Starting with coral and working his way around, Steve Jones covers a lot of different topics to do with evolution, geology, the environment, and the impact us humans are having on said environment. This was probably the most compelling of his books that I’ve read, but I have to say I still didn’t find it breezy: fascinating as coral is in many ways, it’s not that fascinating to me.
Also, Jones clearly has a thing with Darwin — it’s not exactly that he copies Darwin, but he certainly emulates his works and interests, trying to present them anew to this century’s audience. Something about the way he’s always harping back to Darwin is starting to get on my nerves.
This book is another of Steve Jones’ updates/responses to/homages to Charles Darwin’s work. It’s probably remarkably different in many ways, in terms of the content, but it is an interesting read. I do think Jones goes a bit too much into gender essentialism — I played rough with my sister and the local boys, which the female-bodied are allegedly hard-wired not to do — and sometimes his constant reiteration that the Y chromosome is dying out seems a little hysterical, like maybe it might give fuel to the men’s rights people.
And if he could maybe stop talking about promiscuous gay men causing the spread of AIDs in every book, that’d be great. (I don’t care how true it may be, straight people get AIDs too, thank you very much.)
There is interesting stuff here in terms of genetics, foetal development, even the development of the human race as witnessed by the Y chromosome. Honestly, though, I’m not finding Jones’ work that fun to read — it seems to drag on forever — so once I’ve finished the last one I have out of the library, that’ll be it.
I couldn’t resist grabbing this when I came across it randomly in the library. I was hoping for more books on dinosaurs, but I’ll take a biography of an amazing female scientist any day. The unfortunate thing about Mary Anning is that she wasn’t treated as the professional she was. Or, rather, she was accepted as a professional fossil hunter, but she wasn’t given the recognition she deserved. And unfortunately, a lot of what we know about her is framed by the male geologists and scientists who relied on her.
Still, Patricia Pierce does a decent job of bringing Mary Anning to life and pointing out how amazing her achievements were, given her social context. I could do with less speculation about her romantic life, about which there appears to be not a shred of proof. Maybe she just wasn’t interested? But that didn’t take up too much space: it just struck me as falling into the trap of seeing Mary Anning the way her contemporaries would’ve, with too much emphasis on her being a ‘spinster’.
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.