Tag: non-fiction


DNF Review – A Little History of Science

Posted 21 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of A Little History of Science by William F BynumA Little History of Science, W.F. Bynum

If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.

It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)

I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Crucible of Creation

Posted 17 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway MorrisThe Crucible of Creation, Simon Conway Morris

Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)

I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Posted 15 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-LodgeWhy I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

As so often with books that have enraged certain types, this isn’t the screed against white people that folks would have you believe. The essay of the title was written to explain that the author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, is tired of explaining prejudice to people not equipped to listen. She acknowledged in the original piece and in this book that that doesn’t mean all white people, and it certainly hasn’t meant that she’s stopped talking about race. But she’s given herself permission to avoid doing Racism 101 every five seconds, and more power to her — it’s easy enough to Google that shit, people. Whenever you have a minority identity, there’s questions you get asked and comments you have to hear that just recur like clockwork. I refuse to go back to my last hairdresser because I heard that tape starting with regards to my sexuality: “But have you ever tried going out with a man?” It’s tiring, and I can imagine it’s much more so when your difference is visible, when you can never choose whether it even has the chance of becoming a topic of conversation.

That said, this whole book is a way for Reni Eddo-Lodge to talk to white people about race — if we’re willing to listen. It’s UK focused, which I think was very much needed: a lot of the narrative online focuses on racism against African-Americans, and it’s different here in the UK… though, after reading this book, I have to admit it’s not as different as wishful thinking imagined. A lot of the problems with institutional racism are the same, and though we may have fewer shootings, that seems more likely to be because we have fewer armed police officers than because our attitudes are markedly different.

It’s very much worth reading this, even if you think you’re pretty up to date and in the know. There’s history I had no idea of, attitudes that are alive and well which I didn’t know were still considered acceptable, and overall, further to go than I thought. For that reason, this isn’t an easy read (though it was easy in the sense of being well-written and easy to follow) — and I sense that Eddo-Lodge was still pulling her punches for white people’s sake, even so.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mycenaeans

Posted 8 January, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mycenaeans by Rodney CastledenThe Mycenaeans, Rodney Castleden

This is a mostly textbookish sort of primer on the Mycenaeans: a bit more up to date than the Penguin classic on the Greeks I read recently, by Kitto, but not necessarily in line with the latest ideas as I remember them either. He relies quite heavily on Homer as a historical source; although I know there is certainly some historicity in Homer (the descriptions of armour and other artefacts are often correct in Homer for when we think the Trojan War occurred, rather than for when the epic was written down, suggesting that it does have a good deal of content from being originally composed nearer in time to the actual events), it’s also full of Gods and magic — not usually considered key markers of accurate history writing.

It was basically what I expected from something of a rather textbooky nature, though: dry at times, expanding on some not-necessarily-interesting (to the casual reader, anyway) points, and generally taking a long time to get where it was going. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to those without a deep interest in the details.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Roman Forum

Posted 16 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of The Roman Forum by David Watkin

The Roman Forum, David Watkin

Most books about the Roman Forum would tend to focus on the Roman period itself, but this rather fascinatingly did a survey through time — not only the classical Roman period origins of the Forum, but the transformations over the years since. The authors strongly feels the importance of seeing the Forum as a living place, somewhere that developed since the time of the Roman Empire, so he spends much time lovingly describing the churches built on the site as well. It’s an approach I definitely appreciate: it’s ridiculous to try and stop the clock of the Forum at the end of the Empire, or to think it was always just one thing throughout that period either. We can’t turn the clock back, so the Forum is best embraced for what it is, rather than attempting to freeze it in time.

I did find this book fascinating, but my one quibble is that the author is almost aggressively against archaeology. He complains frequently about excavation in the forum. And yes, some of it has been done destructively, and I do disagree with trying to tear down anything that was built since Constantine reigned (or whatever your chosen marker point might be). But at the same time, archaeology can be of great value, and I would also be sad if the Forum were to be barred to archaeologists.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Greeks

Posted 13 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Greeks by H.D.F. KittoThe Greeks, H. D. F. Kitto

This book is kind of outdated in its information and definitely so in many of its attitudes, but nonetheless it remains a bit of a classic. I think that’s mostly because of the author’s sheer enthusiasm for the people about whom he writes, their land and their customs. I studied Athenian democracy in excruciating detail for a Classics A Level, but Kitto manages to actually get excited about it, to show all the best things about it and the way the Greeks behaved and thought. It’s mostly about the Athenians, honestly; you can consider the two basically synonymous in this book — Kitto does talk about the Spartans, for instance, but with significantly less approval and interest.

