#BookReview Life Time by Russell Foster

Life TimeAbout the Book

In the twenty-first century, we increasingly push our daily routines into the night, carrying out work, exercise and our social lives long after dark. But we have forgotten that our bodies are governed by a 24-hour biological clock which guides us towards the best time to sleep, eat and think. New science has proven that living out of sync with this clock is not only disrupting our sleep, but leaving us more vulnerable to infection, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and mental illness.

In Life Time, Professor Russell Foster shares his life’s work, taking us on a fascinating and surprising journey through the science of our body clocks. Using his own studies, as well as insights from an international community of sleep scientists and biologists studying circadian rhythms, he illustrates the surprising effects the time of day can have on our health:

– how a walk outside at dawn can ensure a better night’s sleep
– how eating after sundown can affect our weight
– the extraordinary effects the time we take our medication can have on our risk of life-threatening conditions, such as strokes

In the modern world, we have neglected an essential part of our biology. But with knowledge of this astonishing science, we can get back into the rhythm, and live healthier, sharper lives.

Format: Hardback (480 pages)      Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 19th May 2022  Genre: Nonfiction, Science

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My Review

Although the book’s sub-title, ‘The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health, might give the impression this is purely a self-help book in fact it’s a detailed account of the current thinking, based on scientific research by the author and others, about the effects of the body’s circadian rhythms – the so-called ‘body clock’ – on sleep, physical and mental health.

If I had to place the book on a scale between popular science and academic text, I’d say it tends more towards the latter although the ideas it contains are expressed with clarity and precision.  Some chapters go into more depth than others and I’ll confess there were some sections I skipped entirely because of their complexity.  There are detailed diagrams with even more detailed notes providing supplementary or explanatory information. With a few exceptions, I would say it’s not necessary to read all the additional information in order to understand the concepts the author is discussing or the propositions he is examining. For those wary of embarking upon a book of nearly five hundred pages, over a hundred pages are taken up by appendices, references and index.

Life Time is full of fascinating information and you get a real sense of the author’s passion for his subject. I certainly learned a lot about how much of our body’s functions are influenced by circadian rhythms, everything from saliva production to control of appetite, and how disruption of our body clock can have an impact on our sleep, our cognitive ability, our physical and mental health, even the effectiveness of medication. The book focuses a lot on the impact of sleep and circadian rhythm disruption (SCRD), especially in relation to night shift workers. For example, that this is likely to have been a factor in the accidents at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plants or the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

If this is all sounding a little heavy, there are moments of humour. For instance, at the end of each chapter the author includes examples of questions he has been asked at talks and lectures he’s given. My favourite was, ‘If we shouldn’t eat at night, why do they put a light in the fridge?’. Actually, the author demonstrates that there is scientific evidence for what we call the ‘munchies’.  He also provides some useful, and often amusing, analogies. For example, when discussing the relationship between SCRD and stress, that stress is ‘a bit like the first gear of a car engine – it provides rapid acceleration – which can be very useful short term. But if you keep the engine in first gear for a long journey you will destroy the engine’. Or, when discussing the key elements of cognition, that essentially our ‘executive functions are the processes in the brain that allow us to solve problems – like E=MC² – or for most of us, how to turn what we find in the fridge into dinner’. He also demonstrates there is science behind the old adage that you should sleep on a problem.

The book ends with a ‘call to arms’, for more communication about the impact of sleep deprivation on education and employment, especially healthcare, and the actions that can be taken to mitigate this.  My main takeaway from the book is summed up by the author’s comment that ‘what we do when really matters’.

In three words: Detailed, fascinating, authoritative


Russell FosterAbout the Author

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Director of the Sir Jules Thorn Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNi) and Head of the Nuffield Laboratory of Opthalmology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded a CBE for services to science. Russell frequently contributes to newspapers, and often appears on television and radio, including an appearance on Desert Island Discs. He has co-written four popular science books, but this is his first as sole author.

