BooksOfTheMoon

How To

By Randall Munroe

Rating: 4 stars

There are perfectly sensible ways to dig a hole, cross a river or move house. If you’re a fan of any of being sensible, do not buy this book. The author uses Science! to find the most useless, complex and dangerous ways of doing common or everyday tasks. As well as the above, we learn to how throw a pool party, move house, predict the weather and much more.

In this book I learned that the US military detonated nuclear weapons to see what effect they would have on alcoholic and carbonated beverages (good news, they survived and, apparently, tasted fine); that one percent of people think it’s okay for employees to steal expensive equipment from their workplace (presumably that’s the oft-neglected thieves’ vote); and that if the book itself was used to power a car, it would burn through about 30,000 words per minute.

Munroe persuaded Serena Williams to hit tennis balls at drones (outcome: Serena Williams is very good at accurately hitting balls at things) and Chris Hadfield to answer increasingly stupid questions about how to land an aeroplane/space shuttle/space station (which he amusingly did without batting an eyelid).

Munroe certainly didn’t skimp on showing his workings throughout. For whatever harebrained scheme he comes up with, he probably provides not only the outline solution, but there’s a good chance he’ll provide the relevant equations and fill in the values for you, so you can try it for yourself. In fact, this book probably has more equations than I’ve seen outwith a maths or physics textbook and almost certainly has the highest laugh to equation ratio of any book that I’ve read all the way through.

A lot of fun, engagingly written and scientifically accurate, if implausible. If you do try out some of the things in this book, make sure to video yourself so that the rest of us can point to it in warning of Things That Man Was Not Meant To Attempt.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473680326

A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided

By Amanda Foreman

Rating: 4 stars

It usually takes me ages to read non-fiction books, but I raced through this one, and given that it’s over 800 pages, that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s very well-written, and keeps you turning the page, with a well-structured narrative, and lots of interesting characters. Despite its prevalence in popular culture, the American civil war is not one that I know very much about. This book has its particular angle, regarding the British links and reasons for British neutrality, but it also does a good job in covering the major reasons for and battles of the war.

I did find myself struggling a bit towards the end, as the number of people increased. Keeping track of who was who and which side they were fighting on was much harder by then, but made easier thanks to a very comprehensive index.

The book covered the political and diplomatic aspects of the British involvement with the civil war quite well, with Lords Lyons (the British “Minister” to the American Legation [not embassy]), Russell (the foreign secretary) and Palmerston (the prime minister) on the British side and William Seward (the American Secretary of State) and Charles Francis Adams (Lyons’ counterpart in London) on the American. It also covers individual stories well, following Britons who joined both sides of the war through their letters and other historical documents.

What I think it does less well is talk about the reasons that the average Briton joined or supported the different factions of the war. I was surprised by just how popular that the Southern cause was in Britain (Liverpool, in particular seems to have been a hotbed of sympathy for the South), given the general disgust with slavery, and I would have liked to have seen more on that.

Something else that I never really appreciated with the depth of enmity of America (both sides) to Britain in this period. It seems Seward in particular was happy to whip up the public against foreigners (particularly Britain) to bolster his political standing (plus ├ža change, eh?). This leads me to view the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the US with more than usual cynicism.

This is a very readable, in-depth history of the American civil war, from the very particular perspective of the British links, but it’s a page-turner, and with nearly 200 pages of endnotes if you want to go into more depth. A good overview of the war.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141040585
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2011

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps

By Edward Brooke-Hitching

Rating: 3 stars

This is a quite interesting book of maps of places that don’t exist. Whether by mistake, through hearsay or just plain lying, people were persuaded that these places were real enough to draw maps of, and Brooke-Hitching has collected a number of these, which he presents, along with their stories.

The book itself is lovely, with large, colour reproductions of the maps, often with boxouts of details (if the mistake is a tiny island on a map showing the whole Atlantic ocean, for example). I do feel that some of the entries could do with being longer, and I did get a bit tired of islands in the Atlantic that were probably just cloud banks. The book itself says that mythical islands are as abundant in the mythologies of Eastern cultures as that of the west, but it only devotes a single entry (Wak-Wak) to any of them. I would have happily lost a few of the Atlantic islands in favour of some stuff that wasn’t centred around the West.

There was a lot of interest, though. The story of Gregor MacGregor and his shameless invention of a territory in Latin America is fascinating, not to mention heartbreaking for the people he hoodwinked. And the idea that people for a long time thought that California was an island isn’t something that I had encountered before. Nor the belief that Australia had a huge inland sea, fed by a huge river network.

So a lovely book to dip into at random, but could have done with being a bit more balanced and less Euro- and American-centric.

Book details

ISBN: 9781471159459
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year of publication: 2016

The Clyde: Mapping the River

By John N. Moore

Rating: 3 stars

Like its predecessor, Glasgow: Mapping the City, this book is meticulously researched and does exactly what it says on the tin. It consists of various maps of and around the river Clyde, providing different insights to the river valley and firth. The maps are organised by theme, with early historical maps of the river coming first, followed by sections on navigating and improving the channel, military-related maps, agricultural and commercial maps, those indicating the bridging and fording of the river, tourism and leisure, and finally, mapping around the towns along the Clyde.

