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review 2018-09-24 08:34
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them - Jennifer Wright

I finally finished this one.  The delay was a combination of being on holiday, and needing to put some space between my experience of this book and the experience of others, as I was starting to feel like I was losing my objectivity regarding my feelings about this book.

 

So, my feelings: Get Well Soon was poorly sub-titled and marketed.  As a popular science book, or a popular history-about-science book, it fails.  As an introductory anthropological and cultural survey of how society has historically reacted to epidemics and pandemics, I think its excellent.

 

Furthermore, while I like her writing style a lot, it is polarising.  Jennifer Wright is a 30-something author whose voice is informal, irreverent and snarky.  She writes the way friends - good friends - talk when they don't have to behave themselves.  She uses this no-nonsense voice to sometimes share her thoughts about topics that are themselves, polarising.  

 

So this is a book that isn't going to appeal to everyone.  It particularly isn't going to appeal - at all - to anyone looking for a more sober, scientifically-focused exploration of the topic.  After reading the whole thing, I'm pretty sure it was never meant to, at least, not from the author's perspective.

 

"If you take nothing else away from this book, I hope it's that sick people are not villains."

 

This is a recurring theme from start to finish.  Wright's objective seems to be to focus a spotlight on humanity's reaction to mass illness throughout history, whether good or bad.  Her hope in doing so is that perhaps those who read this book will learn from history rather than doom themselves to repeat it.  She does this is the frankest, bluntest possible way, with a lot of snarky humor.

 

In this objective, I believe she succeeds.  I think those of us who could be labeled as 'prolific readers' or those who voraciously devour their favorite subjects, might lose perspective on how well-informed, or not,  most people today are.  Society today is at least as divided as it's been at almost any other time in history, and a good deal of opinion is shaped via the internet, a source we all know can be about as accurate as a round of the telephone game.

 

In this context, I think the book is fantastic.  Jennifer Wright seems to be a popular author of columns in various newspapers and magazines; if even a handful of her fans from Harper's Bazaar, et al, read this book simply because she wrote it, and they come away having learned something they didn't know before they started, or thinking harder about their responsibility in society, then Wright will have succeeded where others have failed.  (And yes, I'm generally pessimistic about the world I live in - my country is being run by an orange lunatic; I think I'm entitled to a bit of pessimism.)

 

I'm not one of her magazine/newspaper fans.  In fact it wasn't until after I'd started this that I realised I'd ever read anything by her before.  I'm also quantitatively better read, if not qualitatively (some would argue), and I can say that not only did I enjoy this book a great deal, but I learned more than I expected to.  For example, I had no idea that the Spanish Flu wasn't actually Spanish, but probably American, and I had no idea that it killed so many Americans.  Granted, most of my knowledge of the Spanish Flu comes from British fiction, but it's a testament to the horrifying effectiveness of government censorship during WWI that you still don't read about it in American fiction, and this is a disease that killed in one month more Americans than the US Civil War.  I'd also never heard of Encephalitis Lethargica, and sort of wish I never had.  Even on the diseases I knew more about, Wright managed to impart something new for me, and in at least 2 chapters, left me misty eyed over the power people have when they choose to be selfless.

 

As a popular science book meant to tackle a complicated topic in a palatable way, this book is a fail; there's not nearly enough scientific discussion or data here to qualify this as such a book.  But as a popular, cultural overview of the way societies throughout history have succeeded or failed to handle epidemics when they happened and the importance of rational, humane leaders and populace in times of crises, I think Wright succeeds very well.

 

The tragedy of this book is that it's marketed to the very people who are bound to be disappointed by it and likely don't need its message, and the people who might gain the most from it are likely to pass it by because they think it'll be too boring and dry.

 

I read this for The Flat Book Society's September read, but it also qualifies for the Doomsday square in Halloween Bingo.

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review 2018-08-23 09:36
The Contented Bee
The Contented Bee - Australian Broadcasting Corporation

An almost completely Australian-centric overview on the delights and benefits of backyard beekeeping.  It's informative for those, like me, brand-spanking-new to bees, and beautifully put together with loads of full-colour photography.

