The Body: A Guide for Occupants

The Body: A Guide for OccupantsThe Body: A Guide for Occupants
by Bill Bryson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780857522405
Publication Date: October 3, 2019
Pages: 455
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Penguin Books

Bill Bryson sets off to explore the human body, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. Full of extraordinary facts and astonishing stories The Body: A Guide for Occupants is a brilliant, often very funny attempt to understand the miracle of our physical and neurological make up.


Another book I own but borrowed in audio from the library.  Also another read by the author, though Bryson does almost all of his own books and I’ve always enjoyed his readings.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an overview of the human body, taking it system by system.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but looking through my hard copy, I can see it includes photos, making me think this is yet another book destined to be re-visited as a read, rather than a listen.  No hardship, as Bryson is an excellent writer, and The Body is no exception.  He covers the basics, plus just that little bit more, offering what might perhaps be new information, or a different perspective, or a fresh historical anecdote.  He also doesn’t pull any punches about humanity’s propensity to overeat and under exercise, something that in (what is for me) these post-lockdown days had a more pronounced effect than they might otherwise have had pre-covid.

I don’t think fans of Bryson will be disappointed.

Caesar’s Last Breath (Audio)

Caesar's Last BreathCaesar's Last Breath
by Sam Kean
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780316381642
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 375
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group

A round-the-globe journey through the periodic table explains how the air people breathe reflects the world's history, tracing the origins and ingredients of the atmosphere to explain air's role in reshaping continents, steering human progress, and powering revolutions.


I listened to this back in December-February, and forgot all about posting a review; this happens frequently with my audiobooks since I borrow them from the library and they’re not physical objects, sitting around mutely mocking me for my slack ways.

I like Sam Kean’s books, and I always have.  They’re popular science books and I enjoy his way of attaching science to everyday anecdotes; for me it’s a nice reinforce how science is at the very core of life.

Caesar’s Last Breath is about the air we all breathe and which parts of the periodic table we’re breathing at any given moment.  I own the book, but it was available from the library as audio and I needed something for the car.  It’s narrated by Kean himself, which can often not be a good thing, but I think he made a fair performance of it.  But this book also uses visuals, so while I enjoyed it, I think I’d have gotten more out of it had I read my hard copy.  Something I’ll probably do soon.

If you’ve read his other books and didn’t care for them, don’t bother with this one, but if you enjoy accessible science tied to historical events or everyday living, you might enjoy this one.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Genres: Natural Science, Science
Format: Paperback
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans De Waal
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781783783069
Publication Date: July 26, 2017
Pages: 340
Genre: Science
Publisher: Granta Books

Short answer:  no, of course we’re not.  For a lot of reasons, but mostly because of thousands of years of cultural confirmation bias.

For the long answer, you can’t go wrong reading this book.  De Waal writes a very readable treatise on the subject – where we started regarding our beliefs about animal intelligence, and how we got to where we are today, using a well balanced blend of anecdotes and scientific experiments.  While his area of study is primatology, he also delves into research conducted by colleagues on birds, elephants, dogs, a few fish wales, dolphins, and the octopus.  He systematically addresses each of the arguments that have been made as to what sets humans apart, and how these arguments have been torn down by research over time.

The book didn’t get the full 5 stars because, oddly enough, I felt De Waal was being too politic about at least one question: why are researchers, scientists and laypeople so historically stubborn about insisting that humans are above, and superior to, all other animals?  To me, that answer is obvious, though I can see why scientists equate objectivity with atheism.  The truth of the matter is that the Western world has been culturally inculcated by Judeo-Christian teachings, whether scientists like it or not, on such a fundamental level, that I doubt many are aware of it.  Specifically, Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.

Personally – and this is just me – I’ve always had doubts about the original translation of Gen. 1:28 – specifically the words “subdue” and “rule”; I have to wonder if the original language wasn’t closer to something akin to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’, given that Earth may be our home, but it isn’t our house, so to speak.  And while I’m going a bit off topic here, I’ll also just say that I do believe that God gave us something that separates us from the other animals: free will.  In all my readings and my meagre experiences, we’re the only animals that can choose to be evil for the sake of being evil; we’re the only animals that can choose to hurt ourselves; we’re the only animals that will push our own boundaries just for the sake of pushing them.

Anyway – back on topic – De Waal doesn’t address deeply embedded cultural bias, which struck me as odd.  But that’s really my only niggling objection.  Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found much in it that made me think hard about animal intelligence and what it means to be aware of self, others and our surroundings.  But then again, I’m his audience:  I have always believed animals are smart, aware, and cognisant and that humans have never been as special as we think we are.

