Book Review: Not a Hazardous Sport

First published in 1988, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley offers an account of the author’s travels to and around the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. For a few months he lived amongst the Torajan people, known in academic circles for the carvings on their buildings and their traditional ancestor culture. Barley interacts mostly with the men and this is reflected in the narrative. As an anthropologist he is there to observe. To get the most from the book the reader would be advised to set aside certain western sensibilities – something I struggled with. I baulked at many of the attitudes described, especially towards women. Certain incidents involving animals were also upsetting.

The author travels to Indonesia to undertake ethnographic fieldwork. Funds are limited so he travels economically. His preparations and the journey, although undoubtedly trying, are recounted with humour. A stopover in Singapore, where he stays with a Malay family, includes a visit to a red light district much to the discomfort of his hosts. This set the scene for conversations that would occur throughout the book. Women are sexually objectified, expected to produce babies and look after the home, children and the men. Whilst recognising that this was the accepted culture I would have liked to read of the women’s thoughts on how they were treated and if they desired change.

Indonesia is described with fondness despite its dangerous transport, mosquito infestations and often uncomfortable accommodation. The author describes the people as largely welcoming – impressive given the appalling behaviour of other tourists. He visits several villages, befriending those he meets and staying in their homes. The exchange rate makes him comparatively wealthy and he enjoys his ability to pay generously for services rendered.

The book is written as a series of descriptions of journeys and encounters. I found the cock fight episode distressing – I suspect the author wished to demonstrate the humour of the situation. A ritual he attended that required the killing of a buffalo offers up a picture of a painful and drawn out death for the poor animal, yet this entertains the local children. In a later chapter a bus driver deliberately runs over a puppy.

Other behaviours described increased my distaste for these men. They would wake up each morning and noisily clear mucus and phlegm from noses and throats – not a scene I want to have in my head.  It was, of course, interesting to learn of western habits that they observed with similar disgust. My recoil is not an attempt to take any sort of moral high ground.

At the time of writing Indonesia was changing. Many traditional beliefs were being abandoned for Christianity. Buildings with galvanised iron roofs rather than bamboo tiles were regarded as modern. Woven cloaks coloured with plant dyes were no longer as popular as those made from rayon.

Following his stay the author invites a small group of men to travel to London and build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. The final chapter describes the reaction of these Indonesians to English habits and behaviour. Their experiences have repercussions when they return to their country.

Although well written and witty in places, I struggled to engage with the author’s portrayal. He may have been fond of those he met, impressed by their openness and welcome; my reaction was largely negative. I would have preferred a more rounded representation of a country populated by more than just men. From an anthropological point of view there is much of interest. As a casual reader I was put-off Indonesia.

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

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Book Review: Chicken Unga Fever

There have been a plethora of books written in recent years by doctors and other health professionals about the cases they treat and how they cope with the challenges of a job involving potentially life and death decisions. Chicken Unga Fever, by Dr Phil Whitaker, provides a series of snapshots of the working life of a GP. It is a collection of the author’s ‘Health Matters’ columns from the New Statesman magazine, where they have appeared fortnightly for the past five years. Each entry is short – typically a couple of pages in length – and the book is best dipped into rather than read in a sitting. What emerges is a gentle and humane view of the nation’s health from the perspective of a front line doctor who is expected to recognise every ill within a ten minute consultation and offer effective treatment.

Doctors are human and will sometimes make mistakes – an increasingly litigious culture can thus detrimentally affect outcomes as they strive to protect themselves professionally. When rare disorders are encountered they may take some time to diagnose – no doctor can remember every possible symptom and illness. In Britain they work within a system that demands ever more time and cost savings, encountering patients who will already have consulted Dr Google without understanding background and context. With the recent marked increase in obesity, patients are not always able or willing to help themselves.

Some of the cases included are heartbreaking to read – not so much in the experiences of the dying but rather their treatment of those who love and support them when confronted by their imminent mortality. There are interesting musings on medical myths – how science may not always provide the sought after cure. I found it surprising that a doctor would have faith in chiropractors or acupuncture but psychosomatic illnesses are becoming more widespread so perhaps such treatments can prove beneficial for those who believe in them. It was no surprise to learn that a balanced diet, adequate rest and regular exercise can be effective as longer term solutions for many ills.

“If someone is in poor health then there are likely to be myriad contributors. Some, like genes or age, we can do little about. But what we eat, how much rest and recreation we grant ourselves, what exercise we take, our sense of security and autonomy, and our levels of deprivation, are all important determinants that can be addressed – some at a personal level, others socio-politically. The success of scientific medicine has led to the belief that there’s a pill to solve every ill. Our medical forebears would be astounded by the efficacy of our drugs, but equally bemused by our inability to take care of ourselves.”

