The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
by Oliver Sacks
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781447203834
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Pages: 256
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Picador

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales illuminate what it means to be human.

This has been on my shelf for at least 10 years, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up; I’m a sucker for case studies, and Sacks doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

This is a collection of previously published case studies of various neurological disorders, and reading it reinforces my sense that truly, every day is a miracle when your brain isn’t forsaking you.  I alternated between awe, horror, indignation, anger, sadness and, throughout a growing, overwhelming amount of respect for those that dedicate their lives to their patients.  Sacks impressed me as both a doctor and a human.

The book wasn’t perfect – Sacks had a tendency to meander through citations of similar cases, or other doctors’ hypothesis, and when that happened, my eyes got a bit glassy, and I skimmed, but overall it’s an incredibly readable collection.  I wish there was more follow up for so many of these people – I’m left curious and hopeful that they all found some space in the world for themselves.

DNF: Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond

Still Water: The Deep Life of the PondStill Water: The Deep Life of the Pond
by John Lewis-Stempel
Rating: ★★
isbn: 9780857524577
Publication Date: March 14, 2019
Pages: 289
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Doubleday

The Pond. Nothing in the countryside is more humble or more valuable. It's the moorhen's reedy home, the frog's ancient breeding place, the kill zone of the beautiful dragonfly. More than a hundred rare and threatened fauna and flora depend on it.

Written in gorgeous prose, Still Water tells the seasonal story of the wild animals and plants that live in and around the pond, from the mayfly larvae in the mud to the patrolling bats in the night sky above. It reflects an era before the water was polluted with chemicals and the land built on for housing, a time when ponds shone everywhere like eyes in the land, sustaining life for all, from fish to carthorse.

Still Water is a loving biography of the pond, and an alarm call on behalf of this precious but overlooked habitat. Above all, John Lewis-Stempel takes us on a remarkable journey - deep, deep down into the nature of still water.

Straight up this book was not at all what I was expecting.  The title implies a close analysis of pond life; the pull quote at the bottom reinforces this expectation.

Instead, this is a philosophical naval-gaze / memoir / diary.  Disappointing, given that I was in the mood for a discussion of bugs, amphibians, fish … maybe some algae for color.  But I’ve also enjoyed other books similar to this (A Farmer’s Diary comes immediately to mind) so I shifted my expectations and persevered.  Unfortunately, even with shifted expectations I could not get past “Winter”; the writing was just a bit too meta and the prose was trying too hard to be poetic.  One season in – about 25% of the book – and I still really wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish.

I gave it two stars because it was technically well written, the cover is gorgeous, and it might just be me.

The Library Book

The Library BookThe Library Book
by Susan Orlean
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781782392262
Publication Date: November 1, 2018
Pages: 319
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Atlantic Books

After moving to Los Angeles, Susan Orlean became fascinated by a mysterious local crime that has gone unsolved since it was carried out on the morning of 29 April 1986: who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library, ultimately destroying more than 400,000 books, and perhaps even more perplexing, why?

With her characteristic humour, insight and compassion, Orlean uses this terrible event as a lens through which to tell the story of all libraries - their history, their meaning and their uncertain future as they adapt and redefine themselves in a digital world.

Filled with heart, passion and extraordinary characters, The Library Book discusses the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives.

When I reviewed The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, I said I dislike true crime, yet here I am again, talking about a true crime book.  Sort of.

The publisher’s classification for this book is ‘true crime’ – and it does cover in detail the devastating fire at Central Library in Los Angeles in 1986, but the case remains unsolved, the suspect deceased, and some questions remain about whether or not it was actually arson – so was a crime even committed?

In the same way The Orchid Thief by the same author was nominally about the theft of protected orchid species from parkland, but was really more about the obsessive allure of orchids that drives some people to extremes, so The Library Book is nominally about the Central Library fire, but really a history of the LA Library system and an ode to the importance and joy of libraries in general.

