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text 2018-05-24 04:50
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Since this is a re-read for me, and I stand by my original review/rating, this post will serve as my final reading update.  As such a few thoughts on the final three entires:



"[...] to ensure no ricin makes it into the castor oil it is heated to more than 80C at it is extracted; this denatures the protein, so inactivating it."


Something for the raw food movement to remember:  don't buy cold-pressed castor oil.  Sometimes, processed is better.



Oh dear god what a thoroughly hideous way to die.  The deciding factor for me, in a book full of thoroughly hideous ways to go, is that you're completely aware of what's going on the entire time it's happening.  Like Hemlock, only here there's zero chance of getting the "nice" kind (if a nice kind of hemlock actually does exist - let's nobody find out).  


I also had the weird and totally superfluous thought:  I wonder if anyone's ever tried spraying a victim down in solarcaine?  (Solarcaine is an aerosol form of lidocaine - topical anesthetic.)  Because, you know, it's a numbing agent, which would cut off nerve stimulation.  Although I can't imagine it would be very comforting to be in the throes of strychnine and hear: "Quick! Get the sunburn spray - this might feel a little cold..."


So, now you know where my mind goes when it's running from descriptions of horrific death.  Sunburn spray.


Moving on... Veronal.  

I had almost no thoughts about Veronal at all; probably because I was still musing over the sunburn spray ... not because of any deficiencies in Harkup's writing.


As I said at the start; I happily stand by my first assessment of the book at the 4.5 stars I gave it.  It's entertaining and accessible without sacrificing intellectual merit.


If you have a reading retention rate for details better than mine, you might find some of the sections she doesn't label as spoilers to be over-revealing.  Unlike others, the only one I found that will stick with me over time is the (to me) dead give away in the Veronal chapter for Lord Edgware Dies, although maybe it isn't. The way it's written it seems there's only one scene needed to identify the murderer, given what Harkup shares here.  Perhaps the scene is more complicated than she describes though.  Luckily, I need only read enough books between now and my next Christie to completely forget, confuse or conflate the details I've read here.  Silver linings...

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review 2018-05-13 05:24
Sleepy Head: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night
Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night - Henry Nicholls

As one or two of my BL friends might know, I have narcolepsy; I was diagnosed almost 5 years ago, but it's likely I've had it most of my life - because I don't suffer from cataplexy (the uncontrollable bouts of muscle paralysis), we all just thought I was lazy.


That sounds like a jest, but it isn't; so little is known about narcolepsy, cataplexy and all the other sleep disorders that science is just beginning to focus on, that society tends to equate someone being tired during the day with being lazy, hungover or a new parent. I don't overindulge and I'm not a parent, so ... lazy.   Except it turns out I'm not, something my sleep doctor has been trying to tell me for 4.5 years, but I didn't really believe until I read this book.


Now I know, really know, that I have been the unfortunate victim of an auto-immune response run amok.  My immune system killed off the areas of my brain responsible for making hypocretin, probably because the cells looked too much like strep, or flu.  As Nicholls explains, hypocretin does a LOT for us, not the least of which includes making sure the body is either asleep or awake (not both), modulates dopamine and serotonin, and controls the trigger for REM.  The upside for narcoleptics: we're a little less likely to suffer addictions; the downside: it's a moot point, since we don't need drugs to hallucinate.  


This was the thing I wanted most from this book and I got it - I have a much greater understanding of what's going on at a chemical level in my brain.  I am also left with no doubt as to whether or not I really have narcolepsy.  This is a spectrum disorder, and I am solidly on the spectrum.


But I learned so much more, because this book isn't just about Narcolepsy; the author spends a solid amount of time and focus on other sleep disorders too; those that are intimately familiar to a large number of people, like insomnia, and those that are just now beginning to be formally identified, like Restless Leg Syndrome and the rare but terrifying Fatal Familial Insomnia; a prion disease that stops sleep completely and is always fatal.


This isn't a self help book, or a book of strategies for dealing with sleep disorders, but the author does discuss a few different avenues science is taking towards sleep management, and these apply to pretty much anyone searching for healthy sleep.  I could wish for more coverage of current medical treatments, but honestly, there really aren't that many, though research tantalisingly looks to be on the right track.


If you're interested in sleep disorders in general, and the science of sleep, this is a good introduction to both, though the author's battle with narcolepsy is what gives the book its focus.  He includes a very thorough notes section with complete citations, and a section of recommended further reading that includes several titles aimed at the broader topic of sleep's importance to everyone's health, as well as a few titles more explicitly aimed at specific sleep disorders.  While this is not one I'd generally recommend to everyone, it's definitely informative to anyone suffering from a lack of healthy sleep.

