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Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body
Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind over Body
by Jo Marchant
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, 28 May 2017
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I bought this book after reading a recommendation in the Economist.

Before picking up this book, I dismissed anyone who believed in 'alternative therapies' like homeopathy and hypnotherapy as gullible fools, taken in by dangerous quackery, along the same lines as people who refuse to vaccinate their children and people who believe the Earth is flat. When first cracking the pages and reading an anecdote about a mother who espouses the virtues of homeopathy, I thought I was in for a long read of someone agreeing with me, and prepared to feel justly smug about how much better I was than such people.

However, Dr. Marchant surprised me. While she is a scientist through and through, she is not so dismissive of alternative therapies as I was. She takes us on a thought-provoking journey on how the powers of the mind can be harnessed into helping relieve physical illness. Marchant interviews patients and doctors, researchers and ordinary members of the public and tries to find out just how our minds can be used to make us feel better.

She tries her hand at meditation, orders placebos online to help with headaches, and takes a trip down a virtual-reality ice canyon, in the hopes of blocking out pain being deliberately inflicted by a researcher. She talks to a man who has undergone "mindfulness training" to help with his diagnosis of MS; a man who has been instructed to create an intricate morning ritual for taking his medication (some of which is placebo) and researchers and therapists who can help hypnotise away your IBS.

The book comes out with one main conclusion, in my eyes. If you are happy, feel you are well looked after, not stressed or alone, and generally fairly positive, your response to illness will be generally better than someone who is miserable and alone. (A wake up call to me, miserable and alone!) This may sound obvious, but this book goes some way to explaining the WHY and HOW this is the case.

So should we all book an appointment with the local crystal healer? Not quite. But if you believe that it might have a beneficial effect on you, then it could do just that.


City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp
by Ben Rawlence
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perspective shifting, 13 May 2017
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I bought this book after having read a recommendation in the Economist.

Rawlence describes the lives of nine people living in the Dadaab refugee camp complex in northern Kenya. He describes in surprising detail their everyday experiences, from finding work in the camp, to family issues, and treacherous journeys to and from their native land. Many of the refugees in the camp complex are from Somalia, though not all.

This was quite a perspective changing book for me. I'll admit, I usually just think of refugees as statistics that you hear about on the news, instead of as discrete individuals with their own story and their own personal struggles, some of which are not so different from my own. The book describes the difficulties of camp life, from ration cuts by the aid agencies and NGOs (because the Somali crisis wasn't "trendy" in the Western world) to being exploited by local Kenyan police forces, and the ever present shadow of extremism and terror groups.

In parts the book reads like fiction. Rawlence includes details that really give the narrative depth, and he's particularly gifted at painting a picture of life in the camp. This makes the book a pleasant and engaging read, and not the depressing monologue about poverty that it could have been.

Thoroughly recommend to everyone!


The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives
The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives
by Helen Pearson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for everyone in the UK, 3 May 2017
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I bought this book after reading a positive review in the Economist.

Before opening the book I had no idea what a cohort study was. I'm familiar with the word "cohort" so I could probably take a stab in the dark as to what it meant, but I was blissfully unaware of just how much cohort studies have shaped the world I live in today.

In the book, Pearson charts the course of four comprehensive studies of people's lives, starting with the first in 1946 and culminating with the most recent in the year 2000. Along the way she tells us the stories of the social scientists, doctors, midwives, health visitors, politicians and ordinary people who made these studies what they are, hugely influential sources of data that, in the intervening years, have influenced so many aspects of life in the UK that it is hard to overestimate their importance.

The earliest study was born from the need to find out why the fertility rate was falling. Was having a baby too expensive for many women? After trying to answer this question (which I shall not call "simple") the concept of cohort studies has grown and blossomed through several generations, but not without difficulties. Funding and public interest wax and wane, and politicians distort the studies' findings to further their own political careers.

And each study always points to the same disappointing result; if you are born into difficult circumstances, you will have a difficult life. "The birth cohorts hold a mirror up to Britain, and sometimes we don't like what we see."


Negroland: A Memoir
Negroland: A Memoir
by Margo Jefferson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Some flaws, 29 April 2017
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This review is from: Negroland: A Memoir (Paperback)
I bought this book after reading a review in The Economist. I had no idea who Margo Jefferson was before I picked it up.

Margo Jefferson - it turns out - is a successful, Pulitzer Prize winning theatre critic. She was raised in the 50s and 60s in Chicago in an affluent "Negroland" family. Negroland is her term for the community of well off, upper-middle class black people.