Kitto’s style is mostly engaging due to his enthusiasm, but I do warn that he quotes extensively from various sources (rather than summarising them, he lets them stand for themselves to illustrate his points; this can get tiresome).

Just as a warning, though, if you were thinking of picking this up: though I do think there’s something charming about Kitto’s complete adoration of the Athenian people, he definitely held some less than charming opinions about the place of women and the treatment of slaves — he thought that most things were justified because it allowed the Athenians to have their genuine democracy (which just so happened to exclude much of the population).

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Pax Romana

Posted 6 December, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Pax Romana by Adrian GoldsworthyPax Romana, Adrian Goldsworthy

Pax Romana is a popular history style examination of the peace imposed by the Roman Empire, and how peaceful it actually was, as well as how it benefitted or oppressed the lands and peoples that fell under Roman sway. Although I called it popular history, it’s not super popularised: the evidence is meticulous, and the pace slow. It’s popular history in the sense of being perfectly comprehensible to the interested outsider to the field, rather than being simplistic.

The overall theory of the book is that the Pax Romana really was, in general, beneficial — and that Rome’s rule really was relatively peaceful and benign, with exceptions being just that rather than the overall rule. A lot of the time the evidence suggests that benignity was due to basically ignoring local squabbles and leaving places to govern themselves with minimal interference, while the legions only marched in for serious matters.

How far do I agree with Goldsworthy’s views, based on the evidence presented? Well, he definitely makes a good case for it, though I think he takes the long view to a great degree and I think there were likely people within the Roman Empire who felt oppressed by it, as well as people who were relatively unaffected by it. I do agree with his view that the Roman Empire wasn’t ruled simply through brutality: it certainly wouldn’t have had the longevity it did, if that were the sole basis, and it wouldn’t have been something people actively wanted to be part of — and it was something people wanted to be part of, more often than not.

It’s definitely a worthwhile look at whether the Roman Empire is really so degenerate as its painted.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Unearthing the Dragon

Posted 29 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Unearthing the Dragon by Mark NorrellUnearthing the Dragon, Mark Norell

Ostensibly about the discovery of feathered dinosaurs and the science surrounding them, this book also contains a fair amount of male-gazey exoticisation of China. It’s full of photographs — more photographs and images than text sometimes — and a large amount of both photos and text is about China. Modern China, that is: the culture Norell ran into when working there, his nights out, his visits to markets, his thoughts on the people, and the shapely feet of young Chinese women. Seriously!

There are some nuggets of useful information in here about feathered dinosaurs, and some gorgeous pictures both of modern China and of dinosaur fossils, but I would honestly skip it. There’s something very gross about the way he treats China and particularly Chinese women: like some kind of tourist attraction.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation

Posted 20 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Angkor and the Khmer Civilization by Michael D. CoeAngkor and the Khmer Civilisation, Michael D. Coe

One of the complaints in reviews about this book seems to be that it reads like a textbook. It does: if you’re looking for something more casual, a tourist’s guide, then I’m sure there are books out there, but this isn’t it. It’s a scholarly consideration of the ruins of Angkor, the way the Khmer civilisation developed and the context in which it did so. It is illustrated with photographs and drawings, but it’s not a coffee table book for sure.

It can be a bit slow going, but there’s plenty of interest, to my mind. It’s better than the other book I read on Ankor, which was rather focused on this and that ruined building, and this and that inscription: there’s more of a sense of a people behind the monuments, in this book, which was welcome. It’s still slow going, but fascinating all the same for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Ancient Celts

Posted 9 November, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Ancient Celts by Barry CunliffeThe Ancient Celts, Barry Cunliffe

This book is a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with photographs of Celtic artefacts and finds. The book was written by a well-known expert in the field, and I have no doubt of his credentials or his accuracy in laying out what we know and the interpretations that can be drawn (fairly cautiously) from that. This certainly isn’t the kind of book that looks at the mythology about the Celtic peoples written by the Romans and swallows it whole; Cunliffe bases the book on all kinds of different evidence, drawing it together to provide a picture of the groups of people one could confidently consider part of the same Celtic race.

The only problem is that something about Cunliffe’s style sends me to sleep. It’s not that I doubt that he’s fascinated by the subject matter, but he doesn’t communicate a good sense of that enthusiasm, to my mind — there are writers who can make the minutiae really speak even to a layperson, and there are those who can’t. Cunliffe is rather the latter. It’s still an excellent resource about the Celtic peoples, but it wasn’t the best for light reading by a curious outsider to the field.

Rating: 3/5

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