I definitely found this book to be thought-provoking. Even if you disagree with the book's central point, you can't deny that it's thought-provoking,...moreI definitely found this book to be thought-provoking. Even if you disagree with the book's central point, you can't deny that it's thought-provoking, which is where its strength lies.
The central premise of Sex at Dawn is that the human institution of monogamous relationships is a socially-constructed one, and, more significantly, one that goes against evolutionary biology. With the shift from forager societies to agricultural societies, humans shifted from a value structure that placed sharing (of resources and, it turns out, mates) at the top, to a value structure that emphasized possessions and hierarchy, which created the need for purity of bloodline (for inheritance purposes).
This change, according to the authors, is a kind of social veneer on our biological instincts. This explains the seemingly-insane tendencies of well-off people to sabotage their lives, livelihoods, and families to have affairs, as well as various mid-life crises, high divorce rates, and marital boredom.
Most of the book is given to refuting the dominant narrative in most (?) modern human society. That dominant narrative is as follows: men want to impregnate as many women as possible, while wanting their own wives to remain faithful in order to maintain bloodline purity. Meanwhile, women want to bond with rich, strong men who can support and defend them, while having fun on the side with young, handsome men who can broaden the genetic pool. These conflicts of interest are what contributes to the rifts in human relationships. OK, that's the dominant narrative. The authors spend most of this book trying to disprove it.
They use a lot of evolutionary biology and biological anthropology as source material, as well as some psychological studies, to support their points (though I have no training in those areas, so I can't speak to their sources' validity).
Their other major point of support is the sexual practice of the bonobo apes in central Africa. They're our closest cousins, genetically speaking, and their sexual practices differ significantly from chimps, baboons, and gibbons. For one thing, unlike nearly all other mammals (besides us!), bonobos don't confine their sexual activities to females' fertile times. Sex, for bonobos and for humans, seems to be as much about pleasure as about procreation.
The authors also use existing human societies that still practice non-monogamy: a group of people in China, a handful of forager societies in Africa, and, in an example of a matriarchal society (to disprove the notion that hierarchical patriarchy is natural), an indigenous group in Sumatra.
The writing in this book is a little on the salty side, which could be seen as positive or negative, I guess, depending on your perspective. I found it pretty amusing most of the time, but some other reviewers found the superior tone annoying or offensive.
A few criticisms: the book is organized into large sections that don't seem to have a lot to differentiate them from one another. Additionally, because of the nature of their arguments, of the book feels like literature review. I kept waiting to get out of the literature review-ish sections and into the meat of the book, but that never happened, so I was a little distracted. I should probably read it again so that I don't have that distraction in the back of my mind. Because they're evaluating a lot of existing research (some of it goes all the way back to the nineteenth century, or before), I should have expected the lion's share of the book to contain a literature review-ish quality.
Another small complaint is the tiny amount of space that the authors give to homosexuality. I found myself curious about their take on this, but all I got was a brief mention about bonding. I suppose that the authors would simply fold that kind of human relationship into all the others, which is to say that since human sexual relationships (in their hypothesis) *aren't* simply about procreation, that homosexuality makes complete sense. Just another example of humans enjoying each other. But it would have been nice to see that spelled out more clearly, since it does give validity to a gay equality argument.
I really enjoyed reading this book. I mostly enjoy anything that pokes holes in any dominant narrative: it's my contrarian nature. But I really do agree that my own society's unhealthy attitude toward sexuality causes strife and tension where it could be avoided. Whether or not one agrees that monogamy is an unnatural state, surely the authors' final point is the most important: the key to healthy relationships is to acknowledge what you personally need from your partner(s), and then to communicate those needs.(less)
I have to say I didn't really like this book very much. I enjoyed the premise, which is that our physical trappings can give insights into our inner l...moreI have to say I didn't really like this book very much. I enjoyed the premise, which is that our physical trappings can give insights into our inner lives. I agree with that, but I found the presentation in this book to be off-putting.
The author seems to have tried to appeal to a wider audience by couching his arguments and hypotheses in a pseudo how-to book. All of the chapters are framed in a "how-to-be-a-snoop" style. I would have preferred just a simple, straightforward discussion of his topic. The how-to approach seemed kind of chintzy, like he was trying too hard.
Because of the subject matter, I also sort of expected some reference to Pierre Bourdieu's 1984 work on a similar subject (Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste). That is, I was expecting Snoop to go beyond what our stuff says about our individual selves, and to dig into what our stuff says about where we belong in the larger society.
