So, I'm going to post reviews of the last few books I've read - as I read another one I'll take the last one of the list.
Fairweather Eden - Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts 4.5 /5
Fairweather Eden is an account of a long running archaeological dig at Boxgrove in Sussex. This may sound all rather dry and academic – but nothing could be further from the truth.
The book is written in a lively (but not overexcited!) diary style that mixes the science and history of the discoveries with some small scale and international politics and inter-team jealously.
Everybody in archaeology seems to want to be the one to excavate the oldest human remains in Europe and this book is flavoured by the competition between the diggers in the UK and the diggers elsewhere.
One of the key ideas that is explored in this book is what can we learn about the minds of our ancestors from the things that they left behind. What do bones, or more commonly, stone axes tell us about the minds of the differing species that came before us? This is a really interesting question, as (according to some people) it is the way we think that makes us human.
The only grip I have with the book is that some of the chapters feel strangely short – so that the narrative becomes bitty at times.
If you are looking for a book that explores how archaeological knowledge develops over time and how differing aspects of knowledge are combined, I would highly recommend this book.
Equally, if you are looking for an account of how a single dig can change the way we view some aspects of history, this this may also be the book for you.
No Thankful Village Chris Howel 4.5 /5
Between the well known centres of Bath and Wells there is a cluster of villages and small towns that centre on Midsomer Norton and Radstock. These places make up what must be one of the least well know (former) coal mining communities in the whole of the UK.
No Thankful Village is an account of how this community reacted to and was involved in the First World War. Across the whole of the UK, only 32 villages regained all the men that they sent to the war – and none of these 32 villages were in the Somerset coalfields.
The story of these men (and a few women) is told in their own words and the words of the local paper. These stories are often linked as people volunteered, and sometimes died, together. Men from Norton, men from Radstock and men from Chilcompton – the village in which I was born.
Given my connection to this area I was surprised by how little I knew about these stories. I recognised family names and the places where people worked, some of which were only a few streets from where I was born – but I knew little else. I knew nothing of the stories of bravery and of the medals won. All I knew was the stories of wasted lives and broken men. There are always two sides to a story.
While this books makes no attempt to set the actions of the men who went to war, or the men who sent them (often) to their death into a wider political setting it does give the men themselves a powerful voice.
Which brings me to my only criticism of the book – much of the dialogue contains phonetic renderings of the almost certainly broad Somerset accents of the men who went to war. While probably accurate, I felt it almost verged on caricature. Do we really need to know that person X ended the word ‘India’ with an extra ‘l’ sound – I don’t think so.
Apart from this issue this is a rather special book – local, parochial, proud.
I recommend that you read it.
Orkney - A historical Guide Caroline Wickham-Jones 5/5
I was told recently that if you cut Orkney, it bleeds archaeology – and during a brief visit I have to say I could see what this meant.
As a guidebook for an area with such a rich history, I think this book is close to being perfect. It has a broad-based introduction to the physical environment and natural history of the islands, and then it takes a ‘period by period’ approach to the history. While this ‘linear’ approach to history may not always find favour with academics, for visitors like me it makes a lot of sense. The chapters on each period of history end with a list of key sites for that period. There is sometimes a little repetition of detail between the chapters and the key sites section, but this means both parts can be read independently.
This book seems to be short enough to be manageable, yet detailed enough to ve useful.
I have split opinion about this book – based, as far as I can see, on the twin aspects that the book contains.
The first aspect of the book seems to be a potted account of modern thinking about pre-history in the UK. In many ways this was one of the most coherent reviews of this material I have read (although I admit I am not well read in this field). Pre-historical people are given credit for being sophisticated and organised, a way of thinking that does not always seem to be well understood. In this regard I think the book is worth reading simply for this aspect.
Woven throughout this first aspect is the second major theme of the book – that change has been driven by local discussion making and action, and is not solely the preserve of ‘big men’ or powerful leaders. This is where I start to have a problem with this book – not because of this idea itself, but the way in which the author allows his view (dislike) of modern political leadership to colour the way he analyses the past.
While it may be possible to track the development of technologies through time – and it may be possible to associate certain types of ‘ritual’ sites with specific periods of time, the human drivers behind these need to be approached with much more caution. This is where the book becomes, for me, rather less coherent.
We do not know, and possibly never can know, what motivated (as examples) people to throw swords into water or build the great hill forts and we need to take care when we try to interpret these actions. Theories about such things need to be rooted in the evidence of the past, not a dislike of the current.
Did I enjoy the book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. Do I think it is as flawless as some of the other reviews here suggest? No.
Proceed with a little caution and scepticism.
