Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

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First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

Wordy Wednesday 5

Words.

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On World Book day I blogged about the wonderful collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words, and in this I suggested that perhaps it grew out of Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks.

But Landmarks is a marvellous book in its own right, and has much the the same aim as The Lost Words, in that it introduces the reader to scores of words it is unlikely they will have come across before.

These are almost exclusively words from Britain used to describe objects and phenomena in the natural world, be it a word peculiar to East Anglia for a small stream (a currel, since you ask), a word from Sussex for a heap of dung (a maxon), or, from Suffolk, a measure of herrings or sprats (a cade).

Most of these are obscure because they are words in local dialect, and therefore only used in a small number of places, or have fallen into disuse and been virtually lost over the years, or are very specialised words that it is unlikely the majority of people would ever come across.

The book is filled with background stories by the author, either of his own experiences or those of other writers and scholars with a deep love and understanding of words and the natural world, which makes the whole book far more than simply a glossary of lost words.

The reader is introduced to a wealth of knowledge and experience on all aspects of the subject, from seas and rivers to woodlands and mountains, farmed land, the strange no-man’s land at the edge of settlements, and even deep underground.

Personally, I have been trying to drop the word smeuse into conversations since reading the book. It is a Sussex word, and so was / is in use fairly locally to me and means…well, read the book and find out what it means.

Oh, and maxon. Naturally.

Certainly a five star read.

Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.

Review of Small Town Kid by Frank Prem

Small Town Kid (Frank Prem Memoir Book 1)

I have enjoyed Frank’s poetry ever since I discovered it a couple of years ago.

Small Town Kid is a book of poems about growing up in a small town in Australia during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The town is provincial, the way that small towns invariably are, where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business.

In those days, a small town was very different to a small town today, now the internet and social media have changed even the slow-paced life of these places forever. And so those of a certain age will recognise many of the situations and much of subject matter of these poems, while to those much younger they may well seem almost alien.

Rich in emotions, as well as in visual detail, we listen to Frank describe experiences such as hunting rabbits, letting off fireworks, and going on picnics, turning his nose up at his mother’s cooking and enjoying his grandmother’s cakes, suffering school and returning home at the end of the day. We find ourselves both observing and participating in the day to day life of his town.

This could be any small town, and any child. If you could extract the peculiarly Australian nuances and replace them with others, the poems might be about a small town anywhere and any child who grew up in it.

The poems are presented in an order showing the boy growing up from his earliest years through to reaching young adulthood, taking the reader on a journey alongside him.

And they have that power, that they transport you there.

Frank writes sparingly, knowing like an artist when to stop. But everything is there, and the writing invariably has beauty no matter what its subject matter.

Unhesitatingly, I give this book five stars.

You can find more of Frank’s poetry on his blogsites:

https://frankprem.wordpress.com/

https://seventeensyllablepoetry.wordpress.com/

Review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

A year ago I read The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and decided it was so good I would have to read all of the others. And so recently I finished her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In this, Anuradha Roy tells the story of three generations of a family who have moved from Calcutta to live in a huge, rambling mansion in Songarh, a small town in the hills of Bengal.

Amulya’s wife, Kananbala, hates the isolation of the town, with its lack of fashionable shops and social life, and longs to return to Calcutta. Their oldest son, Kamal, longs for children, and his youngest, Nirmal, is widowed and longs for his unmarried cousin.

Everyone appears to long for something that proves unattainable, and at the centre of the story are two children, thrown together by chance circumstance and then separated by the cultural fears of adults, but who have formed an unbreakable bond that endures through years of separation.

Mukunda is an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family, and his only companion is Bakul, daughter of Nirmal. They pass their time playing in the grounds of their home or in the woods and fields around the town.

As Bakul and Mukunda grow towards adulthood, their friendship slowly begins to become something more, and Mukunda is sent away to Calcutta by the family, suddenly fearful of the consequences of this.

As the years pass, Mukunda graduates from college and becomes prosperous, even through the years of Partition, without ever returning to see the family who raised him, although he thinks frequently of Bakul. But then chance sends him to Songarh, and he realises he must find out what has happened to her.

