Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Ten Lessons in Public Health by Alfred Sommer

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This is a charmingly written memoir of the career of Alfred Sommer, the man who developed epidemiology into a vital tool for global health policy. In each of the ten ‘lessons’, we travel with him to a country suffering a health crisis, and learn how it was resolved. It is humble in tone, which I found misleading – it becomes clear that the author is downplaying great personal gifts of insight and persuasion, and also his personal bravery as he ventures into areas of political instability and infectious disease. A lesser man simply would not have achieved what he did, I feel. The text is dotted heavily with mostly irrelevant personal anecdotes, which distract from the message of each epidemiological technique, but are undoubtedly sometimes fun to read. My favourite anecdote is the one about a friend’s wife smuggling her pet cat out of country soon to become a warzone by sedating it and wearing it as a stole around her neck on the aeroplane. My favourite ‘lesson’ is the one about discovering how best to administer Vitamin A to children to prevent blindness. I feel, however, that this rather short book is a bit too light for its content.

Dworkin’s Religion Without God

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At first I expected a book with such a title to endorse Richard Dawkin’s views about appreciating the wonders of nature without invoking a divine creator. But in fact, if I understand correctly, Ronald Dworkin’s (strangely similar name) thesis is that the Universe has intrinsic value, whether or not we recognise it. I have to say I fundamentally disagree – such value is ascribed by humans, and as far as we know, humans only. However, I gather that Dworkins strayed from his usual legal ethics topics in his final book (see The Guardian) and possibly I will appreciate his other works more, should I get around to reading them.

The Nostalgia Factory by Douwe Draaisma

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I picked up this book hoping to get a sense of the state of the art in the science of understanding memory. So I was a bit disappointed. It does cover (and utterly debunk) the myth that doing brain exercises (such as sudoku) will stave off memory loss or dementia, which is sad but useful to know (if one is not fond of sudoku). There are chapters on homesickness and nostalgia, which are heartwrenching to read…more an account of the suffering that memory can bring, rather than comfort. No hope is offered on the subject of dementia, despite an anecdote revealing that with the correct stimulus and support, some memories can be revived temporarily. There is a long, dull interview with Oliver Sachs, the salient points of which I do not recall. The most interesting chapters were on the window of retained memory that most people seem to experience in their twenties. Draaisma speculates that this is because new experiences are being captured or that there’s something about our brain development at that time, but nobody knows. What is becoming clearer is that old people remember that period of their lives the most clearly. By far…the decades of interesting life after that blur and fade. The book is written with empathy and gentle humour, and is easy to read.

Review of Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

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Cyberpunk fans of Stephenson’s technophile fiction know that it ranges from historical (Cryptognomicon, Quicksilver) to futuristic (Anathem, Snow Crash, Reamde). Probably only his fans will want to browse this assortment of (mostly) real-time essays – Some Remarks. Yet his blisteringly intelligent and often humorous discussion of our world’s current interconnectedness has much to interest readers of current science. I particularly recommend the (very long) article about the challenges of laying the globe-circling deep-sea cable called FLAG (from its financing and geography to practicalities such as how you can tell where the cable is broken and how you then control the slack after splicing it together) that still carries much of the data we download every day. Another in-depth article, about using a computer while walking slowly on a treadmill, is echoed in a recent New Yorker piece (The Walking Alive) – like much of William Gibson’s work, Stephenson’s insights into our future eventually reach the mainstream. Perhaps stand-up desks for all of us who spend too long in front of a screen will soon turn us into much lither touch typists. There are also some personal interviews, short stories, analyses of previous books, and the occasional political diatribe disguised as a film review (of ‘300’). Pick and mix, geek or not, enjoy. See also http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v488/n7410/full/488155a.html

Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

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Stephenson can slice and dice with the best of those busily rewriting our history, and sometimes our future, with the help of technology. But this is a pretty straight present-day thriller. The eponymous virus is disguised as a readme file that extorts virtual treasure from the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) called T’Rain. Its stratigraphy mirrors that of the real world in complexity, thanks to a crew of differently skilled programmers, enabling players to ‘mine’ commodities exchangeable for real-world currency, aka Bitcoin. A fascinating sequence is set within T’Rain as its creator attempts to track his niece’s abductors through their online presence. However, the (extremely long) tale swiftly veers away from T’Rain to more familiar (though still thrilling) spy and terrorist terrain, leaving us wishing William Gibson would write another novel instead. For a more down-to-earth discussion of our world’s interconnectedness, browse Stephenson’s collection of essays, Some Remarks, particularly the one about laying deep-sea cable.

The Haunted House by Kazuno Kohara

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The haunted house

A haunted house is made into a comfy home by its new owner, a young witch, and her helpful cat. The illustrations in this quietly hilarious and fear-banishing picture book are the star of the show, each composed of woodcut prints for a silhouetted effect in three colours.

