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Dr. Mark S. Reed (Leeds, UK)
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From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, Its Community and Landscape
From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, Its Community and Landscape
by Ruth M. Tittensor
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful and fascinating book, 15 April 2010
This is a beautiful book - beautifully written, beautifully spoken (much of it is formed of quotes) and beautifully illustrated with historic and current photographs of the area. Obviously this is a book that will appeal to people who have a specific interest in these kinds of environment, which I am. The interviews I've done with people in these environments have typically been really focused on specific issues and with a wider cross-section of ages, so many of the insights I have got from this book are completely new to me. By reading it their own words, I find myself able to really get into their minds and I find the way that people used to think about and interact with these environments totally fascinating. I married into an Aberdeenshire family, many of whom only speak Doric, and have learned the dialect - thus, I only speak Doric with my family and so it has these really great associations for me - most are farmers and so I've spent many an evening quizzing them about their past. I've always wanted to get the chance to do something similar with people who have lived and worked in uplands. As it turns out, talking about the book with my family, my father-in-law actually did peatland draining in a former job, so he was fascinated to see all the photos of the forestry operations and machinery too! I'm doing environmental research close to Whitelee and this book is essential reading to get my head around the background issues and the people. But this isn't just a work thing - Ruth Tittensor's writing is evocative without over-romanticising things, and the language and dialect of her interviewees is full of humour and metaphor. When coupled with the photos scattered throughout the text, this makes for a rich and rewarding reading experience.


Beef: How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World
Beef: How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World
by Andrew Rimas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.65

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat and Muscle Shaped the World, 16 May 2009
Before embarking on this review, I must confess to knowing the author, and so cannot claim to be entirely unbiased. Despite having done research with livestock farmers for a number of years now myself (both in the UK and Africa), almost everything I read in this book was new to me. An untold story indeed - and fascinating.

I'm not a fast reader in my spare time, so have been reading this for a number of months now, and have been savouring every morsel I have read. In contrast the other reviewer, I very much enjoyed the richness of the prose. I have to read a huge amount for my work, and have become practiced at reading extremely very fast - but it is far from pleasurable much of the time. Therefore when I read to relax, I value easy yet elegant and creative language (hence I read a lot of poetry). Rather than "overwrought", I found that the elegance and creativity of the prose in "Beef..." forced me to slow down and savour both the language and ideas. The experience is akin to eating a perfectly cooked steak that you want to chew slowly to extract every morsel of flavour. Some of the language used to describe food in particular actually gives a pleasure in itself that is not dissimilar to the kind of pleasure that you get from a really intense burst of flavour in the mouth. As a result (and in contrast to the previous reviewer) the culinary interludes were among my favourite parts of the book.

Reading reviews on the American Amazon site (where the book was published first) I see some readers have interpreted the style of writing as "pompous", and on re-reading bits I can see how it could come across like this. Evan Fraser told me that he and his co-author had purposefully set out to create an atmosphere akin to sitting in front of an open fire and listening to a wise old man spinning a yarn. He also admitted that on reading the reviews, he'd wondered whether that had been a sensible voice to choose. It is difficult for me to be objective about this because I have spent considerable time discussing similar issues face to face with the author. And I have to say (perhaps due to the fact that he's an academic by trade) that the way he speaks isn't dissimilar to the way that he writes. He probably uses vocabulary I'm not familiar with as much in the book as he does in real life (a new word or two per chapter). He also uses language in speech in a similarly provocative and elegant way - I love they way a normal conversation usually turns into an in-depth debate without either of us realising. And he lectures in similar style, peppering his presentations with big stories and big concepts, which has made him unarguably the most popular lecturer with students in his home School at the University of Leeds.

My favourite part of the book is the early chapters, about the evolutionary origins of cattle and their various associations with religion. I'm currently living on a farm that keeps cattle, and can no longer look at them in the same way on my walks to say "hello" to the animals with my young daughter - behind their docile ruminations I now see an evolutionary past and find myself imagining the hunt scenes depicted in cave paintings, and sense some of the many reasons why our ancestors so revered cattle in their religion and spirituality (something that would certainly never have occurred to me before when confronted with a field of cows).

