Tag: non-fiction

Review – Never Greater Slaughter

Posted July 20, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Never Greater Slaughter by Michael LivingstonNever Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England, Michael Livingston

I studied ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, a poem included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as a piece of literature, back when I was an undergrad. I knew a little of the real history, of course, because I do think it’s important to understand the context that literary works come from — but I’d never dug into the detail, and this book was a great opportunity to do just that, and one I really enjoyed.

Livingston does a great job not only of making his case for the location of Brunanburh (though I’m sure I’d find other accounts persuasive, and don’t particularly have a horse in the race) but of providing the context for what made the battle so important, so crucial, that it ended up being remembered in verse recorded in a chronicle. He avoids fictionalising too much, apart from in one of the final chapters during which he tries to reconstruct the battlefield somewhat — and he manages to write engagingly, so that I read this almost in one go. (Okay, I had to stop for work, but I happily would have sat and read it straight through.)

I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the book, but I note that he does include footnotes and sources to help support his argument, and he also responds to some of the counterarguments to his ideas, which is usually a good sign. It’s popular history, in the end, but I feel like it matched up pretty well with what I do know, and his quoted translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem match my own pretty well (so I trust either his knowledge of the language or the translation he’s working with, for that part).

For me, this was part nostalgic delight (but how good is my Anglo-Saxon now? ah, not so hot), part genuinely good read, and partly, yeah, curiosity about where he’d nail down as the site of the battle. I think he has me convinced, though I’d be interested to read rebuttals.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Pandora’s Jar

Posted July 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Pandora's Jar by Natalie HaynesPandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes

I picked this up somewhat on a whim, and then was hesitant to actually get round to it — I couldn’t quite say why. Which was silly, because once I picked it up, it immediately sucked me in: Haynes discusses the original portrayals of ten women from Greek mythology, what they meant to their original audiences and what they’ve come to mean. It’s not solely about rehabilitating them, but about looking again at them and everything they’ve meant — it doesn’t lionise Clytemnestra, even though it points out that her vengeance has some preeeetty solid reasoning behind it, for example.

I enjoyed the close reading of various texts, including some I knew from studying classics. I’d never viewed Phaedra so sympathetically, I must admit, even though I read the same version of Hippolytus (though I, too, found Hippolytus himself absolutely unbearable, ugh). Haynes often discusses the subtleties of translation, displaying an easy knowledge of the texts in their original form which frankly makes me jealous. (Not for nothing did I consider studying Classics next.)

I think of all them, I found the chapters on Medusa and Medea the most interesting — Haynes digs into the heart of their stories and displays it all, the good and the bad, and some of it may surprise you. Some of it is sadly unsurprising (surprise, patriarchy!). I found pretty much all of it fascinating, and it makes me a lot more interested to read Haynes’ fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Food: The History of Taste

Posted July 17, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Food: The History of TasteFood: The History of Taste, ed. Paul Freedman

This is a fairly academic volume, it feels like; it reminded me of reading essays about literature through history or something like that. The chapters are written by different people, so they vary in how fascinating (or not) they might be: I did like the late chapter about the development of restaurants, which added nicely to what I knew from William Sitwell’s whole book on it.

I must admit that given how academic it felt, I kind of zoned out a lot with this, and I ended up continuing to read because it was mildly enjoyable rather than because I was really retaining information. If you’re interested in more vibrant popular-history stuff on the history of food, this isn’t it: the academic feel keeps it rather dry, and at least one of the essays simply regurgitates its sources in huge chunks rather than doing a lot of interpretive work.

It was okay, but not something I’d hold onto myself — but depending on your level of interest and knowledge on the subject, it might be just the thing.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ancestors

Posted July 14, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Ancestors by Alice RobertsAncestors: A Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials, Alice Roberts

To get my nitpicking out of the way, the subtitle is really inaccurate. There are a lot (a lot) more than seven burials discussed here: I wouldn’t be surprised if it managed to get up to seven burials per chapter, though I wasn’t counting. It makes sense, in a way: many prehistoric remains are fragmentary, and they can tell us more in aggregate — which does lead me to my other peeve with this book, which is that many of the examples were actually not even British. Sure, each chapter discussed British remains as well, but there’s inevitably a lot of discussion of other burials, including quite a bit of detail about places like Shanidar.