Tribe is a short book – or maybe an extended essay – about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder of the lives of (mainly) soldiers from around the world. This may seem a relatively familiar topic, as it is often in the news, but what makes this book different is the way in which it seeks to explain why some groups of veterans seem to suffer from PTSD more than others.
I simple terms the book seems to suggest that the variation is due to differing levels of shared commitment and community connection between the soldiers and the “back at home” community. So, soldiers who fought in unpopular wars doe less well then those that gain community support. This difference is highlighted in the differencing ways in which soldiers in Americas recent wars have coped compared to those from Israel.
While written in a ‘popular’ fashion, the author provides lists of references and sources to the studies he cites – which gives the book a greater feeling of authority than some straight ‘opinion pieces’ about the impact of war.
I’m not sure the book says anything remarkably, but what it does say, it says clearly.
I would think that this is pretty close to required reading for anybody interested in the consequences of modern war. Highly Recommended.
Open Skies - Don McCullin 5/5
Open Skies is a book of dark and wonderfully atmospheric pictures. Better known as a war photographer, Don McCullin focuses here on the landscape of Somerset.
At first viewing the images seem too dark – but closer inspection shows that almost all of the dark areas of the pictures contain detail. Just as very little of the images are actually solid black, very little is paper white.
As such the pictures contain much hidden detail, only resolved in close inspection – and I suspect that this is the theme of these pictures; detail and observation.
With the exception of some distant views of Glastonbury Tor the ‘iconic’ aspects of Somerset’s landscape are not present in these pictures – this is the everyday place I remember growing up in – shaded, hidden and not always bathed in sunlight.
Maybe it’s nostalgia, but these are really arresting image – and the almost polar opposite of the bright and (often) over saturated images that have become popular of late.
If you take my advice, you should be a copy of this book and look through it slowly and often.
Britain's Birds - Rob Hume et al 4/5
This is an impressive looking book – and I shudder to think how many hours have gone into its production.
Britain is blessed with an abundance of bird-guides and this one is a decent addition to the well-established ranks.
The first thing that struck me about the book was its shear size – it really is rather large (in fact it’s about the same size as the one for the whole of Australia!). This probably makes it a book to be kept in the car or carried to hide, rather than one that will be taken out and about on a daily basis. Secondly, the book relies on photographs rather then paintings – and in this regard both the quality and use of these images seems better than the Crossley Guide. As a matter of preference I would rather have paintings – but the use of photographs here is about the best I have seen.
I suppose the third thing that stuck me was how ‘busy’ each page seems. With photographs, annotations, background shots, text and maps (sometimes) all on the same page the book feels cluttered to me.
Which brings me to my key point – any bird guide has to balance being comprehensive against being over complicated. And this bird guide clearly plumps for being comprehensive – which it seems to manage (although of course it can never be 100% up to date). But that means it becomes rather complicated.
I wonder how many beginners need a book that contains an image of a Double Crested Cormorant, which has, according to the book, been seen once in Britain? Not many I would think.
Many of us are keen to find rare birds, and the inclusion of birds that people (in all probability wont see) seems to indicate that this is a book for the already well versed birder – and in that regard it seem fine.
The Outrun - Amy Liptrot 5/5
Amy Liptrop, the author of this is honest and rather wonderful book has not tried to sugar coat her decline (and recovery) from alcoholism. Neither has she tried to over romanticise (too much) her connection to the Orkneys, where she was raised as a kid.
And I think this is the strength of the book. The accounts of some aspects of her alcoholism are toe-curlingly honest, and make it clear that this addiction is not something happens to ‘others’ who are not like her readers, but can engulf almost anybody.
The author’s relationship with the landscape of Orkney is something of a mirror image of her relationship with alcohol. At first she flees from Orkney to the ‘bright lights’ of London, but in the end it is the landscape she once rejected that she most craves, and finds most therapeutic.
I think that the landscape of home is most powerful for those who have had it taken away – and here I think that Liptrop looses her (healthy) sense of place in the world to alcohol. In this book she seems to refind it in wave washed ocean beaches, the chill of the winter air and the call of the birds.
By the end of the book she seems to be becoming healthier by the day.
The writing in the book is crisp and to the point. The personal landscape of the book is not pretty, but the physical landscape is remarkable.
Very highly recommended.
The Fish Ladder - Katherine Norbury 4/5
The second line of the title of this book – A Journey Upstream – is a little misleading, and in some ways diminishes the scope of this rather wonderful book.
Sure, one of the key elements of the book is about a number of journeys up rivers, in search of the source. But there is a good deal more happening in this book than just that.
