“Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

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“On a spring morning in 2009, Matthew Lawrence dropped the anchor of his small boat at a random spot in the middle of a blue ocean bay on the east coast of Australia, and jumped over the side.”

I’ve always had a fondness for the animals with more curious traits. Skunks are cute, and have that unusual method of defence we all know about. Sloths are sweet and have somehow made it to the modern world without ever feeling the need to pick up their heels. Narwhals are the closest we’ll get to actual unicorns. And chameleons are bio-mechanical masterpieces, with all the latest features. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for that most alien of creature – the octopus.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book takes us underwater into the world of the cephalopods, that curious collection of creatures that comprise octopuses, squids and cuttlefish. We parted ways on the evolutionary path some 600 million years ago and our families thus evolved in very different ways. However, both sides evolved intelligence in one way or another, and Godfrey-Smith is curious as to where that began. Using a combination of science and philosophy, the book analyses octopus intelligence and what it can tell us about our own consciousness.

The book covers a number of topics surrounding octopuses (and yes, that is the correct pluralisation) including their evolution, lifestyles and habitats. We explore their curiosity, their ability to use tools, and their incredible ability to change colour and shape to disguise them anywhere they choose. There’s the stunning realisation that despite their unparalleled skill at camouflage, they’re actually colour-blind, and what their short lifespans might say about the cost of having such a highly developed neural system. As Godfrey-Smith says, they are about as close as we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.

It’s an engaging and fascinating topic, but this isn’t a book that’ll suit for a bit of light reading. This is science and philosophy at its most intense, talking about sentience, evolution, psychology and intelligence. It’s still interesting to read about these strange animals, and even more so to learn a little more about cuttlefish, a creature I know very little about. One of the most engaging passages has Godfrey-Smith diving with friendly cuttlefish, and one who is determined to ignore him. One things for sure, you’ll never be able to look at any of these beasts in the same way again.

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“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson (2015)

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“No, no. I insist you stop right now.”

I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to talk on the subject of mental health. I’ve never had therapy or been diagnosed with anything, although if I was going to be I’m pretty sure anxiety tops the list, followed by narcissism, although I’m not sure if that’s actually a mental illness or just me failing to yet realise that I’m not the centre of the universe. Many people I know and love, however, make it through their days dealing with all manner of things that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

I read Jenny Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ages ago – so long in fact that I thought it was even prior to the existence of this blog, but no, actually, it’s there in the first year. Five years later, here’s the sequel. I was introduced to her work by my sister, and I bought her this second collection for her birthday last year. In it, Lawson continues her exploration of her struggles with her mental health. She has anxiety, depression, insomnia, agoraphobia, and a whole bunch more, but she seems to be someone who, for the most part, truly enjoys life.

The book’s title comes from her decision to be “done with sadness” and instead be so vehemently happy that it freaked out the people who didn’t think she should be. It became a movement on Twitter and her blog. The book itself is then a collection of essays, stories and recorded conversations that detail both her, quite frankly, insane life, and her deepest struggles with her own mind. Among other things, she goes to Australia to meet koalas while dressed as one, gets anonymously sent a box of cat skins, undergoes marriage therapy with her eternally-patient husband Victor, loses all feeling in both her arms, recalls her father’s lessons in catching catfish, tries to achieve a “better face”, has gallbladder surgery, and shares her thoughts on how air travel can be vastly improved with the use of occasional blunt weaponry.

But in among the madness, there are some deeply moving and honest chapters. She describes how it feels to have depression, how anxiety can overcome her in hotel rooms while she’s travelling, promoting her first book. She talks honestly and brutally about how she feels like a failure and a fraud, how, despite her apparent attitude for lust for life, she’s often struggling to stay afloat. It’s a remarkable piece of work, as hilarious as it is heartwarming. You can’t help but love her, nor indeed her husband who, despite being her regular sparring partner, loves her wholeheartedly and would do anything for her, except leave his office door unlocked when he’s in a conference call.