But instead of expanding his arguments to a social level, Snoop's author leaves them at the level of the individual, which I suppose is indicative of his training as a psychologist. It seems, though, that a larger perspective is needed, even considering his focus is the psychology of the individual. Bourdieu's research showed that our individual aesthetic preferences are heavily informed by our social and position, which implies that our very psychological makeup is at least partly determined by our social class. This seems an important point, even in a book about psychology.
I think that Snoop is an example of the reluctance of the different academic disciplines to communicate with each other. In my training as an anthropologist, I never read any psychology, and I bet that psychologists don't read much anthropological theory (as evidenced by Snoop's total lack of references to Bourdieu's book).
Anthropological pickiness aside, I didn't enjoy the presentation, as noted above, which is disappointing in what could have been a very interesting subject.(less)
In inimitable Bryson style, this surprisingly deep study of the home is wittily written, enjoyable, well-researched, and revels in weird details.
I ex...moreIn inimitable Bryson style, this surprisingly deep study of the home is wittily written, enjoyable, well-researched, and revels in weird details.
I expected this book to be a more or less straightforward history of things like stoves, beds, wallpaper, and drapes. And it is a history of those things, but it's a lot more. When I picked this book up at the ILL desk, I was surprised at how long the book is. Bryson uses the home and its trappings as a springboard to talk about the development of modern European/American life.
Each chapter is devoted to a history of one particular room, and how concepts that originate there developed through the years in Europe. For example, in the chapter on the nursery, Bryson explores the concept of childhood in Europe, the life that poor and middle-class Victorian children lived, and life expectancies in European history.
In the chapter on the bedroom, we get a history of beds, but a lot of detail about the terrifying and sometimes-nauseating history of health, sickness, and pre-modern surgery, because illness and death tended to happen in the bedroom too.
Anyway, I enjoyed this very much. Bryson seems to have my exact reading preferences on file somewhere: nerdy, appreciates a sense of humor, likes weird details, enjoys ironic juxtapositioning of details, likes history, curiosity is a plus.
Recommended if you like European history, weird details about history, Bill Bryson's writing style, or are interested in architectural history.(less)
I really enjoyed this book. From the title, you can probably guess that this book appealed to my slightly fatalistic fascination with end-of-the-world...moreI really enjoyed this book. From the title, you can probably guess that this book appealed to my slightly fatalistic fascination with end-of-the-world, apocalyptic scenarios. I love pondering the unavoidable and the inevitable. And this book presents, of all the environmental, weather, and disease-related possibilities for humans to kill themselves, absolutely the most unavoidable events, with absolutely the most fatalistic perspective. Which is why I loved it.
Each chapter in this book is devoted to a different way that the planet could be destroyed from outer space. And the title of the book isn’t overreaching at all: note that it isn’t called “These are the Ways the World *Could* End,” or “the Ways the World *Might* End”: it’s definitely how the world will end. The only question is when.
The first chapter is definitely the most gripping, since it’s the most likely to happen during the tenure of humans on Earth: asteroid and comet impacts. Not only is it extremely likely, it’s happened before: the asteroid that landed on Earth that killed the dinosaurs created a crater so large that you can really only see it from space. The really alarming part of asteroid/comet impact is that we could see it coming. The author points out that the comet Hale-Bopp, which passed us a few years ago, was twenty-five miles across, and, had it hit the Earth, “would have made the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs look like a wet firecracker.”
The rest of the chapters cover such fun and comforting subjects as annihilation by sun malfunction, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, hostile aliens, and the eventual death of the entire universe. I really enjoyed the way each chapter begins with a little scenario that describes what an observer on Earth would see as the event unfolded. (And, if the human observer wouldn’t have lasted very long, the scenario carries on without the benefit of that human perspective.)
The author, Philip Plait, is a witty and engaging writer who manages to make potentially dull astronomical details come to life. Some of my favorite moments in his way with language:
“For those of you clinging to hope, there is some life that might survive this stage of the Earth’s distant future [the death of our Sun]. Footnote: My suggestion: let it go.”
“The Sun is a mighty, vast, furiously seething cauldron of mass and energy. . . . Invisible forces writhe and wrestle for control on its surface, and when it loses its temper, the consequences can be dire and even lethal. That is what it means to be an ‘ordinary’ star.”
“Sure, black holes can kill us, and in a variety of interesting and gruesome ways. . . . Remember: when you stare into the abyss, sometimes it stares back at you.”
However, even his wit and facility with language couldn’t save me from getting bogged down in the black holes chapter. To be fair, black holes and quantum physics aren’t the easiest subjects for a lay reader to absorb in 75 pages or so. I know that he tried to keep things moving, but I ended up skimming a bit.
