2022 Book List

We’re now in mid-March and I still haven’t written down my thoughts on the two books I read in January. A lot has been going on recently but, the longer I take to write these down, the worse my recollections become.

2021 Book List
2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

The Philosopher and the Wolf (2008) by Mark Rowlands

In this book, Rowlands shares several of his experiences moving between countries and building a career in philosophy, all while raising a wolf. The anecdotes about Brenin, the wolf, invariably serve as the starting point for some sort of philosophical digression. While several of these digressions are indeed interesting, I was seldom convinced by his arguments (see my blog post on what makes a person evil for an example).

I would’ve preferred much more of a focus on the stories involving Brenin, but those that are there do provide some fascinating insights on animal behaviour and training. While not all of the methods will probably be approved of by everyone, Rowlands does make the point that wolves and dogs are quite different and, from the stories he gives, he managed to have a wolf which was much better behaved than many dogs. It’s also clear that he cared deeply for Brenin, and his other dogs, and, especially towards the end, many of the stories were quite emotional.

If you were planning to read The Philosopher and the Wolf to hear about what is like to have a wolf as a pet, you will probably be disappointed. I’d estimate that that about two thirds of the book are given over to his philosophical musings which, if nothing else, at least serve as food for thought. I can’t say that I agreed with most of them but I did still enjoy the book and think it is worth reading.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

There’s really little to say about this one. It’s an old story and, if you have any contact with Western culture, you have likely seen an adaption, homage or parody of this. I am, of course, familiar with the story but not the original work. In fact, I think this is my first time reading Dickens’ own words. I have no complaints but, given how well-known the story is, there were no real surprises.

What was special was that I was reading a copy which, I believe, had been my maternal grandmother’s. I can’t recall the exact printing date of the book but it was around 80-90 years old. While not as old as the story itself, it’s still quite a bit of history and all of the people who originally bought and read it are now dead. Yet the book is still there, can still be read and provides a tangible link to the past. Plus, a physical book has no battery issues or file type compatibility problems.

A literary return to the Namib Desert

I managed to finish off two more books for my 2021 Book List. It’s still fewer than I had hoped for this year but it’s better than nothing.

The Sheltering Desert (1956, translated 1957) by Henno Martin

This is a memoir which recounts the story of two German geologists stationed in South West Africa, now Namibia, which I bought during my trip to the Namib Desert. When WWII broke out, they wanted no part in it, nor did they wish to be interned by the police, so they resolved to hide out in the Namib Desert until it was all over. The pair of scientists and their dog travelled into the desert and remained there for two years until malnutrition forced them to abandon their plan.

Along with the descriptions of life in the desert are several philosophical musings on human society, evolution and the nature of man. A lot of it feels quite dated but I really enjoyed the discussions on the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Even back then, many people living in cities and towns had little actual contact with wild, or even tame, animals; meaning no familiarity. Martin observed that, after time in the desert, with only the wild animals as their neighbours, they began to see the complexity in their behaviour and recognise the animals as being as unique as other people.

As the pair are scientists, the story is more than just a tale of survival. Scientific curiosity is evident in many observations and trips which include one to investigate why the rocks of a distant mountain were so white. If you’re at all interested in outdoor activities or the Namib, I think it will make for a great read.

Why Vegan? (2020) by Peter Singer

Why Vegan? is a collection of essays by the controversial, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I had already read his classic book Animal Liberation but only after already becoming a vegetarian. These essays also revolve around the topic of animals and diet and span several decades, the earliest from 1973 and the most-recent from 2020. It’s a quick read, with some essays being incredibly short, but a very important topic.

Singer’s ethical approach is about avoiding causing unnecessary suffering, so several essays discuss cruelty in farming. In his introduction he does note that several practices documented in older works, such as Animal Liberation, have now been outlawed but not all problems have been fixed. In an essay from 2006 on chicken farming, he describes how many chickens are still kept in cramped conditions, standing in their own filth, where some starve to death and many others are boiled, alive and conscious, due to failures of the stunning system and manual oversight. These are things we ought to know if we are to be informed consumers.

