Non-fiction


The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Steward Johnson

It isn’t often that I wish for a longer book; in fact, it’s almost always the opposite. But that’s just what I found myself doing upon finishing Sarah Steward Johnson’s The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World (2020), which is about exactly what you would think given the title — a history of our attempts to suss out if life exists on our red-hued neighbor, from speculations about ancient civilizations creating Schiaparelli’s “canali” to Johnson’s own work with NASA’s Mars missions. It’s an excellent book throughout, but it also feels like it could have gone into material in more detail in some places and ends so quickly that I had to doublecheck on Netgallery to make sure I hadn’t gotten an excerpt rather than a full version.

Johnson is both a writer and a scien... Read More

Remarkable Life of the Skin: Always informative, often fascinating

Remarkable Life of the Skin: An Intimate Journey Across Our Largest Organ by Monty Lyman

The brain and the heart tend to get all the good press as far as bodily organs go, each with a slew of books focused only on them. The other organs either don’t get mentioned at all or get thrown in with a bunch of others as part of the discussion of a particular system or the body entire, as in Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal or Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants. But skin, as New York Times crossword aficionados know, is the largest organ in the body, and though it’s a relative newcomer to the classification, only making the organ club in the eighteenth century, it’s about time it got its own tour book. And author Monty Lyman, a doctor at Oxford, makes for an engaging and knowledgeable guide in The Remarkable Life of the Skin (2... Read More

The Attack on Troy: A well-told look at the potential reality of the Trojan War

The Attack on Troy by Rodney Castleden

The Attack on Troy (2006), by Rodney Castleden, is a concise and informative “history” of the Trojan War, one that shows (with reasonable doubt careful noted) how the war that gave rise to The Iliad and The Odyssey might have actually occurred.

Castleden opens with the archaeological evidence of Troy’s existence in western Turkey and its destruction by outside forces, quickly moving through Schliemann’s notoriously destructive excavations in the late 1800s and then into the discovery in 1893, after Schliemann’s death, of the Troy VI citadel dating to 1700-1250 B.C. (like most cities, Troy was built and rebuilt atop successive layers, with layer VI being the mostly-consensus literary Troy). What is probably less well known by casual readers are more recent discoveries of... Read More

Entangled Life: Zombie ants, psychedelic trips, even a Star Trek connection

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square kilometers and weighing in at hundreds of tons, the fungi growing o... Read More

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment by Samantha Priestley

The History of Gibbeting: Britain’s Most Brutal Punishment (2020), by Samantha Priestley, is an interesting and somewhat informative, if overly long, look at the tradition of “hanging in chains,” as it was often called at the time.

Priestley offers up a general introduction to the practice followed by several sections: The Murder Act, The Making of a Gibbet, Infamy, Thieves and Pirates, That’s Entertainment, The Gibbet as Landmark, No Deterrent, The Decline of the Gibbet, A Modern Fascination.

The first looks at the impact of the 1752 law, which attempted to standardize the hodgepodge application of the gibbet. We also get a sense of the frequency of gibbeting (relatively rare), the crimes it was associated with (murder, piracy, and stealing the Royal Mail, mostly), and whether or not criminals were ever gibbe... Read More

The Dark Fantastic: A thoughtful addition to race analysis in fantasy

The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

In The Dark Fantastic (2019), Ebony Elizabeth Thomas offers up a thoughtful and important exploration of race in fantasy, looking in particular at four case studies: Rue in The Hunger Games, Gwen in Merlin, Bonnie in The Vampire Diaries, and Harry Potter. As should happen with books like these, reading it forces you to see things in a different light that you’ve long viewed and that have grown familiar.

Thomas defines her terminology early on as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations,” and then distinguishes it from Afrofuturism or the Black Fantastic in its recogni... Read More

Batman and Ethics: An informative take on Batman’s ethics (or lack of them)

Batman and Ethics by Mark D. White

Batman and Ethics (2019) by Mark D. White does just what it purports to do, and does so clearly, smoothly, and with a surfeit of supporting examples to bolster his claims. I had a few issues, but honestly, complaints seem a bit churlish with a book that achieves its goal so successfully.

