Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Primate Change by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

The author’s thesis in this excellent and fascinating book is that, especially in recent centuries, the environment in which we live has changed our bodies, something which may perhaps seem fairly obvious. Yet the process has been going on for millions of years. This book develops the idea into something quite worrying, supported by a lot of science.

The book is split into sections, one covering human evolution up to 30,000BCE, one covering that time up to the beginning of the Iron Age, a third section dealing with the Industrial Revolution, and a fourth with the Digital Revolution, or what the author calls the Sedentary Revolution. A fifth part speculates about our future.

All of this material is fascinating, well written and often surprising, with plenty of detail about backs, feet, hands and teeth. The second section I found particularly good, with its emphasis on dietary changes and how often we eat. The section on the Industrial Revolution makes for grim reading, given how much exploitation occurred in that time, but the fourth is also worrying, with the author explaining how the rise of sedentary living is causing immense damage to us, to our communities and to the state organisations attempting to support us. In ten words Cregan-Reid offers governments a forward-thinking statement – Governments of the world: address falling activity levels and obesity.

Aimed at the lay reader, this is a timely and readable survey of how the world we have created, especially in the West, is causing pain, disease, mental conditions and much more, problems which could be largely solved by a change in perspective on life. I was especially impressed with the section on education, which points out that, just as nineteenth and twentieth century schools mimic the industrial factory model, so more recent changes in schools mimic the modern techno-capitalist model, also to the detriment of bored, inactive, stultified children.

Primate Change

Deciphering Ancient Minds

Deciphering Ancient Minds by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis

Continuing the theme of prehistoric images, art, belief and thought, this book by Sam Challis and (author of the outstanding The Mind In The Cave and Inside The Neolithic Mind) David Lewis-Williams covers a modern group of people, the San, of whom one remnant living today are the San of the Kalahari Desert.

The authors’ intent is to properly understand the methods, purpose and meaning of the beautiful and complex San cave and rock shelter paintings, in particular to clear up innumerable mistakes and assumptions made by Westerners. The opening chapters underline this prejudiced, unthinking attitude, which in the main bolts on Western concepts of art to San work. In particular, emphasis is given to shamanic practice and beliefs, whether it be “spiritual travelling,” “rain making” or interactions with animals.

The final chapter is particularly telling, pointing out the irrational, often ludicrous nature of Western beliefs which are presumed to be superior to non-Western ones, eg. the “Holy Ghost.” In the end, a marvellously vivid and satisfyingly complex picture is offered of the San, their art and their beliefs.

David Lewis-Williams is to be congratulated on another profound book which is at once illuminating and readable. Highly recommended to students of the human condition.

Samurai William by Giles Milton

Before the two century exclusion of foreigners in Japan which ended in the mid-1800s, a remarkable Englishman called William Adams spent many years there on behalf of his countrymen, eventually “going native” and becoming a friend of the de facto ruler of the country. Milton’s book tells the amazing tale of that event, using never before published first hand sources.

In the early 1600s it took around two years to reach Japan, a country hardly known to Europeans, and on the way disease, piracy and lack of a common language were not the only problems. The book tells many stories, not just that of the remarkable Samurai William, presenting the reader with a rich tapestry of tales.

What comes across most is the culture shock between English and Japanese, and the extreme sadism and brutality of the Japanese. Milton uses his first hand sources with enthusiasm, telling a superb tale.

Very enjoyable, impeccably researched and well written, this is a book for lay historians and readers of Elizabethan derring-do. Recommended.

Mythos & Cosmos by John Lundwall

Mythos and Cosmos by John Knight Lundwall

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best on its subject for a long time. I bought it after searching for something on oral, prehistoric cultures, hoping that it would be insightful. Well, it’s more than just insightful, it’s fascinating and very thought provoking.

The author is an intriguing person, a man of the stars in his native country (where he does star tours and photographs the heavens), as well as an expert on comparative myth. This is his only book, and it reads like a distillation of decades of observation and wisdom.