The last chapter is the most staggering, in terms of its scale and its topic, and, besides the chapter on alien invasion, is the one that left the greatest impression on me. It’s the end of everything in the universe. Plait explains how, over the almost unimaginable eons of time to come (he tries to explain just how long this will take, but it really boggles the mind), slowly everything will end. After all the stars have burned themselves out, after the galaxy itself has evaporated through interstellar collisions, after even neutron stars have burned out, after matter itself has reached the end of its existence (remember the “half-life” of atomic particles?), even black holes will disintegrate. At that point the Universe will be “an ethereally thin slurry” of particles, “dark, randomized, silent.”
Am I just crazy, or is it totally fascinating to consider this stuff? I guess I’m captivated by things that are completely out of my control. And with cosmological events, there’s not much to do but sit back and see what happens. Of course, by the time black holes manage to disintegrate, humans will be long gone, but still.
Recommended if you love apocalyptic scenarios, astronomy, or a wittily written combination of the two!(less)
This book is a series of short portraits of people in the modern world who work to maintain older traditions of food production, cooking, or preservat...moreThis book is a series of short portraits of people in the modern world who work to maintain older traditions of food production, cooking, or preservation.
Overall, the book was interesting, and I learned something about a variety of foods and old fashioned foodways. However, it was a little disappointing because of the inconsistent writing and the sometimes-forced choices for inclusion.
The author traveled around doing short interviews of people in the United States and a few European countries to collect short vignettes. For example, one chapter is about olive oil production in France, another is about sausage making in New Jersey, another is about cacao production in Ghana. This last example is one that felt forced, and is one of the main reasons I disliked the book. She was clearly under some pressure to include a couple of chapters on non-European foods, and so the two chapters that address the lily-whiteness of the rest of the book are the weakest in the lot.
The chapter on Ghanaian cacao, for example, uses as its center a young, white New Yorker who runs a chocolate-making business in Ghana and exports to Europe and the US. Another chapter, which is totally out of place in the book, is about a black woman in Arkansas who makes tamales and sells them from the corner store. Now, in a book about artisan cheese and butter, brewing beer, making whiskey, making olive oil, foraging, preserving sausage, raising bees for honey, and saving heirloom seeds, an old woman who makes tamales stands out like a sore thumb. I can't believe that the author couldn't find a non-white person in the whole of the US or Europe who participates in the artisan foods movement. (The author did find some Japanese Americans in California who use a traditional method of making dried persimmons, I'll give her that.)
Anyway, the book does include some interesting recipes at the end of each chapter that use ingredients discussed in the chapter itself. But overall, I was disappointed with the book. My summary: too scattered, too many examples. The book would have been stronger with fewer, but longer, chapters. And perhaps a more nuanced inclusion of non-white artisan foods would have helped.(less)
This book (by Andrea Broomfield, 2007), while not on the summer reading list (which I’m still slogging through, thank you very much), was a fortuitous...moreThis book (by Andrea Broomfield, 2007), while not on the summer reading list (which I’m still slogging through, thank you very much), was a fortuitous find in the university library. I was browsing through the cookbook section one day (this is what I do on my breaks) and my eye fell on this book. I figured it would be a sort of sensationalized look at all the weird stuff that people in England used to eat (Spotted Dick! Toad-in-the-Hole!), so I picked it up.
After the first few pages, though, I was totally hooked. It was one of those nonfiction page-turners, one that you can’t put down, even though you realize that you’re learning things about history and stuff.
This book is far more than a silly look at a few old timey recipes, though it does include some recipes. No, this book takes a look at human history (in England) and how changes in technology, industrialization, British politics, British colonialism, and immigration/emigration affected and changed the way that British people cooked and ate.
The book begins with a comparison of cookbooks, as well it should, for cookbooks (or really journals, as they were handwritten records of a particular household’s cooking habits) are one of the author’s primary sources. She (the author) contrasts two cookbooks, one written in the late 18th century, the other written throughout the early to mid-19th century. The inclusion or exclusion of ingredients, the directions for cooking, the tools and technology that each cookbook writer had available in her household–all of these illuminate the food and cooking situation for their own time and place.
The book attempts to give equal time to both middle-class and upper-class food habits, and the author mentions lower class eating, but doesn’t deal with it in as much depth.
One of the most fascinating chapters is one in which the author takes us through a typical day in the life of a middle-class Victorian household. Broomfield laid the ground work for talking about class in the Victorian era, and described this family as a first generation middle-class family, and therefore not terribly well-off. The workday began around 5 a.m. for their maid-of-all-work, and ended with an adults-only dinner late in the evening. Most of the day was devoted to planning, shopping for, preparing, serving, or washing up from meals. The incredible amount of work required to make this family fit into the expectations of a middle-class household is staggering.
