Review: Gentleman Jack – Angela Steidele

★★★

Another non-fiction book today – this time a biography of Anne Lister. For anyone unfamiliar with Anne Lister, she was an obsessive diarist who wrote not only her day to day minutiae of being a female landowner but also is known for being an unapologetic lesbian. Her diary is filled with coded entries of her relationships with women – quite a few of them – and this is a biography which explores her outside her own words.

So, I did listen to this on audiobook. While the narration was sublime (thank you Heather Peace), I don’t think this particular book suited the format as well as I had hoped. The book uses extracts of her diary and puts information around them, it’s prose-y in places which is fine but in audio it’s quite hard sometimes to distinguish what was written by Anne and what was added by the biographer as diary snippets are just thrown in the middle of sentences and paragraphs to put things in to Anne’s own words next to the biographers own. It’s a little jarring at times.

My main issue with this, aside from the fact I listened to it rather than read it, is that I don’t think the author actually understood the period, or the topic at hand, properly. I do think that her naivety comes through. She did say at one point that she has not read Anne Lister’s diaries in full, and I don’t think she read much source material at all. It feels like she picked the bits that suited her and put a narrative around them. She took the sex and romance and put her own interpretation on it, which really just takes away from the complexity that was Anne Lister. Additionally, in the final chapter/epilogue there was a paragraph which basically went on to say that there was “no consequence” for Anne and Ann (her wife) living as a married couple and while I’ve read very little around Anne Lister, I know that this is not true at all. They were practically shunned, subject to homophobic attacks, and to paint Anne Lister’s life as some Jane Austen romance is not fair, or right, at all.

Anne Lister was not perfect – she had numerous wives, cheated on most of her partners, 2 of her ex-partners were institutionalised and, to top it all off, she was a Tory. She was not perfect by any stretch of the word but I feel this book completely removed her of all nuance. She was a highly educated woman, long before that was socially acceptable for women, she was well travelled – there is so much more to her, more depth than the women she was in relationships with.

I gave this 3 stars because parts of it were good, the narration was impeccable and I had knowledge about Anne Lister away from this book to fill in some gaps myself. But I think if you’re looking for a more in depth look at Anne Lister, this isn’t the book for you. If you want a romanticised version of her that defines her by the women she was in relationships with (each section of her life is separated by her partner of the time) and nearly completely erases the homophobia? Give it a whirl.

Review: Dead Famous – Greg Jenner

★★★★

I picked this up because I love Greg Jenner’s podcast You’re Dead to Me (available on all good podcast services). His “specialist subject” as it were is the history of fame and celebrity, and having heard him talk about characters like Lord Byron in the podcast with such enthusiasm I knew this wasn’t going to be a disappointment.

Naturally, because I love the podcast, I chose the audiobook of this and it was not a bad decision! If you’re going to pick this up, I really recommend the audiobook as it does just feel like a long podcast – or your friend going on a really enthusiastic lecture about something they love. And who doesn’t love that?

So, the book explores the history of fame and celebrity, how people became famous, or celebrities, in times before TV, and even the printed press. It explores the differences between the varying levels of fame (because there are differences), how some people choose it and others have it thrust upon them. And while the book does generally focus on pre-1950, there are more modern examples used such as Miley Cyrus – and let me tell you a whole paragraph about Miley Cyrus was out of the blue but not unwelcome, and actually put a lot of his ideas in to context. Who knew Miley Cyrus would be a good example? (I jest of course). He also explores the history of fandom – which is not a new phenomenon at all – and I really enjoyed the exploration of this aspect of fame/celebrity because we consider it a new thing, something that stemmed from Beatlemania in the 60’s and grew from there with the more readily accessible media, but versions of fandom have been around for centuries.

There are so many wonderful people who I’d never heard of talked about in this book, and I did do some googling while reading because so many of the people are fascinating and I’d just never heard of them. You can tell how enthusiastic Greg Jenner is about this subject, and as I mentioned above the audiobook is like having a friend just talk at you about something they’re really passionate about. He’s funny, and makes this so easily understood and relatable, it’s really hard to not enjoy this book.

My only issue with this is it isn’t chronological. It is a little all over the place, which does maybe suit some peoples reading styles more, for me I’d have preferred a chronological look at things. I understand why it was organised the way it was, but for me it did make it feel a bit disjointed.