Obviously, I’m most interested in those maps that focus on Glasgow (and there’s some overlap with the previous book in that regard) and the maps from elsewhere along the river, especially the military ones (which tended to be quite technical) were less interesting. There’s also less scope for interesting sociological maps in this book, although it still manages to include maps relating to sewage disposal (I didn’t know that for many years, waste would be loaded on to barges in the Clyde and driven out to be disposed of out where the firth meets the sea) and the orchards of Lanarkshire.

There’s no skimping on the physical artefact either. Although slightly too large to hold comfortably, the large pages mean lots of detail in the glossy full-colour maps. I’d recommend having a magnifying glass to hand as well, to zoom in on the detail as you’re poring over the immaculate reproductions.

So not as personally interesting to me as its predecessor, but still an excellent resource on the cartography of Clydesdale and the firth of Clyde.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780274829
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 2017

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

By Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

Rating: 5 stars

Pale Blue Dot starts with an expanded version of Sagan’s famous speech and then deconstructs any notion that the Earth, or the human species, has any privileged position in the cosmos. From the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe to the idea that humans were created as its caretakers. In each chapter, Sagan starts with a well-defined thesis and then walks us through his thinking, never straying into technical arguments, but keeping that open, everyman approach that he was so well-known for.

He talks about the planets visited by the Voyagers before turning to the idea of human settlements on other worlds in our solar system. He discusses (and dismisses) a number of possible reasons for human space exploration and settlement, keeping his strongest arguments back for the final chapters. In these, he strongly argues that over geological time, there will be events that will shatter a civilisation based solely on a single planet, and, for the safety of our species, we need to migrate – not only to the rocky worlds, but to near earth asteroids and the Oort cloud – to small worlds that we could learn to move around, to avoid any collisions with the mother world, and, in the final chapter, he lets his imagination soar and imagines a human civilisation that spans the galaxy.

Sagan’s ideas, and the words in which he expresses them, are delightful and awe-inspiring. He rightly predicts the idea of robotic explorers of Mars sending back such detailed pictures that you could sit in your bedroom, and virtually travel over its surface. While I sometimes think he thinks better of our species than we deserve, maybe the events of the second half of the 2010s have just made me cynical. And if you want to read something completely lacking in cynicism, and brimming with hope and optimism then this is it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345376596
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1994

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

Rating: 4 stars

This book charts the arrival and spread of the black death of the 14th century in Europe, and particularly England. This isn’t a subject I really knew anything about, so I was coming in with a pretty blank slate. The book doesn’t really cover the plague’s origins in Asia other than to note that it probably arrived in Europe along trade routes into Italy, and spread throughout the continent from there.

It’s a good overview book, pulling together academic research from multiple different sources, and synthesising an overview, pitched at the interested layman, rather than the academic world.

Possibly the most interesting notion that came out of the book for me was the psychological state of the population into which the plague spread. The idea that medieval man was conditioned to just accept what was happening as a punishment from God, and so didn’t make any serious efforts to learning what caused it and steps to mitigate it. This is fascinating, and alien. Another reminder that the past really is another country.

Beyond that, I learned something about the Flagellants (who I’d never heard of) and the persecution of the Jews (not that Christian Europe needed any additional excuse for that) as well as the state of medicine during the period.

The least interesting part, for me, was the region by region description of how the plague spread across England (and, as I said, it is mostly England, with Wales, Ireland and Scotland getting one chapter between them – and even that is shared with the Welsh border counties in England). As Ziegler himself says, the pattern was fairly similar across the country, as it spread from county to county and region to region.

More interesting was the analysis towards the end, regarding the long-term consequences of the plague and the arguments for and against it being the catalyst for long-term political and economic changes across Europe.

I’ve come away feeling more informed about the period, which is the best case after reading a history book aimed at a general audience. Recommended as an historical overview of a grisly period.

Book details

ISBN: 9780750932028
Publisher: Sutton
Year of publication: 1969

For the Love of Radio 4 An Unofficial Companion

By Caroline Hodgson

Rating: 3 stars

This is a fairly lightweight fluff piece of a book. The most interesting part for me was probably the early sections that talked about the history and antecedents of Radio 4. The sections discussing individual programmes won’t contain much that long-term fans of the station won’t already know, but it’s pleasant enough.

My main problem is that I’ve slightly gone off Radio 4, especially the Today programme, over the last few years, since B*exit, since I felt it was biased and drifting ever more to the right. And since it was always Today which anchored me to the station, I’ve drifted away from R4 as well. I listen to a lot more podcasts these days, and when I do listen to the radio, it’s as often the World Service as R4.

Going back to the book, it’s split into thematic sections, covering news and current affairs, drama, arts, etc. Mainstays of the schedule get their own subsection, covering the programme’s history, previous presenters and any controversy that it’s had. Light and fluffy, it reminded me of many of the things I do still love about Radio 4 and might bring me back to some degree (although I think Today has lost me for good).

