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review 2018-03-19 17:45
My Brief History / Stephen Hawking
My Brief History - Stephen Hawking

My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his postwar London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Lavishly illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty, and candid account introduces readers to a Hawking rarely glimpsed in previous books: the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him Einstein; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a particular black hole; and the young husband and father struggling to gain a foothold in the world of physics and cosmology.

Writing with characteristic humility and humor, Hawking opens up about the challenges that confronted him following his diagnosis of ALS at age twenty-one. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, and talks about the genesis of his masterpiece A Brief History of Time—one of the iconic books of the twentieth century.


With the passing of the great cosmologist last week, it seemed fitting to read his autobiography as a way of appreciating the man a bit more. It’s a very compact account of Hawking’s life, hitting the high spots without going into great detail. One of the more charming aspects for me was the inclusion of a fair number of personal photographs, many supplied by Hawking himself and his sister.

Numerous tributes to Hawking last week referred to his sense of humour. Unfortunately, that didn’t really come through to me in this volume. I can also appreciate that he wanted to be known for more than his ALS, but I thought that a little more detail about the disease would have been appropriate. It seemed to me that his family, especially his children, got extremely little page-time. I didn’t require a tell-all or anything too detailed, but knowing how the children turned out and what they chose to do with their lives would have been interesting. I also wonder if they worry that they may have a predisposition to getting ALS themselves.

To be fair, each person gets to be the star of their own autobiography. Hawking concentrates on what he obviously deemed the most important part of his life—his research. Many of the details that I’m interested in, he probably decided were not his to tell.

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review 2018-03-19 17:29
Birding Without Borders / Noah Strycker
Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World - Noah Strycker

In 2015, Noah Strycker set himself a lofty goal: to become the first person to see half the world’s birds in one year. For 365 days, with a backpack, binoculars, and a series of one-way tickets, he traveled across forty-one countries and all seven continents, eventually spotting 6,042 species—by far the biggest birding year on record.

This is no travelogue or glorified checklist. Noah ventures deep into a world of blood-sucking leeches, chronic sleep deprivation, airline snafus, breakdowns, mudslides, floods, war zones, ecologic devastation, conservation triumphs, common and iconic species, and scores of passionate bird lovers around the globe. By pursuing the freest creatures on the planet, Noah gains a unique perspective on the world they share with us—and offers a hopeful message that even as many birds face an uncertain future, more people than ever are working to protect them.


I enjoyed this memoir much more than I anticipated. Late last year, I read this author’s Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, which I enjoyed because I am a penguin fanatic. I have done a fair bit of travel in the pursuit of birds, so I picked up this volume with both hope and reservations.

I needn’t have worried. Strycker is a much better writer than many of the folks who pen birding memoirs and I enjoyed seeing places, people and birds that I know through his eyes. I think that was part of the enjoyment for me—getting to revisit some places, remember some birds and say, “Oh, I met that person!”

For those of you who aren’t obsessed with birds, a big year is a year devoted to seeing as many birds as possible in a certain area. There’s a certain competitiveness inherent in the practice which you can read about in The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (or try the movie of the same name, which I enjoyed). As I read TBY, I found myself snorting occasionally as I identified with many of the behaviours described. Strycker takes the Big Year concept a step further as he decides to take his Year global and try to see half of the bird species on Earth (5000 of an approximate 10,000). While having no desire to participate in such an activity myself, it was intriguing to see how Strycker proceeded with the endeavour.

What I appreciated the most about this account wasn’t the list of birds. Obviously birds figure prominently in the account, but it was the connections with people, the difficulties faced during travel, and the time spent putting things into perspective—those made the tale worthwhile in my opinion. There was self-reflection here, plus no over-the-top environmental preachiness.

I’m unsure how interesting non-birders would find such a book—if any of my non-birding friends choose to read it, perhaps you could let me know?

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review 2018-03-19 15:59
What a Fish Knows / Jonathan Balcombe
What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins - Jonathan Balcombe

Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes. Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish—more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined—we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave. Balcombe upends our assumptions about fishes, portraying them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed feeding machines but as sentient, aware, social, and even Machiavellian—in other words, much like us.

