Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before remin...more 3.5 stars
Kraken is one of those beautiful natural history hardbacks that I normally gaze longingly at for several minutes in the bookshop before reminding myself that a) it’s probably far too expensive for me b) I don’t read non-fiction that often and have a whole bookshelf of it already that I haven’t managed to read yet, and c) I’m not as much of a sciencey person as I would like to be and probably won’t understand it anyway. However, this winter I managed to get myself a temporary Christmas job in Waterstone’s entitling me to 40% (40%!) discount for the month of December. So naturally I not only bought absolutely all of my Christmas presents there, I treated myself to some as well by ignoring all the paperback fiction I normally pick up and going straight for the stuff I always talk myself out of buying.
Kraken, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to its gorgeous cover (and it is a gorgeous cover). I liked it, I almost really liked it, but in the end I just had too many reservations about the writing style to enjoy it as much as I had been hoping to. It started well, for the first few chapters I was utterly hooked – cephalopods fascinate and creep me out in almost equal measure – but then it seemed to lose direction. I’d had some issues with Williams’ writing in the early chapters – it’s very obvious from early on that she’s a science journalist rather than a scientist and it reads like Sunday supplement journalism – always bringing it as much back to the author of the piece as the actual subject. Too many unneccessary ‘I think’ and ‘This reminds me of’ or slightly over-flowery scene-setting that actually distracted my attention from the subject and reinforced the presence of the author in moments that didn’t need it. But after a few chapters it seemed to lose something in the sense of direction as well.
Although each chapter does flow on from the other and although it’s full of fascinating stuff, I still can’t really quite work out the logic to the structure. It all seems to flow in a slightly aimless way, a bit hither and thither, sometimes moving onto something else and sometimes revisiting things from earlier chapters – which leads to quite a bit of repetition. Of course it’s probably thanks to Williams’ journalist background that I can actually understand the science involved at all and am not overwhelmed by technical words and details. It’s definitely an accessable read that doesn’t require any qualifications in marine biology before you can understand it – but I do think that it could have benefited from a more scientific approach to structuring the chapters.
The second disappointment was that it wasn’t as much about squid as I had been expecting based on the title. And I’m not talking about the fact that squid share their page time with octopuses and cuttlefish – which are both equally fascinating – but the human characters who fill up the book. In many places it’s almost more about the human experts and cephalopod research scientists than it is about the animals themselves. ‘The Curious, Exciting, And Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid‘ is not just the science of how a squid works but how the squid has helped human scientists with other problems. So as well as learning about the evolution of the squid eye we get descriptions of the harvesting of squid for research purposes, stomachs being removed, heads cut off, and their enlarged axon (nerve cells) studied by students of neuroscience because they’re similar in structure but much larger than human axons. Now I’m not squeamish and I didn’t actually mind this, it makes fascinating, if slightly gruesome reading in fact – it just simply wasn’t quite what I had expected when I picked up the book. Interesting as I find dissections and scientific research (I was always upset that we never got to dissect an eye for GCSE biology at my school, a squid would have been amazing!) I’m more interested in the animals themselves than how Julie’s PHd about them is going (very well, as it happens) and would probably have prefered a lot of the human research stuff to appear as little asides rather than as the main focus of whole chapters.
But that’s a problem with my expectations – obviously Williams is more interested in the research and scientific potential of squid and it’s totally valid that she does chose to write about that. I’m not sure I would have picked it up had I known how the balance of science of squid/squids contribution to science was weighted, but I’m very glad that I did, it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I would probably, however, recommend it to people more interested in the sciencey side of things than the animal side – quite a few other reviews I’ve read were pretty disgusted with the animal cruelty of the scientific experiments and harvesting (I was pretty horrified myself actually by the octopus who had had the left and right sides of its brain split to function individually). For me the thing that bothered me most though was the ‘me-ness’ of the writing style – it’s rather like a tv documentary where the presenter is just slightly overdoing it so you’re always aware of their presence (more ‘The One Show does marine biology' than David Attenborough’s Blue Planet). But that didn’t stop it from being both an enjoyable and extremely educational read.(less)
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’ and that’s what it is; not a natural history book, not an encyclopedi...more 4 Stars
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is subtitled ‘A 21st Century Bestiary’ and that’s what it is; not a natural history book, not an encyclopedia of animals, a bestiary – an odd fusion of science and navel-gazing. While in a medieval bestiary real and mythological animals were used as symbols for human virtues or vices, in this book real animals are used as starting points to examine wider issues about how human’s relate to both the world and each other. So the Axolotl entry looks at the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Gonodactylus examines the scientific evolution of the eye, and so on. It’s a unique and very interesting approach, but one that doesn’t quite hit the mark in every entry. In the spirit of mimicking of medieval bestiaries the book has also been gorgeously designed; there’s gilding on the cover, a full-page illustration and illuminated capital letter for each animal that incorporates the major themes of the entry, and (best of all) marginalia. It is, quite simply, a beautiful book. And not only beautiful on the outside but unique on the inside.