The style is breezy, and Lawson has a habit of wandering off on bizarre tangents, misunderstanding situations, getting herself into those odd situations in the first place, and trying to cope with the long silences her therapist leaves. You’ll also learn perhaps a little more about both taxidermy and possums than you ever thought you wanted, but you won’t care. It’s a journey and while it might not have any seat belts and be entirely off road, you’re going to have the ride of your life.

It’s a wonderful book, and a call to arms in some ways. We should all try to be furiously happy – go big, or go home.

“Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve” by Ben Blatt (2017)

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“In literary lore, one of the best stories of all time is a mere six words.”

I am a proper nerd for statistics. I’m not very mathematically minded, but give me a good list, chart or graph and I’m a happy man. The only way I have ever been able to tolerate the Olympics or the World Cup is because of all the statistics that come along with it. Mixing up maths and literature, however, to examine the works of our best-selling authors is almost a dream come true.

Journalist Ben Blatt has allied big data with literature to explore the secrets hiding in the pages of our favourite novels. Is it possible to tell if a novel is written by Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens just by looking at the use of exclamation marks? Are American authors louder than British ones? Are men or women more likely to use the word “something”? Is the content of The New York Times bestseller list proof that we’re getting stupider as a species? Why do so many novels open with descriptions of the weather? And what do Suzanne Collins and I have in common in how we use cliffhangers? Blatt examines all of these topics and many more besides.

While it’s easy enough to tell if something is written by Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf due to their vastly different content, this book actually focuses on the more general words used, right down to the smallest ones like the or not. Suddenly is an interesting one – for every 100,000 words J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, 78 of them were suddenly. Chuck Palahniuk sits at the other end of the scale, with 2 out of 100,000. The book can even prove that, if it hadn’t already been revealed to us, Robert Galbraith was more than likely going to turn out to be J. K. Rowling than anyone else, and that’s just going on the uses of what and but.

The gender splits are also very interesting. Quite famously, The Hobbit features the word he nearly 1,900 times, but she only appears once. Is there a book that skews quite this dramatically in the other direction? It doesn’t seem like it, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie appearing as the most she-heavy novel examined (21% he / 79% she). While women are apparently more likely to use words like lace, dress or curtains, they’re also more prone to saying should, since and like. Generally we don’t take in most of this stuff, but to see it all laid out bare, it’s very fascinating. Blatt also has good fun examining whether authors follow their own advice or not. Martin Amis hates cliches and Stephen King loathes adverbs, so Blatt checks through their work to see if they abide by their own rules. There’s also a lot of time spent reading fan fiction. Can you determine whether Stephanie Meyer wrote a particular chapter, or one of her fans? Yes, you can. There’s also a huge discrepancy between the styles of American and British fan fiction based on Harry Potter.

And yes, based on frequency of use compared to others, Vladimir Nabokov’s favourite word is mauve. Some of the others listed can hardly be considered a surprise – inquest for Agatha Christie, dragons for George R. R. Martin, dinosaur for Michael Crichton – some are a little odder. Who could have guessed that Ray Bradbury favours spearmint or F. Scott Fitzgerald used facetious a lot.

For anyone interested in how their writing matches up, I recommend heading to I Write Like, where you can dump in any text and it will tell you which famous writer your style most resembles. Despite my content matching up closer to the likes of Ben Aaronovitch or Neil Gaiman, my writing style can apparently be mistaken for, who else, Agatha Christie. Apparently she is an even bigger influence on my work than I realised. That, or I’m a somewhat unorthodox reincarnation.

Oh, and the link I have with Suzanne Collins? We both frequently end our chapters with one-sentence paragraphs.

So it goes.

“How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson (2014)

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“Roughly 26 million years ago, something happened over the sands of the Libyan Desert, the bleak impossibly dry landscape that marks the eastern edge of the Sahara.”

