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Posts about bonanza (old posts, page 19)

Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

Carole Hooven

2021


Testosterone is perhaps the only hormone with a personality, one that's often blamed when violent things happen. It's interesting to see a "biography" of it that's so grounded in the biochemistry and the limits of what's experimentally verifiable. The fact that testosterone is entwined into so many fates of growth and development makes it a hard subject for study.

One aspect that jumped out at me was the extent to which evolution creates mechanisms that are the opposite of engineered, for example having the same hormone control several systems that are to some extent in competition, or create systems that run-away without being inhibited (rather than stay quiescent without being stimulated).

Grounding to firmly in the biochemistry is also a weakness too, though: it's a little too reductionist, a little too fast to dismiss psychology and how testosterone might affect feeling, and therefore affect behaviour indirectly beyond the strict biochemical pathways. I can accept that psychology is a hard regime in which to do fully-grounded experiments: but that's true for all complex systems, and so its perhaps better to go looking for the general shapes of behaviour rather than focus so much on the details – and dismiss out of hand areas where these studies can't be performed.

3/5. Finished 01 May 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell

John Preston

2021


As biographies of monsters go, this is one of the best. It sets out the whole sweep of Robert Maxwell's complex and in the end perplexing personality: someone who courageously fought the Nazis, but committed (and admitted to) war crimes, who made and lost fortunes but never escaped the need to aggrandise. He transformed academic publishing – something I, as an academic, was unaware of – but engaged in outlandish stunts and competitions in tabloid journalism. His death was as dramatic and inexplicable as many of the events of his life.

It would be an easy story to sensationalise, and while there's some of that in this book, overall it reads as a balances account by someone without too much of a stake in the outcome. It's perhaps inevitable that the story has been overshadowed by the later tribulations of Ghislaine, Robert Maxwell's daughter, but these events are in many ways foreshadowed by her earlier history. They're certainly all of a piece with the story told here.

4/5. Finished 10 February 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Covent Garden Ladies

The Covent Garden Ladies

Hallie Rubenhold

2005


An entertaining dive into a part of 18th-century society that's too often only considered voyeuristically. The survival of "Harris' List" provides a starting point, but it's the detailed archival study and the willingness to dig into the histories of the three main protagonists that really sets this book apart. In doing so it also gets to uncover some of the grimier realities of living on (or close to) the streets in a period when money was all that really counted in terms of life chances.

Rubenhold is very sympathetic to the Covent Garden ladies. "Prostitutes" (or "harlots" in the TV adaptation) is a too-harsh judgement: many adopted sex work only because society gave them no other options, or adopted it only periodically when forced to by poverty, or as a semi-acceptable companion to stage-work. She is also unforgiving of the male customers, who avoided most social sanctions or consequences.

The fact that "Harris' List" ran for nearly four decades (and that we have examples of most of them) also makes it a revealing social document as the mores and morals of society change across the 18th century. The descriptions become less straightforward, more ornate and (one would imagine) less useful as time goes by and the publishers become more susceptible to legal action for obscenity (even as the underlying social conditions remain largely unaddressed).

4/5. Finished 22 January 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World

Aja Raden

2015


The desire for jewels exists everywhere, and this is an overview written by someone with a deep understanding of jewellery and its place in both fashion and politics. There are some great vignettes, especially about the rise of cultured pearls and the influence of De Beer's on the emergence of diamonds as fashion essentials.

Raden is less sure about history, though, and sometimes gets carried away with detail that doesn't in any way relate to the issues at hand. Many of the comments are alarmingly ahistorical: describing Mary Tudor as "mad" and "insane", for example, for actions that were perfectly sensible in the context of a religious war between Catholics and Protestants. And the notion that there being no market economy means that nothing can have value assigned to it, or that any attempt to better workers' conditions amounts simply to socialism, betrays her own background more than it illuminates either the history of the jewellery.

3/5. Finished 21 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois

1903


This is a hard work to capture succinctly. A collection of re-worked essays that address the concerns of those working for civil rights in the early 20th century, looking at the failure of Reconstruction and unable to see the currents that would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its limited successes.

There are some things that place the writing in its particular time. There's an acceptance of race, of racial differences and distinct, widely shared racial characteristics that is jarring to the modern ear. There's also a casual anti-Semitism that's perhaps even more shocking when deployed in the cause of emancipation by such a deep thinker who mainly overflows (at least in the main part of the book) with inclusivity towards white Americans.

The essays range in tone from the high idealisation of education in "Of the training of Black men" to the howl of anguish in "Of the passing of the first-born". And then – in this edition, anyway – there's the sudden volte face of Du Bois's later thought in "The souls of White folk", where he interprets the First World War as the start of an anti-colonial struggle that's redolent of much recent writing in the same vein.

It's only having read Du Bois that I (as a non-American) really come to appreciate his influence and hear the echoes of his thought. Certainly he is being channelled directly in Between the World and Me, and his ideas and even his speech patterns come through clearly in the voices of the modern civil rights movement.

5/5. Finished 01 November 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)