I bought this book when I was fifteen and needed a copy for a history essay prize I was entering. My essay's title: 'Hitler was a weak dictator'. Disc...moreI bought this book when I was fifteen and needed a copy for a history essay prize I was entering. My essay's title: 'Hitler was a weak dictator'. Discuss. I didn't go very far with the essay, but still have the book. I asked my dad to come up with me to the desk at the bookshop because I thought I might be too young to buy it on my own. As it turns out there was no sort of policy on this, but it's an interesting thought. Should we apply age limits to books like we do with films and video games? Should we be hiding away ideas like Hitler's or is that just playing into the persecution complexes often associated with people who hold these ideas?
Anyway, the actual book review... Honestly, what really strikes me is that "Mein Kampf" is so poorly written. How could anyone ever take its author seriously with such a ridiculously irrational work to his name, not even factoring in the disgusting bigotry? (Oh, right, all those reasons that I probably should have covered in that essay.) Bigotry is obviously inherently illogical, but you'd think something he'd said would make some kind of sense in some twisted logic system. Nope.
There isn't much else to say, really. Read this if you're curious to the degree of masochism and want to get a little further inside the mind of a truly awful person. You can have my copy if you like!(less)
The author: Ruby Wax, comedian, writer and "poster girl for mental illness in the UK", according to her autho...moreThe book:Sane New World: Taming the Mind
The author: Ruby Wax, comedian, writer and "poster girl for mental illness in the UK", according to her author blurb. She also has a Masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy.
The subject: A combination of Wax's personal experiences, information about mental illness and the brain more generally and mindfulness/CBT exercises, with a heavy dose of humour.
Why I chose it: I like hearing different people's perspectives on mental illness, particularly when they have experienced it themselves.
The rating: Two and a half out of five stars
What I thought of it: This book was a bit disappointing. I'm a big believer in both using humour to talk about mental illness and looking at the biology behind it, but I'm not sure if Ruby Wax did how I think it should be done. All the different elements just add up to a weird mix of potentially interesting things.
First, the humour. I found some of it to be quite mean-spirited, which I don't think is the point of using humour to deal with things at all. I'm not sure I'd want Wax to be my therapist. (I do have to credit her, though, for the term "musturbation", meaning must/should/ought statements.) Second, the "science bit", and something a bit less subjective. One thing that really stood out to me was the complete lack of a references section or even a list of recommended books. On page 59 she gives a whole list of facts, which is fine, except there are no citations whatsoever. This would be fine if she were just writing her story and opinions, but a selling point of the book is her qualification and resulting expertise, so it just seems a bit off.
About discrimination against people with mental health conditions in the workplace she says, "it should be against the law, just as it is with someone physically disabled". Apparently she didn't get taught the Disability Discrimination Act at Oxford, which is rather worrying if that course is all you need to become a therapist. I know it's harder to make claims for mental rather than physical impairments, but that's not the same as not being protected by the law.
There are a ton of exercises in the final part of the book, which I think could be useful, though I still feel they've been done better elsewhere, in the Overcoming series for example. Wax's book is aiming for something very different to that series, of course, but again, her expertise is meant to be a key part of this book.
I have another gripe with this book, or more accurately famous people talking about medical intervention in general. Often they talk about therapy as something you can just go and do, without considering the fact that the majority of people reading will be relying on the NHS to put them on a waiting list for months resulting in a short course of therapy, and that staying in a hospital isn't necessarily going to result in comfortable recuperation. It really annoys me because these are the people in more of a position to change things, but they just ignore so many people's experiences.
I would recommend this book if you're interested in mental health or are a fan of Ruby Wax, but I definitely wouldn't make it your first or only port of call for information. It's a moderately enjoyable read, but not quite good enough at any of the individual parts to be a must.
Just one more thing:Here is Wax's TED talk, "What's so funny about mental illness?", which is quite interesting. She suits this format more, I think.(less)
Book 04/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog. (I apologise if this review is a little bland and lacking in insight - I didn't want to reveal th...moreBook 04/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog. (I apologise if this review is a little bland and lacking in insight - I didn't want to reveal the "message" before potential readers had a chance to discover it themselves.)
It is difficult to avoid comparing Paper Towns (John Green's third novel) to Looking for Alaska (his first novel, which I read and reviewed earlier this year). It is in comparison between the two books (and his second, An Abundance of Katherines, to an extent) that an unfortunate criticism of his novels also arises - that they are essentially the same story retold with a few details changed. This is a valid criticism, but don't let it put you off picking any of them up. The devil is in the details.
Here's the plot of Paper Towns in short: our protagonist, Quentin Jacobsen (or Q for short), is in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman. He is the well-adjusted son of therapists who "[likes] being bored" and has his boring future mapped out; she is a mystery wrapped in an enigma who enjoys breaking or entering. (Note how I didn't say "and".) We are also introduced to their friends, including an obsessive editor of a Wikipedia cipher called the Omnictionary (now a real website courtesy of some enterprising Nerdfighters) and another who refers to all girls and women (even his own mother) as "honeybunnies". Since they made a gruesome discovery together at the age of nine, Q and Margo have lived largely separate lives, despite being next-door neighbours and attending the same school. That is, until just before their high school graduation, when Margo knocks at Q's window and takes him on a wild night of adventures - only to disappear the next day, leading Q to search far and wide for the real Margo.
Even though the teens in Green's books are conspicuously smart, there is no sense when reading them that this is a grown man writing as a teenage boy. It must be part of the reason he has so many teenage fans - young people appreciate being painted as, y'know, people. The dialogue is also lightly peppered with "likes" - enough to get a natural feel. (This isn't just dialogue, this is lightly peppered natural-feeling M&S dialogue.)
Q's descriptions of Margo have a definite whiff of teenage boy hyperbole to them. (That's the whiff that isn't Lynx body spray; consider that "burn" an asthmatic's revenge for seven years at a mixed-gender secondary school.) It's fitting, considering he's been in love with the girl for half their lives. If nothing else they will make you cringe on his behalf and your younger self's - I'm sure we've all considered at least a few people "the most fantastically gorgeous creature that God had ever created". Well, unless you're an amoeba like me. (That dialogue actually ends up illustrating the main point of the book - I won't reveal it, but I am grateful to Green for writing a book that articulates the idea so well.)
As with Looking for Alaska, there are plenty of excellent quotes to take away - plus music and book recommendations to boot. Where "Looking for Alaska" had religion, "Paper Towns" has literature (and music to an extent - one of the epigraphs is a Mountain Goats lyric and Green even made a playlist for the book). There are a lot of fun details to discover, including what a "paper town" actually is. There are also *whispers* naughty words - fewer than you'd hear in the average secondary school playground, but still grounds for some people to get all het up. Incidentally, one of the "concerned citizens" who tried to get Looking for Alaska banned spouted this spectacularly offensive and point-missing gem to defend his not having actually read the book: "you don't have to have cancer to diagnose cancer". Book-banners are the strangest of creatures.
You may have to suspend your disbelief a bit for some of the plot twists, not to mention the fact that neither of Q's therapist parents have noticed their son's obsession with a girl he, by his own admission, barely knows. Also, my issues with Green's ableist language still stand - it's actually worse in this than in Looking for Alaska. Don't offer the "but they are teenagers!" rebuttal - there's an excellent take-down of homophobic language by one of the main characters, so I don't see why there were equally offensive terms used elsewhere. It's incredibly jarring, and I hope his more recent novels don't share this trait.
Having said that, Paper Towns is definitely worth a read. My advice is to let it "sink in" after you read it; check out its TV Tropes page and if your copy has discussion questions at the end as mine does, have a read and a ponder. It is telling that many of my criticisms (not liking Margo's character, being baffled by Q's obsession, Margo being little more than a plot device) vanished when I had a proper think about the book and its message. This book demands ponderation - I am glad I gave it what it wanted, and I am glad that there is young adult literature being published that demands such things of its readers.(less)
Book 6/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, an...moreBook 6/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
The author: Anne Fadiman — writer, essayist and editor. She is also the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale University.
The subject: The tragic story of Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl living in the United States whose battle with severe epilepsy was made all the more difficult by the colossal cultural divide between her parents and her doctors.
Why I chose it: I noticed this while browsing the social sciences section (horror of horrors!) in the Central Library at university. I think the title was what caught my attention — it is a translation of the Hmong term for epilepsy — then obviously the story sounded too interesting to pass up.
