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Glynis Ridley – The Discovery Of Jeanne Baret

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Women in the 1700s weren’t supposed to join expeditions, but rules are made to be broken.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 249
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9780307463531
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 5th January 2012
Rating: 4/5

In eighteenth century France, a poor herbalist was able to change her life by, firstly, becoming the lover of Commerson, a prominent botanist, and secondly by following him onto a ship that would take them around the world in order to gain knowledge of the new lands being discovered. To join the ship, Jeanne had to pose as a man and this led to both happiness at being able to see what few before had seen, and utter wretchedness as she strove to keep her identity concealed. Ridley presents Jeanne’s story, or at least as much as is known, introducing readers to the woman that science forgot.

Here we have perhaps the only book that details Jeanne, and while it cannot always be reliable – for reasons that will be discussed in due course and doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad thing – the information it provides is of great value and interest. Indeed you need not have a passion for social history or even science in order to enjoy it as most of it revolves around the voyage and there is a lot about the finding of new lands, meaning that there is something here for many. And it means that although Ridley rarely sways from her main subject, when she does it is fascinating in its own right.

There is plenty to devour on maritime activity, and all the hilarity that the mixture of hardened scurvy-ridden sailors sharing space with curly-wigged nobility brings. A good basic knowledge of plant collecting is here too as well as information about the initial meetings between Europe and the Americas. Ridley grants the reader insight into both sides of the story, including primary source material from the French and the thoughts of the native populations in, for example, Tahiti. And reading about the way the French, in their insecure position as travellers by sea, treated the islanders, is often a nice respite from all the information we have about the atrocious treatment that happened after colonisation.

As the theme is of a woman going round the globe at a time when women were nothing, there are a lot of mentions of gender differences as seen from Ridley’s perspective. As a woman herself, Ridley tends to give the full view, which is always interesting. Depending on the gender and opinions of the reader they may find her harsh, correct, or completely brilliant.

Copus asked his [male] guests if any man could identify the herb. None could, and all agreed the tasty addition to the salad must be some newly introduced exotic. Calling in the kitchen maid to see what she might say on the matter, Copus watched the surprise on his guests’ faces as the woman announced the “unidentifiable” herb to be parsley.

[…]

Ordinary women know what plants look like in the field and in the kitchen, while supposedly educated male scientists know only what they are told.

[…]

In an age of crude woodcut illustrations that only served to obscure identification… even the best [reference books] were inadequate as field guides.

In fact the reader is very much included by Ridley as she employs an intriguing interactivity – describing how a person might find a place today, meaning how the place has changed. By doing this she inevitably draws parallels, which give you pause for thought.

Ridley makes use of evidence and generally tells you where her information comes from, despite a lack of footnotes. However sometimes what she says, or, moreover, her point of argument, is difficult to follow because it becomes mixed in with everything else. It is understandable that when a person writes on a subject they know well, they are not going to explain everything because it may appear to them obvious, but there are a few places where more detail would have been of great benefit. There are also many many mentions of how far, or rather how not far at all, peasants would travel from their homes during their lifetime. This is an issue by itself, but it’s also an issue when the author concludes that Jeanne would have met Commerson when she was away from home and he also. Unfortunately it sounds just as romantised as the ideas of others that Ridley dismisses.

Yet this is where we come to the major point. There is a great deal of speculation in the book. And although Ridley is generally good at saying what is factual and what is not, there are times when it’s not obvious. Now there are two schools of thought here. One is that it is bad to spend a book speculating. However two is that if there is little evidence surrounding a person but an author feels the need to introduce them to the world, then speculation can be forgiven. It’s not as though Ridley is talking about, say, Louis XIV, of whom there is lots of information – she is talking about someone who is interesting for being the first woman to travel the globe but, for reasons of gender equality as well as there simply being no records, remains someone whom we can never know all that much about unless new evidence comes to light. As Ridley is not suggesting she has new evidence, indeed Ridley’s goal is transparent – that of an informer – the speculation must be viewed more favourably and seen as a positive rather than a hindrance.

The work Ridley has done could spawn a new burst of research, thus hopefully less reason for probabilities, and indeed in the afterword Ridley says that since publication a plant has been named after Baret at last.

It is up to the reader, of course, to come to their own conclusions. It’s far from an easy book to continue at times as the content often sounds archaic for the behaviours of humans back then, but the vast amount of information is worth its weight in gold (which is a lot more than can be said for the results of the expedition).

Ridley has done Baret a great service and if further research proves that some declarations are false then so be it – Ridley has propelled Baret back where she should be.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers, Random House.

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Lynne McTaggart – The Bond

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We’re all individuals, but is this the right way to think all the time?

Publisher: Free Press (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 228
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5794-7
First Published: May 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2011
Rating: 4.5/5

McTaggart suggests everyone should work together in mind, body, and spirit, rather than subscribing to the Western idea of individuality. She uses evidence from experiments, research, and current ways of life, to back up her point.

