The right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in tThe right kind of nature writing; Atkins doesn't just wax lyrical about nature, but explores the effects that humans have on "wild" environments, in this case English moors from south-west to north-east. He may go a bit overboard on description at times, but it's full of interest. I particularly like the way he finds an individual historical character, such as a farmer, and uses documentary evidence such as journals and account books to bring a period to life. One strong theme is grouse-shooting, not surprisingly. He does a good job of exploring the issue from both sides, spending time with shooters, gamekeepers, and their opponents -- without going so far as to defend the indefensible (the elimination of hen harriers for example)....more
This is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a richThis is obviously rather dated now, and some parts are a bit dry. But the first chapter in particular is a tour de force, and in general it is a rich source of information about Spanish history and the effects of the past on the present. Ghosts of Spain is a lighter, easier read, but this book (or rather its later edition) is usefully complementary....more
It's a bit strange reading a biography of a writer whose work you have never read. In fact if it wasn't for Jonathan Coe being one of my favourite wriIt's a bit strange reading a biography of a writer whose work you have never read. In fact if it wasn't for Jonathan Coe being one of my favourite writers, I'd never even have heard of BSJ.
This is an intriguing biography, as unconventional as its subject. It took Coe years to write, and he became quite enmeshed in Johnson's strange life. He was an odd man. Staggeringly rude to publishers who failed to recognise his self-evident genius, he often started on projects only to have them rejected. As a working-class boy made not so good, he had a massive chip on his shoulder. Yet he was also fiercely loyal to his friends and they, likewise, were genuinely fond of him, despite his temper and unpredictability. He was a good father to his children. So he clearly had his good points, and Coe convincingly argues that his arrogance was a front for deep insecurity and self-doubt. While recognising the deep flaws in Johnson's argument that novelists can only write "the truth" -- i.e. things they have personally experienced -- he also acknowledges the strengths of Johnson's poetry and prose. There's also a marvellous piece of detective work at the end, where Coe digs up a possible narrative of Johnson's last 48 hours, before he committed suicide in his bath.
I'm not sure I'm going to read any BSJ -- although Christie Malry's Own Double Entry sounds intriguing. It is interesting to see some parallels with Jonathan Coe's novels though, notably the way he introduces himself into his narratives....more
Not much more to say about this. Helen Macdonald is a marvellous writer, especially in her descriptions of her countryside adventures with Mabel. ButNot much more to say about this. Helen Macdonald is a marvellous writer, especially in her descriptions of her countryside adventures with Mabel. But I started to get a bit bogged down and even bored. After a while you get it, the way that taking on the character of Mabel, her wildness, is Helen's way of coping with grief over the unexpected death of her father, and how eventually she returns to the world of humans again. But there doesn't seem to be enough material here for a book; it gets repetitive. For example she has one long section where she lets Mabel loose and cannot recapture her, until Mabel "poaches" a pheasant on a private estate, causing Helen to panic. It's dramatically conveyed, but then she does exactly the same thing again later. We only need to hear about it once. Then the sections about TH White, while certainly interesting, seem to be there mostly to bulk the story out to book length. So, I did enjoy it in parts and it was a worthwhile read, but just three stars from me....more
I bought this little book on a visit to the memorial museum at the Camp Joffre in Rivesaltes. It's the lightly edited diaries of Friedel Bohny-Reiter,I bought this little book on a visit to the memorial museum at the Camp Joffre in Rivesaltes. It's the lightly edited diaries of Friedel Bohny-Reiter, a Swiss nurse working for the Red Cross who did her best to improve the living conditions of people interned in what was basically a concentration camp: Spanish refugees, Jews, gipsies, and other "undesirables" put there by the Vichy government. The diaries cover about a year, from November 1941 to late 1942, when the Vichy government used the camp to collect thousands of Jews -- men, women and children -- in order to meet a quota to be sent to Poland.
Bohny-Reiter writes with simple humanity, conveying what a difficult and morally complex position the charity workers in the camp were in. They had to obey rules set by the Vichy government, which meant they could not help everyone, and resources were limited; starvation and disease were rife. Sometimes they managed to extricate people from the camp: pregnant women could go to the maternity hospital in Elne, children were sent to children's homes, some adults became assistants there. But it's not surprising that when Bohny-Reiter accompanies groups of prisoners to the station where they will be loaded into cattle trucks, comforting them and providing food for the journey, she feels she is complicit in the ghastly bureaucracy of genocide. If she saves someone, another person is chosen to take their place -- they would have liked to live too.
Yet amidst the horror and despair, Bohny-Reiter loves her work, and finds small joys in games with children, sing-songs in the shabby, cold huts, moments of companionship with her colleagues. A child refugee herself, she left Vienna as a child and spent 24 years with a family in Switzerland -- she wants to help others in the same situation. Somehow she retains her humanity and optimism, although the last few entries make very grim reading.
