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Latest Reviews

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Between ape and human : an anthropologist on the trail of a hidden hominoid / Gregory Forth.
Author: Forth, Gregory, author.
Publisher: New York : Pegasus Books, 2022. -- New York ; London : Pegasus Books, 2022.
Review by: Minto, Keith Mr  on: 23/07/2022 12:28:15 PM
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Excellent book on the possibility of a living relative of Homo Floresiensis being alive and living in mountainous jungles on the Indonesian Island of Flores.

Gregory Forth is a retired Canadian anthropologist who heard tales of this Hominoid from the locales well before the fossil discovery in 2003.
His fluency in Bahasa Indonesian and his amiable nature adds credence to a fascinating story that another Hominoid could be alive out there waiting to be discovered.

Whether or not they should be discovered is another philosophical matter.

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Down a country lane : an impoverished childhood in the bush and a journey to the Vietnam war / by Gary Blinco.
Author: Blinco, Gary.
Publisher: Burleigh, Qld. : Zeus Publications, 2003.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 9/07/2022 12:32:39 PM
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In this book, you get two stories for the price of one. Gary Blinco spent his childhood in the 1950s on a small bush farm on the southern fringes of the Darling Downs. As a young man, he was drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam.

What endeared me to the first part of this novel was a type of nostalgia, a very personal connection with some of the elements and experiences recounted by Blinco. I recalled my own father in Gary's Dad. How hard he worked. How he was determined to make a success of his various enterprises to keep his family. My father, though, had more success than Gary's Dad whose efforts, while ensuring survival, never allowed much progress.

Then there was Gary's Mum. Like my Mum, resourceful, strong and supportive...forever toiling...fulfilling the multiple roles of homemaker, wife, mother and tireless labourer.

Even in Gary I saw elements of myself. The adventurous bush child, exploring the wilds of a child's life while flirting on the fringes of the adult world. But like the comparative successes of our Dads, my world as a child was better endowed than Gary's.

Even if you are too young to identify with a childhood in the 1950s or 1960s, or you were urban raised, you too may find elements of some elder relative or friend in Gary's recollections.

In the second half of the book, we follow Gary through his national service in Vietnam. Accompany him from his drafting into the army, through his training, fitting into his new "band of brothers", followed by shipping to Vietnam as a raw recruit, to his hardening in action in jungle warfare. He extends his empathy to include a fictional Viet Cong commander, giving perspectives and battle strategies from the enemies' side.

I was too young, by only a couple of years, so luckily avoided conscription for Vietnam. I have always viewed our involvement as an injustice to both the young Australians who were sent there, often against their will, and the Vietnamese people on who we helped heap devastation. But I do have a couple of friends who were conscripted to Vietnam. Their occasional stories, and the effect it had on them are somewhat haunting. Reading about Gary Blinco, of how an innocent country boy so quickly became a killing machine, bent on his own and his mates' survival is equally haunting.

I rated this book so highly mainly because of the first part of the book about Gary's childhood. His dialogue is so apt and authentic, his experiences and perspectives so resonating of childhood that I found myself reliving my own childhood. His army and war time is nothing special, but that is its value. It is the story of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
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100 million years of food : what our ancestors ate and why it matters today / Stephen Le.
Author: Le, Stephen, author.
Publisher: New York, NY : Picador, 2016.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 2/07/2022 11:32:27 AM
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100 million years? Homo sapiens have only been around for 200000 years at most. Stephen Le, a biological anthropologist, is obviously going back to our ancestral species to explore how, why and when we adopted various elements of our diets. He hopes that by defining traditional diets, the diets on which we evolved to thrive, we may find some answers to all the life-style diseases that are proliferating in the world today.

Le opens with a niche item...insects. 100 million years ago, our ancestor species, climbing around the forest canopy, were insectivores. Travel with the author as he returns to his grandparent's home of Vietnam, then Thailand to experience these nutritious morsels. While he cannot envisage them ever being a major part of our modern diets, they are worth considering as an accompaniment.

The next step on the evolutionary ladder, our forebear species discovered the sugar and vitamin-rich world of fruit. Le gives special mention to acorns, breadfruit, coconuts, chilli and olives. We visit a permaculture farm in Goa, India.

