Tag: non-fiction


Review – The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Posted 25 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Rise and Fall of the DinosaursThe Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

If you’re not really up to date on the modern science around dinosaurs, this is a pretty good way to catch up. It doesn’t go into enormous amounts of detail about any one dinosaur, and it’s honestly rather more surprised about feathered dinosaurs than I would think is warranted at this point, but it makes for a good overview. There is a lot of personal detail here about what made him interested in dinosaurs, various scientists, etc, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping, and though I didn’t twig at the time, other reviews mentioning that it seems like a total boys-only club are quite correct.

It’s nothing astounding and not really in-depth enough to have wowed me. More of an adult’s version of a pretty basic intro to dinosaurs. That has its place, but not really on my shelves!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Men Explain Things To Me

Posted 23 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca SolnitMen Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit

A lot of the men I know dislike the idea that Solnit has a point in the title essay, but she really does. There’s an attitude amongst some men — usually of a certain age and status — that they know better than any female-shaped person they might be talking to. I get it when working support, I get it when talking about my academic interests, and yep, I’ve had it on this blog. Bibliophibian = female = doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently had someone explain drug-resistant tuberculosis to me. I’d just completed six months of research into drug-resistant tuberculosis, how it arises, how it persists, and how it can be treated (for my BSc dissertation). The person in question was someone on a forum who had, in their own words, “not done any biology since my GCSE”. I’ve had people explain to me (wrongly) that Sir Gawain was a symbol for x and y in Arthurian myth — I have a master’s degree in English Literature, and my dissertation for that was on… well, you can guess, right? Their qualification was that they’d read T.H. White’s novels. I can’t remember what White had to say about Gawain: pretty sure White didn’t come into my dissertation at all due to being almost entirely irrelevant to my theories (I mean, at least read Malory and Chrétien before you pontificate, dude).

The point is, it’s a real phenomenon. I’ve never had a woman do that. Granted, there are also many men who will accept that I have the expertise I claim, but the same as Solnit’s examples, there are also plenty of men who don’t. And it’s rare to get an apology for those assumptions made.

So the title essay of this book definitely strikes a chord. The other are a little more uneven: I wasn’t that interested in the one on Virginia Woolf, for example. Solnit writes clearly, and hedges her assertions round with reminders that she really isn’t saying all men do x or all Americans are racist or anything else. She’s pretty moderate in that regard.

It feels like a collection padded out with a few random pieces that sort of maybe fit together, mostly in order to publish Men Explain Things to Me. It wasn’t a bad read, but… meh.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Seeds of Science

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

Cover of Seeds of Science by Mark LynasSeeds of Science, Mark Lynas

I’m pro-GMOs, so you could say it’s typical that I’d like this book, and I’m really the only kind of audience it would reach — but I think Lynas is genuinely attempting to dispell myths and introduce other people to the actual science behind GMOs, for all that. He was himself once very much anti-GMO, and participated in the crop destructions and demonstrations against people who tried to grow genetically engineered crops in the UK; he was “converted” by actually looking into the science behind it, and finding that behind the scaremongering, there’s very little real science.

He does also (perhaps somewhat weirdly) mount a defence of Monsanto; some aspects are like a case study of the problems of GM crops in action, but at other times he seems to be conflating the rise of GM crops as a whole with Monsanto — not quite the same thing; one doesn’t need to defend Monsanto to prove that GMOs are no threat. (Although he’s also not wrong that many of the kneejerk claims against Monsanto are on shaky ground. For example, the idea that Monsanto deliberately sell sterile seeds in order to force farmers to purchase new seed every year. That idea is just poor understanding of genetics: the second generation of seed may not actually carry the Roundup-resistant gene, in the same way that the seeds of hybrid crops don’t necessarily breed true.)

Lynas writes well and clearly, and often evocatively; his struggle with becoming pro-GMO isn’t drawn out in angsty detail, but it’s plain that it wasn’t an easy change for him and that he made the decision based on facts he could no longer ignore. Perhaps for some people, his presentation of the known facts will be enough to tip the scales. I’m somewhat doubtful (I think a lot of people who are anti-GM will automatically reject this book as being by a sellout, particularly because of the defence of Monsanto), but maybe it’ll help. If you’re on the fence, it should definitely help to clarify your views.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Paper Trail

Posted 16 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Paper Trail by Alexander MonroThe Paper Trail, Alexander Munro

Possibly I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much of the history of papermaking and paper usage is focused on China and the surrounding countries, but I was still somehow surprised — and I definitely hadn’t known about the key role Buddhist sutras players in popularising paper there. I did enjoy that the book didn’t just focus in narrowly on paper-making, but discussed its usage, the people who used it, and explained the contexts. It’s one of those books that might seem to be a microhistory, but in the end tells you a lot about various different things.

