Book Review: The Secret Life of Fungi

“fungi are all over us, around us, and in us, so this is not a world we can choose to ignore, or escape, because it’s their space just as much as it’s ours”

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, is a work of non fiction that reads like a series of short vignettes. It enables the author to share her lifelong interest in these extraordinary organisms, which many of us take for granted without considering their wonder. The love of her subject shines through the factual, fascinating and often playful prose. It is a book that could change readers’ perception of what exists all around them, wherever they are, in or out of the natural world.

Short chapters offer nuggets that remind how amazing nature remains, despite how it has been plundered. Take, for example, Pilobolus crystallinus, the spores of which are jettisoned from the dung heap where they feast at an acceleration equivalent to 20,000G (a bullet is fired from a shotgun at an acceleration of roughly 9000G).

“this spore release is one of the most powerful forces in nature”

A living specimen of Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, has an underground network estimated to stretch for 965 hectares – you could fit 110,000 blue whales within it (although I don’t expect they would be happy with this arrangement). The fungi is a vampire, killing the trees it feasts on. It is also, for no discernable reason, bioluminescent. As the author writes, imagine coming across that in a dark forest at night…

Fungi grow in every possible environment: underground, on icy tundras, from Stonehenge to the International Space Station. Fungal spores can be carried in the wind, some causing illness such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever), which can be fatal – invading its host until eventually (without treatment) vital organs fail. And yet, for every deadly variety there are others necessary for life as we know it.

There are also, of course, the many varieties that are tasty to eat and pleasingly nutritious – although don’t forage unless you know what you’re doing.

The author offers up many interesting facts and musings. Fungi can: bring down a giant ants’ nest; help the depressed or those facing death; aid decomposition of a plethora of substances, including plastic. Without fungi, there would be no orchids.

As we approach the fifth mass extinction on our planet it is worth remembering that fungi have survived and thrived. They are amazing opportunists, growing with equal enthusiasm in graveyards and volcanic ash as in woods, fields or when cultivated.

“We are insignificant as individuals, even as a species. If we were to disappear tomorrow, we would not be missed for long, if at all. The cathedrals might stand for a while, as stones do. The microbes will remain in motion and the light of the stars will still shine.”

The writing flows and engages, making clear why the author has developed and retained her interest in these wondrous organisms that grow and then die back so quickly and reliably. I challenge any reader to finish this book without immediately wanting to go outside and look more closely at the fungi growing where the natural world has not yet been sanitised.

“We are not the giants of this world, but the caretakers.”

“Let’s all go on a long walk and replace words with experience. Let’s go now.”

 
Photos taken by Jackie

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott and Thompson.

Robyn Reviews: How To Be An Antiracist

How To Be An Antiracist is part autobiography, part history, and part social commentary. Kendi uses his experience of growing up as an African American to explore racism – how his ideas about what racism is evolved throughout his life, and similarly, how he discovered the concepts of not-racist and anti-racist and what those mean. Each chapter is prefaced with a type of racism – behavioural racism, space racism, colourism – and starts with a time in Kendi’s life where he encountered it, segueing into the history, modern social perspectives, and what his experiences have taught him. The mix of personal, historical, and modern factual works well, providing a touchstone and backing every point up with strong evidence.

Many of the points Kendi makes I had heard before, although not being Black or American I found his personal insight into them fascinating. Kendi is exceptionally honest about problematic beliefs he himself has held in the past – as we all will have held – and how he still grapples with them today. He articulates the impact of racism very well, along with the impacts of various movements which have sought to end it. I particularly enjoyed his take on the work of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, a man who I was taught about at school but only in very basic terms. Kendi’s viewpoint is nuanced and well worth listening to.