Ever noticed young children's preference for the meat part of their meal over their vegetables? Well, two to three million years ago, our ancestors started feasting on this rich protein source with its accompanying energy-rich fat. Le raises doubt over the connection between our meat diet and our increasing brain size, but does suggest several other hypotheses that set us on this dietary path.

Fish is supposed to be healthy. Lean fish for its low-calorie protein. Oily fish for its omega-3 fats. Yet it is amazing the taboos that have existed on the eating of fish and other seafood throughout history and in today's world. There are caveats and drawbacks to a piscatorial diet. Le blames many of our life-style diseases on the switch of omega-3 to omega-6 fats. He takes us on a tour to discover fermented fish sauce, other fermented foods and the umami taste.

Vegetables, also touted as healthy, also have pitfalls. Given all their potential inadequacies, even dangers, why did we ever abandon hunting and gathering to settle down and farm? Le offers some possible answers.

Then there are the elixirs such as coffee, alcohol and milk. By this time I was becoming aware of the enormous range of genetic adaptions across cultures that have allowed their members to deal with an over-abundance or lack of a nutrient.

Leaving food, Le next looks at nutrient-deficient diseases, sometimes referred to as non-communicable diseases (NCDs). He especially singles out the rise of myopia and allergies. The importance of sunlight and vitamin D are suggested, but be wary of nutrient supplements. The shift from regionally-specific traditional diets to a globalised, modern, industrial diet, and the hygiene theory are also mentioned.

Le tackles the calorie conundrum. Paradoxically, we in modern, industrialised societies are not consuming any more calories, or expanding any less energy than hunter-gatherer or traditional societies. Why, then, are we suffering an epidemic of obesity?

Three modern, diametrically different diets are compared. Food equality (e.g. how do the poor afford good food?) is discussed. The future of food, especially aquaculture and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), is a good point to end an historical exposé on food.

Le ends with some general rules for living. These don't name specific foods or diets. Instead they are broad guidelines covering dietary habits, exercise and other lifestyle advice.

This book is packed full of anthropological history and science. Much of the science is inconclusive and equivocal. However, Le explains it in terms that are easily comprehended by the layman. You may be overwhelmed by its extent, but you won't be confused. An additional feature is the journeys we take with Le as he travels the world, researching his material. In story-like fashion, you will share his experiences. Very well organised with well-defined chapters. If you have an interest in history, anthropology, food or nutrition, you will not be disappointed.
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Shieldwall / Justin Hill.
Author: Hill, Justin, 1971-, author.
Publisher: London : Little, Brown, 2011. -- London : Abacus, 2012. -- ©2011
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 18/06/2022 2:58:25 PM
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This is good history encapsulated in a living novel.

Who was this Earl Harold Godwinson who was elected successor to Edward the Confessor ... who was defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066? How did he gain such power and influence? To answer this question, we need to look to his father, Godwin, who acted as regent to Edward the Confessor during the first half of his reign.

"Shieldwall" opens in 1006, when Godwin is 8 years old. His father is a thegn (equivalent to a baron) serving King Ethelred the Unready. This king was nicknamed "the unready" because of the poor counsel he was supposed to have received from his advisors. Power play and treachery is rife in Ethelred's court.

Ethelred refused to engage the raiding Danes, instead trying to buy them off. Godwin's father does engage them and attains fame. But he is accused of treason and flees to Ireland where he dies. Godwin is left in England where he is befriended by a feisty son of Ethelred, Edmund.

In 1013, the Danish king, Swein Forkbeard, invades England. Ethelred flees to Normandy. But Swein dies within a year. Ethelred takes the opportunity to return to England, seeking to re-establish his kingship. However, he remains an ineffectual, impotent and ill-advised king. Godwin pledges his loyalty to his more militaristic son, Edmund Ironside. As well as battling the Danes, now under the leadership of Swein's son, Cnut, he must evade the rivalry, treachery, brutality and murder that pervades Ethelred's court.