For those that enjoy True Crime, this book is going to be frustrating; for those of us that aren’t fans of true crime, this book will fall somewhere in the range of ‘more palatable’ and ‘perfect’.  For me, it was close to perfect.  I was fascinated by the narrative of the fire itself, how bad it was, how challenging it was to put out, the whole walk-through of the day itself.  The logistics of the aftermath and conserving as many of the books as they could.  I was interested in the investigation; the manpower, the few slim leads, interviews with those involved.  Mystery catnip!  The few chapters devoted to the suspect, Harry Peak, were good, if disturbing.  LA really has more than its share of people who live in their own reality.

Orlean interspersed all of this with a history of the Library system, from its modest start as a fee-based lending library at the edge of the wild west, to the massive city-wide system it is today, including concise bios of the many men and women who headed up, ran, and directed the library.  A few of these chapters crawled a bit, but there were enough characters involved to keep things mostly lively.

I genuinely enjoy Orlean’s writing; she’s a journalist who knows how to do her research and engage the reader without trying to solicit a reaction in one direction or another.  A most excellent read.

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the WorldThe Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
by Abigail Tucker
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781476738239
Publication Date: December 1, 2016
Pages: 241
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

House cats rule back alleys, deserted Antarctic islands, and our bedrooms. Clearly, they own the Internet, where a viral cat video can easily be viewed upwards of ten million times. But how did cats accomplish global domination? Unlike dogs, they offer humans no practical benefit. The truth is they are sadly incompetent rat-catchers and pose a threat to many ecosystems. Yet, we love them still.

To better understand these furry strangers in our midst, Abby Tucker travels to meet the breeders, activists, and scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to cats. She visits the labs where people sort through feline bones unearthed from the first human settlements, treks through the Floridian wilderness in search of house cats on the loose, and hangs out with Lil Bub, one of the world’s biggest feline celebrities.

Witty, intelligent, and always curious, Tucker shows how these tiny creatures have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. The appropriate reaction to a cuddly kitten, it seems, might not be aww but awe.

This should have been a better book; Tucker is a self professed, life long lover of cats, and I understand her need to be objective about the subject matter – I applaud it, even.  But just about all of this book felt like an apology, or an over-correction of bias.  Or both.

The Introduction professes the text to be an overview of the history of cats as domesticated animals and their intersection with culture and pop culture.  It mostly succeeds, but really, just barely.  I think her motivation underneath it all is to point out that cats are cats and cats do what cats do, but humans are, at the end of the day, at the heart of the destruction that cats get blamed for.  After all, without human interference and transportation, house cats would still be a wild animal confined to the region around Turkey.  Unfortunately, if that’s the message she intended, she was a little too subtle about it.

There were highlights; I loved that she pointed out that cats are the only domesticated animal that chooses to be domesticated and the only domesticated animal that can successfully return to the wild.  When people say cats are independent, I don’t perhaps think they realise just how independent they truly are.  I admire them for that.

Otherwise, I mostly just argued with the text as I read it, and all in all I found The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions  by Thomas McNamee to be a superior text all the way around.  I learned a lot from that book, and it left me with a lot to think about.  This one, I was just mostly happy to have finished.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too MuchThe Man Who Loved Books Too Much
by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781594488917
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 274
Genre: Books and Reading, Non-fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be.

Gilkey is an obsessed, unrepentant book thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Ken Sanders is the self-appointed "bibliodick" (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch him. Bartlett befriended both outlandish characters and found herself caught in the middle of efforts to recover hidden treasure.

With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, she has woven this entertaining cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his dirtiest crimes, where he stashed the loot, and how Sanders ultimately caught him but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them. Immersing the reader in a rich, wide world of literary obsession, Bartlett looks at the history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages, to examine the craving that makes some people willing to stop at nothing to possess the books they love.

I’m not a fan of true crime books; I find any public attempt to ‘get into the mind’ of a criminal a distasteful glorification of abhorrent behaviour and I think criminals should rot in obscurity.