The pace of this book is deceptively languid, but this enables Roy to paint the characters and settings in exquisite detail, and for the plot to unfold at an easily assimilable rate.

I feel you always gain more from re-reading a book, and I am longing to do this, to immerse myself again in the rich landscape and characters Roy has created.

Most definitely a five star read.

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…

Wow, What a book #2

To continue with the 10 books that have most influenced my life.

My second choice is The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien.

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I suspect that very few readers are unaware of the story of The Lord of the Rings, having either read the book, seen the film, or both. And at this point, it might be a good idea to just make it clear that I am talking about the book here, and not the Peter Jackson films, or even the ill-fated attempt at animating the entire book in 1978, an attempt that got as far as the first book, and was, to be honest, rather dreadful. Let me content myself by just saying it was a bit ‘Disney’. I’m not that mad on the Peter Jackson films either, to be honest, but back to the book.

So, I’m not going into any great detail about the story, but, in a nutshell, it involves a quest to destroy a ring that gives great power to the wearer, but inevitably corrupts and destroys them. It’s maker, Sauron, is attempting to find it, and the free peoples of the world must not only keep it from him, for if he recovers it it he will then have power to enslave the entire world, but also take it to the fiery mountain, Mount Doom, where it had been forged, to cast it into the flames and destroy it.

Mount Doom is, inconveniently, inside Sauron’s heavily fortified and guarded kingdom.

Elves, dwarves, men, wizards, hobbits, orcs…you all know it, don’t you?

As readers, we are all different. Some of us like a plot that gallops along so fast that we can barely keep up, with writing that limits itself to the action and no more than the minimum descriptions necessary.

Others, like me, enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the described world almost as much as the plot itself – join the Slow Book Movement now! Just send a completed application form to…sorry, wrong place. Where was I? Oh yes, most readers like a mixture of the two, of course.

But as one of these Slow Readers, there is a massive amount in this book that appeals to me. When I read descriptions of the hobbits setting off to walk through woods and fields as the sun comes up through early autumn mists, I might have been reading a description of a morning when I had done just that whilst wild camping in the countryside in my part of England. I have always loved walking on footpaths and through fields and woods, and disliked roads and towns.

The countryside Tolkien described around the Shire – the home of the hobbits – might have been my countryside. there were chalk downs and woods and streams, even one or two names (for example Michel Delving) that could have been local.

There were other woodlands in the book, and if they were described as magical, then that was little more than I naturally felt about woodlands anyway. Aren’t they all magical?

And, on top of all that, there were mountains. Today, I love mountains! But I had never seen one at this point, and suddenly I wanted to go and climb one. There were inns and beer, adventure and song, friendship and dangers. What was not to like?

The whole book is really made up of three books, and the first book, which has always been my favourite, is the one which is mainly set in this land that I could almost identify. This was not the first fantasy book that I had read, but it was, and still is, the one whose descriptions have the greatest power to draw me in. It is the one that, to me, seems the most real.

All of this, with the themes of courage and friendship, self sacrifice and loyalty, and the message that good will eventually triumph over evil, come together in a mixture that is in just the right proportions to appeal to me.

But how has it actually influenced me?

For a start, when I began to write, everything that I wrote seemed to be influenced by that book. This was not actually a good thing, because other than The Lord of the Rings, I don’t really enjoy fantasy! But I wrote that way for a long while.

Today, though, what remains is the descriptive writing. I wonder whether I might otherwise have been a very different reader and writer, since before I read LOTR, I read mainly detective stories and adventure novels.

And I explored a lot of the Middle English literature that influenced Tolkien, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I suppose not too many people do today.

I visited mountains because of that book.

And a measure of how strong this appeal was (and remains) is that I have probably read the book about twenty times. The last but one time, though, was around twenty years ago. When I decided to re-read it last year, I did wonder whether I would be disappointed. I strongly suspected that I might have ‘grown out of it’.

I needn’t have worried.

I enjoyed it just as much as I ever had; I noticed one or two details I had either forgotten or never really noticed in the first place, and I found myself drawn in every bit as strongly as I had been before.

I loved it.