So how did it miss the mark on some of its entries? Well, as admitted by Henderson himself in the introduction, some of the metaphors tying the animal to a wider issue are a little strained – such as the Venus Girdle entry where ‘I also want to make a case for these scintillating bodies of rainbow-light as an emblem of orgasmic beauty as a whole’ then flows into a discussion about scientist’s aversion to studying the orgasm and enjoyment factor in sex when looking at animal reproduction. Interesting as both Venus Girdles and human attitudes towards the orgasm are, it’s a pretty tenuous link at best. Another entry about crabs had a bizarre analogy to robots in it that left me blinking at the page waiting for it to explain. Other chapters seem a bit unevenly weighted, again acknowledged in the introduction (‘Some of the analogies and digressions I have followed have little to do with the animals themselves’). There were a few that moved on from the animal – which I’m going to admit was the main thing I was interested in – a little too quickly for my liking, leaving me going ‘wait! But I didn’t learn anything new yet!’.
In fact, I actually learnt a hell of a lot from this book. Did you know that a dolphin orgy is called a ‘wuzzle’? It’s the most adorable term for a gangbang I’ve ever heard. A moray eel has two sets of jaws. There are breeds of sharks called wobbegongs. Dolphins will play ball games using inflated pufferfish (dolphins are the dicks of the sea). And the Japanese macaque has a face that resembles George W. Bush (once it’s seen it cannot be unseen!).
Henderson is obviously passionate about animals, zoology, and conservationism, he writes in the first person about several of his own experiences with the animals he mentions. His writing style is easy to read and the science is (mostly) presented in a way that I could absorb and understand. I was disappointed to find, when doing a bit of research myself, that one American church he sites as believing Jesus co-existed with dinosaurs and pterosaurs is actually (probably) a parody – nobody on the internet seems to be able to tell 100% whether they’re real or not, so I guess it’s fair enough to mention them, but the omission that many believe it to be parody was either disingenuous or not well researched (that whole chapter was a bit odd actually). On the science, the animals, and his own contemplations though, he is a lot better.
A very interesting, and very unique, book. I found something to enjoy in every entry and it is presented absolutely beautifully. Not one to pick up if you’re just after the nitty-gritty science facts, or only want to hear about animals and don’t really care for the author’s tangents. But if you think the idea of a modern natural history text written and presented in the style of a medieval bestiary sounds pretty awesome it might be worth checking out.(less)
A History of the World in 100 Objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in whic...more 5 Stars
A History of the World in 100 Objects started life as a radio programme by the BBC (podcasts still available to download for free here) in which the director of the British Museum used 100 very varied objects from the museum’s collections to emphasise key points and ideas throughout human history. Although I didn’t listen to it at the time (I have now dowloaded the podcasts), as a history student with an interest in archaeology and museum’s I was aware of it, so a few years later when I saw this beautiful blue copy of the book sitting on the ‘buy one get one half-price’ table in Waterstone’s it was impossible to resist. I had intended, like several people I know through my museum volunteering, to read just one entry a day and work myself slowly through it, but instantly found myself enjoying it so much that I was devouring whole blocks of the book at a time and having to force myself to stop and save some for later.
The objects are arranged in roughly chronological order and arranged in blocks of five by theme (so for example we have ‘The First Cities and States’, ‘The Beginnings of Science and Literature’ ‘Pilgrims, Raiders and Traders’). Each object has its own short chapter of about 5 or 6 pages explaining what it is, how and who made it, and what it’s historical and cultural significance is, all headed by a small but high quality black and white photograph of the object, making it a very accessible read even for those who might normally feel daunted by non-fiction and an easy book to dip in and out of at leisure (no footnotes here and everything explained simply yet intelligently). Unfortunately it would make the book far too expensive to include large, coloured, photographs of each object, which is a bit disapointig – though it does have high-quality coloured inserts for about 30 of them. However, being based on a BBC radio series, supplementary coloured (and zoomable!) photos, often from a variety of angles are available online – a discovery that led to me reading the whole book with my laptop at my side, frequently pausing to zoom in and study the objects in more detail. If you’re unaware of that resource though – and it isn’t obviously advertised in the book itself – the size of some of the pictures, particularly for those objects with lots of intricate details, could be quite frustrating. Overall though, and for the price market it’s aiming at, this is an absolutely beautifully put together and classy lookong book that should be very possible to enjoy even without using these internet resources.
