Category Archives: book review

“Island Voices” by Fiona MacDonald

I’m on a bit of a Scottish island thing at the moment with my reading – the last book I reviewed here was ‘Sea Room’ (about the Shiants) and I’ve just started a book on Shetland, with another on St Kilda towards the top of the ‘must read next’ pile. This is the library book I finished recently which I enjoyed, it was a fascinating look at the Hebrides. Fiona MacDonald is a journalist of Hebridean descent, and for this book she travelled throughout the Hebrides (Inner and Outer) interviewing people and getting them to tell their stories. It’s an impressive range – the youngest would have been about 12, the oldest in their 90s, and they spanned all sorts of backgrounds – born and bred on the islands, incomers, ex-Army, rich, poor, crofters, landowners and everything in-between. As I read through each person’s story (each took around 4-5 pages) interesting things emerged around things like preservation of culture -vs- modernisation, the past and future of the Gaelic language, the place of young people in the population and the lure/turnoff of the mainland, how they view and are viewed by outsiders, etc. A really fascinating book, I’m so glad I picked it out to read. Hooray for libraries 🙂

“Sea Room” by Adam Nicolson

I got this book from the library, but loved it so much I have just ordered myself another copy to keep, as I will definitely come back to it (sorry about the tiny picture!). Nicolson is from a pretty well-known family – amongst others his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West, and I am pretty sure his uncle was the artist Ben Nicolson. He is now a Baron, though he doesn’t use the title (according to Wikipedia), and he has written on a number of subjects, most recently about the English gentry. His father bought three islands in the Hebrides, the Shiant Isles (which lie in the Minch just off Lewis, north of Skye) in the 1930s from author Compton McKenzie, and passed them to him when he was 21 (he did the same for his own son when he reached 21, he is the current owner). “Sea Room” was written a few years before he handed the islands to his son’s ownership, and basically covers the history, geography, geology, architecture, botany etc of the islands as well as his own feelings and relationship to them.

At heart it’s a love letter, and is beautifully written. I loved reading Alastair MacIntosh’s “Soil and Soul” about the community buy-out on the island of Eigg, and in general I am all for the community buy-outs, reclaiming the land from landowners with no interest in the community and landscape and history of the place they own. But here I was really torn – he had so much love, and respect, and care for the islands, as well as a deep awareness of his outsider status and the importance of the islands to the wider islands community, that it simply isn’t possible to look at this in the same ‘landowner=the baddie’ way that you could on Eigg and other places.

Definitely recommended, a beautiful book. There is more information (including a sample chapter of the book) on the official Shiant Isles website.

‘We are all weird’ by Seth Godin

‘We are all weird’ is a book I got for Christmas, I had put it on my wish list after having read one of my friend’s facebook reviews of it where she raved about it. I’m not sure having finished it I’d rave about it, to be honest, but it was a good quick read and quite interesting. Godin’s basic thesis is about how the world is moving away from ‘mass’ (particularly in the context of mass marketing) and towards ‘weird’ – it’s basically a manifesto for not conforming to the mass market. As I read it it often made me think of Steve Jobs – it is very ‘American’ in tone (not meant to be derogatory), and he seemed like a quirky motivational speaker – it’s lots of short paragraphs with one main point, which to be honest could have mostly stood alone away from the others, so I did get a bit annoyed with it stylistically. HD read it and thought it wasn’t anything new, that it was the same as discussions on usenet boards in the late 80s, but as I wasn’t a techhead then (or indeed now, as my current attempts to work out my new shiny phone show) it was a bit newer to me. I mostly nodded along to it, there wasn’t anything I massively disagreed with, though I think it’s rather idealistic. It’s a book I thought Tractor Girl might like to read; you’d probably get a much more profound review from her than me though 🙂

Book review: “Spanish Steps” by Tim Moore

I got this book from the library a while ago, I knew it would be good as I have read a couple of Tim Moore’s travel books before (‘Frost on my moustache’ and ‘Do not pass go’) and enjoyed them. This is the tale of Moore’s journey doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, accompanied by his donkey Shinto.