All of which makes my enjoyment of this book just prove what a hypocrite I am, although in my defence I didn’t realise when I bought it that it would be delving into the sociopath’s head – I thought it was more a documentation of the chase itself; how a ‘bibliodick’ investigated the stolen books and how the thief was apprehended.  You know, like a mystery!

It was very little of any of those things, since the thief in question was apprehended before Hoover Bartlett started researching the book and agreed to participate (the book started as an article for a San Francisco magazine).

The first half of the book was everything I hoped it would be, as Hoover Bartlett met with rare book dealers, went to book fairs, talked about book collecting and some of the lottery-like finds that have happened over the years.  She talked with the ‘bibliodick’, Ken Sanders, who talked about how he got sucked into chasing down the elusive man who’d stolen over 100k worth of books over three years and was getting away with it.  The first half of this book was purely fascinating.

The second half of the book was fascinating too – in a train wreck sort of way.  The second half of the book focuses on Hoover Bartlett’s attempt to figure out why the thief does what he does, and continues to do even after he’s been caught.  I loathe using a serial killer as a comparison – for obvious reasons – but this guy was, in every way except the crimes he committed, Ted Bundy:  clean cut, well spoken, charming, respectful, intelligent, with absolutely no conscience whatsoever.  He knew what he was doing was illegal, but didn’t think it was wrong – and he didn’t care either way.  His delusions were mind-boggling, and just when I thought he couldn’t possibly go there in the land of rationalisations, he’d go there.

I originally bought this book years ago in some half-hearted cautionary tale sort of way, when I was battling the stacks of books threatening to take over my house.  It wasn’t that kind of book, but still, it was one I couldn’t put down.  It was well written, Hoover Bartlett seemed she was being pretty transparent with the reader, and I genuinely enjoyed the parts about what it means to be a book collector.

But I still don’t like true crime books.

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Haywood Hill 1952-1973

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Haywood Hill 1952-1973The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Haywood Hill 1952-1973
by John Saumarez Smith (Editor)
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780711224520
Publication Date: January 1, 2004
Pages: 191
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Frances Lincoln

This collection of previously unpublished correspondence with Heywood Hill is filled with gossip about life in Paris, tales of her writing life, and her own personal request for books. Hill in turn provides news of customers - many of whom were the elite of post-war London - and reports on how Mitford's books were being revived in London. It is an intimate and charming look at a world that has all but disappeared and will appeal to anyone interested in postwar English literature and/or high society.

Here’s the thing about publishing a person’s letters post mortem:  they were written to friends – in this case one, very good, very long-time friend – and as such contain all sorts of personal references, names of mutual friends, inside jokes, and most frustratingly, a shorthand form of communication built up over years that’s really only obvious to the correspondents themselves.  The editor Johns Saumerez Smith, does his best to clarify as much as possible, but there’s quite a lot that went over my head regardless.

In addition to the insider knowledge required to really, really appreciate this collection, Johns Saumerez Smith, in an effort at conciseness, interest, and probably respect of Haywood’s and Mitford’s privacy, edited each letter down to the bits he felt were humorous, with the effect that as a reader, I felt a bit frustrated – because references would be made to one thing or another in one letter that were never followed up on in subsequent letters.  There are letters in their chain of correspondence that are missing in the archives, and Johns Saumerez Smith did his best to summarise (I assume from other sources) the gaps.  But the one thing that really irritated me is that Saumerez Smith left out letters that exist but have already been published in one of the other 2 broader collections of Mitford’s letters, making the (erroneous in my case) assumption that the reader had already seen them, because, of course, the reader would have already read both the other collections.

Overall though, I enjoyed this glimpse into Mitford’s life, and the drama at the Haywood Hill bookshop … I wish they’d discussed it more and in fuller detail; it sounds like quite a drama.  A lot of joy comes through though, and a lot of irreverence, so that even if I didn’t understand all the references, I enjoyed the glimpse I got into a valued friendship.

