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review 2019-10-15 06:10
Childfree by Choice
Childfree By Choice - Amy Blackstone

It's always a little bit harder for me to discuss non-fiction books I've listened to on audio; My audio comprehension is still not a match to my reading comprehension and I'm not quite as able to recall the details as well.  


Even so, this book was eye opening for me.  MT and I are child free by choice, and I've definitely experienced the bog-standard lines:  you'll change your mind and it's different when it's yours and it's not too late, as well as the arguments for more exciting holidays and built-in old-age care. (All of which are fallacies: I almost never change my mind about anything, I'd feel no different if 'it' was my own, and at 49, which is the last time the 'not too late' argument was used, it's categorically too late, if not medically, then rationally. And while I'm willing to concede that some holidays might be more fun, there's no guarantee that anyone's children won't stick them in an old-age home when the time comes.  Harsh, but true.)


But I've never experienced the vitriolic rhetoric aimed at us as a group; an upside to having always avoided the Editorial/Opinion section of the news, I guess.  Wow.  People need to worry less about what everyone else is doing and look inward; if these pundits have time to turn themselves inside out about other people's life choices, they have too much free time on their hands and not enough perspective on actual, real world issues.


As I was listening to this book and thinking "how have I missed all this nonsense, and who do I thank for that?" it started to niggle at me that, actually, I might have been on the receiving end of some of the blowback to choosing child free, I've just never acknowledged it as such.  Not from a professional standpoint; frankly, I think my bosses were all too happy I'd not be taking maternity leave to be fussed about my rebellion against my (apparent) civic duty.  But personally, socially ... that becomes trickier.  Have I lost friends after they had kids?  Certainly.  MT and I used to have a much more jam-packed social calendar, until friends started spawning and we lost touch with more and more of them.  But I can't say with any certainty that it's because we chose not to have kids; the toll newborns take on couples, then the non-stop demands of toddlers, could explain a lot of it.  The medical issues that have necessarily slowed both MT and I down certainly are to blame for some of it too.  But I can't be sure our choice not to have kids isn't at play either.  Both my best friends have kids, and I never lost touch with either of them - in fact I was a huge part of first 10 years of one of the kids' lives, until I moved down under.


Anyway, the takeaway here is that the book has left me with things to chew on, and it certainly opened my eyes to societal reactions to those who choose to not procreate.  So in that sense, the book was an outstanding success.  It was, however, a dry read; very much structured like a dissertation that's been fleshed out for publication.  I think the narrator of the audio helps overcome that a little, though it's still by no means a riveting read.  MT overheard it when I was listening while gardening, and he though I was listening to the news.


I was also constantly jarred by her use of fertility; no question she's using it exactly the way it should be used, but to me fertility has always meant the ability to procreate, while in this book she uses it to refer to actual birthing of children, ie the fertility rates dropped during the global economic crisis to her means people stopped having children during the GFC.  I kept thinking 'what does the GFC have to do with ability to conceive?'.  That's my shortcoming though, not the author's.


All in all it was a very worthwhile read for me.  Depending on one's level of engagement in this issue, individual results may vary.  I will end this with saying it's a good book for anyone - with children or without - interested in the values and reactions society places on people when it comes to planning the future of their families.



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review 2019-08-23 05:44
In Sorcery's Shadow by Paul Stoller
In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger - Paul Stoller,Cheryl Olkes

An anthropologist’s memoir of apprenticing himself to various sorcerers in Niger in the 1970s and 80s, this book has great material to work with, but is written in a rather dry, academic style. I had the sense the author spends all his reading time immersed in academic works and perhaps hadn’t actually read a popular memoir, though he clearly did his best to make it accessible by including lots of dialogue and breaking it down into short chapters. There are some storytelling infelicities, like when a major character finally steps over the line near the end, and only then does the author suddenly list all of the major warning signs that had apparently been there all along.


Perhaps my larger issue with the book, though, is that while the author talks a big game in the introduction about this bold move he’s making by putting himself in the narrative at all when he’s supposed to be a scientist, the book is at a rather awkward place halfway between being about him and about the Songhay sorcerers. His life outside of his five trips to the country is a complete blank, such that it’s startling when on the last trip he brings his wife and it turns out people had been asking after her all along; we never knew he was married. But the book doesn’t delve quite as deeply into the lives of the people he meets as I’d like either – what ever happened to the first family of the sorcerer who was imprisoned for 20 years starting when he was 60? And while the author loses his skepticism about Songhay sorcery, he is still supposed to be engaging in academic inquiry and not just some New Agey experience, so I would’ve appreciated it if, for instance, instead of just giving anecdotes of a few people whose problems the sorcerers supposedly solved, he’d put this in context – what percentage of clients saw their problems quickly resolved?