The Bird Way

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and ThinkThe Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think
by Jennifer Ackerman
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 1925713768
Publication Date: May 5, 2020
Pages: 355
Genre: Science
Publisher: Scribe Publishers

'There is the mammal way and there is the bird way.' This is one scientist's pithy distinction between mammal brains and bird brains- two ways to make a highly intelligent mind. But the bird way is much more than a unique pattern of brain wiring, and, lately, scientists have taken a new look at bird behaviours. What they are finding is upending the traditional view of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, and survive. They're also revealing not only the remarkable intelligence underlying these activities, and disturbing abilities we once considered uniquely our own - deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide - but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.

Drawing on personal observations, the latest science, and her bird-related travel around the world, from the tropical rainforests of eastern Australia and the remote woodlands of northern Japan, to the rolling hills of lower Austria and the islands of Alaska's Kachemak Bay, Ackerman shows there is clearly no single bird way of being. In every respect - in plumage, form, song, flight, lifestyle, niche, and behaviour - birds vary. It's what we love about them. As E.O. Wilson once said, when you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.


I loved this book so much, I started putting together a post for it and realised I was going to end up writing something half as long as the book itself, with pictures most of my friends have already seen.  Thankfully I realised just how much work that would be, and frankly, Jennifer Ackerman’s done a better job that I’d ever be able to do.

The Bird Way is sort of a follow-up to The Genius of Birds, which I also highly recommend.  Both bring birds to life in a way that highlights just how unique, how smart, and how under-appreciated they are as a species by the general population.  The Bird Way focuses on some of the even more unique outliers of the species; the ones that defy expectations either by their intelligence, their capacity for play, their weird mating rituals, communications, or parenting styles (or the lack thereof).

After reading this, one comes to terms with the idea that there is truly nothing new under the sun.  There are birds that commit chicknapping, and birds that leave their eggs in everybody else’s nests..  There are birds that murder other birds, rape their females and commit acts of necrophilia.  It’s all very sordid, but their are also birds that go out of their way to feed another species’ fledglings, warn other species about predators, and practice cooperative, communal parenting.  Birds that sing so beautifully that symphonies have been written around their song, and birds that create literal walls of sound that chase out every competitor in their vicinity.

Obviously, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It’s easy, accessible reading, but Ackerman has done her research and includes a comprehensive Further Reading at the back of the book, broken down by chapters, that serves as a list of citations.  I’ll admit, part of why I enjoyed the book as much as I did was that while her focus was international, a lot of the birds discussed were Australian and ones I’ve been privileged enough to see myself.  It’s probably this first hand experience that pushed the book solidly into 5 star territory for me; perhaps without it I might have rated it 4.5 stars.  Either way, it’s a book I’d happily recommend to anyone interested in not just birds, but it how we are discovering just how wrong we’ve been about what makes humanity “special”.   And if the section about Keas doesn’t make you smile, and perhaps chuckle out loud, you must be having a really bad day.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

I’ve always known I’m an off-the-chart introvert, but I’ve spent my life being told ‘No way! You are totally extroverted!’ by my employers, so I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of introvert vs. extrovert.

 

This is a great book. As I’ve said, I’ve always known I’m an introvert, but I had no idea what that meant in terms of showing affection, conflict resolution – even my nervous system! Reading this was a great breath of fresh air for me – I’m not ‘broken’ because I can’t ‘fight’ the ‘right’ way and I can’t always control my need to run in the opposite direction from social events larger than 4 people. Other themes that struck a chord: guilt, the need to please, the feelings of devastation at the slightest sign of disapproval, amongst so many others.

 

From a management perspective – well, I wish this book was required reading for anyone managing a number of people. I work in an ‘open office plan’, and while I’m an introvert, I’m not shy, so it’s a daily battle not to turn around and yell at everybody to shut the hell up – or run screaming out of the room myself.

 

I don’t have children, but the last part of the book did a wonderful job touching on the subject of introversion in children and their experiences in the educational system. I never got the standard ‘do you speak English’-type comments growing up (see above about not being shy), but my mother had to deal with 12 years of ‘your daughter is extremely bright but has an attitude problem’ – until I read this book I NEVER understood this as all I ever wanted to do was please my teachers.

 

All in all, a very eye-opening read. For Introverts, it’s an affirmation. For extroverts with introverts in your lives, hopefully reading this book will make understanding us a bit easier.

 

I listened to the audio and while the narrator was excellent (she spoke very quietly – on purpose do you think?), I think this might be a book I’d like to own in print for easy reference in the future.

Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects

Things that make you go ‘ewww’.

 

Excellent read but not for the easily squeamish. Amy Stewart vividly describes what many of the world’s pests do, making my partner insist that I stop reading sections out loud to him as they were really too disgusting. But if you like nature, or any interest in entomology, this book is a fascinating, entertaining read.