One of the strongest parts of the book covers the concept of integration – a controversial issue, especially here in the UK where we like to think people are more integrated than they perhaps are in the US. His points are logical but might not occur to those who are not themselves black or another ethnic minority. I thought he did an excellent job of framing it in a non-judgemental but understandable way. I came away from that section feeling educated and reframing several ideas that I had previously held. As Kendi says, anti-racism is a constant learning process, and we have to open to changing our beliefs as we learn more about them.

The later chapters of the book were more personal – Kendi and his family were going through significant personal difficulties with enormous impact on their lives. I have huge respect for Kendi for managing to write such an excellent book in such a trying time. That being said, I felt those later chapters weren’t quite as strong or impactful as some of the earlier points. His metaphors for racism were interesting, and in many ways accurate, but for me they didn’t add anything. The strength of the book was the interweaving of the story of growing up Black in America with the statistics around racism and its impact.

Overall, this is an excellent book that I’d highly recommend to everyone. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to learn. The points that Kendi makes are not radical, but they may be new to you. Listen to what he has to say, read his sources – he cites plenty, and includes a further reading list for those interested in the topic – and you might find yourself reframing what racism, and anti-racism, really is.

 

Published by The Bodley Head
Hardback: 15 August 2019

Book Review: Unofficial Britain

“These are landscapes not considered to be ‘proper’ countryside, yet they harbour an array of life and can have as much beauty as the postcard rural Britain of common imagination.”

Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places, by Gareth E. Rees, explores the ‘magic, mythology and folklore of urban space’. The author travels the length and breadth of Britain seeking out places many would overlook as they pass through. He delves into the history of structures that at first glance are ubiquitous but on closer inspection may harbour unique stories and features.

Time imbues what has gone before with nostalgia. A Victorian mill may now be regarded as worthy of preservation while a motorway flyover is hailed an eyesore, new roads widely protested against. Fields razed to make way for yet another housing estate are mourned for the cost to nature, with people forgetting that man has always used his surrounds in this way.

“By the seventeenth century the great forests that covered the land had been largely plundered for houses, ships and fuel, while fields had been enclosed for agriculture and ownership by those pretty hedgerows we sentimentalise today. The entirety of the lowland country had been reconfigured for the benefit of humans.”

Chapters are divided by the structure or place on which the author is focusing. The first of these is the electricity pylon.

“To attack the ugliness of electricity pylons, on which we rely for our daily lives, is to deny the truth of the state we live in, the civilisation we have built and the price we must pay for it.”

As well as considering the varying reactions to these ‘modern invaders’, the author shares tales of darkness – hauntings and suicides – and also the art they have inspired. To some a pylon is a thing of awe and beauty, to others it is a blot on the landscape.

Next comes an investigation of ring roads and roundabouts. Underneath a flyover on Glasgow’s incomplete ring road can be found ‘a hotchpotch underworld of cobbled slopes, pathways, stone plinths and steps’. Just as archaeologists sift through ancient remains to try to ascertain how our ancestors lived, so Rees examines more modern design and detritus to see if he can make sense of purpose or possible messages left. A surprising amount of lore is uncovered along with evidence of the illicit – attracted to spaces that go largely unseen.

Hauntings in housing estates are probed, along with stories of poltergeists and local ghostbusting teams.

Buildings such as factories and power stations become iconic as time passes. What may once have been complained of as ugly can quickly become venerated when steeped in local memory. Land use has always been modified to suit the now.

“the latest aspect of the biography of this location”

In delving into the spaces behind or beneath a place, the author opines that fear induced – such as monstrous creatures glimpsed in shadows – is not the result of an overactive imagination but rather a survival instinct that humans have experienced for centuries.

“A place is made of stories you read and rumours you hear. It is made of prejudices and anxieties, shaped by your past experiences. It is an atmosphere”

Graffiti is art to some. Shrines can exist without sanctified spaces.

Whatever the beauty, or otherwise, of the roads and buildings that fall under the author’s gaze, his musings are fascinating to consider. It is not just the particular stories that he shares but also what can be learned about people’s perceptions – their reaction to change.

