The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – Book Review

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday—in evolutionary time—when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

Soooo, yeah. How do I review Jared Diamond? To be completely candid I am not qualified to much about the content of what he says, other than that it seems to make sense to me. I understand the criticisms that a) not all of our ancestral societies were quite alike; and b) that pre-contact of the 20th century will have evolved from what they were like 4 thousand years ago. Okay, granted. However, I reject the idea that this means that Diamond’s book is irrelevant.

Maybe this is the crazy talk of a layman at work, but it seems fairly clear to me that pre-contact societies live lives that are significantly closer to those of our ancestors than those of us in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) nations. I find it likely that they have, in the past millennia, found better solutions to the problems that plague humans living in small bands and tribes, but the immediate pressures on them are quite different than the ones most of us face from day to day, as any quick search of #firstworldproblems on Twitter would show you.

And still, even if both Diamond and I are 100% wrong that recent pre-contact societies have any similarities at all to the lives our ancestors lived, the fact remains that looking at peoples still living more traditional lives gives us a greater range of solutions to the issues that all humans – first world or third – face, such as childcare, elder care, and justice. Not all of their solutions would work in WEIRD societies, and many of them we would never consent to enact, but there are many things that some traditional peoples do better than most WEIRD peoples. There are things we can learn from these societies; we cannot merely dismiss them as “primitive” (a problematic and condescending term, to be sure) and ignore them.

Whatever problems The World Until Yesterday might have, it is always valuable to learn about and from other cultures, and Diamond does a fabulous job presenting much of the breadth of how traditional societies have functioned. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
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Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy – Book Review

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin

The question, then is not who the werewolves of the sixteenth century were, or the vampires of the eighteenth…. The more relevant question is why: Why should it have been widely believed, and widely feared, that men were stalking the land as wolves? What is so terrifying about the vampire, a creature that, despite its hman form, bites at the flesh of its victims? Why do dark forces so often manifest themselves in the shape of a dog? …The animal infection – the zoonotic idea – is mankind’s original horror, and its etiology traces back inevitably to the rabies virus.
-p. 68

My grandparents visited us a few weeks after the girls were born so they could see them in person. As we were all sitting around my living room one evening, my grandmother asked what I was reading at the time. “A cultural history of rabies,” I responded. She thought it sounded interesting, but my father looked at me as if I was a lunatic.

Perhaps a book about rabies would not be the first thing that most people think of when they are looking for a good read, but it would be a mistake to discount Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Rabid is a complex and complete look at rabies and its place in human history. Waskik and Murphy cover everything from the ancient views on rabies and potential rabies treatments, to the place of rabies in literature and the monsters created in the human psyche, to the ways the rabies virus is being used today to solve other major medical issues.

Rabid is a well-rounded book including both the science and culture of the rabies virus that is also an absolutely fascinating read. A strong science background is not a necessity, Wasik and Murphy write the science sections clearly and concisely and maintain an engaging prose style throughout.

Highly recommended.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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A Calm Brain by Gayatri Devi, M.D. – Mini Review

A Calm Brain: Unlocking Your Natural Relaxation System by Gayartri Devi, M.D.
Published by Dutton Adult, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

Our ancestors used the fight-or-flight mechanism to protect themselves from predators. We use it to fend off daily crises. In a world filled with too many toys, too much technology, and too many choices—how can we possibly keep up? Our bodies have been trained to react to the beeps and alarms of all our different technologies, be it the ever present cell phone, an angry text message, or a frantic voicemail. The result is chronic stress and a learned inability to relax.

With a warm, lucid voice, Dr. Devi shares stories from her medical practice of ordinary people—suffering from migraines, neck pain, gastrointestinal upsets, and sleep deprivation— trying to work through life’s difficulties. With practical advice she shows just how to promote a higher “vagal tone,” and delivers the best news yet: you don’t need more drugs. Here are the keys to more tranquil, productive, and enjoyable life.

Dr. Devi explores a paradigm shift in our understanding of the brain’s relaxation mechanisms. It is hard for our brains to talk our bodies into feeling calm, but our bodies have strong wiring that makes true enduring calm possible. The body does this through the vagus nerve, a powerful conduit that taps directly into our brain’s built-in relaxation system. This revolutionary science can transform your work life and your home life.

A Calm Brain is no simple self-help book; Dr. Devi is clearly an expert in brain science. She intelligently and clearly lays out the workings of the brain and the nervous system to explain first and foremost how and why we get stressed out and what happens to us physically when we do. She is actually quite gifted at such explanations, as she is clear for those who have little background in brain-based science without dumbing things down. Dr. Devi’s clear expertise in her subject matter was impressive to me, but she does have a tendency to explain everything about how all of this works without offering specific steps for calming your brain throughout the book. There is a list at the very end of the book, for those who want to see the suggestions sooner, but the lack of concrete action steps throughout may bother some readers. That being said, I think that having the 200+ pages of background and understanding makes the list much more meaningful – not to mention you will certainly pick up ideas throughout her discussion of the brain.

