Tag: non-fiction


Review – Amazons

Posted 8 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Amazons by John ManAmazons, John Man

This was a really fun and quick read, even if it wasn’t quite what I expected. When someone says Amazons, you get a very clear picture, right? But John Man goes beyond the myth and digs into first the origins of that myth, and then into other societies which might more or less be considered Amazons (whether they were ever identified with Amazons or not). There’s also stuff on why Amazon.com is called Amazon, and other detours like that. It becomes a sort of cultural history of warrior women — and that’s not a criticism, because I found that more enjoyable than something which focused myopically on something the evidence suggests was never more than a rumour born from a rumour, or even political convenience.

And though the subtitle is all about warrior women of the ancient world, there’s a good discussion of modern warrior women too.

Overall, enjoyable — and left me very curious to read more about the Scythians and the archaeology of the people of the steppe. One book leads to another… Anyone got any recommendations along those lines?!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Almost Human

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

Cover of Almost Human by Lee BergerAlmost Human, Lee Berger, John Hawks

Way back possibly even before I was doing my biology degree, I was doing all the MOOCs (massively open online courses) I could, and one of them was run by John Hawks. So when I stumbled across this book I had to have it. I’ve always been vaguely aware of and interested in what’s understood about hominin evolution, but I mostly knew about the big classic hits like Lucy. Homo naledi, discussed in this book, is new and rather surprising.

The story of excavating the remains is also pretty fascinating, with a team of female scientists picked for their ability to wriggle into the cave systems to retrieve the items, and all the science and planning that went into understanding what was happening. The book does also include some info on Berger’s career in general, which is less interesting to me, but his excavations of hominin remains… it’s all astounding and exciting to me.

Knowing that Berger’s work can be controversial, I’d love to read some other takes on the same info. I might even dig into the journals while I still have access, before my degree’s done. Either way, it’s fascinating stuff, though.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Immune

Posted 2 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Immune by Catherine CarverImmune, Catherine Carver

I’m not entirely the audience for this one, since I know the subject from a reading-scientific-papers and writing-a-dissertation-on-tuberculosis level, and this is like the other Bloomsburg Sigma books aimed at a casual, pop-science kind of audience. Not a bad thing, but if you’re here to seriously buckle down and learn (e.g. because you have an immune condition), then it’s going to feel far too light and flippant, and the focus will be all wrong. For me, it was a good opportunity to revise my understanding of some of the topics I’ve been learning about, and see an alternate way to describe them, but it’s nothing new and Carver couldn’t get me more excited than I already am about the subject.

A couple of times the topics lean towards the memorable and thus aberrant things like the boy who grew up and lived entirely in a bubble due to immune problems; this can be fascinating, but you could see it as an element of sensationalism in a topic that needs no sensationalising to be fascinating and deeply relevant to all of us. After all, the same illnesses and malfunctions await all of us if our immune systems fail, and our immune systems are the only things that really have a hope of continuing to be effective against the pathogens around us in the long run.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Science and the City

Posted 28 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Science and the City by Laurie WinklessScience and the City, Laurie Winkless

I expected to enjoy this a lot — I typically do like the Bloomsbury Sigma books, even if they tend to take on quite a chatty tone. But this one just felt boring: partly that was because I wasn’t learning anything, because everything seemed obvious, and partly because I wasn’t interested in the flippant remarks, etc. It felt like it was pitched to someone who knows less about this sort of thing than I do, but also someone who is rather more interested in the ins and outs of the science applied to the city, if that makes sense.

Whatever, in the end it didn’t work for me and I was, in fact, deadly bored.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Brain Supremacy

Posted 26 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Brain Supremacy by Kathleen TaylorThe Brain Supremacy, Kathleen Taylor

There’s a lot of research going on into neuroscience, and it can lead us some pretty tricky places — morally and socially, as well as in terms of the science itself. Taylor’s book is very much a warning note, sometimes verging on the melodramatic, about the kinds of technologies which might be on the horizon. It’s worth noting though that the book came out in 2012, and I haven’t seem much in the way of the kind of exponential progress she envisages.

At times her style is a little dry, but it’s mostly readable and the warning note is worth sounding — and the technology itself is fascinating.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Kin

Posted 23 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Kin by John IngrahamKin, John Ingraham

Kin is a book about microbes and how they’re related to us, and the surprisingly close ties between microbes and humans. It does a lot of digging into the origin of life in general, really; I didn’t find it as interesting as Nick Lane’s The Vital Question, and ultimately I was also surprised by how bad some of the editing was — it was just careless, typos and missing words, etc.

