Monday, April 27, 2015

A Buzz In The Meadow

A Buzz In The Meadow:
The Natural History of a French Farm
By Dave Goulson
Published in the USA by Picador, April 28th, 2015

 The author is a conservationist and scientist (currently Professor of Biological Science at Stirling University) who has bought a tumbledown, derelict farm in the Charente region of rural France which he turns into a wildlife sanctuary. He does not intend it to be a book about an eye-catching conservation species which will capture the public imagination, but rather an in-depth look at the remarkable, beautiful yet often unnoticed nature all around us: flies, butterflies, wasps, newts, bees, deathwatch beetles and the like - which he sees in his everyday life around the farmhouse and its land.

It is well-written indeed, at times almost lyrically poetical, yet can veer very sharply into a fairly detached scientific mode.  Every single chapter is remarkably engaging given it is dealing with quite ordinary creatures; there is an absolutely fascinating chapter about houseflies with a lot of detail about  how both battery hen farms and refuse sites need to be managed carefully to avoid enormous infestations of houseflies engulfing the surrounding areas. Flies are ghastly nuisances and the cause of all sorts of unpleasant bacterial contamination, but their role in the world's ecology is vitally important. His work in this field was very interesting indeed, and most enlightening. I will still swear when flies get in the house, but at least I now have  a much fuller appreciation of the reasons for their continued existence.

Was the book worth reading?
Without hesitation, I would say most definitely yes. Even if you only read the quite heartbreaking chapter on how modern agriculture is affecting our bee populations, this book is well worth reading and well worth the money.

 Do I agree with everything he writes or does?
No. Don't start me ranting about the poor newts, the destruction of whose habitat on his farm he inadvertently engineered and spent an inordinate amount of time  trying to rectify. For someone devoted to preserving the ecological balance of his farm, he seemed surprisingly laid-back by the problem he created for the newts, yet he was utterly enraged by a local hunter shooting a red-legged partridge on his land. I would argue that to shoot one bird in no way is equivalent to destroying an entire local habitat of a species, let alone taking several years to restore that habitat. It may take many more years before the newts return to his farm, if indeed they ever do.

Relating his experiences as PhD student studying Meadow Brown butterflies, he recounts wanting to study the mating process in greater detail which necessitated finding copulating butterflies and immersing them in liquid nitrogen to freeze them and then study the engaged genitalia under a microscope, as well as killing then partially liquefying butterflies in order the study their genitalia under a microscope. Having only this  morning rejoiced at seeing an Orange Tip butterfly flying exuberantly in my area for the first time in several years, I would be sad to think that someone would one day be chasing after it to kill it in order to study in closer detail. I know scientific knowledge is not always gained easily or without sacrifice, but even so.....I would prefer to see the butterflies in their natural habitat than their genitalia painstakingly dissected out and photographed for the scientific record.

I found it to be factually interesting and on the whole, very enjoyable.  It might well challenge your ideas and expectations about ecology, wildlife, the scientific method and how humanity is interacting with the other denizens of our planet, but it will definitely open your eyes to the lives of some of the almost invisible yet quite remarkable creatures that surround us. Do bees know their left from their right? Read this book and find out!

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Friday, April 17, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop
By Nina George
Translated by Simon Pare
Published by Abacus, April 16th, 2015

 A man with a unique gift of seeing people's feelings, their inmost needs and knowing exactly which book will bring them healing, solace and will meet their needs exactly.

A man who has a floating bookshop  in Paris called "The Literary Apothecary".

A man who can help heal others, but cannot bear to confront, let alone heal, his own grief about being left by his mysterious lover so long ago.

His name? Monsieur Perdu.

"Perdu re­flected that it was a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that book­sellers looked after books.
They look after peo­ple."

This was the point I was irrevocably hooked by this entrancing, captivating delight of a book.

M. Perdu lives in a bare flat, with a disused room barricaded by books. Despite his work, he lives an isolated life, never allowing anyone to get too close to him emotionally, not even the other tenants in his apartment building, 27 Rue Mon­tag­nard. That is until he is told of the dire need of a new tenant, Madame Le P, whose husband has not only left her but also stripped their flat bare. M. Perdu donates a table from his his secret room, and in so doing, unleashes a chain of events which forces him to confront his past and head off on a journey across France on "The Literary Apothecary" with Max Jordan a newly famous author who has developed a severe case of writer's block and marked ennui, and is fleeing from his publisher.....

Chock-full with allusions and references to books, some famous and some less so, the importance and usefulness of books of all kinds is allowed to shine brightly through the lives and emotions of people they meet on their expedition to Provence, until at last Madame Le P, Jean Perdu, Max and their fellow travellers are able to move on with their lives.

Simply wonderful. Read it! And enjoy the recipes at the end, as well as  "Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy" :-)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Grace Of Incorruption

The Grace Of Incorruption

By Donald Sheehan

Paraclete Press, March 28, 2015

It's always a delight to find quality modern Orthodox books popping up on publishers' lists and I jumped at the chance to request a review copy of this.  I had read a few articles by and about Donald Sheehan which had piqued my interest and I knew this was a book I needed as well as wanted to read.

This collection of essays covers his writings on how his Orthodox faith has permeated every aspect of his life, including his career as an educator, as a professor of literature and as a man who loved poetry, a career which is reflected in his often lyrical prose.

He describes his early life, living in a family affected by the violence and alcohol-fuelled aggression of his father, and how it was only after his father's death and a visit to the grave accompanied by his own family, that he was able to fully make his peace with his father and receive the wholly unexpected gift of the constant Jesus prayer. The prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner",  was his constant companion, leading him to a conversation with a Benedictine monk and thence to Orthodoxy. The rest of the book leaves the reader in absolutely no doubt that he found his heart's true home within that Orthodox faith.

An enormous range of topics are covered in these essays: from the obvious aspects of  Orthodoxy found in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov", St Isaac the Syrian's depiction of the Chalcedonian use of the term "hypostasis", depression and asceticism to  the elements of Orthodoxy found in  Shakespeare, Salinger and modern poetry too. The relationship between Orthodox Christians and the natural world, the loving respect for animals which characterises so many of the great Saints and the bodily incorruptibility of some reposed souls are mentioned, and the second half of the book discusses Psalmody, especially Psalm 118, in great and enlightening depth.

I would not describe the book an easy read; it requires the reader to concentrate hard, to think, to ponder deeply and above all  to pray. For the reader keen to delve deep into the riches of the Orthodox tradition in the multi-faceted aspects of its glory, this will be a treasure, a source of joy, and a blessing to read.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists

              Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists
        by Ian Stuart-Hamilton
          Jessica Kingsley Publishers, March 2015

Even with a background in midwifery I found parts of this book a little heavy going and had to re-read several sections. It is, however, a book that is well worth the time and effort in studying if you have an interest in ageing and how it affects the psychological make-up of people. It is a distillation of his much larger and more comprehensive medical textbook and is both succinct and clear, with touches of humour and real-life experiences.

 My motivation for reading it was to explore the psychological effects of various forms of dementia which was a particularly interesting section, but the chapters cover intelligence, memory, language, the general background of ageing, personality changes, lifestyle and mental health issues amongst older people. It might be thought that such a book would be depressing reading, but I was pleasantly surprised that to find quite the opposite; by taking account of the changes occurring in ageing, it is perfectly possible to make small but logical adaptations to one's lifestyle in order to minimise the adverse effects of the ageing process on well-being. 

The overwhelming tenor of the book is very positive indeed and this is a very useful introduction to the subject of ageing.

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