What have you recently finished reading? Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise by Steve Jones, which I still need to review. Interesting, and a better read than his update of The Origin of Species. Before that, Sarah Canary (Karen Joy Fowler), about which I still feel pretty ambivalent.
What are you currently reading?
I’m working hardest on my stack of books from the library, before I go away for a few weeks, so I’m nearly finished with Y: The Descent of Men (Steve Jones), which is definitely more entertaining than either of the other books of his I’ve already mentioned. I’ve also got This Is the Way The World Ends (James Morrow) on the go, because it fits both my finish-library-books bet and my SF Masterworks challenge; I’m really enjoying it, actually, although I thought from reading the back that it might be too absurd for me. I’ve juuuust started Windhaven (George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle), which is interesting but not blowing me away so far.
ARC-wise, I’ve got the longer books I’ve mentioned before in hand, plus Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie), since I now have one of the limited edition Bookbridgr copies.
What will you read next?
I’ll go back on the attack with Elantris (Brandon Sanderson) and Monster of God (David Quammen), I think. They’re both library books. After that, probably Steve Jones’ Darwin’s Island, which is actually not about Galapagos but about the UK.
What have you recently finished reading? Mindstar Rising, by Peter F. Hamilton. I think it was his first novel, according to the back of it, so I might try something from his later stuff, but this didn’t impress me that much. It was aaaaall about the male gaze, as well: the first thing we know about female characters is whether they’ve “let themselves go” or how young and nubile they are. Ugh. So in the end, not impressed.
What are you currently reading?
Some of the things I’ve been featuring on this list for a while are quite big books, so they don’t go on the bus with me, etc. So The Vanishing Witch (Karen Maitland) and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Thomas Sweterlitsch) are still in progress…
My reading in the clinic is currently Gwenda Bond’s Blackwood, which works for the Strange Chem reading month, and which I’ve had for a while. Because of it, I ended up on Wikipedia last night reading up about Roanoke, Croatoan, and then all sorts of missing persons stuff — though I did also read about the genetic testing being done to see if the lost colonists actually assimilated with the local Native American tribes, which is more plausible than some theories, and quite interesting. I want to know what they find!
At home, for ARC August, along with the others I’ve also picked up Marcus Sedgwick’s A Love Like Blood. I’ve been slightly spoilered for the ending by an injudicious review, but I don’t have a great problem with spoilers, so I don’t mind too much. It’s interesting, though very similar in tone to other books in the genre in many ways.
Aaaand from my epic library clean-up, I’m reading Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters (Patricia Pierce), which is very interesting, although there’s a lot about the various men in the profession who overshadowed Mary Anning, which I regret a little in a book that wants to cast light on her.
What will you be reading next?
As usual, heaven knows, but Strange Chem-wise, I think I’m going to fiiiiinally read Stolen Songbird, and that also covers ARC August as well. Even if the “advance” part is kind of dead in the water, I still received it as an ARC and I feel obligated to get round to it.
Library-wise, I think it’ll be Sarah Canary (Karen Joy Fowler), which will also cover my ten-new-to-me SF Masterworks goal.
The Women of the Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, Michael Jones
I don’t get on well with Philippa Gregory’s fiction, so I’m not terribly surprised that I wasn’t a great fan of this either. I do like David Baldwin’s work, though I think I’ve already read a full biography of Elizabeth Woodville by him; Michael Jones’ work here is strong enough and based solidly enough on actual research to intrigue me.
I actually quite liked Gregory’s introduction, ridiculously long as it is. She does actually raise valid points about the writers of history, and about how historical fiction and historical fact interact. I can at least relate to her powerful interest in the subject. On the other hand, there’s very little actually known about Jacquetta, the biography she writes, and it reads very much like the fiction books she’s already written, stripped of dialogue and sprinkled with “maybe”.
Overall, I can see this being interesting to people casually interested in the period, with enough experience of non-fiction not to complain too much about the equivocal statements (guys, if they stuck to the facts we know for absolute certain, we could say they were born, married, had children, and died — often, that’s about it; if we presented speculation as fact, that would be rather dishonest and not helpful at all to the field). I can’t really recommend it for people who’ve already delved into non-fiction on the period: this doesn’t offer much of anything new.