Would highly recommend this – and the podcast You’re Dead to Me!

Review: A Curious History of Sex – Kate Lister

★★★★★

If you’re anything like me, you save a book you know you’re going to love for the first book you read in a year. After what was frankly an abysmal reading year in 2020, I knew that I wanted the first book of 2021 to be one that was a belter. I’ve been wanting to read this since I saw Hannah Witton talk about it when it was first published, so when I saw it was finally on Audible I snaffled up the audiobook.

As the title may suggest, this is a history of sex and sexuality. I think it’s fair to say it’s explicit throughout. If the word cunt offends you, probably not the book for you. There’s a whole chapter on the etymology of female genitalia and how the word that is seen as so obscene now is actually the most feminist of any of the words we have in our vocabulary. Even the medical words – vagina, vulva etc – are entrenched in misogyny. That chapter alone is a masterpiece, but throughout the book historical slang for anatomy and sexual acts are used, and honestly that never failed to make me laugh.

Kate Lister’s flair and overall cheekiness made this even more fun. Her personality shone through for me, and maybe it is because she narrated the audiobook herself but I’ve read some reviews and I think that this aspect of her came through even in print. Some of this book genuinely made me pause and laugh out loud, and I think it is genuinely the perfect balance between hard hitting facts and humour. Because the history of sex isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, though quite a bit of it is hilarious. From personal hygiene and communal bathing to pubic hair, by way of the myth/construct of virginity, religion and menstruation – this book is one that really gives a comprehensive history.

As I said, it’s pretty serious in places too. There’s a chapter which covers FGM, and the mutilation that the clitoris has faced over the years in an effort to control the humans who had one. How those who were deemed “abnormal” resulted in people being burnt as witches. How virginity testing – something that is seen as medieval – is still partaken in in parts of the world. There is a chapter which explores the persecution sex workers have faced, and are still facing. And if you’re thinking “this seems very vulva heavy” – there’s horrific stories of how penis owners have suffered through history too.

Something that really brings you back to down to earth is realising how much work we still have to do, that while we’ve made huge waves we still have a long way to go in making sex safe and legal for everyone. In 72 countries it’s still illegal to be gay, in 15 countries expressing gender outside the binary/what you were assigned at birth is punishable by death. Sex workers are being discriminated against now more than ever, and it’s becoming increasingly more unsafe for them to work.

I couldn’t put this book down. There are so many bits that I could sit here and just gush about. I’ve already recommended it to two reading groups, and a couple of friends and I only finished it a couple of days ago. It’s just one of those books that is overflowing with information that you want to share with everyone. I sincerely hope that if the Wellcome prize makes a welcome return this year, that this is on the longlist because it is brilliant. I would urge anyone to read this.

Review: The Gendered Brain – Gina Rippon

018 - The Gendered Brain

018 - The Gendered Brain

★★★★★

I’m not going to lie, this book was pretty much a cover buy – just look at how beautiful this cover is – but the content is just as fantastic. If I could give this book 6 stars I would, because honestly it’s one of the most comprehensive looks at the differences, and similarities in human brains on the basis of Sex (assigned at birth).

One thing I am going to applaud is how brilliantly the author distinguishes between sex and gender, and elaborates on how one is a biological entity (sex) and the other is more of a fluid thing which can differ from what biology tells us. So often books focus on the binary but Rippon doesn’t shy away from the non-binary. I will say in this review I do use male/female in reference to biological sex.

So, on to the actual content of the book. There have been a hideous amount of scientific studies to show that there are significant differences between the biology of male and female brains. However, studies have only been published if it has shown “significant” advantage to the males of our species. Primarily because studies have been carried out by men, for men, to prove women can’t do X, Y or Z. Infuriating and completely unfounded – a significant result statistically is dependent entirely on the type of analysis done, and while I won’t make myself relive the horror of my final year at university, I know that statistics can be skewed in favour of a particular result by using different analysis methods.

But these studies have impacted lives. They’ve perpetuated stereotypes and gender myths. Brains aren’t a one size fits each biological sex deal. What we’re now learning via neuroscience is that brains are more like play doh and completely shaped by the environment around us in our childhood. Children have experiences, and are surrounded by messages – gendered stereotypes – and that’s what shapes our brains. In telling a girl early on that she’s less likely to be good at science and maths it makes her less interested in it (in turn reducing their ability, completely “proving” the stereotype).

