Wednesday 31 August 2016

Natural History Books

I am slowly but surely building up my collection of natural history books. These are ones that I have read in the past but have never owned. Over the weekend bought:

Waterlog by Roger Deakin
Wildwood by Roger Deakin
The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (courtesy of Nudge)

If you have't read (or heard) of them, they are all worth reading

Review: Words of Mercury

Words of Mercury Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patrick Leigh Fermor is probably best known for the walk he undertook from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930’s. He was only 18 at the time of departure and the Europe that he saw and described was still as it had been for decades, as well as being of the cusp of dramatic change with the rise of the far right in Germany and other countries. He had a knack for languages and his infectious enthusiasm meant he could mix with the lowest peasant to the highest landowner all across Europe. He was active during the Second World War mostly in Crete and was the instigator behind a dramatic abduction of a German general. After the war, he moved to his beloved Greece settling in the Peloponnese region.

This book is a lovely collection of articles grouped into various sections, travels, Greece, people books and the wonderfully titled flotsam. Some are drawn from his earlier books and others are articles that have appeared in various magazines and newspapers. The subjects are diverse, varying from bicycle polo to Gluttony, Bryon to Andalucía and are written in his indomitable style. Whilst I have read a number of the pieces before, there are several that I haven’t. Most of the articles are really good, not all of them are. It would be a good introduction to one of my favourite writers for those that are interested.

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Sunday 28 August 2016

Review: The Human Factor

The Human Factor The Human Factor by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Castle is approaching retirement from MI6 where he has been an officer in the Africa section for a number of years following active service in the continent. He is married to a black South African lady who he helped escape from the apartheid regime. He is enjoying his quiet and uneventful life, when him and his assistant, Davis, are interviewed following the discovery of a leak in the service that has been traced back to his department. The investigation concludes that Davis is the source of the leak and action is taken, but the cloud of suspicion still hangs over Castle and he realises that he may have to make a greater sacrifice to save all that he cherishes.

To write this tense thriller Green drew on all his experience and knowledge from his time at MI6 during the Second World War. It is a bleak story, that is very cleverly written too, as he has managed to get across the mundaneness of the bureaucrat’s job in the service, whilst examining the larger question of loyalty to family or to country. I really liked the subtlety of the writing too. It doesn’t have the glamour and excitement of some spy fiction, but it does have the drama.

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Review: The Penguin Lessons

The Penguin Lessons The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Michell has reached his twenties and seeks adventure. Heading to the South American continent to work at a prestigious boarding school in Argentina and dreams of travel and exploration. The country that he arrives in is turbulent and in the grip of military control and rampant inflation after the collapse of the Perón regime. The allure of travelling during the long summer holidays prompts him to acquire a motorbike, hoping to see the landscape at his own pace.

Time to live the dream. Except that dream didn’t involve getting a pet penguin…

Whilst on a short break in Uruguay he comes across a beach with hundreds of dead penguins covered in oil from the wreck of a tanker. As he walks through the devastation, he sees one alive and picks it up and sneaks it back into the hotel. After a minor altercation involving a cut finger, he manages to clean the oil off the penguin and when he realises that it really doesn’t want to leave him, so begins a relationship with a bird, Juan Salvador. He just needs to work out how to get the creature across the border and back to school. S begins a story of a penguin that transformed Mitchell’s life and many of those in the school that he taught at.

It is a heart-warming story of a foolhardy decision that in the long run had so many positive benefits for all those that came into contact with Juan Salvador. There are some genuinely funny moments in the book and the tale he tells has a certain charm too. It is a serious commitment that he has made to care for an animal that needs company and attention and he tells it as it is. I really would have liked much more of the travelling that he undertook in the region, but that was not the focus of the book. Occasionally the writing is a bit twee and stilted, but it is a nice heart warming story.