Of course, in later chapters it discusses the Reformation and the rise of literacy in the population, and the invention of the novel. But a lot of it isn’t about the West, which is… actually, probably a good thing for a complacent Westerner like me to run into. Paper was already established, understood and used fully well before we started printing Bibles and novels on it. It’s obvious, when you say it like that.

I found Munro’s style pretty compelling and definitely clear, and I enjoyed the fact that he didn’t hurry to the more familiar parts of paper’s history.

Rating: 4/5 

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Review – A History of Ancient Egypt (Vol. 2)

Posted 4 September, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A History of Ancient Egypt Volume 2 by John RomerA History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, John Romer

Oh, yay, I have now discovered there’s going to be a third volume of these. Despite some reservations when I read the first volume, I find Romer’s writing pretty clear and engaging — though honestly, for me it would be difficult for someone discussing tombs and chapels and the statuary and pomp of the Egyptian courts to actually become boring. From the reading around I’ve done, Romer is accurate and thoughtful, working with the knowledge we actually have of the Middle Kingdom to discover as much as he can, without getting carried away and deciding everything is ritual, mysticism and slavery, as people are prone to do when considering Ancient Egypt.

The book has an extensive bibliography and notes, so it’s easy to look things up for more information. Personally, for all that I love the lavish description of tombs and the decoration of temples — and especially the importance of hieroglyphs — this book does feel very long (it kind of is very long, but it feels longer than it looks, if that makes sense). So it might not be for you if you’re more interested in a quick overview: it’s definitely detailed. I find it fascinating, though, even though a lot of the description washed right over me and won’t be socked away into long-term memory. It’s interesting just to read.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Moral Tribes

Posted 30 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Moral Tribes by Joshua GreeneMoral Tribes, Joshua Greene

Essentially, this book is about getting past partisan divides and trying to find some kind of objective overarching morality that everyone can apply and understand, a “metamorality”. For Greene, the answer is very clearly utilitarianism, and he makes a spirited defence of that point, countering many of the standard objections to utilitarianism and clearing away the misconceptions. He starts by defining the problem, of course: discussing how we make moral decisions, using trolley problems (“trolleyology”) as the “fruit fly” of morality experiments.

He talks about ideas you’ve probably read elsewhere, sounding very much like Jonathan Haidt’s “rational tail wagging the emotional dog”, and talks about the basis of this in the human brain. There’s a lot of unpicking of why we have two levels of response to moral situations, and when each one comes into play, which is fascinating in itself, but not new to me. The defence of utilitarianism was, for me, the important part of the book. I’ve always had a bit of a kneejerk reaction against it, and Greene does a good job of dissecting why that happens, and countering that perception.

He also has some very good discussion of how to balance the ultimate aims of utilitarianism with being a fallible human being with emotional wants that feel like needs (even in cases where they’re not).

Overall, worth the read, and I do think he has a good solution here for a system of metamorality that isn’t perfect (he doesn’t seem to think a perfect metamorality exists or is possible), but can be applied and understood by everyone, and which serves our needs for 99.999% of our problems in the real world.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ancestral Journies

Posted 25 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 1 Comment

Cover of Ancestral Journeys by Jean MancoAncestral Journeys, Jean Manco

This is a multidisciplinary synthesis of all kinds of information about the populations of Europe and how they got here. There have been trends in understanding the movement of peoples that anyone dipping into the topic will know about, largely the great argument over migration and whether it’s ever really occurred or not. I think Manco’s book shows that, in the end, it’s the middle road that’s the answer: sometimes there has been movement, sometimes not; usually, there’s been some movement, whether of traders or invaders.

The book presents tons and tons of evidence, drawing from genetic analysis, written records, archaeological remains and linguistic traces. No doubt some of the details are wrong here and there, but I strongly suspect that the overall sweep of it is a good picture of how Europe was populated, and how populations interacted and lived together. It’s quite attractively presented, too: it’s printed in colour throughout, with colours used to good effect to produce heatmaps and all sorts illustrating the density of certain genetic markers or linguistic groups.

It’s also, to my mind, a pretty easy read. I did get a little lost at times when it fell to listing the markers that characterise this or that population, but for the most part Manco remembers to keep all the evidence in mind, and not simply regurgitate strings of haplogroup identifications. She also explains how the genetic analysis techniques used work, which helps — not in enormous detail, so nothing new to me, but enough to contextualise the work she’s presenting.