A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm

A Farmer's DiaryA Farmer's Diary
by Sally Urwin
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788160698
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Pages: 248
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Sally Urwin and her husband Steve own High House Farm in Northumberland, which they share with two kids, Mavis the Sheepdog, one very Fat Pony, and many, many sheep. Set in a beautiful, wild landscape, and in use for generations, it's perfect for Sally's honest and charming account of farming life.

From stock sales to lambing sheds, out in the fields in driving snow and on hot summer days, A Farmer's Diary reveals the highs, lows and hard, hard work involved in making a living from the land. Filled with grit and humour, newborn lambs and local characters, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the fence.

It will come as no surprise to anyone, with the loony menagerie we have, that MT and I enjoy being surrounded by animals, and have both flirted with the idea of someday doing some small scale farming.  Extraordinarily small scale; a few acres with a variety of edible landscaping, a small garden, and a few more rescue animals that would seem sensible.

If we ever thought anything more than that would appeal, this book would have put paid to that fantasy.  Farming is hard, which isn’t a newsflash for most people, but more than that, it’s a form of voluntary indentured servitude that guarantees 365 sleepless nights a year, as Urwin’s diary attests.

From context, this seems to be the book form of one year of Sally Urwin’s blog entries.  They’re well-written, funny, heartbreaking and depressing all at once.  I mean, come on, one of their breeding rams is named Randy Jackhammer.  For someone like me, these memoirs of farm life are fascinating, and a potent reminder of why I’m still working in IT.  I enjoy living off the land, but as the author so brilliantly illustrates, depending on the land for your living is a horse (or a sheep) of en entirely different colour.

A fascinating read.

The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History

The Madman's LibraryThe Madman's Library
by Edward Brooke-Hitching
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781471166914
Publication Date: October 7, 2020
Pages: 255
Genre: Books and Reading, History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

This is a madman’s library of eccentric and extraordinary volumes from around the world, many of which have been completely forgotten. Books written in blood and books that kill, books of the insane and books that hoaxed the globe, books invisible to the naked eye and books so long they could destroy the Universe, books worn into battle, books of code and cypher whose secrets remain undiscovered… and a few others that are just plain weird.

From the 605-page Qur'an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein, through the gorgeously decorated 15th-century lawsuit filed by the Devil against Jesus, to the lost art of binding books with human skin, every strand of strangeness imaginable (and many inconceivable) has been unearthed and bound together for a unique and richly illustrated collection ideal for every book-lover.

I knew I wanted this book as soon as I saw it; gorgeously illustrated in full colour, and really well written, this is exactly what is purports to be.  Broken into categorical chapters that include “Books that aren’t Books”; “Books Made of Flesh and Blood”; “Literary Hoaxes”, etc., the book covers a comprehensive span of the beautiful, the frightful and the unusual.

I enjoyed Brooke-Hitching’s writing style, appreciating his small infusions of humour as well as the information he imparted about each category and specific books. It was easy to read, but not easy reading; I found reading a chapter at a time worked well for my comprehension and enjoyment – the one time I tried to read more in one sitting, I found my eyes glazing over.

All in all, an enjoyable book and one that I’m happy to have on my bookshelves.


by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.

This was not quite the book I was expecting, proving you can’t always judge a book by its cover and full colour photos.  I originally thought it would be a fast-ish read. I should have known better though because it’s published by CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research.

33 days and two nightmares later, (seriously – first time EVER a book has given me nightmares) and I can say I’d happily recommend that @elentarri check this book out if she can find it.  For anyone else out there that finds science, and especially natural sciences, fun and fascinating, and is happy to tackle a densely written narrative that falls closer to academic research paper than it does to popular science in writing style, you too should see if you can find this book.