The other two accounts I have read of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage were the Ship of Fools Mystery Pilgrim 2002 pilgrimage report (Augustine the Aleut is obviously pretty hardcore, as he’s done the pilgrimage several other times since then; must read the more recent reports too) which I had found profound and moving, and Paolo Coelho’s execrable ‘The Pilgrimage’, which in contrast I had found to be pseudospiritual New Age willy-waving of the highest order and is possibly my most loathed book of all time (it even made me stop for a second when I realised, when I first started going out with HD, that it was one of only 4 or 5 books that we had in common in our book collections!). “Spanish Steps” in my experience managed to redeem the pilgrimage for me after Coelho had so spectacularly spoilt it – Moore does not claim to be remotely religious, and this is largely a travelogue and tale of his (usually donkey-related) mishaps, but it manages to be both laugh out loud funny and infused with regular dollops of non-annoying profundity. Absolutely recommended – it almost makes me want to do the Camino myself (if someone that hapless can do it …), although realistically the tales of dubious facilities, rows of fetid socks hanging up to dry and hills (especially the uphill bits) means it’s never going to happen. If like me you’re going to be an armchair pilgrim then this is a really good addition to the experience.

Book review: ‘Cat’s Cradle’ by Kurt Vonnegut

This was the most recent book group book, and (amazingly) one that I actually finished! I’d not read any Kurt Vonnegut before (probably the most famous book of his is ‘Slaughterhouse Five’), and I’m not really into dystopian stories so can’t say I was massively looking forward to reading this, but I was pleasantly surprised. It is the story of a journalist/author who is writing about one of the creators of the atomic bomb and discovers that he had also created a chemical called Ice Nine which is capable of freezing the entire planet. He then sets about trying to trace the chemical, which leads him to the inventor’s three crazy children, a mad Caribbean island dictatorship and an unlikely and openly made-up religion. I thought the characters, major and minor, were all quirky and even though I wouldn’t particularly want to meet any of them enjoyed the time reading about them. I particularly liked the religion aspect, which was I thought rather profound amongst all the ridiculousness. I don’t think everyone would enjoy the chapter every two pages aspect of it, but for me that was one of the book’s strengths, both in terms of getting me through it – psychologically I found myself thinking “I’ll just read another couple of chapters” and then “I’ll just get to the next number-ending-in-0 chapter” and then finding I’d read another twenty and was well on my way to finishing – it didn’t feel turgid at all; and also because I found the chapter titles helped me focus – they basically summed up the main point of the chapter so it just didn’t feel like hard work. Recommended, and I might even try out ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ some time.

‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Most recently I have finished this book, which I bought in Guernsey a couple of years ago when we went to Auntie Doris‘ wedding but had never got round to reading. I had previously heard a review on the radio when it was first published and thought it sounded good, but it’s only now that I have read it, having suggested it for book group.

It is the story of Juliet, an English writer in 1946, searching for subject matter for a new book, who starts to correspond with people in Guernsey who share her love of books and through their correspondence learns about the German occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War. The book is written entirely in the form of letters between various characters. One of the newspaper reviews called it ‘reminiscent of 84 Charing Cross Road and ‘Allo ‘Allo; from the beginning I had thought of 84 Charing Cross Road (which is also entirely in the form of letters) though I think the ‘Allo ‘Allo reference is a bit more tenuous! Though having said that, the character who reads head bumps is probably straight out of a sitcom, she did make me laugh. I found it charming and funny and gentle, but also shocking in the way that all of a sudden some of the atrocities of the Occupation would be revealed, it was very effective. I did think that the Guernsey characters were portrayed as a bit cliched ‘simple folk with hearts of gold’ kind of thing, and I always felt Juliet was more American rather than English (the author was an American; the book was completed by her niece). I also found the end a bit corny and twee, but not too over-the-top. It’s not a heavy literary masterpiece or anything, it was a pretty quick read, but I did enjoy it very much – a nice light read, but with a bit of substance to it.

