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.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

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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NW by Zadie Smith – Audiobook Review

NW by Zadie Smith, narrated by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet
Published in audio by Penguin Audio, published in print by The Penguin Press, both imprints of Penguin

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

This is the story of a city.

The northwest corner of a city. Here you’ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all. And many people in between.

Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds.

And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell’s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation…

Thoughts on the story:

In classic Zadie Smith fashion, NW is a challenging book, one which falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of linked stories. Leah and Natalie’s stories are very much intertwined and inform one another. The girls grew up together in the Caldwell housing estates and have achieved varying degrees of success. Felix’s story is only tangentially related to the women’s stories and, for me, was more of a distraction than anything else. It was quite a long digression in the middle of the book that nearly made me lose interest. Overall, though, I thought that the stories Smith told did a wonderful job showcasing the diversity of urban life in NW London.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Let’s just be honest, Don Gilet is probably the only thing that kept me interested in Felix’s story when it interrupted those of Leah and Natalie, he did a truly wonderful job. I am slightly more conflicted about Karen Bryson’s performance. On one hand, she is practically a chameleon with voices and accents. She is able to differentiate between characters and bring them fully to life. On the other hand, she has a tendency to make wet mouth noises, which have a tendency to give me the creeps. At least one time when she smacks her mouth it is a conscious choice in voicing a character, but it seems much of the rest of the time that this is just her natural inclination between words, which bothers me a bit.

Overall:

NW is challenging, but worthwhile. I am certain that the audio helped me make it through what might have been a more difficult read in print, but listeners overly disturbed by wet mouth noises in narration may want to give this a miss.

For more please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

Sound Bytes is a meme that occurs every Friday! I encourage you to review your audiobooks 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: Audiofile Magazine.
* 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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Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans – Audiobook Review

Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans, narrated by Kirsten Potter
Published in print by Random House, published in audio by Tantor Media

Synopsis:

In Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans tells the story of 400 years of ballet’s history, a history which, until now, has  been unwritten.

Thoughts on the story:

Ballet is ballet is ballet. Or so I thought, before reading Apollo’s Angels. I had no idea that there were national differences even today, or that political movements such as the French and Russian Revolutions were so expressed through the art of ballet. Weighing in at almost 700 pages in print and close to 24 hours in audio, Apollo’s Angels is certainly a commitment, but it is a pleasant one. Homan succeeds in writing a book which is informative about the history of ballet and the way that ballet serves as a mirror of social and political history, while at the same time is not overly technical. There were certainly passages here and there that lost me briefly talking about specific steps, but even though I have not taken ballet since I was five years old, I was never lost for long, and was engaged enough to stick through those technical sections to return to the history.

The one place Homan did lose me was at the very end, in which she makes an argument for the disappearance of ballet in the near future which does not seem to be hinted at or backed up in any way by the 600 odd pages that precede it. Still, though, it was a very short passage in comparison with the rest of the book, and was not enough to permanently leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Kirsten Potter did an absolutely lovely job narrating Apollo’s Angels, the casting was really just perfect for the book. For my full thoughts on the audio, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

I was more interested in Apollo’s Angels for the social and cultural history than for the ballet itself, but ballet was a fascinating way to impart this history. I think this would work well in print or audio, although I don’t think I’d have done as well with it in print, as I would likely have gotten bogged down in the technicalities of dance. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

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: Audiofile Magazine.
* 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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The Statues That Walked by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo – Book Review

The Statues That Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo
Published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

If you have read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know that the natives of Easter Island caused the collapse of their own civilization in the course of building their famous statues, causing the deforestation of their island by cutting down trees to transport the giant heads. Hunt and Lipo did not set out to disprove this widely accepted truism when they ventured to Easter Island, called Rapa Nui in the local language, but disprove it they did and, in the course of doing so, they unraveled many of the mysteries surrounding Easter Island: from the true cause of the deforestation of Rapa Nui, to the social structure that supported statue building, to the statues themselves and how they were moved.

One need not be an archaeologist to find The Statues That Walked fascinating. Hunt and Lipo lay out their arguments for the past of Rapa Nui in a clear and articulate manner, providing just enough evidence to lend them credibility, but not so many technical details to lose their lay readers. Assuming their science is valid – and Hunt and Lipo give the reader no reason to assume it is not – this team seems to have made great headway in explaining the history and basic culture of the people of Easter Island, not least the explanation that the statues were moved by ‘walking’ them.

The only real problem with The Statues That Walked is the extent to which its authors inserted themselves in their story, which was either too much, or not enough. In no way did they introduce themselves or give any sense of who they were, and yet they referred to their findings, their state of mind going into the research, etc. Inserting oneself into a story such as this one can lend a greater sense of narrative flow and make it easier to engage readers, but in order to do that, an actual sense of the personality of the authors must come through. The writing was clear and engaging enough that the authors were not a necessary plot device to keep readers interested. In the end, their random insertion served only to distract from the fascinating picture of Easter Island painted by The Statues That Walked.

A solid work of nonfiction, odd insertion of the authors not withstanding. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound.*

Source: Simon & Schuster Galley Grab.
* 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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My First Thanksgiving – Saturday Story Spotlight

Welcome to Saturday Story Spotlight, my new feature where I discuss books my husband and I are reading with our son, Daniel. These are books that he, we, or all of us particularly enjoy, since we are definitely reading more than one book a week! Also, if anyone is interested in helping me make a button for this feature, please let me know.

My First Thanksgiving by Tomie dePaola
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin

When I was looking at Thanksgiving books for Daniel this year, I went in two directions. One book I bought was a flashy turkey counting book with crinkly turkey feathers, the other was Tomie dePaola’s “My First Thanksgiving.” I’m not going to lie, part of the reason I’m writing about dePaola’s book is because we seem to have lost the crinkly feather book somewhere in Daniel book piles after a couple of readings and I cannot recall the title but, surprisingly, it never really captured his attention like I thought it would.

I originally bought “My First Thanksgiving” on the strength of Tomie dePaola’s name alone. To  be completely honest, I thought that it looked a little boring, especially for someone Daniel’s age. My original intention was that this would be for the future and the flashy Thanksgiving book would be for this year. Surprisingly, though, Daniel actually seemed to enjoy this one, which gives the young child version of both the first Thanksgiving and basic modern American Thanksgiving traditions in a few concise pages, more than the other. I think it had a lot to do both with the laconic yet informative style, and with dePaola’s trademark fabulous illustrations.

dePaola proves that you don’t need to be flashy to create a great children’s book, and I can definitely recommend “My First Thanksgiving.” What are your kids’ favorite Thanksgiving picture books?

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Personal copy
* 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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