There is discussion of many issues – from well meaning but ultimately nagging government health promotions that put patients off consulting doctors, to unnecessary testing as a means of reassuring the patient that all possible avenues are being explored but which can lead to false positives that end up doing more harm than good. These false positives also occur when private companies become involved in screening programmes – the more tests they do the more money they make. Modern tests such as MRI and CT scans can spot potentially scary lumps and bumps that the body may successfully cope with given time. Not all precancerous cells become malignant, or develop quickly. Interventions are not always in the patient’s best interests.

The details of the various consultations are presented in calm and measured language. Patients are treated with compassion and respect. Doctors may be best placed to know how to most effectively allocate scarce resources but patients will not always appreciate decisions made that do not provide them with the care they seek. The over prescribing of antibiotics is a case in point, and one that will likely cause future problems for the patient.

The author talks of his more personal experiences as a doctor – such as when called to treat a patient on a holiday flight, or at a child’s school event. He also comments on the equipment and therefore treatments offered in other countries, comparing Zambia and then the USA with Britain’s facilities.

“I want our health service to be as good as it can be, but the juxtaposition with what I was witnessing in Zambia felt raw. UK medical students undertake electives abroad to gain valuable perspectives on healthcare elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it’s time our politicians did likewise.”

Although garnering the occasional mention this is not a political book. The short entries offer an overview of the day to day life of a GP in today’s NHS – the importance of trust and teamwork. It makes for sobering but also comforting reading. The media may love to paint a bleak picture of current UK healthcare, mostly still available to all despite the current government’s endeavours. With continual medical advances I would posit that this is one area that few would wish to revert to ‘the good old days’.

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

Book Review: Browse

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World, is a collection of fifteen essays by various writers about what bookshops have meant to them throughout the course of their lives. Opening with an introduction by the book’s editor, Henry Hitchings, each contributor shares their experiences from a diverse selection of outlets that have, in some way, helped nurture and shape their development. The contributions are eclectic in style, preferences and setting. Not all the bookshops mentioned still exist but are fondly remembered.

Secondhand retailers feature, with Ali Smith writing of the treasures to be discovered between pages, not just the words. In a charity shop where she volunteered she has found letters, photographs and poignant inscriptions. A book’s value is not just what someone else will pay for it.

Michael Dirda also writes of a secondhand bookshop he regularly visits although he seeks titles as investments – rare bindings and first editions – to add to his vast collection. His enjoyment of reading has been affected by his job as a reviewer.

“while reading remains a pleasure it’s become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion.”

Ian Sansom writes of working in the old Foyles on Charing Cross Road where he would try to avoid customers. His colleagues would help themselves to stock – this is not the usual dreamy depiction of avuncular booksellers. Despite the somewhat downbeat experience he laments the shiny edifice the shop has since become.

Daniel Kehlmann, on the other hand, prefers a vast, modern and impersonal bookshop that is well organised – he likes to be left in peace to browse. His essay is written in the form of a conversation between two writers and offers many witty observations. On the importance of bookshops in providing authors with an income his character says:

“I live off giving readings and talks. Also teaching sometimes. I teach people who want to write books how to write books that sell so well that you can live off them. I do that because my books don’t sell so well that I can live off them.”

Stefano Benni opens his essay with a poem that concludes:

“Books speak even when they are closed
Lucky the man who can hear
their persistent murmur”

He writes of a bookseller who, if he distrusted a customer’s motives, would refuse to sell to them. It is in these smaller bookshops that the writers get to know the proprietors and recall conversations that led them to books they would not otherwise have discovered. Benni recalls that the bookseller was also a writer and offered him the following advice:

“There comes a time when your work is over and it starts belonging to other people.”

Iain Sinclair writes of the closing of a beloved bookshop, and also of booksellers becoming writers.

“You would think that booksellers would be the last to write bks, surrounded as they are by bestsellers that are now forgotten”

Not all the tales told are positive. Dorthe Nors’s essay recounts a painful bookshop experience when a scathing proprietor ordered her to leave for daring to move her latest publication face out on the shelf.

My favourite essay was by Saša Stanišić in which he writes of his need to find a dealer for his regular supply, one he can trust to offer a quality fix. The depiction of books as drugs is cleverly done, humorous and apt.

The essays are from all over the world and reflect the varied tastes of the authors. Whether they prefer: big shops or small, old books or new, cluttered or well organised outlets, antiquarian or stocking their own latest works; there is a nostalgia for the past that is understandable given the memories evoked. In our current times this did leave me a tad wary – the past is not always rose coloured.

What is clear though is how important bookshops are in widening the perspectives of aspiring writers.

“We have the potential to become greater than the role we’ve been expected to play.”

Many of the recollections of second hand bookshops revolve around treasures found amongst the stacks before the internet offered instant valuations for sellers to compare. I did feel rather sorry for the business owners who lost out. On line sellers are, however, blamed for the decline in the number of bookshops and this is understandably lamented.