It isn’t a history such as conventional history books might tell either. It’s not, predominantly, about ‘big events and famous people’ (though a few certainly do appear) but about the development of humanity and the development of ideas – writing, trade, religion, attitudes. The objects are there not just because they’re beautifully crafted or fascinating in their own right, but to provide snapshots of the time and place they were created in. They range from high status objects made for kings and rulers to fragments of broken pottery and navigational tools – each telling a little about the world it came from. Some of these we now a lot about down to the owner of the object itself or even the exact date it was made, in other cases the objects are the only material evidence left through which to draw conclusions about the people who made them. This object-based method is one of my favourite ways of looking at history or trying to understand other cultures and one that museums are absolutely great for. I learnt a ridiculous amount of ‘useless’ but totally fascinating facts from this book and have to admit to showing them off a bit whenever I can fit them into conversation.
And onto critique. By its very nature it’s a history of the world framed from a western (specifically a British) perspective. However, aknowledging that, it does a lot to include objects from a variety of cultures across almost the whole globe, to put the emphasis on a multitude of cultures both still existing and those long destroyed, and to admit to the limitations of its method in providing a ‘complete history’. I was very impressed right from the introduction, which discussed the flaws and problems inherent in picking out just 100 objects to illustrate the whole of human history, and went on to emphasise the importance of objects in understanding other cultures rather than relying on second-hand accounts from those who colonised or destroyed them. Unlike the other ‘History of the World’ book I read recently this one actually does read like a history of the world and not a ‘history of Europe with occasional interludes to other places’. The introduction is correct though when it says it’s impossible to represent everyone in just 100 objects – the absence of Jewish objects is certainly noticeable (with the exception of a Hebrew astrolabe included to show medieval communication between Christians, Jews, and Muslims) in a book which has several objects from the development of every other major world religion, as is the absence of Innuit or Yupik objects when most other areas of the globe are covered. You can’t fit in everything in just 100 objects, but something from one of the most inhospitable areas that humanity has managed to live in and adapt to would have been nice.
Then there’s the uncomfortable question of provenance that a reader can’t help but raising, even if the book tends to downplay it – why does the British Museum have all these wonderful objects? Shouldn’t they be given back to Greece/Egypt/South America etc. when they were acquired in such questionable and often violent ways*. The ownership is far from clear-cut for several of the most stunning items in this book. They make for fascinating history of course, and the book would be a poorer history of the world without them – the circumstances they were acquired in is as much part of that history as the circumstances they were created in and it’s impossible to escape the colonial narrative that parallels the global one - but it’s something you can’t help but be aware of and made to feel slightly uncomfortable about when reading some of the entries. A lot of the chapters, I have to emphasise, are for objects freely given or fairly paid for, not every foreign object in a museum has been seized unfairly, but some of the British Museum’s most famous objects certainly have been and I don’t find their arguments for keeping many of them particularly convincing.
Overall though I think it’s an absolutely wonderful book and one totally deserving of five stars. Probably one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. I would happily recommend to anyone with an interest in history, archaeology or anthropology. I’m not so sure on some of the objects picked for the ‘modern’ chapters (I would have liked to see a modern reliable contraceptive on there or at least mentioned) but for the for the 95+ historical objects I was absolutely hooked. It’s a very accessible read but there is a hell of a lot of fascinating information packed into each short chapter and it’s a book that definitely warrants dipping back into at a later date. I was very impressed with the range of objects, learnt a lot of new facts, gained much more of an understanding about periods of history or cultures that I knew shamefully little about before, and have a whole host of new objects to look out for next time I’m in the British Museum – which hopefully won’t be too far away if the trainlines could just stop flooding for a few days!
* Not particularly relevent to the book but one of the most telling labels I’ve ever seen in a museum was in one of the ones I volunteer at, an anthropology museum that prides itself on preserving, where possible, the original Victorian labels. After identifying the object (I think it was a toy or charm of some sort) it simply read 'taken from a child in Africa’.(less)