Thursday, 22 March 2018

Review: Ground Work: Writings on People and Places

Ground Work: Writings on People and Places Ground Work: Writings on People and Places by Tim Dee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Over the past thirty years, Common Ground has sought to link the places to the people that live in them. Formed by Sue Clifford, Angela King and the late writer Roger Deakin, with the intention of bringing together arts and environmental interests and engaging local responses to those places on a daily basis. They have instigated events like Apple Days and been the driving force for those creating community woodlands. They are a brilliant charity that deserves more recognition, and the batten, or should I say hazel pole, has been passed to the safe hands of Adrian Cooper and Gracie Burnett of the fantastic Little Toller.

In Ground Work, Tim Dee has collated the thoughts and observations of thirty-one of the finest landscape and natural history writers around. This poetic and literary collection is the response to the threat that is being posed by the 'soft-skinned, warm-blooded, short-lived, pedestrian species' that has turned our present day into a new epoch; the Anthropocene. This new era is already causing chaotic changes to our weather systems, there is the steady creep upwards in average temperature across the globe as well as significant and it some cases catastrophic changes to our environments.

The authors that have contributed to this collection include some of my favourites, Paul Farley, Fiona Sampson, Mark Cocker, Helen MacDonald, Adam Nicolson and Richard Mabey to name but a few. There are others that I have read a little of like John Burnside and a number that I have never come across before, such as Julia Blackburn and Sean Borodale. They were free to write about anything they chose, so not only do we have an amazing vein of prose from some of the best nature and landscape writers around, but they have given us a raft of different perspectives from places all around the world that are significant to them. The subjects are diverse too, there are musings on art, bridges, bees, sculpture, memories of childhood, fossils and the rapidly declining cuckoo. We travel from the high Arctic to an English woodland, allotments and summer meadows, post-industrial beaches to a desert road.

Rooted deep in the principles of Common Ground, this is a celebration of our how own local area can define us as much as our DNA and education, themes that are picked up in the fantastic 21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox. All the way through the various essays, you feel the comforting presence of Roger Deakin encouraging us to discover and explore our local patch regardless of whether it is an SSSI, a local park or an eerie holloway. This book goes a long way to addressing the way that some people consider that scouring their local area of anything natural makes them more human; it doesn’t, it makes us all less human. This is a fine companion volume to Arboreal, which is another Common Ground inspired work as a tribute to Oliver Rackman and the vital part that woodlands play in our well being. A truly excellent book.

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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Wellcome Prize Shortlist

People who follow me on here (thank you all) know that I read a lot of non-fiction. I have a particular interest in travel, natural history and science. The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction with a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. This can cover many genres of writing – including crime, romance, popular science, sci-fi and history. By highlighting the best books with these themes that will affect us in some way throughout our lives, the Wellcome Trust aims to spark debate and interest around the variety of topics.

The longlist was announced on the 8th February and had the following 12 titles on it, two of which I had read. My predictions as to what was going to be on the shortlist are in bold (which is seven I know!):

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death by Mark O’Connell

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial by Kathryn Mannix

Mayhem: A memoir by Sigrid Rausing

The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses by Meredith Wadman

In Pursuit of Memory: The fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli

Plot 29: A memoir by Allan Jenkins

The White Book by Han Kang

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen brushes with death by Maggie O’Farrell

Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst by Robert Sapolsky

Yesterday the shortlist was announced and the following six had made it to the next stage:

Stay With Me By Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

Canongate Books

Yejide is hoping for a miracle, for a child. It is all her husband wants, all her mother-in-law wants, and she has tried everything. But when her relatives insist upon a new wife, it is too much for Yejide to bear.

Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 1980s Nigeria, Stay With Me is a story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the power of grief, and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about the desperate attempts we make to save ourselves, and those we love, from heartbreak.

Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (30, Nigeria) stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ebedi Hills, Ox-Bow School of Arts and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2017 Stay With Me, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine By Lindsey Fitzharris

Allen Lane, Penguin Press

The story of a visionary British surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world - the safest time to be alive in human history

Victorian operating theatres were known as 'gateways of death', Lindsey Fitzharris reminds us, since half of those who underwent surgery didn't survive the experience. This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, when surgeons often lacked university degrees, and were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers. While the discovery of anaesthesia somewhat lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to more deaths, as surgeons took greater risks. In squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high.

At a time when surgery couldn't have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection - and could be treated with antiseptics - he changed the history of medicine forever.

With a novelist's eye for detail, Fitzharris brilliantly conjures up the grisly world of Victorian surgery, revealing how one of Britain's greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end.

Lindsey Fitzharris (34, USA) received her doctorate in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the University of Oxford and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wellcome Institute. She is the creator of the popular website The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and she writes and presents the YouTube series Under the Knife. She has written for the ‘Guardian’, the Lance’, New Scientist, Penthouse and the Huffington Post, and has appeared on PBS, Channel 4, BBC and National Geographic.

With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial By Kathryn Mannix

William Collins, HarperCollins UK

Told through a series of beautifully crafted stories taken from nearly four decades of clinical practice, her book answers the most intimate questions about the process of dying with touching honesty and humanity. She makes a compelling case for the therapeutic power of approaching death not with trepidation but with openness, clarity and understanding.

With the End in Mind is a book for us all: the grieving and bereaved, ill and healthy. Open these pages and you will find stories about people who are like you, and like people you know and love. You will meet Holly, who danced her last day away; Eric, the retired head teacher who, even with Motor Neurone Disease, gets things done; loving, tender-hearted Nelly and Joe, each living a lonely lie to save their beloved from distress; and Sylvie, 19, dying of leukaemia, sewing a cushion for her mum to hug by the fire after she has died.

These are just four of the book’s thirty-odd stories of normal humans, dying normal human deaths. They show how the dying embrace living not because they are unusual or brave, but because that’s what humans do. By turns touching, tragic, at times funny and always wise, they offer us illumination, models for action, and hope. Read this book and you’ll be better prepared for life as well as death.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death By Mark O’Connell

Granta Books

What is transhumanism? Simply put, it is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are. It's a philosophy that, depending on how you look at it, can seem hopeful, or terrifying, or absurd. In To Be a Machine, Mark O'Connell presents us with the first full-length exploration of transhumanism: its philosophical and scientific roots, its key players and possible futures. From charismatic techies seeking to enhance the body to immortalists who believe in the possibility of 'solving' death; from computer programmers quietly re-designing the world to vast competitive robotics conventions; To Be a Machine is an Adventure in Wonderland for our time. To Be a Machine paints a vivid portrait of an international movement driven by strange and frequently disturbing ideas and practices, but whose obsession with transcending human limitations can be seen as a kind of cultural microcosm, a radical intensification of our broader faith in the power of technology as an engine of human progress. It is a character study of human eccentricity, and a meditation on the immemorial desire to transcend the basic facts of our animal existence - a desire as primal as the oldest religions, a story as old as the earliest literary texts.A stunning new non-fiction voice tackles an urgent question... what next for mankind?

Mark O’Connell (38, Ireland) is a journalist, essayist and literary critic from Dublin. He is a books columnist for Slate, a staff writer at The Millions, and a regular contributor to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog and the Dublin Review; his work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review and the Observer.

Mayhem: A memoir by Sigrid Rausing

Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books

A searingly powerful memoir about the impact of addiction on a family

In the summer of 2012 a woman named Eva was found dead in the London townhouse she shared with her husband, Hans K. Rausing. The couple had struggled with drug addiction for years, often under the glare of tabloid headlines. Now, writing with singular clarity and restraint the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing, tries to make sense of what happened to her brother and his wife.

In Mayhem, she asks the difficult questions those close to the world of addiction must face. 'Who can help the addict, consumed by a shaming hunger, a need beyond control? There is no medicine: the drugs are the medicine. And who can help their families, so implicated in the self-destruction of the addict? Who can help when the very notion of 'help' becomes synonymous with an exercise of power; a familial police state; an end to freedom, in the addict's mind?'