Haunted house

The ghosts are overlaid in a tactile white, very suitable for their re-use (after being washed by the witch) as smiling sheets and curtains and tablecloths…”They were all very useful.” is my favourite line. Its original storyline makes it by far the best of the three books by this author, though the other two (Jack Frost and The Little Wizard) have equally charming woodcuts.

Milo and the Magical Stones by Marcus Pfister

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Milo and the Magical Stones

I have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child, in which some pages ended in a choice, leading you to different story strands and eventually, via further choices, different endings, usually dependent on a mixture of luck or your own clever predictions. This book is like that, but with only one choice and a blasting moral imperative. Show gratitude and conserve the world! Or die, miserable, cold and alone…This might sound annoying, yet it is charmingly told and illustrated, with the magical stones picked out in gold foil, an effect beloved of artists and viewers since the Middle Ages, and no less effective here. Mice on a pretty island live a reasonably pleasant subsistence lifestyle until one day a mouse discovers a magical stone in a tunnel, emitting light and heat. (Oh, what can the analogy be, dear reader?)

The other mice all want one too, to see them through the chilly nights, and an old wise mouse advises them to give something back to the earth for every stone, and to take only one each. In option one, that’s what they do…dutifully substituting handcrafted items for the stones and living happily and warmly in the glow of the stones forever after. In option two, of course, there’s a human-style free-for-all as the mice mine the f**k out of the island and end up with worse than nothing. I guess, if you would like to introduce your child to the ethics of using carbon fuels in an indirect way, this would be a good book to start with. Or, you could keep the moral to the idea of playground sharing, and simply enjoy the adorable mouse pictures and the fun of flipping the pages to different endings.

Frog and a Very Special Day by Max Veltuijs

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Frog and a very special day

In this heartless story, young Frog awakes one day remembering that his friend (Mole, was it?) had told him what a special day it would be, but not why. He spends the morning visiting some of his animal friends, each of whom shed no light on the matter in various annoying ways. One (Rat, I believe) even smugly says that every day is very special for him. Finally he discovers that Mole has gone out to a party. This shattering news crushes poor Frog, who dismally imagines how wonderful it would have been to attend the party too. Feeling alone, sad, uninvited and still puzzled, Frog returns home…where (no surprise even to very young readers) all his secretive pals have prepared Frog a birthday party, exactly as he’d imagined it.

Sad Frog

A happy tale, after all? I think not. Setting aside the strange idea that Frog wouldn’t remember his own birthday, I failed to see the humour in denying him the joys of anticipation, instead causing him to suffer a dreadful birthday morning. Other Frog tales by this author have interesting morals, in particular Frog and the Stranger, which deals with prejudice very clearly and engagingly, but if there’s one here, I’ve missed it. The usual pleasant, simple Frog illustrations adorn this book, and the level is possibly suitable for beginner readers.

Katie and the Bathers by James Mayhew

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Katie and the bathers cover
How to combine a visit to the Impressionists that adorn London’s National Gallery with a cooling dip on a summer’s day? Use your imagination, of course! Cheerful and adventurous young Katie is taken out for the day by her Grandma. Sadly, the swimming pool is full! But Grandma needs a rest, so they pop into the gallery, where Seurat’s glowing Bathers at Asnières (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/georges-seurat-bathers-at-asnieres) lure Katie in for a swim in the river.

She makes friends with young Pierre, and they sit on the frame for a rest…oh no! it tips, pouring water into the gallery! A boat is needed, and luckily Seurat provided one in another nearby painting. Pissarro’s Woman Hanging Laundry helps to dry their clothes, and the ‘magician’ in Signac’s Portrait of Felix Feneon returns the river to the painting. Eventually Katie returns to Grandma.

Katie and the bathers
A wonderful way to introduce children to some of the world’s artistic masterpieces and bring them to life, I heartily recommend all of the ‘Katie and the..’ books. Then, take your children to the National Gallery, of course, where they can relive many of their adventures with Katie.

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm

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living-sunlight

Hmm. A rather cheesily told explanation of how sunlight powers all life on Earth. However, it’s brightly and prettily illustrated in an unusual dotted sort of style, making it seem as accessible as many another picture book. And, why not make this excellent point early on?

living-sunlight2

Touching lightly but clearly on photosynthesis, food webs and outer space, it introduces these big concepts to very young children, intertwining them in a way they can grasp. (Apparently. We’ll see how well it went in later, at school.) If the awe and wonder is ladled on a bit too thickly for my taste, perhaps that won’t bother everyone.
There are too few science books for toddlers anyway – why not start with this one?