didn’t find it as fascinating as sign language or the decipherment of Linear B, but it’s still a worthwhile and interesting read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Akhenaten

Posted November 15, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet by Nicholas ReevesAkhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, Nicholas Reeves

Although this book as billed as being a revolutionary interpretation of Akhenaten, I think that’s just hype. It’s certainly a thorough examination of the evidence we have, and of Akhenaten’s actions and methods, and it points out that there were sound political motives behind the move to Tel-el-Amarna to found Akhetaten… but most of this is stuff I’ve heard before. He talks about theories like the idea that the Amarna family had Marfan’s syndrome as if it was ignored and kind of niche… but even I (not an Egyptologist, not reading the scholarly material and not having any training whatsoever in that field — I have an interest, but not a particularly up to date knowledge) know about that. Perhaps this is due to him popularising it, but it seemed very odd.

There are other things that ring alarm bells, as well. He doesn’t utilise footnotes, so it’s hard to track down his assertions (there is a bibliography, but of course you don’t know what was the source for any particular idea). I did remember when I started reading this that the idea that Tutankhamun had been murdered had been recently pooh-poohed on the 2005 CT scan of the mummy, but I was prepared to hear some solid arguments based on some kind of evidence… and none were forthcoming. It’s clear that whole subject is muddied by post-mortem damage of the body, possibly in antiquity and definitely by Howard Carter, so I would’ve been sceptical of any offered theories, but Reeves avoided the subject as if it were not a serious stumbling block for any theory. His sole comment on the unreliability of the evidence is this (bolding mine):

If this interpretation is correct (and it has inevitably been challenged), the implication would be that Tutankhamun suffered a blow to the head and lingered, drifting in and out of consciousness, for some weeks. What is interesting is that the position of this supposed blow would indicate that the damage had been sustained intentionally rather than by accident — at a time when political manipulation of the god-king was the norm, and regicide a rather more common occurrence than the Egyptian state cared formally to acknowledge.

Whereupon he wanders off into speculation about Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. But… the challenge really needed to be discussed here, because it’s a serious one: although this book was published almost at the same time as the better scan in 2005 and he can’t have known about the results in time to change the book before publication, Reeves’ whole line of argument is so weak that it falls apart from that point because the CT scan completely dismissed the murder theory, and he had no counterpoints ready. If he’d addressed the uncertainty better, it would seem rather less like he builds his arguments on houses of cards.

As a consequence, he has several interesting theories which I enjoyed reading about, but as a consequence of his light hand with substantiation, I cannot trust. For example, I’ve never heard of the letter to Suppiluliuma being thought to be sent by Nefertiti, instead of the common interpretation that it was sent by Ankhesenamun. It makes sense, on the evidence here, but what has Reeves omitted because it doesn’t suit his racy narrative? Same with his re-interpretation of the kingships just prior to the Amarna period: he lays it all at the feet of Hatshepsut and her “greed” to become the ruler. Quite apart from wondering a little about Reeves’ personal views on women (we don’t hear about the “greed” of Ay or Horemheb in taking power after Tutankhamun’s death), I haven’t heard this elsewhere… and I can’t trust Reeves.

As I said, granted I’m not exactly neck-deep in the latest research, but this book was originally published in 2005, and I haven’t heard most of these theories elsewhere since. At this point, I wouldn’t believe a thing he says without a pinch or two of natron and some supplementary sources.

I also think it’s irresponsible of the publishers to republish a book from 2005 without revision, while stating on the back that it is a “revolutionary” interpretation (which certainly assisted my previous impression that it was a new book). It’s over a decade old and parts of it have been proven to be castles in the sky, folks.

ETA: Slightly amended due to finding out the publication date listed on the source I checked was wrong, and this was originally published in the same year as the CT scan.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – It’s All In Your Head

Posted November 9, 2019 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of It's All In Your Head by Suzanne O'SullivanIt’s All In Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan

The title of the book gives it away: this is a series of case studies, essentially, covering cases of psychosomatic disease. In it, as in O’Sullivan’s other book, she discusses the cases of various past patients and how she concluded their symptoms were not neurological disorders, but instead signs of a conversion disorder. I think the title is a bit of a disservice, because O’Sullivan is strongly against the kind of dismissal the phrase implies. She believes that (most of) her patients with this issue are truly distressed, truly experiencing pain and disability, and truly require medical help. Though it’s not a physical disorder of the nerves, it is something that should and must be treated in order to allow people to resume normal lives.

Understanding of psychosomatic illness and health anxiety is lacking in many doctors. Part of it is overwork: crowded clinics do not appreciate the sight of someone hoving into view with yet another anxiety-related illness of nebulous symptoms and solely psychological origin. But people like that, all the way along the scale from the lumps and bumps that trouble me to those whose brains paralyse themselves, all deserve compassion and treatment, and O’Sullivan’s book strongly advocates for that. She is firmly against the impulse to second guess a patient and assume they are faking.

That said, of course she makes herself come across as preternaturally patient with this kind of thing, and very sure about her diagnoses. She does discuss uncertainties now and then, but for the most part she is very certain of herself. Most of the cases she mentions are very clear-cut, and it makes it all seem very easy. In reality, things are muddier.

The chapter on ME/CFS has many detractors and as many people who shout that it is pure truth. Lacking the professional background or the academic reading on the topic, I can only say that I was under the impression that the graded exercise she recommends was in fact proven to be unhelpful, and that both sides in ME/CFS discussions can get very fraught and very disinclined to admit the truth of anything the other says. At the very least, O’Sullivan’s sympathy feels real, and she does intend to diminish the suffering of people with ME or CFS; she merely questions its source, and does not believe that a psychological source of issues means weakness or that you can just snap out of it.

It’s not deeply profound if you’re looking for the science of all this, though she does discuss what is known and the history of psychosomatic illnesses. It’s mostly of interest for really understanding the bananas things our brains can do to us. An enjoyable read, but not for me a groundbreaking one.

Rating: 3/5

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