In a brief, broad introduction, White explains why he’s decided to limit discussion to the comics version of Batman, as well as why he further narrows his scope to the time period of the early 1970s through 2011. The body of the book he divides into two broad sections, one titled “What Batman Tried to Do — and How He Might Do It Better,” and “What Batman is Willing to Do — and What He Isn’t.” The first focuses mostly on the system of ethics known as utilitarianism, the second on another system — deontology. The former advocates the greatest good, the ma... Read More

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London

The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife

“If you want to know history, read a book. If you want a story, take a tour.” — Christopher Skaife

The Ravenmaster was published in 2018. It’s nonfiction and it isn’t particularly about science, even the science of ravens. It’s got some history, some memoir, and some ghosts, but it isn’t about those things. I’m reviewing it here for one reason only: ravens.

Christopher Skaife, who authored The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, is the Yeoman Warder of the Tower, and his first responsibility is caring for the seven ravens who currently inhabit the compound. He also, along with several other warders, gives tours to the public. Skaife has a YouTube presence and a twitter account (@ravenmaster1) if you want to see an... Read More

Atlas of a Lost World: An intriguing account of how people got to America

Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs

In Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Craig Childs takes the reader on a series of outdoor adventures as he traces the various confirmed and possible paths that North and South America’s first inhabitants took to enter the New World. Parallel to his own journey, he delves into the current research, theories, and archaeological finds. The end result is a bit of a mixed bag, though Childs never is less than an engaging guide.

The book opens with Childs overlooking probably the best known route, and the one most people of a certain age and older were taught as “the” route into North America: the Bering land Strait. Each chapter follows Childs as he explores a different possible entry point, including but not limited to hiking across the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, kayaking along the Pacific coastline, playfully performi... Read More

Close Encounters with Humankind: A clear tour of how we became human

Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee

Close Encounters with Humankind
(2018) is based on a collection of a series of essays by paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee on human evolution published between February 2012 and December 2013 and appearing in a popular science magazine as well as a South Korean newspaper. Lee writes in a clear, conversational style and though sometimes one wishes for a bit more detail or depth, she makes for an entertaining and informative tour guide of our species’ history.

Lee eschews the usual chronological approach, with each essay instead focusing on a particular step along our evolutionary journey, placing it in historical context (as much as possible given inherent uncertainties over ascribing anything so ancient to a particular timeframe) and explaining our best theories on the topic. Lee answers the When, Why, and How with regard to stops along the... Read More

The Body: A Guide for Occupants: An entertainingly fact-filled tour

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019), is a light, in both tone and substance, tour of the human body. Filled with intriguing details and replete with Bryson’s typical ease of style, it makes for a fluid, fun, and often informative read even if it leaves one desirous of a bit more depth and cohesion.

Bryson begins with a general overview of “How to Build a Human,” noting how our DNA, if gathered into a single strand, would reach past Pluto, or how much the various components of our body are worth on the current market. From there he starts off the more detailed examination from the outside in, looking at skin (its purpose, its coloration) and hair, which allows him to move from the microbes that live on us to those that live in us. Some benign, others far less so. In one of the scarier sections of Read More

iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It

iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak & Gina Smith

What I knew about Steve Wozniak prior to reading iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It (2007) could be summed up like so: he invented the Apple II, and he guest-starred on a video-game-themed cartoon called Code Monkeys, which was a program on the television channel G4 back in 2007. After reading his memoir, I can definitely say that I've learned a lot about the history and creation of computers, but I've also gained new insight into the mind of a person who literally changed the world.

iWoz is an interesting, reflective memoir which occasionally is bogged down by technical details. Luckily, the strength of the personal reminiscences and the easy familiarit... Read More

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

Reposting to include Kelly's new review.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If ghosts exist, we don’t know why, but ghost stories exist because the living make them up; and the living make them up because we need them. Colin Dickey’s book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016) explores the US’s social conflicts and hidden histories as they play out in places that are publicly advertised as “haunted.” In the first chapter, Dickey says, “If you want to understand a place, ignore the boastful monuments and landmarks, and go straight to the haunted houses. Look for the darkened graveyards, the derelict hotels, the empty and decaying old hospitals.”