Only 7 chapters and less than 200 pages long and filled with full colour illustrations, photos (warning: some of them are graphic) and charts, but don’t let this fool you: there’s a lot of hard science here.  As I was reading it, I got the impression that it’s mean to be a primer or introduction for science students and hard-core amateurs.  Chapter 1 discusses the definitive differences between a poison and a venom, luring the reader into a sense that this is definitely aimed at armchair scientists.  By the time Chapter 5 rolls around, though, the writers are saying things like:

Not all enzymes conserve their ancestral activity while evolving into molecular killers, however.  Some snake venom PLAenzymes, for example, have lot their enzymatic activity but they can still exert their toxic roles.

(Quote take at random from chapter 5 “Evolving Venoms”).  By chapter 3 I had learned a lot but the authors were making me work for it.  While I can say, how that I’m done, that I now have a good overall understanding of the concepts presented, it’s only a very thin veneer of all that this book offers.  This is a book I’d have to re-read several times, slowly, before I could say I had an immersive understanding of the text.

While chapter 5 is, I’d say, the densest chapter, the authors do wrap the book up with two lighter chapters that were akin to a nice after-dinner sorbet.  Chapter 6 discusses how venoms are used for traditional healing, cosmetics, recreational drug use (I can’t imagine ever thinking that smoking dried scorpions sounded like a viable option), rites of passage, spiritual vision quests, and modern medicines.  I found this chapter fascinating from an anthropological perspective.  Chapter 7 is a summary chapter that uses the honeybee as a microcosm example of all the concepts of venom relevant across the microcosm.

I have never been afraid of snakes and have always been one of the first to volunteer to interact with one, and while I’ve never been stupid about venomous ones, giving them a wide berth at all times, I’ve got to say reading this, especially Chapter 4 “Dissecting the power of venom”, planted a tiny seed of fear in me about ever running across them in any context.  What few anecdotes the authors offer are chilling and I’ve been wondering if, when I can walk again, I could feasibly bush walk in thigh-high thick rubber waders.  Maybe with some good insoles…

There are, of course, a lot of other animals covered in this book – as the authors point out, 25% of all phyla are venomous (mosquitoes are considered venomous).  I have a whole new respect for the male platypus during breeding season (must look up when that is), and the slow loris?, well all I can say is if it puts its arms up to hug you, run away – fast.  But the snakes are what leave the most indelible impression, making even the spiders look like the lesser evil.

All in all, a good book for those genuinely interested.

Reading Status Update: I’ve read 68 out of 208 of Venom

by Eivind Undheim, Ronald Jenner
isbn: 9781486308378
Publication Date: October 1, 2017
Pages: 208
Genre: Natural Science, Science
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing

A fully illustrated guide to venom, its evolution in different animal groups, its effects and its treatments.
When we enter the world of venom, we enter the realm of one of the most diverse, versatile, sophisticated and deadly biological adaptations ever to have evolved on Earth.

Since it first appeared in ancient jellyfish and sea anemones, venom has proved so effective that it has since evolved independently in dozens of different animal groups. The authors reveal the many unique methods by which venomous animals deliver their cocktail of toxins and how these disrupt the physiology of the victims.

Jenner and Undheim also consider how humans have learnt to neutralise venom’s devastating effects, as well as exploit the power of venom in innovative ways to create new drugs to treat a variety of serious conditions. Fully illustrated throughout, this illuminating guide will appeal to all those with an interest in the wondrous world of venom.

When I started this book, I thought it was going to be introductory, aimed at a mainstream audience.  It’s introductory, in its way, but I can’t imagine it’s really meant for a mainstream audience; lots of latin names and terminology that’s not advanced (no molecular structures, so far) but not really reader friendly either.

I’m really enjoying it; I like the informative charts I’ve come across so far, and there is a generous number of full colour photographs that are beautiful.  Some of the information is old-hat for me, but quite a bit of it is new, and I’m only done with 2 chapters.

This is a slow read that will ruin my average reading time stats, but will be well worth it, I think.