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#BookReview Storyland: A New Mythology of Britain by Amy Jeffs

StorylandAbout the Book

Soaked in mist and old magic, Storyland is a new illustrated mythology of Britain, set in its wildest landscapes.

It begins between the Creation and Noah’s Flood, follows the footsteps of the earliest generation of giants from an age when the children of Cain and the progeny of fallen angels walked the earth, to the founding of Britain, England, Wales and Scotland, the birth of Christ, the wars between Britons, Saxons and Vikings, and closes with the arrival of the Normans.

These are retellings of medieval tales of legend, landscape and the yearning to belong, inhabited with characters now half-remembered. Told with narrative flair, embellished in stunning artworks and glossed with a rich and erudite commentary.

We visit beautiful, sacred places that include prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, mountains such as Snowdon and rivers including the story-silted Thames in a vivid collection of tales of a land steeped in myth. It Illuminates a collective memory that still informs the identity and political ambition of these places.

In Storyland, Jeffs reimagines these myths of homeland, exile and migration, kinship, loyalty, betrayal, love and loss in a landscape brimming with wonder.

Format: Paperback (400 pages)              Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 27th September 2022 Genre: Nonfiction

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My Review

Storyland was the June pick for the book club hosted by the Reading branch of Waterstones. Despite the praise it has garnered elsewhere, including being shortlisted as a Waterstones Book of the Year, the response from all book club members was overwhelmingly lukewarm. In fact, I was probably the least lukewarm of us all.

The format of the book, in which the author’s retelling of a myth is followed by details of its historical sources, wasn’t popular. Many would have preferred just the myths with the historical detail in a separate section at the end of the book (or omitted altogether). I was in the minority as I actually liked finding out the sources behind each myth. Having said that, many of the stories rely heavily on a limited number of sources, few of which are contemporary.  The occasional sections describing the author’s visits to sites mentioned in the stories were interesting. Quite a few of the book club members hadn’t realised there was a map on the inside flap of the book’s cover and some of those who had didn’t find it that useful. Personally, I think it did help to situate the stories given the use of ancient and unfamiliar names for some of the areas of Britain.

In the Prologue the author writes, ‘You are entering a work of legend, based on medieval tales of Britain’s foundation and settlement that bear only a passing resemblance to “true” history’. This was part of our difficulty with the book because some of the myths were so unfamiliar to us it was difficult to discern the degree of invention the author had brought to the retelling.  My favourite parts of the book were the first section in which the author details the various myths surrounding the first arrivals from the East (including giants) on the islands we now know as Britain and Ireland. Pretty much everyone liked the stories featuring Merlin, perhaps because we felt on more familiar ground. (Interestingly, the story involving Merlin’s prophecy of the manner of his death turns up in the invented ‘Book of Conach’ featured in James Robertson’s News of the Dead, the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.) Many other stories felt repetitive, just a series of kings with strange names killing other kings with strange names in order to usurp their thrones or seek revenge. In the main, women are valued merely for their beauty, their fertility, their status as the daughters of kings or nobles and are often the victims of trickery.

As I mentioned above, the book has received very positive reviews and we did spend time discussing what it was we were all missing, without coming to any firm conclusion! The consensus was that reading the book had felt like hard work and the author’s obvious passion for her subject hadn’t translated into an enjoyable reading experience. Despite our reservations, everyone agreed the striking linocut illustrations that accompany the text are wonderful and, in fact, would make an attractive book in their own right.

In three words: Detailed, creative, scholarly

Try something similar: The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (book club member recommendation)

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Amy JeffsAbout the Author

Amy Jeffs is an artist and art historian specialising in the Middle Ages. In 2019, she gained a PhD in Art History from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having studied for earlier degrees at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the University of Cambridge.

During her PhD Amy co-convened a project researching medieval badges and pilgrim souvenirs at the British Museum. She then worked in the British Library’s department of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts. Storyland is her first book. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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