That passage is also something of a roadmap to the book, which comprises a collection of Dickey’s essays. The chapters are divided by category: haunted houses; h... Read More

Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table

Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table by Kit Chapman

In Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table (2019), Kit Chapman goes on a scientific, chronological, and geographical tour of the mysterious upper reaches of the Periodic Table, taking his readers back in time to the beginning of nuclear physics/chemistry as well as from the United States to Russia to Germany and Japan and introducing his audience to the scientists who discovered (or not — there were more than few disputes) the “trans-uranium” elements beyond uranium’s atomic number 92. It’s both an engaging and informative read.

After covering the early discoveries necessary for further exploration of superheavy elements (fission, fusion, the makeup of the atom, etc.), Chapman moves into the increasingly difficult job of discovering, or creating, the upper elements. Most of the early heavy lifting was d... Read More

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit

Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit by Helene Saucedo

October is here, Halloween parties are incipient, and that means group activities will be in order — spooky card games, spine-chilling board games, and, yes, palmistry kits. Helene Saucedo’s Handful of Stars: A Palmistry Guidebook and Hand-Printing Kit (2019) declares itself to be “everything you need to read and create a print of the hand,” and I was curious to see how well the kit actually met that challenge.

The guidebook is slim, covering the major steps of palm-reading and touching lightly on the history of palmistry, or chiromancy, as it was once known. While the lines on a person’s palm were once thought to contain such portentous information as the number of successful romances or the limit of a person’s life span, current palmistry seems to be more of a self-reflection or self-assessment t... Read More

Astounding: Four men who, despite their flaws, helped form science fiction

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally pinned to the decade from 1939 to 1950, and while a host of people contributed in various ways, pretty much everyone agrees that if one could point to a single dominating figure it would John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the pre-eminent magazine for science fiction at the time. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018), Alec Nevala-Lee explains how Campbell, and the trio of quite different authors who made up his highly influential stable of writers, came to have such outsized influence and then, for ... Read More

The Bastard Brigade: Sabotaging Hitler’s atomic bomb program

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean

Sam Kean, who wrote the delightfully informative Caesar’s Last Breath in 2017 about the topic of gases, including a section on nuclear bombs, delves more deeply into the history of the atomic bomb in The Bastard Brigade (2019). Though the subtitle might lead one to presume that it focuses solely on the Allies’ Alsos mission, the group charged with thwarting Nazi Germany’s development of the atomic bomb, this book is much more wide-ranging in its topics. The Bastard Brigade is a sweeping account of the development of nuclear physics prior to and during WWII, the race to develop a working atomic bomb, and finally the Alsos mission itself.

Part I, set during ... Read More

Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation

Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro

In Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation (2019), Terri Favro mixes journalistic research, speculative fiction, and memoir, along with a series of pop culture sidebars to create an engaging if sometimes frustrating look at the history of technology that led to our current hopes for true AI and Jetson-like robot.

Favro uses a relatively broad definition of “robot,” which I confess threw me a bit now and then, though it was easy enough to recalibrate my own pre-conceived concept and go along as she looked at driverless cars, smart refrigerators, and even elevators. Those looking for the more narrow and probably more typical sort of robot needn’t worry, though. Favro hits those as well, particularly in the latter chapters (including one on sex robots).

The memoir strand is ... Read More

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past by Sarah Parcak

Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past (2019), by Sarah Parcak, is an entertainingly informative mix of popular science, memoir, and even some fiction. Parcak does an excellent job of bringing the rarified field of remote sensing down to earth, in both literal and metaphorical fashion.

Remote sensing is a relatively new tool in science and, in particular, in archaeology. Parcak dates its use in the field from 1906, when a lieutenant of the Royal Engineer’s Balloon Section used a tethered balloon to take photos of Stonehenge and “a new world had been opened up from on high.” She traces the evolution of the science and engineering through both World Wars (her grandfather, “Grampy,” was a WWII paratrooper who applied his knowledge of aerial photography to forestry), government and private flights, and on into the space era, beginning in 1... Read More

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner

I confess I wasn’t sure just how enthralling a book all about the Greenland ice sheet would be. Interesting, yes (well, to those of us who are the type to pick up a book about the Greenland ice sheet in the first place). But enough to carry an entire book rather than a long-form article? Interesting enough to move into “compelling” or, yes, “enthralling” territory? Hmmm. Turns out though, in the more than capable hands of Jon Gertner, the answer is assuredly yes and yes. The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future (2019) is indeed compelling and even, as the subtitle says, epic. Also informative, entertaining, thorough, well-organized, clearly ... well, you get the idea.

