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 235 reviews here.
This is a really superb book.
While most books about birds focus on the birds themselves, the focus of this book is the importance of birds to humans.
Possibly because of the way in which many birds have adapted to living in proximity to humans, they are a rich source of tradition and folk law. This is strongly shown in this book.
Working systematically through the vast majority of bird families the book introduces the cultural importance of birds in both the modern and historical worlds. Clearly, such a book could never be completely comprehensive – but this book comes about as close to this as is needed.
A number of reviews here have complained about the size of the book (ie it’s too big) and the font of the text (ie its too small). While I can understand these comments, I think they miss the point of this book.
This is not a book that you are likely to read from cover to cover – you will have open next to you as you look up other things, or you will have it open on your lap as you browse through it. It is not a book to be read in the half-light of a bedside table – it’s a very readable reference book that you will come back to when you need to look something up, or you are looking for a way to pass half an hour.
This book is full of weird and wonderful facts (hopefully not factoids) about birds – and I challenge you not to laugh about the Kookaburra called Mama Cass!
Silt Road - Charles Rangeley-Wilson - 4/5
This is a book about the loss of a river to a landscape and its people.
The River Wye is a small chalk stream that slides through an equally small part of England. This book follows the river from its source in porous chalk to its eventual disappearance in the concrete culverts of High Wycombe.
Chalk streams are (possibly) the epitome of the southern English countryside – slight, small, managed rather wild, but still holding a vision of something larger and more grand.
This is a book that is “haunted by rivers” as Norman Maclean may have said – for while the river still exists today in some form it is the old river - the one that was lost – that dominates the book. The physical loss of the river and the lost industry that it once supported are the central planks of the book.
We meet chair makers, millers, trout fisherman and trout themselves – all of which needed the river and most of which have been lost.
In a history of one small place, I think the author is trying to write a story that has wider application, and in many ways he succeeds. The story of this lost river is matched in the loss of natural places world wide – when a place is no longer valued or understood, it is easier to let it be lost. And to make sure such places are protected they need to be valued; while clearly not an original idea, this book contributes to the idea that we need to reconnect to the landscape around us to ensure its survival. Landscape is not something that can be viewed in the same way museum pieces can be – it needs to be lived, experienced.
However, the book does seem always seem to flow comfortably from page to page. In the sections which look at the landscape of the river and the author reaches for an emotional or philosophical response, the prose seems to slow and become labored. I found myself rereading a number of sections, where the sentences seemed to falter mid-phrase. These sections contrasted with the more “historical” sections – especially the account of bringing trout to Australia – where the book is a real page turner – crisp, succinct and flowing. In my opinion these were the best parts of the book.
So, in summary I found the book a little two paced – rather like the pools and riffles of a stream itself – and I suppose different readers will find charm in either part.
Badgerlands - Patrick Barkham - 5/5
There are very few creatures that capture the mystery of the British countryside better than the badger – red squirrels and otters being the only other contenders.
So, a book about the place on Earth that has more badgers per square foot than anywhere else is almost certainly going to be a winner. The only thing that could hold back a book like this would be poor writing and dull characters.
This book has neither.
Starting with a consideration of why badgers hold such a special places in the imagination, then moving to their biology, with an entertaining section on those badger lovers who have often literally taken them into their homes. Finally (and probably) most importantly to the bovine TB issue, this book looks at many aspects of Badgerland.
Mr. Badger from Wind In the Willows is a main player in the first part, biological scientists in the second and mildly (OK, deeply) eccentric badger feeders also play their part.
We often meet the scientists again in the consideration of Bovine TB and badgers. It must be almost impossible to write a balanced account of this issue – but Barkham comes very, very near.
If the earlier sections on badger baiting do not make your blood boil, then the apparent way in which science (and its scientist) are being misused to bolster some form of political campaign probably will.
An excellent, sometimes saddening, occasionally amusing book.
The Barley Bird - Richard Mabey - 5/5
“Barely Bird” is the local Suffolk name for the Nightingale – so called because the bird would start singing rest as the barley crop would begin showing in the field. Of course, this connection is a coincidence brought about by human intervention in the life of a grass and the arrival of a bird from far, far south.
This seems to be the lot of the Nightingale – to be connected with and linked to things that are outside of its own biology.
This slim volume makes the point that no other bird (in Europe) seems to have been lauded in so many ways, by so many people, in so many cultures.
It’s a bird that has almost been swallowed by its own myths, so that the remarkable character of its life is hidden by the artistic and allegorical responses that surround it. And it is the acknowledgement of this that gives this little book its value.
While the book does explore the many and varied responses that the Nightingale as created, its never losses touch with the fact that there is a real bird in the bushes. A real bird for which all human responses are irrelevant, and whose purpose in singing the way it does may never really be understood.
