Women’s inventions have been neglected by evolutionary researchers

Inferior book coverInferior: the True Power of Women and the Science That Shows It
by Angela Saini

This is such an important book. It’s not the first on this topic but it’s the one that has managed to take off and get the message out there (partly thanks to the brilliant Jess Wade, who has been campaigning to get this book into school libraries).

Saini interrogates the claims of scientists about the differences between the sexes. She explains what we do and don’t know about whether men and women’s different positions in society are the result of physical biological differences, or hard-wired differences in ability, or if they’re the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of society and culture being skewed.

Are men’s and women’s brains really wired differently? It’s a very complicated area of science, and despite some excitable newspaper headlines, we don’t yet know for sure. It appears that there is more variety within each sex than there is between them. And importantly, even if there are physical differences, we have to be extremely careful about extrapolating reasons for those differences.

Can we learn about our ancestors from anthropologists’ studies of 20th-century hunter-gatherers? A limited amount, yes, but the surviving hunter-gatherer communities are all very different from each other. The only real conclusion we can reach is the variety of what human beings – and women particularly – are capable of.

But that hasn’t prevented more than a century of evolutionary research being skewed to ancient hunting habits (because men were presumed to have done most of the hunting) and often ignoring or downplaying other human activities such as gathering food and childcare (which were assumed to be wholly female activities). Which has knock-on effects including that theories about the development of human language are largely based around hunting and it is only recently that scientists have begun to question whether a more likely scenario for language development is the need to pass information from mother to child.

Continue reading “Women’s inventions have been neglected by evolutionary researchers”

The archaeological pace had grown feverish

Pompeii AwakenedPompeii Awakened
by Judith Harris

When Tim and I visited Pompeii last year our one disappointment was the lack of information at the excavations site. Even armed with the official guide book, we were confused about what some buildings were and which bits had been reconstructed. Though don’t get me wrong: we still loved it so much that we spent a second day there rather than climbing Vesuvius as originally planned.

So when we got home I searched for a book not about Pompeii pre-AD 79, but about the rediscovery of the town since 1748. Harris tracks the uncovering of Herculaneum and Pompeii up to the present day – a story that encompasses much of the political history of Europe over the same years and the development of modern archaeology.

This book is really good and definitely helped me to understand more of what we had seen in Pompeii, though I must admit it didn’t answer every question. It is packed with fascinating tidbits that I kept storing up to tell Tim.

Continue reading “The archaeological pace had grown feverish”

Our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women

Dead GirlsDead Girls
by Alice Bolin

When I read the description of this essay collection, I got pretty excited. The blurb describes it as an analysis of America’s cultural obsession with dead girls, which promised to be very fertile ground. Really my main criticism of this book is that it doesn’t just stick to this topic.

Alice Bolin starts out strong, with a piece on “dead girl” TV shows, from Twin Peaks to Pretty Little Liars and many others in between (it was inspired by her watching True Detective). I have watched a lot of these dramas and I agree with Bolin that the mere fact of their popularity, not to mention some of the specific tropes they all repeat, is a worrying facet of our culture. In these shows the victim is rarely given much of a character, and the leads are usually men who project their own ideas onto the dead girl. It’s an excellent essay.

Continue reading “Our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women”

It made the girls themselves gleam

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book via work. It’s part of a current trend – one that I fully support – of identifying stories from history that are important but little known and giving them a boost. In this case, it’s the story of thousands of women who worked in the (mostly) early 20th century painting dials onto watch faces with radium-based paint, so that they glowed in the dark.

It sounds like a terrible idea and it was. But even though shortly after Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in 1898 they and their colleagues realised it could cause harm to humans, it became famous for its ability to destroy or reduce cancerous tumours, and was therefore widely considered to be health-giving. So when Dr Sabin von Sochocky, founder of the United States Radium Corporation (USRC), which mined and processed radium in New Jersey, figured out that it could be used to create a glow-in-the-dark paint, this seemed like a brilliant new commercial avenue for the company.

Continue reading “It made the girls themselves gleam”

Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

Continue reading “Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state”

Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World
by Rachel Ignotofsky

We tend to think that until the latter half of the 20th century, science was done by men. The history books and allocation of awards such as Nobel prizes strongly support that view. But in recent years a slew of books have begun to challenge that version of history. This is the first I’ve read but I’m keen to follow it up with Hidden Figures, The Glass Universe and others.

Ignotofsky both wrote and illustrated this beautiful book, profiling women scientists in a design-heavy layout that simply and effectively tells their stories.

From Hypatia (approx 350–415 AD) to Maryam Mirzakhani (1979–present), this book devotes a double-page spread each to women who have made significant advances in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In each, the left-hand page is an illustration of the woman herself, with a few key facts floating around, while the right-hand page contains a bio of the woman and a few small, light-hearted illustrations. In every case there is a quote either by or about the woman, and these often reference being a woman in a man’s world.

Continue reading “Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking”

Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?

lady-in-the-vanThe Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett

This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.

This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.

October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”

Continue reading “Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?”

Sunday Salon: Bathroom books

The Sunday SalonWe all have bathroom books, don’t we? I don’t mean books to read in the bath – for me, that’s all books except the three Bs: big, beautiful or borrowed books. No, I mean books for reading on the loo.

Perhaps you have a stack of magazines in the bathroom (we have those too, but they’re all months out of date). Or perhaps you just take your phone or tablet in these days. We have a collection of non-fiction titles ideal for dipping into, but today I spotted that it had been more than a year since their last update, and they were gathering dust, so I did a swap (and wiped off the dust from the outgoing titles).

Continue reading “Sunday Salon: Bathroom books”

Recent reads: winter

Work has been crazy busy and while I have been able to find time to read, I have not been keeping notes or thinking about writing reviews while I read. So here’s some very brief thoughts.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty islands I have not visited and never will
by Judith Schalansky
translated from German by Christine Lo

atlas of remote islands

This might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Judith Schalansky was raised in East Germany, and in her early childhood it looked like she would never be able to travel, so maps and atlases held a fascination for her. She has created the most gorgeous object here – every detail is considered, functional, exquisite – typography, art, infographic, end papers, edging.

Continue reading “Recent reads: winter”

We find ourselves through the process of escaping

reasons-to-stay-aliveReasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.

This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.

But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.

Continue reading “We find ourselves through the process of escaping”