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‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’ by Bill Bryson *****

Like many readers, I very much enjoy Bill Bryson’s non-fiction work.  I picked up his newest publication, The Body: A Guide for Occupants having not read any of his writing for such a long time, and was so pleased that I did.  I was reminded once more of how warm his prose is, and how fascinating his subjects.

Many of Bryson’s books are essentially travel writing, in which he writes about countries and regions which he has lived or travelled within – the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa are just three examples.  The Body is something a little different to these personal geographies, though.  It is far more science-based than much of his work, and does not include many personal stories, something which his books tend to be built upon.  It looks inward, trying to decipher what really makes a human being. 43582376

The Body has been split into many chapters, each of which focuses upon a distinctive part of the human body.  These range from ‘The Immune System’ and ‘The Brain’ to ‘Into the Nether Regions’.  These chapters are incredibly thorough; there is not an element of the body which has not been explored in some way.  He moves seamlessly from one topic to another.  With his chapter on the skin, for instance, he moves from bacteria found on the skin to the phenomenon of itching, and then the reasons as to why we lose hair as we age, all in less than two pages.

Bryson writes about so many things here, including the beginning of forensic science; microbes and proteins, and their functions and uses within the body; viruses; advances in medicine; evolutionary changes within human anatomy; how different parts of us age, and the consequences felt; the myriad benefits of exercise; and the wonder found within the structure of our bones.  He writes about so many things that are known about the human body, and also the surprising number of elements which remain a mystery.  Bryson introduces several medical conundrums, interesting cases which cannot be solved.

Bryson has chosen to begin The Body with rather a fascinating chapter, entitled ‘How to Build a Human’, which calculates how expensive it would be to procure all of the elements which make up the human body – clue: a lot.  This memorable prologue, as it were, sets the tone for the book, and feels perfectly placed.

As ever, Bryson’s writing in The Body is both absorbing and accessible.  He grapples with complex ideas throughout the book, but presents everything in a way which can be read and understood by newcomers to this subject.  He introduces myriad facts in marvellous ways, which really make one think; for instance, ‘In the second or so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.’  One can see from the outset that Bryson clearly has quite a passion for this subject, and this shines throughout, as does his humour.  Throughout, Bryson consults experts in different fields, and also mentions a lot of books which focus upon biology along the way.

The Body is a book which one can learn, unsurprisingly, a great deal from.  I have always been fascinated by biology and the human body, and have read a few books on the subject before, but I found myself learning new facts throughout.  Although there is such a great deal packed into the pages of The Body, and a great deal of impeccable research has clearly been done, it never feels saturated with information, and can easily be read from cover to cover.  The Body is, all in all, a fact-lover’s dream, which demonstrates how wonderful the human body is, in all of its strangeness.

I will end this review with a passage which I, personally, found fascinating: ‘The most remarkable part of all is your DNA.  You have a metre of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single fine strand it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.  Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.  You are in the most literal sense cosmic.’

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The Book Trail: The Awfully Long Titles Edition

I have decided to begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite non-fiction picks of 2016.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads to come up with the following list of intriguing non-fiction books, all of which have rather elaborate titles.  As ever, let me know which pique your interest!

1. Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh 22907030
What is it like to be a brain surgeon?  How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?  How do you live with the consequences of performing a potentially life-saving operation when it all goes wrong?  In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to ‘do no harm’ holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, Henry Marsh must make agonising decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.  If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practised by calm and detached surgeons, this gripping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candour, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humour that characterise a brain surgeon’s life.  Do No Harm is an unforgettable insight into the countless human dramas that take place in a busy modern hospital. Above all, it is a lesson in the need for hope when faced with life’s most difficult decisions.’

 

2. Adventures in Human Being: A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum by Gavin Francis
We assume we know our bodies intimately, but for many of us they remain uncharted territory. How many of us understand the way seizures affect the brain, how the heart is connected to wellbeing, or the why the foot carries the key to our humanity? In Adventures in Human Being, award-winning author Gavin Francis leads readers on a journey into the hidden pathways of the human body, offering a guide to its inner workings and a celebration of its marvels.  Drawing on his experiences as a surgeon, ER specialist, and family physician, Francis blends stories from the clinic with episodes from medical history, philosophy, and literature to describe the body in sickness and in health, in living and in dying. At its heart, Adventures in Human Being is a meditation on what it means to be human. Poetic, eloquent, and profoundly perceptive, this book will transform the way you view your body.

 

3. Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World by 13330695William R. Leach
A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of butterflies, this engaging and elegantly illustrated history shows how Americans from all walks of life passionately pursued butterflies, and how through their discoveries and observations they transformed the character of natural history. Leach focuses on the correspondence and scientific writings of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists who traveled across the country and throughout the world, collecting and studying unknown and exotic species. In a book as full of life as the subjects themselves and foregrounding a collecting culture now on the brink of vanishing, Leach reveals how the beauty of butterflies led Americans into a deeper understanding of the natural world. He shows, too, that the country’s enthusiasm for butterflies occurred at the very moment that another form of beauty—the technological and industrial objects being displayed at world’s fairs and commercial shows—was emerging, and that Americans’ attraction to this new beauty would eventually, and at great cost, take precedence over nature in general and butterflies in particular.

