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A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring
A Sparrowhawk's Lament: How British Breeding Birds of Prey Are Faring
by David Cobham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.97

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Decades of raptor experience between two covers..., 22 July 2014
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Anyone with a real interest in diurnal raptors will learn something from this book; if you think you know a few species well, here's a shortcut to the rest. Nicely written in proper English, packed full of information, but also a very engaging read and further enlivened by many of Bruce Pearson's paintings (which typically capture the bird and the setting to perfection). This is not a 'quick & dirty' desk study using sources on the internet but a reflection of decades of the author's engagement with his subject and of contact with like-minded observers and activists. Taking each breeding species in turn, the author gives an overview of their historical and recent status, based in part on key published sources but primarily on notes from his own long and varied experience, both observing, and learning from specialists involved in field studies, reintroduction projects or other conservation work. The emphasis is always on the fascination, beauty and excitement of encounters with raptors, but the book also surveys aspects of breeding biology, the theats they face, reviews recent conservation projects, and gives some insight into raptor conservation politics. To my mind this is now the third key multi-species work on British birds of prey, joining Dick Orton's "The Hawkwatcher" and Leslie Brown's now somewhat dated volume in the New Naturalist series. Definitely rates five stars because of the scope and depth of coverage, and the authority it derives from the author's long practical involvement. But not perfect: it would have been great to have at least one illustration per chapter in colour (I know, too costly) and the detailed passages describing plumage don't work well without supporting illustrations. The subtitle is potentially a little misleading: among birds of prey it only covers the diurnal raptors not owls. Oh, I nearly forgot: I usually cringe at 'nature' poetry, but this includes a piece (by David Harsent) on the shooting of Bowland Bess,among the last English Hen Harriers, that brought a tear to my eye.


The Black Spider (New York Review Books Classics)
The Black Spider (New York Review Books Classics)
by Jeremias Gotthelf
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly not for arachnophobes..., 24 Feb 2014
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The Black Spider is an allegorical tale seeking to demonstrate the benefits of a fervently God-fearing life and the contrasting hell-on-Earth that results from dealing with the Devil. And I do mean God-fearing because the book's closing sentence is explicit that God is the source both of the powers of men and of the evil done by The Black Spider! Written in the first half of the 19th century, the tone of the book is almost mediaeval (bringing to mind those vivid altarpiece paintings of the torments of hell). The author was born in 1797, the son of a pastor, and himself became a pastor in the Emmental. Jeremias Gotthelf (pen name of Albert Bitzius) has written a narrative that is genuinely disturbing, quite frightening at times, and that I think will lurk for a long time in the mind of most who read it. Anyone who has felt uneasy when a house spider streaks across the floor on long flickering legs will be quaking in their shoes at times. But the reader must be prepared for an opening 20 pages or so of bucolic scene-setting (becoming a little tedious...), lots of in-your-face sermonising, and a fundamental misogyny. Of course, the period feel is part of the book's interest. The story of the Black Spider, and its depredations in the distant past, is related by an aged grandfather. The trouble started when a woman with ideas and dynamism above her station in life (adding xenophobia to misogyny, she's identified as an immigrant to the cosy little valley) tried - by negotiating with the devilish Green Huntsman - to relieve the village men of an immense and impossible task they had been set by a cruel nobleman. Almost unwittingly she creates a pact with the Devil that results in the birth of the Black Spider when the pact is broken, and the spider proceeds to spread death and destruction to man and beast alike throughout the region. I shouldn't reveal more of the plot. The NYRB is to be congratulated for publishing this important work in English, and for the quality of the book production. The cover is particularly apt, showing a waxwork image of an 18th century "Allegory of Vanity", ie. half a charming female face and half a worm-ridden skull (but I'm too childishly literal-minded not to be irritated by the fact that the spider-like creature on the skull appears to have only six legs instead of eight; perhaps it is a beetle?).


