Tag: non-fiction

Review – What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

Posted February 20, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by SWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali

My experience of this book is positive, but it is about rape, all kinds of rape, and it’s not skimpy on the details. If you’re going to find the topic of rape viscerally upsetting, please don’t read this review! I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe, although I think the book in itself is potentially really helpful.

The title pretty much encapsulates what the book is about: Sohaila Abdulali thinks that rape has been a taboo and difficult subject for too long, leaving too many struggling in silence, and now is a perfect moment to let in some more light and talk about the issue. This isn’t some academic pronouncement from on high: Abdulali herself was the victim of a violent rape, many years ago — something she is frank about, and an experience that retains its horror in the telling, although it is now an event she has healed from.

Despite that, she’s matter-of-fact, in a way that means my primary feeling about the book was not horror or despair or any such emotion, but the hope that I think she wanted to convey. I found the whole thing oddly comforting: she recognises so many different kinds of rape, so many different reasons and reactions and aftermaths. There’s no one right way to have been raped, here: she accepts all kinds of stories, whether it’s a child being raped by someone they trust or a prostitute who tried to say no after money had already changed hands. There’s no one type of victim she thinks is more justified in being hurt and feeling unsafe, no situation she singles out as being better or worse than another. Honestly, to me, the narrative here says: “What happened to you was bad, whatever it was. It’s awful, but we can look at it and unpick it and it doesn’t have to be this one big monolith dominating your whole life. But whatever it is, it’s okay.”

The book did have a couple of downsides — at times it felt a little scatterbrained, unfocused in its approach. It’s very personal, rather than being just academic or just political or just feminist — it’s Sohaila Abdulali sitting down and taking a look at the world, and making sure some things we keep in the dark are really seen for what they are and what they mean. She has plenty of statistics to quote, but in the end it feels like she’s sitting and working through a mass of trauma — not all her own — conversationally, opening up a space for it, and making us see it. Perhaps it makes sense, in that way, that it’s a little disjointed at times.

I’m very glad I read it. It sounds like a heavy topic, but somehow in Abdulali’s hands, it’s not. Or rather, it is, but it’s one we can handle, and must handle, and stop trying to look away from (either from fear or from respect for victims).

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stitches in Time

Posted February 12, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stitches in Time by Lucy AdlingtonStitches in Time, Lucy Adlington

Stitches in Time is a delightful look at the clothes we wear and how they’ve developed over time, from the general fit of women’s clothes down to the specifics of fashion. A lot of it I knew already, partly from the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee (I cannot wait for a new season of that! and oh hey, it starts tonight!) and partly from other books, but it was still a charming read and a nice break from the awful things that happen in fiction. Adlington writes clearly and sometimes wittily, and it’s a good tour through history in general as well at times, contextualising what exactly drove fashion.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Molecules at an Exhibition

Posted February 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Molecules at an Exhibition by John EmsleyMolecules at an Exhibition, John Emsley

This started out fascinating, but started to wear on me. Basically, it’s a ‘gallery’ of various molecules that are important in one way or another to human life. There are nutrients we require, poisons that kill us, fuels we use, things that make useful objects, etc, etc. It’s possibly better just being dipped into than read cover to cover; I certainly got tired of all the fuels and the relatively similar titbits about some of the elements. It’s not bad, but it didn’t keep me very interested either.

I’m hoping his book specifically on poisons is more up my street…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Ninja

Posted February 7, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ninja by John ManNinja, John Man

Ninja is another travelogue-ish, easy to read history of a broad and fascinating topic, in this case the history and afterlife of ninjas in Japanese culture. It felt more scatterbrained than Man’s other books, and was more of a chore to read; I wasn’t really impressed, and although there were some very informative chapters about actual ninjas and what they did, there’s a lot of fluff about traditions and stories about ninjas that didn’t really add up to much.

Of Man’s books, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this; if there’s a better book out there about ninjas and their history, I think I’d actually like to read it, please.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Breaking the Maya Code

Posted February 4, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. CoeBreaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe

This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.

Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.

The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Seahenge

Posted January 29, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Seahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum by Charlie WatsonSeahenge: An Archaeological Conundrum, Charlie Watson

A short and beautifully illustrated book on Seahenge, mostly focusing on the practical issues of how it was made, how it was found, how it was excavated, and the hard facts discovered since from analysis of it. There’s less concentration on the speculations about a ritual landscape in the area, etc, than you find in Pryor’s book on the same site, and a lot more illustrations and photographs. The two complement each other, I think, though I am reading them quite far apart — this is much more ‘just the facts, sir’ than Pryor’s book, while Pryor did the work of interpretation.

