Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”. Continue reading


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Whose #Detroit is it anyway? a story of #Race and #RealEstate

“This is a kind of self-obsession”.

He is self obsessed.  Annoying.  A thirtysomething Yale graduate drifting through life.  A white outsider who stumbles his way through this claustrophobic drama set in a semi-derelict stretch of Detroit.

But his story is a very good read.

The narrator of “You Don’t Have to Live Like This” is Greg Marnier.  He doesn’t know where he stands between insiders and newcomers, dispossessed and profiteer, above all between black and white.  Mostly, ‘Marny’ doesn’t want those “sides” to exist at all, and the reader has to decide whether he’s simply naive or somehow stoking the tensions as the story builds to its racially charged climax.  Continue reading


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Books – a reckoning

In this financial year…

I have LOST time. Extra minutes stolen before running to the tube for work. Guilty pages on the broken bench outside the fitness centre. Secret hours clocked up between sofa and shutters, home alone before shift work with no-one to account to.

I have GAINED so much – from the inside of other peoples’ heads.

Note to self. Try to be more mindful, more measured, less greedy a reader. Here are words to jog memories, from the books I’ve inhaled. An audit, of sorts.

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“The New Middle East” – an eyewitness account.

Trying to take the long view on the fallout from the Arab Uprisings?  Here’s my holiday reading.  Paul Danahar’s “The New Middle East”  uncovers the forces behind the turbulence – religious, economic, historic.  

It also reads in part like a geopolitical thriller because, for much of the time, he was there  – in Tahrir Square with the revolutionaries; in Libya talking to Gaddafi and then seeing the dictator’s brutalized body; witnessing the horror, hatred and hunger that’s destroying Syria.

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Is it really so bad to be American? On “Time to Start Thinking”.

Is it really so bad to be American? 

“Faith in America’s promise is at the heart of America’s story”. 

There’s not much evidence of that faith in Edward Luce’s epic analysis of “America and the Spectre of Decline”.  But as the title has it, “Time to Start Thinking”.  Right now, Obama and the Republicans aren’t thinking, but fighting over the looming fiscal cliff.  Luce urges them to the long view. By 2020, China might overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy.  

It’s an excellent read: clear, crisp, packed full of original interviews.  It matters, because as Luce quotes Samuel Huntingdon, America “can only be a disappointment because it is also a hope”.

The book focusses on three key disappointments –  in manufacturing, innovation, and education.  Continue reading


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A dozen summer books

All those words drunk deep along with dusty sunshine, on the red tile verandah of a whitewashed house.

“.. Grasshoppers rattling like dry paper in hot weeds…”

I sat outside each morning to feel the sunlight slide round the side of the house and watch a slinky litter of kittens play in the almond trees below.

“… They were people running from the past, who didn’t look back at much if they could help it, and whose whole life always lay somewhere in the offing…” Continue reading