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Friday 26 August 2016

Huge Book Haul

Had two books arrive courtesy of Quercus today:
Citizen Clem: A Biography of Atlee by John Bew
The Particle Zoo: The Search for the Fundamental Nature of Reality by Gavin Hesketh

Got Off The Map by Alistair Bonnett from the library

Got Caught by the River as a late, late birthday present

And bought:
Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
Sahara by Michael Palin
Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin
Full Circle by Michael Palin

Stonehenge - Interview with Francis Pryor

As well as getting a book to review I also got to ask Francis Pryor some questions about his latest book:

Review: Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook

Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook by Peter Cook
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In his time, Peter Cook was one of the funniest men around, he was a little before my time, but I remember him with Dudley Moore. In his time, he was considered one of the great comedy writers, even though he had a reputation for idleness. He wrote countless skits and articles and was a leading figure in the boom in satire in the 1960’s. This collection draws from his very earliest works, including his best known sketches a selection of his columns that appeared in the Daily Mail, Private Eye and the Evening Standard and even includes some TV pieces that have never been seen in print before.

There are some very funny sketches in here, and I was chuckling as I was reading every now and again. The ones with Dud as Derek & Clive, two blokes putting the world to rights are hilarious and are my particular favourites. Some of the others he wrote are now very dated, mostly because the world has moved on and these were relevant then. I skim read it at times as it got a bit tedious; really one for the collector of his works.

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Thursday 25 August 2016

New book!

Just received through the post The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg by Tim Birkhead. Thank you #Bloomsbury

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Review: Walking through Spring: An English Journey

Walking through Spring: An English Journey Walking through Spring: An English Journey by Graham Hoyland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Partly inspired by a memory of his father saying that spring moved at walking pace across the country and that he had missed a number of English springs whilst being stuck up some of the highest mountains in the world, Hoyland had the idea of following it as it moves up and across the country from the first day of spring on the south coast to the Scottish border a few weeks later. The warmth that the season brings turns a monotone landscape into one that is fresh, green and bursting with life.

Starting on the beautiful Dorset coast at Christchurch, Hoyland and his wife planned their route following where possible the ancient footpaths that criss-cross the countryside. He marked each mile along the paths and hawthorn hedgerows with the planting of an acorn, noting the GPS position so they could return one day to check progress. Each day that they walked brought the delights of spring to them; bluebells, animals emerging from hibernation, the arrival of the swifts and cuckoos and the way that all life blooms.

There are some amusing parts in the book, he has a knack of getting a little bit lost on a regular basis and he is not afraid to speak his mind either with forceful opinions an subjects as diverse as HS2, the perils of industrial farming and the loss of so many of the birds and animals over the years. It is packed full of interesting facts and details as he draws from nature writers, poets and artists as well as architects and engineers that have been inspired, changed and made their living from the countryside. It has a great bibliography too with lots of relevant quotes and recommendations on other books to read. Not only is this a most enjoyable stroll through the English countryside at the walking speed, I really liked that he made an effort to give something back too by planting the acorns along his route. Even though it is not as lyrical as Macfarlane and Deakin it is still well worth reading.

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Review: The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Arthur Rowe has just got out of prison having served time for the mercy killing of his very ill wife and now living in London, mid-way through the blitz. A trip to the local fete is a welcome change from the recent trauma in his life and he wanders round the stalls. He has a go at guessing the weight of the cake, before entering a fortune tellers tent. She tells him what the correct weight of the cake is, so he enters a second time and wins it. Leaving the fete with the cake, the organisers try to stop him leaving with it, saying there has been a mistake. He refuses and takes the cake home.

So begins the most traumatic phase in Rowe’s life. The cake contains something that certain people really want back and they are prepared to go to almost any length to hunt him down and retrieve it. Even in his fragile mental state, he realises what is going on and he starts to discover just who is hunting him. Slowly he discovers more of the sinister conspiracy but he can’t go to the police as he is not totally sure of the facts or who is behind it.

Greene has put you in the character of Rowe, revealing limited details as the book unfolds and his position gets more and more perilous. It is a sparsely written book with a clever but bewildering plot. The tension from the war and the situation he finds himself in add to the drama too. I don’t think that I can count it as one of my favourites of his though, as it was a bit too convoluted, but I’d like to see the film version. 2.5 stars overall.