The Bond is quite simply fascinating. A few days after I’d accepted it for review I wondered what I’d got myself into, seeing the similarities with self-help books, but The Bond is like no self-help book I’ve come across. It throws subject after subject at you and yet it never feels like you’re being forced to accept its purpose – which of course is actually what McTaggart is looking to do, to change your thoughts – and which is why it works well. Ironically, a few hours after finishing it, an advert on the television was telling me that there were several different shampoos to choose from a specific brand because “you’re an individual”. The timing was, to use a word being widely supported by all and their grandmother, epic.

Although we classify everything in the universe as separate and individual, individuality, at the most rudimentary level, does not exist.

McTaggart uses the following array of subjects to back up her suggestion, and here I will use a list to make it easier to read:

  • Quantum Physics – all particles influence each other.
  • Biology – how we react and live with everything is of more importance than our genes in determining our health.
  • Astro Physics – the movement of the moon and sun affects our activity (morale, spending habits, mental stability, and so on).
  • Neuroscience – how our brain uses the same part to observe as to act and how that creates a relationship between people, as we understand what we see by thinking of ourselves in that same position.
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology and anthropology – generosity contrasted with selfishness, the way different cultures view things differently, unfairness in life.
  • Mathematics – probabilities and the results of experiments.
  • Present-day work – charities, volunteers.

And she looks at Sociology, which is a blend of a few of the above – how, for example, an interdependent community will have less health issues resulting in death than a society where people are lonely and isolated. Thus Japan has a lower heart disease rate than America despite so much smoke intake, and America has a high rate because of the idea of self and the individual.

Often what McTaggart suggests are things that have always been obvious to the public at large but dismissed by the medical profession – that our environment and what we do determines our fate. Thus the fact that women who go on the pill for years are more likely to get breast cancer than if they hadn’t – information easily found on Internet forums, where the number of women questioning whether their long usage of the drug has been the cause is high. And as McTaggart says, the links found between HRT and breast cancer have caused scientists to recommend it’s end. McTaggart’s research in this and various other areas of health adds up to the fact that our genes can be altered throughout our lives by outside influence.

Sadly, there are other experiments that are the stuff of common sense (for example if you’re surrounded by happy people you’re more likely to be happy than if your happy friends live away) and it reminds you of how many such experiments are pointless, unnecessary because any member of the public could tell you it, and costly – when there are so many really worthy things in the world the money could be spent on. This is a comment on the world at large rather than McTaggart.

Something that is quite funny, when you remember all the arguments in the world between religious people and scientists, is what McTaggart says about scientists finding that life may be controlled by something that is difficult to identify and locate, an ephemeral thing. There is a great possibility that they have scientifically found God.

If we are essentially at the mercy of the slightest move of the sun and its activity, their [the scientists Chizhevsky and Halberg] work stands as a giant refutation of our misplaced belief in ourselves as masters of the universe – or even of ourselves.

But there is something that truly grates about McTaggart’s book and that is the number of experiments on animals described. It’s not that she quotes them, because everyone knows it goes on, it’s that she does it as though it’s just another part of science. It is rather difficult to read pages of an otherwise brilliant and humane book that is filled with experiments on animals – involving but not limited to giving electrical shocks to create cases of epilepsy, and holes being driven into scalps in order that electrodes be fitted to brains – without feeling some revulsion for the author’s plan. It seems rather hypocritical to be all for working together with nature while getting excited over information gleamed from torturing rats, especially as she mentions the laws against testing on humans for ethical reasons.

Yet McTaggart’s book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the academic subjects she discusses, and, with even just a minor awareness of them and minimal interest it is easy to fly through the pages. And she provides some good life lessons and food for thought.

The Bond is recommended, wholeheartedly, because of the many benefits a person can get from it. Be ready for a hefty, but very good, read.

I received this book for review from the author thanks to Pump Up Your Book.

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J B – Zor

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The story of how advice and philosophy can be skewed when people view them in the way that suits them; and that when the teaching and the person come together it can produce results.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 268
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4528-9540-6
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 13th June 2011
Rating: 5/5

A “contented” John first meets Zor when the latter fends off a couple of verbally abusive strangers, simply by not reacting. John is stunned, and even more so when Zor tells him what happened from a different point of view. Now John finds Zor at the bar he frequents, the man arriving on seemingly random occasions. John has problems, but beyond that believes things are as good as they will get – which isn’t very good but something he accepts. Zor has advice, but John must first work out whether it’s better not to trust him.

Although the book is fiction, it is steeped in non-fiction. Zor is similar to Plato in that there is a discussion, but the discussion is about true themes. Thus it blends both categories. Another element that moves it away from fiction is the referencing. You are able to enjoy this book as a story, but if you are intrigued by the topics covered and wish to read about them in more detail, Zor himself provides the titles of books you may want to seek.