As someone who derives pleasure from visiting bookshops but who buys books to read rather than with an eye on resale value, not all the essays resonated. Nevertheless they offer a fascinating window into the eclectic nature of bookshops worldwide, and the preferences of both customers and proprietors.

On writers and the evolving business of book selling, this is an affable and entertaining read.

“A book is not just a product; a book is an experience”

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

Book Review: Women and Power

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, is based on two lectures the Cambridge based classicist gave in 2014 and 2017. It opens with an introduction celebrating how far women in the west have come in the previous century. The following chapters then focus on why women’s voices are still routinely ignored or silenced, and why any woman holding a powerful position continues to be regarded as an anomaly.

Drawing on examples from ancient Greek and Roman times, the author argues that government, business and society are all structured to ensure that it is only men who are listened to on serious issues affecting all. Politics, the economy and wider global concerns are regarded as beyond the comprehension of the majority of women, but not men. The pitch of women’s voices is described as whining, the content of their conversation trifling. The fact that they dare join any weighty debate is mocked, whatever is said. Attitudes are ingrained.

“We have to focus on the even more fundamental issues of how we have learned to hear the contributions of women […] Not just, how does she get a word in edgeways? But how can we make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us not listen to her.”

The widespread use of social media has led to women who express opinions being subjected to abuse. Even those men who regard themselves as supportive may not be granting women serious consideration. The term ‘mansplaining’ was coined for a reason.

“It is not what you say that prompts it, it’s simply the fact that you’re saying it.”

The second chapter opens by looking at a work of fantasy fiction in which a nation of women have existed alone for centuries until three American men stumble upon their utopia. By exploring how these women regard themselves and then their uninvited guests, wider questions may be asked about the cultural underpinnings of misogyny.

“How and why do the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads exclude women?”

Powerful women, to fit into the role they have attained, adopt tactics that make them appear more like their male counterparts – lowering the timbre of their voices or dressing in suits. Any weakness is regarded as a female trait. The structures of power have been built with the expectation that they will be populated by men. When women gain access they are treated as interlopers. When mistakes are made these women are subjected to prolonged public humiliation.

This is a short book written with the author’s trademark wit and wisdom. By looking back to ancient times and teachings she shows just how ingrained attitudes are and always have been. There are no easy answers offered to the problems presented. In recognising why such issues exist, the silencing of women can be challenged with affirmative action, calling out those who denigrate the contributions of half the population.

Women & Power is published by Profile Books. This review is of the hardback. A paperback edition, containing additional material, was released on 1st November 2018.

Book Review: The Lies That Bind

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

“labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.”

“As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.”

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed.

“Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.”

The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression.

“In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.”

What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others.

“Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.”

Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun.

If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation.

Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices.

The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned.

“It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.”

Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal.

“being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent”

Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers.

The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership.

“we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.”

Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things.

In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited.

The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree.

Any Cop?: Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read.

“I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The 10 Worst of Everything

The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad, by Sam Jordison, is a compendium of lists that should spark plenty of conversation as readers randomly dip in. As such it is an ideal stocking filler or book to leave lying on your coffee table. With its unashamedly subjective judgements and authorial prejudices it offers amusement alongside verifiable nuggets to wonder over or squirm at, and wider opinions to debate. Some lists are taken from recorded data, many online so gathered post internet, while others are simply an ordering of the author’s choices on eclectic themes.

Divided into ten sections it opens with Bad Nature which may put you off leaving the safety of your home let alone travelling to far flung outposts of our apparently not so hospitable world. Offered for readers’ delectation are details on: deadly parasites, insects, scorpions, spiders, snakes. Killer plants and fungi are included. The deaths described are painful and not always swift.

The second section looks at various languages and how baffling and difficult they can be to learn. There are lists of: brutal Shakespearean insults, harsh reviews of respected writers, regrettable literary rejections.

Next up is a section on Unpopular Culture, which sparked much discussion in this house. The Ten Daftest Prog Rock Song Titles are, according to my aficionado husband, pretty much generic. We pondered if the author was, perhaps, a tad young for appreciation of progressive rock. Top spot, I was told, should have gone to Pink Floyd’s ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict’.

The Ten Worst Films were taken from the website, Metacritic, and for us proved too obscure. We were surprised that the Ten Biggest Box Office Bombs didn’t include Waterworld, and this set off a search to see if it was true that part of the hugely expensive set used in this epic sank during filming and had to be rebuilt. Part of the fun of books like this is the tangential debates sparked.

Much like the Booker Prize it seems, the Ten Worst Winners of the Best Picture Oscar gave little credit for effortless entertainment, or even cinematography. We laughed at the list of Ten Worst Christmas Songs and felt our age at music lists populated by albums and tracks we hadn’t heard of. Our musical tastes appear to be looping the vinyl of passed decades.

