The Humans Who Went Extinct, Clive Finlayson
Basically a book that criticises making concrete judgements on the little data we have available, and then makes some of his own, which is kind of how a lot of this works, so no surprise there. On the technical side, I found his style off-putting: it seems to suggest an intentionality and directionality to evolution that does not exist.
Overall, the basic thesis is interesting: that climate and chance drove human evolution, and determined which branches of the evolutionary tree survived. That’s accepted when it comes to other animals, but in humans we do tend to make arguments about Neanderthals being stupider than humans, etc. And yet, put me in the environment the Neanderthals thrived in, and I’d have a lot of trouble, too — and here I am with bits of paper I can show you to prove my intelligence by our standards.
I did find some things funny, like Finlayson’s self-righteous little comment about people in their comfort zones pretending to care about people in less fortunate conditions and doing nothing. He’s writing for Oxford University Press — that glass house he’s sitting in is very conspicuous.
(Probably this irritation is somewhat prompted by the fact that I am one of those people in my comfort zone. On the other hand, I tithe a portion of my income to various charities, and give up significant chunks of my free time to charity work. I don’t think Finlayson’s research does as much good for the human condition, in the grand scheme of things. For all I know he donates all the proceeds of this book to charity, but still, he also flies all over the world doing his research and spends his time writing books like this. There’s a place for that, but you’d probably best not be making disparaging comments about your likely readers while you’re sat in that place.)
Gulp, Mary Roach
Gulp is definitely light, popular science, with an abundance of footnotes, irreverent comments, and some interesting facts/experiences. I wasn’t grossed out by it, since I can be fairly clinical, and rolled my eyes at some of the humour aimed at being gross; mostly it was an interesting read, certainly a quick one. It’s accessible, no matter what level your knowledge of biology is at, mostly dealing with the various topics in an anecdotal way.
I liked reading it, but now I have and look back, I think it dragged a little. Part of that’s doubtless my sense of humour, which is defective and needs to be returned for a refund. Part of that is the endlessly anecdotal nature of it. I’ve reserved another of Roach’s books from the library, but I wouldn’t buy it for myself; I do have a friend who I think would find this quite interesting.
Also, will people please quit hurrhurrhurring at the idea of faecal transplants? I’m sure it’s all very well to laugh at it from a distance, but a) it’s reinforcing the stigma about diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis which really are not funny, and b) I have high hopes that they will actually find a way to cure or at least greatly alleviate inflammatory bowel diseases as a result of studies into this kind of thing. Several close friends have IBDs, and I cannot wait for the day they can quit feeling that shame/disgust.
Maus, Art Spiegelman
It’s hard to figure out how to rate or review this. I mean, do you rate it as art? As a story? Or as non-fiction? As something in between, that nonetheless tries to express the truth? I quite liked Spiegelman’s style: the panels were maybe a little too busy at times, but the drawings had character and life.
More importantly, I think in writing his father’s story, Art Spiegelman managed to capture something we can be prone to forget: the Jews were not necessarily all nice people, all innocent victims and young girls like Anne Frank. There were greedy Jews, Jews who survived because they were quick-thinking and put themselves first, Jews with horrible opinions and so on. Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek isn’t a pleasant character in many ways, but what he goes through and the finer aspects of him show us that it doesn’t matter what kind of people the Jews who suffered and died were, they didn’t deserve Auschwitz and Dachau and all the other concentration camps. We don’t need an idealised innocent young girl to know what happened for the horror it was — that might make it easier on us, but to me it’s equally important to remember collaborators and cowards, the everyman and the rich banker and even the ones who stole each others’ food or lorded it over them to survive. Half of those horrors were created by the conditions anyway.
Which is to say… there were no perfect people. It’s a mistake to forget that, to forget that we’re still talking about humans all their messy glory. Maus reminds us pretty firmly that horrific things can happen to people who aren’t that nice themselves, and remain horrific.
So all in all, I don’t know that I like it much, but it’s one of those things where I have to consider the work that went into it and what it says, what it does, more than my personal enjoyment or not.
Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Paul Bahn
This was okay, but honestly? If you’re interested in archaeology, watch out for the “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” course to run again on Coursera. It covers a lot of the same issues, but in more depth, with more examples, and obviously with the chance to interact with a lot more people/opinions (even if you just watch the videos). The assignments help you focus on and get to grips with the techniques and discussions.
This book is… much more basic. It’s very informal, often very personal to the author (as where he sneers at theories he doesn’t agree with, or makes snide comments about other people working in the field). There are some useful bits, and it’s certainly an easy (and very brief) read, but mostly I think you’d be better investing a bit more time in this, via Coursera or via other, better books.
