Tag: non-fiction

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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Review – The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

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

Cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie EnglishThe Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, Charlie English

This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and it makes me wonder about the author’s integrity in the other parts of the book as well.

I mean, reading it credulously, it’s a heck of a story and these people are heroes. And surely, surely, you think, the author must have done his research to verify these accounts as far as possible. And then you find out, well, he did, but he didn’t feel like saying so at the time.

Tell the story, by all means. It’s a heck of a story after all, and it remains absorbing even if you know there are questions about it — but if you only know that at the end and look back, well, it all seems a bit of a sham, and can you really trust the author to tell the ancient story straight?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

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

Cover of Meetings With Remarkable ManuscriptsMeetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel

Most of us will never get to handle the real copies of the Hengwrt Chaucer or the Book of Hours made for Jeanne of Navarre, but this book gets you pretty close, with Christopher de Hamel describing how each book looks and feels (though smell, on reflection, is lacking), and even how they’re stored and the reading rooms he visited to handle them. He describes where each manuscript has been, too, and what’s brought it to wherever it now lives. There’s a lot of detail, much of it focusing on the brilliant illuminations of some of these manuscripts (meaning that manuscripts without illuminations that nonetheless have great literary value are missed out), with a lot of black and white reproductions, and a few glossy full colour inserts.

I found it fascinating: it probably depends on whether this is something you’re interested in. I found it one of those restful reads where I could let a lot of the information wash over me: interesting at the time, but I don’t need to know it. (Unlike, say, specific examples of post-mating, prezygotic reproductive barriers. Did you know that various species of North American field crickets are reproductively isolated with each other because, though they can mate, the sperm fails to fertilise the eggs in heterospecific pairs? Now you know, or at least, it’s washed over you. I need to know it until the 11th June.)

Anyway, the point is, I really enjoyed it, though I doubt I’ve retained even half of the information. It can be a bit dense if this isn’t your interest, though.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Keeping Their Marbles

Posted 22 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Keeping Their Marbles by Tiffany JenkinsKeeping Their Marbles, Tiffany Jenkins

Argh, this book gives me such mixed feelings. Tiffany Jenkins is an unabashed supporter of keeping the Elgin Marbles, and many other items in collections like that of the British Museum which come from other countries. She lays out several arguments for this, including the fact that some of these items would have been destroyed if they weren’t in the UK, either now or when they were first collected. She also argues that no contemporary culture can really claim direct descent from the people whose artefacts and remains are now displayed, and that the British Museum (or insert other museum with a comparable collection here) is an ideal place to study and understand these artefacts. The British Museum, she points out, allows you to see objects in their historical context, and make connections between them.

She also argues that some of these items were legitimately bought or obtained originally, so that should still hold now — even if those sales were forced by the poverty of the people in question, by colonial pressure, etc, etc. That’s such a weak argument, I just dismissed it straight away: how can we know those choices were really free choices, now? Best to assume they were not, and accept whatever moral obligation that puts us under. We’ll be right more than half the time, I would guess.

Jenkins is notably particularly against returning bodies to their putative modern equivalent cultures, because of the loss of scientific data that entails — that, she argues, is more important than the fate of bodies whose former owners surely don’t care about it now! I find this a callous and dismissive point of view, because it demands that everyone else see the world the way she does, and ascribe no value to physical remains. She wants to totally disregard what people may have intended in having their bodies interred in particular ways: science is all. And I’m not with her on that; personally, I don’t think it’ll matter to me what happens to my body once I’m dead, but I’d fight you if you wanted to exhume my grandfather without my family’s permission for an indefinite period of time, even for science, and even more so if you wanted to display his remains. They’re human remains: I think we lose something of our respect for the living when we fail to remember that the dead were once alive and had their own wishes.

I don’t disagree with some of the goods Jenkins ascribes to museum collections, though. There is a scientific value in the remains and artefacts from long ago, and particularly in fields I’m very interested in myself, genetics and the history of disease. In the end, is that worth more than people? Not to me — but I feel that me and Jenkins would be at an impasse on this anyway, since I’m sure she would argue no disrespect is intended, no judgement of worth inherent in the decision.

I love museums, I do. I’m glad I’ve seen the real Rosetta stone, the real statues of dead kings, the actual cups or plates or coins that someone used long ago. Replicas and facsimiles aren’t the same in terms of their emotional impact. But still… there are people who are closer kin to the long-dead artisans and craftsmen who made all those items or were buried with them, and they deserve a chance to have that feeling too, in Greece or wherever else.

