Book Reviews (28/08/15)

Hi there - as well as being a keen blogger, I'm a bit of a bookworm as well.

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.

All the reviews are also posted on Amazon UK - you may care to visit the links if you think the book sounds interesting. All reviews are put up under the the name "Stewart M - Victoria, Australia".  You can find all 280 reviews here.

Gut - Giulia Enders - 4/5

Gut is an easy to read, and often entertaining journey through the digestive system.  The fact that some people may not think that such a journey can be interesting, makes a kind of point that the author stresses throughout the book – that we have come to ignore the gut and would rather not think about the messy processes that occur there.

The central idea of the book is that the gut is far more than just a processer of food and a manufacturer of noxious wastes.  The book identifies the gut, and as importantly, the microbial community within it as central to many areas of health.  The book also points the finger of guilt for many ‘modern’ illnesses at changes to this microbial community.

This book is clearly in the ‘human body ecosystem’ field of thinking, rather than a reductionist ‘set of organs’ approach – and I have to say this is a very appealing idea – however, this does not make it true, and it does not make the contents of the book some kind of recipe for health and happiness.

What this book does do is pose a great many questions and float a great many ideas, some of which may could to be important and some of which may fade away.  It will be down to medical science to work out which is which.

One part of the book that did find rather disappointing, was the number of clear typos that made their way through the translation from the original German.  In a number of cases there were sentences that did not seem to be in tune with the rest of the book, and I was left wondering if this was due to my failure to understand something, or if it was due to a translation / type setting issue.

Apart form the last issue I would recommend this book rather highly, but it may be less revolutionary than some reviews seem to suggest.

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.

Lone Survivor - Marcus Luttrell  3 /5

This is a book in two parts – the first, which deals with the authors training as a Navy SEAL is rather mundane; the second (if taken at face value) is remarkable.

Its clear that anybody who can survive the kind of training described here is a remarkable individual, but the way it is described here converts it into little more than a series of runs and swims, interspersed with the need to get ‘wet and sandy’. While this part of the book is probably necessary as a ‘scene setter’ it does seem to go on for rather too long.

The second part of the book is an account of an ill-fated mission that the author and three other SEALs undertake in Afghanistan.  If you don’t already know the story, the title of the book is a bit of a give away.

Two aspects of the book flow through each section of the book – and both of which I found annoying, but neither is surprising.  Firstly, there is the ‘All the way with the USA’ tone, which given that the author clearly seems himself (and his comrades) as a true patriot is not a shock. The second – and more frequently occurring theme is the ‘SEALs as Gods that walk among us’ kind of thing.  Again, its clear that people who are trained as special forces need a high degree of self confidence, but the repeated SEALs can do anything kind of assertions get rather tiresome in the end.

But what separates this book from some of have read – and American Sniper comes to mind here – is that the author, while clearly disliking the people he has to fight, at least acknowledges that they are good at what they do, and in his relationship the villagers who come to his aid, understands that they are in fact remarkable people.  While the book is clearly not a classic of anthropology, the local people are drawn in a far more complex way that in some books – they are far more than just targets and religious fanatics (although the author does call them that as well!)

If the details of the second part of the book are correct and I have no reason to think they are not, then the author is very lucky to be alive.

In the end, it is the actions of the villagers that is the most remarkable part of the book – with the humanity they show being a part of the terrible story of the wars in Afghanistan that is seldom told.

As normal I read this book on a plane, and it passed the time.  But in the end it was the villagers that stayed with me rather than the soldier.

Lightly recommended, but do not expect a classic.

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro  4.5 /5

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.

Highly Recommended.

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.

Birthright - People and Nature in the Modern World - Stephen R. Kellert 3/5

Birthright focuses on the need to understand that the relationship between human and the natural world is an important part of the health of both individuals and communities.

The book outlines the idea that because we evolved in natural environments, the emotional and (possibly deeper) physiological responses that such environments create are both adaptive and healthy.  In other words, because the environment shaped us and we still need it to be truly whole.

There are many aspects of this argument that are appealing, and the wide application of this idea to things like urban design, architecture and even health care seems to make sense.

An important part of the book suggests that emotional responses to the natural environment are vital if we are to truly understand the places in which we live.  This idea is compared to (what the author seems to see as) dispassionate science.  Again this idea has some appeal.

So, it is strange that so much of this book seems to have been written in way that strips the passion from the prose.  The author seems to acknowledge this by inserting section he calls ‘interludes’ into the main body of the text.

Rather than being interludes (ie a time away) in the book, they seem to be the main part where the ideas of the book come to life. 

In some ways this book falls into the awkward space between textbook and popular ‘science / philosophy’  - and ends not being a particularly good example of either.