“After each new manifestation replaces the old, it too becomes worn, decayed and saturated with nostalgia, to the point where some mourn its passing as much as others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns.”

Rees writes with a very particular style. He harnesses the personal and philosophical, offering thoughts that are penetrating yet always entertaining. He has an eye for the surreal and the skill to present this as worthy of consideration.

I wasn’t convinced by the poems that conclude each chapter, although they do offer a kind of nursery rhyme coda – perhaps of the darker variety – to the preceding narrative.

Unofficial Britain is a study of aspects of the isle from a rarely viewed perspective. It will encourage the reader to look more closely at surrounds not typically regarded as of interest. It offers a fresh take on vistas some may too readily dismiss.

“Whatever changes come, let us never fall prey to the delusion of a halcyon past and convince ourselves that any single period of history is more authentic than another”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Not Far From The Junction

Not Far From The Junction, by Will Ashon, is the first novelette in Open Pen’s second series of pocket size paperbacks. As ever with these little books, the author’s concept and realisation are innovative. This is a work of non fiction but offers up stories as remarkable as any work of imagination. It provides a reminder that kindness and hope exist in people from all walks of life.

On 21st May 2019 the author set out from Redbridge in East London to hitchhike north, reaching Sheffield before attempting the return journey. Nine different drivers offered him lifts of varying length. With their permission, he collected transcripts of their conversations. The book is a collage of these voices, cross cut but with clear signposts to who is talking. The author has removed his contribution enabling each interviewee to take centre stage.

The drivers include people from diverse backgrounds, ages and experiences. One is ex-army and suffering PTSD. Another talks enthusiastically of a recent spiritual journey. A husband is planning to move country and shares tales of drug taking sessions he regards as beneficial ceremonies. A young family simply like to help out when they can. A highway worker is pleased to offer a lift, something forbidden when driving a work vehicle. A builder regularly picks up hitchhikers – although he sees fewer these days – as he enjoys having company he can chat to when driving.

All involved talk of their work and families, aspirations and challenges. Redundancy, money issues, and relationships feature widely. There are differences in culture and expressed opinion, but each driver proved willing to stop and help an unknown traveller on his way.

It is interesting to consider how an initial picture of a person is formed from the early part of their conversation. Perspective changes as further details are shared. The complexities of any person belie easy categorisation. I caught myself forming judgements that proved shamefully fluid. In trying to build a coherent picture of a character, I was forced to face up to my own prejudices. Whatever decisions the people being interviewed may have made in their past, they are doing what they can to get by in a life that offers hard knocks as well as moments of satisfaction.

The structure and writing style take the reader on a journey, one that is poignant in places but also captivating. While the stories that unfold may be discomfiting at times, this is a recommended read.

Not Far From The Junction is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Book Review: Into the Tangled Bank

“Honestly, there are times when nature seems to be taking the piss.
‘Here you go – have something of unfathomable beauty. Here’s another. And another. Careful not to faint.'”

Into the Tangled Bank, by Lev Parikian, follows the author as he contemplates the natural world around him as it gets on with its business of living, everywhere. He starts on the pavement outside his home in South London. Alongside the traffic and urban debris are: plants, butterflies, birds and other creatures. The reader is reminded that they too are part of nature and it is not necessary to visit a specialist reserve to observe the wonder of ecosystems.

Later in the book such reserves are visited. The author also journeys to the homes and gardens (some covering many acres) of key figures from history who shared observations of their surroundings – local and further afield – with the wider public through scientific and artistic endeavours.

First though, what is alive – and not always welcome – within homes is investigated. Efforts may be made to eradicate supposed invaders such as flies, wasps or spiders but it is pointed out that they serve a useful purpose. They are also amazing when form and habits are closely observed.

The author’s garden and local woodland are explored. The author contemplates a Perfectly Normal Tree. He also muses on how others experience place and its features.