One section that rather riled me was the whole bit about “feminist archaeology”, mostly using those scare quotes. Bahn falls into pretty much every pitfall in talking about feminism, claiming for example that the history of men is now going to be ignored, and comparing women to slaves who will want to be masters. Right. Thanks, dude.
Just Babies, Paul Bloom
I’ve read one of Paul Bloom’s books already (How Pleasure Works) as well as being part of his Moralities of Everyday Life MOOC on Coursera, so a lot of the psychology experiments and arguments were not at all new to me.
Just Babies is, like Bloom’s other work, accessible to the lay reader, written without frills and complications. Bloom sets out his argument quite simply, without over-complicating anything. Overall, I find it hard to say what I think about this book specifically, since I was already aware of Bloom’s ideas and already had opinions on them. There’s certainly nothing I violently disagree with, for all that Bloom is much more of a utilitarian than I am.
The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, Lars Brownworth
I thought I knew a decent among about the Normans. I mean, I’ve read a couple of books focusing on Normandy’s rulers, and obviously I don’t think a British schoolchild gets all the way through education without getting the date 1066 hammered into them and at least a vague idea about William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book.
But! This actually goes a bit further and looks at other Norman rulers, who pushed into Italy and Sicily — something that I wasn’t really aware of as stemming from Norman origins. I’ve read bits about this before, but never from this perspective. I knew nothing about the descent of the family or the web of feuds between them, Byzantium, various popes, and the German kingdom/s of the time.
All in all, pretty interesting, and well-written. I’m not sure about “witty”, which another review mentions, but it isn’t a chore to read. It does seem to have a reasonable number of sources and footnotes, which is another thing that makes me wary when it comes to popular histories. All in all, glad I won this from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Marketing the Moon, David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek, Eugene A. Cernan
Lots of photos and so on in here! I imagine it’d be a big glossy book to own, although I just had it from Netgalley. It’s more about marketing the space program, as you’d expect, than about the actual space aspect itself, though there’s plenty of snippets of information, and it does look at the astronauts themselves as part of that marketing effort.
If you’re an Apollo enthusiast, it’s worth picking up, I’d say. It’s certainly accessible and informative.
Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey
A lot of reviews comment on how dry they found this book, but I rather enjoyed it. I like Richard Fortey’s style of writing, despite his tendency to ramble and get distracted. It’s more of a biography or history of the Natural History Museum than a chronicle of the science that goes on there, but there’s some of that, too.
I liked the sense of exploring a wonderland — Fortey plainly finds everything in the Natural History Museum a delight and a revelation, and I shared in that. He got in some apt comparisons, too, like comparing the museum’s storage to Gormenghast.
I was vaguely aware of most of the broader details here about trends in collecting and displaying, but most of the details about the actual scientists and curators were completely new to me. This book has a distinctly gossip-like feeling, which I didn’t mind at all.
The Biggest Bangs, Jonathan I. Katz
This is supposed to be written for a layman, or so the introduction says, but it pretty much made my eyes cross with the technical stuff. I mean, I can follow the explanation of how gamma rays free electrons which then cause damage to neighbouring atoms, and then the energy of all this and the ‘healing’ atoms makes the other element glow with heat, but I have a limited amount of tolerance for pages on pages explaining the difficulty in getting a direction for the gamma ray bursts from that.
Just, generally, too much information for me. I suspect that someone more interested in astrophysics would enjoy it more, but mine is a casual interest. I’m most interested in gamma rays when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are studying them to locate an object of immense power in the hands of most emphatically the wrong person.
(Or if there was a description of the effect of gamma rays on DNA. That too would’ve got my attention as surely as a giant green ragemonster.)
An Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton
This is a very clear introduction to the formal aspects of poetry, but it also serves as a reintroduction for someone who has an English Lit degree but never got very interested in the technical aspects of poetry.
We disagree on quite a few things — his characterisation of Anglo-Saxon poetry as “not English” (because of course, it is quintessentially English: the Anglo-Saxons became the English), for example, and his doubtfulness about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (there are dialect words in Sir Gawain which survive still: just because Chaucer’s Middle English is closer to what became universal doesn’t mean Sir Gawain is irrelevant). Also his relative dismissiveness of tight forms like the villanelle: he rightly praises one of the most famous, Dylan Thomas’, but is otherwise fairly unimpressed by it. I love villanelles, and I think more people have “done them right” than he suggests.
Still, with short, easy-to-digest chapters, clear explanations, and a helpful glossary, not to mention the addition of his thoughts as a practitioner of the craft, this is an interesting and informative introduction to a cross-section of English poetry.