When the Time Comes
When the Time Comes
by Josef Winkler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint-hearted, 31 Dec 2013
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This review is from: When the Time Comes (Paperback)
Gosh. Where to start with this one? Unusually, the blurb on the back is a reasonable guide to the contents. The "Time" in the title is the time of a person's death, and the book is indeed a kind of necrology: an enumeration and study of the ever-increasing dead in a rural village in alpine Austria. There is no real plot, little elaboration of characters, but a remorseless succession of deaths by suicide, accident or illness. Few features persist: the village built in the shape of a cross, the calvary with its terrible figure of Satan next to Christ, the overarching grip of Catholicism. The recurring human character is the Bone Collector - a now ninety year old man who looks after the pot wherein bones of slaughtered animals are boiled to produce a putrid-smelling stock "to be brushed on the horses with a crow's feather around the eyes, on the ears...to protect them from the flies..." Each dead person is described as lying (metaphorically?) in the bone collectors pot, as a new layer on top of the earlier dead. The prose is direct, vivid, becoming incantatory, surreal and poetic. It begins to work as one of those cumulative songs, where a new item (dead person, in this case) is added in the chorus to those already itemised earlier in the song (starting here with the arm bones of a blasphemer who threw a statue of Christ over a forest waterfall).

There are only two other books by Josef Winkler in English translation, neither easy to find. The translation here seems very good; I don't read German - what I mean is that one is almost never aware of reading a translation. Given that an American publisher has had the commitment to produce this book, the American spelling must be forgiven. I noticed just a couple of laughably inappropriate contemporary Americanisms ("...push the envelope..." - really!). The book is nicely produced, on good paper and in a pleasant typeface.

It is a powerful and disturbing book (perhaps best avoided by anyone in a particularly depressed condition?), with truly amazing depth and intensity, and given the author's integrity of vision, one that will not be easily forgotten. About halfway through I began to tire a little of the endless tragedy and death, while delighting in the novel intensity of the imagery, but then the prose becomes increasingly rhythmic and chant-like and I found myself devouring the rest in one sitting. It's been emotionally draining and utterly fascinating, but I don't think I'm in any hurry to read it again. Got to be 5 stars, but I'm off to sit through The Sound of Music again.


Looking for the Goshawk
Looking for the Goshawk
by Conor Mark Jameson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where was the editor?, 10 Oct 2013
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A book with lots of stuff about the Goshawk has got to be interesting, and this held my attention well, but ultimately I recall the many irritations more than anything else. On coming to the end of the last page my reaction was mainly satisfaction that I had not paid the cover price for the book, rather than regret that the journey was over.

On the credit side: the narrative is mainly engaging; some good information about the life of wild Goshawks is provided; the experience of being in Goshawk habitats is at times nicely evoked; there is a decent index and a bibliography: the chapter-heading vignettes are pleasant, as is the cover sketch. The author stresses persecution associated with game-shooting interests as a constraint on Goshawk populations in the UK.

On the debit side - where to start? The cover price is absurdly high for a book with merely adequate production values. It looks as though the final draft text went straight from the author's computer to the page with minimal input from designer or editor (no specific mention of editorial help in the long Acknowledgements). A good editor would have made the book half as long but twice as good. There is much repetition and even more irrelevant material (I would have preferred to learn much more about the Goshawk and much less about the author's life history and the names of all his friends). Some early passages where the author slips into generic 'nature writing' style are effective, but this soon begins to pall. I would have expected at least a few colour photographs of the Goshawk and some of the sites where it occurs, and even - given the number of times the author bangs on about being uncertain of a bird's identity - a little more focused discussion of how the Goshawk differs in appearance and behaviour from birds it is commonly confused with. Why is this debatable opinion in a book about Goshawk: "If we can just find room for a few more [wind turbines] ...we might have a hope"? He commonly appears to use "depredate" as a synonym of "predate": it is not, but it's not clear if this is a linguistic slip or an attempt at creative writing. I too have been obsessed by the Goshawk for more decades than I care to remember (and the other quasi-mythical raptor in Britain, the Honey-buzzard), and many of the author's moments of doubt and excitement in the field are instantly familiar, but ultimately I found this book disappointingly thin on substantive content.


Thin Paths: Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village
Thin Paths: Journeys in and around an Italian Mountain Village
by Julia Blackburn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.07

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good, sensitive...but..., 19 Dec 2012
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I have mixed reactions to this book, which is about a subject that has long interested me. Mostly I appreciate the good points. It is basically well-written and recounts with interest, sensitivity and empathy something of the lives of the last generation to have lived a 'peasant life' in remote mountain communities in Liguria (northwest Italy). The prose is mainly direct and simple, with vivid and imaginative depictions of the landscape and wildlife. Then the bad points, as I perceive them, bother me. It is at times a bit superficial, occasionally has a rather twee 'Country Living' flavour, is sometimes too much centred on the author herself for my taste, and has a few other irritations.