Note: she painted watercolours and also had a camera; one of the exhibits in the museum is of her photo album -- very moving. ...more
Djalla-Maria Longa is a very interesting character. She was born in 1980 in the Ariège, to a "hippy" mother who was totally opposed to almost all theDjalla-Maria Longa is a very interesting character. She was born in 1980 in the Ariège, to a "hippy" mother who was totally opposed to almost all the attributes of the consumer society. They lived in a remote house with no running water, no electricity, no phone, no plastics, no modern appliances, no artificial fabrics ... they grew all their own food, spun their own yarn, made their own clothes, kept cows, made cheese, and their rare excursions were in a cart pulled by a donkey. Her mother gave birth to eight children here. Can you imagine doing the laundry for a family of ten by fetching water from a spring, boiling it in a copper and scrubbing everything by hand? Courage and determination there was aplenty.
Her father Patrice was less extreme and quite subtle at managing the stubborn Barbara. Undoubtedly the couple loved their children and believed they were protecting them from the shallow, consumerist life "down below" (everywhere else is always referred to as "en bas"). But for me they went too far; Barbara was determined that none of her children would go to school because she herself had hated it. So they were home-schooled in a haphazard way. A major factor though must have been that Barbara needed the children at home to provide the labour necessary to maintain their life style. As soon as they were capable, the kids were helping in the garden, fetching water, herding cows, and doing other useful tasks. Fine, but Barbara had been free to choose this lifestyle, which she found completely fulfilling. By not letting her children go to school, she was depriving them of the chance to choose. No qualifications, and a low standard of education -- by the time Djalla was eighteen she was considered (by an outsider) to have barely reached the level expected of fourteen-year-olds, and of course she had no certificates to show.
Barbara expected all of her children to stay in the valley, living as she lived. Some of them at least appeared to comply -- shacking up with a local boy and getting pregnant at fifteen, for example (Barbara's last child is the aunt of a grandchild only six months younger!). Djalla though had inherited her mother's fiery, stubborn character and was determined to explore the world "below". Eventually after much conflict she left home. She must be an exceptionally strong character because after a difficult few months, she convinced a training centre to accept her for a diploma as an animateur of children's outdoor activity centres -- despite not meeting the academic criteria. She made a success of it too, despite the opposition of her parents.
An interesting read -- she is a good writer, and the evocation of her unusual lifestyle is vivid. In the end, (view spoiler)[all the children leave home, but some of them do stay in the valley. Others do as Djalla did and manage to build lives down below. It is interesting though that for all her desire to escape, ultimately Djalla has ended up back in the Ariège where she now runs a business renting out bicycles. (hide spoiler)] She's also a generous spirit; she shows little resentment of her upbringing despite some very difficult experiences.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is going to be a stream-of-consciousness review I think, like the book. Jean's joys and pains in her early 20s are so earnest. She has hopeless fThis is going to be a stream-of-consciousness review I think, like the book. Jean's joys and pains in her early 20s are so earnest. She has hopeless fantasies about entirely unsuitable men, suffers the attentions of equally unsuitable ones, wishes she was rich and beautiful. She still shows wit though. In 1932 she visits her brother and his new wife and baby in Jamaica, and is bored to death. On the ship home:
I am hating all these lousy old men, old men who want to make love to you. I would like to wring their necks and slap their faces, but I don't. I encourage them by holding their hands, and then offend them by not trotting off to some dark corner after dinner to be slobbered over.
Writing to her brother when she gets home:
The voyage was on the whole enormous fun. I was the only young unmarried female on board, and what a time I had...they were all damn decent to me and danced divinely.
Doesn't that remind you of real life versus Facebook status updates?
Th striking thing about Jean in her late 20s and early 30s, and evidently something she had in common with many other women, is her desperation to find a husband. Or failing that, at least a lover. Its hard to comprehend nowadays the widespread belief that if a woman was not a wife and mother, her life had no purpose. Jean was an intelligent woman, but she is extraordinarily gullible and self-deceiving where men are concerned, just because of her desperation. It seems that many men, married or otherwise, were perfectly aware of the situation of these "spare women" and took advantage of it in the obvious way. It makes it worse that most of the men she meets are work colleagues (she has few opportunities to meet men elsewhere), so she has to keep facing them after the relationship has gone wrong. What a bunch of cads and bounders she hooks up with!