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Tuesday 23 August 2016

Review: The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you think of scientists that have formed the way that we think about world around us, the names that tend to come to mind are Newton, Darwin, Wallace, Davy and Einstein. In the mid-19th Century though the most famous scientist in the world was a man called Alexander von Humboldt, a man very few people have ever heard of these days.

von Humboldt had a fascination of everything around him; he studied plants, geology, volcanos, animal and the stars the weather and the movement of the planets. Everything fascinated him and he went on major expeditions to South America and across the Russian steppe to China, and bought back detailed notebooks and trunks stuffed full of specimens and samples. He was one of the first scientists to consider the interconnectedness of all natural things, noticing that climate zones were similar on completely different continents, something that didn’t really gain traction until Lovelock’s Gaia theory and his observations led him to predict our effects on the climate decades before anyone else.

He was the author of around thirty volumes that became best sellers and were translated into multiple languages. His lyrical writing not only inspired countless other scientists to further their studies, but they stimulated artists and poets to explore their own natural world. He wrote and recived thousands of letters a year, corresponding with American presidents, like Thomas Jefferson and iconic figures Simón Bolívar. Even though he was from Prussia and was a member of King Frederick William III court, he felt his spiritual home was in the intellectual melting pot of Paris, even though he was sometimes considered an enemy by Napoleon. The King insisted he return home, much to his disappointment, but he still spent some of the year there, meeting and talking with fellow scientists.

Wulf’s book is a captivating account of the life and achievements of von Humboldt. Just a glance at the comprehensive notes you can see it has taken an immense amount of research to write this book, but it is still very readable without being dry and academic. She has successfully managed to bring to life a scientist whose influence on our understanding of the natural world can still be seen today.

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Sunday 21 August 2016

More Books

Also got Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami and In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak yesterday

Review: Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor - A British Landscape in Modern Times

Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor - A British Landscape in Modern Times Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor - A British Landscape in Modern Times by Matthew Kelly
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dartmoor is an elemental place. The largest area of granite in the country is bleak yet beautiful and on a sunny day it can really show its glorious side. But bad weather here can be a killer, fog and rain sweeping in from that Atlantic can reduce visibility in no time at all. It is one of the reasons that the army still use the area for training. It is a place that has seen human activity for millennia too, there are tombs and enclosures scattered all over the National Park as well as evidence of people using the land to scratch a living.

It is home to the Dartmoor pony, an infamous prison and has inspired writers who have used the brooding melancholy to great effect, most famously in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It first became a National park in 1951 and is made up of common land as well as substantial tracts owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the MOD parts are owned by water companies the National Trust and the Forestry Commission. These various stakeholders have all sort of claims on the land, but the National Park Authority tries to control the various conflicting wishes.

It is not a bad book, but the emphasis is firmly looking at all the horse trading and political manoeuvring that had taken place from the formation of the park until the Dartmoor Commons Act that secured public access to the park, even on private land. I felt that there was not enough on the geology of this fascinating place and I would have preferred much more on the history on those that have used the landscape for ritual and other purposes. The political side is an element in the story of this place, but sadly it overwhelmed the book.

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Saturday 20 August 2016

Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin died ten years ago yesterday. He wrote the amazing Waterlog, a lyrical book about swimming in any pool of water that he could fit into. More than that he inspired the author Robert Macfarlane and countless others to explore, discover and most importantly write about what they see. 

All of his books are wonderful, if you have the slightest interest in nature then I cannot recommend them strongly enough.

The words by Macfarlane in the obituary are still poignant today:

Friday 19 August 2016

Book Haul

Collected four books from the library today:

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant
The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton
Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies by Peter Marren

An Astronomer's Tale: A Life Under the Stars by Gary Fildes

bought one for a pound:

Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland

And collected a review copy of:

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism by by Dan Hassler-Forest