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Book review: Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality. Read more

Book review: The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This book covers much the same ground historically as the author's later book A New History of Christianity, although its time span is wider, starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Thomas Aquinas. And rather than being purely descriptive, Freeman wants to advance a thesis,which he summarises at the outset like this.

We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influence of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science - and rational thought in general - and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate) it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.

The first seven chapters present a survey of events and ideas in the ancient world before the advent of Christianity. The classical period in Greece was followed by Hellenism after the conquests of Alexander; then came the establishment of the Roman empire with its absorption of many Greek ideas. All these periods were characterised by plenty of intellectual activity. Christianity was to bring about a major change, although not immediately. Freeman's book is intended to explain how this came about. Read more

Book review: A New History of Early Christianity, by Charles Freeman

This book provides an account of Christianity from the death of Jesus in approximately 30 AD to the founding of the mediaeval papacy by Pope Gregory (the Great) at the end of the sixth century. The story is told three parts. Part 1 describes how the followers of Jesus developed their understanding of him in the decades after his death, Part 2 is about how Christianity arose from this background and expanded as a religion in the Roman empire, sometimes in the face of persecution, and Part 3 describes the radical changes that followed the Emperor Constantine's patronage after 313. Read more

Book review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford

Rutherford is a journalist and a BBC Radio 4 presenter as well as a geneticist, and I think this background shows in the way this book is written. It could almost be the script for a broadcast. The style is informal in the extreme, sometimes slangy and with plenty of often good jokes. Contractions such as "would've", "could've" abound.

And this informality is more than skin deep; it extends to the way the book is conceived. Its basic aim is to educate the reader. I don't mean that the tone is patronising, but Rutherford wants to convey certain messages and to counteract some erroneous ideas about genetics that are widespread today. [Read more]

Book review: The Pursued, by C.S. Forester

Marjorie Grainger comes home after spending the day with a friend to find that her sister Dot, who is baby-sitting Marjorie's two children, has committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven. (That wouldn't work today but this novel was set between the two world wars, when coal gas was in use in Britain.)

At the inquest it emerges that Dot was three months pregnant. The verdict is suicide but Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, realise that Dot was having an affair with Marjorie's husband, Ted, and that he has murdered her. They don't acknowledge this explicitly to each other and neither of them wants to involve the police, which would make the children the object of notoriety and scandal. Marjorie tries to put the knowledge of Ted's crime to the back of her mind, but her mother has a different response. Read more

Book review: Brown on Resolution, by C.S. Forester

The story opens on the (fictitious) volcanic island of Resolution in the Galápagos, where a wounded British sailor is dying of blood loss and thirst. The rest of the novel tells the story of how he came to be there.

Leading Seaman Albert Brown is the son of Agatha Brown, a middle-class religiously brought-up woman who conceives him as a result of a five-day fling in 1897 with a young naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Saville-Samarez. Agatha is resourceful, and as she has her own income she is able to leave her disapproving family and take lodgings, where she represents herself as a widow. [More]

Book review: The Man in the Yellow Raft, by C.S. Forester

This collection of stories was published in 1969, three years after their author's death. All the stories concern the US navy during the second world war after Pearl Harbor and most relate in one way or another to the (fictional) destroyer Boon. Most of the stories are fairly short, but two, "Dr Blanke's First Command" and "Counterpunch", are longer. [More]

Book review: The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

Nick Lane is a biochemist at University College, London, where he leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme. In this book he recapitulates quite a lot of what he said in two previous books (Life Ascending" and Power, Sex, Suicide, but there is also a good deal that is new and the ideas are so important and so complex that I welcomed the chance to revisit them.

This is an extraordinarily rich book, whose implications stretch well beyond the strictly biological. The style is informal but there is no shirking of complex ideas, so one has to take one's time in reading. The vivid analogies help here and the effort the book demands is repaid amply. It is not necessary to have read Lane's previous books in order to understand the arguments in this one, although I think some readers may wish to go back at least to Power, Sex, Suicide if they have not previously read this. [More]

Book review: Marking Time, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The series of novels about the Cazalet family during and just after the second world war is probably the fiction for which Howard is best known today, since it was dramatised for both television and radio for the BBC. This book includes a foreword which summarises the main events of the first volume, The Light Years: there is also a list of the family members and their servants and a family tree, so new readers like me are able to pick up the threads and identify the characters pretty easily. [More]

Book review: Slipstream, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book was published in 2002, when its author was nearly eighty, so it spans most of her life. She gives her reasons for writing in a preface.

