Category Archives: book review

Testing testing, plus Billy Connolly’s Route 66

I know that thanks to the evil spambots the wibsite was down for quite a long time, and the recovery unfortunately meant that the pictures on previous blog posts have disappeared. I haven’t checked back to really old posts, I’m hoping that for me it’s just the recent pictures (which I had uploaded directly into the blog rather than having them hosted on flickr) which have disappeared, in which case it would be mainly pictures of book covers and pictures from the allotment which have gone, but either way I’m grateful to Chris in particular for all his hard work in getting the site back up to speed and hopefully less spammy.

So it’s been nearly 3 months since I wrote something here! My daily(ish) photo blog still continues here. I’m not sure whether to retire this blog (I think 10 years is a good length of time!), as I’m blogging elsewhere too (that photo blog, plus a more work-related blog on wordpress which I’ll not link to here as it’s in my real name). I’m quite nostalgic about this blog though, so I probably will still talk about holidays and books and things here.

The allotment’s going well too 🙂 We have started to harvest our first veg from it – we got some potatoes yesterday, and have also had spinach beet (the surprise hit of the allotment, I hadn’t expected it to do so well) and courgettes, plus some blackcurrants so far.

I’m trying to remember the last book I reviewed here. I’ve read in fits and starts, and have several on the go, but I think the only one I finished recently was Billy Connolly’s book accompanying his travel series when he travelled the entire length of Route 66. I enjoyed it a lot – I love his writing, and his spirit, he’s funny and respectful and observant, and was really good ‘company’ on the trip. I preferred the other book of his I read a few months ago (where he travelled the North-West Passage), but to be honest that was mainly because it had more pictures. This was a great read despite that, so definitely worth a read if you’re stuck for inspiration.

Stuff what I’ve read

As a break from the allotment posts (there might be another one of those tomorrow if the weather’s not too bad!) I realised I haven’t posted about what I’ve read since getting back from holiday (which was nearly 3 months ago, how on earth did that happen?!). At the start of January I decided to treat myself to an eReader, I decided in the end on a Sony Reader (I didn’t want a kindle as amazon don’t pay their tax, and also I don’t like that you can only buy kindle books on amazon). I’ve still got plenty of paper books to read, and also the local library, so I won’t be abandoning ‘proper’ books any time soon, but I must admit that the Reader is really handy for the train and I probably have read quite a bit more than I would have done otherwise. I’m also putting pdf journal articles on it so if I’m in a work-related reading mood there’s things there I can read. Anyway – stuff what I’ve read (all of these are free ebooks – from either Feedreads or Project Gutenberg, or from the University of Chicago Press, as I am on their mailing list and they provide a free ebook each month. Usually I don’t bother but have got a few really good ones that way):

Lavender Scare “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government” by David K. Johnson is one of the free ebooks I got from the UoC Press. It details US Government paranoia and the systemic and systematic persecution and rooting out of gays and lesbians from government jobs from the 1940s onwards, and the links to the much better known McCarthy-led persecution of alleged Communists (although arguably the ‘Lavender Scare’ was much more pervasive and had a much more devastating effect) starting with the State Department but moving on to every other department also. It features both government sources, media reports and also accounts from many people who lost their jobs but also those who then mobilised to lobby for change and for their rights. It was a great read, although very depressing – I’d highly recommend it.

Pilgrimage The next UoC Press free ebook I read was “Pilgrimage to the End of the World: the Road to Santiago de Compostela” by Conrad Rudolph. This was a strange book – part travelogue, part history, part “what to take if you do the pilgrimage”, part “these are the deep thoughts I had while I did the pilgrimage”, I think I found myself wishing it was one or the other but not all. It was interesting, and not a bad read, but there are better books on the pilgrimage. Mind you, it was a million times better than Paolo Coelho’s book on the pilgrimage, which is just awful! If you have to only choose between those two, definitely get Rudolph’s!

First LoveWhen I got the eReader I thought that I would download lots of free ‘classics’ – Project Gutenberg and Feedreads are both great sites for that, and I have several sitting waiting for me to read them. So far, apart from one Romanian book which I needed for some writing I’ve just done, and a book for bookgroup which was on offer for 20p in the Reader store, everything I’ve downloaded has been free, so that’s definitely a plus! I thought at my advanced age I really ought to try some Russian classics, as despite my fascination with and experience of that part of the world (well not Russia, but near enough) it was a bit embarrassing that I’ve not read any. So I’ve downloaded War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and several others, but I’m finding it a bit daunting to start with them, so I’ve read a couple of short stories instead. Queen of SpadesFirst up was “Queen of Spades” by Pushkin, 20-something pages so it was ideal for a single train journey to work. It was OK, I suppose, but I didn’t like any of the characters so I can’t say I was particularly taken with it. After that I tried a slightly longer one (took a couple of journeys), “First Love” by Turgenev. Again, it was interesting but I didn’t like any of the characters. Do all Russian classics feature princesses, officers, countesses and assorted aristos down on their luck and looking for ways to enrich themselves at others’ expense? I can’t say they were the greatest introduction to Russian classic writing, but I will give some of the novels a go and see where I end up.