If you’re just looking for some background on Seahenge, you’re definitely safe with this one!

Rating: 4/5

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DNF Review – A Little History of Science

Posted January 21, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of A Little History of Science by William F BynumA Little History of Science, W.F. Bynum

If you don’t actually know much about the history of science, this book might well be for you; for me, it was painfully obvious, hitting exactly the topics I expected, skimming over what I expected it to skim. A worse crime, however, is that the author simply wasn’t accurate: if you’re going to write a non-fiction book, it’s important to make sure you don’t speak beyond your research.

It does not take much research to find out that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not pictographic representations of language. (To be perfectly accurate, some of the characters echo in form the thing they name; a cow head shape might mean the word cow, for instance. However, the languages also contain phonetic characters.)

I didn’t read beyond that. On that point, I knew the author was wrong — on a subject that isn’t even a particular area of expertise for me; how, therefore, could I trust him to have done his research about anything else? If we’re talking deeply technical details, that’s different, but it is widely understood that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are not solely logographic. There’s too little time for something where I distrust the research and editing and I’m bored.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Crucible of Creation

Posted January 17, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway MorrisThe Crucible of Creation, Simon Conway Morris

Part discussion of the Burgess Shale, part rebuttal of Stephen Jay Gould’s premises in Wonderful Life, this book was a bit of a slog to get through for me. It’s a topic I find fascinating, but something about the style mostly had me snoozing, even when he entertainingly decided to take a turn for the science fictional and imagine a whole dive into the seas at the time of the Cambrian explosion. (That bit was mostly entertaining through being surprising, though also through trying to bring to life the animals that could’ve been seen if that could happen, and how they would have behaved — the most speculative bit of the book, basically.)

I feel like Wonderful Life is probably the more fun to read and the more comprehensive, but it’s still fascinating to read about the point of view of a scientist who has actually worked with the Burgess Shale. Whatever you think of Conway Morris’ style, he’s a scientist Gould respected and an expert in his field.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Posted January 15, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-LodgeWhy I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

As so often with books that have enraged certain types, this isn’t the screed against white people that folks would have you believe. The essay of the title was written to explain that the author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, is tired of explaining prejudice to people not equipped to listen. She acknowledged in the original piece and in this book that that doesn’t mean all white people, and it certainly hasn’t meant that she’s stopped talking about race. But she’s given herself permission to avoid doing Racism 101 every five seconds, and more power to her — it’s easy enough to Google that shit, people. Whenever you have a minority identity, there’s questions you get asked and comments you have to hear that just recur like clockwork. I refuse to go back to my last hairdresser because I heard that tape starting with regards to my sexuality: “But have you ever tried going out with a man?” It’s tiring, and I can imagine it’s much more so when your difference is visible, when you can never choose whether it even has the chance of becoming a topic of conversation.

That said, this whole book is a way for Reni Eddo-Lodge to talk to white people about race — if we’re willing to listen. It’s UK focused, which I think was very much needed: a lot of the narrative online focuses on racism against African-Americans, and it’s different here in the UK… though, after reading this book, I have to admit it’s not as different as wishful thinking imagined. A lot of the problems with institutional racism are the same, and though we may have fewer shootings, that seems more likely to be because we have fewer armed police officers than because our attitudes are markedly different.

It’s very much worth reading this, even if you think you’re pretty up to date and in the know. There’s history I had no idea of, attitudes that are alive and well which I didn’t know were still considered acceptable, and overall, further to go than I thought. For that reason, this isn’t an easy read (though it was easy in the sense of being well-written and easy to follow) — and I sense that Eddo-Lodge was still pulling her punches for white people’s sake, even so.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Mycenaeans

Posted January 8, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Mycenaeans by Rodney CastledenThe Mycenaeans, Rodney Castleden

This is a mostly textbookish sort of primer on the Mycenaeans: a bit more up to date than the Penguin classic on the Greeks I read recently, by Kitto, but not necessarily in line with the latest ideas as I remember them either. He relies quite heavily on Homer as a historical source; although I know there is certainly some historicity in Homer (the descriptions of armour and other artefacts are often correct in Homer for when we think the Trojan War occurred, rather than for when the epic was written down, suggesting that it does have a good deal of content from being originally composed nearer in time to the actual events), it’s also full of Gods and magic — not usually considered key markers of accurate history writing.

It was basically what I expected from something of a rather textbooky nature, though: dry at times, expanding on some not-necessarily-interesting (to the casual reader, anyway) points, and generally taking a long time to get where it was going. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad book, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to those without a deep interest in the details.

Rating: 2/5

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