book review · books · shanti

Non Fiction mini-reviews

Hi Virtually Readers! I’ve been suuuuuper absent from the blogging world because literally everything else in my life has taken priority. I’ve still been reading though and am kinda sticking to a library ban. But that’s okay, I’m not gonna apologise too much. But here are some of the non-fiction books I’ve read recently, which is al ot, because I’ve hardly been reading YA which is weird, but here we are. I also will have some separate posts on Dr. Huxley’s Bequest, which will *hopefully* be my next blogging week at the end of October. It never rains but it pours, so this post is super long haha.


The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams

I just finished listening to this as an audiobook, and it was a very fast audiobook for me. But I listened to it at high speed because it was going to expire and I also hated the narrator, who sort of sounds like a robot. The thing is, the content of the book is fascinating. Williams is very good at using this dinosaur thing to connect to many other issues, and she has astonishing insight into, say, the Mongolian democracy and the dinosaur case.

Williams is a feature writer—for the New Yorker, I think? I can totally see how she’d be a very good journalist, though I don’t think I’ve read any of her articles. I actually picked this up at the recommendation of Ed Yong, one of Virtually Read’s favourite science writers, because he was pushing it in his newsletter. But I was disappointed. Williams fondness for teasing out the connections between things means that she is prone to convoluted connections. She would touch on something—the lucrative nature of diving for Floridian deadwood, the nature of museums in Mongolia—and divert her attention into that topic for a while. It’s like all of the offhand mentions that go into a feature article, all the parts that are researched but left out for space—were piled into the book. Williams draws the connections for us, but sometimes the connections are tenuous.

Williams herself is entirely absent from the narrative, which really does it a disservice if you ask me. How did she get those interviews? Who did she talk to in Mongolia? I have a lot of questions, and the narrative, presented as if there is no viewpoint, is less compelling and more suspect.

There were also lots of details I didn’t care about, many to do with the family and living situation of the ‘protagonist’ as such, Eric Prokopi. I don’t care what sort of family catchphrases he has, or how their house is decorated, or about his mistress’s relationship to her parents. Noen of that matters to me. I want to know more about the dinosaurs! I did feel like I learnt a lot from this book, which has filled me with (even) more trivia, but that wasn’t enough.

Breaking News by Alan Rusbridger

I have been raised as a Guardian person, and I adore the Guardian—enough that I donate to them (not much cause I’m skint) every month, and many of my favourite journalists work at the guardian, and I appreciate their content so much and their app is great and yadayadayada. I have mostly been paying attention to the Guardian since Katherine Viner was editor though, but I thought that this would be interesting.

I was just aware enough of the news (thanks to the Guardian weekly haha) at the time of the phone hacking that I had some idea of it, and I know sort of about Edward Snowden, because my dad is a big fan and of course the Oliver Stone movie, but it was fascinating to learn more about these things from the perspective of the people who really made them happen. The Guardian is a very cool organization. And as an avid consumer and kinda producer of news content, I appreciated some of the insight into the contemporary nature of news that Rusbridger offered.

I have to admit, however, that the book becomes less compelling as it goes along. I read the first two thirds almost without breaks; I was working in Indonesia at the time, and I would flip through the pages as I took notes in hotels, waited for people to finish their smoke breaks, wandered through dire apartment complexes, hesitated in traffic etc. But it all became a bit much. this is partially, I think, because the book is long. Alan Rusbridger is totally thorough, and that is good, but at the same time, the promotion of the Guardian was somewhat unrelenting. I had hoped to learn more about who he was, other than a couple of references to his early days of reporting and stress. Also, all the Fleet Street politics, though obviously important if you work in the British media, didn’t interest me all that much.

Rusbridger never quite goes all the way; he cannot critique his own newspaper, or acknowledge mistakes he made (even the financial ones) or just adbit that not everyone wants the same thing from a newspaper that he does. In the second half of the book, he gets mired in the details, or else is over eager to make mostly dire (but just hopeful enough not to sound entirely dire) generlisations. This is very relevant to traditional Westerm media and I definitely gained a lot of insight from it. But it is not everying (more recommendations for books about newspapers, and more fun ones at that, are welcome! Novels count too!)

The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan

I read this because I saw Holly recommend it ages ago. Like Breaking News, it was initially compelling, then became a ibt of a slog. I thought lots about capitalism while reading this, and about America and what a disaster that place is. I also learned lots, which is always good. Ultimately, I think that’s why I persist with non-fiction books, even if I don’t always enjoy them; I feel like I gain value from them that is not simply entertainment, I am interested as well.

I liked how he described the cow, and it made me think of that dude who made an album from the noises of a pig and then ate it on stage or something. I liked the hunting/gathering bits, because my dad hunts, so that felt a little familiar to me. I liked that Pollan gave himself permission to consider food deeply.

However, Pollan doesn’t always put food in context. He offers dire statistics, but doesn’t have any ideas of what people who can’t afford the good or poly food that he likes so much should eat. He questions how food has become about money (corn, ick, corn. Watch the documentary King Corn!) but doesn’t look at the greater global commodification of food. He has immense privilege; it’s easy to forget, but to eat well, and to eat internationally, puts us in a small minority. He is willing to show the processes of food that make Maccas so cheap, but is unwilling to question why unprocessed fruit and veges are more expensive than heavily processed meat, and those are the questions we must ask if we are to cope with the contemporary food and obesity crisis.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Do you follow Matt Haig on Twitter? You really should, he seems very lovely. This book is a lot like his Twitter account: sometimes funny, sometimes profane, sometimes sentimental, but always raw and always sincere. It’s about his depression, and about depression in general, and how we seek happiness and how we find it. It was short—I read all of it on a plane—but perfectly compact, and very compassionate. It didn’t challenge me particularly, but perhaps made me remember hw importane kindness is, and how to love people with mental illness better.

Coming up

Currently I’m on a library ban, but I have all of these books, which I’m super excited to read. Let me know which one I should prioritise!

So Virtually readers! Have you read any of these? Do you want to? Did you ever go through a dinosaur phase when you were younger?

3 thoughts on “Non Fiction mini-reviews

  1. Shanti! I hope you’ve been well ❤ ❤
    thank you for making me discover some books I didn't know existed until just now! That last one, Reasons To Stay Alive, sounds really interesting, I'll have to check it out maybe 🙂 thank you so much for sharing! 🙂


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