Late update: I finished the book a week ago but haven't had time to update the review. Jean kept her diary more sparingly in the later part of her life. Her world seems to shrink, she loses touch with friends, has no more "romantic" (not) adventures, suffers from depression, has constant financial worries as most of the time she doesn't work and her capital shrinks rapidly. But she does, just, manage to make a go of running a little bookshop in her Buckinghamshire village, and eventually even buys her beloved Wee Cottage. Overall, this is just a fascinating peek into all the mundane little details that make up a life. ...more
This is a bit of trivia, really (no, it's not a "singular historic moment"): a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in ProvenceThis is a bit of trivia, really (no, it's not a "singular historic moment"): a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in Provence in autumn 1970, cook, dine, and have endless conversations about food and wine. They just happen to include Julia Child and her husband Paul, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney. But I enjoyed it in a cosy sort of way, eavesdropping on their gossip and occasional snobbery. Luke Barr, MFK's great-nephew, used letters and especially his great-aunt's notebooks and diaries, to reconstruct whole evenings of conversation in a convincing way. I have to say that I wasn't surprised to find that Olney was a somewhat unpleasant character -- his Simple French Food is written in such a way that I never felt I'd be comfortable in the kitchen with him, just as I wouldn't be with Elizabeth David. Whereas Jane Grigson, MFK, or Julia Child would surely be good company. It was a bit disappointing to find that Sybille Bedford (partner of an old friend of MFK's) could be rather obnoxious as well though.
The argument of the book is that those conversations in kitchens in Provence caused a sea-change in American cooking, as chefs and writers turned en masse from the altar of classical French cuisine to worship simpler food and local, seasonal ingredients. Seems a bit implausible to me. Yes, of course Child especially was hugely influential in the US (I hadn't realised how influential till I read this book) as was Beard, but there surely were multiple other factors at work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The story is mostly told from MFK's point of view. It's during this visit that she begins to lose her rosy, nostalgic view of life in France. It really sank in for me what a privileged life these Americans led. Early in the book (in 1970) she and her sister Norah, two sixty-something widows, travel to France on the liner France, rather than flying, because they can afford to. MFK is paged to collect a parcel delivered before the ship left. It contains jeroboams of vintage champagne sent by a friend as a parting gift. Her visits to France in the 1920s and 1930s were a riot of champagne, caviar, cocktails, and foie gras. Barr writes:
The glamour of the prewar Europe of their youth ... was a lifelong influence ... It was a beautiful world, preserved in the amber of fiction and memory. A world of faded aristocrats and remembered vintages, of boat trains and small family-run hotels that never changed, of excursions to Switzerland and meals in French restaurants where the sole meunière was always impeccably fresh and perfectly cooked.
Oh, and poverty, depression, and rising fascism, but that didn't form part of their picture in the rarefied world they moved in. Barr goes on:"The ethos and aesthetic of the period had survived all the way through the 1960s, a worldview held together with wit and irony, tone and inflection, unimpeachable taste, and finally, at bottom, enforced by the logic of money and privilege."
Barr argues that by the end of her time in Provence in 1970, MFK had a more jaded/realistic view of French provincial life. But did she really? The book is still suffused with that particular American romanticism that comes into play whenever Provence is mentioned, taking little account of how it has changed and what life is actually like outside the privileged visitor's bubble.
Anyway, I should clarify that I'm not being negative about this book; it was a quick, enjoyable read.
Edit: a good discussion of it making similar points is in the WSJ....more
If you're expecting dramatic revelations from this book, you'll be disappointed. It's a nuanced look at language as a mirror (of culture) and a lens (If you're expecting dramatic revelations from this book, you'll be disappointed. It's a nuanced look at language as a mirror (of culture) and a lens (through which to view the world). Deutscher is a serious academic, not a sensationalist and he uses the examples of colour, spatial descriptions/directions, and genders to illuminate the theories. Rightly dismissing Whorf's wildest claims, he still finds some basis for the argument that the language we speak does affect our view of the world to some extent, and there are some very interesting experiments here. It's a worthwhile read if you are interested in languages; definitely requires engaging your brain!...more
Oh Bill. How your reputation will suffer with this book. I started it with anticipation, expecting to enjoy it, and was so disappointed. At first, espOh Bill. How your reputation will suffer with this book. I started it with anticipation, expecting to enjoy it, and was so disappointed. At first, especially in the prologue, there is some of the trademark self-deprecating humour, but then the whole thing starts to give off an odour of cynicism and grumpy old man syndrome. By halfway through I felt Bryson was truly taking the piss. He makes it perfectly clear early on that he had no intention of writing a follow-up; it was his publisher: "in his eyes I could see little glinting pound signs where his irises normally were" who convinced him over lunch.
So Bryson agrees, and then goes into great length about how he conceived the "Bryson Line" as his route, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath; there's even a map with the line shown. And then, for much of the first part of the book, he pootles around southern England, including Devon, Cornwall, and East Anglia, none of which are anywhere near his putative line.