2bro2bAs a bit of light relief I read another short story, this time by Kurt Vonnegut, “2BR02B” (“to be or not to be”). I read “Cat’s Cradle” a year or so ago and really enjoyed it, which surprised me as near-future dystopian novels aren’t really my thing, but I just really liked his writing. This was more of the same really – a short story about a future in which population is controlled through when a child is born someone volunteering to die. So it wasn’t very cheerful, but I did enjoy it much more.

I must admit getting an eReader has helped me read much more than I otherwise would have. I won’t stop getting paper books, but it has been great and is such a nice way to chill out.

Two more books

A book I forgot to review in my last post was Jostein Gaarder’s “A Christmas Mystery”. This is a children’s book, by the author of ‘Sophie’s World’, structured in 24 chapters and based round the revelations behind the doors of a mysterious advent calendar. It is a number of stories within a story – there is the story of Joachim, the boy who has the advent calendar, and his parents; there is the story revealed by the calendar of a journey back through time of a bunch of pilgrims as they travel towards Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ; and there is a mystery story entwined between the two stories. I thought it was a lovely book, and is one I’d happily read again each Christmas. I did though (much like ‘Sophie’s World’) think that the mystery aspect was the weakest bit of the book, and it left me with more questions despite being written as though the mystery was totally wrapped up in the final chapter. In both books I liked the history/philosophy aspect and appreciated the story that was used to frame that aspect of it, but as I say the mystery didn’t quite work for me, in both. Don’t be put off though, I thought this was a lovely story and is perfect Advent reading.

The other book that I started over Christmas, and finally finished today on the train, was “The Innocent Anthropologist” by Nigel Barley. I can’t remember who it was that recommended it but I’m so pleased they did, I enjoyed this. It’s quite an old book, it was originally published in 1983 so the fieldwork on which it is based must have been done probably in the late 1970s. It details Barley’s fieldwork in northern Cameroon among the Dowayo people, and (unlike most anthropological tomes of the time) is a very real look at the realities of life as the anthropologist ‘in the field’. As he identifies, most gloss over a lot of the realities (bureaucratic nightmares, illnesses, inconveniences, misunderstandings, long periods of boredom) but here he describes it all, fully acknowledging that it is usually he that is the butt of the joke. I really enjoyed it, and quite often laughed out loud at passages – when I wasn’t cringing, such as the passage where he has to go to the dentist (some of his reflections on his resulting dentures did make me laugh kind of nervously, I guess that must be a hang-over from my hospital nursing days, where it was false teeth more than anything else that would be guaranteed to turn my stomach). I did stop and think about given the year it was published, the work will have been done before AIDS was identified in Africa, and wonder how the Dowayo people have fared in the intervening years. I liked his observations about the position of the anthropologist ‘in the field’, his respect and affection for the people among whom he was living (including the local Protestant mission – which I thought was interesting given anthropology’s traditional hostility to missionary work/missionaries), and his accounts of gradually gaining the trust of the people. He didn’t come across in the slightest as the colonial studying the primitives – always a danger with these books. Recommended.

Books read over Christmas

I managed to read a couple of books while we were away over Christmas, both of which I highly recommend. First up was Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, which was an absolutely unputdownable read. It is a true account based on a scientific process that you would expect to be quite dry, namely tissue culture. For years scientists had been trying to cultivate cells which could replicate themselves, and the first ones that worked were taken from a cancerous tumour from Henrietta Lacks. The cell line was known as ‘HeLa’ (after the first letters of her first and second names) and has been used over the years in amazing scientific breakthroughs in treatments and research. However, for decades her family knew nothing about the cells, or what had happened to Henrietta, living in poverty while scientists got rich. The book entwines the stories of Henrietta, her various family members (particularly her daughter Deborah), the various scientists and doctors involved, and also Rebecca Skloot the author (she intertwines her own story of trying to track down the family and the various parties involved). I know that she has been criticised in some reviews for including too much of her own story, but I for one really enjoyed that aspect of the book, I guess that’s the researcher in me. The book raises really important issues around research ethics, racism, consent, progress, ownership, personhood – it really was an extraordinary read.

