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Posts about reviews (old posts, page 16)

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

David Hendy

2013


A social and scientific history of human sound: not just undesired noise, but how sound binds societies together and how we decide what constitutes "noise" in the first place.

There are some fascinating vignettes. My favourite is the relationship between cave paintings and the soundscapes of the caves in which they're painted: many of the works occur in locations that are "significant" in the sounds that can be heard, or in the ways that sounds made there reverberate into the wider cave. There's also a discussion of colonial attitudes to the languages and music of indigenous peoples, and how the contempt for these (as "hellish din") contributed to the colonists' disdain for them.

As someone who loves silence, there are also some explorations that were awkward and discomforting for me, as to how the ability to find silence is a manifestation of "othering" others in society, and regarding their sounds as encroaching and unwanted. There's also a sense that the pursuits one enjoys in silence – like reading – often come about because the noise of their construction has been offloaded elsewhere, to impact on other people.

As to "noise", it seems to boil down to whether the sounds being heard are perceived as being made by "us" or "them", and to what extent we can exercise some control over them. That makes sound a part of the wider behaviour of a society: if we are all "us", then we will tackle excess sound differently than if those sounds are being made by a "them". In that sense, noise complaints are a measure of social cohesiveness and our willingness to rub along well with others.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Matt Alt

2020


A fascinating take on the effects that Japanese has had (and continues to have) on the rest of the world. This is very much a cultural history grounded in technology, and in the ways that technology drives new cultural possibilities. It's also often a study in the illogic of cultural trends, and how impossible it is to pick cultural winners.

The history of the karaoke machine justifies the book on its own. The vignettes are fascinating, perhaps most of all for me the way in which the actual machines were invented several times in response to different driving forces. But the most outstanding observation was how one of the inventors realised that perfect reproduction of songs wasn't the goal, and spent years re-recording tracks to make them easier for karaoke-singers to perform well. This is the sort of techno-cultural feedback that's fascinating.

Alt tries to draw the threads together, noting that in many ways what Europe and America are suffering in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was presaged by Japan's "Lost decades", making the Japanese experience perhaps more characteristic of late-stage capitalism than we realised. It's an interesting point: I'm not sure Europe will ever have otaku in quite the same way that Japan has, but that's again a techno-cultural interaction in progress as we see whether social trends follow the technological or vice versa.

5/5. Finished 01 May 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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.)

Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro's Cuba

Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro's Cuba

Sarah Rainsford


Perhaps slightly mis-named: the sub-title suggests that Sarah Rainsford saw a lot of Cuba in Fidel Castro's time, whereas she actually arrived much later, as Raúl Castro's reign was coming to an end and reforms were starting uncertainly to swirl. That's a minor point, though, and this is a well-described and insightful autobiography, full of colour and the thoughts and feelings of modern Cubans that only a really dedicated journalist can extract.

This being a book about Cuba, Graham Greene is also part of the cast, as are several or his contemporaries. Re-visiting Greene's haunts and the places that he used in writing Our Man in Havana shows the changes that have occurred in high relief, as socialism swept away the old regime without really creating anything substantial to replace it.I think reading this book really helps to understand Greene's work better.

3/5. Finished 01 May 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

Casey Cep

2019


A biography of a book that was never actually written. Actually also the biography of at least two people who never met but nonetheless interacted strongly, one an alleged multiple murderer and one a notable novelist.

Harper Lee returned to the area where she grew up to research and study the case of Willie Maxwell, a sometime preacher and woodsman who was himself murdered at the funeral of the woman he himself was strongly suspected of murdering – and whose murderer walked free despite his confession and the abundant eye witnesses. It's a compelling story, and it's a tragedy that Lee never in fact published the book she devoted years to creating.

It's easy to hear the echoes of In Cold Blood, both in Lee's endeavours and in this text. It's gripping and fast-paced, and inhabits the Alabama land where the action occurs just as much as Capote inhabited rural Kansas. It's amazing that such an engaging book can be constructed from events that are essentially lacking in any conclusions: we don't know Maxwell's guilt for sure, nor Lee's intentions of how to tell the story, so the book rests entirely on process and location, and very much succeeds.

4/5. Finished 01 May 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)