Book Reviews (01/12/15)

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 283 reviews here.

The Salty River - Jan Bauer  - 4.5/5

This is a rather wonderful ‘graphic novel’ about a journey along the Larapinta Trail in central Australia.

The drawings are simple but beautiful, and somehow they manage to capture a huge range of detail, most of which is not immediately apparent.

In essence this is a love story, but it is also a story about self and place.  At the end of the book there are two definitions, one for a story that is true and one for a story that is made up.  I get the feeling that this story sits in the fertile ground between the two of these.

This is not a long book – I read it in less than an hour – but I would still recommend it highly.

The Road to Little Dribbling - Bill Bryson  - 4.5/5

Notes from a Small Island is a classic of it’s type so there was always a risk associated with writing a follow up to a much loved book – and it’s clear from some of the reactions here that The Road to Little Dribbling is not considered up to the mark. 

However, I do not share that opinion.

Trying to find something different to do in travel books is not that easy, especially in a place as well travelled as the UK.  Here the idea of travelling along the longest straight line in the UK is used – this is termed the Bryson Line – and is as good a construct as any other.  The only problem with this idea is that it is essentially absent from the book, and is basically ignored for most of the time.  The only section of the book in which it seems to be become relevant is near the end, when short of time the author has to take a few ‘short cuts’ to make sure the line is traversed.  The whole structure of the book could well have been based on the idea of an extended Sunday afternoon drive, and it would have been basically the same.

But this is not the aspect of the book that some people seem to object to, it’s more the books tone.  Bryson is not adverse to calling a spade and spade – and sometimes calls it a Fu**ing Shovel – which I seem not to recall from his earlier books.  However, this honest approach seems, well, honest to me.

The UK is not a land of milk and honey where an undeniably wonderful landscape can make up for (what appears) to be a growing culture of rudeness, vandalism and political disrespect in both directions.

I left the UK 20 years ago, and this book came as a wonderful summary of how I felt about the place in my last two return journeys – the bones of the place as still the same, but it seems to be wearing clothes that I don’t recognise. 

I think this book is probably just a little too honest about some of these ‘new clothes’ for some readers, but for me I found the tone to be just right: funny, sad, angry, confused but always in awe of the wonder that can be found just around the corner – even if that corner may have more litter than in the past and be mined with dog turds!

Highly recommended.  

Instructions for American Servicemen in Australia - 1942   - 4/5

This is a remarkable and very short little book, that is well worth reading.

At less than 60 pages it is a very short read, and it’s size and length may remind readers of a certain vintage of the Ladybird Book series.

This book is a facsimile of one given to American servicemen to help them understand the wild and woolly land of Australia.

Generally it’s an entertaining read, as it presents such a dated version of normality in both countries.   However, for Australia at least it still seems to have some relevance.

Issues such as the role of Aboriginal people in Australia, the relationship between the ‘bush’ and the city and the role of women are front and centre in this book – and in many ways aspects of these issues are still the currency of modern debate.

Recommended as a brief historical read.

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - 5/5

There is no question that this post-apocalypse novel is beak from start to finish.  The writing is sparse, and made more so by the lack of many forms of conventional punctuation.  Many facts that would have crowded other books are absent – what exactly was the cause of the apocalypse, what are the names of the two central character, where exactly are they – but they are not needed,

The world that is portrayed in this book is stripped down to the bone, and so is the writing.  But still the story manages to be a ‘page turner’ – the sense of tension and desperation in the book are palpable.  

That the relationship between the two central characters is so well drawn, with so few words is remarkable.

I assumed I may find the book hard work, but that was not the case.  It is not ‘easy to read’ in the normal sense – ie ‘light weight’  - but I found myself turning the pages far more quickly than I had anticipated.

A wonderful, bleak and stunning crafted book.  But also a very good and well-told story.

Highly Recommended.

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.

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.

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.

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! :-)