Things come to a head in 1016. Ethelred dies. As support for Cnut expands, Edmund initially struggles to recruit warriors. But support for Edmund and Cnut eb and flow. History proclaims Cnut the victor. History also tells that Godwin survives. But how, especially after Edmund dies suddenly, soon after achieving an uneasy treaty with Cnut? "Shieldwall" provides the thrilling detail of this struggle.

This was an utterly turbulent period in English history, equal in impact to that of the Norman invasion 50 years later. The only difference was that the Dane's rule was short term.

Justin Hill's next novel concerns the Norseman, Harald Hardrada, who invaded York in 1066. It is unfortunate that he did not write a novel for the intervening period, charting the progress of Godwin during the early years of Edward the Confessor, and the rise of his son, Harold (eventually the defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings). But "Shieldwall" introduces us to Godwin from whom Harold would have inherited political influence. It sets a credible medieval scene. And there are battles scenes and intrigue enough to keep you glued.

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Flights / Olga Tokarczuk ; translated by Jennifer Croft.
Author: Tokarczuk, Olga, 1962-, author. -- Croft, Jennifer (Translator), translator.
Publisher: Melbourne, Victoria Text Publishing, 2017.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 28/05/2022 11:03:23 AM
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Olga Tokarczuk was the 2019 Nobel laureate. "Flights" won the 2018 Man Booker. That is not to say that all Nobel and Man Booker prize winners will be to everybody's taste. But, consider this. Are you an avid traveller who seeks out foreign cultures and climes at every opportunity? Or perhaps you are a more modest tourist, doing much of your travel in front of the goggle box, only occasionally getting to taste a more modest version in person. Either way, you should enjoy this collection of snippets and short stories recounting some travel experiences while meeting some curious characters.

Some snippets are as short as a couple of paragraphs. The short stories can extend to two or three dozen pages. You are sure to identify with some experiences and observations. There are museums, airports, hostels, trains, a stranger who becomes a travel companion, a traveller who loses a companion, the European-wide plethora of Christian relics, tour guides, the languages issue, and more.

In the short stories, we meet Eryk, a former merchant seaman with dreams of whaling, now stuck in the mundane job of piloting a ferry several times a day between island and mainland. One day, something snaps and he heads the ferry for the open ocean.

There are a couple of stories centring on the theme of anatomy and preservation of body parts. The widow of a recently deceased anatomist of some fame uses his secret laboratory to lure other male anatomists. Another anatomist who loses a leg early in life has it preserved. As he approaches old age he becomes more and more obsessed with his missing body part, the obsession becoming weirder and weirder. Then there is the daughter who writes time and time again to the Austro-Hungarian emperor pleading for the return of her father's body. A former diplomat of some note for the emperor, his body has been stuffed and preserved and is on display in the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities.

Not all short stories appealed to me. Most were entertaining curiosities. However, there were a couple that were too abstract, verging into tedium, eventually activating my skip button. It was probably the little snippets of travel experience that attracted me most.

Tokarczuk vividly evokes scenes, events, thoughts, and emotions common to many travellers. I found myself thinking, "Yeah, that's also what I saw/felt or, "Hey, I experienced/observed that too." She shows a depth of perception and means of expression that is captivating. There are a kaleidoscope of characters that sample the infinity of personalities. Her style defies easy comprehension but, like a work of abstract art, it compels the reader to pursue further.
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The vital question : why is life the way it is? / Nick Lane.
Author: Lane, Nick, 1967-, author.
Publisher: London : Profile Books Ltd, 2015. -- London Profile Books, 2015. -- ©2015
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 21/05/2022 11:19:43 AM
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Why are complex life forms, from amoeba and fungi to plants and animals, so similar at the cellular level? Why are their cells so different from the more simple life forms, bacteria and archaea? The latter two kingdoms of life first appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, when the Earth was merely half-a-billion year old. Then there was a hiatus of over 2 billion years before we see the first signs of complex cells. Why such a long hiatus? What was constraining evolution? And why did this ground breaking change only happen once? Nick Lane believes the answers to these questions may be found in the way in which all life forms capture energy. As he takes us on a journey exploring this answer, we also encounter how we metabolise carbon (all life is carbon based), why we have sex and two sexes, ageing, and why we have an immortal gene line but a mortal body.