Another interesting chapter focused on the shift (among the upper classes) from serving formal dinners in the French style to serving these dinners in the Russian style (basically a difference in servant deployment and table arrangement). Broomfield partially attributes this shift to changing attitudes toward the French in the post-Napoleonic era, but more important was a value shift in England at the time. See, the 18th century’s fancy meal, served French style, involved a more informal approach to serving, often with dishes of food placed on the table, and the meat carved by the host at the head. As dining Russian style came into favor, the upper classes in Victorian England began to favor more elaborate and formal dinners, with each course served individually by servants.
Other chapters in the book deal with that confusing meal known as tea and with English breakfasts. Did you know that a Victorian housewife’s ability to make the perfect slice of toast was a major factor in whether she was a successful housekeeper? And apparently toast was pretty complicated to make in the pre-toaster era.
Overall, a very good and informative book, especially if you like history, and especially revisionist-type histories, ones exploring domestic or secondary historical narratives. Recommended! (less)
For a book that starts with an ugly triple murder, this book is remarkably sweet and touching. I really enjoyed Bod, the main character, and his guard...moreFor a book that starts with an ugly triple murder, this book is remarkably sweet and touching. I really enjoyed Bod, the main character, and his guardian Silas. But all of the ghost characters are wonderful.
I read this book in a matter of days, because of its page-turning nature. Overall, the story wasn't quite as compelling as the story of the first book...moreI read this book in a matter of days, because of its page-turning nature. Overall, the story wasn't quite as compelling as the story of the first book. I am still fascinated by the book's heroine, though, as everyone else seems to be.
Without giving too much away, let me say that the mystery in the second book is less complex and layered than the first story. It's a fun ride, of course, with lots of nasty people threatening our hero and heroine, but I didn't think it was nearly as interesting.
Lisbeth Salander's story is fleshed out a bit more in the second novel of the series, and makes her a less mysterious heroine, but no less interesting.
I thought that the end of the first book was slightly abrupt, but in a brave kind of way. The second book, however, ended so sharply that it was obvious that another book was intended to follow. I found that to be a bit irritating, almost as though the author took for granted that we'd be interested enough to read a third book. (I am going to read the third, of course, but I disliked the assumption.)(less)
Well. When I was about ten years old, I loved this book. I'm sure I read it ten or twelve times. The allure of reading about fresh mountain breezes wh...moreWell. When I was about ten years old, I loved this book. I'm sure I read it ten or twelve times. The allure of reading about fresh mountain breezes when my own location was 105 F in the summers was powerful. I loved how Heidi stuck it to grouchy old Rottenmeier.
But I made the mistake of going back to it as an adult last year. Ugh! It had turned into a thinly disguised morality play, with idealized and romanticized visions of rural life. The author obviously had an axe to grind on several hot button topics of the day, including the urban/rural divide, how children should be raised, and the place of religion in daily life, to name a few.
I should learn my lesson here and stop rereading childhood books at this jaded old age of 33.(less)
I really enjoyed this book a lot, even though my high school experience with chemistry left something (many things) to be desired.
This book explores,...moreI really enjoyed this book a lot, even though my high school experience with chemistry left something (many things) to be desired.
This book explores, as the title admirably suggests, the history of the periodic table of the elements. The author starts with the evolution of the periodic table itself, a history about which I knew absolutely nothing. He then dives into the elements themselves, discussing their "discoveries," the scientists who discovered them, and even some of the elements' fascinating properties (whence comes the "disappearing spoon" part of the title).
I had expected a sort of systematic tour through the periodic table, starting with hydrogen and ending in the unpronounceable and mysterious inhabitants of the elemental kids' table at the bottom of the chart. However, that's not the m.o. here, though the organization of the book was never totally clear to me.
My only real complaint was that Sam Kean tried too hard to be Bill Bryson. That is, Kean seemed to bounce between a fairly straightforward historical tone, and the slightly sardonic tone of Bill Bryson's non fiction, which is very effective when done just right. But it seems a bit out of place when it appears in Kean's book, and I'm not sure but I suspect it's because Kean's tone is otherwise pretty straight, only occasionally veering into humor. Whatever the reason, sometimes the sardonic tone grated. I sort of found myself wishing Bryson had written this book.
But I learned a lot and I definitely recommend this book for anyone who enjoys nonfiction and who thought chemistry class was boring.(less)