Skip to main content

Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 48)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

J.D. Vance

2016


What happens when a rural culture spills-out into a more urban environment? What happens when the ties between parts of families are broken by distance, and the habits that might have sustained them in their new surroundings turn out to be toxic in isolation? That's the world that Vance explores, and indeed from which he escaped. This is by turns social commentary and a deeply personal memoir, made stronger by the authors' insights into his own behaviour and evolution, his interactions with his girlfriend (and later wife) from outside the boundaries of his own hillbilly background.

I don't think the book is quite the searing explanation of recent American politics that it has been presented to be: that feels to me like an over-reading, and an unnecessary one given that it does explain well many features of American working class struggle. Many aspects feel uniquely American: despite a clear lineage in Scots-Irish immigration, I can't see many of the factors at work in the UK or Europe, and we should be glad for that, but I'm sure there's a similar story waiting to be told in these countries too.

4/5. Finished 11 November 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Ed Yong

2016


I must say I expected to enjoy this book much more than I did. The premise is powerful: the effects that bacteria have at a macro scale in terms of human health and even behaviour. There are some wonderful musings on the far-reaching effects of bacterial evolution, for example in the observation that all eukaryotic cells (those with mitochondria and a nucleus) come from a single common ancestor, strongly suggesting that this is an evolutionary event that happened only once – and so might not occur in other contexts, making life more scarce in the universe than we might otherwise think.

Despite these tours de force, there's something unsatisfactory about the presentation. It's too breathless, too focussed, too willing to ascribe almost any phenomenon to bacterial causes and influences. A more balanced, shorter, presentation might have served better for me.

2/5. Finished 11 November 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)

John Scalzi

2017


A fabulous opening to a space opera that looks to combine political dynastic in-fighting with a complex physical universe. There are very visible shades of Florentine politics, as well as nods to other science fiction universes – neither of which in any way interfere with the novelty and pace of the narrative.

5/5. Finished 11 November 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Kate Brown

2013


The all-but-unknown history of the US and Soviet nuclear weapons programmes contains some amazing parallels illuminated in this book. To get workers to agree to the claustrophobic and restrictive conditions in the plutonium plants, both sets of authorities created model cities that (in the US case) became models for a lot of later "gated" communities, but also gave residents a taste of an almost European social model they were reluctant to give up. The Soviet example is even more dramatic, almost creating (as Brown calls it) "Socialism in one city", a deft re-statement of Stalin's controversial claim to be creating Socialism in one country: perhaps the system works best at small scales. The environmental costs of both programmes have been devastating, in financial and human terms, and have left a legacy that will be felt for centuries to come, but perhaps they serve best as political statements of how weapons created unexpected mini-societies.

5/5. Finished 11 November 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)