'Wilding' by Isabella Tree (2018)
I don't really believe in 'wilding' or 'rewilding' as it is sometimes unknown – the concept of returning a piece of land to nature, which may have been farmed in the past, but is allowed to revert to its original state, whatever that may have been. My argument against it is that it seems to leave human beings out of the equation.
However, I was entranced by this book, because it is so packed with fascinating information about animals, trees, plants and their history. It describes how Isabella Tree and her husband Charles turned their 5,000 acre estate in the south of England over to some of the animals who may have existed there hundreds of years ago – Exmoor ponies, longhorn cattle, fallow deer and Tamworth pigs amongst them – and then allowed them to roam free, living out in the open all year, giving birth without human intervention, messing up the land, thereby allowing scrubland and wetland to return.
The increase in the wide variety of bird and wildlife astonished them, and will doubtless amaze you. I liked the picture of Charles Tree lying beside an enormous cowpat left behind by a longhorn cow, and solemnly counting the number of dung beetles who plunged into it. The book is full of things like that. You do, however, have to have the land to do it in the first place – and also the funds to support it.
'The End of Eddy' by Édouard Louis (2014)
I rarely read translated books, but a friend sent me 'The End of Eddy' for my birthday this year and I read it cover to cover in a day. It's a coming of age novel like no other that tells the story Eddy, a young homosexual boy born into a low income family in rural France in 1992. Effeminate, uncharacteristically academic and attracted to men, Eddy does not fit the harsh hyper masculine archetype of a village in post-industrial decline and is subjected to violence not for doing
something wrong, but being
Already translated into over 20 languages, 'The End of Eddy' has sparked global interest in the toxicity of class and gender stereotypes since it was first published in French in 2014. Throughout the novel, Eddy delivers touching observations about sexuality, poverty and inequality with compassion and intelligence, but it can be a bit of a bleak read at times. Some of his reflections are almost reminiscent of the grim episodes depicted in James Hanley's 1931 novel 'Boy', but its poignancy and contemporary relevance make it a worthwhile read.
'Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern' by Simon Winder (2010)
It's a measure of how degraded our values have become that to take an interest in Britain's nearest neighbour nations now feels positively subversive. So I commend fellow insurgents to the wonderful works of Simon Winder, who has been my big literary find of the year. I can't imagine how I missed 'Germania', his acclaimed account of how Germany came into existence. The good news is that having followed it with 'Danubia' (about the Hapsburg empire) in 2013, he has this year completed the trilogy with 'Lotharingia', about the forgotten relic of Charlemagne's reign that became the Low Countries, Lorraine and western Germany.
Winder writes in a unique hybrid style – part chronology, part travelogue, part personal anecdotage – that turns obscure and tangled history into a pleasurably satisfying read. He can be caustic and very funny, while all the time gently reminding us that the tiniest European hamlet can harbour a deeper cultural heritage than the whole of the America to which Britain is so in thrall. Not that you'll need it, but for light summer relief you might also try Winder's 'The Man Who Saved Britain', a lively polemic on the idea that the James Bond stories owe their popularity to encouraging a generation of post-war blimps to go on pretending that the empire never ended. Read, learn, above all, enjoy. Boris Johnson would hate you for it.
'Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up' by John Carreyrou (2018)
'Damaged Goods: The Rise and Fall of Sir Philip Green' by Oliver Shah (2018)
Journalism has felt embattled lately. The twin forces of indyref 2014 and Brexit (2016/17/18/19...) have been enough to make many hacks feel under attack. Trump's subsequent hubris has poured petrol on the flames of fake news and social media thought control. I suppose it is with all that in mind that I've turned to a couple of excellent examples of investigative journalism. John Carreyrou's expose of the Theranos scandal for the Wall Street Journal was reporting of the highest standards; despite threats from powerful lawyers representing Silicon Valley's erstwhile darling, Elizabeth Holmes, he stuck to his guns and wrote a modern-day factual thriller, 'Bad Blood'.
Another good read has been 'Damaged Goods' by Oliver Shah. The book is a chronicle of the travails of 'Sir' Philip Green, the scandal-ridden asset stripper who presided over the demise of BHS and much more – updated recently to cover his latter-day infamies. There are a few interesting Scottish angles to this story too. Ideally, I would read these in a quiet corner of the beautiful Benmore botanical gardens in Argyll on a dry summer's day. And I might add Anna Burns' Orwell Prize-winning novel 'Milkman', to which I am planning to turn to during July.
'With the End in Mind' by Kathryn Mannix (2019)
I deal with death, or rather its inevitable companions, bereavement and grief, every day in my working life as a funeral celebrant. But I have never read so much about dying as I have since the loss of a beloved friend last year. Since then I have immersed myself in stories written both by those facing death and those coping with the consequences of loss. But nothing has moved me more than this book – 'With the End in Mind' by Kathryn Mannix.