What a Fish Knows draws on the latest science to present a fresh look at these remarkable creatures in all their breathtaking diversity and beauty. Fishes conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoalmates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. We may imagine that fishes lead simple, fleeting lives—a mode of existence that boils down to a place on the food chain, rote spawning, and lots of aimless swimming. But, as Balcombe demonstrates, the truth is far richer and more complex, worthy of the grandest social novel.

Highlighting breakthrough discoveries from fish enthusiasts and scientists around the world and pondering his own encounters with fishes, Balcombe examines the fascinating means by which fishes gain knowledge of the places they inhabit, from shallow tide pools to the deepest reaches of the ocean.


Fish get short shrift when we are thinking about animal behaviour. Consider the poor maligned gold fish, which is reputed to have an attention span of mere seconds. Incorrect, as it turns out—gold fish can learn tasks and retain that learning for months.

I’m not a diver. I can’t swim and water will always be a scary place for me, but I can see where this book would be very interesting to anyone who spends time in the underwater world. Fish are much more interesting that I gave them credit for. I’m a birder, after all, and so I’m a little biased (although I certainly know that the term “bird brain” is actually more of a compliment than an insult).

It’s difficult for us to imagine what a fish’s life is like—they live in a completely different medium than we do, have extra senses that we can’t fathom, and have unexpressive faces. I think that last point is the one that leads us to underestimate fishes—we value expressiveness over evidence, I think, because it’s something we’re good at.

If you are interested in matters of animal intelligence (and human judginess) I would recommend Franz de Waal’s excellent book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?.

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review 2018-03-19 05:31
Absolutely tore through this.
Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace - Masha Gessen

It's pretty rare for me to chew through non-fiction this fast, but I couldn't put this one down.


The storyline follows the lives of the author's grandmothers, both Jewish one from Moscow, one from Poland, from their birth through to the present day, with a focus on how they survived WWII and Stalinist Russia. The book illuminates their careers, their loves, their children. It shows better than anything else I've read what living in Russia int eh '40s and '50s felt like, and at its heart it's about choices.


At the very centre of the book, in terms of page count, are a set of potentially conflicting accounts of the actions of Gessen's great grandfather, who was an elder in a Nazi-run ghetto in Poland. The information is unclear, possibly contradictory. Was he a hero or a collaborator? What choices did he make? What choices did he have? How did he die? Each option is explored, conclusions are implied.


The ghetto story a microscale of the rest of the book, in which his daughter and the woman who will eventually be her best friend, the mother of the girl his grandson will marry, make those choices their whole lives. What is folding to the state, compromising your ethics, protecting your family, staying alive? Do you turn away a job for the secret police if that job will keep your baby from starving? If you do, what then? If you don't, what then?


I'm making this sound unrelentingly grim, and certainly bad things happen in it and the central characters suffer, but both of these women lived and even thrived in a hostile state, built careers and families, and have children and grandchildren who did the same. Maybe at it's heart it's also about growing potatoes on Mars: survival against all odds.


The writing itself is gorgeous and compelling. I hadn't run into Gessen before, aside from an essay that pointed me to this book, but I will be reading them again.

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review 2018-03-17 06:36
I feel like a book about mass poisonings, satanism and an inquisition should have been more exciting.
City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris - Holly Tucker

Maybe it just lacked focus? Maybe it was taking on a topic that in the end was too broad and too murky?


The basic storyline follows the investigations of a police chief into an escalating and expanding series of poisonings, plots, satanism, and possible human sacrifice (the last never completely confirmed). I think the problem comes from how unconnected a lot of the suspects were, and how the implications to high politics were always vague at best.


Thus we end up spending chapters on one noble woman methodically assassinating the majority of her family, whose plot is only to prime the later panic, but doesn't really have much else to do with the book. We also spend chapters and chapters on everyone Louis XIV was sleeping with, which was a lot of people, man, only two of whom were actually relevant to the whole poisoning/satanism issue.


I'm all for setting up background, but it seemed to be a lot of background to actual investigation ratio going on in this book. Which might of been a good thing, because the investigation involved very little gumshoe shenanigans and a heck of a lot of torturing the fuck out of people. Which was graphically described. So.


The writing itself was fairly good; a lot of the slice of life period detail was interesting, and I always like Kate Reading's narration. I dunno, Vive la révolution, I guess.

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