Review – Terra

4788658Terra, Richard Hamblyn

The subtitle of this book is “Four Events That Changed The World”, which might raise a question in some people’s minds since none is earlier than 1755. Well, it’s not saying these are the only important disasters to change the world, or even the most important; the idea is, I think, that these are events which prompted thought, scientific advances, and provisions for the future. The earthquake in Lisbon prompted innovation in building techniques; the toxic fog in Europe prompted thinkers like Franklin to work on the atmosphere (and gave us important information about climate change); Krakatau prompted research on volcanoes and impacted ecosystems; the tsunami in Hilo prompted international cooperation to get together a warning system.

These aren’t really about single great triumphs of someone in particular, but about the development of a deeper understanding of the Earth and the way it works. Sadly for me, it’s mostly about eyewitness accounts and less about the scientists, architects and politicians who had to respond to the events. It’s pretty much disaster porn to just go on about the way someone’s skin was hanging off their body during the eruption of Krakatau — I’d be much more interested in the scientific side of things.

But I guess for that, I have my Open University textbook… I just wish this had been somewhere in between: illustrative, but more scientific. It’s not badly written, and there is interesting information, but I got a little bit tired of the scenes of horror.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Lucifer Effect

Cover of The Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoThe Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo

This is a horribly difficult book to read, not because Zimbardo’s writing is bad or the subject is uninteresting, but because it exposes how easily people can be manipulated into a role — and I don’t just mean the guards, but also the prisoners. It’s important because it examines, in minute detail, the events of a now infamous experiment: the Stanford Prison Experiment. This was run, not by Stanley Milgram, as people often think, but by Philip Zimbardo, and even he became caught up in the act of it. It wasn’t even a very convincing prison, and yet it quickly made both guards and prisoners act their roles. And not even them, but people outside it who should have seen through the illusion, like the chaplain.

Both this experiment and Stanley Milgram’s experiments are kind of horrifying, because we don’t want to think it’s that easy. If you read Behind the Shock Machine, by Gina Perry (the title links to my review), she shows that it’s not that easy — Milgram’s experiments were honed to a fine point, and only the results which supported his conclusions most spectacularly were published. But still, the fact remains that you don’t have to scratch far below the surface to find something unsavoury about the way humans seem to act.

As Dar Williams says in ‘Buzzer’: I get it now, I’m the face, I’m the cause of war; we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.

This book, this experiment, isn’t all there is to be said about human nature, of course. But it’s an important account of something which revolutionised our understanding of human psychology, and shone a light on things we need to examine — even if they turn out not to hold as true as we fear. Kudos to Zimbardo for his unflinching discussion of everything that went on in the experiment, and every time he failed to safeguard the interests of the participants.

Rating: 4/5

Review – A Slip of the Keyboard

Cover of A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry PratchettA Slip of the Keyboard, Terry Pratchett

This is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fictional writing, including talks, articles, introductions and opinion pieces. It does include ‘Shaking Hands With Death’ as well, if you wanted to read that without actually buying the separate book with it in; this is technically better value for money, if you’re interested in all of the pieces. Most of them are interesting; one or two are odd without context — I haven’t read Nation recently enough, for example, to really appreciate his commentary on the writing of it, and the stage adaptation that was made.

If you’ve made the mistake of thinking of Sir Pratchett as like some ‘jolly old elf’, then Neil Gaiman’s introduction will begin to separate you from that notion, and then Pratchett’s own words will add to it. He had a burning anger which drove him in his writing and his activism, an anger at things that were wrong, an anger at the disease that was taking away parts of himself. He writes about that movingly several times; other essays talk about reading, learning, writing, the oddnesses of being an author…

I enjoyed reading it, though it’s not something I can see myself reading again. Worth it for the clear-eyed view on assisted dying and the kind of legislation we need on that.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Art for Mindfulness: Geometrics

Cover of Art for Mindfulness: Geometrics by Andy PaciorekArt for Mindfulness: Geometrics, Andy Paciorek

Yep, I’ve jumped onto this trend. Mostly for the mindfulness aspect, because I got a little book of mandalas to colour and found that it really did help with just staying in the moment and not worrying, because I’d be too busy concentrating on keeping inside the lines and deciding which colours to pick next. The designs in Geometrics are pretty good: obviously, they’re all geometric, and some of them are very complex. It’s not full of massive open spaces to colour, but detail instead. Sometimes I find that a little frustrating, in which case I switch to something else in the same book or in one of the others I have.