The rating: Five stars out of five
What I thought of it: This book combines two of the things I most love reading about -- human stories and different cultures. Its chapters alternate between Lia's harrowing story and descriptions of various aspects of the Hmong culture, which I'd known about in name only previously. Some may argue that this structure takes you out of the story, and certainly it could be done poorly, but in the case of "The Spirit Catches You..." I think it was most appropriate. You need that extra cultural knowledge for a story like this, and learning gradually as the story unfolds seems to me the best way to go.
This book, as well as being a fascinating cultural study, has a great deal of importance to say about the medical profession and how it approaches "the other". Essentially, despite trying as hard as they could and really doing all they could, the doctors could have done more to ensure Lia didn't become as ill as she did. Despite this, you can't help but feel frustrated at how Lia's parents act even if they have a reason for it. Is it always the sole responsibility of doctors to educate their patients or does the patient have to put some work in too? Answering that rhetorical question myself: the patient does have responsibility to learn and follow instructions, but the different levels of barriers that people face has to be factored in, and Lia's parents faced incredible barriers. If your patient can't even understand that you need to give a child a certain type of medicine at a certain time for a certain period, you should probably be the one to help get the assistance they need. But then, what happens when they become hostile? Can you force medical care on someone without their consent? This book makes you face so many ethical dilemmas, which is probably why it's required reading for a lot of medical students. (There's also a Reader's Guide at the back of this edition with questions to consider.)
Overall, I am so glad that I picked up this book. It truly illustrates the dangers of any powerful group making decisions on behalf of a marginalised group, entirely to the marginalised group's exclusion. There are so many issues you just don't consider unless you're a part of that group, or you've done a lot of work to learn from and about them. Things might have ended up differently for Lia if the medical profession had learned about how Hmong society works and tailor their approach accordingly. This book would be an excellent read for anyone who finds themselves in either of these positions -- so, basically, everyone ever. (Can you tell I really liked it?) I will definitely be seeking out more books like it.
Just one more thing: Sadly Lia passed away in 2012, though this was after living in a persistive vegetative state for twenty-six years while being cared for by her parents. Thankfully, since the events of this book, there have been great leaps in narrowing the cultural divide between the Hmong people and the doctors at Mercy Medical Center Merced. Here is one article explaining how shamans work alongside doctors to offer culturally relevant treatment to Hmong patients. It's just a shame that Lia's story turned out so badly when it clearly wasn't inevitable. (less)
Book 01/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog. [It was so difficult to make this review spoiler-free, but I think I've managed it, so no need to...moreBook 01/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog. [It was so difficult to make this review spoiler-free, but I think I've managed it, so no need to worry.]
Something gives me the feeling that "Looking for Alaska" might be some degree of autobiographical. Don't know what on earth gives me that idea, it's not like John Green grew up in Florida and attended a boarding school in Ala- oh. Well. According to Green himself, the book is entirely fictional - as far as a novel written by a human and set in the world with which we're most familiar can be, I suppose. That's fair enough by me.
This is only my second Green read (after An Abundance of Katherines). I'm not one of those Nerdfighters that's devoured everything he's ever scribbled like so many defenseless Peeps - I'm only really a Nerdfighter at all in the loosest sense. However, I'm starting to sense a pattern in his protagonists. Can a trend of two even be called a pattern? Extrapolation from such a small dataset would be foolish since technically joining any two points makes a straight line, unless we're working in non-Euclidean geometry, which all things considered is a likely possibility and I've lost my train of thought.
Green's protagonists are quirky and smart yet flawed guys, in love with quirky and smart yet flawed girls, orbited by a system of even quirkier and smarter friends (though their flaws probably aren't worse - if they were then I guess they'd be the protagonists). I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm just pointing it out. You could just as easily accuse Tolstoy of writing about far too many Russians, or chide Agatha Christie for all those damn murders. (In her books, I mean.) The characters in Green's books are interesting enough, the plots engaging enough, the factlets peppered about regularly enough, the ideas explored thought-provokingly enough, for the existence of a possible "formula" to not matter. It was probably pointless even mentioning it, but, y'know. Word count.
The plot in short: Miles Halter, a sixteen-year-old who collects famous people's last words, moves from his safe but lonely life in Florida to a boarding school in Alabama. He seeks "The Great Perhaps" that François Rabelais alluded to with his final earthly breath. Here he meets a whole host of people, including Alaska Young - an intelligent and sexy but troubled girl. He falls in love with Alaska, but she's a dangerous girl to love, which Miles discovers when a shocking event tears apart his new world.
"Looking for Alaska" seems to me to be primarily a book exploring religion and its applications to our own lives and thoughts. Much of the book centres around Miles's lessons with Dr Hyde, a no-nonsense religious studies teacher who opens Miles's mind to considering the world through the lens of religion and philosophy. Green is clearly an admirer of teachers, as I am - we've all had those educators that change the way we look at the world. I hated my own religious studies lessons at school because they were delivered somewhat by rote, but this book has made me want to explore it in-depth. I suppose this means Green himself would be a good teacher, which won't be surprising if you watch his Youtube videos. The way the chapters are numbered - "X Days Before/After" that aforementioned shocking event - brings to mind things like how dates can be measured in relation to an event such as the birth of Jesus or the Hijra of Muhammad. Indeed, Miles's interest in last words rather than the people who said them seems like the ultimate example of measuring time in terms of its relation to a single event - in this case, that event bisecting life and death.
Throughout the book Miles wrestles with all sorts of big questions, of the sort that many teens (and grown-ups like me - oh god, I'm so old) will already be considering themselves. Green is eminently quotable as well, which is a trait I love in a person. Here's just one from the 232 available on the Goodreads quote page for this book: “I still think that maybe the "afterlife" is just something we made up to ease the pain of loss, to make our time in the labyrinth bearable. Maybe we are just matter, and matter gets recycled”. I like how he doesn't sugarcoat the teenage experience - though Miles does sometimes seem a little intellectually mature, he's just as interested in the other kind of "maturity" as most teenage boys. By which I mean: yep, there's a sex scene. All the other angst that goes hand in hand with the fun of hormones is present too. (Though considering the fact I spent my formative years reading novels I'm probably not qualified to comment on "the teenage experience" as if I'm a character in "Skins".)
On a more negative note, I don't really like Green's use of ableist language like "lame" and how he pokes a bit of fun of the deaf-and-blind school. I'm just too attuned to that sort of thing these days to let it pass. (I also have grandparents who are profoundly deaf; one is also partially sighted. I remember when I was quite small taking exception to the use of the term "deaf and dumb" in one of my story books.) However, it's still possible to enjoy media with problematic elements, as I enjoyed "Looking for Alaska". You just have to be careful. Another thing to be careful about is the presence of a few particularly visceral descriptions of grief and death, which hit me quite hard because of similar experiences and thoughts I've had personally. I can't be clearer than that without giving away the big plot twist - if you're worried then just give it a quick Google. It won't ruin the book really - I knew the twist before reading and I still got a great deal out of it. Including having the song "Blake Says" by Amanda Palmer in my head for at least a month.
So, in closing, should you read "Looking for Alaska"? In the last words of Alice B. Toklas: "Yes".(less)
I've tried to like Lucy Knisley's work; really, I have. My main issue has always been that, while she often states that she's going to explore an concept and make meaningful observations, she rarely delivers. For example, her Kickstarter-funded Here at Hogwarts comic promised to be "about our experience [going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park], and how Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon has shaped fan society, British/American consumerism, literature and our own lives", but turned out to be more of a "then I did this then I did that oh and we discussed this important issue but I'm just going to mention the fact we did and not give any details YAY BUYING STUFF" affair. I know it's a travelogue, not an academic paper, but a little substance - particularly if it's a promise you exchanged for seven thousand dollars' worth of pre-orders that paid for a glorified holiday - never goes amiss!
Sadly French Milk doesn't depart from this disappointing pattern. It's a travelogue of Knisley's month in Paris with her mother, a joint twenty-second/fiftieth birthday present, predominantly focusing on the food she ate. While the back cover promises a great exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, the challenges of young adulthood and French culture, the reality is far more shallow, and actually quite distasteful at points. I do wonder if some of the reviewers only read the cheesy (pun unintended) final page, which makes the rest out to be far more than what it is.