Gertner takes a chronological approach to his sub... Read More

The Moon: A History for the Future

The Moon: A History for the Future by Oliver Morton

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing approaching, we’re seeing a slew of books, films, TV shows, web articles, etc. highlighting what remains one of humanity’s most inspiring achievements. But it would be a mistake to lump Oliver Morton’s The Moon: A History for the Future (2019) in with the retrospectives, for as that subtitle hints, Morton looks forward more than he looks backward in a wide-ranging look at our nearest celestial object.

On a basic level, if you want simple (or not so simple) facts about the Moon itself — what it is made of, how it formed, how cold it gets, etc. — then Morton has you covered and then some, either weaving such facts right into the narrative or adding them as thoughtful notes at the end. (I’m a huge fan of books that have notes as fascinating as the text itself and that’s the case here. In ... Read More

Human Errors: An entertaining tour of our body’s many design flaws

Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents

Human Errors
(2018), by Nathan H. Lents, is a light, quick tour of some of the ways our human bodies are evidence of poor design, from our weak senses to our way-too-fragile ACL to our seemingly constant battle with back pain. Mostly engaging, often humorous, almost always informative if at times a bit sketchy, Lents does a nice job in conveying the way nature works in not just mysterious but often random ways.

Oftentimes, people mistake evolution and natural selection as a targeted means to an improved end. What Lents makes starkly clear is, based as so much of it is on random mutation, evolution is hardly that. It’s instead a groping forward in the dark, lighting on some changes that are an improvement, but landing as well on others that are anything but. Besides detailing those changes and their impact, he also explains why those detrimental effects were “allowed” ... Read More

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst: Just buy it already

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
(2018), by Robert M. Sapolsky, is, simply put, one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years and, had I finished it last year, would absolutely have gone onto my Best of the Year list. Sadly, because I listened to it on audio over several months of commuting, this review will not do it justice in terms of specific references and examples. But to cut an already-brief review even shorter: if you have any interest in other people, yourself, culture, society, or science, buy this book.

Sapolsky wants to explain just why (and also how) we do the things we do, and he structures the book so as to zoom out from what happens in our brains/bodies milliseconds before an action to minutes before to weeks and months, to years, to centuries and millennia before... Read More

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots: A thoughtful and, cough cough, stimulating read

Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots by Kate Devlin

I confess that when I opened up Turned On: Science, Sex, and Robots (2018) by Kate Devlin, I wasn’t expecting a tour of classical literature: stories about Laodamia, who had “commissioned a bronze likeness of her [dead] husband — an artificial lover that she took to her bed.” Or the Spartan king Nabis, who had a “lifelike robot designed and dressed up to look like his dead wife, Apega.” But as Devlin cautions us, “This is not a book that’s just about sex. Or robots ... It’s about intimacy and technology ... history and archaeology, love and biology.” Though that’s not to say sex and robots don’t appear. They do.

But before we get to the sex robot “Harmony” and an exploration of teledildonics (use your root words, people), Devlin works her way through that classical literature as well as various historical artifacts, such as anc... Read More

Dispatches from Planet 3: A lucid and concise tour of the universe

Dispatches from Planet 3 by Marcia Bartusiak

Dispatches from Planet 3: Thirty-Two (Brief) Tales on the Solar System, the Milky Way, and Beyond
(2018), by Marcia Bartusiak, is a highly readable collection of wonderfully concise explorations of various topics in astronomy/astrophysics. Each essay is only a few pages long, making the science easily digestible while still informative. Topics include black holes, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang, inflation, relativity, and the multi-verse, to name just a few.

For an audience that doesn’t regularly read in this area, Dispatches from Planet 3 is a great introduction to the field thanks to the brevity and clarity of each piece, and the overall breadth of the collection as Bartusiak moves across time from, for instance, centuries-old discoveries to Lowell’s Mars canals to the most recent discoveries of exo-pl... Read More