My one major complaint is the lack of images to illustrate the text - the early chapters in particular are crying out for numerous pictures that I desperately wanted to see. I kept saying to myself as I read the book in bed that I'd Google the image I wanted to see the next day, but by the time I got to my computer, I never remembered. There must be images of the many gods described somewhere from archaeological finds, or the hieroglyphics for example? One of the most powerful bits of prose was about Picasso's Guernica (p27-30) - the text did a pretty good job of describing the painting, but it has been years since I've seen it and I'd have loved to have been able to see the painting as I read about the interpretation of the bull at its centre.

Finally, in addition to enjoying this book, I learned a lot along the way. As you'd expect in a book co-written by an academic, it is well researched and evidence is provided to support most of the more controversial points. As an academic I found myself wanting to ask for more evidence in some places (e.g. the claim that the one true God of the Israelites had originally been three, one of which was the calf god that Moses destroyed after he got the 10 commandments) - but I'm lucky enough to be able to ask the author myself, and I suspect that the footnotes will be more than enough for non-academic readers.

A book to savour.

Mark Reed
Senior Lecturer, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen


Neolithic Scotland: Timber, Stone, Earth and Fire
Neolithic Scotland: Timber, Stone, Earth and Fire
by Gordon Noble
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.49

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Though-provoking and inspiring (from a non-archeologist), 12 July 2006
I'm not an archeologist, but am finding this a fascinating read. It is beautifully and accessibly written for anyone to read, and is both thought-provoking and inspiring.

Given my personal interest in plants (in particular trees), I have to confess that I skipped to Chapter 4, "Planting Trees, Planting People" immediately after I'd finished the introduction. This is a highly critical and (to me at least) utterly convincing account of the role that trees played in Neolithic culture and spirituality. Contrary to current interpretations in archeological literature, this chapter provides evidence to suggest that ancient trees (split down the middle and up-ended in the ground) may have been as common a sight as the standing stones we all associate with Neolitic ceremony today.

As the book suggests, trees still play a major cultural and spiritual role in many modern day societies. By their very nature, they are rich in symbolism about the cycles of human life and death, and they share many of the characteristics we ascribe to God (for example: their existence on a different time-scale, pre-dating our birth and outlasting our lives and our children's lives; their permanence relative to our transcience; the way they make us feel so small and insignificant in contrast to their height and grandeur; the apparently steady and unchanging nature of a mature tree that is growing imperceptably; and the way they provide for us - food, fibre, building materials, fire, transport, medicine, the list goes on). Is it any wonder that trees form sacred groves for spiritual activities around the world, or that cathedral pillars mimic and exagerate the sacred grove, reaching up to branch-like lattices on their roofs amidst dappled and coloured light from stained glass windows that mimic and exaggerate the effect of sunlight through leaves?

The book highlights many fascinating examples of this close relationship from around the world. Working with pastoralist communities in the Kalahari, I have come across taboos associated with felling certain species of tree, and held meetings in ceremonial spaces ("Kgotlas") that closely resemble the tightly packed stake enclosures illustrated in this book, except that they are usually build around an ancient living tree. I've found that trees effectively "speak" to pastoralists about the future of their land - indicating whether current management practices are unsustainable and degrading the land.

I love the idea that our Neolithic ancestors may have had such close relationships with trees that when they eventually died or blew over, they may have given them their own ritual burial, creating the monuments that the book describes, around which other structures were built. The oldest and largest trees are given personal names by some indigenous groups (e.g. "Tane Muhuta" was 400 years old when the Mauris first arrived from Polynesia and is still alive and revered today). Given the close, possibly personal, possibly spiritual relationship that these people may have had with ancient trees (perhaps even giving them names) it seems only natural that mourning and ceremony should surround their death. Although modern western society may have lost this level of respect for trees, the current growing interest in woodland burials suggests to me that we will never fully lose this connection.


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