I guess what I had hoped for was a book that really focused in on seven specific exemplary burials, and was quite exhaustive about those, discussing all the different factors we know about that specific individual, that specific grave. At least, that’s what I expected with the subtitle, at least. So, it isn’t that. There is quite a bit of detail about some of the burials, including some fascinating ones I didn’t know about, but it is really much more of a general survey of prehistoric burials, mostly in Britain, but using burials in Europe and further afield to help contextualise them. Which also makes sense, but is not how the title sounded.

Despite those peeves taking up a lot of my writing space so far, I did really enjoy the book. There are some burials here which really intrigue me, like the full chariot burials, complete with horses. Roberts mentions some ideas that really fascinate me, like the idea that maybe offerings to the water were actually funerary offerings, not offerings to abstract deities. She suggests that some of the “missing” dead (we would expect to find more prehistoric remains than we do) could have been cremated and scattered on water, with offerings thrown in after them — or even that bodies could have been placed on rafts with their belongings, and then the offerings ended up in the water when the rafts deteriorated.

It’s an interesting idea, at least, and the book had a few such titbits. Although I knew a little about most of the burials she discusses, if not all, there was definitely some new material in here and stuff that surprised and fascinated me. Worth the read!

Oh, and I’ll just bet the section on interpreting sex/gender in burials reaaaally chapped some people’s hide. Ahaha.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs

Posted July 12, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa RandallDark Matter and the Dinosaurs, Lisa Randall

Welp. This book is a lot of dark matter, and not much dinosaurs. Which is more or less what I expected, of course: the title is a really obvious gimmick. And yet, I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had just been billed honestly. Dark matter itself is fascinating — why do we need to drag the dinosaurs into it?

Well, the author’s contention is that dark matter may explain the alleged periodicity of Earth impacts by meteorites (a theory which I believe is actually in question and has always been a bit of a niche theory — at least in the pop science I’ve read before). She takes a great deal of time explaining the solar system and the formation of the universe, then a bit of time explaining meteorites, then finally gets round to explaining dark matter. By this point, two thirds of the book are done, and she finally introduces her own theory. Finally, in the very last chapter, we finally hear why she’s linking dark matter and dinosaurs.

It’s not badly explained or uninteresting, it’s just very badly titled. I was pretty sure there would not be much by way of dinosaur content, but you do have to live up to this kind of title a bit better than that, to avoid confusion. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for — too much time spent on the “this is how the universe came about” which I’ve read eleventy-three different times, and at least twice this very year. Randall doesn’t have the charisma to really carry that off, for me.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Reinventing the Wheel

Posted July 9, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Reinventing the Wheel by Francis and Bronwen PercivalReinventing the Wheel, Bronwen and Francis Percival

I thought this would be a great companion to The Cheesemonger’s [safdf], though probably more academic and less rich in anecdote. It was probably equally as rich in anecdote, and though the authors’ passion is clear, it somehow didn’t come through nearly as well because other parts of the book felt so dry. It also doesn’t help that they’re very judgemental about what constitutes real cheese, how cheese should be made, how cheese should taste, and yes, also how you should buy and enjoy cheese.

I’m sure the experience they describe as being the only way to eat “proper” “real” cheese is very enjoyable, if expensive and time-consuming; it’s the way they present it as the only way, and as a moral choice, that somewhat bugs me, because it blames consumers and producers for problems introduced by a capitalist system in which profit is more important than most anything else. I’m not sure that if everyone did try to live the way they say cheese should be made, bought and eaten whether that would actually work.

Possibly they’re right, but being judged for enjoying Mexicana Cheese or Applewood or whatever I bought from the supermarket just gets a little wearing.

In any case, it’s a good overview of how pasteurisation and anti-microbial measures have nearly killed the old ways of making cheese, and how that can in many ways be a bad thing. They discuss the fact that the balanced microbial communities in milk that hasn’t been pasteurised — at least in the past — tended to keep each other in balance and avoid some of the spoilage problems that modern cheese is prey to.