I’m using markers with it, and while they bleed through to the other side of the same page, they don’t mark the next page. The quality of the paper is good, and fortunately, the only thing on the back of each design is an inspirational quotation — most of which I like, too; they’re not too syrupy. I think this one will last quite a long time.

In the meantime, hey, it’s 20th August! That means it’s my birthday!

Rating: 4/5

Review – Sapiens

Cover of A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval HarariSapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

I actually originally encountered this because I wanted to do Harari’s course on the history of humankind on Coursera or one of the other MOOC sites, and I just didn’t have the time. I hoped the book would be a good substitute, picked it up, and was promptly daunted by the size of it. That’s unfair to the book, though: it’s actually immensely readable. It treats time as a progression from physics to chemistry to biology to history, through Agricultural and Cognitive Revolutions through to Industrial ones: the story of the universe is at first told in the terms of physics, and then eventually using human eye witness accounts and evidence. It’s a fairly anthropocentric view, narrowing it down to our perspective on the past, but Harari acknowledges that.

Harari manages to be fairly even handed in discussing capitalism, communism, ideology, religion, and all those difficult topics. While sometimes I thought I could tell what his opinion on each one was, he was generally fair about the appeal even of ideologies which have failed in practice. It’s a weird mix of pessimism and optimism, really, because Harari mentions the declining rates of violence, the increasing rates of health, but also the flat rate of happiness. The fact that, for all that we do, humans don’t seem to be any happier than they were eight to eight hundred years ago.

I enjoyed it, and thought it was a solid and interesting overview of human history, and the potentials for a human future. The readability and clarity of the prose is definitely in its favour.

Rating: 5/5

Review – The Rights of the Reader

Cover of The Rights of the Reader by Daniel PennacThe Rights of the Reader, Daniel Pennac

Obviously, in many ways this book isn’t applicable to me because I’m not a parent, educator, or even involved much with children at all. I sometimes see them in the library when I’m on duty, but otherwise they have one world and I have mine, and never the twain meet (thankfully, since I’m dreadful with children). It also doesn’t apply to child-me: I read voraciously, exhaustively, incessantly, and my parents really did have to wonder not how to get me to read, but how to stop me. So it’s difficult for me to understand the kids he’s talking about who had to be cautiously reintroduced to books. I’ve always been passionate about my books!

Still, Pennac’s passion for books is obvious and endearing, and he could certainly turn a phrase; if the original French was half as elegant as the English translation, it must’ve been good. I think the enthusiasm and tips here might well help a parent or teacher reinvolve kids with reading. And quite apart from that, he makes some good points for readers of any age: suggesting rights that any reader should have to read what they want, where they want, as much as they want, and talking about the fact that reading is something you make time for, rather than have time for. “By making time to read, like making time for love, we expand our time for living.” Yes.

So not aimed at me, but nonetheless an interesting and lively read, helped by Quentin Blake’s illustrations. And the rules are pertinent no matter who you are…:

1. The right not to read
2. The right to skip
3. The right not to finish a book
4. The right to re-read
5. The right to read anything
6. The right to “Bovary-ism,” a textually transmitted disease (the right to mistake a book for real life)
7. The right to read anywhere
8. The right to dip in
9. The right to read out loud
10. The right to be silent


Rating: 5/5

Review – Shaking Hands With Death

Cover of Shaking Hands with Death by Terry PratchettShaking Hands With Death, Terry Pratchett

This short book contains an essay based very closely on a speech Terry Pratchett gave, with the help of Tony Robinson, about assisted dying and, more widely, the end of life, autonomy, and dying in the way you choose. It’s a subject pretty close to my heart, as it’s always been a subject I felt was important to debate about, and all my family are aware of my wishes if I can’t make decisions for myself anymore.

