Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind [1998] by V. S. Ramachandran★★★★★

This entertaining book presents the most mind-boggling medical cases from the field of neuroscience. In the vein of Professor Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat [1985]), Professor V. S. Ramachandran discusses and seeks explanations to such bewildering medical conditions as Capgras delusion, where a person thinks that their relatives are imposters because of the break between their emotional and visual brain inputs, various forms of anosognosia, such as the one where a person denies that their left side of the body is completely paralysed (one possible explanation is that their brains “adapt” reality to their internal world-view “to save” their sanity), phantom limb syndrome, where a person experiences sensations in a limb they no longer possess, as well as blindsight and savant syndrome, among others. Though this book was published in 1998, it remains as informative as at the time of its publication. There have been some developments in neuroscience since 1998, but the science is still very much in the dark regarding all the curiosities about the brain presented in this book. Answering the questions posed by Professor Ramachandran will be akin to finally finding the answers to the biggest mysteries of our existence and psychology.

II. Around the World in 80 Trees [2018] by Jonathan Drori★★★★★

There [is] a whole world in [every] tree…they warrant our appreciation, and many of them need our protection“, says Jonathan Drori in this book, which presents eighty different trees from every continent, from Yemen’s dragon’s blood trees and Somalia’s frankincense to Mexico’s avocado and Jamaica’s breadfruit. The author provides short descriptions of his chosen tree (no more than a number of paragraphs), detailing its characteristics, history, uses and other curious facts. For example, Drori explains why Chile’s national tree is called “monkey puzzle”, why Malaysia’s durian fruits have always been “controversial” and how come Canadian sugar maple has “glorious yellow and orange colours” in autumn, as well as tells us what culinary wonders Corsica’s sweet chestnut can produce and how Ghana’s kola nuts played a part in slave trade. We learn that famous Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl built his raft from Ecuador’s balsa logs and that Greece’s bay tree is tied to a fascinating myth of Apollo and Daphne. With gorgeous illustrations by French artist Lucille Clerc, this concise book is endlessly fascinating and an excellent introduction to the nature’s wonder that is trees.

III. How Corrupt is Britain? [2015] by David Whyte (ed.) ★★★★★

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

Corruption…is not merely a minor accidental flaw of the political and economic systems…but is actually a routine practice that is used for maintaining and extending the power of corporations, governments and public institutions” (David Whyte).

This slim book presents a collection of fourteen “introductory” essays by leading British academics on corruption in Britain, dispelling the prevalent myth that “Britain is not corrupt”. British corruption, say the authors, is more of an “institutional” problem, and provide much evidence and give many examples. Of course, there is a chapter on the Hillsborough disaster, where ninety-six football fans lost their lives, and its shocking, systematic and “politically-supported” police “cover-up” that lasted decades, as well as a chapter on police corruption involving the killings of Mark Duggan and Stephen Lawrence, among others. On the governmental level, there was corruption in the case of the six tortured “hooded” men in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and the book also discusses the case of Jimmy Savile, once a knighted “national treasure”, but now a prolific sexual predator, who, for decades, abused children on the sets of BBC, with which he had a “symbiotic relationship”, as just one of the examples of the “institutional” corruption. Echoing what also said Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah [2006], there is also plenty in this book on the “City of London” corruption, discussing such things as the societal damage done by top British accountancy firms and the “revolving-door” concept. This non-fiction is a concise, clearly-written and eye-opening book, which is a “must-read” for anyone interested in the issue, and, truthfully, for any British citizen.

IV. Around the World in 80 Plants [2021] by Jonathan Drori★★★★1/2

This colourfully-illustrated sister book to Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees is about the most curious plants found around the world. From the USA’s tobacco, Argentina’s yerba-maté and Guyana’s giant water-lily to Bangladesh’s indigo, China’s giant timber bamboo and Japan’s ginkgo, this book introduces the wonder of plants of all kinds, some edible, some domestically-useful, some religiously-significant and some even very dangerous. You will learn about India banana’s desserts, Pakistan henna leaves’ use as cosmetics and the tattooing culture that emerged from cultivating the candlenut tree grown in French Polynesia, as well as find out what Peruvian street snack is made from amaranth’s seed, why Egypt’s papyrus was described as “the commodity that ensures immortality” (not the first thing that may come to your mind), and how Italy mandrake’s superstitious history is tied to witches and flying, among many other things.