If you’re looking for a book about where life came from, I probably recommend Nick Lane’s book; I’ll have to have a think for some others which present alternative ideas. Ingraham’s book is easy enough to read, but it didn’t feel quite worth the time for me. Bearing in mind, of course, that I’m finishing up my biology degree at the moment with a dissertation on one particular microbe, so I guess I’m not really the target audience here.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Little History of Archaeology

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

A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan

I love archaeology, and I must confess I really love the kind of general books that do a bit more of a survey — like Cline’s Three Stones Make a Wall, for example. This looked like it was going to be good in that line, and it wasn’t bad; there’s definitely a lot of info in it and stuff I want to research more, but overall it’s a bit too brief for me. It’s definitely a little history, just a little; there’s so much more to be said about so many of the people and sites that Fagan skims past in giving an overview.

Which is not exactly the fault of the book, but sometimes I feel that the history of archaeology would’ve been better followed through fewer key sites or key archaeologists, rather than a general mix of the two, which ended up feeling unfocused.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns

Posted 19 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them PronounsA Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them, Archie Bongiovanni, Tristan Jimerson

Received to review via Netgalley

A lot of people now use gender-neutral pronouns, and singular ‘they’ is one of the more universal and (to my mind) easy to adjust to choices. Not that I object to zie/hir on principle (though some people do because those pronouns sound like gendered pronouns in their own language; this is not a personal bother of mine, but I keep it in mind), but ‘they’ is already something we know how to use, and they doesn’t always have to mean plural (despite what people say). This is basically a guide focused on how to respect the pronoun choices of people who identify as non-binary… or just want to use neutral pronouns for reasons of their own. It’s an easy and simple read, though I find myself wondering if the people who could really use the education would ever bother to read it.

It’s also… not 100% right. There’s a whole bit about how saying “preferred pronouns” is disrespectful. I totally understand that argument — most people don’t prefer to be called she/her, they are a she/her — but I hesitate about it too because people to whom it doesn’t apply tend to take that too far. I’ve been scolded for saying I personally have preferred pronouns, even though that’s the case. I use they/them in some contexts, and refer to them as my “preferred” pronouns, because they are. However, nobody who meets me in real life is ever going to think there’s any grounds for ambiguity, and I don’t mind it in that context; it’s all about context for me and what’s comfortable in a given place/time. Often online I just let people make whatever assumption they want: it doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t usually have strong feelings either way (unless someone is being sexist or something). But still: at the end of it, they/them/their are my preferred pronouns by default.

So yeah, don’t go thinking this book is the bible of gender-neutral pronouns and can’t be wrong. But otherwise, it’s a good resource for explaining to someone willing to learn. The art it nothing special, but the expressions, etc, add some humour and flavour to it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Templars

Posted 17 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Templars by Piers Paul ReadThe Templars, Piers Paul Read

This is a rather exhaustive account not only of the Templars, but of the Crusades and the interactions between Popes and Kings during that period. That’s not a bad thing, though I had expected something a little more focused on the Templars as a group, and maybe more discussion of individual Templars as examples. Instead, there was a lot about individual kings and their reactions — fair enough, there’s probably more material available on them, but I still found it a little disappointing.

Still, it’s kind of fun reading it as someone who has played Assassin’s Creed, and playing spot-the-name-I-know and spot-who-got-assassinated-by-Altair.

I think it was a bit stodgy in places, but informative. And dude, you totally protested too much in the other direction that Templars weren’t ever gay. Let’s be real: the reality is that some of the Templars will have been gay, some bi, many straight, and some will have remained celibate while others won’t have done so.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Against Empathy

Posted 14 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Against Empathy by Paul BloomAgainst Empathy, Paul Bloom

“Against empathy? How could anyone be against empathy?”

That was probably my first reaction too, because I and the people around me are all focused on being good to other people, and empathy seems to offer a way to do that. It seems to offer us insight, so we know the right things to say and do. But Paul Bloom’s contention is that empathy doesn’t always lead us in the right direction: he reminds the reader that empathy is what makes us focus on one sick child whose name and face we know, even if we don’t actually know the child is even real, over tens or hundreds of other sick children. Empathy can focus us powerfully on feeling how a single other person “must” be feeling — and therein lies the problem. It’s hard, if not impossible, to empathise with everyone in a whole crowd, and our instincts aren’t always accurate in guessing how other people feel. If they were, then we’d never say exactly the wrong thing when we want to comfort someone who is sad — we’d know what to say.

What Bloom isn’t against is compassion: he speaks admiringly of the Buddhist ideal of compassion without attachment, for instance. Compassion linked with reason can indeed guide us to do good, to do the moral thing, to ensure he hurt the least number of people. But empathy — pure “I feel what you feel” emotional attachment leads us astray, and Bloom argues that point well.

To empathise is a human emotion that many of us share, and Bloom isn’t claiming it’s inherently a bad thing. That would be to misread the book entirely. Honestly, despite often thinking that empathy is a virtue and people can do more of it, I find it difficult to disagree with Bloom’s conclusions. Part of that is that he writes really clearly, which makes it easy to knee-jerk believe that he’s right, but I think I’ll still be thinking about (and agreeing with) this in a few days, weeks, months.

Time to look up Effective Altruism again, and do something with the information this time.

Rating: 5/5

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