If someone has never thought much about the practice of eating animals, because it is usually an unquestioned aspect of human society, then this collection will serve as a good introduction to the topic. This collection doesn’t go deep into details (I would recommend something like A Plea for the Animals to expand on the topic.) but it raises many of the questions and concerns which everyone should keep in mind. Regardless of the answers we eventually settle on, this is a pressing topic which we must think hard about and not allow the suffering of our fellow creatures to be hidden behind the veils of tradition and ignorance.

Rocks, (metaphorical) souls and His Dark Materials

Additions to my 2021 Book List.

Life at Rock Surfaces (2021) edited by Burkhard Büdel and Thomas Friedl

This is quite different to the other books I’ve been reading, both because it’s aimed at academics and because it’s not mine. I was lent a copy of the book by Pedro, my friend and colleague, who was an author of one of the chapters. Each chapter focusses on a different aspect of life, mostly microbial, at rock surfaces. Some of the chapters make for interesting reading on organisms living in quite an extreme habitat and some, like a taxonomy guide, are not chapters that lend themselves to normal reading.

As it’s aimed at an academic audience, it’s not really accessible unless you have a fair bit of familiarity with the field. Each chapter is written by a different set of authors and so the quality and style of writing varies wildly from chapter-to-chapter. The best chapters are fairly easy to read and follow but others are a slog. Part of this is due to the content of the chapters but, often, it is poor academic writing that is opaque or unnecessarily stilted. For example, there was one chapter written by a single author that repeatedly used phrases such as “The author hypothesises …” instead of “I think …” The former isn’t a more scientific way of writing; it’s stilted, it’s awkward and is the sort of thing that leads to multiple articles about why scientific writing needs to change.

Science in the Soul (2017) by Richard Dawkins

This is a collection of Dawkin’s essays and speeches from across the years. There is a lot of good content with a wide range of subjects, including science, religion, politics, humour and even a few eulogies. I had read probably about four of them before but that didn’t matter because it was still worthwhile reading them again. Out of the whole collection, there only a handful which I did not enjoy, which is a pleasant return to normality after Outgrowing God.

Despite the breadth of topics, there is an impressive depth of insight which one only gets from spending decades immersed in science. Dawkins’ clarity when writing and the knowledge beneath his writing is a welcome change from so much of the shallow and misguided thinking which is commonly seen today. Indeed, several chapters touch on issues which are still debated, even though they probably should’ve been settled many years ago. Dawkins is probably the best modern science writer and I can highly recommend this book.

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass (2000) by Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the final book of the His Dark Materials trilogy and it is a great conclusion. I won’t say I am entirely happy with the way that everything ended, but I can see why it ended that way. I won’t say much of what happens to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it is a brilliant story, set in vivid worlds and overflowing with imagination.

I really enjoyed seeing some scientific musings in this book. During the story, the characters travel between different worlds and, in one of them, evolution followed a very different path. It’s not in any way a scientific book but it did a really cool job of pondering a different path of evolution and showing the interplay between different organisms as well as their environment. That was really cool.

The entire trilogy was well-written but I have to be clear how addictive and easy-to-read it is. There are good books that I’ve enjoyed reading but, when I finished a chapter, I was ready to stop. All of the His Dark Materials books are those wonderful sort where, after I finished a chapter, I just wanted to keep going. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and think I might need to look into the BBC series to see how it compares.

2021 Book List

This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.

2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

14/12/2021 Added Life at Rock Surfaces, Science in the Soul and The Amber Spyglass.
31/12/2021 Added The Sheltering Desert and Why Vegan?

Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.

My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.

I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.

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Final books of 2020

I actually finished Darwin’s Ghosts two or three months ago but I didn’t want to write about it alone. Unfortunately my reading took a dip in the latter months of the year and it’s only in the last week or so that I finished the other two books. Now I am happy to make the last additions to my 2020 Book List.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search Of The First Evolutionists (2012) by Rebecca Stott

Darwin had been worried about being accused of plagiarism and, to try and appease his critics, began listing previous scientists who had had even remotely similar ideas. In some ways this is a continuation of his work. Stott follows up on some of the key people involved in the development of evolutionary thought and describes their lives and work.