This is Mabey almost at his best – a combination of heart felt reaction, clear eyed analysis and formidable research.
As you may have guessed by now, it comes highly recommended.
This is an interesting book that is a clear departure from the more conventional bird ID books. The general layout of the book is simple, which most species being given a full page that also contains a distribution map, BTO codes and an estimate of population size. The book is of a "this won't fit in your pocket" size, but it won't take up too much space in a backpack.
Each species account uses large numbers of images of a species digitally added to a "typical" habitat shot. While the digital manipulation is not on the same level of much of that, which comes from North Korea, very few of the birds seem to look natural. The variation of light on the birds within one picture is just not natural, and the fact that the distant birds look almost as sharp as the in the foreground make the images is look strange. Its like you are looking at some form of hyper-reality show, rather than anything.
Apart from the issues of digital manipulation mentioned above, some of the pictures is simply not that good - and this really takes away from the quality of the book. Equally, within the text other birds, which may be similar to the species on the page, are referred to by a code name rather than a full name, and no page references are given. I would have thought this would be a barrier to most beginning birders.
As you can see from my name here I am no longer based in the UK, but I have had recent experience of what’s its like to start birding all over again - when I arrived in Australia I could only identify about 10 of the native birds. I think I am glad I started to grapple with Australian bird ID with a more conventional bird ID guide than this one.
In summary I think this would make a really rather good second ID book to purchase, allowing to act more as a back up than a front line ID guide/book.
As with many things that are new and rather different, my reaction to this book may be a bit of a "shock of the new" experience - but I'm not convinced this is the best ID guide you could buy for a beginning birder.
(I am not up-to-date on this, but I don’t think you can go far wrong with the RSPB guide as a starting point for beginners)
The Masters of Nature Photography - Various - 5/5
This is a stunningly good book, full of remarkable images and stories.
Each of the 10 photographers chosen for this book has won awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and each has choses 10 photographs. Under these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the pictures are stunning.
This does not mean that I like – or expect other people to like – all of the images in the book. The styles of image produced by the photographers are very different. The simple Japanese influenced pictures of animals taken in the snow by Vincent Munier are almost stripped of colour, but are absolutely superb. Some of the images by Nick Nichols seem (but probably are not) staged, with a strange intensity of light which seems (as far as I am concerned) to place a barrier between the viewer and the subject. However, other images by this photographer are stunning. Its this variety of images that is the strong point of the book. The message seems to be "there is no one way to take pictures" - as long as you can find your own photographic voice, there are many ways to create stunning images.
A number of themes seem to run through the commentary that is provided for each portfolio – firstly the idea of “pre-visualisation” is important – in other words having an idea of what you want to portray in the image before you press the shutter button, and secondly, it is surprising how many images do not fill the page with the subject. In some cases the “if you pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough” maxim may hold true, but these images show this is not always the case. Animals are a part of the environment, and they do not always need to be isolated from it. This is good news for photographers who cannot afford very long lenses!
This is a splendid book that comes very highly recommended.
This is a splendid (little) book that seems to cast a light on a number of things.
Firstly and most obviously it is a potted history of the Metropolitan Line and the towns that grew up as a result of it being built. These towns form a region known as “Metroland” - a place where imagined dreams were sold and people escaped from London.
If this were the only thing the book looked at it would be interesting enough to recommend, as this was a huge project in commercial social engineering.
But I think that the more interesting part of this book is how it casts a light on much of the author’s other writing.
Books such as “The Unofficial Countryside” – which addresses the ill-defined hinterland between urban and rural – and “Nature Cure” – which looks at the beneficial contact between people and a wild places – both have their origins in the experience, and sold dreams, of Metroland.
The turn of phrase and acute observation that I have come to expect form Mabey are all in place. If this book is typical of the others in this series, they will be worthwhile and interesting reading!
Sightlines - Kathleen Jamie 5/5
This is a really rather remarkable book. Normally I would recommend a book on the basis of the majority of its pages. But this one is different.
Even if the rest of the book were poor – which it most certainly is not – it would be worth reading Sightlines just for the observation about sheep in a winter landscape. Clearly, I’m not going to tell you what that line is – but it made me stop, put the book down and wonder just how acute your observations would have to be to come up with a line like it.
The rest of the book is excellent and just as in Findings, some of the best sections are based indoors rather than outside. Time spent in a pathology lab, and a museum (maybe mortuary?) for whales produced wonderful essays.
The prose in the book is neither flamboyant nor self-consciously clever, but it is wonderfully well constructed – there is barely a word out of place, and each one seems to add to the sense of place that this book is about.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough – and you may be pleased to know that the line about the sheep come early in the book!