“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.

“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.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

“Adventures In Stationery” by James Ward (2014)

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A journey through your pencil case

A journey through your pencil case

“I grew up in Worcester Park, a small town in Surrey.”

There’s a line in David Nicholls’ One Day where the main character, Emma, wonders if her dream of writing is actually just a fetish for stationery. I confess that I’ve wondered the same about myself. I love a good pen, can’t resist a handsome notebook (I’ve got several that feel too good to write in), and have on occasion been to visit a branch of Staples just for something to do, only to find myself suddenly eager to buy in-trays or treasury tags, despite having no purpose for either.

Apparently I’m not the only person with a fondness for stationery, though, and I think there are few people more obsessed than James Ward, author of this book. I bought it last year thinking that a book about stationery sounded quite interesting, but it’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to admit myself nerdy enough to peruse it. As it turns out, and this is no exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read in my life.

Ward traces with undiluted joy the history of our desks from the first inks used in cave paintings right up to Clippy, the world’s most loathed paper clip. Along the way he tells us how products such as staplers, correction fluid, drawing pins, erasers, hole punches, pencils, compasses, date stampers, and ballpoint pens were invented, as well as bringing to life the histories of some of the stationery cupboard’s most famous residents, including Sellotape, Moleskine, Blu-Tack and STABILO BOSS.

This is the book that teaches you that the Americans still use different sized paper to everyone else, informs you about the competition between Marcel Bich and Laszlo Biro, and revels in the discovery of the glue that would revolutionise notetaking with the invention of the Post-It Note. Ward is, without apology, excited by all of these prospects, finding something interesting to say about everything from big, sturdy filing cabinets to the humble pencil sharpener. You’ll find out what inspired the Pritt Stick, why the pens in Argos are so rubbish, and who invented the pocket protector. Along the way there are disasters with leaky pens, glue that won’t stick, and ink that turns invisible when heated up, and a reassuring final chapter which emphasises that stationery is never going to be killed off entirely. Even computers have adapted – after all, think what the icons on computers are for, among others, “Cut”, “Highlight”, “Erase” and “Attach”. Even the “Create a New Post” here on WordPress has a pencil icon attached.

OK, so it isn’t a book to everyone’s tastes, and it’s very niche. When I’ve told people recently what I’ve been reading, I’ve got more funny looks than usual. But this really, genuinely, is an amazingly fascinating read. I could hardly put it down. Ward is amusing, and clearly unashamed of his love for the stationery cupboard, prone to buying products that are long since out of date but nonetheless possess a certain charm for him.

Any writer, artist or hoarder can find something here to amuse them, whether it’s the history of paper, the discussion on the threat that pencils so often seem to pose, a question on if it’s ever OK to take stationery from work, or Ward’s lamentation on the lack of London landmarks suitable for the end of a pen. Whether you ascribe quality to a Parker fountain pen, or prefer the sort that undresses a sexy woman when turned upside down, you will have owned at least one of the items covered in these pages.

Grab a pencil and a Post-It Note, and remind yourself to get hold of this book as soon as possible.

“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

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freak“After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions.”

Once I’m done in the fiction section of a bookshop (which can take upwards of several hours), I do often go and look in the popular science section. I’ve even taken a shine to popular psychology and popular philosophy once in a while. But popular economics? That was one that really came out of nowhere. I hear “economics” and I think “global banking crisis”, recall that at school it always seemed like the nerdier and harder big brother of Business Studies, and generally want nothing to do with it.

But a few years ago I read Freakonomics and loved it. It changes the way you see the world and gives explanations for things that you’ve never thought about before. It established why most drug dealers still live with their parents, how much your name can affect how well you do in life, and why the legalisation of abortion in the USA made the crime rate drop. With that last one in particular, you may be wondering not only how such a link exists but why the question was even asked. It all just suggests that maybe we’re not getting the answers we want because we’re not asking the right questions.

Think Like A Freak is a guide for people who want to be able to think in this same way and make the right decisions by asking the right things. Levitt and Dubner cover such topics as how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded, why quitting isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, why we believe things that are patently untrue, and which incentives work best.

Along the way they talk about Van Halen’s rider and why it famously specified no brown M&Ms in the dressing room, how one man doubled the record for the most hot dogs eaten in twelve minutes, what possessed a man to try and give himself ulcers, how the Chinese ping pong team brokered peace between China and America, what happened when the authors met David Cameron, and why people find it impossible to say “I don’t know”.

It’s a quick read and will give you plenty to think about, but short of quoting from it, there’s little I can say in a review. Granted, Freakonomics is better because there are a lot more stories there and this is more the theory of how it all works, but nonetheless it’s still very interesting and gives you a new way of looking at problems. And if nothing else, you’ll know how to eat hot dogs really quickly by the time you’ve finished it.

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