Lane starts at the very root of evolution when viruses and simple celled bacteria appeared. While there are signs of invasion of complex cells by viruses to provide certain cellular organelles such as mitochondria, there is an evolutionary black hole as to how the step from simple cell to complex cellular structure occurred.

Lane makes a distinction between life (includes viruses spores and seed?) and living. The key is the capturing and transformation of energy. Living does this. Life not necessarily. Lane explains, at the molecular and sub-cellular levels, how mitochondria do this. The story is, paradoxically, simple in principle, but amazingly complex in practice.

Lane seeks a means by which organic compounds, of which all life is composed, could have been synthesised on early Earth. After dismissing several contenders, he settles on alkaline hydrothermal vents as a likely contender. Quite a bit of chemistry enters the biological field here (as elsewhere).

Lane tries to map the evolution of the very first ancestral cell, a protocell that preceded all bacteria and archaea ... something not living, but an organics and energy factory that could have led to life. He explains proton pumps, the biochemical mechanism by which all organisms capture energy that can then be put to multiple uses.

It seems that the evolutionary step from simple bacterial-archaeal cells to complex cells (in animal, plant and fungi) centred on the creation of mitochondria, the energy factories of our cells. Lane details their origin and central role in the evolution of other cellular features such as a nucleus containing 98% of our DNA ... also the emergence of sex, of two sexes, of an immortal germ line in a mortal body.

In the last part of this book, Lane continues with his hypothesis that energy is the key to understanding many of our health and developmental processes. A mismatch between mitochondrial and nuclear genes leads to infertility in the offspring of hybrid unions between species. It could explain the higher incidence of certain genetic diseases in males (e.g. neuromuscular degeneration). There is also a trade-off between fertility and adaptability. Declining energy efficacy has a role in ageing. Lane also tackles the fad for consuming antioxidants currently being promoted to reduce free radicals.

He ends "The Vital Question" with something truly weird found in the depths of the ocean in 2010. It was only a single cell, but neither like the simple cell structure of bacteria and archaea, nor like the complex cells of all other organisms. Could it be something intermediate? Could it be a replay of the once only evolutionary step that occurred almost two billion years ago and gave rise to multicellular organisms? The controversy continues.

"The Vital Question" is not an easy read. The science is complex. Given that Lane's evolutionary hypotheses can't be proven, much is speculative. A background knowledge in biochemistry or molecular biology will help. Still I experienced many "Aha!" moments. I often struggled for several pages to follow the strain of thought then ...revelation!...all of a sudden the penny would drop. You too may struggle with some of the material, but there are some truly enlightening passages. You will finish the book with a much greater understanding of the complexity of our bodies at the cellular level.
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The empress of bright moon : A novel of Empress Wu/ Weina Dai Randel.
Author: Randel, Weina Dai, author.
Publisher: Naperville, Illinois Sourcebooks Landmark, [2016] -- �2016
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 14/05/2022 12:17:04 PM
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This is the second novel in a duopoly based on the early life a woman, Wu Mei, who was to become the first and only empress, in her own right, of Imperial China. No easy feat in a 7th century Confucianist, male-dominated society. The first novel in this series, "The Moon in the Palace", covered her entry into the second Tang emperor's Taizongs concubinage, and her very rocky ride to win his attention. (You can read my review for this novel on the library catalogue at its listing).

"The Empress of Bright Moon" opens with Taizong's death. Due to turmoil and rebellion at the end of the previous novel, the crown passes to his eighth son, Zhi, nicknamed Pheasant. Initially, this would seem an ideal opportunity for Mei. They had been secret lovers in the first novel. However, before Pheasant can assume his role as emperor, his uncle produces a last will, supposedly composed by his father, giving his uncle regency during his reign. Pheasant is reduced to a puppet emperor. Mei is exiled to a Buddhist nunnery.

After three years of absence from the court, Pheasant discovers Mei's whereabouts and smuggles her back to court. He tries to keep her presence secret. This is an impossible task. The court initially rejects Mei, labelling her an adulterer (remember, she was Pheasant's father's concubine). However, Mei, showing mettle that probably assisted her later in assuming the throne, confronts the court and sways at least some opinion. This is the beginning of a long process by which Mei and Pheasant build his support to have greater say at court. Mei also gives birth to a son for Pheasant.