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review 2018-04-16 11:28
Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects
Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects - Jack Ashby

A gorgeous publication, and it started off strong for me, as the first entry is the platypus.  But I have to admit to a whole lot of skimming; the writing is dry and the author uses the book to fly the flag for the Grant Museum of Zoology at every opportunity.  There's also a mind numbing number of entries involving worms.  Now, I like reading about worms if the writing is engaging - I've read an entire book about earthworms (5 stars!) - and the author's aim to fairly represent animals that make up a huge part of evolutionary history, is logical.  But there's only so much information one can take on-board about all the wormlike creatures in the history of the world before falling asleep.


It's a worthy book, but could have been more engagingly written.

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review 2018-04-14 06:31
Gut: the inside story of our body's most under-rated organ
Gut - Giulia Enders,Katy Sobey

I listened to this as a follow up to I Contain Multitudes knowing full well going into it that it was written to appeal to people generally not interested in science, but I wanted this, to a degree.  I was looking for straight-forward information that I could use to apply to my everyday choices.


I got both what I was expecting, and what I was looking for.  Most of my science reading friends are going to find the writing in this one tedious to the extreme. This is meant to be a very introductory text, and Enders' intended audience knows little to nothing about the hard science of the human body and her generous use of metaphors to help readers along is probably effective, but it nearly drove me up the wall.  Katy Sobey, the narrator, did an excellent job: her voice was clear, pleasant and easy to understand, but she sounds young and at times the combination of her youthful sounding voice and the metaphors (and especially when the text used 'tummy' - a word I despise) gave the whole thing a very surreal, children's book vibe, that at the beginning was difficult to take seriously, although I quickly got used to it.


While I'd never suggest this book for a Flat Book Society read, I did get a lot out of it; both information I was hoping for (about specific bacteria strains that research has shown useful) and information I wasn't looking for but am thrilled to have found.  I know first hand the risk of eating cookie batter; the resulting bout of Salmonella left me with a hefty dose of fear for raw eggs.  Gut has taken a world of stress off my shoulders.  Specifically, Chickens do not harbour Salmonella naturally; it comes from feeding them cheap grains tainted by reptile feces and it does not exist inside the egg (just the shell).  I'm never going to be a raw egg eater, but it's nice to know that if my eggs are sourced from organically fed chickens (mine), and I clean the shells before using them, I can once again dip into the cookie dough - and not be the freaked-out-aunt when my nieces want to lick the spoon!


These are the practical types of information I was hoping I'd find in this book, so I'm not at all disappointed.  For anyone wanting to know more about how their body works with, and depends on, bacteria and the food they eat, but does not have an interest in the nitty-gritty science-y details, I'd recommend this book happily.  It's well-written, easy to understand (if metaphor heavy), balanced and informative.

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review 2018-03-14 06:41
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness - Peter Godfrey-Smith
Other Minds - Peter Godfrey-Smith

I don't know quite how to rate this one, so I went for 4 stars.  This is likely to be more a collection of disparate thoughts rather than a cohesive review of any kind.


Most people are not going to find Other Minds a 'popular' science book.  It's not dry, but it is dense.  The author merges what is currently known in evolutionary science with philosophy, and has written what is largely a thought experiment on the concept of consciousness and it's origins, and not just for the octopus; this covers all life.  Octopuses get more page time than other creatures, but still only make up about ... 40%, maybe 50%?  Not quite what I was expecting, but I was willing to go with it.


I listened to the audiobook, although I have the hardcover as well.  The narrator, Peter Noble, does an excellent job with the narration; his voice is crisp and clear and he reads it as though he has a thorough grasp of the material. 


But ... I don't know if it was me or if the title of the book was too open to interpretation, but I did not realise how deeply philosophical the material was - this made the audiobook very challenging for me; I'm not a fan of other people's thought experiments in general, so I really struggled with a wandering mind as I listened to this book.  I understood the general concepts he covered, but whole sections of the narration would just wash right over me before I'd realise my consciousness checked out.  


Conclusion: I'd have been better off reading the physical edition, I think.  It's a very well written book, but it's heavy material for someone like me, for whom listening requires a conscience effort.  I'll likely re-read my hardcover sometime soon, so I can determine how much I missed, and give my mind a chance to reinforce some of the points I found most interesting.

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