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Reviews Written by
Stewart M (Victoria, Australia)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

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Gut
Gut
by Giulia Enders
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Down the tubes we go!, 28 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Gut (Paperback)
Gut is an easy to read, and often entertaining journey through the digestive system. The fact that some people may not think that such a journey can be interesting, makes a kind of point that the author stresses throughout the book – that we have come to ignore the gut and would rather not think about the messy processes that occur there.

The central idea of the book is that the gut is far more than just a processer of food and a manufacturer of noxious wastes. The book identifies the gut, and as importantly, the microbial community within it as central to many areas of health. The book also points the finger of guilt for many ‘modern’ illnesses at changes to this microbial community.

This book is clearly in the ‘human body ecosystem’ field of thinking, rather than a reductionist ‘set of organs’ approach – and I have to say this is a very appealing idea – however, this does not make it true, and it does not make the contents of the book some kind of recipe for health and happiness.

What this book does do is pose a great many questions and float a great many ideas, some of which may could to be important and some of which may fade away. It will be down to medical science to work out which is which.

One part of the book that did find rather disappointing, was the number of clear typos that made their way through the translation from the original German. In a number of cases there were sentences that did not seem to be in tune with the rest of the book, and I was left wondering if this was due to my failure to understand something, or if it was due to a translation / type setting issue.

Apart form the last issue I would recommend this book rather highly, but it may be less revolutionary than some reviews seem to suggest.


Landmarks
Landmarks
by Robert Macfarlane
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, but rather formal, 1 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Landmarks (Hardcover)
The central ideas of this book are that language defines how we relate to landscape and that landscape comes to define language. So, landscape and language are intimately connected.

Parallel to this is the observation that we are becoming less connected to the ‘natural’ landscape to the detriment to both language and our understanding of the language.

By splitting the landscape into broad categories the author looks at how people have reacted to landscape and each section concludes with a listing of (underused or neglected) words that describe these categories of landscape.

If you are already aware of the work of Robert Macfarlane this book will feel very familiar – dense with ideas, rich with references to other peoples work (he has a few special favourites) and often rather academic in flavour. None of these is a weakness, but in combination they can start to produce a text that seems rather more like a university essay rather than a passionate call to arms about the need to protect the language of landscape. (or the landscape of language)

The book is really very thought provoking, but it is not a page-turner. I think that the content of the book is really important, but I wish the writing was just a little more accessible. I can’t help but think of works of Richard Mabey, which are just as dense with ideas, but are not written in such an academic manner.

Despite all I have said, I would still recommend this book very strongly; I just wish it was a gentler read.


Lone Survivor: The Incredible True Story of Navy SEALs Under Siege
Lone Survivor: The Incredible True Story of Navy SEALs Under Siege
by Marcus Luttrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Lightly recommended, but do not expect a classic., 1 Aug. 2015
This is a book in two parts – the first, which deals with the authors training as a Navy SEAL is rather mundane; the second (if taken at face value) is remarkable.

Its clear that anybody who can survive the kind of training described here is a remarkable individual, but the way it is described here converts it into little more than a series of runs and swims, interspersed with the need to get ‘wet and sandy’. While this part of the book is probably necessary as a ‘scene setter’ it does seem to go on for rather too long.

The second part of the book is an account of an ill-fated mission that the author and three other SEALs undertake in Afghanistan. If you don’t already know the story, the title of the book is a bit of a give away.

Two aspects of the book flow through each section of the book – and both of which I found annoying, but neither is surprising. Firstly, there is the ‘All the way with the USA’ tone, which given that the author clearly seems himself (and his comrades) as a true patriot is not a shock. The second – and more frequently occurring theme is the ‘SEALs as Gods that walk among us’ kind of thing. Again, its clear that people who are trained as special forces need a high degree of self confidence, but the repeated SEALs can do anything kind of assertions get rather tiresome in the end.

But what separates this book from some of have read – and American Sniper comes to mind here – is that the author, while clearly disliking the people he has to fight, at least acknowledges that they are good at what they do, and in his relationship the villagers who come to his aid, understands that they are in fact remarkable people. While the book is clearly not a classic of anthropology, the local people are drawn in a far more complex way that in some books – they are far more than just targets and religious fanatics (although the author does call them that as well!)