All that said, it’s an interesting book to read – the author seems to have been as immersed in Songhay society as an outsider could be, and he meets some interesting people and definitely provides a window into the country and its landscape and culture. He doesn’t seem to think about his supposedly supernatural experiences very critically, but it was interesting to read about the world of Songhay sorcerers all the same.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-08-01 07:46
Skeleton Keys by Brian Switek
Skeleton Keys - Brian Switek


TITLE:  Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone


AUTHOR:  Brian Switek




FORMAT: Hardcover


ISBN-13: 9780399184901






"Bone is a marvel, an adaptable and resilient building material developed over more than four hundred million years of evolutionary history. It gives your body its shape and the ability to move. It grows and changes with you, an undeniable document of who you are and how you lived. Arguably, no other part of the human anatomy has such rich scientific and cultural significance, both brimming with life and a potent symbol of death.

In this delightful natural and cultural history of bone, Brian Switek explains where our skeletons came from, what they do inside us, and what others can learn about us when these artifacts of mineral and protein are all we've left behind.

Bone is as embedded in our culture as it is in our bodies. Our species has made instruments and jewelry from bone, treated the dead like collectors' items, put our faith in skull bumps as guides to human behavior, and arranged skeletons into macabre tributes to the afterlife. Switek makes a compelling case for getting better acquainted with our skeletons, in all their surprising roles. Bridging the worlds of paleontology, anthropology, medicine, and forensics, Skeleton Keys illuminates the complex life of bones inside our bodies and out.





**********POSSIBLE SPOILERS***********


This book isn't so much about the biology (or even paleontology) of bones or skeletons, but rather a rambling collection of stories about the odd things people have done with skeletons, with the occassional ancient skeletal remains discussed, accompanied by a mini-diatribe against anthropologists.  All this is interspersed between Switek's personal anecdotes, feelings and pilgrimages to various museums.  The writing style is chatty, overly verbose and tedious, with too much "fluff".  Some of the items covered in this book were interesting, but there simply wasn't enough information on these topics in relation to all the fluffy filler.

The book starts off with Switeks love affair with bones - dinosaur bones to be precise.  Then he moves on to the story of Grover Krantz, who wanted his skeleton put on display, with his dogs.  This is followed by a look at the proto-vertebrate Pikaia and the following evolution of cartilagenous and "boney" animals, until the author reaches primates.  There is a bit of information on bone formation in this section.  

There is a chapter (more or less) devoted to the only (partial) human skeleton found in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, along with Switeks opinions on anthropological methods, which he doesn't seem to understand very well.  "Lucy" and the evolution of the human skeleton is superficially covered in Chapter 4.  One of the interesting things we do learn is that bears are able to halt bone loss and bone formation during hibernation, which is something of interest to astronauts that invariably loose bone mass when in space.  

Switek discusses bone pathologies and what these tell us, mentions a few bone diseases, and tells us all about his issues with displaying human skeletons in museums.  Switek also takes us on a trip to the St. Bride’s Church ossuary, and deals a bit with how Neanderthals disposed of their dead, not to mention all the other strange things humans have done with skeletons (e.g. skull drinking cups, shrunken heads, and Saint's arm bones).  There is a chapter devoted to phrenology and other out-dated ideas about skulls and bones.  Another chapter is devoted to the ethical issues between scientists wanting to study ancient American remains and the tribes who wish these remains reburied.  The ongoing trade in human bones and remains is also mentioned.


King Richard III gets a whole chapter summarising how he was found and what his bones tell us.  This is one of the better written chapters - if you ignore all the personal feelings about about the Shakespearean play that Switek included.  The book concludes with more musings by Switek and a look at the difficulties in fossilisation.