The other book I read was “An Atlas of Remote Islands” by Judith Schalansky. What a beautiful book! Schalansky was born in East Germany in 1980, and in her extensive introduction she talks about how as a child she used to pore over maps and atlases and talk about how one day she would travel, which at the time would have been impossible on that side of the Iron Curtain. She also talks a lot about the politics of maps, and the various decisions made about how they are drawn/made. The bulk of the book though is an exploration of some of the most isolated islands in the world – from every ocean, Arctic to Antarctic, Atlantic to Indian to Pacific. Each is given the same treatment – two pages each, the left hand page being written information, and the right hand page a scale drawing of the island under discussion. Rather than being ‘everything there is to know about X island’, she has researched interesting facts, so for some of them she details a historical event, others a geographical thing-of-interest, others a random factoid, and outlines those. It’s quite hard to describe actually, but I really thought it was beautiful – rather sparse, but a real work of art.

This week I got a new toy, I finally succumbed to the 21st century and got myself an eReader (not a kindle, as I’m both unhappy about amazon’s lack of taxpaying in the UK and also I don’t trust the proprietary device which will only allow you to buy compatible books via amazon). So far I have downloaded lots of free books, mostly classics (thank you Project Gutenberg and FeedBooks). I also have a big chunk of paper books still to be read, so I think these will keep me going for a good while! I have downloaded quite a few translations of Russian classics (which to my shame I have never read, not a single one!), so hopefully it will be educational as well as fun 🙂

I was having an interesting chat with people at work before Christmas about stuff we read, and (I did already know this, but it really hit me) I realised that I tend to read non-fiction to relax rather than fiction. I think this is for the same reason as I find watching films a bit stressful: I get so caught up in the ‘world’ of the film/book that the images and stories run round my mind for ages and ages and I can’t stop thinking about them, and then often dream about them too – it’s really difficult to let them go. Whereas non-fiction I can appreciate the writing, learn lots, get angry, get inspired, but it doesn’t knock my equilibrium quite so much! Although, as the book on Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells showed, some people’s lives really are stranger than fiction.

“A Passage to Africa” by George Alagiah

“A Passage to Africa” by TV foreign correspondent George Alagiah is my most recently finished read. It starts off detailing his own family’s emigration from then-Ceylon to newly independent Ghana when he was 5, and then subsequent chapters detail some of the countries he worked in as a correspondent – including Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda, Zaire (now DRC), Zimbabwe, South Africa. He talks about stuff that happened while he was working and reporting and his impressions of the wider history/context – it’s interesting, though of course harrowing too. It was published in 2001 and it was really interesting reading it a decade later with subsequent knowledge about what happened – I think he’s rather too optimistic about Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, for example – and I would love to see him write an updated version giving his take on the last decade. As I was reading it you could tell he was a foreign correspondent, a lot of the phrases were very TV news-friendly I thought, he’s good at distilling complex issues into a short paragraph, although of course in the distillation a lot of important detail is lost, as with any TV news report. Worth a read.

‘Journey to the Edge of the World’ by Billy Connolly

‘Journey to the Edge of the World’ is a TV tie-in book, accompanying the ITV series of the same name from a few years ago, where comedian Billy Connolly travelled from Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island via the North-West Passage. I thought this was a great book – Connolly is funny, respectful, whimsical, cutting, and totally open to all the people and places he comes across. There are various musings on Scottishness (particularly given the Scottish background of a lot of Canadians), living in other cultures, environment, travel, being in the world, social class, as well as the history of the various places he visits; I thought it was beautifully written and a joy to read. It is also the perfect TV tie-in book in that there is usually at least one picture on every page, stills from the TV series – it’s really beautiful. It’s yet another library book that I’m going to have to buy because I liked it so much and want my own copy!

‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell

We got this as a Christmas present a couple of Christmases ago and I finally managed to start and finish it recently! It’s the book that got a lot of conservative evangelicals’ knickers in a twist as it was allegedly promoting (shock horror) universalism and that hell wasn’t a burning lake of fire of eternal torment, but in all honesty I’m wondering what all the fuss is all about – I don’t think he said anything remotely controversial! I am pretty sympathetic to what he’s saying overall (whilst not being convinced by bits of a couple of his interpretations of individual parables), although it was quite difficult sometimes to figure out what his point actually is amongst all the millions of questions.

What did rile me though
was his habit
of breaking up sentences
into smaller lines
like this.

Although I suppose it does mean that it makes it a really quick read.

I’m being a bit unfair – I suppose if you are from a very conservative religious background then this would be pretty ground-shaking. But personally I think if you want a book that argues for universalism, then Keith Ward’s “The Bible: A Challenge for Fundamentalists” is much better. I must dig that out again sometime for a reread.