Sigrid Rausing (56, Sweden/UK) is the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books. She is the author of two previous books: ‘History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia’ and ‘Everything is Wonderful’, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and of St Antony’s College, Oxford. She lives in London.

The Vaccine Race: How scientists used human cells to combat killer viruses By Meredith Wadman

Doubleday, Transworld

Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from Sweden, produced safe, clean cells that allowed the creation of vaccines against rubella and other common childhood diseases. Two years later, in the midst of a devastating German measles epidemic, his colleague developed the vaccine that would one day wipe out homegrown rubella. The rubella vaccine and others made with those fetal cells have protected more than 150 million people in the United States, the vast majority of them preschoolers. The new cells and the method of making them also led to vaccines that have protected billions of people around the world from polio, rabies, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A, shingles and adenovirus.

Meredith Wadman's masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who "owns" research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.

With another frightening virus imperiling pregnant women on the rise today, no medical story could have more human drama, impact, or urgency today than The Vaccine Race.

Meredith Wadman MD (57, USA/Canada) has a long profile as a medical reporter and has covered biomedical research politics from Washington, DC, for 20 years. She has written for Nature, Fortune, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Stanford University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she began medical school at the University of British Columbia and completed medical school as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. She is an Editorial Fellow at New America, a DC think-tank.

It is really good to see so many female authors on the long and shortlists, but which is going to win though? Not sure yet, as I haven't read them all, but I am on the shadow panel for this with Annabel GaskellClare Rowland and Dr. Laura Tisdall  which is being hosted by Rebecca Foster. We are all going to be reading them all and will reveal our choice nearer the time. Tell me what you have read and liked in the comments below.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Review: Forgotten Kingdom

Forgotten Kingdom Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas in Yunnan Province lies the capital city of the almost forgotten Nakhi Kingdom, Likiang. This city was the home of the Nakhi, one of 56 ethnic groups now officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. These people were thought to have originated in northwestern China and migrated south to this region. Along with the Tibetans they traded with India and Lhasa over the Tea and Horse Caravan routes. This part of China was almost unknown until the American botanist Joseph Rock and the Russian traveller and writer Peter Goullart bought the region to the attention of the world.

Goullart was Russian by birth and grew up in Moscow and Paris. He fled from Russia after the revolution and as the Far East was a fascinating place ended up in China where he learnt the language as a tour guide. After Japan invaded in 1939 he managed to secure an appointment as a Chinese Industrial Cooperatives representative and got posted to the city of Likiang (often spelt Lijiang). He was to spend the next eight years there immersed in the customs and daily lives of the people.

This book tells of his period spent there, his calm judgements and thoughtful dealing with the locals meant that he was easily accepted into the complex society and was to make many friends there. Being close to India and Tibet, it was a crossroads of cultures and trade routes so the locals had managed to absorb a smorgasbord of beliefs from Confucianism and Buddhism to Shamanism along with Animism and Taoism. Even life was fairly tough then, it didn't stop the people enjoying themselves and Goullart recounts many a time spent in the bars and socialising with the locals drinking the yintsieu wine. The setting up of co-operatives meant that he had to travel in the region, this meant that he had several precarious journeys alongside the rivers and canyons as he moved across the mountains.

It is an utterly fascinating account of a virtually unknown part of China long absorbed into the Communist bloc. In 1949 he had to rush to leave the place as the party began to appear in the local area with the local bullies finding positions of power in the new regime. He is an eloquent writer, uncovering the details that make the stories that he tells so compelling to read. He has a genuine warmth towards the people that he was initially responsible for, helping with medicines and is generous with his time and money to those that he came into contact with. There are amazing pictures of the people he knew in the town, and overall a superb book.