Having enjoyed this section, the next, The State of Our Nations, once again made travelling appear unwise. Noise, pollution, transport issues and bedbugs all feature alongside the cost of a pint.

The Fun and Games section offers sporting facts, The Ten Worst Things To Do In A Public Swimming Pool, and notable failures at Olympics and world record attempts. Further foolish things that man will choose to do to himself are presented in the next section on Health and Wellbeing.

The focus then moves back to the good old days which were, of course, anything but. Given current circumstances it felt almost comforting to be reminded of the terrible leaders endured over centuries. Accepted facts that have since been disproved are listed along with bizarre treatments and medical procedures once commonly administered.

The section on Modern Life is a reminder that we still do dumb things, including buying stupid kitchen gadgets.

On a personal note again, I had to smile at the list: The Worst Car To Buy During Your Mid-Life Crisis. I have never owned a BMW but do enjoy travelling in our Audi TT.

The penultimate section on The Future amused with its lists of predictions that time has proved wrong. The End suggests ways the earth may end – I do hope it is only foolish man who extinguishes himself and that more deserving lifeforms survive.

The author has no qualms about questioning the intelligence of those who don’t agree with him on certain pet topics. Mostly though this is a fun reflection of his tastes, such as his apparent dislike of vegetables.

A book of lists that I enjoyed reading and will now be leaving out for visitors to peruse. It offered a welcome distraction from the bad things our media endlessly expounds on, and a reminder that we have somehow survived similar and worse.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael O’Mara Books. 

Book Review: Landfill

Landfill, by Tim Dee, is the most recent addition to Little Toller’s series of nature monographs. With jacket design and occasional illustrations by Greg Poole, this beautifully produced book explores the author’s interest in gulls, and how their populations have grown and adapted to make the most of modern man’s waste generating behaviour. Dee’s research was carried out at various landfill sites where birds are tagged and observed. These once migratory creatures now live year round in British cities where they are regarded as pests for getting too close to the humans who have enabled them to flourish.

“It’s also important to remember that we’re responsible for all this. We’ve thrown so much edible stuff away.”

Due to man’s habits, gulls no longer need to travel to find winter food. Gulls fly over wide areas but many return to breed where they hatched so populations expand. They are dynamic and fast adapting. In eating human rubbish they have become indicators of future problems such as when DDT exposure caused feminisation of embryos.

The author has been a keen birdwatcher since his teens. He seeks out those with specialist knowledge to interview and accompanies them on field trips. He writes up the conversations that take place in: Bristol City Centre; various Essex landfill sites; an island in the Severn Estuary; the Isle of Lewis off Scotland; still segregated South African population centres; the rainforests of Madagascar; the Natural History archive centre. It is not always gulls that are observed. What bird enthusiasts seek are rare sightings and better understood avian behaviours. The author notes that evolution isn’t over – species are coming into existence as much as they ever were. When a new species is discovered it is new to science but could, perhaps, have simply avoided prior categorisation. Humans have this need to label – birds, animals and people.

Although accessible and raising interesting questions, the subject will be of particular interest to other bird enthusiasts. Gulls deliver a challenge for ornithologists as certain species can hybridise – nature exists whether or not man names or understands it. Nevertheless, awakening interest, as chasing a rare sighting does, may make man less eager to follow through on his typically selfish and destructive behaviour.

One rare bird spotted in Lewis in 2013 had twitchers rushing to watch in awe. They observed as its impressive aeronautic display was cut short, literally, by the blades of a wind turbine.

There are many historic books featuring birds, the merits of which the author discusses in sometimes scathing terms. The only positive views he has on the Richard Bach’s best selling Jonathan Livingston Seagull are about Russell Munson’s photographs which he wished to identify. This desire to recognise and categorise is strong.

In Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, nature assembles to attack its greatest destroyer, man. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour London Poor, published in the nineteenth century, barely mentions gulls which at the time were kept for eggs or occasionally eaten, but rarely flew up the estuary. What this and other books offer as interest is how rubbish was perceived and treated. The recent growth in gull numbers is down to people. In visits to overseas landfill sites, Dee observes both human and avian scavengers.

“When do objects – or people – cease to have value?”

Having provided so bountifully for gulls, man is once again changing how his rubbish is treated. Food waste is no longer to be dumped in landfill sites, and these are to be covered over and converted into parks. Cities are taking measures to cull populations of birds regarded as unruly. Numbers may have peaked and now be in decline but the author is keen to show what wider lessons may still be learned from the tagging and sharing of information. If nature is to be protected it requires new generations of ambassadors.

“The world is, and then the world is as we say it is.”

As with each book in the monograph series, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. I am highly unlikely to become a twitcher but will now view gulls with more curiosity. This was an interesting, informative and often entertaining read.

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