The march of progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. We take the technology of today – smartphones, the Internet, cars, even flushing toilets and electric light – for granted, never much giving any consideration for the things that our ancestors would have found remarkable. Sometimes it takes millennia for ideas to produce tangible results – rarely do changes happen overnight – and it often takes a lot of people to make something happen. Take your watch, for example. That’s not just the product of a watch scientist, or something like that. The fact that you have a reliable timepiece on your watch is thanks to people working in the fields of computing, electromechanics, chemistry, dynamics and astrology. Steven Johnson takes a look at some of the greatest innovations in human history in this astounding book, How We Got to Now.

Johnson explores the six inventions and discoveries that revolutionised humanity: glass, artificial refrigeration, sound recording, germ theory, clocks and the light bulb. Each of these innovations helped the human race progress in truly extraordinary ways, changing the world over and over again. Many of history’s best and brightest also show up here including Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Charles Babbage, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Galileo Galilei, as well as several others that time has unfairly forgotten such as Frederic Tudor who was the first person to transport ice to the Caribbean, or Charles Piazzi Smyth who all but invented flashbulb photography. While some of the stuff seems simple, there are some things brought up that I’d never really given much thought to but seem obvious in retrospect. For example, fire was pretty much the first human “invention”, or at least the process of creating fire. And yet, despite fire being a key source of heat and light, we didn’t manage to take control over cold temperatures until well into the Industrial Revolution, and there was little more advanced than a candle to help us see at night for millennia.

The book’s real beauty comes from the fact that Johnson reveals how certain technologies had ripple effects into other areas of humanity’s development. The discovery of germ theory would eventually lead to both Coronation Street and the bikini; it could be said that air conditioning led to the election of Donald Trump; the invention of the mirror allowed the Renaissance to happen and changed people’s ideas of their place in society; a swinging altar lamp in an Italian cathedral would begin a path that led to Sputnik; and radio would chart a course to both the civil rights movement and Hitler’s fascist regime. The book notes that many ideas come into existence at a certain time because it’s just time for them to exist. Often the same invention or discovery will be announced by several different people at the same time. Edison didn’t invent the first light bulb, but he helped perfect them, and Darwin was one of several scientists who had worked out evolution and natural selection within the same decade or two. New ideas spring from old ones. For example, a person living in 1650 can’t conceive a refrigerator because the associated technologies aren’t available, but once they are, it seems almost inevitable that it would happen.

Johnson appears to be a natural weaver of true stories, and the writing, while occasionally heavy on the science, never feels too out of reach for the layman. The tales are engaging, fascinating and the sort of thing that make you want to instantly go up to other people and say, “Did you know…?” Even things that you might at first think could be dull topics, such as the chlorination of swimming pools, or how fibre optics are made are incredibly interesting, given what they then led to. It’s a very interesting guide to the most important ideas in science, and I for one am incredibly enchanted.

And while only a little thing, one of my favourite discoveries was that Captain Birdseye was a real person – his first name was Clarence.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a 80% of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay (2017)

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“The decision to work in medicine is basically a version of the email you get in early October asking you to choose your menu options for the work Christmas party.”

Touch wood, I’ve never had much to do with hospitals personally. My family, on the other hand, have all had more than enough experience on my behalf. My dad had two hernias before he was thirty, my mother has apparently had every possible organ removed at this point (sometimes twice), my grandparents are all held together by metal, and when she was twelve, my sister’s leg fell off. (Ask me about that last one sometime; I’m not really even exaggerating.)

Adam Kay is a comedy writer and singer now, but for several years he was a doctor. His parents appear not to have forgiven him for changing. A couple of years ago, while the UK was undergoing massive trauma relating to the treatment of junior doctors under the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (possibly the only man who is also the rhyming slang for what he is), Kay dug out all the diaries he kept during the six years he spent on the wards, mostly in his role in obstetrics and gynecology.