 

The first section of the book focuses on the basics of keeping European honeybees, touching on the different hive types, honey collection, and diseases/pests that affect the Australian population of EU honeybees.  The highlight of this section was a small selection of recipes/instructions for way to use your honey and beeswax.  I was especially excited to see instructions for making your own food storage wraps, as we are devotees of these things; knowing I can renew them myself has me excited to try it.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, check them out here - they replace plastic wrap for a lot of food storage and you have to see how well a cut avocado lasts wrapped in one of these things to believe it.  

 

The second section focuses on keeping the Australian stingless bees, which also produce honey, also known as sugarbag honey, albeit in about 1/10th the amounts.  The enthusiasm for the stingless variety is boundless here, and I can see why: even with much less harvestable honey, if any, the stingless are, well, stingless.  They also require almost no extra equipment or maintenance, unlike the more productive EU honey bees.  

 

A third section discusses the other native Australian bees, almost all of which are solitary, produce no honey, and sting.  But oh, are they amazing to look at, and I was especially interested in this section. Alas, if it wasn't a stingless, few of the contributors were interested.

 

That's my only real beef about this book; with all the information and instructions included, they don't have any instructions for making a 'bee hotel' that attracts a blue-banded bee, which, as some of you might remember, is my favorite of the natives.  They like to nest in holes bored into clay or mud bricks you can make yourself, but apparently not any old clay or mud will do, so some instructions for this would have been welcome - especially as they do tell you how to make your own bee hotels for other natives.

 

If you've read this far down and aren't an Aussie, you must be interested in bees, so to keep this from being a total waste, here are a few pics of the cooler natives Down Under, starting with my favorite, the Blue Banded Bee:

 

 

the metallic green bee:

 

 

and one I've yet to see, and neon cuckoo bee:

 

 

 

(sources:  green metallic: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metallic_Green_Bee_(Augochloropsis_sp.)_on_Coreopsis_(7173773106).jpg

neon cuckoo: http://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/sciencecommunication/2013/08/26/a-buzz-about-australian-native-bees/

blue banded: mine.

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review 2018-07-25 08:59
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science–and the World
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby,Lauren Fortgang
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World - Rachel Swaby

A collection of short biographies highlighting 52 women who changed science - many of them Nobel prize winners - that most people have probably never heard of.  Or, at least, never heard of in relation to their scientific accomplishments.  

 

Most everybody of a certain age or with a fondness for old movies knows Hedy Lamar as a siren of Hollywood movies; fewer know she developed and held the patent for the technology that makes wi-fi and cellular phones possible.  Literature and poetry readers will recognise Ada Lovelace as the daughter of Lord Byron but how many of those same readers know her paper on Babbage's Analytical Engine is considered "the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.", or that she wrote the first computer program?  Ever.

 

All of these women were amazing not only for their accomplishments in a time when women didn't accomplish much beyond home and hearth, and not only because they accomplished these achievements in the most male dominated of all the fields in a male dominated world.  They were amazing because they just did what they wanted to do.  They didn't wail, gnash their teeth, or whine, or cajole.  They just got on with their passions and went around anyone who got in their way.  An astonishing number of them worked for free.  All of them kicked ass.

 

I shy away from calling these women role models: the biographies here are restricted solely to their scientific accomplishments and for all I know some of these women might have been drunks or addicts or gamblers in their private lives.  Certainly Hedy Lamar had a rather colorful, and often pragmatic, love life (which I've read about elsewhere). I'm not judging Hedy for her choices - personally I say more power to her - but her choices are probably choices I'd rather not see my nieces have to confront.  But they are amazing sources of inspiration for all women interested in STEM subjects.  If these women changed the world in a time when they weren't even legally allowed to vote, imagine what similarly headstrong women today can accomplish (and are)?

 

My favorite quote is from Nobel prize winning physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yallow, who, along with her partner, identified the differences between humans an bovine insulin and developed radioimmunoassay: the process of measuring hormones by looking at their antibodies.

 

When asked "How does one get past discrimination?" she replied:

"Personally, I have never been terribly bothered by it ... if I wasn't going to do it on one way, I'd manage to do it another way."

 

This was an excellent read in audio.  Fortgang's voice is clear and easy to understand and she reads the material naturally and with spirit. 

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review 2018-07-20 06:23
The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions
The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions - Thomas McNamee

I'm going almost the full five stars on this because it's the best cat book I've read to date.  I've not read a ton, to be honest, but McNamee manages to capture both the science and the essence of the relationship between a cat and its owner.  He is undoubtedly a man coming at the subject with heartfelt appreciation and love for our feline overlords and his advice is rational, sound and passionate.