Mannix is a palliative care consultant and her book contains some 30 real stories of death and dying but, although sad, this is not a morbid or miserable tome. It is rather, profoundly moving, incredibly uplifting, honest and humane, and has positively changed the way I view my own mortality, as well as those of friends and loved ones. As a review in the Times so aptly put it: '... essential reading for anyone who will encounter death, and that means all of us'.
'What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years' by Ricky Riccardi (2011)
Louis Armstrong was the 20th century's most famous musician and, arguably, its greatest. His name and genius is forever associated with the most deep reaching musical revolution in centuries. Jazz changed the world and changed perceptions. It brought the world closer demonstrating that, all around the globe, people dug the same sounds. Jazz was, and is, a people's music, and it is only now gaining the artistic respect it deserves.
Perhaps Louis's ebullient and Rabelaisian character delayed the respect due. Many saw jazz, through its leading exponent, simply as a fun music of no intrinsic value – which said more of them than the music. Ricky Riccardi's book makes the case though for a more serious evaluation of Pops and his sounds from the 1960s onwards. Riccardi makes the point that, from his earliest years, Louis hammed things up; his clowning was part of the man from away back then and, when in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, Louis disagreed with Fletcher's approach which was: 'Trumpet only, Louis'.
Genius always goes its own way: Louis always believed that part of his performance was to send his audience home happy and he never varied that belief. Younger musicians came along and they reacted to this and their attitude was that it was all about the music and, if you did not like it or the performer, 'who cares, go elsewhere'. These musicians also criticised Louis for acting as 'Uncle Tom' to the white establishment.
As the book makes clear, Armstrong was no Uncle Tom. In fact, from early on he worked against prejudice and racialism. And his statement concerning the investiture of black students at Little Rock was uncompromising: 'The way they are treating my people in the south, the hovernment can go to hell: it's getting so bad, a coloured man hasn't got any country'. He then called President Eisenhower 'two-faced' and demanded that he stand up to the racists – which, eventually, that gentleman did.
Armstrong played his part in that. He was called at the time, 'the most famous American in the world', so, when he spoke, the president had to listen. As for Louis's musical discipline, as Riccardi states, he had that and his recordings with such as Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, the New York Symphony Orchestra and Duke Ellington all so demonstrate: when he had to, Louis cut the clowning.
His biggest hit was the unlikely 'Hello Dolly' – a number forever associated with him. Filmgoers in America stood up and cheered when he appeared In the film singing what was called such a trite song; but not when he sang it.
Perhaps the song he will always be remembered for though is the one the one the book is named after and the one where he does not play the instrument he made his. If we, the people of this blighted earth ever have a united world anthem, then it must be 'What a Wonderful World'.
Bill Paterson (writer)
'The Economics of Inequality' by Thomas Piketty (1997)
Economics is a difficult and complex subject. This is because economists make it so: the wonderful thing about this book is that Piketty blows away the smog surrounding the subject and puts matters clearly – so clearly that the reader can appreciate what is going on and what it is all about. Not the lightest of summer reading but essential reading for those concerned with the way the world is shaping – which should be all of us.
Piketty deals with the measurement and definition of inequality in society and its growth in the Western world. He further examines the various levels of inequality in the leading developed countries. Correctly, he views the rise of this phenomenon as a potential danger to the stability and development of nations. Inevitably though, many of his examples relate to France (well, he is French after all) but they are universally applicable. And he also investigates the many ways of dealing with inequality – whether that inequality is inequality of income or of capital – and details the pros and cons of each method. It is hard to disagree with his conclusions and you would have to have a very closed mind to do so: essential reading.
Bill Paterson (writer)
'Washington Black' by Esi Edugyan (2018)
An ideal day would include a walk, a book and a really nice meal. If I were on holiday in Edinburgh, I know exactly how it would begin. The weather would be lovely and walking along the path beside the Water of Leith, my thoughts would be caught up in the sound of the water, which rather roars along the stretch leading to Stockbridge, and by the shadows and sunlight through leaves. My destination would be Golden Hare Books on St Stephen Street, where I know absolutely that I would find a really good book, such as the one I bought there recently: 'Washington Black', by Esi Edugyan – long-listed for the Booker prize in 2018.
While its protagonist, young Washington, is only 11 years old when we meet him, a slave in Barbados, his story, his journey, is one of self-exploration into adulthood – and independence – as much as it is about the 'real', almost fantastical, travels he undertakes across the world as a free man, an artist, a scientist: by balloon, ship, dogsled and camel. Such beautiful writing, what an adventure and how very thought-provoking this book is, concerning the delights as well as the responsibilities of personal freedom.
I shall also put in an advance order for a book about a real adventure coming out in the autumn: Philip Marsden's 'The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination'.
Marcy Leavitt Bourne
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