Book Reviews: The Girl Who Was Too Big, Or Passion For A Bad Zoo

July 28, 2020

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By BRUCE DENNILL, ROB HOFMEYR, NIGEL WILLIS & VINCENT PIENAAR

Insectopedia by Erik Holm

The Girl Who Takes an Eye For An Eye by David Lagercrantz

Classic Passion: [(a+b)… by Johnathan Andrews

Too Big To Walk: The New Science Of The Dinosaurs by Brian J Ford

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Underwater Zoo by Ed Jordan, Alan Glass and Sandy Lightley

 

A good guide to local insects is a useful resource to have in any house, as human residents are guaranteed to be sharing their space with a range of these creatures, and having an idea of what to expect in terms of their behaviour is useful. Insectopedia provides a good cross-section of the requisite knowledge in this area. Rather than being only a picture-and-blurb guide – it has a section for that in the latter part of the book – it also includes information about how different types of insect will behave in certain contexts, as well as the reasons for that behaviour being displayed. The latter insight is valuable, as it makes management of your coexistence with your creeping, crawling, hopping and flying neighbours more predictable. Knowing what certain classes of insect eat and whether ambient temperatures influence their tastes or hunger levels aids in making decisions in the garden or how you pack kitchen storage cupboards. Understanding “superorganisms” – colonies of everything from ants to bees – and how these creatures function communally and individually allows for sensible control of hives and nests, as well as an appreciation of the positive effects of the insects on your environment. And understanding why insects respond to certain stimuli helps you adapt your own responses – knowing, for instance, that something that appears to be aggressive may instead be shortsighted and unaware of your presence. This is a book that will increase both your knowledge and your desire to learn more about its subject.

 

In The Girl Who Takes an Eye For An Eye a new writer continues the Millennium Series begun by the late Stieg Larsson, which includes the famous The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And Lisbeth Salander holds centre stage throughout this stunningly good novel. Sentenced to two months in prison – ironically for a humane act – Lisbeth uses the time to watch, learn and think. Here, she must defend herself, but she also champions a terrified young Bangladeshi woman who is being abused by the leader of a prison gang. She confronts not only the gang but also the prison authorities. An elderly benefactor visits her and soon after is murdered. Michael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, is a constant support to Lisbeth, but his life is in jeopardy. The complex plot unfolds, involving Muslim extremism in a family setting, an equally terrifying mafia of professionals in mental health who had for “research purposes” manipulated adoptions and placements, and a feud in the field of big business. It explores also the nature of identical twin relationships. This gripping narrative takes us back and forth through tenement blocks, prison, music venues and affluent apartments. It is deft, sure-footed and exciting. It comes to a frightening climax with an abduction and chase and the seemingly inevitable death of Lisbeth. Great film material, though perhaps any film script would have to lose too much of the detailed manoeuvrings of the many players. Don’t expect Jane Austen characterisation. These are action figures, but with sufficient personality to make them interesting and often believable. It is a great read. Highly commended as an airport purchase. – RH

 

Johnathan Andrews is a photographer with a bent for the mathematical, and this large-format hardcover book introduces a theory he’s come with for matching, as he puts it, “planning and inspiration” and hopefully coming up with the best result. Classic Passion: [(a+b)… also uses as a sort of case study the work of Richard Cock and Florian Uhlig, the founders of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, which Andrews and his camera are regular fixtures at. Readers may not agree with Andrews’ theory of Applied Photographic Inspiration, based on their belief that creativity cannot be standardised in any way, but there’s no mistaking the author’s passion and desire to communicate his vision – a possible motivation for both rookie photographers looking for a direction and more established types aiming to refine their approach.