The memoir chronicles her life growing up in an environment of comfort and privilege, and she is constantly reminded that, to be considered the equal of white people, she must be better than they are, in terms of behaviour, dress, academic achievement, and social standing. This is a recurring theme throughout the book, along with family members who "live as white people" to avoid negative repercussions.

As a chronicle of early race relations, I think this is a very good, interesting book. It gave me a new perspective on something that I don't know very much about, and it has certainly provoked some interesting discussions among my group of friends.

As a strict memoir it falls quite short. Too much emphasis is given to early childhood and elementary school. Jefferson mentions she takes an active role in the Black Power and Women's Liberation movements of the 70s and 80s, but her experiences here are glossed over completely. A good 5/6ths of the book are pre-highschool graduation. The final 40 pages or so are rushed and cramped, and the whole book is, as other reviewers have mentioned, poorly edited and a bit all over the place.

So, there are interesting bits in there, definitely, but a heavy edit needs to happen before it's perfect.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 25, 2017 10:35 AM BST


The Egyptians: A Radical Story
The Egyptians: A Radical Story
by Jack Shenker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Neo-liberalism is the devil, 26 April 2017
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I bought this book after reading a review in The Economist.

It wasn't for me. I wanted to learn more about the Egyptian revolution, and it's causes and effects, but Shenker has not written a readable account of that. Yes, he has lived in Egypt since the late 2000s, and thus saw the revolution first hand, but the book he has produced as a result is... not good.

He doesn't present an unbiased explanation of facts. Hosni Mubarak and neo-liberalism (whatever that means) are the devil incarnate, and that is what the people were rising up against. The "neo-liberal" reforms had ruined life for ordinary Egyptians; "neo-liberal" economic policies had caused labour revolts and widespread dissatisfaction. Blah blah blah. At some points it reads like an undergraduate politics essay.

Of course the book is peppered with Arabic words, it would be naive to expect otherwise. But mentioning and defining a particular Arabic word only once (like taxi driver) and then continuing to use the Arabic word thereafter caused much head scratching. The word "taxi driver" exists in English, and while the meaning will not be exactly equivalent to its Arabic counterpart, it would have made it easier to read.

Finally, and this is absolutely more of a reflection on me than it is the book, but there are just 500 pages of text. There are no maps, no tables, no charts, diagrams, photographs or timelines. It's incredibly dense, and I feel not suited for the general reader.

Are you an Arab / Middle Eastern affairs expert? Great! Go wild with this book. Are you a foreign corespondent? Fantastic. Enjoy. Are you just a regular schmuck who wants to discover a little more about the Egyptian revolution? Sorry, this book probably isn't for you. I had to force myself to get through the pages.


War and Turpentine
War and Turpentine
by Stefan Hertmans
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.88

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was expecting, 24 April 2017
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This review is from: War and Turpentine (Paperback)
I didn't know a great deal about this book when I bought it, so my less than stellar review will doubtless come from that.

The book follows the life of the author's grandfather, one Urbain (Urbann) Martien, and his life leading up to, during, and after the first world war. The first third of the book deals with his early life and childhood growing up in Belgium. The second is a first person retelling of his time fighting and getting injured (three times, no less) at the front during WWI. And the final third is a recount of life life after the war, and his artistic exploits.

The retelling of Urbain's WWI experiences was easily the best part of the book. It was beautifully written, and there was no dancing around the disgusting details of life in a trench. Piles of feces, dismembered limbs, and bullet wounds are all described in loving detail.

The first and final thirds of the book were weak points for me. The "narrative" (is it even a narrative? It sometimes reads like a collection of blog posts) jumps from present tense, to past, from first person to third, and describes snippets of Urbain's life, and then other snippets about the journey his grandson takes to uncover the secrets of this life. All of this is interspersed with detailed descriptions of paintings and pieces of classical music. On the whole, I found it a bit messy.

I guess it wasn't what I thought it would be, which would be a memoir of someone's experiences during WWI, so my not-so-great view of the book comes from the fact that I'm comparing it to what "I thought it should be" rather than what it actually is. For what it is, it's "something a bit different" and should probably be applauded for that. But it just wasn't for me.

The translation is beautiful though, and the translator should rightfully be praised for producing what is, despite its flaws, a very elegantly written book.


The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
by Lionel Shriver
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, 15 April 2017
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Lionel Shriver's books are seldom the feel-good fairy tales you might read to your children at bed time and The Mandibles is no exception.

Set between 2029 and 2047, the book chronicles the lives of four generations of the once wealthy Mandible clan, as they now struggle to exist in a United States where the dollar grows increasingly worthless. The novel paints a grim picture of the not so distant future, where Chinese businesses outsource their production to America for the cheap labour costs, and racial tensions between white Americans and the so-called "Lats" have reached a fever pitch.