Their passion is clear, like I said, but it didn’t make me want to go and eat cheese like Palmer’s book did.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Map of Knowledge

Posted July 5, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Map of Knowledge by Violet MollerThe Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller

I didn’t really expect to enjoy this as much as I did, because this isn’t really my area of history and it started out kind of dry. Somehow, though, I did get sucked in by the author’s enthusiasm for the subject and the slightly gossipy tales about some of the ways these texts survived and how they influenced societies — and how societies influenced their transmission, of course.

It’s quite a narrow book in the sense that it focuses on seven specific cities where manuscripts survived. It does peek around at the world and how outside events affected things, of course, but it narrows the scope of what could be a huge topic by focusing in on those cities.

In the end, it was a little slow/dry in places, but I found myself picking it up whenever I had a spare minute. It’s a good potted history of the survival of some of the pre-Christian texts that were so influential, and it’s definitely worth it, in my view. It’s not my subject, so I can’t speak to the quality of the research, but where it did intersect my other interests, it matched up. There are plenty of references, too, so that’s reassuring.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Secret Life of Books

Posted June 18, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Secret Life of BooksThe Secret Life of Books, Tom Mole

This book is a bit more substantial than Shelf Respect, which I bought in the same flurry of looking for non-fiction about books and reading. Tom Mole has a look at the book as an object, or more accurately, the codex as an object, and he goes into a bit more depth about reading, collecting books, relating to books, and how that’s changed and will change over time.

Funnily enough, just as I was reading the parts about how the book is an object we don’t even think about until it malfunctions, I noticed that the pages in my copy were cut badly. It wasn’t unreadable, by any means, but I tend to riffle the pages ahead of me and fidget with them as I read, and those cut pages threw me off immensely.

I found it an interesting but fairly light read at the time, and now I’m finding that very little has stuck with me — any information that I picked up has stuck more by just joining my general knowledge than by getting labelled as belonging to this book in my brain. It’s possible that says more about me than the book, but I read other books at around the same time — like Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ book on Neanderthals — where I could reel off a lecture on the information contained, so I don’t think Mole’s book was precisely revelatory. Just… pleasant.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – White Bread

Posted June 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of White Bread by Aaron Bobrow-StrainWhite Bread, Aaron Bobrow-Strain

I wasn’t sure how interesting a book on store-bought white bread could be, but someone recommended it to me and I wanted to give it a chance… and it was everything I could want from the kind of book which takes an everyday part of life and digs into its history and social meaning. Bobrow-Strain lays bare all kinds of things about the US which you wouldn’t necessarily link to white bread. Or maybe, knowing the US you would — wealth, health, religion, race.

It ended up being really fascinating: rather densely written — for 200 pages, it took me a while — but in a good way, informative and considerate. Unlike another recent book on food I read, Reinventing the Wheel, it managed not to sound like it was judging everyone in the world’s bad food choices for causing problems. Instead it really dug into why white bread seemed (and seems) so desirable, and what powerful motivations lie behind the choice.

I’d really love to know more about this whole subject as relates to the UK as well, and I’m eager to explore the references for more books on food, since I’ve been finding them fascinating lately.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Long Live Latin

Posted June 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Long Live Latin by Nicola GardiniLong Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

This… turned out to be really not my thing. It’s a passionate defence of Latin as something you should learn just for its own sake, for the beauty and versatility of the language — not because it serves some other purpose, like preparing you for other languages or limbering up your brain or something like that. I don’t disagree with the argument at all; I’d love to learn Latin… but this isn’t the book to convince you. I think this is a book you can enjoy best when you understand a little Latin, and can better appreciate the many, many, many examples of Latin texts that the author draws in to help make his points.

For someone who doesn’t already know any Latin, though, it’s difficult to appreciate the elegance of phrasing, especially when twice-translated (since this book is originally written in Italian, I think? it’s definitely in translation, anyway). Sometimes there would be an interesting insight or two into the writers and texts described and given as exemplars, but there’s just too much “here’s a quotation and here’s why it’s great”.

Rating: 1/5

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