The book started annoying me on the very first page with this gem: "I started smoking to prepare for smoky Parisian cafés". Maybe this is the bitterness of an asthmatic who's had one too many trips into town spoiled by people blowing cigarette smoke in her face speaking, but it made me take an instant dislike to her. You can take up smoking, but you can't take a basic French course?
She then goes from complaining about being "too poor" to afford a Vespa to showing off her Christmas presents, including a new DSLR camera - a "little present" (emphasis mine) because of the holiday. What planet was she living on? I understand that if you can afford these things then there's no reason you shouldn't, but it makes me so angry when rich people fail to acknowledge their privilege, are oblivious to it or, even worse, pretend that it doesn't exist or that their successes are nothing to do with being lucky. I know enough people like that in real life, thanks!
I make an effort not to dismiss anyone's troubles as whining, since I know depression can manifest itself as such, but it's hard not to in this book's case. Reading about the execution of Saddam Hussein she comments, "the world news is too harsh in its stark intrusion on our Parisian holiday", then says some especially nice cookies mean "humanity [has been] redeemed". Curious how that works when a free, all-expenses-paid holiday to Paris didn't make her stop whining about wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, not fitting into shoes causes a strop and the Moulin Rouge not living up to her expectations made her "depressed" - I hate when that word is trivialised by people who think their non-problems are comparable to serious mental illness.
Her air of superiority is pretty obnoxious too, whether she's looking down on "the idiots at my school" or being "shocked by how ugly and huge Americans can be". She seems to put herself in a category above mere tourists, which is odd considering how she doesn't really explore beyond the tourist attractions, interact with Parisians or even bother to learn French. This is illustrated by an encounter with a group of American students leads her to wrinkle her nose at their "Pringles, Oreos and Seventeen magazines", their "talking loudly" and "their conversation [...] full of 'likes'" (because students living abroad should never enjoy home comforts... or talk). Even worse is an incident on the plane home: Knisley and her mother were asked to stop watching a DVD without headphones because people were trying to sleep, and responded by having a conversation loud enough to be annoying. She actually says, "take that, 'other passengers'"! Interesting how it was distasteful when those American students were doing the same in a much less rude fashion. Also, if interviews with her are anything to go by, she isn't innocent of crimes against "like".
I'm only a little younger than Knisley was when she took her trip, so any excuses regarding her age don't fly by me. It has been said that I'm a bit too mature for my age, but I do think Knisley was especially immature for hers. She mentioned watching "Arrested Development" a few times, which is nothing if not apt. Treating youth as a get-out-of-jail-free card with regards to published works is something that irritates me anyway - if a book is published, it should be held to the same standards regardless of the author's age. Age especially shouldn't be cited to absolve a grown woman of her responsibility to not act like a brat.
There were a few other examples of her immaturity. Her weak defence of eating foie gras, along the lines of "being force-fed to death is a relatively pleasant way to go", irritated me quite a bit. If you're going to do something that's morally questionable, at least own that decision without attempting to spin it into kindness via inaccuracies. (Poor logic is another pet hate of mine.) She mentions her favourite painting, Courbet's very-NSFW "L'Origine du monde", but doesn't give any reasons why she likes it beyond a "tee hee" - she even looks for it in the wrong museum at first. For all her posturing about Oscar Wilde being a huge inspiration, she doesn't really talk about why she admires him so much (she also misquotes Wilde's last words). Her shallow response to seeing the film "Marie Antoinette" contrasts with the disapproving French people sharing the cinema with her: "it did what I wanted it to do: be pretty, and fuel my imagination of what it might have been like at Versailles at that time". Again this response wasn't explored at all - I can instantly see a comparison with her opinions about Paris in general. There was very little exploration of the difference between the real Paris and the idealised, Americanised version - except, that is, where it could be complained about. Most of the book is spent buying stuff, which made her angst over money feel disingenuous - what happened to being too poor to afford a Vespa?!
Another thing: for saying Knisley has degrees in cartooning, she's not especially good at it. I only counted one especially nice picture. The food pictures in particular are often indistinguishable without a label and her cartoon self looks nothing like her in real life. The writing isn't very compelling either. It may just be me, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my favourite comics artists don't have degrees in any form of art. I guess it ties in with my concerns about creative writing courses - while the feedback, deadlines, prompts and connections are obviously valuable, it won't turn a mediocre writer into a great one (I have first-hand experience of this), and an aspiring writer may be better served by a course that trains them to think in a way that transcends their own work (I can be pretentious too!).
There wasn't much to recommend this book. At least one huge bonus of this being traditionally published was that it didn't contain quite as many spelling mistakes as Knisley's work usually does - I understand some people have difficulty with that, but that's why you get a more orthographically-inclined friend to look over important documents before you put them online or sell them to people.
I spent most of French Milk spotting opportunities for depth and growth and being disappointed when it didn't surface. I would have liked some actual exploration of their relationship (apparently the book's title is a reference to mother's milk, another empty affirmation), as well as some examination of her obvious privileges beyond blaming "feeling" like a spoiled brat on being an only child. Even a bit of Paris-related musing beyond "ooh pretty", "nom nom nom" and "not all Frenchmen seem very nice" (the last being a direct quote) would have sufficed. It didn't even make me want to crave French food or a trip to Paris. I don't really think the book's quality merits the opportunities it was given: Knisley's mother being able to publish her book, making it easier to pass onto bigger publishing houses - not when there are more talented cartoonists and story-tellers out there.
It must be fun having other people pay for your holidays and then getting paid to document them (actually, I can vouch for that, having received £100 for an article on my EUCYS prize trip to CERN!), but it does not necessarily a good book make, particularly when the author has some serious growing up to do. Knisley's Twitter feed tells me she's just returned from a trip to Tanzania and is working on a travelogue (she's also currently in South Korea and went on a cruise earlier this year). I hope to goodness she's done a better job of it this time and has gained a little more self-awareness in the years since French Milk was created. This is one diary that would have benefited from staying locked.(less)
Book 9/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Weather Book: Why it Happens and Where it Comes From
The author: Diana Craig,...moreBook 9/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Weather Book: Why it Happens and Where it Comes From
The author: Diana Craig, on whom I can't really find any information with which to populate this section.
The subject: Weather! Weather! Irritating chummy asides! Some more weather!
Why I chose it: Because weather, because British.
The rating: One and a half stars out of five (rounded up because I'm feeling generous)
What I thought of it: Even though I find it very interesting in theory, and periodically wonder whether I should apply for a job in the Met Office after graduation, I don't know as much as I'd like to about the weather. That's why I picked up this book — or, at least, why I downloaded it from my home county's library eBook service. Sadly it didn't quite live up to my expectations. So now you know.
...Yes, that was a reference to one of my big problems with this book. The phrase "So now you know" only appears twice in the book, but that is two times too many. (It also reminds me of this Mitchell and Webb sketch, which is unfortunate.) It is just one example of one of this book's major issues. I think humour and colloquial language are important in science communication, but you have to use them right. This does not mean bombarding your reader with puns every paragraph or so (seriously, almost every paragraph is its own section, and each one has a punny title). I love puns. I use puns all the time. Diana Craig belongs in a punitentiary. (And the references to "impressing your friends and family". Stop it.)
The other major issue is that it isn't all that informative. Sure, there's lots of information, but it's so disjointed and poorly organised that the information becomes difficult to digest properly. It's as if someone wrote down, word for word, a lecture from a scatterbrained professor with a propensity for trying to make science FUN!!1! I did learn some interesting facts at least. Perhaps this book would work if it were reworked for children, with the tidbits of information presented colourfully on the pages with lots of pictures.
Did I mention, though, how many "facts" need to be taken with a positively hypertensive pinch of salt? For example, there's this quote, which can be found on page 114 of the paperback version:
The air in ["persistent, noisy, seasonal winds"] is also positively charged which is not conducive to an upbeat mood (sic). We respond much better to negative ions — atoms or molecules with a negative electrical charge — which explains why we usually feel better after a heavy downpour when the air is full of negative ions.
If you want to learn about the weather in any sort of sensible way, this is not the book to pick up. As another reviewer mentioned, the bibliography gives a list of primers that Craig seems to have simply rewritten, so I'll probably pick up one of those in future instead.
