Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: Whales, Spies, and a Daily Diary

January 27, 2021 Uncategorized 6 ★★★

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: Whales, Spies, and a Daily DiaryTitle: The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel
Author: Uri Bar-Joseph
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

This story of how Ashraf Marwan, a son-in-law of the Egyptian president, became an Israeli spy was fascinating. Unfortunately, the author’s narrative choices robbed this story of some of its power. The author introduced us to this story by explaining what a big difference this spy made to the outcome of an Egyptian attack on Israel in 1973. The key question the author posed was why an Egyptian man with connections to the highest ranks of government would become an Israeli spy. This made the first half of the book particularly intriguing. After this question was answered, however, the second half of the book dragged. We already knew the outcome for both the war and Marwan. There just wasn’t the same suspense as their was in the first half. The writing was engaging, with a great initial hook and vivid descriptions . I also really liked that the author lets us know when different sources supported different timelines and why he thought one was more likely than the others. Overall, this was enjoyable narrative nonfiction. I just wish the author hadn’t provided spoilers for their own story!

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: Whales, Spies, and a Daily DiaryTitle: In My Mind's Eye: A Thought Diary
Author: Jan Morris
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

This diary by British journalist Jan Morris was a real mixed bag. She’s 91, so I can’t be too grumpy that she espouses some outdated views. I’d even say she’s really quite modern in a lot of ways and she seems to be trying in other cases. However, reader be warned that her discussion of her own prejudice against fat people resolves with the conclusion that fat people should probably smile more. I also found some of her discussions of politics, especially about American racism and British Imperialism, a bit shallow and flippant. As a whole, I wish she’d left politics out of it (some delightful poems mocking leaders who well deserve it excepted), because there just wasn’t much substance to them. Her discussions of literature and the arts felt more informed, her discussion of birds and migration less so. Her descriptions of nature and her peaceful daily life in a small Welsh town were the true highlights. Her befuddlement with technology and fascination with AI and bird migration were kind of sweet. The beautiful nature writing, presented in short daily diary entries, was the sort of soothing, easy reading I’ve been craving lately. Those sections were enjoyable enough to keep this from a dreaded two star rating for me, meaning that overall, I found reading the book a pleasant experience.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: Whales, Spies, and a Daily DiaryTitle: Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures
Author: Nick Pyenson
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

I just attended my first book discussion meeting a new-to-me science nonfiction book club focused on this book. I enjoyed this and found it very readable, which seemed to be the consensus. We also all had areas where we would have liked more depth. In particular, we could tell that the author is a paleontologist who studies whales. There’s a lot of focus on fossils and evolution here. Many of us also mentioned that you could tell that, as the author notes, this book started as a collection of anecdotes. Personally, I also felt that the middle section of the book was largely included so the author could talk about his own research. It didn’t address the question he was supposedly discussing particularly well. However, something I did enjoy a lot in this book was how the author showed what the daily life of a scientist is like. Hearing about his personal experiences and interactions with other scientists was one of my favorite parts of the book. This book did lack the poetry and sense of awe I found in Rebecca Grigg’s Fathoms, but I learned a lot of great whale facts that were still new to me from this book.

6 Responses to “Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: Whales, Spies, and a Daily Diary”

  1. Helen Murdoch

    Too bad none of these panned out as you had hoped. My (very loose) Jan Morris connection is that in one of her early works she talks about my dad’s PhD work on beetles while he was at Oxford. I don’t even know which book she mentions it in.

    • DoingDewey

      That’s so cool! I’ve read several books that cite research by scientists I’m familiar with and it always makes me feel enjoyably in the know 🙂

  2. Rennie

    The Angel sounds like it could’ve been really fascinating, what a shame it ended up being spoiled by the author himself. It’s a story I’ve never heard of and an area of history I don’t know much about, but I’m not sure I’d pick it up based on your description.

    I ended up abandoning Spying on Whales…I thought it was a bit technical or there was something about the sciencey parts I couldn’t really follow, if I remember correctly. Maybe I just didn’t give it enough of a chance.. a collection of anecdotes sounds appealing, actually. I might try it again at some point, thanks for the motivation!
    Rennie recently posted…Walking England: To the River and Under the RockMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      Yeah, I enjoyed all of these pretty well, but I didn’t love them enough to recommend them super enthusiastically.

      I discussed Spying on Whales with the science nonfiction book club I’ve mentioned and the general consensus was that it wasn’t technical enough, but those readers are almost certainly a biased sample!

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