Biological sex is just one of the many variables which influence our brains; society has a far more pivotal role in influencing a brain of a child than anyone believed. Allowing a child to play with whatever toy they want, praising them and encouraging them to excel in whichever subjects they wish to lead to more varied brains – and more rounded individuals. Those encouraged to do what makes them happy are less likely to have mental health issues.

I found this book absolutely fascinating, and I think it’s going to be a book I refer to regularly and push in to hands of anyone not intimidated by such a big ole book! I listened to part of this on audio and loved that too. But anyway, I loved this book and I do imagine it’ll be a bit of a reality check for a lot of people who read it. I loved the detail, I loved how Rippon reviewed past research and also looked to the future. The future after this book is something I’m really excited to see because this, for me, is going to really open up discussion on this subject.

So yes, I absolutely loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone, seriously, even people not interested in the subject could benefit from reading this. And it’s definitely one to take slowly and appreciate, because it’s fact heavy but so important. So give it a go. If you only read one non-fiction book this year – or in your life – make it this?

Review: Gene Machine – Venki Ramakrishnan

006 - gene machine

006 - gene machine

★★★★★

At heart I’m a scientist and one of my favourite places in my local bookshops is the Popular Science section. I love browsing the shelves, trying to find new areas of science to read for pleasure, or just going back to my favourite area of science which is molecular biology and genetics. This book was one of the latter and sounded right up my street – especially the front cover which just made me nostalgic for my final year project at university in which I spent hours on hours making protein models like the one on the cover of this. While you may think this book is heavy science, don’t let the cover fool you, it’s actually a very approachable and easy to read book.

For the most part this book a memoir and we follow Ramakrishnan from his relatively humble beginnings in India, through his entire academic career which reached it’s peak in 2009 when he (along with two others) won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their research in to ribosomes. Ribosomes are a fascinating piece of molecular machinery and are responsible for the generation of proteins yet they themselves are constructed of protein subunits – they’re a chicken/egg situation on a microscopic scale. While we get quite a lot of his research in here, there is a lot of science, it’s approachable from a non-specialist perspective in my opinion. There were a lot of things in here I didn’t know in spite of my “specialist” area of study being in protein biophysics!

But Ramakrishnan as a person was fascinating too. His story resonated with me in a lot of ways, he started as a physicist but slowly became involved in answering one of the most complex biological conundrums since the DNA double helix. It was refreshing to see someone who has achieved so much greatness admitting that it’s okay to change direction and do something else, however far down a path you may seem to be. His personal life is interesting too, and while he doesn’t touch on much of his marriage or family, he constantly acknowledged how supportive his family had been through his career. What I enjoyed was him putting in to words his rivalries and friendships with other scientists, especially those he did go on to jointly win the Nobel with. He seems to be a very humble man, who is able to admit that at some points he let the potential go to his head.

I’ve followed the Wellcome Prize now for 2 years and will most certainly be doing it again this year, so when I find a book as fantastic as this before a longlist I’m giving myself a pat on the back. If this isn’t longlisted for the Wellcome Prize next month I’ll eat my bobble hat because this book was amazing. I’d even go as far as to say that I already want this on the shortlist without knowing whats on the longlist. This man has had an incredible life, and an incredible career. What he discovered was groundbreaking, and reading the journey to his Nobel was immersive. I felt his highs and his lows, I felt it when the pace picked up and the race to get the final structure was on. Ultimately, this is how you do science books and I for one cannot wait to see what it’s up against in the Wellcome (if it isn’t longlisted, I’ll be baffled).

Review: Evolutions – Oren Harman

001 - evolutions

001 - evolutions

★★★

This is the first book I’ve read in what feels like an age and I’m very much out of practice writing reviews, so let’s give this a go, shall we?

I’ve been in the mood to read non-fiction lately, and this was by far and away not what I was expecting when I picked it up. The way this book is written is far more poetic and ‘flowery’ than I was anticipating from a book in the popular science section of my local Waterstones to be.