I found myself torn over her writing. It’s easy enough to read but I felt that it became so narrative that parts must have been made up, e.g. describing how, when someone went into a bookshop over a century ago, the books were arranged and the glances between the people. I know it’s just flavour but there’s a lot of it and it felt forced to me. One thing that came out in both the flavour and the facts is how scientific progress has been repeatedly suppressed by religion. One can’t help but wonder how much more we could’ve progressed were it not for the various churches and supernatural beliefs in the world.

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Pure, clean nature

The newest additions to my 2020 Book List.

Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach

COVER2The title and cover of this caught my eye in the bookshop and the blurb, stating that Northern California, Oregon and Washington had seceded from the United States to make a new nation with a vision of sustainability, sealed the deal. It’s part novel, part thought experiment narrated by the first American journalist to visit Ecotopia since its secession. The story is told through either diary entries, which tell his personal story, or dispatches to Washington, which detail the functioning of the new country.

Ecotopia itself is intriguing and there’s reasonably detailed descriptions of how it has been restructured to be sustainable with a huge emphasis on biology. Callenbach describes how they have short work weeks, fewer products available but make up with leisure and human contact – often literally as Ecotopians are sexually liberated. It also doesn’t pretend to describe a perfect society, there are issues that have not been solved and, while sexual equality has mostly been achieved, there are still lingering racial tensions. This is all woven into Weston’s own story of culture shock and love as he comes to terms with the differences between Ecotopia and America and considers which one he prefers.

It’s not particularly realistic; there are liberties taken in the science but also in the amount of change that such a large section of a country can undergo in merely 20 years. That said, many aspects do hold up well and there are, I think, many good lessons for how society could be structured. It’s not a perfect world there, nor does it take into account personal computers and the internet which were in their infancy when it was written, but it’s well worth reading to see how some things could be done.

The Hippopotamus (1994) by Stephen Fry

COVER1How can you not like Stephen Fry? He’s a wonderful, pink, fluffy marshmallow of a person! Whether he’s valeting in Jeeves & Wooster, fooling around in A Bit of Fry & Laurie or hosting QI, he’s an absolute delight. I had previously enjoyed reading one of his autobiographies which I had borrowed from one of my aunts who later gave me this book.

Similar to Ecotopia, The Hippopotamus is mostly told through letters and journal entries but, instead of a re-imagined California, it takes place across the pond in an English great house. Ted Wallace, the main character, has been employed by his god-daughter to stay at Swafford Hall and, rather vague instructions, investigate something. Since there is a mystery and it is even a mystery what the mystery is, I will say no more about the plot.

I will say that the book is highly enjoyable and full of surprises; one scene in particular was quite unexpected. Originally, I was surprised at where I thought Fry was taking the story and then I was simultaneously surprised and not surprised when he turned it all around again. Quite an enjoyable read that will keep you guessing.

What begins with A? Animals and Areopagitica.

Additions to my 2020 Book List.

The Unexpected Truth About Animals (2016) by Lucy Cooke

9781784161903Where most books just talk about what we know about a particular animal, Cooke tells us what we used to think about them and then corrects those, sometimes astoundingly wrong, misconceptions. So when we learn about the migration of Storks, we get to marvel that Charles Morton used to think they flew to the moon and back. Sometimes the process of learning about animals is brutal as when the, fairly sadistic, Italian priest Lazzaro Spallanzani tried to learn the secrets of bats’ echolocation by, among other mutilations, cutting out their eyes.

One thing that certainly stands out, is that nearly all the chapters have an emphasis on the animal’s sex. This can be amusing, like how hunters used to believe that beavers would bite off their own scrotum to rid themselves of the valuable castoreum (which doesn’t even come from the scrotum); just strange such as the testosterone fuelled hyena females whose external genitalia is nearly identical to the males’ and who can even achieve an erection; to the disturbing stories from a 1915 paper of penguins engaged in masturbation, homosexuality, paedophilia and necrophilia which were so shocking that the Natural History Museum of London refused to publish it and which was only rediscovered in 2009.