This does seem to be a very helpful book, even when both girls are crying at the same time, I have found myself staying much calmer than I would have expected, and I am giving at least some of the credit to actually finishing this book while I was in the hospital waiting for them to be born. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Publisher.
*These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson – Audiobook Review

Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson, narrated by Dion Graham
Published in audio by Blackstone Audio, published in print by W. W. Norton & Co

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

Loyal readers of the monthly “Universe” essays in Natural History magazine have long recognized Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talent for guiding them through the mysteries of the cosmos with stunning clarity and almost childlike enthusiasm. Here, Tyson compiles his favorite essays across a myriad of cosmic topics. The title essay introduces readers to the physics of black holes by explaining the gory details of what would happen to your body if you fell into one. “Holy Wars” examines the needless friction between science and religion in the context of historical conflicts. “The Search for Life in the Universe” explores astral life from the frontiers of astrobiology. And “Hollywood Nights” assails the movie industry’s feeble efforts to get its night skies right.

Thoughts on the book:

If there’s one thing that Neil deGrasse Tyson knows how to do, it is make astrophysics interesting. If there are two things, they are how to make astrophysics interesting and how to make it comprehensible to the layperson. Each of Tyson’s essays in Death by Black Hole is well-reasoned, well-organized, and accessible to those with basic science skills. In one particularly interesting piece, Tyson details a number of experiments one can conduct with no more than a stick and some string (and, you know, some equations), all of which have significant things to teach us about the structure of the universe as a whole. He does get a bit nit picky in the essay “Hollywood Nights,” as he catalogs the liberties that the film industry has taken with the universe, often at the same time he admits that no movie is likely to get EVERYTHING right. Overall, however, Death by Black Hole is full of fascinating information.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Dion Graham does a wonderful job narrating Death by Black Hole. In particular, he captures Tyson’s obvious passion for and excitement about this topic, without coming across corny. His excitement is so genuine, in fact, that one suspects that he may be an astrophysics junkie as well and if not then he is a truly superb narrator. The delineations from one essay to the next were clear, which is essential in an audio collection like this (see: my one criticism of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?). That being said, the audio was not idea, in my experience, for close study of the subject, what with limited ability to go back and review, or take time and really allow what Tyson is saying to sink in. Luckily, his style in these pieces is more loosely informative than scholarly, so listening to get a general overview of his subjects worked well for me.

Overall:

A fascinating essay collection, and one whose narrator ably matches the passion of its author. Recommended.

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I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Gravity by Brian Clegg – Mini Review (DNF)

Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives by Brian Clegg
Published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan

From the publisher:

A history of gravity, and a study of its importance and relevance to our lives, as well as its influence on other areas of science. Physicists will tell you that four forces control the universe. Of these, gravity may the most obvious, but it is also the most mysterious. Newton managed to predict the force of gravity but couldn’t explain how it worked at a distance. Einstein picked up on the simple premise that gravity and acceleration are interchangeable to devise his mind-bending general relativity, showing how matter warps space and time. Not only did this explain how gravity worked – and how apparently simple gravitation has four separate components – but it predicted everything from black holes to gravity’s effect on time. Whether it’s the reality of anti-gravity or the unexpected discovery that a ball and a laser beam drop at the same rate, gravity is the force that fascinates.

In many ways, Brian Clegg’s Gravity is a work of popular science. The early chapters, particularly those dealing with the Greeks, are extremely accessible, and provide a good basis for the workings of gravity by examining the erroneous beliefs about the force that used to prevail. Clegg is a clear and engaging writer, but as we approached the present, I began having a harder and harder time with the book. This was not the fault of Clegg, his writing, or the way the book was laid out. I blame science. As we have gained a better understanding of how gravity and other forces in the universe work, the explanations have become increasing complicated and mathematical. Sadly, by midway through the 20th century, my long-ago high school physics was no longer quite enough to help me wrap my brain around exactly what Clegg was trying to impart and reading – for me – became a slog. I might have been able to get through this in audio with a good narrator, where I could just let the too-difficult parts wash over me and glean what I could, but in print it was a word-by-word battle and eventually I had to concede defeat.

Gravity really is a very interesting book about a very interesting and important force, but a good basic grasp of physics and/or a willingness to spend a lot of time puzzling over the details is a must to enjoy it.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

 

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