The book covers several main areas: how we in the literate world greatly misinterpret oral myth-making because of our structural biasses, most of which are due to our use of the written word; how we can reconstruct comparatively little of those oral myths; how life in an oral culture profoundly effects our use of memory; how nature and above all the starry skies act as metaphors, memory aids, calendars and much more; and how specific myths can be shown to cover the same basic themes over and over again as the millennia pass.

The author uses both his knowledge and insight in his endeavour, but is not afraid to speculate where appropriate. There is not much speculation however as the rest of the material is so well sourced and presented, but what is there is pretty convincing, with the author never straying into the horrors of Graham Hancock territory. I especially liked his thoughts on the music of the spheres and the number 50, i.e. 49+1, which crops up everywhere in the ancient world.

The book concludes by offering three examples to bolster the author’s case, namely Gilgamesh, the Labours of Herakles, and parts of the bible’s old testament. Compelling stuff!

For those fascinated by how the natural world affects our collective story telling, especially the star-filled heavens which we see so little of these days, this is an essential read. I recommend it highly.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday

Touted as the best-written journey back into the evolutionary past of life for some time, this is indeed a superbly evocative trip into the mists of time. It’s the debut book of a new author, the young biologist Thomas Halliday: the start of a promising career, hopefully.

The book is split into sixteen sections, each of them a vivid description of a particular environment at a particular time, beginning with the Pleistocene a mere 20,000 years ago and concluding with the Ediacaran, 555 million years ago. Halliday focuses on the animals and plants of the time, but includes much by way of geology and environment too, each section with a theme. This structure makes for a fascinating read.

The writing is deliberately poetic, and in the main it works, with very few slip-ups owing to excess purple. This dedication to lyrical prose isn’t forced however, and overall the tone is superb.

I particularly liked the Eocene, Chixulub and end-Permian sections, also the last three or four, where all the action turns to the seas and life becomes increasingly strange. The last section in particular evokes a seascape part way between animal life and other almost-animal lifeforms very well.

Overall, a very good book indeed, deserving of the praise placed upon it. Great cover too!

The Imposters by Toby Frost

Well known for his Space Captain Smith novels, in this engaging and very readable caper (using that word in a positive sense) our very own Toby Frost presents a different, more refined genre comedy, which has plenty of laughs but even more by way of wit.

Helen Frampton is a former childcare android souped up into a government owned agent with more skills than a Swiss Army knife. Richard Cleaver is… well, let’s not go there just yet.

This is indeed a refined and witty caper, a tale of two mismatched characters getting to know one another as they try to find out the location of a vault of treasure. On their tails are the scary Sally Anne and her posse of not quite so scary accomplices. The action is swift where it needs to be and slower where it can be. Pacing is excellent in this book.

As the climax approaches we’re presented with a plot twist and then a massive battle. I won’t spoil the ending except to say I absolutely did not see it coming!

There’s a little bit of philosophy here also to underpin the tale, mostly on the relationship between individuals, memory and identity. Overall the novel has a bit of a pulp feel to it, again, using that term in a positive, knowing kind of way. All in all, an enjoyable read by an author well along the road of comic writing. Definitely recommended.

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes

A collection of essays on the art of biography, this book, by one of our best known and loved biographers, is divided into two parts, the first, confessions, dealing with the generalities of biography, the second, restorations, showcasing a series of vignettes of folk of the Romantic era, a period for which this author is best known. The latter section is particularly good, focusing often on how biographies change over time according to the social atmosphere of the period. Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Coleridge are especially interesting. I was less interested in Keats and Blake. A good read overall though, in polished prose and with plenty of insight.

The Tangled Tree by David Quammen

This is a really good book. I’m partial to histories of pre-Cambrian life on Earth, and this is one of the best I’ve read. The author is not only an experienced science writer, he has wit and wisdom, and a way with words too.