 

To describe the author of Too Big To Walk, Brian J Ford, as an iconoclast is to be guilty of understatement. He tackles the conventional wisdom on the life and death of the dinosaurs with a rigour and a fury that is breath-taking. On the other hand, to call him a maverick would be an injustice. Ford, a distinguished biologist, who has published hundreds of scientific articles, argues his case after much scholarly observation, research and critical analysis. For several decades now, there has been a broad consensus in the scientific community that, when it comes to dinosaurs, the following is the truth: they roamed the earth on the surface of the land; they died in a mass extinction that occurred as a result of the momentous climatic changes that ensued when a giant meteor hit the Earth some 65 million years ago; and birds are surviving dinosaurs, closely related to these, their genetic forbears, which came extinct. Ford debunks all three of these theories, although he accepts the hard evidence that a giant meteor did indeed hit the Earth all those years ago, with catastrophic consequences. It is the Newtonian forces of gravity that drive Ford’s ideas. The reason there are so many creepy-crawlies and small creatures on the earth, not only in absolute numbers but also in different species, in contrast with large land-based versions, is that gravity demands exponentially increased metabolic energy for large living things on land merely to stand, never mind walk or even run. There is really only one evolutionary advantage in size. It is that the bigger you are, the more difficult it is for other creatures to predate upon you. The disadvantage is that you have to consume enormous amounts of food to generate the necessary energy to do what you have to do. Ford argues that not only does it not make evolutionary sense for there to have been land-based creatures as large as and sometimes bigger than blue whales, weighing 150 tons and more, but also it would not have been possible for them to move about much upon the ground, the herbivores foraging to eat vast amounts of food and the carnivores chasing after prey. He makes an intriguing point: it would not have been possible for them to have sex, outside of an aquatic habitat. Imagine a creature, the size of a blue whale, trying to mount another for the purposes of copulation. The female would have been crushed by the sheer weight upon her. And, what about dinosaurs who had large dorsal plates, like the Stegosaurus? The plates would have done more than get in the way – unless the procreators had copulated in an upright ‘missionary’ position (face-to-face), under water. Ford argues that dinosaurs evolved to wade but not swim in the large, relatively shallow lakes and beaches that were all over the earth before the intercontinental drift began. They moved about rather as hippopotami do today. Being in water would render them effectively weightless, facilitating their movement. Sex would have been easy. Where the shallow lakes were deeper, it would have made sense for dinosaurs to evolve as larger creatures.  Walking about in water, they could live in habitats that smaller creatures, having feet, could not. The earth was warmer then and there was more carbon dioxide in the air. Plants would have grown at astonishing speed, providing plenty of much-need nourishment for such large creatures. The water would have been about the same temperature as a human body. This resolves the dilemma about whether dinosaurs needed to evolve into warm-blooded creatures to avoid having to waste so much time heating themselves up before they were able to go out and feed. The theory also explains why so many of their fossils have survived. It also may account for the distance between their footprints, which suggests moving at a pace not possible for such large creatures on dry land. So many footprints survive because they were left in mud as the water in which they were moving about receded through evaporation. Ford accepts that, rather as turtles do today, it may have been necessary for dinosaurs to lumber clumsily on to land for brief periods in order to lay eggs. It was the disappearance of these large shallow lakes during the intercontinental drift that explains the extinction of dinosaurs. One wonders whether he has visited the Karoo. The fact that it was once covered in water and is home to so many dinosaur fossils tends to support his theory. Ford dismisses the theory of the mass extinction as a result of a great meteor crashing into our plant for two main reasons. The first is that the evidence now suggests that the meteor arrived here well before the extinction. The second is that so many other living creatures, dependent in the food chain on lush vegetation, survived. As for birds being surviving dinosaurs, Ford dismisses this as rather like saying human beings are related to lemurs. The reason is that birds have clavicles and dinosaurs do not. This, he contends, points to to considerable evolutionary divergence between the two different genera. Running parallel with Ford’s theory as to why the dinosaurs evolved and then became extinct is his exposé of the pervasive viciousness of the scientific community, especially the palæontologists among them. It makes the treatment by some social scientists and academic lawyers of those who are insufficiently ‘progressive’ seem mellow. The palæontologists would write to the publishers of scientific journals to urge them not to publish his ‘delinquent’ and ‘amateur’ ideas, protest when television programmes interviewed him, write derogatory letters to and articles in the press but intimidate anyone inclined to give his ideas publicity, try to damage his reputation via the social media and generally indulge in a smear campaign against him.  Ford dispels the illusion that that the natural sciences are distinguished by calm, rational enquiry.  He says it was only when some of the previously antagonistic palæontologists began to try ‘stealing’ his ideas that he decided to publish this book about his lonely journey to uncover the truth about dinosaurs. In the result, the book is a tad self-righteous at times. I am unqualified to express an opinion as to whether Ford’s theory about the essentially aquatic domain of the dinosaurs is correct. I did, however, find his book a most absorbing and persuasive read. – NW