To be clear: the author has performed a real service in talking with the old people she met and recording their stories so generously revealed to her. They show a world of poverty, toil and hardship that had changed little in centuries - a world shaped by mountain geography and stone-hearted landlords. It is a way of life now more or less vanished, the clues to which are rapidly disappearing as the older generation dies, the young leave for more benign surroundings, and the old houses are abandoned. Many of the old people remaining are scarred by terrible things seen in the war and the impossible choices that had to be made. The pace of change since the 1950s has been extraordinary. In one mountain village I know quite well in the north Apennines (about 150 kms east of the author's site), when I first stayed in the 1960s, people would keep the milk cows on the ground floor of the farmhouse and would bring hay and wood down from the mountains on wooden sledges drawn by oxen. Now, nobody keeps livestock (except chickens), tractors work the tiny fields, the number of shiny 4 x 4s seems to increase every year while the number of inhabitants declines year by year. The old woodsmen have retired, bent and battered from their labours, and most younger people commute down to the plains to work, or have moved there.

The irritations? It's a bit frustrating not to be told more about present life in the area; occasional comments about foreigners and other second home owners diminish the impression given of untouched remoteness. Then there are the zoological inaccuracies, which might be trivial in themselves but make me wonder how accurate other statements are. For example, on p55, the author describes how her dog caught a "peregrine falcon" by the wingtip, and the bird watched her "with a yellow eye"; but this leaves me confused because peregrines (and other falcons) have dark eyes, not yellow, and the most likely yellow-eyed raptor would have been a sparrowhawk. So when she says (p13) that she became able to identify eagles and peregrines, the reader actually doesn't know what species she was seeing. Page 68, there's a section headed "Reptiles", which is all about toads and salamanders, which of course are not reptiles at all but amphibians. I suppose an author might be forgiven a gap or two in their general knowledge, but don't editors know anything these days, or don't they edit any more? Then there is all the reported speech of the author's friends and informants: it would have been good to know if these written down verbatim, or the conversations recorded, or 're-created' later. But that's enough on the irritations (which only confirm my status as a boring old ----).

This is fundamentally a sincere, fascinating, moving and valuable account that gives some flavour of how life used to be in these north Italian mountains a generation or two ago: hard and simple beyond the imagining of most 21st century city dwellers. Anyone wanting a more academic perspective on society and culture in Italian mountains might find "Long Live the Strong" by Roland Sarti or "Fate and Honor, Family and Village" by Rudolph M. Bell of interest; then, for a less academic approach, there's always Eric Newby's very entertaining "Love and War in the Apennines".


Wild Italy
Wild Italy
by Giulio Ielardi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.72

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing..., 16 Dec 2012
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This review is from: Wild Italy (Paperback)
Well, the words are good - a nice spread of subjects and, so far as I'm competent to judge, up-to-date and accurate. But almost everything else is disappointing.

The book is in three sections: animals, landscapes and plants, but this division can be somewhat arbitrary because each chapter (often just three or four small pages of quite large type) is based on a particular protected area, which typically has interest in all three sectors. The spread of subjects, often less familiar or neglected, is one of the strengths of the book. The front and back covers are attractive but misleading, because the inside is cheap and uninspiring (and this is not entirely clear from the preview pages): just a few muddy black and white photos and a layout that could have been done 20 years ago by someone learning how to use a word processor. The author says the lack of colour is to reduce costs, and then cheekily refers readers wanting some colour images to his website. The book claims to be "a practical guide" but - absurdly - there is no map showing the location of all the sites, nor any map showing how to get to each one, in fact no map of any kind! The sites are introduced in roughly north-to-south sequence, but the reader will soon be lost unless already possessing a good working knowledge of Italian geography. There is one website (sometimes two) given at the end of each chapter, often the basic Italian protected areas site [...].

I would still recommend this book, primarily because of the text itself (mostly in decent English), but it's a real shame it is so poorly and lazily produced: it is only a practical guide for someone happy to do their own online research through Google maps and the various protected areas websites. Tim Jepson's 'Wild Italy' is a real practical guide: the same price, full of colour images and maps, tons of information, but older.


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