The book is split into seven sections, covering early, Darwinian notions of a tree of life, ideas about bacteria and other tiny organisms, ideas of biological symbiosis, a new, more accurate form of the tree, horizontal gene transfer, changing the lower section of the tree into a more accurate (but far more complex) network, and how what we know today affects human beings.

A few major characters stalk this marvellously written book, the main one being Carl Woese, responsible for the discovery of how different Archaea are from Bacteria. A difficult, complex man, except to those friends who liked him and stood by him, he is the heart of this book, though some of his ideas turned out to be wrong. But he did get a lot right. Another major character is Lynn Margulis, who put forward the accepted theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts being captured bacteria. Many other notables inhabit these pages, all sympathetically drawn.

The science is fascinating, the story is compelling and the details of personality and other quirks not intrusive. Too often (I’m looking at you, Adam Rutherford), writers over-do the human interest angle or, like Suzanne Simard, get it half right. Quammen’s notes on character are all perfectly judged and occur at just the right rate. These are really interesting people, and we do need to know a little about them. It’s a tribute to this author that he knows how to get that balance right.

You do need a bit of biological knowledge to get the full effect – the section on antibiotic resistance is pretty dense – but this is certainly a book for the lay reader. Highly recommended.

The Human Cosmos by Jo Marchant

Billed as a secret history of the stars, this book takes a journey through human history from Lascaux to extremophiles and planet hunting in a bid to illustrate how crucial the night sky has been (and should be now) for human beings.

Each of twelve chapters concentrates in chronological order on one aspect of stars, planets and the night sky, beginning with Palaeolithic people, heading through the agricultural revolution, fate and irrational faith, measuring time, science, art, biochronology and mind. Very well written, engaging and interesting this is a really good read which requires no scientific knowledge – just a fascination with the stars and our reaction to them.

A couple of niggles: the chapter on art is a bit wishy-washy, and the concluding chapter on mind perpetuates a few post-modern myths about “unusual” views, including the one about science not giving the whole picture. We know it doesn’t, because it’s an incomplete process. Meanwhile, consciousness is something we “have,” “in our brains,” rather than the experience itself. Minor criticisms however, in an increasingly complicated field.

All in all, highly recommended. The author ends with a plea for us to regain our sense of awe at the wonder of the night sky, a request for which respect is due.

Finding The Mother Tree

Finding The Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Recent developments in forestry have radically changed our understanding of how forests work. Suzanne Simard has spent a lifetime working out the truth about what happens underground, and her book is a revelation.

Finding The Mother Tree opens with a description of her childhood, spent deep in Canadian natural surroundings, mostly forested. It soon becomes clear that she is attuned to nature in a way most people aren’t, partly through sensitivity and partly through her family’s circumstances in British Columbia. As her life reaches adulthood however, it’s obvious to all that forestry is her passion and her academic future.

Simard’s discoveries seem trivial to some, and through her life she’s had many detractors. In a nutshell, she has proved that a vast network of fungi acting through mycorrhizal filaments works to allow all sorts of trees to pass water, nutrients and other substances to one another. In showing this (via an exhaustive set of fiddly experiments), she’s overturned the traditional view of forests operating via competition. In fact, they act through cooperation.

As the book reaches its conclusion it’s very clear that traditional means male, competitive and destructive, while her view emphasises cooperation. Simard is a trailblazer for women working in male institutions, and it’s a tribute to her that she’s done so much against such stubborn, ignorant opposition. What really stands out is how male foresters simply apply their boys’ view of the world to forests, assuming that competition for resources is the key to their commercial operations. When Simard proves them totally wrong they don’t like it, and do what they can to stop her. It’s only recently with the new generation of foresters that glimmers of comprehension are beginning to filter through.

Through the compelling story of how she makes her scientific case, Simard weaves the tale of her own life. I usually don’t much care for this type of approach, but in the first half of the book it is vital, relevant background. I have to say though that the second half could do without the personal stuff, which becomes increasingly off-putting.

This is a fascinating, important, timely book. Highly recommended to all those who value nature as it really is, not how men in particular have characterised it.