The book has horrible references.  There is a phrase in the reference section that corresponds to the text in the book somewhere, followed by the reference.  This particular method of referencing makes is difficult to follow up references for more information.  Switek also thinks articles from the tabloids make good references.  It would have been a simple matter for him to pull up the original scientific article instead of depending on a hashed-up, simplified tabloid version.  It's also quite obvious that Switek's knowledge on forensic anthropology is lacking, being more opinion that anything else.  He should have at least read on text book on the subject if he was going to write a book about it. 


This book is also lacking in illustrations.  A diagram or photograph of the particular skeleton or part thereof that the author is discussing would be more helpful than the numerous paragraphs trying to describe what it looks like.

In short, this book has loads of personal anecdotes (and opinions) with some interesting, random stories about bones.  Nothing particularly substantial - some of the topics were only covered in a paragraph or two.  If you want something fluffy and slightly macabre to read (and know nothing about bones), or if you need a gift for a young teenager who knows nothing about human bones, this might be of interest. 


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review 2019-07-21 20:27
1491 by Charles Mann
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus - Charles C. Mann

This is an important book. The author compiles historical and archaeological research to provide a history of the Americas before (and shortly after) the arrival of Europeans. And it’s a legit history, in ways I didn’t realize were even lacking in my previous acquaintance with early American history before reading the book. Compared to most other parts of the world, we know relatively little about the early Americas, but there’s a lot more information available than is generally taught to the public, and so much of what we do know tends to be couched in these dismissive frameworks where native Americans are some sort of separate species of people, barbarians or noble savages or quasi-mythological beings, depending on your persuasion, all political structures consisting of “tribes” and their “chiefs” no matter how large the groups or sophisticated their political organization, everyone “living lightly on the land” and “in tune with nature” and so on. We know there were actual empires in Mexico and the Andes, and yet we reduce them to barbarians drinking out of skulls or performing human sacrifice (see: the worthless “documentaries,” always shot at night in red and black, that my teachers showed in middle school). We don’t stop to ask about all the trappings of civilization that empires tend to have, or that cultures tend to develop on their way to becoming empires: what sort of political and economic systems did they have? What kinds of technology and writing systems were developed? What about poetry and philosophy? Who were the leaders, innovators and thinkers, and what were their ideas?


Much of the achievement of this book, then, is writing a history of the Americas in the same way one writes a history of European or Asian cultures, and in fact, Mann uses numerous helpful comparisons between similar practices in different cultures, stripping away the mythology of native America that gets in the way of viewing people as people. It isn’t nearly as complete as histories about anywhere in Eurasia, and reading this book drives home the magnitude of how much history and culture has been lost, but there is a ton of information and detail here that I’d never encountered before. Some of Mann’s broad points no longer quite seem like “new revelations”: I think it’s fairly well-known among educated people at this point that the more hospitable parts of the Americas were heavily populated upon European arrival, then overwhelmingly reduced by disease. But other theses were still new to me: the extent of the land management carried out throughout North and South America, for instance, from regular burning of forests to maintain a particular ecological balance, to the Mayan engineering of potable water by paving over toxic elements in the Yucatan’s swamps with limestone, to the human-created fertile soil in the Amazon that now covers between a few thousand square miles and 10% of the basin, depending on whose estimates you believe.


So I found this to be a really fascinating, enlightening book, told in an engaging style, though I do have a few caveats. The book spends a lot of time on drama amongst scientists, which at first I found out of place, though by the end I realized the importance of including it: our learning about history is by no means finished, and readers who know how the sausage is made are perhaps better qualified to analyze scientific differences of opinion in the future. The book also jumps around a fair bit, organized by very broad topics and then returning to discuss the same cultures in different segments; it’s best read when you have time to engage with it and flip back to earlier sections to refresh your memory. The section on the Amazon seems less complete and persuasive than the others. And the author’s obvious desire to turn the information in this book into an ecological lesson, or some kind of rebuke to the environmental movement (hah! The Americas were never pristine after all!) seems forced and unhelpful: the fact that native Americans engaged in more active stewardship and cultivation than previously supposed doesn’t make the idea of destroying everything for temporary economic gain any better. But this is a small part of the book, perhaps tacked on because the author felt like he was supposed to impart a lesson.