A number of reviews here have suggested that the book is rather self-indulgent, and could not have been carried out by a person without some kind of external support – and while that may be true, is it not also true for the vast majority of other ‘journey’ books as well. To my reading, this feel petty and small minded.
The journeys in this book are physical, historical and medical. All start from, or aim at, a single point – a point that determines the direction of the journey and the flow of the stories.
I rather liked it as a meditative, if not exactly groundbreaking read and I would be confident in recommending it.
The Shepherd's Life - James Rebanks 5/5
The Lake District must be one of the best-loved areas of England. For many it is an adventure ground, holiday destination and daydream address. This book looks at The Lakes in a different way – as a place of work and a home.
“The Shepard’s Life’ follows the life of James Rebanks from his (Grand)fathers knee to his own farm. It plots the many changes in attitude and circumstance that come with growth up, moving away and coming back.
In this regard this is not a very original book – many people have written about these three things - but what sets this book apart is the place where it occurs. The Lake District comes alive as more than just a playground in this book, and the reality of the work needed just to keep your head above water is always present.
At times it’s easy to forget that the Lake District is a landscape that was formed by work, and not one that was formed for play. The fact that so many people ‘love the Lakes’ is due to the hard work of others, who are often not given the credit they are due for the work they do.
I recall reading heated debate about the closure of footpaths during the foot and mouth outbreak - but one small section of this book puts all that into a different perspective.
I suspect that the author was a bit of a pain as a teenager, and I am sure some things he writes here will rub people up the wrong way. However, this is passionate writing about a much loved place.
In the end the Lakes will only survive if people can live and work there – and this book is an honest look at what that means to some people.
The Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia - 5/5
The phrase ‘the lucky country’ was first used in 1964 by Donald Horne to describe Australia. Since that time the meaning of this phrase has been corrupted, often by the media and politicians, to mean ‘a wonderful country’. Its original meaning, was that Australia was lucky enough to have so many spoils ‘rich and rare’ that even when run by incompetent governments things seemed to work out ok. In this original meaning, Australia was a bit of a ‘spawny git’ that managed to get away with all kinds of mismanagement and still come out on top.
This new book re-examines many of the issue that were identified by Horne as being things that Australia needed to do better – but were getting away with through shear dumb luck. Things like the size of the population, its relationship to Asia and the rest of the world and the nature of its society.
As I write this review we are in the second day of what will be the longest Australian general election campaign since 1969 and many of the key issues identified both by Horne and ’64 and Ian Lowe in this book are essentially absent from the political debates put forward by the major parties. It seems that they still need to rely on luck rather than thought.
The longer the questions raised by this book go unanswered the harder it will be to find solutions to them.
While this may sound like it is all very Australian, with little relevance to else where, but this is not the case.
If you despair of the shortsighted nature of the government in your own country this will be a book that may feel very familiar, but will also confirm that you are not alone.
Highly recommended, especially if you already think that there is more to society that GDP numbers and military spending.
Engel's England - Matthew Engel - 4.5/5
This book is rather splendid, county by county account of the variation and regional eccentricity for which England in (rather) famous. Each chapter is based around the ‘traditional’ counties of England – not mention here of Avon or Bath and North East Somerset, or for that matter Cumbria.
First and foremost I think I need to say that I really enjoyed this book, finding it through enough so I felt at home in the counties that I knew and not so detailed that I became bogged down in areas with which was I was less than familiar. In other words the book feels comprehensive, but it does not feel like you are reading an encyclopaedia.
The pattern of travel around England seems essentially random, which I rather like, so the book never becomes ‘stuck’ in a region of England. A few themes do appear – such as the demonic rise of Tescos and the impact that this has on local, smaller business. Equally, many places are defined by their relationship to London – which for much of the SE (and an increasing area of the rest of the country) seems fair enough.
I can’t help but compare this book to the latest Bill Bryson book – The Road from Little Dribbling - which I happened to read a few weeks before this one. Firstly this book seems far more authentic, without some form of concentrated journey at its heart. Secondly, this book seems to be a book about England rather than a book about an author.
Given the scope of the book – ie a decent chapter on each county – it does feel a wee bit long, but the quality of the written and the texts hidden humour makes me willing to forgive it this minor quibble!
In the end, all I can do is recommend this book highly. It’s a great read.
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane - 4/5
The central ideas of this book are that language defines how we relate to landscape and that landscape comes to define language. So, landscape and language are intimately connected.
Parallel to this is the observation that we are becoming less connected to the ‘natural’ landscape to the detriment to both language and our understanding of the language.
By splitting the landscape into broad categories the author looks at how people have reacted to landscape and each section concludes with a listing of (underused or neglected) words that describe these categories of landscape.
