Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Image result for sapiensWhat I Thought:

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a book with over 500 pages about humankind over the last several million years may be dry and inaccessible. Not so with this book. It is a feast for the brain! Harari has made a very complicated subject easy to understand because of his way of writing, which is engaging and clear.

Sapiens really challenges you and makes you think. For example, Harari provides some intriguing arguments about how we were all duped by the Agricultural Revolution which turned us into farmers when we evolved essentially to be hunter-foragers. We tend to assume that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward – when actually, according to this book, it was more akin to a great disaster.

Likewise, he analyses the Cognitive Revolution which allowed mankind to develop a consciousness about life and to believe in “phenomena” such as religion and culture. The role of empires and capitalism are thoroughly discussed, and Harari gives some interesting ideas on why it was that a then-comparatively backward Europe came to dominate the globe. This I found fascinating, as we learn that while Europeans were out exploring and conquering, China and India and other great nations sat complacently back, only to find themselves at the bottom of the new pecking order.

Sapiens themselves won out over other varieties of early human (Neanderthals, Denisovans etc)  and evolved into a supreme species by first wreaking havoc on other large species as they spread across the globe and then outthinking others, engaging in shared fictions (religions, limited liability companies etc). This may make us feel powerful or triumphant but, believe me, it makes you ashamed too.

I could not put this book down. It was a refreshing respite from the majority fiction that I usually read and gave my brain a damn good work out too. Trust me when I say you will view yourself and those around you very differently once you’ve finished.

Verdict:

A fascinating, gripping, sometimes jaw-dropping read. It’s accessible without being patronising. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

blog-21

Advertisements

Throwback Thursday: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

throwbackthursday

Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

My choice for this week is: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong.

Taken from my review in 2009, this book is still firmly at the top of my favourite ever reads. In 2008 it won the first ever Man Asia Literary Prize and with good reason. I have hardly ever come across anyone else who has read it but I honestly recommend so highly.

Image result for wolf totem jiang rongWhat I thought:

From the very first page I was hooked. Jiang Rong creates such a vivid and compelling narrative that I found myself simultaneously gripped with the story yet trying to slow down and savour every word, so beautiful was each sentence.

Wolf Totem is semi-autobiographical and Jiang’s passion for the Mongolian grasslands shines through on every page. The description of the grasslands themselves, the wildlife, the lifestyle and survival was stunning. So few books make me believe that I am there at the actual place, but with this book I was there on horseback, hiding from wolves, fleeing for my life, braving blizzards and building campfires. I smiled, I cried, I hoped and I silently pleaded all within the space of an hour. I also fell in love with wild Mongolian wolves. To get to know them was an honour– they are clever, cunning, brave, brilliant and I loved following their story (from both sides – the good and the bad). The Little Wolf that was captured and raised by humans both enchanted me and broke my heart.

While this book is most certainly a tale of the grasslands of the last 10,000 years and what happens when modern living creeps in, it is also a book about so much more. I can’t praise this enough; I am sad that it has ended as I could have read on for another 500 pages. What a beautiful book, one I highly recommend and one I will be reading again and again.

Verdict:

It’s now quite a while since I read this and I really think I want to read it again soon; just reading this review has brought back so many memories of how wonderful it is. If you love animals, nature, different cultures, the human spirit or just damn good literature then you will love this.

 

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

In three words:

Quirky, clever, riddle

 

 

What I thought:

What a strange yet strangely appealing book from this Japanese author, Keigo Higashino. I have read several novels by Japanese authors over the years and they have all had similar styles in that they have been sparsely written with barely a word wasted, yet they have all packed an almighty punch (without even trying it somehow seems). The Devotion of Suspect X is a clever crime book. There is a murder but no blood and gutts, a crime but no evidence. The killing takes place in the first few pages of the book and we all know straight away who did it: what happens immediately afterwards is what keeps the reader on their toes.

The story is centred around Yasuko, a single mum who works in a lunch-box shop and whos unsavoury ex-husband tries to worm his way back into her life. Within pages, said ex-husband is dead and entering from stage left is strange nextdoor neighbour Ishigami, who is a genius mathemetician with rather a large crush on Ysasuko. On the case of the body dumped in an oil drum by the river is Tokyo  Detective Kusangi who vents his frustrations about the case to friend Yukawa who happens to be a genius physician and whom knew Ishigami at University. What follows is clash of the geniuses: not in an action-packed, race-against-time way, but more like a battle of brains over a quiet game of chess. While this was a great way to help the reader unravel what happened, I have to admit that about ¾ of the way through the book I started to become a little bored with the perpetual cat-and-mouse game between Yukawa and Ishigami: I remember sighing and uttering “get on with it” at one point. However, not long after I was rewarded with an almighty wollop at the end that I didn’t see coming. And then, just as I’d relaxed again, I was left staring at an ending that made my mouth go into this shape….. O

Verdict: Quirky, surprising and rewarding.