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985 – 2010, Damien Broderick, Paul Di Philippo
This isn’t exactly filled with sparkling deathless prose, and if you’re expecting something definitive or unassailable, I think you’re a bit batty. If you think you’re going to agree with every choice, I think you’re more than a bit batty. It’s basically a list with some commentary, comprising of a number of novels which the authors found notable in one way or another — not necessarily literary merit, but sometimes just really cool ideas.
It’s an interesting list, a little more diverse than I was expecting, and I’m planning to go through it reading all the books. Sometimes the commentary by the authors is useful, sometimes it amounts to little more than a plot summary, but either way it usually gives you a feel of what the book is about, at the very least.
I didn’t expect to connect so personally with this. On the surface, there’s not much to compare between me and Susannah Cahalan. There are a few correspondences: the start of her illness was marked with an intense fear, almost a belief, that she’d been infested by bedbugs; so was mine. On the other hand, I “just” had GAD: Susannah Cahalan had an autoimmune disorder in which her own immune system was attacking her brain. (She does mention some speculation that obsessive-compulsive behaviours and other psychiatric issues may actually be attributable to inflammation of the brain similar to what she experienced. The more I think about that, the more I want to become a doctor, maybe work in psychiatry, or maybe neurology, and push that research further. And research into epigenetic aspects of mental illness. Or at least get to the point where I can understand all of the existing research.)
(And sotto voce, I can almost hear my mother’s comment: “Well, you should be a doctor.”)
Anyway, despite the vast differences in the actual content of our diseases, I shared some of Cahalan’s feelings about it. I felt like I lost part of myself, the steady logical voice that refutes the brain’s wilder ideas about what’s going on, and though Susannah lost a lot more than that, I know something about the struggle to regain your own mind. I think people often believe that my anxiety was just an emotion like all my others. It wasn’t, though. It felt stronger than anything else, stronger than me. It felt like something from outside of me, subjugating the real me. It was like having another person physically holding me back, sometimes. The sheer courage it took me to step outside the front door, sometimes — it felt impossible, alien.
So I shared with Cahalan some of the feelings of getting my old self back. Self-hate at the things that still aren’t going right. Worry about what people will think of you. Celebration of tiny steps at the same time as feeling they’re not enough, you’re not there yet. Wonder at how far you’ve come. Worry that you’ll relapse. I very directly share that fear Cahalan feels when she thinks she sees a bug or something. My brain conjured ’em where there weren’t any, too.
I was expecting to find this interesting because of the medical content. That is interesting, though because it’s from Cahalan’s point of view, it’s more of a layman’s understanding of the disease, a memoir of dealing with it. I found it unexpectedly much more compelling than that, because Susannah Cahalan lost and regained her identity, and therefore has a lot to say about the whole idea of identity, and maybe some things to teach neuroscience, maybe even psychiatry.
The financial cost of treating a patient with Cahalan’s disease is staggering, eye-watering, jaw-dropping — there aren’t enough adjectives. But to bring someone back from that state, that’s beyond price.
This didn’t really work for me as a history of medicine, even a short one. Each chapter treads the same ground, but with a different theme, instead of following the history of medicine through chronologically.
That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting in places, and I liked the inclusion of so many images to go along with the text, but it didn’t feel like there was anything to get my teeth into. I felt like it would have been much better done chronologically, even if it was in broad swathes of time: ‘early societies’, ‘the Classical world’, ‘medieval Europe’, ‘British empire’, etc. Something like that would’ve worked a lot better for me.
Also, I know he says up front that he’s not even going to touch on Eastern medicine, but considering the way we’ve imported alternative medicines as a commodity here, it would actually be relevant to talk about their development and give them some more credit.
I really like the idea of Darwin’s Ghost, taking and updating Darwin’s groundbreaking research, and often showing how relevant it still is, how little of it has actually been disproved. Often people who criticise Darwin haven’t actually read On the Origin of Species, and so they have an inaccurate understanding of what he actually said. Steve Jones goes through all of this in quite a lot of detail, giving modern examples and correcting things where Darwin didn’t quite get it right.