Book details

ISBN: 9781849536424
Publisher: Summersdale Publishers
Year of publication: 2014

Of Women: In the 21st Century

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 2 stars

Unlike Chakrabarti’s last book, On Liberty, I’m struggling to find a central thesis to this book. It takes as its premise that gender injustice is the greatest human rights abuse on the planet. The eight chapters describe the position of women in different fields of life, including the home, reproductive rights, schooling, conflict, and faith.

I ended up reading the book quite slowly as it felt denser and less engaging than its predecessor and never felt that it had the clarity of thought or of purpose of ‘On Liberty’. The problems that she articulates are all well understood and I didn’t feel that she offered anything new to the discussion, nor do I feel that solutions were offered. I’m not sure that many of the conclusions that she does reach were wildly original – the chapter on faith concludes that change has to come from within faith communities, for example.

Apologies for returning again to her previous book, but I thought ‘On Liberty’ was a great book and, alas, this didn’t live up to it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141985350
Publisher: Penguin

The History of England in the Eighteenth Century

By Thomas Babington Macaulay

Rating: 3 stars

This volume stitches together the essays of Thomas Macaulay to form a moderately cohesive narrative history of 18th (and first 30 years of 19th) century Britain. The introduction tells us that the editor pulled this together using essays, often for the Edinburgh Review spread across many years, so the editing and bridging is also quite impressive.

The history itself is quite odd. It does refer to interacting nations and chains of events, but often it focuses closely on the British Parliament, and follows the political knockabout of the great (and not so great) figures of the day. We cover administrations including Walpole, the Pelhams, both Pitts, Chatham and many more, often in enough detail to reassure me that modern politics aren’t so different to those of our forefathers. There was the same pettiness, infighting and occasional sparks of grace that we see today.

The history is focused very much on the Palace of Westminster, although the section talking about the attempts, and repeated failures, to deal with Ireland post-Union was very interesting to me. Although the book covers momentous periods – including the American war of independence and the Napoleonic Wars – it doesn’t cover them in any great depth.

Much of the book is told in a slightly detached tone, although you always get the impression that he’s more sympathetic to Whigs than Tories, but the tone gets warmer and more impassioned in the final chapter as he relates the first Reform Bill and its passage. At times I could just imagine strains of Land of Hope and Glory in the background and almost stood up and saluted!

So an interesting book which provides a very good Parliamentary history of Britain (tsk, people in the period and their conflating of England and Britain). Not really useful as a general history of the country, but in its place it’s both useful and informative. I’m very much struck by the last sentence though, which is wise and as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th:

Those who compare the age on which their lot as fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.

Book details

Publisher: The Folio Society
Year of publication: 1980

Does Terrorism Work?: A History

By Richard English

Rating: 3 stars

For what is a fairly short book (only about 260 pages, without endnotes etc), this took me a very long time to get through. I heard Prof English give a talk themed around this book at a literary festival and bought this book off the back of that. Unfortunately, I felt that the tone was very dry and difficult, especially in the introduction. English appears to be the sort of academic who’s lost the full stop key on his keyboard (I’m sure I found sentences that went on for about 15 lines!) but has an overflowing thesaurus. Someone who doesn’t like to use just one word when he can get away with ten.

In terms of the actual content, to answer the question “does terrorism work?”, he lays out his framework in the introduction, where he introduces four different categories: strategic victories, partial strategic victories, tactical successes, and the inherent rewards of struggle. He also discusses the different categories of people we could be talking about when we ask for whom it works. From the introduction, we then go into four chapter-length case studies of different terrorisms before the conclusion.

Of the four case studies, the one most interesting to me was the IRA chapter, as this is something that I grew up with and the ceasefires and end of violence happened as I was coming of age. With this, as with the other case studies (al-Qaida, Hamas and ETA) he looks at the historical context and then tries to place this into his strategic framework as developed in the introduction. There was a lot of interest here, especially in the chapter about ETA. That’s not something that I know much about, and it turns out that Spain is a much more complex country than I had realised.

The first part of the conclusion is spent doing thumbnail analyses over other terrorist organisations around the world, fitting them into his framework, but without the depth of the main case studies, and then he tries to come up with wider conclusions at the end. Unfortunately, a lot of this just comes down to “it’s complicated”, and I didn’t need 260 pages to tell me that!

However, there is value in the framework and the historical contexts. Especially in the modern rolling news agenda where especially Islamic terrorism is met with such hysteria, it was nice to see a more considered, academic approach that sets it into historical context and reminds us that whatever the media and politicians say, this isn’t unprecedented and there are ways to deal with it.

I liked that English was very clear from early on that although he was only considering non-state terrorism, he very much accepted that states can also indulge in terrorism, and that some of the responses to terrorist actions can be regarded as causing terror in their own right.

I would have liked to see chapters look at terrorism outside Europe and the Middle East, with more in-depth looks at terrorism in South America or South East Asia as I’d like to know if those differed in any great extent than the four case studies used. But within that context, I do think that the book is interesting and worth reading. I just wish someone would give the author a lesson in writing for people outside academia (or a better editor).

Book details

ISBN: 9780199607853
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year of publication: 2016

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