If the details of the second part of the book are correct and I have no reason to think they are not, then the author is very lucky to be alive.

In the end, it is the actions of the villagers that is the most remarkable part of the book – with the humanity they show being a part of the terrible story of the wars in Afghanistan that is seldom told.

As normal I read this book on a plane, and it passed the time. But in the end it was the villagers that stayed with me rather than the soldier.

Lightly recommended, but do not expect a classic.


The Buried Giant
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of forgetfulness and memory., 20 Jun. 2015
This review is from: The Buried Giant (Hardcover)
This is a rather strange and wonderful book, which left me thinking that I knew what it is about, but suspecting that I may be very, very wrong!

Set in England some time after the fall of King Arthur, the storyline revolves around an old couple looking for their son in a landscape still blighted by war and yet to come into its classic Englishness.

What makes this journey rather different from how it seems in this short description is that few people in this land have memories of the past. The past is shrouded in a mist that makes people forget even the most recent things – and the more distance past seems to have gone completely.

The landscape – and the book – are slightly fey in feel. Knights, dragons, pixies, strangers on the road, the lingering ghost of King Arthurs now lost Kingdom and the forgetful mist all contribute to this. In terms of the books style, this ‘feyness’ is most clearly voiced in the style of the dialogue. In the end some people may find the constant ‘husbands’ and ‘princesses’ that pass between the old couple a little annoying – but I found them a simple and central element to the book.

So, what is it about?

Clearly I think it’s about the battle between forgetting and memory – and the consequences of living a life where peace has been bought at the cost of ignorance (ie no memory) rather than an understanding and acceptance of the past. At least one character seems to be a ‘gate keeper’ to memory and I have to wonder if this is some form off illusion to our current keepers of history who seem to think we may be better off not knowing about the past as we move into a brave new future.

The above paragraph my of course be utterly out of step with the writers intention – but I suggest you read this book to find out for yourself.

Highly Recommended.


It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War
It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War
by Lynsey Addario
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.10

5.0 out of 5 stars It's what she does., 20 Jun. 2015
Conflict photographers are a strange breed; part adventurer, part evangelist, part witness. And as such they often seem strangely appealing to those of us who like to put an eye to a camera viewfinder.

If ever there was a book to add a dimension of truth to the myths of this form of journalism, then it was this one.

While the three parts I list above are clearly present in this book, so much more is revealed about what it is like to get up every day, eat your breakfast and go watch disasters unfolding. This is not a book about photographic technique, it is not about ‘how I do it’ – it’s much more about ‘what it’s like to do it’.

While little of what happens in the personal and professional life of the author is much of a surprise (with the exception of one phone call!) given the places she and her colleagues work in, the honesty with which they are presented gives them power.

If you want to read a book to see what journalism is capable of, and how far below this standard most of what we see and watch falls, then you should read this book.

Very highly recommended.


Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World
Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World
by Stephen R. Kellert
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Strangely Dispassionate, 1 Jun. 2015
Birthright focuses on the need to understand that the relationship between human and the natural world is an important part of the health of both individuals and communities.

The book outlines the idea that because we evolved in natural environments, the emotional and (possibly deeper) physiological responses that such environments create are both adaptive and healthy. In other words, because the environment shaped us and we still need it to be truly whole.

There are many aspects of this argument that are appealing, and the wide application of this idea to things like urban design, architecture and even health care seems to make sense.

An important part of the book suggests that emotional responses to the natural environment are vital if we are to truly understand the places in which we live. This idea is compared to (what the author seems to see as) dispassionate science. Again this idea has some appeal.

So, it is strange that so much of this book seems to have been written in way that strips the passion from the prose. The author seems to acknowledge this by inserting section he calls ‘interludes’ into the main body of the text.

Rather than being interludes (ie a time away) in the book, they seem to be the main part where the ideas of the book come to life.

In some ways this book falls into the awkward space between textbook and popular ‘science / philosophy’ - and ends not being a particularly good example of either.

So, this is a strangely low-key book about a subject that may have best been covered in a more passionate fashion.

Interesting, but possibly not too exciting.


