Friday, 22 September 2017

Review: Island Years, Island Farm

Island Years, Island Farm Island Years, Island Farm by Frank Fraser Darling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fraser Darling was born in Chesterfield in northern England, the illegitimate son of Harriet Darling and Frank Moss. At the ages of 15 he ended up working on a farm and that led him to study agriculture. That led to a PhD at Edinburgh University and in time he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. At the end of the 1930’s when he was married with a young child he began his work on the Summer Isles studying gulls and grey seals as well as reclaiming land that could be used agricultural production on Tanera Mòr.

Slowly he fell in love with these bleak but beautiful islands. They are places of two seasons; a short but intense summer before a rapid switch to the winter sometime in October. They lived in a tent some on some of the islands, hunkering down as the storms swept in off the Atlantic even in the summer months. His careful observations of the wildlife and the work he carried out making a living on the islands enabled him to write a book on crofting and these two books, Island Years and Island Farm. It is a simple but tough life living as a crofter on the islands, some of the gales that he describes sound horrendous, even getting to the islands was not easy with strong swells and very few places to land. It was something that Fraser Darling relished though, he even made the commitment to buy land and settle and spent time restoring a quay and property to make life a little more comfortable.

His prose is not flowery, just solid and rational, but he still manages to fill your senses with the smell of the sea and sound of the waves. It was a uncompromising life there and whilst it wasn’t hand to mouth existence it was much made tougher when he broke his leg. This simpler time just prior to World War II, is brought vividly to life, a nature classic that made for enjoyable reading.

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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Review: A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom

A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings: Quirky Collective Nouns of the Animal Kingdom by Matt Sewell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humans have always had a natural desire to collect and group things together. It works well for domesticated animals, where people are used to talking about a herd of cows, or a flock of sheep. But how do you collate wild animals and birds? Should they all be flocks and herds? Thankfully human imagination has gone to work on this and come up with a whole host of rich and interesting names for all species of animals.

Matt Sewell has collected together all the collective nouns for all manner of animals who inhabit land, sea and air. As well as the titled, A Charm of Goldfinches and the well-known Murder of Crows he introduces to us the less common quarrel of sparrows, a quiver of cobras, a harem of seals and deceit of lapwings. Alongside each collective noun is a delightful watercolour of the animals and a little explanation of the origins of the noun.

I really liked this enchanting little book with its colourful bold artwork and Sewell’s charming prose but if there was one minor flaw was it too brief.

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review: From Source to Sea

From Source to Sea From Source to Sea by Tom Chesshyre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tom Chesshyre happened upon a map of the River Thames in a Bric-a-brac market on his way to the library. It was a reproduction of a map by William Tombleson showing the twists and turns from the source near Cirencester to the mouth on the Kent and Essex coasts. He could not resist buying it, and having done so, an idea formed of walking along the river from the source to the North Sea. The Thames is one of the few rivers including the Nile and the Amazon, with a global presence. Whilst the other rivers are thousands of miles long, the humble Thames is only 215 miles long, making Tom’s walk a gentle stroll compared to the adventurers Ed Stafford and Levison Wood who have walked the other two rivers.

Our most well know river has drawn all types of people through the ages, from artists and authors to those that have used the river to make their living from. It doesn’t have the exotic and dangerous elements that the Nile and the Amazon can boast, it does reflect the rich and diverse history of our country stretching back several thousand years. Passing historical churches, vast country estates and idyllic meadows before walking into the famous skyline that is London. Along the way, Chesshyre meets the great and the good and other people walking the same route as him and the characters that make the river such a dynamic place to live and work. Oh, and there are pubs too, lots of pubs

Travel books should inspire you to move from the comfort of your sofa and go and seek the places yourself. In this delightful book, Chesshyre does that. He engages with the spirit of the river and the places that he walks through, whilst pondering the implications of the recent referendum result. This is a walk that I would like to undertake myself one day as it seems to be a wonderful way to see an iconic part of our country.