“When we see someone looking at a tree, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they’re silently composing poetry; perhaps they’re wondering if they left the iron on; or they might just be thinking about the deliciousness of really good chips. It is, and should remain, a mystery. But sometimes the Thomas Bewicks and John Clares of the world see fit to record their reaction in the form of art, and that in turn affects people in different and unknowable ways.”

Encounters with people are included in contemplations. Some are chatty; others appear unmoved by what is around them. One lady, on a boat trip to view eagles, is loud and excitable – an irritation to others or a reminder that what is being observed is worth getting excited about? This is better, perhaps, than the parents hurrying children away from their encounters with the creatures they were brought to observe, enjoy, and now wish to linger with.

The text is informative but also personal with many footnotes offering elucidation along with self-deprecating humour. Birds are of particular interest and the reader is reminded that it is not just the unusual that should be sought for admiration. One anecdote shared is when bird-watchers in China rushed to view a visiting robin – a rarity there.

“a vivid reminder not to take commonplace for granted, to look at normal more closely, to appreciate the magic of the everyday.”

The author does not consider himself an expert, pointing out that information can be readily gleaned from books and the myriad of online resources available. What he urges is that readers take time to observe, wherever they may be.

Towards the end of the book Parikian turns his gaze upwards. He visits a Dark Skies observatory and is overwhelmed by the vastness of outer space. What this does offer, though, is perspective.

There are cautions against man’s habit of anthropomorphising – attributing reactions to how we would feel. The author also advises against expecting the constant action depicted in televised nature programmes. Nature does not perform for man’s benefit but rather as is necessary for continued survival.

This is a gently structured, affable study that takes the reader ‘from the kitchen sink to the cosmic void’ via museums, zoos and what now passes as wilderness. It provides a reminder that all are connected and everyday actions are truly fascinating. Informative, well written and interesting – an entertaining and uplifting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson

Robyn Reviews: Sway – Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Agarwal also clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science from musings which have yet to be proven, presenting references for each argument made and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. Science is ever-evolving, and sadly this is an under-researched field.

Sway is split into several sections. The first, ‘Hardwired’, covers basic neuroscience and psychology – how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. It unravels the pathways involved to give a grounding to the lay reader. I have a neuroscience background, so whilst this was interesting I can’t comment on its accessibility to someone new to the field. However, Agarwal includes several diagrams to illustrate her points, and I imagine these will be very useful to those trying to picture the concepts she describes.

The second section, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them. This was fascinating. It covered things like hindsight bias – believing after something has happened that we knew would happen from the start, even though we actually had no or very little idea. These are concepts which we rarely consider day-to-day but are incredibly important for acknowledging our own limitations and mistakes. We cannot confront our own biases and blind spots unless we’re aware that they exist. Agarwal includes plenty of examples and anecdotes to prevent the material becoming dry, again citing all her sources so that those interested can read further.

The third section, ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias – prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less – fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. Agarwal combines scientific data with her own polls carried out on Twitter, with some rather interesting results. After all, one of the well-known biases in science is research bias – those involved in research studies, including those on bias, are not representative of the whole population, but instead just of the population willing to get involved in research. This is a different group to those happy to spend a few milliseconds clicking on a Twitter poll. Agarwal doesn’t claim huge scientific accuracy to her Twitter poll data, merely including it as a point of intrigue – it supplements the more conventional sources very well.

The final section, ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. Technology is claimed by many to be the solution to bias – why would a robot care about race? The answer, of course, is that robots care about race because the humans programming it do, and the data sets they are trained on have their own intrinsic biases. There is a chapter in this section called ‘Good Intentions’ which covers the incredibly contentious topic of how trying to reduce bias can end up increasing or reinforcing it, which should be mandatory reading for everyone. Agarwal covers the issue masterfully and without judgement, merely presenting the facts and highlighting the importance of education and continual learning. Being completely unbiased is impossible – all we can do is continue to learn from our mistakes, learn our own biases, and act on them.