Just one more thing: The old cliché about not judging a book by its cover seems to have, in recent years, spawned a sort of counter-cliché wherein people state that they do indeed judge books by their covers (quelle horreur!). Since I don't buy physical books very often any more and don't prize them as objects as much as I used to, this isn't such a big thing with me any more. However, I just have to say that this book is such a waste of a stylish cover!(less)
The subject: Exactly what it says on the tin... errr, cover!
Why I chose it: I was recentl...moreThe book:Managing PCOS For Dummies
The author: Gaynor Bussell
The subject: Exactly what it says on the tin... errr, cover!
Why I chose it: I was recently diagnosed with polycystic ovaries and wanted to know how to manage the symptoms and how best to incorporate a weight loss regime. I chose a "For Dummies" book because I trust the brand and tend to like how they do things.
The rating: Three and a half out of five stars
What I thought of it: I do like the "For Dummies" series, even if I don't like the word "dummy" because it's a pejorative word for people who can't speak (like my late grandparents -- even when I was very little I noticed it in books and didn't like it). Nevertheless, their books tend to be easy to follow with just the right amount of humour for me. This book was no exception.
Being diagnosed with an incurable illness that, while not directly life-threatening, interferes significantly with your life and comfort can be a bit worrying, even though it at least provides you with something to treat. For PCOS, the main method of treatments are diet and exercise in order to ensure stable blood sugar and lose weight. The bulk of the book concerns diet, specifically the low GI diet because that. There are plenty of recipes, though I would have preferred a longer list of foods and their GI contents. There's also information about exercise and other way to keep healthy, including mentally. (For those of you trying to conceive, there's a chapter on that too, though I admit I skimmed over it.)
I actually really liked the section called "The Part of Tens", which had chapters going over ten symptoms you can take action on, ten rules for spotting a bad diet, ten reasons to eat low GI, ten PCOS superfoods and ten places to find further support (UK-specific and online). I also like the cheat sheet at the start, because I'm lazy like that.
If you've been diagnosed with PCOS and want to learn more about what it is and how to control it, this is a great place to start.
Just one more thing: This is a bit random, but I found it rather amusing. While I'm not planning on having children for a number of very sensible reasons, I do have an idea of what I might name them. My top name for a girl is Verity.
By the way, PCOS affects fertility. Guess what the name of the top PCOS charity in the UK is? Yup.(less)
The author: Yuki Suetsugu (trans. Stuart Varnam-Atkin and Yoko Toyozaki)
The subject: Chihaya and her frien...moreThe book:Chihayafuru #1 (bilingual edition)
The author: Yuki Suetsugu (trans. Stuart Varnam-Atkin and Yoko Toyozaki)
The subject: Chihaya and her friends take part in a card game called karuta and strive to become champions.
Why I chose it: I didn't, actually; my Japanese penfriend sent it to me on her recommendation.
The rating: Four out of five stars
What I thought of it: This is the first manga I've read; I hope it won't be the last. The premise might sound quite dull – a story about some kids playing a competitive poetry-themed card game?! – but it's actually very compelling. It makes me want to play karuta at the very least.
The characters are painted well, in such a way that you care about them and their journey (at the risk of sounding like an "X Factor" contestant). While there are hints that romance might be on the cards (pun stumbled across unintentionally, but thoroughly enjoyed) in future volumes, this is more a story about friends, discovering and chasing your own goals in life and how our priorities change as we grow older, which makes it a refreshing change from a lot of Western YA literature. The art and composition are also good and really complement and enhance the story. Most of all, though, I never imagined I'd get so engrossed in reading an account of a card game competition – it was as if I were watching a sporting event.
I definitely recommend this, though I'm not sure exactly how to categorise it in order to recommend it to a specific type of person. I suppose it's a coming of age story at its heart. I haven't read any further in the series yet so don't know if that's going to be a disappointment, but hopefully it won't.
Just one more thing: At the end of this edition are translations of fifty of the one hundred poems used in karuta. Here is my favourite one, number 35:
With people you can never tell, Will they have changed when next we meet? But here in my dear old home at least, The plums still smell as sweet.
The author: Octavia E. Butler, American science fiction writer
The subject: Dana, a black woman in 1970s Los Angeles, is transported b...moreThe book:Kindred
The author: Octavia E. Butler, American science fiction writer
The subject: Dana, a black woman in 1970s Los Angeles, is transported back to the antebellum South, seemingly without reason. The story follows her as she alternates between these two worlds, learning to survive in a past that is openly hostile to her as she is repeatedly compelled to save Rufus, a young boy who grows up to be a man deeply embedded in that hostile past.
Why I chose it: I'd heard Octavia Butler is pretty cool and happened across this book while in the sci fi library, so decided to take it out.
The rating: Four and a half out of five stars
What I thought of it: This book was good. Really, seriously good. It was also really, seriously grim. These things are, of course, not mutually exclusive.
This book certainly isn't your standard time travel story. It does have the common "person must go back in time to ensure they are born" trope, but the way it is treated here is utterly original and powerful. Dana, the main character, ends up in the early 19th century, where black people are still enslaved. She must save Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, from danger at various points in his life, eventually facilitating the awful events that lead to Rufus being her distant relative.
The characters in this book were especially well painted. I really like how nuanced their actions were. You didn't just get the stereotypes, but nor were the brutalities of slavery downplayed. The clash between Dana's time and Rufus's time was also interestingly explored, particularly via Dana's (white) husband Kevin, who eventually joins her on her journeys and reacts in a somewhat disappointing, though understandable, way.
Even when the book got very dark (and, it must be noted, potentially triggering in terms of physical and sexual violence, not to mention the habitual appearance of the n-word) I just couldn't stop reading it. I needed to find out what was going to happen to all these people. Some aspects of the ending weren't a surprise, but in a way the inevitability just made the book even more compelling, because I needed to find out how Dana will handle the terrible reality of this new, old world.
When I read the blurb I did wonder where the science fiction would come in, besides the presence of time travel. If you are looking for that element -- in other words, the how and the why of Dana's time travelling -- you will be disappointed. However, I actually didn't really notice this absence because I was so engrossed in the story.
All in all, I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a compelling story, particularly one flavoured with history and social issues. I will certainly be checking out more of Butler's books. In fact, besides the obvious sadness of her dying young (at the age of 58 in 2006), it's sad that there won't be any more of them to explore.
I was recently elected to be next year's Disabilities Officer at my university, meaning I will be engaging with and representing disabled students in...moreI was recently elected to be next year's Disabilities Officer at my university, meaning I will be engaging with and representing disabled students in order to support their needs. Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to familiarise myself with as much information about disability as possible, and on a trip to the library this book just leapt out at me. The Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA) is just as important and fundamental as it sounds; it defines disability and goes on to explain the legal entitlements of disabled people. This book explains the DDA, paying particular attention to its implications for places of further and higher education.
I don't have much to say in terms of a "proper" review, except that whoever wrote this document obviously values clear, concise communication. It covers many different angles and case studies are included to illustrate key points. The book gets the balance right between talking about the DDA as it is and applying it to the subject at hand. If you are involved in further or higher education in the UK and have any contact whatsoever with disabled people, I'd consider it an essential read. Aside from using it for its information, I will probably also take note from its skillful translation of "legalese" into plain English. In case your library doesn't stock it, or if you prefer looking at things on the computer, it is also available for free online.
If you still want "just one more thing", this is probably my favourite part of the book/Act:
It is now easier for a disabled person to prove they have experienced discrimination. Where a disabled person has proved that they are protected by the Act and that there is a prima facie case for discrimination, the burden of proof then falls to the education institution to prove that they have not acted in a discriminatory way, rather than on the disabled person to prove the discrimination.
The book:Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour
The author: Hsiao-Hung Pai, investigative journalist and writer; she...moreThe book:Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour
The author: Hsiao-Hung Pai, investigative journalist and writer; she is originally from Taiwan, but came to the UK to study in 1991.
The subject: The exploitation of Chinese migrant workers in Britain revealed by an undercover journalist who works alongside them and exposes the injustice of their treatment.
Why I chose it: I watched Pai's documentary Sex: My British Job and greatly admired her hands-on approach to investigative journalism (she went undercover, working as a cleaner in a brothel while filming using glasses with a camera inside them, to show what goes on behind closed doors), so picked this up when I saw it in the library. Also, as I mentioned in my review of "We Need New Names", I want to learn more about the immigrant experience.