Interesting stuff, and while I wouldn’t call it a pageturner as such, I read it in two days.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Delusions of Gender

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

Cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia FineDelusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

The main takeaway from this book is never to trust what people think studies say. Always read the study and look at the data yourself if you really want your opinion to be based on fact. Once you dig into it, you’ll find people making the weirdest assumptions or failing to account for their own bias. Fine mentions study after study that have been overinterpreted and misinterpreted due to faulty premises in the whole experimental set-up. I wouldn’t suggest that you take Fine’s word for it: even though she points out some fallacies, no doubt she falls into some of her own. That’s the nature of humans, and that’s why peer-reviewed and replicated science is so important.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff discussed and she makes her points clearly. It mostly accords with what I understand about differences between sexes, and overall I found myself nodding a lot (probably a sign you should also treat anything I say about gender difference with caution — I have strong pre-formed opinions that are already fairly in line with Fine’s). I found her entertaining, as well as clear, which is always a plus in a pop-science book as long as it doesn’t go too far.

If nothing else, if you want to dig into the topic this book is good for context, and has a wealth of notes and sources you can follow up. If you do believe that there’s an in-built difference between the sexes for biological reasons, you might find Fine a bit too stringently against the evidence on your side, which she spends a lot of time dismantling. That might be a bit infuriating for you, so if you’re just looking for the facts, go straight to the source.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Think Again

Posted 18 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongThink Again: How To Reason and Argue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

I always meant to take the Coursera class this is based on, but I never quite got round to it, so when I saw it’d been made into a book, well, that seemed likely to be a format that would work for me (and wait for me to get round to it, though as it happened, it didn’t have to wait long). I think it does have some good suggestions and some good analysis of ways to argue, but there are a couple of things I find difficult.

One is the claim that the world is increasingly polarised and things were better, people were more polite, in ye olde days of yore. Sure, it’s very clear that the discourse has changed, and Sinnott-Armstrong does have the receipts to show that we are more polarised in terms of our political view. On the other hand, I have a hard job seeing that as just a symbol of our current times: countries have been split by civil war before. People haven’t always been more polite or known how to argue or how to disagree civilly, and maybe the less-polarised times he’s holding up as a better time had their own problems (like people feeling unable to express their opinions, perhaps even feeling unsafe to do so, in the cases of a lot of minorities).

The other thing is the way Sinnott-Armstrong pushes always being civil, always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, it feels like the right thing — I would love more civility in debates. But there are some views which are legitimised by being engaged with, and there are some things that are indefensible. Now it’s true that he does say that it’s not always the time to argue, but it really wasn’t clear to me that he understood the position his insistence on civility and hearing both sides would put some people in: debating with someone who believes that it’s simply a fact that they and everyone like them should be cleansed from the world, and asking them why, charitably reframing their argument… Ew. No. It comes across as very “good people on both sides”, and it’s not true.

Perhaps it’s a fault of it being a rather short book and limited space, but given he’s constantly framing the issue in terms of the political divide in the US, I wonder. I don’t feel that he quite gets out of it by simply stating that sometimes it isn’t the right time to argue. Maybe it’s just a matter of saying that you just can’t argue productively with some people/views, and he’s automatically discounting those right away. It didn’t feel like it, though, with some of his examples.

The book did make me want to try debating more instead of constantly either passing arguments by or dismissing people as too biased to bother. I do think it could be pretty useful when both parties are willing to argue in good faith. I doubt it’ll be an antidote to political polarisation right now, though, for most people — I think for many people, the other side (whichever that is) just isn’t willing to talk anymore. There’s too much at stake, and it’s too exhausting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Think Like An Anthropologist

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

Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew EngelkeThink Like An Anthropologist, Matthew Engelke

This book is less “how to think like an anthropologist” and more “how do some anthropologists think, and what do other anthropologists think about that”, and so on. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it goes into the history of anthropology and various examples and at times it just seems to get lost a bit. If the primary aim is to give a bit of context around anthropology and suggest how it’s relevant to everyday life, I think it succeeds in some ways, but it’s not always clear what exactly it is trying to do. At times it seems like it’s going to avoid anecdotes like “x culture thinks y” and what anthropology thinks about those, and the next it delves right in.

It’s not without interest, but I couldn’t keep my mind on following the thread at times. Possibly that means something’s wrong with my mind (or at least the way I in particular think), but history shows I’m generally pretty good at following a well put-together argument through a book, so maybe it’s the book. Regardless, while I had fun with some aspects of it, I don’t think it’s a great book.

Rating: 3/5 

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