Overall, this is an excellent book – well-researched, informative without being dry, and highlighting some incredibly topical issues. Recommended for everyone.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 2nd April 2020

Book Review: A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong, is part of the Myths Collection of novellas put out by publisher, Canongate, under the banner of The Canons. These (mostly) fabulous little books include ‘bold retellings of legendary tales, by the world’s greatest contemporary writers.’ I have so far reviewed:

The author of this latest read has been described as ‘one of our best living writers on religion’. Her style is factual but never didactic. She approaches her subject with insight and clarity, exploring how and why myths evolved with persuasive wisdom.

The book has seven chapters that take the reader from The Palaeolithic Period (hunter / gatherer communities) through to the present day. Opening with an explanation of what a myth is, Armstrong states

“mythology […] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

“mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality”

There are recurring reminders that myths are not intended to be read literally. In tough times (and life has always included such times in abundance) they offer a means by which man may experience transcendence.

“Spiritual flight does not involve a spiritual journey, but an ecstasy in which the soul is felt to leave the body.”

“one of the essential yearnings of humanity is the desire to get ‘above’ the human state.”

I recently reviewed The Idea of the Brain: A History,  by Matthew Cobb in which he explores, among other things, how centuries of scientific research has sought to understand the biology of man’s ability to reason and feel – ‘how neural activity is turned into thought’. Armstrong explains that, for millennia, ‘myth and reason were complimentary’. A fixation on logical explanation can be damaging to man’s well being.

 “A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”

Myths – or beliefs – also help man come to terms with change, enabling personal growth and acceptance of mortality. Throughout history, as lifestyles altered, myths developed to match what was needed. Hunter gatherer became agriculturalist and then urban dweller. Alongside, myths evolved into religions.

Ever changing cultures require suitable deities. Although countries around the globe named their gods differently, many of the stories and characteristics were similar. They reflected what was needed. They served the psyche of the people.

The importance of ritual is explored. These also changed as cultural practices altered but remained a vital component in creating a sense of the sacred.

With the advent of literacy, philosophers questioned the rationale behind beliefs and their practices.

“[Reason] was indispensable in the realm of medicine, mathematics and natural science”

“But when they wanted to find ultimate meaning and significance in their lives, when they sought to alleviate their despair, or wished to explore the inner regions of their personality, they had entered the domain of myth.”

“[Reason] had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require.”

Moving on to the period of enlightenment, myths were abandoned. Instances of depression were recorded amongst advocates.

“we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place.”

In the present day the author posits that ‘We still seek heroes’. Perhaps this explains celebrity culture, although what is offered through them is unbalanced adulation.

“The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.”

Armstrong suggests that literature could provide a solution.

“A novel, like a myth, teaches us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

I would contend that it is not just novels that can offer help. In a time of great change and fear for the future, this book provided me with a much needed hopeful outlook. Bad things happen, but will pass. Emotions need not always have a logical basis or justification. The purpose of myths is to encourage man to become: better, kinder, more generous and considerate.

This is a concise and well written history offering many ideas to ponder. A recommended read, especially in these uncertain times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Book Review: The Cabinet of Calm

Are you in your mubble-fubbles (feeling down, or out of sorts)? Do you need a dolorifuge (whatever it takes to expel the sadness, anguish or pain)?

The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times, by Paul Anthony Jones, brings together a collection of the English language’s more obscure and extraordinary words with the aim of offering comfort in difficult times. Gathered together into fifty-one chapters, the author explores the etymology and need for words describing trouble and its necessary corollary – solace. It is a reminder that difficulties have always been a part of life but that things will, eventually, improve.

There are delights to be found in the eclectic selection. For example,

“When it comes to indulging yourself, a word well worth living by is abliguration, an eighteenth-century term for excessive spending on food and drink (or, as the 1724 dictionary that first defined it put it, ‘a prodigal spending in belly-cheer)'”

Those who are feeling weary may feel better after a sloum – a brief nap.