Overall though, I think this is a fantastic book despite those few caveats, because it is so eye-opening, a great, accessible source of information that will probably be new to most of its readers, and because it represents a shift in popular thought about North and South American history. It is thorough, well-sourced and engaging, and I definitely recommend it.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-07-15 12:46
The Invaders by Pat Shipman
The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction - Donna Postel,Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews

TITLE:  The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction


AUTHOR:  Pat Shipman


NARRATOR:  Donna Postel




FORMAT:  Audiobook


ISBN-13:  9781494563097




"Approximately 200,000 years ago, as modern humans began to radiate out from their evolutionary birthplace in Africa, Neanderthals were already thriving in Europe-descendants of a much earlier migration of the African genus Homo. But when modern humans eventually made their way to Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals suddenly vanished. Ever since the first Neanderthal bones were identified in 1856, scientists have been vexed by the question, why did modern humans survive while their evolutionary cousins went extinct? The Invaders musters compelling evidence to show that the major factor in the Neanderthals' demise was direct competition with newly arriving humans. Drawing on insights from the field of invasion biology, Pat Shipman traces the devastating impact of a growing human population: reduction of Neanderthals' geographic range, isolation into small groups, and loss of genetic diversity. But modern humans were not the only invaders who competed with Neanderthals for big game. Shipman reveals fascinating confirmation of humans' partnership with the first domesticated wolf-dogs soon after Neanderthals first began to disappear. This alliance between two predator species, she hypothesizes, made possible an unprecedented degree of success in hunting large Ice Age mammals-a distinct and ultimately decisive advantage for humans over Neanderthals at a time when climate change made both groups vulnerable."





I do not have a good relationship with audiobook - I tend to wool gather or fall asleep while listening to them. So I might have missed something and couldn't flip back to check.




This book is something of a detective/mystery novel where the author tries to find out why the Neanderthals went extinct.  Her hypothesis makes use of ecological theory to suggest that modern humans have the same effect on the environment as any other invasive species competing with native animals for the same/similar resources - thus Neanderthals and other megafauna could have survived the cold climate at the time but could not survive the climate and the additional competition with modern humans and their pet wolves/dogs.  The changing climate, changing food sources, other animals in the area, generic invasive species and their effects, hunting techniques, the arrival of modern humans, competition for the same/similar resources, as well as the domestication of wolves/dogs is discussed. The title of the book doesn't really fit with Shipman's hypothesis though, as according to the text, Neanderthals were already on their way out before homo sapiens (aka modern humans) migrated into Eurasia and the semi-domesticated wolf-dogs only arrived (according to available fossil evidence) after the Neanderthals were gone.  The dogs only make an appearance about 3/4 through the book, if anyone is looking specifically for that information. 


I'm not entirely convinced by her argument.  The timing is a bit erratic, with Neanderthal populations declining before modern humans arrived and a large time gap between Neanderthals and domesticated wolves.  She also doesn't take into account that dogs were domesticated from an extinct species of wolf that might not have behaved in the same way as the Grey wolves used in her study (she generally ignored all the other canid species and their interactions with humans).  The author admits that there isn't enough evidence currently to say whether her hypothesis is correct or not, and that new advances in dating and additional fossil sites are required to either prove/disprove her hypothesis.  Shipman's hypothesis of why modern humans domesticated wolves/dogs and Neanderthals didn't, is fairly interesting and new information seems to provide some confirming evidence.  There is also some issue with her stating that Neanderthals ate only meat and didn't change their diet (especially in comparison with brown bear diet changes), when other studies state that some Neanderthals ate meat, others a mix, and some others ate mostly vegetables and thus changed their diet.  There is also no mention of Denisovians (probably due to lack of evidence at time of publication).  The DNA data on Neanderthal-Modern Human hybridization/interbreeding is also out of date.  This makes me wonder what else is out of date and how that effects the hypothesis.


Pat Shipman helpfully makes a point of differentiating between speculation and inferences from hard, empirical evidence.  There is a lot of space dedicated to dating of specific finds and analysis of particular fossil evidence.  She does however, tend to repeat herself too often and harp on the same theme far too much (I got that humans are an invasive species after the first paragraph, I didn't need a whole chapter on the subject and several reminders throughout the book). 


An interesting, but flawed, book.



NOTE ON AUDIOBOOK:  Postel has a pleasant voice, narrates well and at a decent speed.


Humanity's Best Friend: How Dogs May Have Helped Humans Beat the Neanderthals

The Evolution of Puppy Dog Eyes

Some Neanderthals Were Vegetarian — And They Likely Kissed Our Human Ancestors






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