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 Monday 28 March, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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 Friday 25 March, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict

Nina Jankowicz (2020)

Very topical (I’m writing this during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine), an exploration of how the information space has become a theatre of conflict, whether in a hot or a cold war. The author works in communications, and has a detailed grasp of the ways in which readers and viewers can be manipulated using media. Her central thesis is that the existing fractures in a society can be widened and exploited by a clever and resourceful aggressor, and used to shape belief and behaviour – but also, more importantly, to destroy individuals’ trust in information itself, and to diminish their participation in their own society. This in turn opens-up the way for tiny fringe groups to achieve outsized influence, by suppressing the participation of the majority. It’s a frustrating dynamic, not least because the remedies are elusive: one can’t adopt the tactics of the disruptors without further contributing to collapsing trust, but approaches based on evidence seem doomed to fail when they can be attacked without limit.

Jankowicz is especially revealing about the importance of locally-grown elements to propaganda managed from abroad, whether by knowing agents or (more effectively) by “useful idiots” who spread the disruptive talking points. Reading this book sharpens your sensitivity to these things, and I’ve seen it happening even with respected figures during the current conflict.

4/5. Finished Friday 11 March, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)

Robert Jordan (1990)

A book I wanted to like, but didn’t. I found it slow and mired in stereotypes despite the protagonists including several very strong and powerful women and societies of women. It didn’t work as well as it could have done.

There’s also a stylistic element that I found frustrating. The story, and the history of the world, are revealed as they’re learned by the young-adult central characters, who are sufficiently rural and provincial to not have know much of it before. As a style it means that the reader shares their ignorance (and emerging knowledge) – but also means that events often only make sense in retrospect (or not at all). Perhaps this is a semi-realistic take on how the “quest” narrative would actually be experienced from the inside, but it doesn’t enhance the storytelling.

2/5. Finished Friday 4 March, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

Dan Jones (2012)

A sweeping and entertaining history of the Plantagenet kings and their often equally impressive queens. There is a lot of ground to cover, and Jones does it in the same style as his previous books about similar periods, notably Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands – and with several overlapping characters.

A lot of the history of this period isn’t widely known. That the boundaries of countries change is obvious, but perhaps less obvious is the idea that particular regions have clearly-identified “national” identities isn’t a concept that translates well to the eleventh century, when Normandy and the Normans weren’t in any way considered French and the relationships between barons and kings were far ore conditional and fluid than one might expect. Jones has a clear eye for where these expectations will trip-up a modern, non-expert reader, and that’s part of the book’s quality, along with his equally clear eye for fascinating characters and foibles.

4/5. Finished Sunday 27 February, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)