‘Bonk’ by Mary Roach

I recently finished the book “Bonk: the curious coupling of science and sex” by Mary Roach. Roach’s background is journalism, which I think shows in the accessibility of the writing. She took it upon herself to look at the (very curious) world of sex research, and has come up with a fascinating (and often very funny) account. The whole sex research scene comes across as faintly absurd and often rather dubious, but she gives a great overview and I really enjoyed the book. It is one of those books where I kept thinking “well I didn’t know *that*!” (for example, did you know that the only other mammal apart from the human where the male fondles the female’s breasts is the pig? There’s one for your next pub quiz). It is also one of those books which sometimes made me wince – the section on the various contraptions over the years which have been designed to ‘treat’ erectile dysfunction had me eternally grateful I don’t have to ever worry about that particular affliction! (Mind you, seeing the various gynaecological instruments in hospital museums certainly proves the girls don’t get off scot-free in the wince-inducing department).

Towards the end I came across a sentence which delighted me so much I marked where it was so I could come back to it. I think it proves I have spent too long in the research community, that I loved this so much: “The bottom line is that men’s armpit secretions are unlikely to serve as an attractant to any species other than the research psychologist” (p.292). That made me laugh, but I also realised that I totally *got* it – it doesn’t matter how obscure or ridiculous your subject is, the passion for research and the need to know seems to override the ridiculousness of it all.

A highly recommended book, easy to read and entertaining, I really enjoyed it.

2011 Project365 (day339-341)

7th December:

7th December 2011

Kitchen tile.

6th December:

6th December 2011

[Actually taken on 7th, oops]. One of the 20 million cushions left by the previous house owner.

5th December:

5th December 2011

As I’m without a car this week I am having a long long old journey to and from work. This book is really brightening up the journey. The author is (or at least was when the book was published) a presenter on Radio 6 and film buff for Radio Times, but more importantly for my purposes he’s just a few years older than me and is from down the road from where I’m from. This is just a very gentle memoir, based on his childhood diaries (kept from age 6 to 19) of growing up in Northampton in the 1970s. There is so much I recognise, from approximations of the accent (it’s totally true: we do shorten ‘this afternoon’ to ‘sartnoon’) to the places he went on holiday (same places as us!). What is striking me at the moment (he’s probably about 10 by this point) is that in his diaries he writes about the presents he gets for birthday, Christmas etc and they’re so simple (felt tips, Action Man) and yet he seemed so chuffed with them, not like all the electronic gizmos kids get these days. This is my book group book, I’ll be really interested to see what the others make of it – with one exception all of us are probably within 5 or 6 years of my age, so will get lots of the cultural references, but I’m not sure how much of the book is accessible to any UK-based 70s kid and how much of it is more specifically resonant to someone from the Rose of the Shires (yes that is what it says on the signs, believe it or not).

Mind you, he’d better not reveal the Northants ultra-secret, how to pronounce Bozeat. That’s the easiest way to tell someone’s not from round ‘ere.

2011 Project365 (day228)

16th August 2011

These are books I have recently or am currently reading. The Guerrilla Gardening book I found really inspirational – it is written by the guy who lives in Elephant and Castle and started off replanting the planters at the foot of his tower block without permission and who plants on roundabouts and verges in London, and charts the origins of guerrilla gardening, detailing lots of gardening activity throughout the world (including a mention of my home town, though that particular bit of gardening was done in the 17th century. It could do with a few guerrilla gardeners to pretty it up in the 21st century too), and also giving practical advice on gardening without permission. I loved it.

“How to be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran is what I’m reading at the moment. I’m enjoying it, it is designed to make feminism accessible and I do think she asks important questions alongside the more frivolous ones (like what do you call your bits? – which leads into an interesting discussion of the pressure to shave and unrealistic expectations and aspirations). I like that she frames the book round significant events in her own life growing up (puberty, periods, childbirth and all the rest) and because I’m only a few years older than her I am enjoying some of the cultural references. Sometimes I feel like the points she is making are lost a bit in the trying to be hilarious, but generally I think it makes some important points well, and – importantly – isn’t po-faced. Not all of it works, I don’t agree with all her conclusions, but I am enjoying reading it and am getting through it pretty quickly, which is a good thing in my book (if I don’t like a book it will take me months to finish it).