The rating: Five out of five stars
What I thought of it: If you thought cheap labour was something that Britain only exploited abroad, think again. This book shows the extent of the cheap labour market in, focusing on undocumented Chinese immigrants as Pai is Taiwanese and could far more easily integrate into that community. Yes, she actually works alongside these people in order to learn their stories. I so admire her dedication to exposing their struggles.
The book itself is easy to read in the sense that it's well-written, as the content certainly isn't. You feel as if you are there, experiencing these injustices, which is a testament to Pai's writing and journalistic methods. She also manages to connect these lived experiences to policies and the wider picture. I don't know how many politicians and businesspeople are familiar with her work, but it surely isn't enough.
A quick aside: when people say "these people do the menial jobs that British people won't", they really ought to be saying "these people can be easily exploited to do menial jobs with ridiculous hours for far less money than they are due, which British people rightly wouldn't accept because there are laws in place to prevent that sort of thing happening to citizens". There are so many systems in place enabling businesses to profit at the expense of people who are just looking for a better life. This book was published in 2008, but I doubt much has changed in the five years since.
This is a book everyone in the UK should read, especially people who feel that immigrants are bad people who are willfully stealing jobs and making Britain a worse place to be. The only problem is that you'll come out of it with a sense of despair, because there's not much us ordinary people can do to help. Even adjusting your shopping habits is difficult when the market is dominated with the products of cheap labour. We can still call on policymakers to change things though.
Just one more thing:Sex: My British Job has been taken down from 4OD, and I'm not sure international folk can watch 4OD anyway, so here is a reupload of it on Vimeo. Let's hope it stays up!(less)
The author: NoViolet Bulawayo (real name Elizabeth Zandile Tshele), Zimbabwean author and Stegner Fellow at Stanford Univer...moreThe book:We Need New Names
The author: NoViolet Bulawayo (real name Elizabeth Zandile Tshele), Zimbabwean author and Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
The subject: The story of Darling, a young Zimbabwean girl, and her coming-of-age as she emigrates to the United States as a teenager.
Why I chose it: I admit, the cover drew me in while I was browsing in the library.
The rating: Four stars
What I thought of it: I've been making an effort to read fiction from different perspectives than I am used to. This book certainly fit the bill -- a story about a girl growing up in Zimbabwe (though the country is never actually named) who emigrates to Michigan as a teenager written by a woman who grew up in Zimbabwe and emigrated to Michigan as a university student. I'm not sure how autobiographical this story is. Suggesting it might be is not a strike against the book, as that sort of experience is far more valuable than any amount of research in the library. Plus, there is the fact that Darling's story is set in more modern times. Time will tell whether this dates the book, as can often be the case when contemporary pop culture references find their way into fiction.
Anyway, on to the actual story. It's actually more like a series of vignettes linked together than a novel with a clear plot, so if that sort of thing turns you off then I suppose this is one to avoid. However, I can overlook a lack of this sort of plot if I care about the characters (or, if they're unpleasant, find them compelling enough not to chuck the book out the window), which I did in "We Need New Names". The contrast between the fun and games of the children and the darkness of the wider world was put to good effect. I particularly enjoyed the part where the white NGO workers come and are duly mocked (their photographing of Darling's pregnant friend Chipo is compared to paparazzi chasing Paris Hilton). It also explored the cultural shift Darling experiences as she emigrates to the US in a very interesting way that made me want to read more. I haven't read much about the immigrant experience and will definitely pick up some more books on the subject following this one.
I really liked this book and it was an enjoyable read, even if the topics covered weren't always particularly uplifting. I definitely recommend it; I only wish it could have gone on a little longer and explored later parts of Darling's life, as it ended rather abruptly.
As part of her transformation to being a writer, Ms. Bulawayo decided at university she needed a new name herself, adopting her pen name from Elizabeth Tshele. Violet was her mother’s name. She passed away when Ms. Bulawayo was 18 months old. The “no” in the southern African language Ndebele means “with,” so in essence the first name suggests she’ll always be “with” her mother Violet. Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and is where Ms. Bulawayo spent her childhood and still calls home.
This is one of my favourite books. I read it after reading Warped Passages, expecting a book that would help me think about higher dimensions. What I...moreThis is one of my favourite books. I read it after reading Warped Passages, expecting a book that would help me think about higher dimensions. What I got was a book about geometry that also serves as a scathing satire on Victorian society, as well as an insight into how people (or squares) with revolutionary ideas are treated. Having finished the book, I started to think about the world afresh, and I just wish more people were aware of it.(less)
What can I say? I'm a big fan of Cary Grant the actor, but before receiving this for Christmas I didn't appreciate how much of a "style icon" he was....moreWhat can I say? I'm a big fan of Cary Grant the actor, but before receiving this for Christmas I didn't appreciate how much of a "style icon" he was. Rather than being a shallow affair merely concerned with clothes, this weaved in biographical information and gave a complete portrait of the man. One thing that I didn't like was how the book repeated itself sometimes, pulling out quotes from one section of the book and placing them in the margin of another section. Besides that trivial point, all I have left to say is thanks, Anthony!
P.S. I also liked looking at the pictures. :)(less)
This is miles better than the film, as it stays much truer to what actually happened in Nash's life and doesn't gloss over less savoury elements. I wa...moreThis is miles better than the film, as it stays much truer to what actually happened in Nash's life and doesn't gloss over less savoury elements. I was quite refreshed by its approach - not merely concentrating on Nash's achievements, but presenting a realistic portrait of him before, after and during his illness. I admire his wife and colleagues for putting up with him! This book provides a fascinating insight into the fine line between genius and insanity, and it could serve as a reassurance for us mere mortals - incredibly intelligent people often aren't particularly pleasant.(less)
This was a book lent to me by my study mentor at university to help me with certain issues I've had with learning, hence I've read it even though Tony...moreThis was a book lent to me by my study mentor at university to help me with certain issues I've had with learning, hence I've read it even though Tony Buzan is male (I'm trying to read exclusively books by women this year). I've just increased my year reading goal to compensate and will do the same with similar books if necessary.
I came to this book as a person who struggles most with memory, hoping to gain some techniques to help my studies. I didn't quite get what I was after, but did find some useful tricks that will hopefully improve my learning and my attitude towards it in future.
The book covers how to read more quickly, simple memory tricks such as mnemonics, taking notes by using key "hook" words and phrases, mind mapping and the Organic Study Method. The choice of issues to focus on feels a little random. After learning Buzan's seven-step definition of "reading", I was expecting that the book would cover each in turn, but that wasn't the case. I would have preferred a book that was a little more structured, though perhaps that's my linear brain talking!
A lot of the information I'd heard or intuited before, such as using mnemonics effectively and elements of the Organic Study Method, but it was still useful to see it written down in a more structured way. Mind maps were a core part of my primary and secondary education, so the explanations of those were mostly revision. I think this book would have been a lot more helpful if I hadn't used them before.
However, I did learn a few new things. One of these was a method for taking notes in mind map format — using two pages concurrently, one for mind maps and one for the parts that need more space, such as graphs or derivations, and referring to those parts via numbers on the mind maps. I had never considered that technique before, assuming that mind mapping during lectures would be far too tricky, but I definitely will try it in future. I'd also known that it's best to recall whatever you're trying to learn at regular intervals after you first learn it, but didn't know the best timeline, which is another piece of information you can find in this book.
I have given the book three stars because it didn't revolutionise the way I learn, or at least it hasn't so far, and I found the content in general to be a bit lacking and disjointed, but it does have some interesting ideas and is an easy read.(less)
Let's start with the two most frustrating aspects of this book, both of which appear on the front...moreBook 16/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog.
Let's start with the two most frustrating aspects of this book, both of which appear on the front cover. Yes, I judged this book by its cover, and it came up short! First, the placement of the two "authors'" names gives the impression that this is a book written by Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare (the late psychiatrist and friend of Milligan) on depression. In actual fact, this is a book by Anthony Clare on depression, featuring Spike Milligan as a case study (he suffered from bipolar disorder). There is little humour, which isn't reflected in the exterior of the book. As someone interested in how humour can be used as a coping mechanism, I found it a bit disappointing. Not that I expect comedians, especially the depressed ones, to be constantly playing it for laughs - it just would have been better if the cover had reflected the contents a bit more closely.