Through all of it, the one constant is its excellence. Lucy Cooke was educated at Oxford and tutored by Richard Dawkins. Whether coincidence or not, she displays the same impressive breadth of knowledge and writing talent as him. No matter what you want, this book has it; animals, sex, science, history, comedy. I can easily say that this has been one of the most interesting and entertaining reads in recent memory and highly recommend it.

Areopagitica (1644) by John Milton

COVER2Areopagitica is the text of a speech presented to the parliament of England to argue against the proposed law that books should be licenced before publication. I decided to read this as it was recommended by Christopher Hitchens in brilliant speech from 2006. In it, he said that the three important texts that anyone should read if they wanted to discuss freedom of speech were John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which I read in 2017, the introduction to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (only a single paragraph) and John Milton’s Areopagitica. Now I have read these formative texts.

There are several points that Milton makes from history, theology and philosophy. There are practical matters, such as whether the censors are capable of the task set out for them and, even if they are, the important question of who can judge the censors are doing the right job. And, if the books are so corrupting, wouldn’t the censors would be the most corrupted? Other points include the limits it would pose to the spread of truth and Milton makes the point that to the pure mind, all things are pure. Even the worst book would only serve as a warning or guide on what to avoid.

Much of the book, particularly the start and ending, are difficult to read due to the archaic structure but, when it comes to the actual arguments, it becomes a bit easier to follow. There are certainly a number of good points and, although I do not think it is nearly as good as On Liberty, the message is still vital in our present times. I find myself in full agreement with Milton when he says, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Books that smell of wet fur

Additions to the 2020 Book List.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper (2020) by AJ Fitzwater

COVER1This is a brand-new book by a New Zealand author about a dapper, lesbian, capybara pirate. Instead of being one continuous story, it is made up of seven short stories that are loosely connected. It sounded like it should be fairly exciting, and it did have its moments, but I came away with far more mixed feelings about it.

I was rather disappointed that it shies away from what you would expect from a traditional pirate story. Although, perhaps expecting something traditional from it was a mistake. Instead of swashbuckling adventure, it’s a far more calm, exploration of a magical world. While it does conjure up some very nice mental imagery in places, it all felt a bit empty. It was like a literary equivalent of the video game The First Tree. It has the same calm, dreamy feel – which is nice enough – but it always feels like something is missing.

Looking back, there’s an aspect which makes it contrast with the next book I read. There was a lot of emphasis in it on Cinrak being a polyamarous lesbian and the many other LGBT characters, a contrast to most media, but it actually had little relevance to most of the stories. In contrast, a large part of Black Angel’s story is motivated by the main character’s conflicted sexuality (or, more accurately, asexuality) but without it being pushed so hard.

Black Angel (2016) by Kyell Gold

COVER2This is the third and final book in the Dangerous Spirits trilogy. While they are slightly related and share characters, it’s not really necessary to read them in order to follow each individual story. This isn’t the first Kyell Gold book mentioned here, I also reviewed The Time He Desires last year, but, although I read the earlier books, this is the first of this trilogy that I am reviewing here.

The story in Black Angel is focussed on an otter girl, Meg, who is unsure of many things including what she will do in the future and her own sexuality. She isn’t one to believe in the supernatural and is sceptical of her roommates’ (the protagonists of the previous books) accounts of spirits getting involved in their lives. She begins to have her doubts as she finds herself compelled to draw a comic with voodoo spirits set in the past and has vivid dreams of a techno-theocratic future where the subject of her dreams, dreams of her. Is she being visited by spirits or is it all hallucinations brought on by the combined stress of her best friends moving away, trying to understand her sexuality and coming off the anti-depressants she’s been on since a suicide attempt in high school?

At first, I found parts of the narrative frustrating, as it jumps between the three separate story lines, but, when they all start to come together in the climax, it just became hard to decide which one I wanted the story to focus on more. As with all of Kyell Gold’s work that I’ve read, Black Angel is extremely well-written. The characters all have their unique personalities and he puts effort into researching his subject matter. (There is a small explanation at the end of the book about the difference between Vodou and Voodoo.) I would definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in furry fantasy or alternative sexualities.