I have read a fair few books recently – any connection to finishing my PhD is not coincidental in the slightest! First up a few weeks ago I started “The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business” by Gabrielle Palmer. I can’t quite put my finger on it – I love a good tubthumper, and what better than a tubthumper I am basically going to agree with? But there was something about it which left me unsatisfied. Bits of it were really good, especially when she was talking about the machinations behind big business in the developing world, and it is very extensively researched. But other sections were really badly written I felt, there was one section (on sex and breastfeeding if I recall correctly) where every sentence I found myself thinking “where did that come from?” I also felt that although it was mentioned briefly there was little acknowledgement of women who have problems with breastfeeding, and as this was something that I noticed from the beginning I think it made me irritated before I even got very far into the book (my job involves, amongst 20 million other things, supporting and promoting breastfeeding and I am very committed to that, but I also need to support women when it isn’t happening for them, and I didn’t feel that this book had much to offer them). It’s a shame, because she has some important things to say. I was a bit disappointed (although I read every word from cover to cover, including all the endnotes). It’s a good starting place, but I think I’d want to read some of her sources (one in particular, Rima Apple, I heard speak in a lecture when I first came to Glasgow and thought she was brilliant. Note to self: dig out some of her stuff).

The two other books I read over the holiday were for book group. Normally we just pick a book title out and all read it and discuss it, but this time as it was summer we thought we’d have a change over the holidays, so instead picked a theme out and then each chose a book or books which vaguely relate to that theme. The theme we picked was “colours” – I know at least a couple of people were wanting to read “The Color Purple” as one of their choices, but I decided I wanted to read something nerdier. So I went for “Mauve: How one man invented a colour and changed the world” by Simon Garfield. It’s a biography of sorts of William Perkin, a 19th century chemist who accidentally discovers a reliable purple dye when trying to make artificial quinine from coal tar residue, and whose invention ends up forming the basis of future developments in bacteriology, chemotherapy, photography, amongst many other things. Perkin has been almost completely forgotten now. As well as the biographical element, it also includes interviews with people in the contemporary fashion industry in order to demonstrate the continuity of the discovery of mauve 150 odd years ago with contemporary life. It was readable and pretty short (always a plus!).

After that I wanted a bit of light relief, so continuing with the colour theme I (re)read the script to “Return of the Pink Panther”. A very quick read, but had me laughing out loud (“even the Peup will be there”). I bought that book in a charity shop I think when I was an undergraduate (so late 80s), or it may even have been when I was at school, so I have had it for years. I don’t read it that often, but it always has me in stitches when I do dig it out.

I’ve got several books lined up, maybe I’ll get into a big reading vibe. While doing my PhD I barely managed (and often didn’t manage at all) to even read the book group book in a month, never mind having several on the go, but I definitely am enjoying getting back into reading stuff for fun again. I might even manage some less nerdy books sometimes 🙂

2011 Project365 (day172)

21st June 2011

This evening I met up with friends for book group. We always meet in Beanscene (a Scottish coffee bar chain), this giant photo was above our sofa.

This month we were discussing The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick. As usual I hadn’t finished it, but the rest of the group were very good about not giving away spoilers as I do intend to finish it. It is a sort of detectivey thrillery sort of thing, the detective being a monk called Father Anselm who was a lawyer before becoming a monk. It is the story of a suspected Nazi war criminal who turns up at Anselm’s monastery claiming sanctuary, and of the relatives of people affected by his alleged actions during the war. Add in a dash of intrigue (he and another man pitched up at a monastery in France at the end of the war and were given safe passage from there to England and new identities; could the church be involved in a cover-up?) and strains in family relationships, and that’s pretty much it. When I started it I thought I was going to not like it very much, I thought it was going to be a bit too like Dan Brown. Actually it is pretty light reading but I have found myself drawn in and wanting to know what happens. I had some hunches about a couple of the characters, and asked the other girls in the group – my hunches were wrong, but along the right lines apparently, so that has made me curious as to what I got right and where I’ve missed something. I also assumed a couple of peripheral characters would be elaborated on later in the book, but I’m told they’re not (meaning that one in particular is a red herring that really doesn’t work, in my view). I’m about half way through, but I reckon I should have it finished in an afternoon.

Overall, I don’t think I’d rush to re-read it, and I’m glad I didn’t pay very much for it, but it is an OK holiday read and far from the worst thing we’ve ever read in book group!