We could all benefit from a house containing a growlery

“a calming, comfortable, solitary room, filled with familiar and enlightening things, in which a bad mood can be privately vented, mused on and assuaged.”

Within these pages there is no denial that people will feel anxious. What is offered is perspective. Words and their meanings develop over centuries; the experiences they were first used to describe remain familiar.

This is not a self help book so much as a reminder that the ability to express what is happening succinctly can lead to recognition that feelings will improve. The author explains the parlance of certain negative words before highlighting the many more hopeful locutions that also exist.

interfulgent – even in dark times, there is always light

meliorism – a call to arms,

“a belief that a better world is not only possible but inarguably worth taking the effort to create”

This is a book that will appeal to those who take pleasure in language and find joy in the discovery of words previously unknown. The slant towards positivity is to be welcomed given our current situation.

It is a text to be dipped into and learned from. An encouragement to view whatever is happening through a more balanced lens.

mooreeffoc – an approach to life

“things don’t in themselves become boring […] we allow ourselves to become bored with them. Change that way of thinking, and we can change the world around us.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliot and Thompson.

Book Review: Diary of a Young Naturalist

“Maybe, if we bang our heads against a brick wall for long enough, it will crumble and fall. And maybe the rubble can be used to rebuild something better and more beautiful, enabling our own wildness. Imagine that”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, by Dara McAnulty, is a year long account of the fourteen year old author’s life. It offers an inspiring and uplifting view of nature focusing on flora and small fauna – the insects and birds essential for balance in the ecosystem of which humans are a part. More than this though, Dara’s musings and recollections provide an eye-opening window into the challenges faced by a teenager on the autism spectrum. He must find a way to survive an intensity of roller coaster emotions as he strives to navigate society and raise awareness of the issues he is passionate about.

Dara was born and raised in Northern Ireland where he still lives with his family. The book opens at the spring equinox – his dad’s birthday. The family home is in Fermanagh. Their best days are spent exploring the gardens, parks and wild places in their vicinity. Dara is often halted by the wonder of a bird or insect he spots, pausing to observe its beauty and activity. He writes with knowledge and appreciation, drawing the reader in and bringing alive the detail of each encounter.

These moments carry the author through the black periods that assail him, when the noise of the structured world he is forced to inhabit drowns out the good he finds in more natural wildernesses. He has been cruelly and violently bullied by his peers at school. Although eager to learn, the setup of modern classrooms and teaching methods – the way he is expected to behave – leave him exhausted. His family are tuned in to his predicament and offer strategies for coping. The constant vigilance required affects them all but is deeply appreciated by the author.

At home he has the understanding and unfailing support of his family. Still though, he must find ways to survive inside his own head. A crisis occurs later in the year when the family move to the other side of the country. The land that lies below the peaks of the Mourne Mountains offers Dara many new and exciting opportunities for exploration but such a radical change is anxiety inducing, especially the change of school.

Each diary entry recounts the birds and tiny beasts that entrance and calm the author. Described in wondrous detail – in language that captivates with its colour – creatures that many would try hard to avoid are made delightful as well as exciting. Alongside this positive energy is Dara’s despair at how modern farming practices denude vital habitats. Humans strive for efficiency and tidiness over more nature friendly practices.

As well as the wild places visited, Dara has an interest in conservation. His growing on-line presence has drawn attention and support from some well known names in this arena. Dara is invited to take part in bird ringing – I was interested that this form of human intervention sat well with him. Other invitations include participation in meetings and rallies. He recognises that, as a young naturalist with a popular following, certain opportunities – especially those attended by politicians – are about using him rather than taking notice of what he has to say.

The writing flows, the structure enabling both brief dips in and longer reading periods. The natural world presented is inspiring but what strengthens the message presented is its honesty – how Dara notices and is affected by his varied encounters. This is a book with the potential to change attitudes and behaviour. A vital read for both young people and adults.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.