I thought this book was going to be something that combined theology, mythology and evolution in a factual way – explained the origins of myths from a scientific point of view and instead it was a book which gave a personality to the universe. It could easily be in the fiction section of a book shop because it reads like flash fiction, just drawing inspiration on science and nature and, honestly, parts of it are breathtaking. As a scientist, however lapsed I am, it’s a very surreal experience to read the hard facts in and amongst such literary language.

While I loved how this book was written, and I shouldn’t judge a book based on what I was expecting. I think for someone maybe dabbling in popular science, this could be a good stepping stone between fact and fiction. For me the best part of the book wasn’t his wax poetic about the universe, but the essay section at the end. While it felt like an abrupt change in pace, it actually gave analysis to the first two thirds and provided references both for and against the mythology that was drawn. That’s what I wanted when I picked it up.

It also is worth saying that this is very binary in representation of gender and sexuality, which does grind my gears. Even when talking about asexual entities he was assigning gender to them and completely ignoring non-binary sex/gender (which is not just some modern development, it exists in history as long as life has been evolving).

Overall, a solid 3 stars, not sure it’ll be one I read again though – and I’d wait for the paperback, frankly.

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

054 - The Geek Feminist Revolution

Rating – 4*

I saw this collection on YouTube a few years ago and knew I needed to get my paws on it, so when I saw it in my local Waterstones I snatched it up without hesitation.

This book is a collection of thought provoking, feminist essays, focusing on female representation in geek, sci-fi and pop culture. There is such a variety of content in here, and as someone new to Hurley’s work I found every essay interesting and enjoyable. I’m aware that some people who are long time followers of her blog have found this collection repetitive.

I found the writing easy to read and follow. She has a way with words that makes the content really engaging, and it makes it all the better when I really agree with what the author is saying – which in this case I did. So much of the content rang true with me that it made for uncomfortable reading, uncomfortable in the sense that it hit far too close to home!

One thing I loved about this is how she addressed her own faults and privilege. She discusses intersectionality well throughout, and is aware that this is a fault of her own and knows the importance of hearing voices from minority groups. One of my favourite essays in the collection covers the problem of double standards in literature, how male protagonists can be anything they want to be and far more complex than a female protagonist. Female protagonists have to fit in to far more societal “norms” than a male counterparts, and in general have far more complex story arcs – and those arcs focus around the same tropes.

Overall I really enjoyed this collection. For me it was a really new perspective on feminism, and one that I’ve thought but never been able to vocalise coherently. The reason this gets a 4* opposed to a 5* is that, as I’ve found with a lot of essay collections, there is an element of repetition. Repetition in an essay collection is, in my mind, inevitable due to their nature. In being able to put them in a collection there has to be a common theme, and that just naturally going to involve repetition. I feel that if I hadn’t binged on them maybe it would have been much less of an issue for me as a reader.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in a new take on feminism, especially anyone interested in feminism in literature. It’s a breath of fresh air in and amongst a lot of essay collections on the same overarching topic, and has really built up my appetite for more essay collections in the future.

Review: Forgotten Women: The Scientists – Zing Tsjeng

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

Rating – 4*

I am a sucker for any book which covers feminism, forgotten females in history, female scientists and contains beautiful illustration. This covers all four of those points off nicely and I absolutely loved this book.

I judge any book about female scientists through history on it’s section on Rosalind Franklin. Anyone who knows me will know just how passionate I am about the acknowledgement of that woman and her contribution to the discovery of the double helix of DNA. Naturally I read the section on her in the middle of my local Waterstones and from that moment I knew I had to have this book. I started reading it on the bus home.

As someone who has read several books and essays on this subject in the past, I had heard of a significant number of these women but I never tire of reading different takes on their lives and learning new things about them. If I were to ever put my pen to paper and write a book, I would make it one like this. A book full of inspirational, incredible, intelligent women who made a difference to the world.

Each woman has 3 to 4 pages dedicated to her story, and a beautiful illustration by one of around a dozen (female) artists. Everything about this book is beautiful; it’s just a beautiful object and is now happily sitting in and amongst other books on feminism, gender studies and women’s history like it on my shelf.

The book I would compare this to is Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky. The only difference being this is a more in depth look at a lot of the same women as Women in Science is primarily aimed at children. I’d say this is a must read for anyone out there interested in women’s history, history of science and medicine or even just short, snappy and fun biographies akin to things like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Review: Behave – Robert Sapolsky

028 - Behave

028 - Behave

Rating – 3*

This was another book on the Wellcome longlist, and one that as soon as I read about I knew I wanted to read. It was possibly one of the more difficult books to read – it came in at around 800 pages with footnotes and appendices – and while not easy to read, it certainly was an enlightening one.