Second, the "how to survive it" part of the title doesn't really match up with the book's content. While treatment is discussed, it's in more of an informative, clinical manner than an instructional, therapeutic one. Milligan, sadly, wasn't a paragon of recovery, so his own story doesn't have much to offer in this respect. Though every experience is valid and it's important to show the nature of depression as a serious, sometimes lifelong illness, I worry about someone having difficulties picking up this book and not finding the help they needed and were lead to expect. I definitely wouldn't recommend this book to someone who needed help with surviving!
Having said that, this isn't a bad book - it's actually very good at being an accessible textbook on depression. Honestly, there isn't much in it that you won't know already if you know even a little about depression, but it's presented very lucidly and efficiently. One point in particular stuck out to me as something I hadn't previously considered: how depression can take your worst characteristics and magnify them. In Milligan's case, that characteristic was misanthropy (with a side order of racism). I had never really thought of things in that way before and it's helped me to consolidate some of my experiences, both of people who've been abusive towards me because of their own problems and of my own personality shifts in the face of mental ill-health.
Even though it wasn't what I expected, I did think the format of a broader medical explanation paired with a case study worked well. It demonstrates the twin characteristics of depression as a very common disease and a very individual one. The case study shows that Milligan wasn't an especially pleasant person; the more general majority of the text makes it clear that not everyone is affected in the same way.
It was quite alarming, though sadly not surprising, how many of the points in this eighteen year old book are still applicable today. All the arguments that anti-stigma campaigns are currently tackling were represented. In response to the all-too-common claim that depression is the confine of rich, self-indulgent people, Clare cites studies that demonstrate rates of depression in developing countries are just as high as, or even higher than, in developed ones. It's so much harder to argue when your opponent cites their sources. (I still don't know how to format "the voices in my head" in BibTeX.) The idea of mental illness being automatically less than physical illness is also interestingly handled. This quote in particular stood out:
Simon Wessely, points out that arguments over the status of ME most revealingly indicate how persistent is the idea that dubbing a condition 'psychiatric' is tantamount to declaring it a non-disease. (Page 94)
Another quote that I found striking came from one of Milligan's comedy partners. Its inaccuracy - and at the same time its familiarity - is cringe-worthy to the extreme.
He's an extraordinarily sane person,' Michael Bentine is quoted as saying of his fellow-Goon, adding, 'It's nonsense he's a nut. A nut isn't a shrewd businessman, a nut can't write a television series, a nut can't take up issues and see them through, and anyone must be nutty who thinks he is.' (Page 60)
The book ends on a low note from Milligan, in keeping with the rest of his contribution. He talks about how he sees no value in having had depression despite its very small mercies, how it ruins so many lives and, that while it's comforting to know that the outlook is slowly shifting, it's still not shifting quickly enough. I reiterate that this is not a book for people who need to be uplifted! At the same time, it's almost refreshing to hear someone really acknowledge just how horrible depression is and that, in many cases, all the "learned lessons" in the world can't mitigate that. It was also good to see a treatment of depression that didn't involve a cure, and especially not one that involved simply exercising a bit or any other such nonsense.
Despite the initial disappointments I mentioned, I found many aspects of this book valuable. A lot of it was familiar ground, but considering the amount of time that's passed since its publication (and the amount of ground I've covered myself!) I'd be surprised if it wasn't. I appreciated its scientific slant, unfortunately a rarity in non-clinical mental health literature. However, the disparity between the book's alleged content and its actual content was a little too off-putting to be counteracted by these positive aspects. I would probably have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn't felt so misled.(less)
Book 12/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
The author: Laure...moreBook 12/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
The author: Lauren Redniss, author and artist, or more specifically "graphic biographer".
The subject: The lives and loves of Marie Skłodowska and Pierre Curie, with the added twist of illustrations.
Why I chose it: I'm interested in the Curies and also enjoy discovering new ways to communicate science, which I thought this book might provide.
The rating: One and a half stars (rounded down because I'm a meanie)
What I thought of it: This book really intrigued me and I was looking forward to reading it, but ultimately it didn't really deliver. It was definitely a case of style over substance. The style was a glow-in-the-dark cover and the use of cyanotype printing to create illustrations. The substance was meant to be a biography of Marie Skłodowska and Pierre Curie. Well, it was a biography, but considering all the praise this book has received, you'd think it would cover new ground, or even old ground in a new way. I've only read one biography of Marie – this one – but I learned nothing new from this "wholly original book", except about cyanotype printing. There are also interludes about topics relating to radioactivity in one way or another – such as witness testimony from Hiroshima – which, while interesting, also break up the narrative in a bad way and seem randomly shoved in. The writing is nothing special either.
This book is an example of what I consider the worst sort of art-science collaborations. Neither the art nor the science gain from being linked, nor are they linked in any meaningful way. It always feels like someone's decided, "I know, I'll do some art! But how to make it a bit different? ...I know, I'll add science!" and then they've just kind of sprinkled the science over the top so there's a superficial link, but the art has nothing really meaningful to say about science or anything. It's just got sprinkles on top. Tasty science sprinkles, but sprinkles nonetheless.
Um, getting back on track: the art in this book isn't even that good, to be honest, or at least the design isn't. The font Redniss designed for the book gets difficult to read after a while, particularly when it features in a page full of text, which happens rather a lot.
All in all, I would only recommend this book as a precautionary tale on how not to do creative approaches to science. This sort of thing really annoys me, actually, because it feels like as long as you include some ~*art*~ you don't have to think about actually presenting science in a genuinely creative way.
Just one more thing: Here is my favourite Marie Skłodowska Curie quote, quoted in Madame Curie: A Biography. With regards to a proposed gift of a wedding dress, Marie said:
I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.
Of course, this didn’t appear in Radioactive...(less)
The book:Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction
The author: Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford
The...moreThe book:Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction
The author: Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford
The subject: A biography of Nelson Mandela looking at the different roles he fulfilled throughout his life.
Why I chose it: After Mandela's death I realised I only knew basic things about him and wanted to find out more. In particular, I saw people on Facebook saying he was a communist and a terrorist and couldn’t figure out why from what I knew.
The rating: Four out of five stars
What I thought of it: I'm really glad that this was the first book I picked up about Nelson Mandela. I love the author's approach of looking at all the different roles Mandela played throughout his life. It is a lot more effective than a straight biography. The book can be a bit heavy-going at times, particularly if you're like me and aren't familiar with the way in which academics in the humanities write. However, it's still very well-written and its difficulty is probably a function of it being so short -- Boehmer has to cover a lot of ground in not very many pages -- as well as the structure being unorthodox. I also appreciate her willingness to be critical of Mandela about subjects such as his slow response to the AIDS crisis, while still maintaining perspective.
With regards to the reason I picked this book up: I see now why a certain type of person might consider Mandela a communist and terrorist, but thankfully also see how horribly misguided that certain type of person is. In fact, Mandela was relatively un-radical compared to his contemporaries and it took him a long time to accept communism as it was viewed as un-African, and even then he didn't fully embrace it. Also, while he did resort to violence, he and his fellow protesters were very careful to sabotage, rather than terrorise, only targeting sites where there would be no people to be injured. Peaceful protest is all well and good, but in apartheid-stricken South Africa black people's rights to this were eroded to the point of non-existence. What else could they have done? And if Mandela was a terrorist, what of all the leaders who supported apartheid?
All in all, I definitely recommend this book both to those familiar with Mandela and those who only know him as the political prisoner who became President of South Africa. It is far more than just a biography.
Just one more thing:This article is generally very interesting and covers important political ground, but the opening paragraph is just hilarious and shows one of Mandela’s many facets.
Asked for his feelings on meeting the Spice Girls in 1997 – shortly after Mel B had compared their "girl power quest" with the anti-apartheid movement – Nelson Mandela obliged. "I don't want to be emotional," he explained, "but this is one of the greatest moments of my life."
I feel guilty about this review. So many people have loved this book so much, but I wasn't one of...moreBook 20/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog.
I feel guilty about this review. So many people have loved this book so much, but I wasn't one of them. This is something that happens quite a bit - not, I should point out, because I'm some kind of hipster wilfully rejecting the mainstream - and I feel guilty every time. In the real world, of course, the existence of differing opinions is basically the point of opinions, and there's no reason to feel guilty unless your opinions are harmful in some way. (On a similar note, no one has any right to make you feel bad for a non-harmful opinion.) Hey, if I weren't a complete weirdo I wouldn't be writing this review.
