Lion: Pride before the Fall

Lion: Pride before the Fall is a photography book featuring the last lion prides in Africa, profits from which go to support the conservation work of Born Free.

There are only 20,000 lions left in the wild and their range is limited to a few places in Africa, where once they could be found in Europe and Asia as well. The photographs are gorgeous, but this is a profoundly upsetting book. It is possible that lions will be extinct in the wild by 2050. They are under threat from the clash with people as settlements encroach on lion territory. Lions will kill livestock. People poison lions to protect their livelihoods. They are also at risk from poachers and trophy hunters.

There are more lions in captivity. Those in private collections, zoos, and in farms where they are bred for canned hunting. Captive lions are a tragic shadow of themselves. Without the space they need, ranges of tens of miles, and the ability to engage in their natural behaviours, they are nothing like they are in the wild.

It seems lion populations can recover fast. If their habitat is protected and a balance can be found between lion and human populations.

Addressing the horrors of the canned hunting business and the trade in lion bones is also important but lions rescued from these farms can rarely be released into the wild.

It’s a beautiful, devastating book. Well worth investing in.

Reality is not what it seems

Writing popular science books is hard. Taking very complex topics and making them understandable to a lay person is a special skill.

Carlo Rovelli is the best science writer I have ever read. Reality is not what it seems: the journey to quantum gravity is indeed a joy to read.

Rovelli takes us on a journey from ancient Greek philosophers to today’s edge of theoretical physics. The first half of the book is devoted to telling the story of how our understanding of reality has developed from early Greeks like Democritus and Leucippus through Galileo, Newton and on to Faraday, Einstein and Bohr. It is amazing to me how what we know of the physics of the ancient Greeks is pieced together from tiny fragments of their writing, and what other philosophers said about their ideas. How devastating to understand what we’ve lost, and yet incredible that we know anything at all.

Rovelli builds up a picture of how we have come to understand the world, starting with concepts of atoms and particles, adding waves and fields, and ending with something quite different to what we might have learnt at school. I wonder how different the physics that is taught now is to what I was taught thirty years ago.

The second half of the book gets into what current theoretical physics is thinking about what reality is, with some description of how experimental physics is providing evidence for those theories. It ends with some discussion about the two main theories now competing to draw all this together.

I am obsessed with the idea that the reality of the universe is so completely alien to the human perception of our surroundings. It’s amazing that with such limited brains and ways of experiencing the world that we can even begin to understand what reality is. For me the best bit of this book is that time doesn’t exist independently of humans. There is no objective, separate thing that is time: our sense of time is generated by our existence.

Loved it. Definitely read this.

Writing from the Inside Out

Book number two from the writing course reading list is Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. A good quarter of the books on the reading list are books on writing technique and other ‘how to write a novel’ type books.

Dennis Palumbo is a scriptwriter turned psychologist whose practice centres around working with writers and other creatives. He spends his days listening to writers who aren’t writing. Well, that seemed relevant.

In a series of small chapters talking about the various things that get in the way of writing, like isolation, waiting for inspiration, rejection, feeling blocked, fear and doubt, Palumbo draws on his writing experience and his therapeutic practice.

The central theme is that all the feelings writers have, rather than getting in the way of writing, are actually the fuel that we should be putting into our work.

The Doll Funeral

I’m doing a writing course for the next nine months and the reading list is quite intimidating. There are nearly 100 books on it. It’s been less than two weeks and I’ve bought ten of them already. Obviously, I’ll buy more than I read and many will sit on the bookcase unread for years. But some will get read, and thus reviewed. Or what passes for a review on this blog.

The first of those is The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer. I read a three-page extract as part of my homework this week. It was well-written with a rich, evocative style and a real sense of menace in those few pages. Enough to make me want to find out what was going on.

It was not the story I thought it was going to be. From the extract I expected that sense of menace throughout and for the story to be how the protagonist, Ruby, escapes her predicament. It’s not quite that. Ruby learns on her thirteenth birthday that her parents are not her birth parents. For Ruby, this is good news. Her father is violent and hateful towards her and her mother weak and ineffectual. The terror of this situation is effectively conveyed in the first third of the book.