The entries are sporadic, so I can only assume he has picked the most interesting ones, but my god do they deliver. Firstly, the book is absolutely hilarious. I worked with the public long enough to know that they can say the most ridiculous things, but apparently putting them in hospital turns their lack of sense off completely. From the man who complained he’d never found a condom big enough to fit him (because it turned out he was trying to fit his testicles into them as well as his penis), to the woman who claimed her breast pump was bugged and someone was spying on her, there rarely seems to be a week that goes by without something hilarious happening. Many stories straddle the border between hilarious and horrifying, such as the young man who managed to deglove his penis (degloving is exactly what it sounds like) to the woman who returned from a Caribbean holiday, having had so much sex and catching such a virulent strain of gonorrhea that she was “producing purulent monsoons from both her Trinidad and her Tobago”. The humour is undoubtedly black, there’s no question, but Kay has such a mesmerising way with language that even the most disgusting aspects of the job are somehow still a delight to read.

More importantly, however, Kay doesn’t shy away from the absolute horrors of the job. He is speaking out on behalf of all junior doctors who simply don’t have the time to do so. He makes no bones about the fact that, as a doctor, you will never leave your shift on time, you will have to cancel dates, weddings and holidays with a moment’s notice, and you’ll hardly ever be thanked, and certainly not paid a decent and fair wage. He talks to giving medicines to anorexics who have eaten more than him in the last twenty-four hours, or trying to reduce the blood pressure of people he has higher blood pressure than. He emphasies the strain the role puts on his relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how tiresome it is to be asked by friends and family at every social occasion, “Can you just have a look at this rash?” And yet, even these appalling circumstances are still discussed with humour.

But, naturally, this is sometimes life and death we’re talking about, and Kay knows full well when to roll back the laughter and be serious. He deals with some situations that many of us would find utterly unthinkable, and the final entry in his diaries is one of the most heartbreaking, harrowing things I have ever read, hammering home how much we should respect and praise our medical men and women. Indeed, it is the events of the final entry that cause him to quit.

Don’t let that put you off, though. It is a very important book, an expose on what it’s really like at the medical front line. It’s not all tweed elbow patches and rounds of golf in the afternoon. It’s being splattered with blood and other fluids on a daily basis, performing complicated surgeries when you haven’t slept in thirty hours, removing Kinder Eggs from vaginas, trying not to confuse the Punjabi words for “hemophiliac” and “hermaphrodite”, and being eternally short-staffed. I’ve even more respect for the NHS staff now than I did before and it’s vital we protect them. They are superheroes.

Everyone should read this book.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“After Man” by Dougal Dixon (1981)

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“During the period immediately before and during the Age of Man the principal large-scale grazers and browsers were the ungulates, the hoofed mammals.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for prehistoric creatures. The dinosaurs are amazingly interesting, the evolution of birds and mammals is fascinating, and it’s always cool to see all the weird twists and turns nature took to get us to where we are today. A lot of people seem to treat what exists now as the end point, apparently under the illusion that evolution stops here, and what we have will carry on for the rest of time. Dougal Dixon is not one of those people.

In his breathtaking book After Man, he envisions a world fifty million years after our own, where humanity has died out, taking with it most of the large mammals and familiar creatures of the time. In this new world, where tectonic plates have shifted the continents into unrecognisable forms, animals have done much the same. Gone are the animals we know, but they’ve been replaced by a variety of newcomers, each descended from something we’re used to.

Rabbits have evolved and diversified into the rabbucks; deer-like creatures that now inhabit every major biome. They’ve been followed throughout by the predator rats, who have taken on the roles of the great carnivores of our age. Elsewhere, squirrels have become long and slender, some bats have entirely atrophied their eyes in favour of more impressive sonar, and the large herbivores have been replaced by the genus of gigantelopes, elephantine antelope-descendants with unusual and complex horned structures on their heads.

In the seas, the whales and dolphins are long gone, but fully aquatic and enormous descendants of penguins now fill those roles. Baboon relatives now stalk the plains of, what was, Africa, hunting and scavenging for meat. Rainforest pigs have developed trunks, one of the last cats, the striger, swings from tree branches like our gibbons, when a species of ant evolved to make its nests underwater, the anteater went aquatic and followed them. As usual, on isolated islands, evolution has particularly gone insane, in particular on the islands of Batavia, recently risen from the seas due to volcanic activity and now populated by bats who have evolved to fill every niche, from coastal waters and high branches, and also produced the terrifying night stalker, a one and a half metre tall predator with a curious arrangement of limbs.