The first 100 pages are essentially a neuroscience and behaviour primer. To understand the rest of the book, it’s essential to grasp the basics. I appreciated this as I have not done any neuroscience, or behavioural science, ever. The book spans history, and how our brains have influenced behaviour – and how we’ve learnt from history too.

There are sections on many controversial topics, and while I don’t agree with his politics or his view points on many of them, he does at least attempt to give both sides of an argument. I found the chapter on crime and punishment fascinating, how we deal with criminals, and criminal behaviour and how that links in to their own biochemistry. Also, a rather controversial topic is youth offenders – can we really punish them as adults when the prefrontal cortex of their brain hasn’t fully developed until early to mid-twenties? The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain which deals with reasoning and logic. It doesn’t skirt around difficult topics, that much is sure.

Where his passions really shone through is in the area he is famous for – primate behaviour. I know nothing about this area, but one of my friends is an anthropologist and when she found out I had this book was itching to get her hands on it (so she’s borrowing it!) as his research on primate behaviour is internationally renowned. Having had her explain things to me, and then reading this book, I think I understand why she likes him so much as an author because the bit of the book on that subject was possibly one of the more readable sections!

Of all the books I’ve read for the prize (and I succeeded in all but one of the longlist), this was certainly the most academic of them. In parts it read a bit too much like a textbook, which is why I found myself drifting in and out of focus while reading it, and why I ultimately gave it only 3 stars. It isn’t that it is bad, it’s that it’s dense – it’s a very, very vast topic and it’s dealt with incredibly well. It’s just dense. I don’t think it’s fair for me to judge this book on my reading experience – the content was incredible, the writing was good, but my attention span waned and that’s my reasoning for 3 stars.

I think if this book were to be released as an audiobook, I’d jump on it because I do think I’d be able to take a hell of a lot more in that way! Come the 200 page mark I was itching for an audio version of this book – and unfortunately it doesn’t exist on Audible UK!

Needless to say, I had my issues with this book. It wasn’t bad, it was just clunky! Definitely one which will be better on audio, and definitely one to be read slowly. Even over 10 days I think I may have read it too fast!

Review: Plot 29 – Allan Jenkins

027 - Plot 29

027 - Plot 29

Rating – 2*

I am getting so close to finishing the longlist of the Wellcome prize now (as I write this it is the 15th of March and I have 5 days before the shortlist is announced and 2 books to finish!).

Plot 29 is a book which I found quite confusing. I think as a memoir around fostering, childhood neglect, and the struggle of finding a biological family it would be good, and as a book about keeping an allotment it would be good, however the combination of the two I found rather bizarre if I am entirely honest and something that as I reader I didn’t enjoy all that much. As with another memoir on the list I really struggled to find how this is relevant to bioscience or health – the link is just too tenuous for me (especially as I believe it was put on the list because of the mental health aspect of the piece, which I didn’t even pick up on!) So, for me this wasn’t really something I would have continued reading if it wasn’t for me wanting to read the entire longlist cover to cover!

The book essentially revolves around a year on an allotment in London – Plot 29 – which Jenkins is caring for. The book is based around this plot, and the year in a life of it. But that’s where the logic to the chronology ends. Within chapters there is so much jumping about, one moment we’re in 2016/17 and the next we’re in another decade – even the flashbacks and fragments of the past aren’t in any sort of order. This for me made even the major personal events in the book really anticlimactic and dull. And they shouldn’t have been, as I said initially if this book focused solely on his experience as a foster child, finding biological relatives, and also followed a logical chronology I think it could have been a really powerful piece of writing.

Unfortunately this book wasn’t for me – I feel a bit like it was mis-sold if I’m entirely honest. I appreciate this is someone’s life, and I am not in any way saying that it wasn’t moving but I found that as a book the way it was positioned felt a bit cramped. I find it interesting that it was originally to be a book about gardening and a year in an allotment with a little bit of personal stuff thrown in, but over time it grew in to what it became. I know a lot of people who have loved this book, and will love this book if they read it – but if we all liked the same things it’d be a dull old world!