 

4. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology by Bernd Heinrich
From Bernd Heinrich, the bestselling author of Winter World, comes the remarkable story of his father’s life, his family’s past, and how the forces of history and nature have shaped his own life. Although Bernd Heinrich’s father, Gerd, a devoted naturalist, specialized in wasps, Bernd tried to distance himself from his “old-fashioned” father, becoming a hybrid: a modern, experimental biologist with a naturalist’s sensibilities.  In this remarkable memoir, the award-winning author shares the ways in which his relationship with his father, combined with his unique childhood, molded him into the scientist, and man, he is today. From Gerd’s days as a soldier in Europe to the family’s daring escape from the Red Army in 1945 to the rustic Maine farm they came to call home, Heinrich relates it all in his trademark style, making science accessible and awe-inspiring.

 

96341915. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson
Feathers are an evolutionary marvel: aerodynamic, insulating, beguiling. They date back more than 100 million years. Yet their story has never been fully told. In Feathers, biologist Thor Hanson details a sweeping natural history, as feathers have been used to fly, protect, attract, and adorn through time and place. Applying the research of paleontologists, ornithologists, biologists, engineers, and even art historians, Hanson asks: What are feathers? How did they evolve? What do they mean to us? Engineers call feathers the most efficient insulating material ever discovered, and they are at the root of biology’s most enduring debate. They silence the flight of owls and keep penguins dry below the ice. They have decorated queens, jesters, and priests. And they have inked documents from the Constitution to the novels of Jane Austen. Feathers is a captivating and beautiful exploration of this most enchanting object.

 

6. Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality by Helen Scales
Poseidon’s Steed trails the seahorse through secluded waters across the globe in a kaleidoscopic history that mirrors man?s centuries-old fascination with the animal, sweeping from the reefs of Indonesia, through the back streets of Hong Kong, and back in time to ancient Greece and Rome. Over time, seahorses have surfaced in some unlikely places. We see them immortalized in the decorative arts; in tribal folklore, literature, and ancient myth; and even on the pages of the earliest medical texts, prescribed to treat everything from skin complaints to baldness to flagging libido. Marine biologist Helen Scales eloquently shows that seahorses are indeed fish, though scientists have long puzzled over their exotic anatomy, and their very strange sex lives?male seahorses are the only males in the animal world that experience childbirth!  Our first seahorse imaginings appeared six thousand years ago on cave walls in Australia. The ancient Greeks called the seahorse hippocampus (half-horse, half-fish) and sent it galloping through the oceans of mythology, pulling the sea god Poseidon?s golden chariot. The seahorse has even been the center of a modern-day international art scandal: A two-thousand-year-old winged seahorse brooch was plundered by Turkish tomb raiders and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  A book that is as charming as the seahorse itself, Poseidon’s Steed brings to life an aquatic treasure.’

 

7. Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth’s Last Dinosaur by Carl Safina 40789
Though nature is indifferent to the struggles of her creatures, the human effect on them is often premeditated. The distressing decline of sea turtles in Pacific waters and their surprising recovery in the Atlantic illuminate what can go both wrong and right from our interventions, and teach us the lessons that can be applied to restore health to the world’s oceans and its creatures. As Carl Safina’s compelling natural history adventure makes clear, the fate of the astonishing leatherback turtle, whose ancestry can be traced back 125 million years, is in our hands.  Writing with verve and color, Safina describes how he and his colleagues track giant pelagic turtles across the world’s oceans and onto remote beaches of every continent. As scientists apply lessons learned in the Atlantic and Caribbean to other endangered seas, Safina follows leatherback migrations, including a thrilling journey from Monterey, California, to nesting grounds on the most remote beaches of Papua, New Guinea. The only surviving species of its genus, family, and suborder, the leatherback is an evolutionary marvel: a “reptile” that behaves like a warm-blooded dinosaur, an ocean animal able to withstand colder water than most fishes and dive deeper than any whale.

 

8. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff
Beginning with Linnaeus, a colorful band of explorers made it their mission to travel to the most perilous corners of the planet and bring back astonishing new life forms. They attracted followers ranging from Thomas Jefferson, who laid out mastodon bones on the White House floor, to twentieth-century doctors who used their knowledge of new species to conquer epidemic diseases. Acclaimed science writer Richard Conniff brings these daredevil “species seekers” to vivid life. Alongside their globe-spanning tales of adventure, he recounts some of the most dramatic shifts in the history of human thought. At the start, everyone accepted that the Earth had been created for our benefit. We weren’t sure where vegetable ended and animal began, we couldn’t classify species, and we didn’t understand the causes of disease. But all that changed as the species seekers introduced us to the pantheon of life on Earth—and our place within it.

 

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