V. Dangerous Garden: The Quest for Plants to Change Our Lives [2004] by David Stuart★★★★

This non-fiction takes you on a journey through history’s “dangerous” plants, mixing facts and myth, science and quackery. Its chapters are divided thematically depending on what effect plants have or to what goal plants have been used, so there is a chapter on plants that have been used throughout history to lessen pain, treat various diseases, enhance libido, induce hallucinations or even simply kill, as was the case with Catherine Monvoisin of France who, in the seventeenth century, was the alleged head of an organisation trading in plant-based poisons and “contract” killings. Chamomile was taken as tea to lessen pain, feverfew was deemed to reduce fever, and myrrh and frankincense took journeys of thousands of miles to arrive from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe to be used as cures from various diseases, as aphrodisiacs and as exotic erotically-charged perfumes. Going further, herb chaulmoogra, originating in the South East Asia, was an ancient leprosy cure, highly toxic foxglove was once used to treat tuberculosis, and ancient Mesopotamia used willow leaves and bark (containing salicin) to treat rheumatism. There are accounts from contemporaries who tasted hemp (hashish conserve) for the first time and those who have seen Native American rituals where peyote, a psychoactive substance, was used, and recorded their experiences. The presentation of history may not be neat and the book is in need of better organisation, but it is still an immersive reading experience and many illustrations are a definite bonus. And, if you like detective mysteries too, then A is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie is a recommended companion piece.

10 thoughts on “Recent Non-Fiction Reads

  1. For Ramachandran there’s a wonderful PBS Nova special on the book you should watch.

    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mind/

    His later book The Tell-Tale Brain was of incredible life-changing importance to me personally as I realized while reading that I had face-color synesthesia – that the “auras” I see were a result of this but also that I was really in fact seeing them so wasn’t “insane” or hallucinating things.

    So Ramachandran is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, that does sound interesting and the site is incredible. I will need to explore it further. For me there is nothing more interesting on this planet that the mystery of our consciousness and brains. Not to take anything away from Ramachandran, of course, but he must have been very influenced by Oliver Sacks too.

      That’s great that you found out the nature of your mysterious condition through the book. I have recently read the book by Daniel Tammet, mathematical savant, and there he also talks about his synaesthesia which helps him to calculate impossible numbers at incredible speed.

      I don’t know if it also interesting for you, but yesterday I read an article on conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan (13 or 14 years old now, I think) and who are fused together in a number of their brain areas and allegedly can read each other’s thoughts and look through each other’s eyes. If this case will not help shed even some light on the mystery of brain and consciousness, I don’t know what ever could.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes the website is good but I meant to link to the video (available on the website) that they did where you can see the experiments performed – and see these people relieved of severe pain as if by magic.

        Ramachandran believed the synesthetic experience was real but also he also was able to come up with brilliant experiments to _prove_ it was real and then come up with a scientific theory as to why (in my form the proximity of the brain area that handles color next to the one that handles facial recognition and overlapping neurons). Yes I’ve read about the twins, also investigated qualia a lot, differences between human-ape-dolphin consciousness, but not quite as interested in Oliver Sachs for some reason although I read his books.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that brain areas proximity as explanation for synaesthesia makes a lot of sense. The brain is such a flexible and inter-connected organ. And, yes, differences between various mammal consciousness is fascinating. And related to this I am interested in its origin and precursors since dinosaurs existed perfectly well without it for millions of years. Competition with bigger predators and necessity for group hunting (communication to trap much larger prey) must have meant the need to develop smarter and more conscious brains relatively fast, and maybe empathy for relative strangers as communities got bigger so that they survive, but they are still many gaps and questions.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Dangerous Garden is definitely appealing to me! And also Around the World in 80 Trees. I have a couple of excellent plant themed books by Richard Mabey – Weeds and The Cabaret of Plants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The plants and trees books are very interesting. I never actually thought I would find botany so fascinating or intriguing, but it is just mind-boggling what some plants and trees get up to. I should check out Mabey books, thank you, and I am sorry for the late reply – for some reason most comments for this post ended up in my spam folder and I have just approved them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Phantoms in The Brain” sounds super interesting. We have talked about Oliver Sacks here before. (I saw he even wrote the forward to this book). The brain is so fascinating, and its mysteries humbling!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. They all sound great reads but the ones that fascinate me most are the Around the World in 80 Trees/Plants books. Thanks for mentioning Ramachandran–I have long wanted to read Tell Tale Brain but somehow it had slipped my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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