I loved this book, it really made me think. Not only about how I would fare in a post-apocalypse (poorly) but also on the more mundane things. How much water do I really need to use when I brush my teeth? What things that I consider "necessities" are really just frippery? That sort of thing. I don't read a lot of fiction, but this book really pulled me in, and I found myself desperately wanting to know what happens next.

It's not perfect, there's a lot of exposition and economics jargon which at times made my eyes glaze over and lost my interest, but on the whole it was fantastic, and I would recommend it to everyone.


But You Did Not Come Back
But You Did Not Come Back
by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important, 10 April 2017
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I bought the book after having read a positive review in The Economist.

While I can't really say anything that hasn't already been said, I'll try and add my thoughts on the book. I think this is an important book, that everyone should read. We all know about the horrors of the holocaust, but for me this was the first time reading a first hand account, and not experiencing it through the lens of a documentary or textbook.

The book is structured around Ms. Loridan-Ivens not being able to remember the content of a note that her father managed to get to her when they were both in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She assumes that it must have contained encouraging, hopeful words, but all she can now remember is the first line, to his "darling daughter" and the last line, where he signed his name.

It's a letter to her father, telling him about her life after they were separated when she was fifteen. She recalls the horrors she witnessed in the camps, and that he must have witnessed too, and explains, though not in much detail, how those horrors have stayed with her and her family even now. Her family fell apart after the war; her brother and one of her sisters committed suicide, and she herself attempted it twice. The smell of the crematoria never really left her. She married a man old enough to be her father.

The translation is also very well done. Definitely would recommend the book to anyone.


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
by Ed Yong
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A shift in perspective, 9 April 2017
I bought this book after reading a positive review of it in The Economist.

In this book Ed Yong (who is a writer with a science degree, not an active scientist [important later]) describes the world of microbes that live around, on, underneath, and inside of all of us. The book is divided into ten or so chapters, each focusing on a certain aspect. Chapter 2, for instance, focuses on the history of microbiology as a science; chapter 5 focuses on pathogens etc.

On the whole I liked this book. I think in this day and age there is a very negative view of microbes as a domain of life, and many people believe (wrongly) that microbes = disease = must be eliminated. This issue is dealt with in the book itself, and after having read the book I have come away with a new perspective on the world of microbes. Sure, some of them are deadly and should be controlled, but many (most, even) are harmless or even beneficial. It was also eye opening to just see how deep into everything bacteria have penetrated. I know that "everything is covered in bacteria" and such stuff, but it was explained what that really meant. This book allowed me to appreciate the absolutely central role that microbes play in life itself.

So why no 5th star? As another reviewer noted, this is a book written by a science writer, not a scientist. The opening chapter was a weak point for me; reading it I was overwhelmed with THE WONDER THAT IS SCIENCE WOW OMG and less cold, hard facts. Definitely, Ed Yong did not try to write a microbiology textbook, or a paper to be published in Nature, so it's understandable that the book isn't chock-full of hard science, because that's not what a general reader wants to read. But a few tables, charts, graphs or diagrams would have made this better for me.


China's Future
China's Future
by David Shambaugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books on China, 30 Mar. 2017
This review is from: China's Future (Paperback)
I bought this book after reading a review in the Economist, and it really is one of the best books on China I have read in a long time.

The author's main thesis is that China is on its way to economic stagnation and potentially disastrous political unrest. China is stuck in the middle income trap, and without political reform it cannot hope to join the ranks of stable rich countries like the United States or Japan.

Shambaugh postulates that there are four potential directions for China, each depending on how relaxed or oppressive the government chooses to be. They can return to neo-totalitarianism, as under Mao; they can stay the current course (Hard Authoritarianism); they can revert to more liberal policies as they did under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping (soft authoritarianism), or they can take a leap into the dark and try for semi-democratisation.

Each chapter begins with an explanation of some of the issues facing China today. This includes chapters on the economy, society, environment and politics in China, and outlines the major problems that need to be dealt with in each of these spheres. Then Shambaugh explains how each of these facets of China would develop or change, depending on which course of action the Chinese government takes. How would civil society change if China tightened its grip further, or what would happen to the economy if China moved to a more democratic system? That sort of thing.

If I had one complaint about the book it would be that it doesn't always seem geared towards a general readership. I have a degree in Chinese studies, but I had to stop and look up abbreviations or economics terms that I was unfamiliar with. This doesn't make the book unreadable by any means, it just means that in places the book is a little dense, and I found my eyes glazing over.

Overall though, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in China.


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