However, there is a tyrant of even greater, vehement opposition to Mei ... Pheasant's formal wife, the empress. She is barren, bitter and jealous. Nobody seems to be able to defy her or constrain her cruelty, neither Pheasant, the ageing regent nor anybody else at court.

Things go from bad to worse when the empress welds an alliance with the regent. Have Pheasant and Mei lost all their recent gains? Could things get any worse? Believe me, they do. The tension increases. Murder abounds. Rebellion brews. Mei suffers an overwhelming grief and presents herself as bait to wreck revenge. History tells us that Mei and Pheasant do, surprisingly emerge victorious. But you need to read this novel to experience their riveting journey.

I had always thought of the emperors of Imperial China as unassailable autocrats (unless, of course, they lost the Mandate of Heaven). Reading how an uncle-regent and a barren empress wielded such cruel and ruthless power, with impunity, initially detracted from the authenticity of the novel. However, the more I was drawn in, the more I became frustrated and angry, as well as sympathetic for the struggling heroes Mei, and Pheasant. After all, the author spent three years researching this novel, so literary licence aside, the picture of court power dynamics are probably more accurate than my preconceived ideas.

This novel ends in 655AD. It is 35 years and two puppet emperors before Mei seizes the throne in her own right to rule, solely, for 15 years. This author gives us a hint of this period in a two page epilogue. I would have preferred a third and fourth novel in this series.
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The moon in the palace : [No. 1 : Novel of Empress Wu] / Weina Dai Randel.
Author: Randel, Weina Dai, author.
Publisher: Naperville, Illinois Sourcebooks Landmark, [2016] -- �2016
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 30/04/2022 12:16:15 PM
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Seventh century China. The reign of the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Who would believe that in this Confucianist Imperial China we would see woman become empress in her own right? This novel is the fictionalised story of the early life of this woman.

Mei is the daughter of a provincial governor. After her father dies when she is seven, she and her mother are forced to move, to live with her reluctant half-brother in the empire's capital. This arrangement is far from satisfactory. Her fortunes improve when she is chosen to join the emperor's concubinage at the age of 13, largely a result of her fathers letters of praise to the emperor while he was alive.

Mei enters the court at the lowest level, a Select, the ninth ranking among the emperor's women. She is one among 118. Most of these were little more than privileged servants, waiting endlessly for their turn to be called by the emperor. How was Wei going to attract his attention?

Wei thought she had the problem solved when she composed a poem for him on his birthday. It seems to attract the attention of his senior advisors and even the emperor himself. However, she is betrayed by someone she thought her friend who claims her credit. But a second opportunity arises when serendipitously she interrupts an assassination attempt and unwittingly saves the emperor's life. She is promoted to the sixth ranking, a Talent. But her road to influence remains fraught. She must balance a secret love for a junior prince with her desire to seek favour with the emperor. She has strong rivals. She seems always one step behind. As the novel approaches a climax, she becomes embroiled in a palace revolution - an attempt to overthrow the emperor.

Of course, I'm not going to reveal how the novel ends, except to say that I was compelled to read the sequel The Empress of Bright Moon. Mei is still a long way from becoming the empress that history bestows.

Weina Randel spent three years researching this novel. It opens your eyes to the absolute extravagance of the emperor's court. All of these women, the eunuchs, the courtiers, servants, slaves, guards and other attendees. The opulence of the rituals. The expanse of the royal palaces and grounds. The expense of all these parasites was born on the shoulders of a vast multitude of overworked peasants. You also get a window into life at the emperors court - just what all these attendees did with their time (aside from scheming and plotting). All of the main characters are true historical personalities.

This novel includes court intrigue and murder in high places. There is action and suspense. It ends with a carnage that is barely believable. But with this carnage, Mei moves one step closer to her fate. If you think politics is a dirty business today, read this novel to get an idea of how it was in Imperial China.

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10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world / Elif Shafak.
Author: Shafak, Elif, 1971-, author.
Publisher: London : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2019.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 11/04/2022 11:55:27 AM
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It has sometimes been said that at the moment of our death, our whole life flashes through our mind. Elif Shafak has used this belief as a technique for telling the life of a Turkish lady in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after life has left her body.