Even leaving that aside, he becomes increasingly petulant, whiny, and repetitive. I lost count of the occasions where he complained about the price of a cup of tea or an entrance fee, deplored the litter-strewn streets of Britain, described exactly how many butchers, greengrocers, and bookshops a given small town has. And then I totally lost it when he started using his book to settle personal grudges and air thoughtless prejudices. At one point he and some friends stay in a hotel that they later discover has been fined £20,000 for preparing food in "rat-infested areas" (although they themselves did not suffer in the slightest). After a digression about state secrecy in which he praises the Food Standards Agency for publishing all hygiene reports so that you can avoid such places, he is peeved that the review he submits to TripAdvisor is rejected because it's not based on personal experience. Cue rant about TripAdvisor which he apparently thinks has a duty to be a nobly objective public health resource (if he wants that, can't he use the FSA website?). And of course he names the hotel in question.
Later the chapter on Cornwall starts with a list of a dozen "random loathings" (things you don't like without having to explain why). Number 8 is "Most book reviewers, but particularly at the moment Douglas Brinkley, a minor American academic". So of course I googled and found that Brinkley had written a scathing review in the Washington Post of one of Bryson's books, and Bryson was offended by it. The Post gave Bryson a right of reply in which he attacked the inaccuracies in Brinkley's review. But that wasn't enough; he had to name and shame him in what will presumably be yet another Bryson bestseller. Pathetic.
Speaking of Google, Bryson uses it as the excuse for one of several ill-informed rants. He searches for the Pavilion Hotel, Bournemouth. Amazingly, the Google results, include some Pavilion hotels that are not in Bournemouth, presumably easily identified as such (the one in Bournemouth closed in 2005 so not surprisingly does not have a website). Proof that "Google is stupid"! "But then," says IT expert Bill solemnly, "that is the thing about the Internet. It is just an accumulation of digital information, with no brains and no feelings -- just like an IT person in fact." Thanks Bill -- for that bit of tired prejudice you've been added to my random loathings list in position number 1.
There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, and it gets a little better towards the end, even though the ten pages covering Scotland are mostly Bill asleep on a train. But I think Bill Bryson should take a break from writing about himself. He's surely earned enough from it by now, and his recent books about other subjects have been well received. I might have given this three stars but because of the snide digs described above, it's going down to two....more
I have really enjoyed Simon Garfield's selections of Mass Observation diaries, such as Our Hidden Lives, and I adored Nella Last's War. This book is iI have really enjoyed Simon Garfield's selections of Mass Observation diaries, such as Our Hidden Lives, and I adored Nella Last's War. This book is in the same vein and is full of vivid, sometimes shocking, reminiscences by women from a wide range of backgrounds, about their war experiences and the often very difficult adjustments afterwards. Fascinating; my major criticism was that with so many women and a decade-long story told in chronological order, it was hard to keep track of who was who, and for this reason I didn't feel I got to know them the way I got to know Nella and Jean Lucey Pratt. And sometimes Nicholson's prose is a bit overblown. A very worthwhile read if you are interested in women's lives in this period though....more
Recently I read an interesting article by Mark Cocker about the "new nature writing". In it he refers to Kathleen Jamie's sardonic comment about the LRecently I read an interesting article by Mark Cocker about the "new nature writing". In it he refers to Kathleen Jamie's sardonic comment about the Lone Enraptured Male: "What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words."
James Rebanks is not a Lone Enraptured Male, looking at a landscape through cultured metropolitan eyes. His family has herded sheep in the Lake District for centuries, and although his life has taken a slightly different turn from his ancestors' (no spoilers) he is still doing it. It's quite humbling to see this iconic, much-visited place through the eyes of someone who is part of it and who can say that his family has formed the landscape.
When people in positions of authority spoke about our home, it felt as if they valued everything in it except the things we valued, that producing food was a pathetic cheap thing.
I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time. ... Perhaps, in a hundred years' time, no-one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains. They won't know my name. But that doesn't matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those that came before a debt for getting it this far.
This book is well-written, a quick and easy read, and the conceit of prefacing each chapter with a Thatcher quote is clever. It has overwhelmingly posThis book is well-written, a quick and easy read, and the conceit of prefacing each chapter with a Thatcher quote is clever. It has overwhelmingly positive reviews, but for me it struck a few false notes. One, Damian undoubtedly had a difficult childhood and well done to him for surviving and prospering. But there were times when it really seemed too over the top to be true. Two, the subtext is that thanks to Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on self-reliance/looking after number one, Damian overcame his upbringing and got what he wanted: a career in journalism. Well, to me it looked as if he achieved it because of caring and committed teachers and a mysterious benefactor. Finally, I was really not impressed with the casual misogyny with which he dismisses Jacqueline,"Slattery the Slag", for behaviour no worse than his own and his male friends'. So three stars....more