Then the tone shifts. Ruby stands up to her father and, thinking she’s done something irreversible, flees into the forest. After a few days she returns to find that her adoptive parents have decided to ship her off to an aunt. Ruby runs again. This time she finds other lost children and attempts to survive a winter with them. Interleaved with Ruby’s story is her real mother’s tale. Then there’s the thread where Ruby sees the spirits of the dead. In the end Ruby finds out about her real parents and they’re not much better than her adoptive ones. It’s kind of a happy ending, but one that feels out of kilter with the menace of the beginning.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this much. I liked the first third. The writing is evocative and creates a claustrophobic and frightening opening, but it made promises the rest of the book didn’t keep. In the rest of the book I was more interested in the mother’s story. I liked the way there was always the suggestion that Ruby seeing spirits might have been caused by getting hit on the head so many times, whilst still conveying how utterly real it is to Ruby. I quite like books that resist classification. Despite all that, I found the ending unsatisfying and was disappointed not to read the story I thought I was going to read.

On a daily reading habit

In January 2021 I gave myself a challenge to read for thirty minutes a day, every day for a month.

Prior to lockdown in March last year I read on weekdays on my commute. I had two and half hours a day on trains and tubes and at least some of that time was for reading. Then we shifted to working from home. So many upsides to that; and one significant downside. I stopped reading.

It has always felt self-indulgent to read at home. I guess it feels self-indulgent to read at all, but when I’m on train there’s not much else I can do so the two things have become closely connected in my mind. As I wasn’t on a train on an almost daily basis, I wasn’t reading.

Naturally, that didn’t mean I stopped buying books. I just stopped reading them. Or, slowed is more accurate. It’s not like I didn’t read anything between March 2020 and January 2021, I just didn’t do it very often.

Some things I know. Watching TV too much isn’t great for my mental health. My mood slips gradually the more TV I watch and sometimes it takes a while to catch it. At the end of the working day I am tired and it seems like watching TV is a low energy activity and picking up a book will be too much effort for my eyes and brain. I love reading and making time for it makes me feel better, yet somehow it’s hard to do when I’m not on a train.

With the change of routine and the uncertainty of 2020, unusually I felt the need for new year’s resolutions. I needed some small goals and structures for my non-working life, so I decided to give myself twelve monthly challenges, starting in January with reading for thirty minutes a day, every day.

In January, I cracked through about twelve books, plus finished off a few I’d started reading but not quite completed. There was one I started but didn’t like, so discarded it. I’ve grown out of reading books I’m not enjoying for the sake of completeness. I found that if I started the day with thirty minutes reading, I’d often spend another few hours in the afternoons and evenings reading too. I’m not going to tell you that reading consistently made me a better person in some way, because that’s not what it’s about. I can’t say I was more productive or more creative or more informed. It just made me happier.

The twelve monthly challenges thing lasted until March. Then I lost interest. The daily reading habit has stuck. It’s nice to wake up in the morning knowing the first thing I’m going to do is read my book for half an hour. My days are better because of it.

The Selected Poems of Li Po

I don’t read a lot of poetry because I mostly don’t really get it, but occasionally something catches me. In this case, a quote in Civilization VI, when you receive the Great Writer Li Bai, an 8th century Chinese poet:

Flowers surround me, alone with my drink,
I pour for myself, no companion to join me.
I raise my glass and toast the full moon,
Who shall with my shadow make us three.

I liked it partly because Civ VI is narrated by Sean Bean and I could listen to him read anything, and partly I liked the simplicity, and partly that Li Bai mostly seems to write about wine. As a result I bought The Selected Poems of Li Po (the westernized name of Li Bai). They are beautiful. Simple and profound. And probably much deeper and more complex than I’m capable of appreciating.

As it happens, neither of the poems quoted in Civ VI were actually in this collection. This is from my favourite, On Hsieh T’iao’s Tower in Hsüan-Chou: A Farewell Dinner for Shu Yün:

 But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,
empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

Gravitas

I have always thought of gravitas as a quality; something a person has or doesn’t, that either comes naturally or develops through life experience. On examination my reasoning for that belief is flimsy. I’ve no clue how I thought some people acquire gravitas or are simply born with it and others don’t, irregardless of their experience.

Caroline Goyder argues in Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority that gravitas is a skill that anyone can develop. She talks about the way that the tone and pitch of your voice, your body language, the congruity between what you do and say, and, perhaps most of all, your self-awareness, contribute to how people receive you.

There are lots of useful exercises aimed at understanding how you come across and the thinking patterns that might be holding you back. There are lots of small things that are easy to implement and build up into a big impact.

I was convinced that gravitas is a skill and that anyone can learn to have more of it. I read a lot of this kind of book and don’t often feel the need to review them, but this one actually changed how I think about something.

Crisis

I started reading Crisis by Henry Kissinger as Covid-19 lockdown started in the UK. It seemed… appropriate, given that it’s a record of a group of people trying to respond to a situation that is changing on a daily basis with limited information.