(Source: I bought this book myself)

 

Day 37 – A book that I still think about years after having read it

Memoirs of a smitten reader…

There are many books that don’t want to seem to let me go after I have finished those final pages; books that I can’t stop thinking about or that haunt my thoughts for days, even weeks afterwards. I love those books – the ones that get under your skin. However, how many of those book do I still remember years later? Yes, there are books that I look back fondly, even passionately upon, but it is a really special book that stays in my mind so vividly years and years later that every now and then I will be taken completely unawares when one of the characters sneeks into my head and waves hello.

One such book that has that effect on my is Memoirs of a Geisha which I read in the summer of 2003. I can clearly remember entering the Japanese tea houses and walking under the cherry blossom trees so much so that whenever I looked up from my book I was surprised to find myself still sat on a sofa in a house in Yorkshire. I was so emmersed in sayuri’s life for the few days that it took me to read it that I actually felt as though I’ve lost a friend once I had finished: I felt lost without her and her world. Even now, every now and then,  I find myself thinking about not only Sayuri but also Mameha, the Chairman, Nobu and even Hatsumomo and wondering what became of them.

Memoirs of a Gesiha is a breathtakingly beautiful book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time. And when I stop remembering…..I will read it again.

 

  Which books have you been able to let go of even years later?

 

Day 35 – The longest book I have ever read

Count how many pages…

I’m not really one for long books. I wish I was – there are so many I want to read! It’s the size that puts me off even picking most of them up: what if it takes too long to read when there are so many other books out there waiting to be read? I am easily distracted by things that drop through my letter box and books that have been on my shelf for a long time can be overlooked.

I would love to read more though including Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend to name just a few), Gone With the Wind, The Passage, The Crimson Petal and the White, Quincunx, Shantaram, Shogun and A Suitable Boy are all on my shelves, staring sadly at me every time I pass them.

Despite saying that, I have read some long books and I almost always love them when I do (although part of me wonders if I love them so much becasue I am so rapturous of  having got through them!). The longest book I have read so far is The Count of Monte Cristo which I loved. Swashbuckling, dramatic and thrilling!

 

  Which is the longest book you have read and was it worth it?

 

Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih = wonderful book

In three words:

Desert, hunger, battle

 

I read this book some months ago now: I was sent it for review in advance of the publication date and only intended to flick through the first few pages and before I knew it I was ripping through the book, not wanting to put it down. I actually started it on a boiling hot day (yes, unusual for the UK which is precisely why I had set up camp in the back garden) and as I read the first sentence I almost felt I was there in the desert.

Anyone who knows my blog will know that I am a sucker for books with animals in them or narrated by animals (see yesterdays post). The fact that I often have problems reading books narrated by children never seems to transcend to books narrated by a rat or a pig or a dog. Don’t be put off though, only the odd chapter is narrated by (in this case) a jerboa rat, an ant or a spiny-taled lizzard and it’s done in such a way feels necessary for the book and also gives us another angle in which to view the humans whom tell us the rest of the tale.

Homeless Rats is about a group of Bedouins in southern Libya who set off in a large convoy to a place in the desert further north where they are assured of bountious barley that they can eat and sell in the markets. Their home village of Mizda has suffered such drought that they have no option but to move on. Once they arrive in J    they are grief-stricken by the fact that all the barley ears have been taken already. Hungry and knowing they don’t have enough food to go on another journey they weigh up their options. Just as all seems lost, a young boy finds a stash of barley underground in a Jerboa’s home and then all becomes clear – the dessert rats have harvested all the barley ears for themselves to see them through the winter. Thus begins a battle between man and animal.

This book is really clever in making me see both sides equally and feeling empathy for both animal and human. At first I felt sympathy for the animals who had had their homes destroyed by humans and their food stolen. When all the dessert animal kingdom come together to discuss their lost homes and families and what to do next, I was upset with them as they watched everything they knew fall away from them. Once we switch back to the humans, who are literally desperate at one point as they have no food to stay and no food to go on their way, I realised that it was all about survival. It was easy for me to sit in judgement about these people coming and destroying the animal kingdom but they were starving and they were doing what was necessary to survive.

Verdict – Homeless Rats had shades of Watership Down in the desert. I adored this book and highly recommend.

Look how cute I am!

 

(Source: I received my copy of this book for review from Quartet Books)

 

Day 5 – A favourite non-fiction book

Chinese Whispers…..

Every now and then I become obsessed with a particular country or culture and devour as many books about that place as I can. Some years ago it was China (I still love reading books set there) and in 2004 I was even lucky enough to go there on holiday which was amazing.

I have chosen Wild Swans by Jung Chang as my favourite non-fiction book. This is the most incredible story I have ever read : it starts in 1909 and follows 3 generations of women in the same family, starting with Chang’s grandmother who was concubine to a warlord, then her mother who was a fervent party member and then on to herself and her own time during the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China. If this had been a work of fiction I would have rolled my eyes on so many occasions about Chang’s over-active imagination, but you know what they say about fact being stranger than fiction – that is certainly true here; you seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. This book is shocking, astonishing, brutal, beautiful, gripping and moving and I urge you to read it.

  What non-fiction books do you recommend?