The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.
I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.
A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.
This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.
If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…
In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.
It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.
Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.
This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.
The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.
Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…
A more accurate, but less attention-drawing title, would be something like “How the Irish helped to preserve the literary records of the Greeks and Romans”. In parts, it’s more of a history of the fall of Rome than about the Irish, and in others, it’s more about the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Cahill’s portrait of St Patrick is rather tender and actually worth the read if you’re interested in reading about a saint who seemed to be a bit of a stand-up bloke, but… none of this is actually about saving civilisation in any kind of general sense.
Which all makes sense, because awesome as Ireland can be, saving civilisation is a bit too big a task. I don’t even agree with Cahill in the sense that Greek and Roman literature and philosophy were that necessary for later civilisation to exist — there would be civilisation, I’m sure: it just wouldn’t be Western civilisation. There’s way too much privileging of the Classical and Christian tradition in this book, in a way that’s kind of gross if you consider how many other civilisations have existed. He’s also a patronising dick about medieval people in general, spouting cliches all over about their views and inner feelings in a generalising and condescending sort of way. Meh.
Cahill is certainly invested in his subject matter, and fascinated by what he’s writing: he portrays St Patrick in particular with sympathy and care. However, there’s that basic premise being all wrong, the condescension towards whole peoples and ways of life, and the condescension to the reader in assuming they’ve never encountered Plato and couldn’t possibly understand what Plato is saying.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford
It’s an ambitious title, and it should come as no surprise that that’s not really a history of everyone who ever lived. It’s really a story about some of the things we know from our genes, and it’s a bit of a random sampling at that, covering ear wax (those who have studied genetics will find this no-shocker, since wet vs sticky earwax is a fairly common example of a certain kind of genetic trait), kings, disease, migration, redheads, and all kinds of things in between. To me, it read like a grab bag of interesting facts we know about genetics: yes, the facts are interesting, but a coherent argument leading through a book it is not.
Rutherford’s not a bad writer, and he clearly has an eye for a good story, but… first of all, this level of pop-science is a bit too pop for me now, and secondly, it’s a disorganised mess.
Threads of Life is a history of the world through sewing, from the Bayeux Tapestry to modern protest banners. Obviously, part of the reason it caught my attention is that I’m doing a fair bit of sewing (cross-stitch) myself at the moment — but also, I’m a sucker for this kind of micro-history that focuses in on one particular element of the human experience of history. In this case, there’s a lot of personal musing too: the author has been involved with a lot of community projects and art initiatives encouraging people to sew, bringing communities together through sewing, etc. There’s a healthy amount of history too, though, discussing how embroidery is viewed and how that has changed, discussing the roles embroidery has played in all kinds of situations.
Overall, it’s an interesting book, and there are all kinds of things I had no idea about that I’d love to see, like the quilts made by women in captivity during wartime. All of it makes me want to sew, and to be political with my sewing as well — if I could design worth a damn, I’d be cross-stitching Jo Cox’s (somewhat paraphrased quote): “We have much more in common than that which divides us.”
Overall, the author tries to get more than just a Western perspective, and to include people from all walks of life and how they’ve used sewing — both as something that is useful in itself, and as a form of self-expression. The abridged BBC programme about this book is good, but very much abridged: it’s more of a taster than a full idea of everything Hunter covers.
Ostensibly, this book is about a simple question: are humans alone in the universe? It has to go the long way around to come to any answers, exploring other arguments by way of figuring out whether the Earth is or isn’t rare in the universe and whether or not life is as tightly constrained as some people say, but the core principle of the book is that we need to find a middle ground between the current main ideas — the Copernican view that we can’t be unique, and the Rare Earth view that says life in the universe must be unusual.
Mostly, my wife got to watch me mutter “yes, obviously”, and I’m tempted to quote Lord Peter on Chief Inspector Parker here — it takes Scharf a desperately long time to someone who already has a somewhat formed opinion to “crawl distantly within sight of a conclusion”. That conclusion, in the end, is basically where I stand: not enough data, come back later (with a side of Scharf being pretty sure that neither extreme is going to turn out to be correct, with which I disagree — I think it’s all up for grabs at this point).
So anyway, if you want to know why I came to the conclusion I’ve written in my science blog recently (i.e. “we don’t know and we can’t know based on the current data we have”), this book has a good roundup of the evidence. Scharf isn’t bad at explaining it.
But if you’re looking for answers, I find it as unconvincing as all the other attempts at answering this question.
Pale Rider is about the 1918 flu pandemic known as “Spanish flu”: the fact that it killed many more people than the Great War did is a well-known fact now, and this particular pandemic is credited with making scientists realise the dangers of a global health crisis like this — and the likelihood that it could and would happen again.
I’ll confess, I didn’t think I’d learn that much about the flu from reading this book, having already read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, but in fact there was a lot here that was new to me. Not so much in understanding the disease itself — if Barry’s book didn’t do that, studying for my exams certainly did — but in understanding the impact it had on the world, and particularly on non-Western countries. There’s a lot here that’s new to me about China and Russia, for instance, whereas I feel like The Great Influenza focused much more on the American side of things.
There’s also, I feel, more of an attempt to understand the social and political effects of the pandemic, rather than just the medical and scientific.
However, my end feeling is the same: influenza is a fascinating topic, and if it doesn’t scare you (in a measured informed way that leads to taking sensible precautions like getting the flu vaccine every year), it should. Spinney has a common-sense approach to it all — there’s a lot of things that need to align to make a pandemic, and Spinney doesn’t overstate the likelihood of that happening, but she does lay out the risks and emphasise the need for data collection and disease surveillance. Hear hear!
Fayke Newes looks like a gimmicky book, and it’s true that it lacks a references section entirely, so it’s difficult to evaluate the depth of the research. What I read tallies with what I already know, but it’s impossible to trust a serious non-fiction book without references or at least some “further reading”, and it raises my eyebrow a little that the book suggests teaching children to distinguish real news from puffed up misinformation… and that book does not itself have the basics I would consider important for evaluating whether a piece of writing is accurate. (Though admittedly I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and need to start adding sources on my science blog posts.)
Taking it with a pinch of salt, though, it’s an interesting survey of the press vs power — the media vs the mighty, in the other alliteration it uses a lot — from Henry VIII to Trump. It discusses how the press have clashed with governments in the past, discussing how the media has made and broken politicians… and how they’ve been complicit in hiding things from the people during situations such as wartime. This is pretty much the main theme of the book: is the press speaking truth about power to inform the people, or aligning with it in order to deceive them (regardless of the intent behind the compliance)?
It’s odd, given that the book ends with a paean to a long history of marvellous unbiased reporting, that mostly the incidents it mentions sound very much to me like the press is mostly biased and prone to falling in with the wishes of the rich and powerful. Taylor suggests that unbiased, well-trained reporters are going to save us in this age of misinformation — in the concluding chapter of a book with example after example of the press being owned by the rich and dictated by their demands, or cheerfully complying with government bans to send home encouraging untruths during wartime, etc, etc.
I think we do need some well trained and unbiased reporters we can trust to tell us the facts. I’m not convinced by his arguments into believing that those reporters exist, or rather that when people with that ambition do exist, they have a platform and are able to tell us a damn thing people with power don’t want us to know.
Interesting book, but has several blind spots about the implications of its own content.