Crisis covers the Yom Kippur war and the last days of the Vietnam war. Most of the book is dedicated to the Yom Kippur war in 1973. It is largely transcripts of phone calls between Henry Kissinger and the various other actors involved. It is fascinating to read actual transcripts because people don’t speak in proper sentences, context (which we don’t have in this book) is what makes everything make sense and simply from the words on the page it is impossible to know what is going on. Not really. You get the impression that differences in opinion in the US government – between the executive, the various committees, Congress and the Senate – mean that stuff isn’t getting done. Kissinger finds himself making promises that others don’t fulfill. Then people don’t tell the truth, or change their minds, or are relaying the best information they have but it’s just wrong.

Kissinger calls out that some of his colleagues found it hard to let go of the belief that the Israeli army was so superior to the Egyptian army that the war would be over in a couple of days, even when the evidence clearly showed the two armies quite evenly matched. He notes how assumptions impeded decision-making. Although it’s also clear, especially in the section on the Vietnam war, that he doesn’t examine his own assumptions. Trying to work out what’s going on – especially as it’s a long time since I read anything about that war – without any context is challenging: however, lacking the context meant I was more focused on the content of the verbal communication. It is really amazing how randomly we speak and yet manage to understand each other. And really clear how easy it is to misunderstand.

The section on the Vietnam war is shorter and has more commentary around the transcripts. It focuses on the last days of the war when the US is trying to get people (US military, US civilians and Vietnamese people who had worked with the Americans) out of South Vietnam before the North Vietnamese arrive. Kissinger allows himself to show much more emotion in this section about the responsibility the US had to get people to safety and his frustration with the US government failing to agree sufficient budget.

Crisis is an interesting book, both for what is intentionally revealed and what is unintentionally revealed.

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is the exhibition book from the British Museum‘s Sunken Cities exhibition. I went to the exhibition in 2016 and picked up the book in the sale somewhat later. It has been my breakfast book for the past couple of weeks. The ones with lots of photos take much less time to read.

The cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were important trading and cultural centres on the Nile delta for hundreds of years. Then a series of disasters between 200BC and 800AD meant they were lost to the sea. A combination of rising sea levels (1.5m over the last 2000 years), earthquakes and liquifaction caused the cities to sink. Liquifaction is what happens when you build massive stone temples and colossal statues on water-logged clay. Eventually, it’s just going to collapse. Over the last twenty years there has been extensive underwater archaeology off the coast of Egypt to recover them and to understand how the inhabitants of the cities lived.

The book is beautifully presented and is full of the most amazing photography of the underwater excavations and the objects in situ. There’s a good chapter on the techniques of underwater archaeology and the challenges of working in this way. The book explores the mentions of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion in historical writings and gives some political context for the time the cities were thriving. Much of the book is photographs of objects and explanations that put them in context. It’s essentially the text that is on the labels when you go to the exhibition. Which for me is good, because I don’t really read the labels when I go to exhibitions. I just wander around and look at things and absorb the visuals. Occasionally I might read about something that particularly catches my eye, but mostly I get bored with shuffling along reading every single label. In book form, it’s much more accessible for me. It was nice too, to read the book with the memories of the lighting and sensory effects of the exhibition.

Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why

Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck is an examination of the media treatment of female celebrities (mostly celebrities, always women) when they go off the rails. Starting from the contemporary examples of Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan (the book was published in 2016 but draws extensively from Doyle’s journalism over the preceding ten years) Doyle examines what might really be happening. The stories created by the media take the same narrative: somehow these women have broken the rules and deserve the judgemental, voyeuristic treatment meted out to them.

First Doyle puts the contemporary examples in a historical context by comparing them to treatment of similarly transgressive women such as Mary Wollenstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte and Billie Holliday. Women who have expressed their humanity by refusing to be nothing more than objects for men to project themselves on to are labelled as crazy and hysterical. All their genius and work is erased by a focus on their sexuality and emotionality. It is, of course, a double standard. Men who have behaved in exactly the same ways are rarely punished for it and Trainwreck provides a number of examples of men whose careers have flourished despite addiction, or mental illness, or even merely expressing grief and anger.

What is it that we are supposed to learn from these examples? They perform the same function as girls in folklore such as Red Riding Hood, showing the dangers that will befall us if we stray from the path. The impossible, conflicting standards women are supposed to maintain are policed by the fear of what will happen when we stop trying to comply. When we speak up instead of remaining silenced.

This is a powerful, erudite and informed critical analysis of a pervasive part of our culture written in an entertaining and accessible way. It will make you re-think how you feel about the women dragged through the press and maybe have more compassion for them. Read it and allow it to make you angry.