So, this is a strangely low-key book about a subject that may have best been covered in a more passionate fashion.

Interesting, but possibly not too exciting.

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald 5/5

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.


The Wild Wood - Jan Needle  4/5

This book is a cracking re-telling of the classic, The Wind in the Willows. 

If Wind In the Willows is a view from the river, then this book is a view from the wood.  The strength of this version comes from the simple believability of the humanised characters and the voice of Baxter then main narrator.

Some of the tricks of the original remain – such has the (unacknowledged) change in size of the animals depending on need.  In the original Toad becomes a washer-women and deals with ‘gypsies’ and similar things happen in the new version.

What is really wonderful about this book is the way that both the original characters and plot lines remain intact and only motivation and purpose change.  We don’t have to un-learn anything from the original for the new version to make sense.

And this I think leads to the only issue I have with the book – I really do think you need at least a working knowledge of the plot of Wind in Willows to see how wonderful this book itself is. Which, I suppose leads to the recommendation, that you should read both of them!

Highly Recommended.

The Great War - 10 Contested Questions - Hazel Flynn 4 1/2 - 5

This is a timely book. 

Given the upcoming (and misnamed) ‘celebrations’ about the First World War, a book at looks at some of the received truth about this conflict and asks ‘is this what really happened’ is a worthwhile addition to the huge number of books which will be published on this subject in the next few years.

However, the title of the book is a little misleading in some ways – for not all of the questions in the book are ‘contested’.  Some, such as how did the military cope with the treatment of huge numbers of wounded that the battles caused, and why did the British War Poets rise to such prominence at the expense of other forms of literature, are questions that are not asked very often (if at all) in the popular debate on the history of this war.

But of course, there still are the contested questions of history – why did the war start in the first place?  Why did it not stop sooner?  Were the Generals really as incompetent as we have been told?  How much difference did the arrival of the Americans make to the outcome of the war?  In some ways these are the familiar debates of history.

Some of the question are less familiar – were conscientious objectors traitors? What role did religion play in the war? and where are the voices of the soldiers from ‘the colonies’ (other than Australia/NZ and Canada).

This is not a long book – but it is a very worthwhile read. 

Given the kind of certainty that seems to be come when politicians start telling tales of history, I think this is a thought provoking and, possibly, important antidote.

Highly recommended.

Claxton - Mark Cocker - 4/5 

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.

Highly recommended.

Goodbye to all that - Robert Graves  - 4/5

This is a book with a slow beginning, a somewhat draw out conclusion and an absolutely riveting core.

Written in wonderfully straightforward prose this is an account (mainly) of Robert Graves’s experience of the First World War.  I say ‘mainly” because it is only the core of the book that deals with the war.  The first part of the book deals with the authors background, and in many ways helps inform the core, but this section never as arresting as the account of life at the front.

The conclusion of the book also seems to lack the urgency of the middle section – this is hardly a surprise given the intensity of the experiences of combat.

As a result this slightly uneven book seems to take a while to become the classic it is thought to be, and then eventually winds down to a slightly unremarkable finish.

But there is not question that this book is worth reading for the better middle section alone.  There is the meeting of well known names – Sassoon, Owen, Rivers – that make many of these accounts (factual and fictional) feel strangely overlapping.

Straightforward, stunning in its portrayal of the damage done, this is an honest account of life and death at the front.  (Just don’t be put off by the slow start)

Highly recommended.

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.

Highly recommended.

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.

1 comment:

Marie C said...

I can't thank you enough, Stewart for telling me about these book reviews. I had never noticed them on your Pages section. Sometimes I am so far behind commenting on people's posts I don't take the time to really LOOK at their blogs! This list is wonderful, and I have found many here that I would love to read. I enjoyed reading all of the reviews this morning, and look forward to the new ones you will add. Do you belong to the online site, Goodreads? You can post reviews there, and also make a list of books you want to read, and have read. It's a nice way to keep track and to find new titles.

With your permission, I would very much like to include some of your reviews on our book club site from time to time. I will also post a link here as well in my next review. I am hoping for many different kinds of books to be included there, but I find that many avid readers tend to stick to contemporary or historical novels and read nothing else. Those people do not fit well with our group, I don't think....BUT, having said that, I anticipate a fair sprinkling of these types of works in our reviews. I also expect, and HOPE for deeper works, biographies and historic accounts as well. Right now we have so few contributors, the reviews are mostly my Mom's (Latane, who started the book club blog) and Marcia and myself. We have received maybe two or three reviews from other readers who happily joined in the beginning but who are not really participating with any regularity. I do hope that changes. But I think many of your books will be ones that I will read, and I hope to include several in our reviews. If that is OK with you, I would love to do that! Thanks again. This was a great way to spend my morning over coffee! :-)