That thoroughness does make the book pretty hard going, though. The topic doesn’t have to be — I’ve read another explanation of the early transmission and spread of HIV, for example, which wasn’t boring at all (though it had other faults) — but Jones’ writing ends up feeling rather stodgy. I’m completely fascinated by the subject, and reasonably knowledgeable about it, so if I thought that… I don’t know what other readers would make of it.
The main effect seems to have been to make me really want to read On the Origin of Species; I’m told that Darwin’s prose is quite readable and even interesting, and comparing it to the view of it I got from this book will be interesting.
I picked this up at the library because I needed something light, and the humour reminded me of my dad a bit. I can imagine him stringing along a scammer in this way, though I think he’d be more subtle and clever about it. It’s amusing enough at first, in this case, but after a couple of exchanges I was skimming them all and shaking my head at the reductio ad absurdum of some of it.
I wouldn’t buy this, but it might be worth a flick through if you’re looking for something funny.
Time for Stacking the Shelves! I have not bought books this week! I have been to the library three times, though… Still, this is a much smaller haul than it could be, knowing me. (If you don’t believe me, go back and check last week’s.)
I’ve already read Unthink; I’m being pretty good at keeping on top of my books from bookbridgr. The next two are from Netgalley, and the last one direct from the author. Thank you to everyone involved in giving out ARCs and review copies!
The first two I actually own; Guardian of the Dead I own in Kindle format, though, and I only really use my Kobo lately, and Windhaven is… I think I’ve owned it in ebook for about five years, probably longer, and the site I bought it from has shut down leaving me with no access. So. Libraries! Then This is the Way the World Ends (I’ve checked the title and it should have the is in it; why the SF Masterworks cover omits it is anyone’s guess, though the physical copy I actually got has it right) doubles up for two of my challenges, one to read ten new-to-me SF Masterworks, and one to read all the books recced in Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, which you’ll see below.
I’ve been meaning to read The Better Angels of Our Nature since I did the Everyday Moralities class on Coursera. The humour of Delete This At Your Peril reminds me of my dad (look it up, Mum — you’ll agree). I’m planning to read all the 101 SF novels recced in the third book here; not because I think it’s particularly better than any other book of recs, but because it spans twenty-five years and contains a lot I haven’t read yet/need to reread.
As for Philippa Langley, well, I’ve heard that she’s a bit… over-enthusiastic about Richard III and that she came across slightly batty on the documentary. So far the book isn’t contradicting that impression. Still, apparently Michael Jones’ chapters are worth it.
Random choice from the library’s graphic novel section!
So, what’s everyone else been up to? Have y’all been good or bad this week with your buying habits?
When it comes to something I don’t know much about, I’m pretty easily swayed by other people’s arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don’t know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc.
His basic argument is that we’re hardwired for language. That, as with our sight, hearing, etc, we have a ‘language sense’; if properly stimulated during the critical period, our brains quickly figure out how to parse language (at least, the language spoken around us when we are at that age, even if that language is sign language). We don’t need to hear every word or possible sentence structure (couldn’t possibly) to pick up on the rules of grammar and apply them, when speaking and when listening. This only refers to the critical period; a child will learn grammar instinctively on being exposed to a language, but an adult must learn it by rote, in the same way as you have to learn to process visual input during the critical period for that, or you’ll never have the same visual acuity as someone who did.
Thus far, I think I’m going along with him. I do have questions of a sort of chicken and the egg nature: which came first, the brain’s Universal Grammar module, or language that necessitated it? I’m inclined to think that the structures that we now use to understand language were used for something else earlier in our evolution, and became co-opted into our communications array (so to speak) over time. Our brains formed language, and then the language formed our brains…
All in all, I don’t know whether Pinker’s right, but I found his work convincing. Having read a couple of other books on language, including Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, and applying what I know from those too, I find it hard to disagree with Pinker even where I want to, for example about relativism.