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Review: Wild and Free

Wild and Free Wild and Free by Dominic Couzens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

In the urban sprawl, it is sometimes hard to see the natural world, but most people don't realise that after an hour or so in the car from their front door they'd be able to see some of best examples of wildlife, woodlands and our finest natural landscapes. Thankfully in this book, Dominic Couzens has collated a list of the places that you may be close to that will give you the best opportunity to see the wildlife in your region.

There is something in here for everyone, moorlands, coastal and wetlands, woodlands and even derelict industrial areas. There is a short history of each place and personal suggestions on what to see from Couzens. Each of the 100 places that he recommends to visit, contains details of how to get there and where to park as well as lots of details on what delights that you could see depending upon the season that you visit. The book is packed full of photos of the sites, as well as the beautiful artworks by Elizabeth Baldin. Not just for wildlife lovers, but perhaps everyone to keep one in the glovebox of the car. 3.5 stars

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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Review: The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood

The Wood: The  Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood by John Lewis-Stempel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Until recently woodlands were essential to our survival, we used them for food, fuel and livelihoods. Even though very few make their living from them now, they are places that hold a special place in the hearts of people in the UK, as the government found out when they tried to sell off the Forestry Commission, a decision that was quickly reversed given the outcry. Just taking a walk through a wood helps nature seep back into your soul and are a sanctuary from the madness of modern life.

Sadly I don't own my own woodland, but John Lewis-Stempel does, and his three and a half acres of mixed species in Herefordshire is a typical small wood. He has managed Cockshutt Wood now for four years, watching the way it changes through the seasons, tracing the paths that animals have made through the understory and taking time to stay still, observe as the lives of the birds and animals play out around him. He lets his cattle and pigs root around in the woods too, a method of farming that harks back centuries. Lots of these woodlands are under threat, but not this one; this is a cherished patch, a place of refuge, a place that he visits every day, just because. Woodlands show the daily march of time through the seasons and yet when you are within one, time seems to stand still.

This is another sublime book from Lewis-Stempel to add to his raft of award-winning books. I really liked the diary format and the way that it is interspersed with folklore, poems, history, recipes and personal thoughts. The longer entries reflect when he has had time to pause and absorb the sights and smells of his wood, and brief entries when he was charging off elsewhere, even the shortest of visits would be sufficient to recharge his soul. 4.5 stars

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Saturday, 17 March 2018

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Review: Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands

Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands Dip: Wild Swims from the Borderlands by Andrew Fusek Peters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The superb Waterlog by the late Roger Deakin has inspired many people to rediscover the delights of wild swimming; Joe Minihane writes about following in the wet footprints of Deakin in Floating as he travels around the country to the same locations. Swimming With Seals is set in Orkney and tells of Victoria Whitworth wild swimming experiences there. And there is the superb Turning by Jessica J. Lee, where she battles self-doubt and depression and challenges herself to swim in 52 of the lakes around Berlin.

Andrew Fusek Peters takes a different perspective in Dip. This is his account of swimming in the pools, rivers, and lakes over the course of a year near where he lives in the Shropshire county and elsewhere. He is prepared to swim any time of the year, braving the bone-chilling waters in January, dipping into the refreshing pools in the heat of August, being invigorating by waterfalls and braving the delights of a bog pool.

As with a lot of natural history books now, there is a personal side to this book as he describes the other dip that he suffered from, a deep depression that affected him so much so that he had a spell in hospital at his very lowest ebb and reached a point where it was life-threatening. This dark undercurrent to his life was as much to do with personal circumstances as it was his character, he is haunted by his father's suicide and still deeply saddened by his brother's early death from AIDS.

There is a deep melancholy and eloquence to his writing as even though he was better when he wrote the book, the spectre of depression is still a shadow in the background and its swirls still muddy the waters of his life. It also demonstrates the healing benefits of being outdoors and closer to the natural world as he immerses himself in the waters. The book is greatly enhanced by the photographs in the book taken by his daughter took and short excerpts of poetry that are liberally scattered throughout. It is another book in the natural history memoir sub-genre that is worth reading.

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