Why write about one's life? Because of the times one has lived through, the people met and known and loved? To show how interesting, virtuous, or entertaining one has been or become? Or to trace one's inward journey -- whatever kind of evolution there has been between the wrinkled howling baby and the wrinkled old crone?

She explains the choice of her title like this.

Speaking as a very slow learner, I feel I have lived most of my life in the slipstream of experience. Often I have had to repeat the same disastrous situation several times before I got the message. That is still happening. I do not write this book as a wise, mature, finished person who has learned all the answers, but rather as someone who even at this late stage of seventy-nine years is still trying to change, to find things out and do a bit better with them. [More]

Book review: Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

I don't remember hearing any mention of mitochondria in physiology lectures as a medical student in the 1950s. Although they are often in the news nowadays, Lane still describes mitochondria as a badly kept secret and an enigma. In this brilliant evolution-based account he shows why they are literally vital to life and have a central role in sex, ageing, and death. If they did not exist the world would be wholly populated by bacteria, and this may well be the case in almost all other planets on which life exists. In other words, the evolution of the eukaryotic cell (cell with a nucleus) was a one-off event that might easily never have happened. [More]

Review revision: We Are for the Dark

I don't normally revise my book reviews after publication, except for typo corrections and the like, but I've made an exception for We Are for the Dark. by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman, because since writing the first version I've been able to discover information about how the collaboration worked which I think needs to be included.

Book review: We Are for the Dark, by Elizabeth Jane Howard and Robert Aickman

Note: I originally published this review on 25/7/16. Since then I have researched how the book came to be written so this is a revised version of the review (19/8/16).

Howard was having an affair with Aickman when this book appeared; she was already a published author whereas he was not. The collection as published does not give any indication of how the collaboration worked, but in her autobiography, Slipstream, she tells us that three of the six stories were by her and three by Aickman. She does not say who wrote which, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet I have been able to find this out. [More]

Book review: The Human Career, by Richard G. Klein

Klein describes his book as both a sourcebook and a textbook, "written with upper level undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals in mind". This might suggest that it would be pretty dry and not of much interest to a wider readership, but in fact I think it should appeal to anyone who has already read a number of popular accounts of human evolution and wants to understand the subject in more depth. Klein writes well and clearly. Technical terms are explained when first introduced and Klein has a pleasing tendency to use the vernacular when it seems appropriate, so that all the species in the family Hominidae appear in the text as 'people'.

In writing ... I have tried to steer a middle course between what I see as two extreme approaches - one in which the data are simply a springboard for stimulating speculation about what might have happened in the past, and another in which they are meaningless except to test and eliminate all but one competing explanation of what really happened. The difficulty with the first perspective is that it emphasizes imagination over validity. The difficulty with the second, whose roots lie in a perception of how the physical sciences have advanced, is that it assumes an unrealistic degree of control over data quality and quantity. [More]

Book review: The Journey of Man, by Spencer Wells

Spencer Wells is a population geneticist. His book covers much the same ground as Stephen Oppenheimer's Out of Eden; both books contain a fair amount of detail but are aimed at non-specialists. They describe what has been discovered about how humans spread across the world after they left Africa some 50,000 years ago. Until quite recently our knowledge of human migrations relied mostly on archaeology. We now have the equally important contribution provided by population genetics.

Researchers have two main lines of attack in their quest to study the history of migration. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother and so tells us about the female side; the Y chromosome, which determines male sex and is inherited from the father, gives us information about male ancestry. Historically, mitochondrial analysis was first on the scene, leading to the announcement of 'Mitochondrial Eve' in 1987. She was thought to have lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago; we are all her descendants, although this does not mean that she was the only woman living at that time; it's just that the others have no surviving descendants. [More]