‘The Patient Paradox’ by Margaret McCartney

‘The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed-Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health’ is an absolutely brilliant book and one which I thoroughly recommend. Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow GP who also writes for the BMJ, several newspapers and appears regularly on Radio 4. She is really keen to promote evidence-based medicine, and gets really riled at claims which are made about treatments and interventions which in reality are less than evidence-based.

The paradox in the title, as she shows, is that the iller you are, the less likely you are to be able to access health services. This is because so many interventions are now aimed at healthy people, ‘pre-illness’ if you will, and those interventions are most likely to be taken up by people who are least likely to need them. She uses the example of screening to illustrate this point, but also critiques health charities, big pharma and governmental policies which have been more based on political ideology than evidence of improvement in health and services. If you liked Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ I am sure you would like this, it’s very much on the same lines, and meticulously referenced (unlike many of the claims she is critiquing). I really like how not only does she explain her concerns in language that non-medics could easily follow, but she backs up all her points with strong evidence and also outlines where there are gaps in evidence too (in other words where people/companies are making claims about products/policies but where there is no reliable research to substantiate those claims).

My one slight worry is that some people might read this and think that she is saying that there is no point in getting screening at all. I don’t think she is saying that, but what she is saying is that we (health services, policy makers, patients) need to consider the evidence and make informed decisions rather than be brow-beaten into something which may not necessarily be as useful for us as is claimed. However there are just so many examples where services do not live up to this need that it is a bit relentless in the book.

Personally I think this book (like ‘Bad Science’) should be compulsory reading for all medical, nursing and allied health professional students. If I have a group of OU students for one of my courses (not sure yet, still waiting on student numbers) I will definitely be suggesting it to them as extra reading, as it is highly relevant for that course and I kept thinking ‘ooh we talk about that in the course’ throughout the book. Highly recommended.

‘Isles of the West’ by Ian Mitchell

‘Isles of the West’ is an interesting book, not least because it predates a number of historical events so I was reading knowing what happened a few years later. In the summer of 1996 the author set sail from his home of Islay and sailed round the Hebridean islands for 3 months, and this book chronicles his encounters with the places and people. It is never sentimental but it is clear he really loves the islands and has a lot of time for their more colourful characters. The book is also really scathing about the conservation ‘industry’ and the impact that different conservation groups have had in their dealings with the local communities – some of the encounters with organisational representatives had me cringeing as I read.

It was also interesting as he encounters a number of the same people who were interviewed for ‘Island Voices’ (see review a few posts down), and also talks about the Eigg community buy-out (a few years ago our book group read ‘Soil and Soul’ by Alastair Mackintosh which detailed his involvement in the eventually successful buy-out). At the time of the trip the island was still up for sale and the islanders were applying for funds to undertake the buy-out, and he is clearly sceptical about the benefits of that, which was a really interesting alternative viewpoint from the very ‘pro’ ‘Soil and Soul’ account.

Since the book was published all sorts of things have changed, not least the creation of the Scottish Parliament. So this was interesting as a historical account, yes, but I think there is plenty here that stands the test of time. It was always a controversial book (particularly on account of its treatment of the conservation industry); 16 years after the trip that inspired it, it hasn’t lost its sting.

‘Shetland Diaries’ by Simon King

My latest island-based reading is Simon King’s ‘Shetland Diaries’. This is a TV tie-in book; Simon King is a wildlife cameraman and presenter probably best-known in the UK for presenting ‘Springwatch’. A couple of years ago he spent, on and off, a year with his family in Shetland for a 3 part series which documented both his family life (he has a young and very cute daughter who at the time was 2-3 and who would sometimes accompany him on his nature-watching adventures; his wife also films wildlife) (didn’t want to call her a ‘cameraman’ but couldn’t think of an alternative!) and the life of the wildlife of Shetland throughout the year.

His enthusiasm for both the place and the wildlife is unmistakeable, he clearly loves both. I really liked when he was describing the wildlife and what they were up to, whether they were puffins, otters, red-throated divers, orcas, gannets or all manner of other things, and also the background to filming them (the long hikes, abseiling over cliffs etc) – maybe because I saw two of the three programmes in the series (I unfortunately missed the first one) and also because I’ve been to a couple of the places he mentions I could picture the scene well. I think I would have liked some more pictures, but that probably says more about me than the book!

Because it was also about his family life as well as the place and its wildlife it felt both more personal but also more disjointed in parts. Having said that though I did sometimes feel very moved by his talking about his daughter’s wonder at discovering more of the world. It was also entertaining and even amusing in parts, and all in all was a nice easy read for the train!