H is for Hawk
H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The emotion of Nature, 11 May 2015
This review is from: H is for Hawk (Paperback)
Although the central character of this book is a bird - a Goshawk - , this wonderful book focuses on emotion rather than biology.

This simple fact may be enough for some people to decide if they are going to read this book or not. This is a book that places the emotional reaction of the author to the death of her father, the English countryside and the trials and tribulations of a trying to train a hawk above pure biological knowledge.

If you want fact and figures, weights and measures then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a wonderfully written, authentic feeling account of coming to terms with loss and finding the strength to do so through a connection with nature, then this is the book for you.

The intertwined strands of place, passion and more than a little frustration are what hold this book together. And sitting in the background like a memory is the book The Goshawk by TH White, a volume that apparently falls in the category of `flawed masterpiece'.

Some people have said that this book may be a little `over indulgent' because of the way in which the author links her emotional life to the life of both a bird and the countryside it which she trains and hunts with it. I think this misses the point that nature has a power beyond just a dispassionate experience.

We make our own meanings from nature, and in this book you can follow the authors journey towards her own meaning.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Wild Wood
Wild Wood
by Jan Needle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars A view from the Wood., 20 April 2015
This review is from: Wild Wood (Paperback)
This book is a cracking re-telling of the classic, The Wind in the Willows.

If Wind In the Willows is a view from the river, then this book is a view from the wood. The strength of this version comes from the simple believability of the humanised characters and the voice of Baxter then main narrator.

Some of the tricks of the original remain – such has the (unacknowledged) change in size of the animals depending on need. In the original Toad becomes a washer-women and deals with ‘gypsies’ and similar things happen in the new version.

What is really wonderful about this book is the way that both the original characters and plot lines remain intact and only motivation and purpose change. We don’t have to un-learn anything from the original for the new version to make sense.

And this I think leads to the only issue I have with the book – I really do think you need at least a working knowledge of the plot of Wind in Willows to see how wonderful this book itself is. Which, I suppose leads to the recommendation, that you should read both of them!

Highly Recommended.


The Great War: Ten Contested Questions
The Great War: Ten Contested Questions
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars This is a timely book., 9 April 2015
Given the upcoming (and misnamed) ‘celebrations’ about the First World War, a book at looks at some of the received truth about this conflict and asks ‘is this what really happened’ is a worthwhile addition to the huge number of books which will be published on this subject in the next few years.

However, the title of the book is a little misleading in some ways – for not all of the questions in the book are ‘contested’. Some, such as how did the military cope with the treatment of huge numbers of wounded that the battles caused, and why did the British War Poets rise to such prominence at the expense of other forms of literature, are questions that are not asked very often (if at all) in the popular debate on the history of this war.

But of course, there still are the contested questions of history – why did the war start in the first place? Why did it not stop sooner? Were the Generals really as incompetent as we have been told? How much difference did the arrival of the Americans make to the outcome of the war? In some ways these are the familiar debates of history.

Some of the question are less familiar – were conscientious objectors traitors? What role did religion play in the war? and where are the voices of the soldiers from ‘the colonies’ (other than Australia/NZ and Canada).

This is not a long book – but it is a very worthwhile read.

Given the kind of certainty that seems to be come when politicians start telling tales of history, I think this is a thought provoking and, possibly, important antidote.

Highly recommended.


The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Third time Lucky!, 22 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Paperback)
This is the third Julian Barnes book I have read in recent months – the other two being ‘England, England’ and ‘Metroland’- and this is by far the best.

It may be a coincidence, but a couple of themes reappear in these three books: the behaviour and relationships of bright schoolboys, broken relationships and the nature of memory/reality and how we can come to terms with these.

Of all of these books, The Sense of an Ending seems the most well balanced, complete and plausible from a character point of view to me.

Tony Webster, the main character and a bright (but not the brightest) school boy in the past, looks back at the memories of his life and tries to make sense of them after a surprise inclusion in a will.

Maybe there are couple of coincidences and connections that may not feel 100% authentic, but they do not stretch believability to far.

This is a short book – about 150 pages – and it may only take a couple of hours to read, but I would recommend it far more confidently than the other two I have read.

For once, I book that seems to live up to its dust jacket quotes.


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