So I come to no conclusion on repatriation. Probably it’s something that should be considered on an individual basis, with careful evaluation of all the facts, with one exchange not necessarily setting precedent for another. These are discussions we need to have.

(Don’t ask me about the exhibition of dead bodies of whatever degree of antiquity, unless you want an impassioned and incoherent rant. I’m profoundly uncomfortable at the display of people who died in pain and confusion, such as the casts of bodies from Pompeii; to me, it’s an intrusion, and tourism a sick excuse.)

All in all, this is an interesting read: I don’t agree with Jenkins, and I feel that some of her arguments tend to the insensitive (just as probably some people think that my concern for people of other cultures in the face of scientific facts is just my bleeding heart liberalism speaking), but it’s worth reading even if you expect to disagree. Honestly, I went in wanting her to convince me we should keep the Elgin Marbles and everything else, for selfish reasons, but left the book feeling that it really would just be selfishness, with no better reasons winning out.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Great Mortality

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

Cover of The Great Mortality by John KellyThe Great Mortality, John Kelly

The Great Mortality is how the Black Death was referred to, before we came to know it by that evocative name. There’s a lot of detail here if you’re interested in the historical aspects of the plague: where it struck, how people reacted, the changes it brought about. The scientific background is a bit more lacking, though: there’s some tantalising hints, like a brief discussion of the increased virulence of the illness compared to the modern version that’s still endemic in some parts of the world, but for me with my primarily scientific rather than purely historical or sociological outlook, it began to drag.

So, not a bad read, but not what I was really looking for.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Seven Daughters of Eve

Posted 15 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan SykesSeven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes

It’s been a while since this book was published, of course, and the science of investigating ancient mitochondrial DNA has been going from strength to strength, but this is still a good book on the background of that research, the importance of mitochondrial DNA, and the idea that we can trace our lineage back through the female line to just a few specific women. (Actually, this is very Europe-centric, a fact that becomes clear when you read the whole book: the seven ‘clan mothers’ mentioned are only the last common ancestors of European mitochondrial lines.)

Sykes writes clearly and well, and the only bit I wasn’t happy with as popular science writing is the little fake histories of the seven women. He tries to put flesh on the bones of what the women might have been like, the environment and social situations they would have encountered, but it’s really far too much like pure fiction for me. If he’d even included some more perhapses and maybes and alternative scenarios, I might have been more comfortable with it. As it is, it gives us a false idea that there were seven such knowable women.

Still, it’s fascinating stuff and I do love reading about this kind of genetic detective work.

Rating: 4/5 

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Review – Universal

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

Cover of Universal by Brian CoxUniversal, Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw

This is really clearly written, it covers fascinating subjects, and the authors have tried really hard to equip readers with the ability to think things through for themselves. They don’t just state conclusions: they lead the reader through how those conclusions were reached, until they are also inevitable for the reader. It’s a smart way to write, although the right people — the people who look at the conclusions and decide they’re wrong without any evidence — probably won’t actually go through the evidence.

Unfortunately, a lot of this evidence involves thinking mathematically, which is not a strong point for me. I can hammer something into my head for practical purposes (I can now do a bunch of statistical tests using paper and a calculator!) and I can remember how to calculate something I find interesting (the number of base pairs in a fragment of DNA from how far it travelled during gel electrophoresis), but I’m not good with big concepts. And Cox and Forshaw tackle some of the biggest here.

At another time, I might be in the mood to work through this more thoroughly. As it is, I didn’t finish it — not because I think it’s bad (it’s not), but just because this is not the time. Too much for me to learn that’s more immediately relevant.

(Remember that my ratings denote enjoyment, not usefulness or interestingness per se. It’s just… maths. Not for me, not right now.)

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Evolution in Four Dimensions

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

Cover of Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva JablonkaEvolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb

This is really clear if you know a bit about what it’s talking about, and probably impossibly dense if you don’t. The illustrations are rather whimsical usually, rather than being useful (even for people who aren’t me and can make sense of things they’re looking at!), and there are “dialogues” at the end of each chapter which go over the previous points and basically play a bit of Devil’s advocate. They didn’t work for me because it was so artificial — obviously they wrote the dialogues entirely themselves, so it was just the questions they wanted to answer — but it might be helpful in clarifying some things for some readers.

There’s some new stuff since this revised edition came out, but it’s still a good primer on epigenetics and some of the other things that are significant when you discuss evolution (like culture). I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a layperson, but if you’re already interested, it’s a good one.

Rating: 4/5

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