The book is nothing, however, without the incredible intricate illustrations, that show the future animals in action, as well as in some more technical, scientific positions. Like all good nature works, we get to see them as real beings, not just stock images. Of course, these aren’t real animals. Not yet, at least. While we cannot predict with any certainty what creatures will survive us and how they will be further shaped, all of Dixon’s suggestions are based on a solid scientific grounding and while it’s not probable any of them will occur, it’s not impossible. He used this knowledge again in the wonderful TV series The Future is Wild, which took a similar premise of future evolution and is well worth a watch if you can find it.

All in all, a fascinating, fun and thought-provoking experiment in evolution.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Being A Beast” by Charles Foster (2016)

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“I am a human.”

Humans have a confusing relationship with every other animal species on the planet. There’s nothing else quite like us, which is either a good or bad thing. Some other animals we’ve domesticated, others we watch with awe, and quite often we anthropomorphise them and give them tweed jackets and a knowledge and society they can’t possibly possess. Charles Foster has decided he wants to get to know animals better and so begins a mission to become something else, as best he can. This book documents his attempts.

To achieve this, Foster must try to think like other species. This is easier said than done, as other animals experience the world in ways we cannot imagine. Some have better noses than us, some are faster, and while the base urges are the same, they differ enough in their methods of completion to make it all a bit futile. Nonetheless, Foster gives it a go, taking on the roles of five different animals.

He digs a hole in the side of a hill and eats earthworms to mimic a badger. He swims through Devon rivers at night catching fish with his teeth to get to know otters better. He raids the bins of East London for leftovers to become a fox. He allows hunters to chase him down across the Scottish highlands to know how a red deer feels, and finally he makes an attempt to become a swift, eventually tracking them all the way to Africa.

As nature writing goes, it’s a very unique piece and there’s no getting away from that, but my primary thought throughout is, “What sort of breakdown is this man having, and why is no one coming to his aid?” Sleeping in bushes and shitting on riversides is one thing, but swallowing mouthfuls of insects from the tops of trees just because he’s seen birds do it, and leaping at voles whenever he sees a tiny hint of movement is not, in my opinion, the behaviour of a man with all his faculties in tact. I don’t think we ever really needed to know in so much detail what worms taste like.

Unfortunately, while I like the concept of the book, I don’t find Foster particularly likeable. Most of this stems from the fact that, for many years, he was a hunter and while he’s now obviously changed his mind on the subject, in the long passage where he’s describing what it’s like to track and kill a deer, there’s a barely-disguised glee regarding the whole thing. I’m not exactly a pacifist, and I’m certainly not a vegetarian, but I’m against killing wild animals for “sport”, and I can find no entertainment in it. Foster must also have a very understanding wife, as occasionally his children join him on his jaunts. One of his sons lives with him in their badger sett, and he also tells all his children that, when they need the toilet, to go and do it on the river banks like an otter would. At one point he doesn’t shave, cut his hair or trim his toenails for months so he can feel more like a deer with matted, mud-filled hair and overgrown hooves.

There are some interesting facts up for grabs about these animals though, and while Foster attempts to refrain from giving them personalities and emotions, some still slip through. However, he’s more objective than many nature writers, and we get a lot of facts and figures about how animals may experience their environments. Much of it, of course, is theory – we can’t really know what happens inside a fox’s brain when it smells a particular scent, or quite how swifts cope living at speeds we cannot imagine.

All in all, I find that a good piece of exploratory non-fiction should come to a fascinating conclusion and teach us something new. Foster basically ends by saying that trying to be an animal is fruitless and we can never know what it’s like to be another species. Which, frankly, seemed obvious from the start and made me wonder what part I played in his mental breakdown by buying the book. Definitely an intriguing concept for nature writing, but worryingly handled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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