The Fault in Our Stars is ostensibly a cancer book that isn't a cancer book. It follows Hazel and Augustus, two teens with the disease, as they fall in love despite living on borrowed time. This being a John Green book, they are quirky and smart (with strange names), though this time round the girl is the narrator and the boy is of the manic pixie dream variety. The main problem I had with the book was that I didn't like or believe the main characters, and characterisation is one of the more important factors in a good read for me.
First of all, there was their speech. We’re supposed to accept as naturalistic two characters who speak like John Green writes after months or years of editing. Honestly, I think they speak how a lot of intelligent teens probably wish they spoke - one long stream of Tumblr-friendly aphorisms - hence the relative lack of dissent. Some of those aphorisms were pithy; some made me cringe; one in particular didn't even seem to agree with the plot. There are so many ways to write intelligent teens without making them unrealistic or irritating. This book is much worse than Green's others for that, and is certain my least favourite of his so far in part because of it.
Hazel and Augustus’s personalities also left me cold, which was odd because so many people fell in love with them. I think the problem is that their true flaws (pretension, snobbishness, sometimes being quite cruel), or at least the things that I interpret that way, are not presented as flaws, rather as reasons to like them. (This is me trying as hard as possible to avoid a comparison to any number of terrible books.) For example, John Green has said that Hazel’s flaw is enjoying "America’s Next Top Model". This may be a joke, but in the context of him having seriously answered a lot of other similarly important questions it seems strange to avoid that one.
Hazel is meant to be incredibly empathetic, but she still sneers at the messages she finds on a tribute website to one of Augustus's exes. Wouldn't she recognise that words can be hard to find for people in grief and so people fall back on so-called clichés and, most importantly, they shouldn't be condemned for that? (Well, no, because then this book couldn't claim to be all alternative and unconventional and quirky...) She's also very unkind to a couple of near-strangers, and while it's obviously good that she's not completely saintly, she never really grows or apologises despite personally acknowledging she was wrong.
It really beggars belief that someone used to analysing themes in "capital-G great" books (her father even defines her as "a brilliant young reader" on page 103) would miss a major plot detail and the basic point of the film version of V for Vendetta, even if the author pulling their strings isn't a fan of it. Another thing I really hated was Hazel's insistence that a boy staring at you is fine if he's "hot" and "creepy" if he isn't. That's not exactly the best message to impart to teenagers of any gender.
I'm no expert on what young women find attractive in young men, but I didn't quite see the appeal of Augustus. He just seemed pompous to me, and while that unpleasantness was technically a cover, it was also the most prominent part of his personality, only to be dropped in situations of extreme duress. Despite this, Hazel and everyone else thinks he's brilliant. I did quite like that he misused words such as "soliloquy" and "double entendre" as it seemed typical of someone so vainglorious. Then again, these aren’t especially difficult concepts, particularly for someone apparently as book-smart as Augustus, so it seems odd that they would present such a problem. I think, in an effort to round out his characters, Green added these scraps of imperfection to their personalities. The problem is the whole thing isn't really consistent (see also my previous comments about Hazel).
In a couple of instances Augustus spoke like the prototypical "teen wise beyond their years", despite the book apparently avoiding all those tired cancer tropes:
"I just can't admit it because I'm a teenager" (page 28)
"Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it. This tells me so much." (page 33)
I also found many of the “romantic” things he said patronising, or just plain wrong. Here are a couple of quotes that stood out:
"Girls think they're only allowed to wear dresses on formal occasions, but I like a woman who says, you know, I'm going over to see a boy who is having a nervous breakdown, a boy whose connection to the sense of sight itself is tenuous, and gosh dang it, I am going to wear a dress for him" (page 56)
"That's why I like you. Do you realize how rare it is to come across a hot girl who creates an adjectival version of the word pedophile? You are so busy being you that you have no idea how utterly unprecedented you are." (page 123)
Um, that last one makes sense in context. Trust me.
Their relationship in general seemed oddly based on looks for two people who value contemplation so much, though I suppose they are still teenagers. Finally, and maybe this is just me, but the way Augustus made fun of how Hazel chose to go to Disney World with her family as a thirteen-year-old facing death, and by extension all children who make that "clichéd" choice, made me really dislike him. I get gallows humour, but I feel like that crossed the line into cruelty at the expense of others, particularly when you consider this book was ultimately written by an adult. It was also typically couched in pretension.
The centrepiece of the book was a trip to Amsterdam to meet Peter van Houten, author of Hazel's favourite book (he turns out to be really unpleasant - this may seem like a spoiler, but it really isn’t), organised by Augustus and van Houten's assistant Lidewij and paid for by the book's counterpart of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I have so many issues with this whole storyline. Why did Lidewij get involved? She knew what a horrible person van Houten was, but she still organised it rather than gently discouraging Augustus. Her excuse was that she thought it would help van Houten, but she clearly knew it probably wouldn't work and would end up hurting Augustus and Hazel in the process. Why would she use them like that? It just doesn't make sense, but then again lots of things in this book don't. Why would a notoriously reclusive author who seems to despise pleasantries say they should drop by if they're in the area? Why did he write back to them and only them? Why hadn't Hazel written to him via his agent before, seeing as she's so obsessed? The whole thing seemed a fairly transparent way for Green to pontificate on the role of the author and the nature of fiction and so forth at the most convenient point in the narrative.
I have a couple more miscellaneous gripes. First, what was the point of Hazel's "vaguely British" friend Kaitlyn, except to annoy me by reminding me of the accent Americans put on when they're talking about Harry Potter (sorry, Herreh Portah)? I understand her as a plot device, but I'm not sure you should feel that way about characters. Second, a more general one: why does every male love interest in YA have a "crooked smile" to be mentioned at every opportunity? Is their hotness somehow asymmetrically susceptible to gravity? Why does that make so many girls weak at the knees anyway?
The Fault in Our Stars is a clever book, by which I mean there are a lot of layers of meaning and symbolism and interesting bits to research - I can see it becoming a book to study. However, it seems so contrived, almost tailor-made to be examined in that way, which completely destroyed any chance for me to engage emotionally with the characters. It also felt too much like Green was actually just using the same old tropes he was allegedly disdaining, what with his deeply philosophical terminally ill teenagers who just happened to be fountains of inspirational quotes. I did find the book picked up in the last third, but there were still plenty of cringes to be had and logical short circuits to be found. (I actually think I would have "preferred" to read the story of Augustus and his ex Caroline - now that would be a cliché-shattering book.) Contrary to most people I didn't laugh or cry at all. While I'm not really a crier, I also didn't engage with the characters at all, and I found the humour non-existent at best and cruel at worst. I felt a bit sad, but that was mostly because the fact it was talking about cancer reminded me of people in real life who've suffered horrible things like that.
I'm having to make myself stop writing this review, as I could probably rival the book itself in length if I don't. I absolutely don't get the hype surrounding this book, except in terms of Green's huge fanbase of YA readers and the emotional content of the book. I have a fair amount of respect for Green, both as a writer and a person in general, though perhaps not as much as many others who watch his vlogs and read his books. I often disagree with his views. (At the moment I'm particularly annoyed by his "you're beautiful because you're alive" response to young people who are made fun of because they're not attractive. It rivals "It Gets Better" in the patronising, point-missing stakes.) What I'd really love is for him to step outside of his comfort zone and write a different book next time.
The author: Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993), American writer and critic — she wrote mostly hardboiled crime novels.
The subject: Dix Steele, a misogynist in the truest sense of the word, stalks the streets of late 1940s Los Angeles and gets involved in investigating the very crimes he is committing.
Why I chose it: I love the 1950 movie based on this novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and wanted to take a look at the source material.
The rating: Three out of five stars
What I thought of it: I’ll get this out of the way: I preferred the film. This isn’t necessarily the book being at fault, as they are very different, but there were some aspects that just meant the book wasn’t quite as enjoyable.
The first of these aspects is the fact that you find out straight away that Steele is responsible for the murders and rapes, which kind of put me off. I feel the story would have been more effective if we’d gradually learned what a monster Steele is. As it is, the book loses out on that element of suspense and the more realistic way that one would learn about someone in real life. There is obviously still a progression as the police get closer to solving the crime, but that sort of story only works when you find out more about the killer too (as in the recent BBC series "The Fall").
That being said, Hughes does do an excellent job with the writing. She does manage to get inside the mind of a violent misogynist without making him unbelievable and the writing is both taut and descriptive as you would expect from noir. I found it a compulsive read because I just had to get to the point where Steele was found out. The way his state of mind changes when his love life is going well is sketched vividly. I do feel like he could have been a bit more of a nuanced character though.