The book opens with Leila, a 43-year-old prostitute lying dead in a rusty bin in a back alley in Istanbul. Although her body is completely dead, her mind is still functioning. The story then proceeds in flashback mode to recount her life from her birth to her present demise.

Leila was born in 1947 in a rural town in Turkey's east to the second wife of a successful tailor. His first wife was barren so Liela, his first child, despite being a girl, is a big event. What surprised me was the breadth and depth of superstition and arcane rites that Liela's mother performed to ensure a successful birth.

At age seven, she discovers that her uncle's favouritism extends beyond a healthy relationship. She is powerless to resist his occasional nightly visits.

A baby brother is born with Downs Syndrome. Her father reads this as punishment by Allah and retreats to a strict fundamental Islam to atone his sins. The home becomes oppressed with religious restrictions.

Leila, now moving through her teens, has to deal with the increasing sexual predations of her uncle who twists the blame for his perversions onto her. Leila's circumstances worsen. I will not reveal too much (your sympathy and anger will tweak when you read the book) but Leila feels forced to escape to Istanbul. She is only 17.

Leila becomes trapped in prostitution. You will meet other women from other parts of the world who have similarly become trapped. Each has an equally sad story to tell.

I was compelled to get to the end of this novel to ascertain just how Leila ended up dead in a dumpster. But surprise - two-thirds of the way through, the path to her fate is revealed. Her 10 minutes and 38 seconds of post-mortem consciousness also ends. What's going to fill the rest of the novel?

Well there is still her body to deal with. What to do with a body whose family have disowned. As implied above, Leila had established five close friendships, all of whom also live on the fringes of conventional society. They are determined not to let her memory go uncelebrated or her body unrecognised. Not being family, their task is not an easy one. You also get a hint of some horrid skulduggery behind her murder - one of three other similar ones.

Elif Shafak paints a vivid picture of Turkish society and culture, also of the less-seemly side of societies everywhere. She is an advocate for women's and LGBT rights and obviously feels strongly about exploitation in the sex trade. As well as composing a compelling story, she is sending a strong moral message.

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Is this normal? : the essential guide to middle age and beyond / John Whyte ; foreword by Dean Ornish.
Author: Whyte, John, 1953-
Publisher: New York : Rodale Books, c2011.
Review by: Loveday, Robert J. Mr.  on: 11/04/2022 11:50:22 AM
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There are plenty of urban myths and common beliefs about what happens to our bodies as we age. How much weight gain is normal as we age? Do we need more or less sleep? What is the difference between normal memory lapses and Alzheimers? This book attempts to sort fact from fiction and give a guide on how to reduce the worst effects of ageing.

Each chapter focuses on a particular area or biological function of the body. As a quick run-down we have:
Skin and hair
Body shape and size
The digestive system from burping to passing wind
Bladder control
Memory (in general) and Alzheimer's
Aches and pains
Sex (life goes on)
Womens health (much on menopause)
Mens health (falling testosterone and prostate cancer)
Mental health (aside from dementia)
Drugs (prescription) and alcohol
Hospital (expectations and preparations)

Each chapter opens with a short, four-statement, true/false quiz. Answers at the end of the chapter. Test yourself before reading the chapter or educate yourself with the chapter first then test for revision. Whyte first explains some basic medical facts about the system in question before moving to what happens when we age. He finishes by offering some advice, some dos and don'ts, that should help slow or alleviate symptoms. He always includes a case study in each chapter to illustrate a real-life example.

There is an appendix at the end of the book listing, in age groups, the scans and check-ups recommended and their periodicity. It is rather daunting but I suppose we do need to keep our medicos well-funded.

This book is written in layman's terms. You don't need a science degree or any prior medical knowledge to understand the material although, bear in mind, our bodies are complex pieces of machinery. A glossary of some of the terms Whyte used (not included) would have been helpful.

This book will allay some fears and correct some misguided beliefs you may have had. As some of the ailments of ageing have their roots in our youth, it is a worthy read for all ages.
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