A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine
If you’ve read much on the subject, this doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but it’s presented in a readable, well-organised format, meticulously footnoted, and adopts a pretty light tone. If you’re anything like me, you’ll smile in recognition of some of the things she says — in the middle of describing the brain’s unreliability, Fine points out that precisely in line with what she’s saying, your brain is probably insisting you’re different. It doesn’t apply to you. You’d ignore the researcher in the obedience to authority experiments, you can see through your brain’s attempts to make you believe you’re better than you are.
(And if you’re honest, you’ll admit at this point that you do want to think you’re different. My favourite bit was putting some of this together. For example, when it talked about experiments where people were told that extroverts do better at something, they went through their memories and pulled out only ones that corresponded with an extroverted image of themselves. On the other hand, I ruefully thought about all the ways I am a hopeless introvert — thereby illustrating one of the brain’s ways of protecting itself from failure, by providing myself with an excuse, i.e. ‘if I’m less successful, it’s because I’m not extroverted’.)
Not revelatory, but pretty fun.
Six Feet Over, Mary Roach
I don’t think I’m the greatest fan of Mary Roach’s style. It’s informal, easy to read, self-deprecating — but when it comes to a topic like this, I don’t want to hear all about Mary Roach unless it really illuminates the subject matter. Granted, stuff like near-death experiences and the various ideas of what happens to us after we die are things I’ve been interested in for a long time, and don’t really need an entry-level primer on. (I had to memorise the stages of an NDE as described by Kenneth Ring for my religious studies A Level.)
Still, where this deals with facts instead of impressions, it’s interesting stuff. A couple of the studies and anecdotes were familiar to me from what I already knew: I still find the case of the woman who saw the surgical tools being used on her despite having her eyes taped shut an interesting one. (It’s convincing because it wasn’t a typical tool, not something she’d have come across elsewhere, and she didn’t see the instruments before or after her operation.)
Overall, this probably isn’t going to convince you either way, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s certainly got some interesting snippets of information.
The Twelve Caesars, Matthew Dennison
The quote on the cover calling this ‘gossipy’ is right; ‘insightful’, not so much. There’s a lack of meaningful dates and orientation, and Dennison avoids picking a side so much that he immediately undermines any definite point with something else. He talks about Tiberius, for example, presents him as a little reluctant to take power, and then a couple of pages later presents him as a power-hungry tyrant; he talks about his simple, ascetic life, and then repeats gossip about his sexual proclivities and excesses.
It mostly seems as though Dennison is unsure about what the truths are, and isn’t willing to put in the scholarship to figure out how true or false any particular assertion may be. He just seems to present it all.
So yeah, didn’t find this all that entertaining, really. It’s just so vague about actual events.
The Bluffer’s Guide to Rugby, Steven Gauge
I was at the Wales vs England game during the Six Nations in 2013. I know enough about rugby to know that other Welsh people will often want to kick me when I declare this, given that Wales won. Especially when I point out that my grandfather’s seats are just over the centre of the pitch, at a nice height to see everything but still close enough to pick out the individual players and feel the heat from those enormous flares they set off. Apart from all that, however, I pretty much rely on the other spectators to keep me vaguely orientated towards what is actually going on in the game. (The last game I attended was Wales vs Italy with my sister, and she helped me figure out precisely when to scream at the ref, etc.)
Anyway, this book helps somewhat with that, explaining amidst the humour what each member of the team does and a few of the rules. Mostly, though, and unhelpfully, it advocates not bothering to know the rules and just playing it by ear. It’s true that I suspect most teams of doing that, but I would like to acquire a vague idea of why the referee is awarding penalties, assuming he knows why he’s awarding penalties and isn’t just doing it because he doesn’t like the look of the hooker (not that kind of hooker).
It’s funny, and somewhat helpful, but not really substantial.
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.