The problem is that gap where you can make the decision, but you need help to carry it through successfully. It’s not just a passing whim or a cry for help: it’s a genuine feeling that to end it now would be wise, and that there’s no hope of going anywhere but downhill; not a decision based solely on mood, obviously, but one which takes into account medical realities. I think people should be able to make that choice and, having settled things the way they need to, follow through. I have always maintained that I would rather a friend or family member die suddenly than slowly decline, particularly when that decline includes a loss of mental function. Were a family member of mine to ask me, I’d strongly consider agreeing to help them. I’d have no ethical objections, as long as they had capacity at the point of making the decision.

So I’ve always been strongly in support of Pratchett’s decisions around this, and his campaign for a change in the law. Given that, I’m not sure the extent to which someone else would find Pratchett’s arguments convincing. Still, I thought his arguments were clear and direct, without sentimentality but with feeling. I teared up a couple of times, reading this, and had the strong urge to find and hand my mother a copy so we could talk about it.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Persepolis

Cover of The Complete Persepolis by Marjane SatrapiThe Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages; I first picked it up around when I got Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) and Maus (Art Spiegelman), but it takes time to get round to reading an autobiographical graphic novel, for me. It’s a different kind of reading, and for some reason it always takes way more of my attention than ordinary comics or ordinary non-fiction.

I think the first half, depicting Satrapi’s childhood, is actually the best part. The way the art compliments her childhood naivety, the particular view you get of the conflict coming from someone who was a child during it, all of this comes across really well. The latter half of the book is more about growing up in Iran, and less about just being in Iran, to me, and so it was less interesting, because a lot of the issues are shared between cultures. Although, for some people, that might be a revelatory thing to realise, so I’m not criticising the fact that Satrapi wrote about it — it just wasn’t as interesting for me.

I wanted to know more about Marjane’s mother, where she came from, how she formed her beliefs. Her father too, actually. Both of them sounded pretty wonderful, from Satrapi’s point of view, and that’s perhaps unexpected for the Western reader. I wish we’d got to know them a bit more through this, rather than as rather all-knowing, all-tolerating parental figures on a pedestal.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Hollow Crown

Cover of Hollow Crown by Dan JonesThe Hollow Crown, Dan Jones
Received to review via Netgalley

Raised in Yorkshire, I always feel like I should know more about the Wars of the Roses. I’m sure there were attempts to teach me, and I’ve even read Shakespeare’s history plays — and enjoyed them — and yet the information just doesn’t stick. Unfortunately for this book, it was much the same again. I can keep the basics in mind, even some anecdotes (especially if they were also referred to by Will), but the whole tangle of the family trees, the politics, the exact relation of this family to that… It just won’t stay clear in my head.

So I had the unfortunate experience with this book of reading it and taking time over it and nothing going in. And it’s not the author’s fault: the writing is clear, footnoted meticulously, follows a logical order, etc. It seems to be a perfectly fine book if you’re interested in the Wars of the Roses, and I even sort of enjoyed reading it. But alas, a casualty of my utter disinterest in most of the key players.

(An exception is Richard III. I don’t know why, but I’ve been able to assimilate more information about him that others. Which I suppose makes sense, since I grew up in Yorkshire, except that if you’d asked me the names of kings on either side before a few years ago, I’d have been blank.)

Rating: 2/5

Review – Ring of Bright Water

Cover of Ring of Bright Water by Gavin MaxwellRing of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell

I wanted to read this after having a go at Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country, which in many ways revolved around this book and the landscape described by Gavin Maxwell. He got much closer to the animals than Darlington, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his account is more interesting and vital. Otters were, not quite pets, but definitely companions for him, in a way that Darlington had no opportunity to understand.

Maxwell takes such a delight in the landscape and the antics of the creatures within it, both the wild ones and those he tamed or half-tamed, that it’s impossible not to enjoy this, for me. He wasn’t ashamed of his love for the animals, and sometimes that just shines through so clearly.

It’s not some adventure story, not such a battle of wills as, for instance, H is for Hawk chronicles. Mostly, it’s worth reading for that delight in nature, described with love and attention to detail. If you’re not interested in autobiography and nature writing, it’s probably not for you.

Rating: 5/5