I would recommend this book if you like hard-boiled crime or film noir or are interested in feminist fiction, but it’s not as brilliant as it could have been. I’d say read this, then see the film, so you’re not disappointed. It's still an enjoyable and unusual read despite this.
Just one more thing: I showed the film version of this novel to my boyfriend last year and he remarked that it seems as if, from how he reacts to things, Dix has post-traumatic stress disorder following his time in the army. I’d be interested to hear what other people think of this theory.(less)
Book 11/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Female Man
The author: Joanna Russ, American writer, academic and feminist (t...moreBook 11/52 of my 2014 challenge to only read books by women
The book:The Female Man
The author: Joanna Russ, American writer, academic and feminist (the triple threat!).
The subject: Four women living in different alternate realities cross paths and discover different ideas about what it means to be a woman.
Why I chose it: Sci fi! Written by a feminist! It's got to be good, right?
The rating: Two stars out of five
What I thought of it: ...Wrong.
This is the second "feminist classic" I've read so far this year that turned out to be a disappointment. I really hope that won't end up being a trend!
The one big problem I had with this book was as follows: there was feminism, there was science fiction, but there was no overlap in the Venn diagram. The idea was a very interesting one -- I particularly enjoyed the bits of world-building Russ did in relation to Whileaway, Janet's home planet -- but the pattern of having the story broken up by lengthy monologues really didn't make for an enjoyable read. It's also not great when you feel like a character exists solely to spout said lengthy monologues (even when you agree with them!). (view spoiler)[Oh, and also to be an inappropriately young sexual partner for one of the main characters. I'm fine with age gaps, but not when one person is seventeen and the other old enough to be their parent. (hide spoiler)]
Another issue was that the perspective of the story jumps about without any warning, so you have to spend time trying to work out just who happens to be talking at any one moment. I need to remember that if a book's blurb contains anything along the lines of "extends the boundaries of fiction", I probably won't enjoy it and will probably struggle to properly understand it. I prefer my fictional boundaries unextended. (Ooer missus?)
Having said all that, I gave this book two stars because it did have a lot to say and the concept was interesting. I just wish it had been deployed more effectively.
Just one more thing: Through reading her Wikipedia page, I discovered that Russ took part in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, an American science competition for high school students She competed in 1953 with a project entitled "Growth of Certain Fungi under Colored Light and in Darkness" (she is number 29 on that list). She is pictured here with another finalist; the website where you can look through all the past Westinghouse/Intel Science Talent Searches is here.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I picked this book up at... well, I'm not actually sure. It may have been the Big Bang Fair, or th...moreBook 03/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog.
I picked this book up at... well, I'm not actually sure. It may have been the Big Bang Fair, or the Science Communication Conference, or somewhere else entirely. I guess it doesn't matter really, but it's kind of irritating me in that way that tiny, insignificant things always tend to, i.e. completely out of proportion with its relative importance. Anyway. I'm reviewing a book, not my own neuroses, so let's get on with it.
Let's have this out of the way first: this is "The Little Book of Metrology", the science of measuring, not meteorology, the science of the atmosphere and thus weather and climate systems. (The more you know™.) You might think studying how we measure things is dull "book-keeping" type science, but this book by the National Physical Laboratory, the UK's centre for measurement standards, aims to show it's anything but. It did succeed in this (though perhaps with me that's preaching to the choir!) - the book is short enough to digest easily, long enough to inform fairly widely, colourful and appealing to explore. However, I found it a somewhat uneven read.
Let's start with the positives. This book has quotes interspersed through it - I have a massive soft spot for books that have quotes in them, at the start of chapters for example. I especially liked that the quotes were from such a diverse set of sources, from scientists to the Bible. It shows how embedded metrology is in our culture. After all, as long as there are "things", we'll need to measure them! Another great feature of this book were the full page images, sometimes even double spread, my favourites being the group shot of an NPL employee hockey team and an image of an anechoic chamber at NPL (a wonderful example of how beautiful scientific equipment can be!). There were also just the right amount of whimsical cartoons. The structure of having a section for each of the seven SI units struck me as a great idea. It was in these chapters that the main attraction of the book lay. I particularly liked the explanation and accompanying diagram of how an atomic clock works. A series of diagrams explaining accuracy and precision through archery, also placed in a historical context, was another stand-out piece - one that I'll probably use in future when teaching those concepts. Finally, I should also single out the double page spread on SI unit standards ("Writing unit names and symbols" and "Numerical notation"), which would be a useful reference for anyone using SI units on a regular basis.
Now, unfortunately, the negatives. Earlier I praised the full page pictures in this book, but it also has its fair share of walls of text. This wouldn't be so much of a problem, except that quite often they're used where a diagram would be far more effective. (Ironically what I did earlier in this review when trying to describe that accuracy/precision diagram.) The latter chapters suffered from this in particular. In other places the level of explanation was somewhat uneven. One example I picked up on was a mention of Planck's constant, without any definition, even though it would have been easy and useful to write a little and not beyond the general level of the text. I also found the scale comparisons at the end of each "unit chapter" a little arbitrary, as well as being uninspiringly set out in tables rather than visualised in any way.
I have to admit that I was a little confused as to the "target audience" of this book. It's too advanced for someone with no scientific knowledge whatsoever. I learned a few new facts, though not enough to call this book properly educational, and some of the "advice" on standards was old news - for reference, I have a year of university-level physics behind me (give or take - don't ask, long story). I think it should be appropriate for a curious AS-Level student with an interest in the wider context of science. I know; I was one not too long ago. Overall I gave "The Little Big Book of Metrology" three stars - it was good, though not good enough for me to go out of my way to recommend it. I can think of plenty of ways to improve it despite it already being a worthwhile read.(less)
This is the first Stephen Fry novel I've read, and despite my obviously high expectations I definitely wasn't disappointed. The characters were fantas...moreThis is the first Stephen Fry novel I've read, and despite my obviously high expectations I definitely wasn't disappointed. The characters were fantastic (I was particularly fond of Donald Trefusis), as was the dialogue and prose. I felt the first half of the novel was better than the second, and I admit to getting a bit lost in the espionage plot. Even so, a great read.(less)
Here's another cute little book! I picked this one up on a trip to the Eden Project (which I love and recommend highly) a few years ago. It's full of...moreHere's another cute little book! I picked this one up on a trip to the Eden Project (which I love and recommend highly) a few years ago. It's full of facts and quotes about living a greener life, accompanied by quirky illustrations. What I really love, though, is that even though this is a pretty informal book, every fact is accompanied with a reference to the website or publication where it was found. I recently read a mainstream popular psychology book that didn't do that!
When I was little I was really into saving the environment, so would have loved this book and probably driven my parents to distraction quoting facts from it (I was that kind of child). Some of the language is a bit advanced ("desalinisation", "petrochemical"), but this would be a fun gift for a curious child -- or a curious adult!(less)
Honestly, I don't know much about aromatherapy (I received this as a present from a neighbour a few years ago), but this book seems a good introductio...moreHonestly, I don't know much about aromatherapy (I received this as a present from a neighbour a few years ago), but this book seems a good introduction. It contains safety notes, instructions on how to give massages and "how it works", then the properties and uses of various common essential oils. I like the font and vintage-style illustrations it uses.
It does, however, also include this line: "Treatment of serious illness is best left to a qualified aromatherapist." Ever so slightly irresponsible, but also not unexpected. If you have a serious illness, leave the treatment to a real doctor and perhaps use aromatherapy to help your psychological wellbeing (lavender makes me feel relaxed and cosy because I associate it with being relaxed and cosy) or any minor issues like acne or a stuffed nose.(less)
This was the first QI annual I received for Christmas. It's stuffed with information about all things beginning with E and can be dipped in and out of...moreThis was the first QI annual I received for Christmas. It's stuffed with information about all things beginning with E and can be dipped in and out of at will. The show does lose something in translation to the page (the spontaneity and banter between guests), but the annuals are still good fun. Shame they don't do them any more. My favourite sections in this edition are "Erics Through The Ages", "Experiments... you can do at home", "The Engineer Simulator", "Escoffier v. Mitchell" and the recurring "European Languages" and "Europroverbs" bits. As you can probably tell, this is my favourite of the three QI Annuals I've read.(less)