If you are already aware of the work of Robert Macfarlane this book will feel very familiar – dense with ideas, rich with references to other peoples work (he has a few special favourites) and often rather academic in flavour. None of these is a weakness, but in combination they can start to produce a text that seems rather more like a university essay rather than a passionate call to arms about the need to protect the language of landscape. (or the landscape of language)
The book is really very thought provoking, but it is not a page-turner. I think that the content of the book is really important, but I wish the writing was just a little more accessible. I can’t help but think of works of Richard Mabey, which are just as dense with ideas, but are not written in such an academic manner.
Despite all I have said, I would still recommend this book very strongly; I just wish it was a gentler read.
This is a rather strange and wonderful book, which left me thinking that I knew what it is about, but suspecting that I may be very, very wrong!
Set in England some time after the fall of King Arthur, the storyline revolves around an old couple looking for their son in a landscape still blighted by war and yet to come into its classic Englishness.
What makes this journey rather different from how it seems in this short description is that few people in this land have memories of the past. The past is shrouded in a mist that makes people forget even the most recent things – and the more distance past seems to have gone completely.
The landscape – and the book – are slightly fey in feel. Knights, dragons, pixies, strangers on the road, the lingering ghost of King Arthurs lost Kingdom and the forgetful mist all contribute to this. In terms of the books style, this ‘feyness’ is most clearly voiced in the style of the dialogue. In the end some people may find the constant ‘husbands’ and ‘princesses’ that pass between the old couple a little annoying – but I found them a simple and central element to the book.
So, what is it about?
Clearly I think it’s about the battle between forgetting and memory – and the consequences of living a life where peace has been bought at the cost of ignorance (ie no memory) rather than an understanding and acceptance of the past. At least one character seems to be a ‘gate keeper’ to memory and I have to wonder if this is some form off illusion to our current keepers of history who seem to think we may be better off not knowing about the past as we move into a brave new future.
The above paragraph my of course be utterly out of step with the writers intention – but I suggest you read this book to find out for yourself.
It's what I do - A Photographers life of Love and War - Lynsey Addario 4.5 /5
Conflict photographers are a strange breed; part adventurer, part evangelist, part witness. And as such they often seem strangely appealing to those of us who like to put an eye to a camera viewfinder.
If ever there was a book to add a dimension of truth to the myths of this form of journalism, then it was this one.
While the three parts I list above are clearly present in this book, so much more is revealed about what it is like to get up every day, eat your breakfast and go watch disasters unfolding. This is not a book about photographic technique, it is not about ‘how I do it’ – it’s much more about ‘what it’s like to do it’.
While little of what happens in the personal and professional life of the author is much of a surprise (with the exception of one phone call!) given the places she and her colleagues work in, the honesty with which they are presented gives them power.
If you want to read a book to see what journalism is capable of, and how far below this standard most of what we see and watch falls, then you should read this book.
Very highly recommended.
Although the central character of this book is a bird – a Goshawk - , this wonderful book focuses on emotion rather than biology.
This simple fact may be enough for some people to decide if they are going to read this book or not. This is a book that places the emotion reaction of the author to the death of her father, the English countryside and the trials and tribulations of a trying to train a hawk above pure biological knowledge.
If you want fact and figures, weights and measures then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a wonderfully written, authentic feeling account of coming to terms with loss and finding the strength to do so through a connection with nature, then this is the book for you.
The intertwined strands of place, passion and more than a little frustration are what hold this book together. And sitting in the background like a memory is the book The Goshawk by TH White, a volume that apparently falls in the category of ‘flawed masterpiece’.
So people have said that this book may be a little ‘over indulgent’ because of the way in which the author links her emotional life to the life of both and a bird and the countryside it which she trains and hunts with it. I think this misses the point that nature has a power beyond just a dispassionate experience.
We make our own meanings from nature, and in this book you can follow the authors journey.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
In many ways this is a fairly conventional account of the turning of the years around the village of Calxton in the Yare valley in Norfolk. While there are a few side trips to other places, the focus of the book is the titular village.
Like many other ‘year in the life of…..’ books the daily accounts are drawn from more than one year, so while they are presented in calendar order, they are not truly sequential – I only mention this because some books seem not to be honest about this format – but this one is.
The daily entries are generally short – most are just a single page (more or less) of the book – and most end with a sort of philosophical musing which seeks to place the short piece in the wider context of the world. This is both the strength and weakness of the book: each piece of writing is self-contained, but each also becomes rather too predictable in tone.
I think this may be due to the way in which they were originally published – weekly or at least a few days apart. Reading them one after another compresses a week or a month into minutes and the pace (and predictability) seem too much.