 

I learned a lot from this book.  I never knew that the sticking out of the tongue was a sign of friendship and acceptance; I always thought Easter-cat just left her tongue sticking out sometimes.  The front leg stretch isn't really a stretch, so much as it's a gesture of acceptance and friendship.  McNamee has me a little stressed out about Easter-cat's insistence on only eating dry food.  Small things like that, as well as much bigger issues like separation anxiety have given me much to think about. 

 

McNamee also talks about a lot of very sticky issues, especially regarding breeding, the cat's need to hunt, and the feral population problem that plagues communities around the world.  His overview of how Italy - specifically Rome - is tackling the issue is an inspiration, if not a complete solution.  I think he does a phenomenal job bringing home the basic idea that cats (and any pet for that matter) are not merely personal possessions or accessories; they are living creatures with as much right to quality of life and dignity as we might and arrogant humans so.

 

This book is a weaving of science and personal anecdotes about the author's cat, Augusta.  Those personal parts are brilliant, and sometimes nail-biting.  Full disclosure:  I flat-out skipped chapter 7 on sickness and death.  I'm a sissy, and the first 6 chapters convinced me that McNamee was going to write chapter 7 with at least as much passion and heartfelt sincerity and there aren't enough tissues in the world to get me through that chapter.

 

I knocked off half a star because some figures at the start seemed to fantastical to be true, and though there is a notes section at the back, those figures weren't cited, leaving me and others feeling distrustful of the data.  Otherwise, I thought this was a brilliantly written, fantastic resource for anybody who wants to be a better cat slave.

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review 2018-06-28 01:07
The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature's Secret Signs
The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature's Secret Signs - Peter Wohlleben

NOT what it says on the tin.  Not really.  I read this title and its blurb and expected, not unreasonably, that it would be a collection of practically accurate ways to predict the weather by reading the nature of what's around you.  There's maybe 30% of the book that falls under that category.

 

I did learn a few things: a couple of flowers that act as barometers; which ones you can use to tell time.  But most of the information was general, basic getting-back-to-nature stuff.  Importance of rain.  A general overview of the skies; background on the importance of soil.  Definitely worthy subjects, and written on a practical level; he doesn't expect the reader to chuck it all and live amongst the forest creatures, but just points out what's in most of our gardens.  Sadly, there wasn't much here that I didn't already know, and I didn't learn half of what I'd hoped to.

 

The Weather Detective is an English translation of the original book titled Kranichflug und Blumenuhr, which roughly translates to "Crane Flight and Flower Clock"; probably not a title that's going to infer any immediate meaning to English readers, but probably more accurate in its vagueness than The Weather Detective.  This leads me to another issue I had with the book:  it's either poorly translated, or it's meant for a much younger audience.  Wohlleben is a well-known and well-respected writer, so I'm inclined to believe it's the translation.  I don't question its accuracy, but the tone of the original, I have to believe, has been lost, leaving a text that is overly simplistic and sometimes skates near condescending (something I'm positive was not intended by the author himself).  I feel like I could give this to my 8 year old niece, and with a few exceptions, she'd be able to read it and understand it without any problems.

 

It's not an unworthy book; given a stronger, more intuitive translation and a much more accurate title, the book would be perfect for any urbanite more interested in what's going on outside their doors.  I like Wohlleben's honest, but pragmatic and sympathetic view on human interaction with nature - his views are moderate, reasonable, and rational.  And I truly did gain a few nuggets of information here and there.  It's just not all it could be, and what I suspect it might be, in the original German.

 

Some additional notes for anyone considering reading it:

It's pretty German-centric, of course.  He tries to look further afield, but even that's confined to Europe and the UK.  All the measurements have been converted to US Customary Units/UK Imperial, so Canadians, Aussies, and any other English speaking readers not inclined to be flexible about USC/UK:Metric conversions are going to be irritated.  In the same vein, forget about it if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, unless you really like to flex your brain.  Wind direction and sun orientations will all need to be reversed.  Most of the wildlife mentioned will also be non-applicable, though the science, at least, is sound no matter what part of the globe you live on. 

 

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