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Royal Society Shortlist

The Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017 continues that fine tradition of finding the best science books out there and introducing us to new authors and the latest books that could pique your interest. The books on the short list are quite wide ranging and all very different. I Contain Multitudes is about the microbes that live within and around us, it is not for the fainthearted at times. If millions of microbes don’t appeal, then how about reading Beyond Infinity, where Cheng takes us to another level with numbers. There are two books on the mind; Other Minds takes us on a journey to understand the inner workings of the cephalopods and In Pursuit of Memory looks at the latest research into Alzheimer’s. The two final one concern our sense of self and our bodies. Cordelia Fine takes on the myths surrounding gender in Testosterone Rex and To Be a Machine is Mark O’Connell’s exploration with those wishing to push the limits of technology and the body.

I do not envy the choice of the judges, but if I had to pick one I’d go for In Pursuit of Memory, a personal and poignant account of the latest on the tragic disease that is Alzheimer’s.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: London Map of Days

London Map of Days London Map of Days by Mychael Barratt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in 2015 the Canadian-born, but now London-based artist Mychael Barratt presented an eight plate etching of the eponymous city at the Royal Academy. This artwork, which appears in the back of the book, became the foundation for the London: Map of Days. The beautifully designed book is packed with a cornucopia of facts, anecdotes and stories that have happened, taken place or have some link with each of the 366 days (including the 29th February) in and around London. These little snippets of information are accompanied by bold sketches of the characters involved with the fact for that day.

There is something for everyone in this book as Barratt covers miscellany from subjects as diverse as the death of Chi Chi the giant panda, Hersschel’s discovery of the moons of Uranus, Queen Victoria’s marriage and the day that the last Punch magazine was printed. They are all interesting and cover all aspects of this city’s history. There is a delightful fold-out print of the entire map at the back of the book of Barratt’s original artwork too with the Thames weaving its way through the middle. An ideal book for those that like facts or London, or both!

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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Review: Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The mind is a complex entity, we have only scratched the surface in comprehending how it works and what it is capable of. The neural networks that make up the brain are capable of absorbing vast sums of information and making sense of them fast. The intelligence that we have, and can see in other mammals and birds, in particular, other primates, cetaceans, and corvids. There is another set of animals that seem to have also benefited from a large brain and complex neural networks and that is the cephalopods. You’ll probably know them better as cuttlefish, squid and the octopus. These are quite amazing creatures, not only are they aware of all that is going on around them, they can open jars to get the treat inside, have been known to squirt lights with jets of water as they don’t like the brightness and have been found crawling across the floors of laboratories in an escape bid. The skin operates like a high-res video screen as it is able to mimic its surroundings and ripple with colours depending on mood. They have been proven to recognise individual members of staff, even when in the same uniform, so much so that a person they took a dislike too would get drenched when they walked past.

Peter Godfrey-Smith first came across them when someone introduced him to a place they had called Octopolis. This was a place that had many octopi that had brought and discarded scallop shells and begun to make it a safe haven from the predators around. There were a large number of the creatures there that seemed to tolerate each other most of the time, but every now and again there would be running battles between some of the males and Godfrey-Smith was fortunate to capture these on video. Godfrey-Smith though is a philosopher of science, not a biologist, but it got him thinking; just how had this creature had evolved down a separate branch of our shared tree and had ended up at a level of sentience which was quite advanced. The octopi that he regularly sees as he scuba dives off the coast of Sydney are willing to come up and interact with him and the other divers,

It is an interesting book comparing our understanding of human consciousness with a creature that is so alien that we cannot fully get a grip on what it is thinking. There is a lot on the biological makeup of cephalopods and how their brain and nervous system works, as well as a couple of chapters on the evolution of consciousness and how the need to be aware of your surroundings has driven the development of the brain. I would have liked to read more about the observations that they had conducted on Octopolis as the chapters that were there were fascinating. Definitely worth reading for those that have an interest in marine ecology and peering into the dark recesses of the mind.

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