 

By now, anybody who goes anywhere near YouTube at any time will have heard about Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. What YouTube has told the viewer is what social media thrives on: Holmes adopted a lower tone of voice to make her sound more authoritative and she gave up her frumpy clothing to start wearing black turtle neck sweaters like her idol, Stephen Jobs. But there is a lot more to John Carreyrou’s well-research and well-written account of the shameful disaster that was Theranos. Shameful? Yes, indeed. From the first page to the last, Bad Blood adds grist to the socialist’s mill. Everything that is bad in the capitalist model is not only described but is used in its most cynical application. Entitlement? Elizabeth grew up in all the glorious manifestations of the millennial, in a well-to-do home with doting parents. Whatever Elizabeth wanted, Elizabeth got. She was going to be a star. She went to the right schools, she was always the top of her class. Greed? Oh, yes! And lots of it. When, as a child she was asked what she wanted to be one day, she replied without hesitation. “A billionaire,” said the little girl. The young woman, a brilliant academic, went to Stanford but dropped out. “No, Dad, I’m not interested in being a Ph.D,” she told her father. ‘I want to make money.’ And she never wavered from that. Cheating? Indeed. Her entire business was a deception. From a product that didn’t work to deliberately separating colleagues so they couldn’t talk to each other to lying to potential clients, there was nothing that the young lady wouldn’t do. Corporate connivance? So many of the company’s employees, including at director level, found themselves playing along while pushing aside the massive question marks hanging over their heads. Carreyrou goes a long way towards answering the real question. How is it possible that a deception like this can continue for years? After all, turning a product that is little more than a prototype that never worked into a $9 billion business and officially being worth $4.5 billion yourself is quite a formidable achievement. Examples abound of Elizabeth’s determination and charisma. One remarkable example will suffice. In a meeting in 2006 (the company being started in 2002), four senior directors ask Holmes to wait outside while they discuss her future. In the meeting they decide she is too inexperienced to handle the job and they decide who will take her position. It’s worth quoting directly from the book: “Over the course of the next two hours, Elizabeth convinced them to change their minds. She told them she recognised there were issues with her management and promised to change. She would be more transparent going forward. It would never happen again.” And it’s business as usual with Elizabeth at the helm! The book ends in 2018 with Elizabeth still on the loose, slipping out of tricky knots all over the place. Whether the justice side of capitalism will eventually kick in, remains to be seen. In his epilogue, Carreyrou revives the 1980s word “Vaporware” to describe the Theranos saga. He presents a damning accusation: “Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be accepted in the tech industry.” – VP

 

Though the rhyming couplets so often used to effectively tell stories to young readers are present and correct here, Underwater Zoo is not a storybook, being rather an introduction to some of the interesting species a child may come across as they interact with the ocean or visit an aquarium. Sandy Lightley’s cheerful illustrations give an idea of the shape and colour of the species involved, and separate boxes add more traditional facts and figures about each creature. Most kids enjoy the seaside and go through at least one period of being fascinated with the fish and other animals that live in that environment. Underwater zoo offers an enjoyable step forward in terms of their learning.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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