Equally, I think that that the rapidity with which you can move through the book makes some of the recurring themes recur a little to often as well – the link between the soil and the rest of the world, the shape and effect of a passing peregrine and the sound of geese all occur regularly in the book.
All this being said, I really enjoyed the book and the writing is very evocative. Its clear from this and the authors other books that he has a great eye for detail.
So, would I recommend the book? Absolutely!
But I do suggest that you read it over a longer period of time than a few days – read a couple of days each day, so that the year in the book unfolds at a more realistic pace and I am sure you will enjoy it.
Storm - Tim Minchen - 5/5
This is a really interesting little book. And two words here are important – ‘interesting’ and ‘little’.
The book is ‘interesting’ because of what it seeks to explore – belief and rationalism, which are hardly the normal stuff of comedy. And the book is ‘little’, not because it is insignificant, but because if you just read the poem that is the core of the book, you will complete the book in 10 – 15 minutes.
If you are already aware of Tim Minchen’s work, this book will contain few surprises, but much delight. This beat poem, with its strange rhythms and off key rhymes, is an account of the kind of ‘rant’ that many of us may have wished to unleash when exposed to hocus-pocus and pseudo-science – in this case it happens at a dinner party where we meet an Australian called Storm.
Believers in auroras, spirit healing, the therapeutic value of crystals and (possibly above all else) homeopathy will find little joy within these pages.
This is a book for lovers of science, logic and evidence.
It’s a storming book!
Feral - George Monbiot - 4.5 /5
This is a really rather good book – not perfect, but one that makes you stop and think ‘do I agree with what I have just read?’
In reality this is almost two books rather than one – the first is about developing a great connection between people and the land on which they live. This is ‘re-wilding people’. The second is about taking a less interventionist approach to wildlife management, by allowing nature a freer hand to build new ecosystems.
The first is a reasonably well-trodden path - and is based on the assumption that people and the land do better when they are connected. Connection. Interest. Care. Passion. And in the end, survival. This all seems to make sense.
The second theme of the book – actually re-wilding landscape – is probably a little more contentious. Especially as one of the key things that the author suggests in terms of re-wilding is the re-introduction of large predators – such as wolves – to some ecosystems. While any such introduction would clearly rely on human intervention in its early stages, the idea is to re-establish the kind of ecological processes that have been removed from many ecosystems by humans.
There is little doubt that conventional conservation management is not always successful – with large areas (the book really takes most examples from the UK) being maintained in some sort of agriculture dominated state – the classic example here being most UK uplands which are often just sheep, deer or grouse maintained habitats, which lack the diversity they once had.
I think there needs to a well informed debate about who land is managed into the future – and this book is as good a place as any to start thinking about what this debate could mean or should include.
Waterlight - Selected Poems - Kathleen Jamie - 5/5
I am not a natural reader of poetry. I came to this book through the wonderful prose books of the author.
Her prose is marked by a remarkable ability to see and render detail in clear and precise language.
If anything, the poems take this ability even further.
As the book progressed the poems became longer and more complex and I missed the simple, but accurate word picture painting of the shorter verses.
Maybe I was not ready for multi-page poems, but the early pages of the book are filled with remarkable images and turns of phrase.
If ever a book was to direct me towards more poetry, I think it could be this one.
Four Fields - Tim Dee - 5/5
This is a wonderfully dense, slow moving and thought-provoking book.
In may ways everything else I am going to say will be just an extension of that opening line – if you are in a hurry I recommend you stop reading this and buy the book.
For those of you with a little more time I will expand my comments a little.
Fields are a strange combination of nature and human control – and the fours fields of books title show varying degrees of these two aspects. The Fens fields of East Anglia and the abandoned fields of Chernobyl are mostly, but not entirely, human. The fields of Africa and North America are mostly, but not entirely, still shaped by nature.
The fen fields of East Anglia are returned to in a conventional seasonal approach, but the content of these four chapters goes far beyond the normal “it was winter and I saw this type of bird” narrative that dominates so much nature writing. Water flows through the fens and the movement (and control) of water are central themes in these chapters.
The ideas encountered in the other fields are as divers as their locations – but ideas of control (or the loss of it) are also present.
One of the things I most liked about this book was its clear sense of ending – many books of nature writing seem to stop only when the author runs out of things to say (or the year has turned full circle). Here the book has a wonderful concluding feel, where themes come to an end in a way the feels natural. The book comes to an end, rather than simply stopping.
While it’s clear that the author is a bird watcher – and most of the encounters with wildlife in the book are with birds – this book has a far wider range (field?) of reference than just birds.
This is one of the best books in this general area I have read in a number of years and it comes very highly recommended.