Depending on what ideas you have thought about, or been exposed to, before, you may find the basics of the book rather straightforward, or mind-blowing. And because of the subject, even if you’ve encountered the subjects before you can still appreciate them for the power they hold. What’s interesting is that Zor is at once a good introduction to gaining happiness, and a deeply advanced look into things. The themes move from philosophy to spirituality to science (Quantum Physics) while at the same time switching back and forth. The science in particular is in depth, but even if, like this reviewer, you are a little stumped by all the science, J.B. brilliantly describes where the philosophy meets science and the two are related. And he claims something that most people believe can never happen – that spirituality and God can sit comfortably with science – giving ample evidence and food for thought.

And food for thought is here in abundance. The thing about philosophy is that it gives advice, which you could say is like a self-help book, but unlike your typical self-help book, it’s comparatively difficult to mock it’s worth. There is too much in Zor to discuss it all in a review, so here I will choose a few topics to include and/or talk about.

“Instead of being pro-peace, they become anti-war. Instead of trying to increase a positive they choose to decrease a negative. It is that very concentration that attracts more negative energy.”

“The times were not better, you were.”

“A child is beaten by a parent, who was criticized by a spouse, who was disrespected by a co-worker, who was yelled at by a manager, who was subjected to road rage by a stranger, who was given the wrong order at a coffee shop.
Who would ever believe the wrong amount of sugar in a cup of coffee fifty miles away, could cause a child to be beaten?”

That last quotation could be viewed as a bold stance to take, but one aspect you have to remember is that it takes this kind of thinking to truly sort issues out. The quote can easily be backed up by the fact that many people say they won’t treat their children as their parents treated them [the new parents]. This is often in an attempt to break a cycle where an issue has continued down through the generations because of one person’s negativity, if not simply to make someone’s life happier – for example a person receives no love from a parent because the parent doesn’t know how to love them because they never received parental love themselves. The cycle has continued and somewhere it should be stopped.

Negativity being passed on is just one of the themes discussed in Zor that are part of the overall topic of conquering negativity. The smallest things to one person can change the entire life of someone else.

Something that worries many people is their partner cheating on them, but in worrying about it aren’t we pushing it to happen? Because if it happens then we will feel content that we were right, correct? And in pushing it to happen we are focusing on the negative. If we focus on it happening then the way we act towards the person is only going to push them towards doing it – we will be too needy or too criticising. If we focused on how to keep ourselves happy, and thus them happy, perhaps it wouldn’t happen so much. We recognise the potential for someone to cheat, but if we recognise also, and just as much, the potential of them being faithful, we will be happier. How can we expect someone to be faithful if we do not treat them with happiness and create ourselves as points of happiness that they want to be with? Of course this isn’t a foolproof method, but if everyone did it we would see less problems. And by speaking collectively, using the word “we”, the idea becomes stronger, it becomes personal, and therefore we have more of a reason to want to conquer it.

Zor’s method for being happy is rather simple, really, although keeping it up is very difficult. Due to the subject and reasons for the book it would not be a spoiler to say that Zor advocates thinking positively at all times and in place of negative thoughts to think of something positive. John goes home to his wife and moans about work. That gives her something negative to think about, and this negativity unconsciously repels them from each other – who wants to be with someone who makes them feel negative, reminds them of bad things? They go to bed at different times and don’t talk. When John does what Zor advises he goes home, speaks of only the positive parts of his day and asks his wife about hers. This makes them have a good conversation, which ultimately means they spend time together. Their love life reaps the benefits.

And that is something very important to know about this book, when I say, “when John does what Zor advises”. J.B. discusses philosophy; a lot of people would not accept the kinds of things he talks about. And if he’d made John into a vacuum, a person who sucked up everything Zor said without thought, the goodness of the book would have been lost. Instead J.B. has created a very cautious character, one who borders on self-righteous, and lets him remain this way for most of the book. Even when John finds that the advice he does take on board works, he still remains a sceptic.

The last topic that I would like to mention is the one surrounding John’s reason to do what changes him so much. Zor says that one needs to have the right motivation for the action, not just the right idea, for it to work.

It is obvious that J.B. had much in mind to say, and his information and advice has been written very well – there is never too much (unlike this review), there is never too little, and he goes into more detail the further you get into the book so that you’re able to get used to ideas beforehand. Like most books that speak of similar themes you must be willing to open your mind to different viewpoints, but, and this is also like many similar subject books, you will not find your own opinions a victim unless you decide they are going to be.

Zor successfully gives the reader advice on how to take control of their lives on a happiness level, making ripples that extend to others as a result. You may already know what it takes, but often hearing it confirmed makes all the difference between wanting to carry it out and actually carrying it out. The book combines important teachings with a well-thought-out narrative and an easy-to-read style. It’s not too long, it’s not too short, and would provide both for people wanting an introduction to the themes and people with years of reading behind them.

Where self-help books spend ages telling you how to be happy, J.B. tells you straight away and all you need is willing.

I received this book for review from the author.

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