11 Explorations into Life on Earth

‘Life makes the wonders of technology seem commonplace… It is worthwhile, from time to time, shaking off the anaesthetic of familiarity and awakening to the wonder that is really all around us all the time.’

~ Richard Dawkins. From ‘Growing up in the Universe’ Christmas lecture series at the Royal Institution, December 1991.

My knowledge of science is, I am embarrassed to say, very limited. When I was at school science was not a compulsory subject, and so I dropped it at aged thirteen in favour of languages and humanities. Now, later in life, I regret this and wish that I had taken biology back then at the very least. Still, I can begin to address some of the gaps in my education, with books! I was very grateful to receive a review copy of Helen Scale’s book: 11 Explorations into Life on Earth, Christmas Lectures from The Royal Institution.

The Christmas Lectures are a highly regarded British tradition. For nearly two hundred years, a scientist has been invited to the Royal Institution in London to give a lecture for young audiences on a topic of scientific interest. In this book by Helen Scales we have a taster of some of those lectures from the past. It is a beautiful little book with an intricate gold-veined leaf on the cover, designed by Anna Morrison, and I loved the natural history illustrations inside the cover on the endpapers.

It was interesting to read which views have changed over the years, and also how some of the concerns in the past are still very much concerns of today. Some topics of the lectures include ‘The Childhood of Animals’, ‘The Haunts of Life’, and ‘The History in our Bones’.

There is other intriguing ephemera alongside the words – historical drawings of the lectures, invitations, letters and even an inventory of fossil specimens that were borrowed from the natural history museum.

Sir David Attenborough’s lecture of 1973 was titled ‘The language of Animals’. And when he discussed the complexities of bee communication, he produced a large model of a dancing honeybee to emulate the movements with which the bees communicate the location of flowers and their angle to the sun to each other. This book is full of these wonderful examples of scientists who are passionate about their area of exploration.

I’ve heard it said that it ought to be enough to just spend time in nature, that we don’t need to learn the specific names or know how it all works. There are many ways to interact with nature, but I do think it can only enhance our sense of wonder to learn more about the science behind it all.

As Helen writes in the epilogue:

More than half of the human population now lives in cities and many children are growing up with little contact with nature. There’s never been a more important time to find ways for people to reconnect with the natural world and to know and care about what’s out there. The R.I. Christmas Lectures play a vital part in bringing nature into vivid view for so many people and nurturing a sense of curiosity, encouraging everyone to think about the living world in new ways, and simply to go out and explore it.

This is the second book celebrating the Christmas lectures, the first is 13 Journey’s Through Space and Time. The Royal institution is an independent charity connecting people with science. For more information on the lectures and book, you can visit here: The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

Station Eleven ~ Emily St John Mandel

 

This was a book I took to Brighton in the summer. Borrowed from the library after a recommendation from Sarah (read her enchanting blog here).

I’m so glad I chose this to read as it was an engrossing journey from start to finish, though it raised many questions. The story-line follows the events as the world’s population is ravaged by an infectious disease leaving only small groups of survivors to weather the subsequent collapse of civilisation.

The focus is less on the cause and details of this apocalypse than the after-effects and new meanings it brings to relationships between people and to their things. Objects we might give little significance to in our current world, a paperweight perhaps, or a couple of science fiction comics (from which comes the title) take on a whole new value in this irrevocably changed world.

I loved the way the author played with time throughout the novel. It was masterfully done, and I can’t imagine the kind of planning that went into crafting the constant to and fro between the past, present, and future. And also the way a minor character comes to the fore to play a key role at one point in the novel then recedes or disappears again at another point. The most consistently main character is Kirsten. She is a child at the beginning of the novel, acting a small role in a play of Shakespeare’s King Lear. After the apocalypse she joins a travelling group who perform Shakespearean plays and musical entertainment for the small settlements that have evolved out of the dying civilisation.

The author Emily St John Mandel was extremely courageous to attempt such an ambitious tale. It is not a long novel, but it is intricate and daring. At no point did this novel feel like a work of fantasy. This scenario is a real, if very unlikely possibility. Can you imagine a world without electricity or electronic devices; no cars or planes or the vast populations and the complex infrastructures they uphold including the food system, but still knowing what we know? It is horrifying to read about and to imagine, yet there were elements of it that were appealing. Life might not be better, but it is simpler when surviving is all you have to think about.

Inscribed on the front of the caravan in which the travelling group tour from settlement to settlement are the words ‘survival is not sufficient’, a quote from a long forgotten Star Trek episode. What is sufficient? What does make life worth living. What would be worth saving? Despite my sometimes love often hate relationship with technology, computers, the Internet, and mobile phones, like the characters in Station Eleven I know I would miss them. And I know I too would turn to books (I’d be lugging around a suitcase full of ’em), art, poetry, music, dancing and friendship for in these I find meaning in what often feels like a meaningless world.

It was a thought-provoking read and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Best-Loved Poems, A Treasury of Verse by Ana Sampson

“Poetry is personal.The poet tells us about love, grief, faith, doubt, fear or courage as they have felt it, and a receptive reader – sometimes centuries later – discovers that the verses strike a chord, and that scraps of the poem catch in their memory for ever.”

I was lucky to receive an advance copy of this poetry anthology, because of a blog post I wrote on another of Ana Sampson books (the wonders of the Internet!). What a pleasure it was to open the package and see the beautiful and striking cover. A cover which reminds me of those aged books I consider treasure when I find them in a second-hand bookshop. It perfectly reflects the timeless quality of the poems inside.

The poems are divided by theme. Chapters include Love, Relationships, Songs of War, Birds and Beasts, Poems Remembered from Childhood, ‘The Dying of the Light: Elegies and Epitaphs’ and many more.

I enjoyed revisiting old favourites like Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ and especially those which made me smile like ‘Daddy Fell Into the Pond’ by Alfred Noyes, and ‘Yes, I’ll Marry You My Dear’ by Pam Ayres.  

I also discovered some new ones too, like this tender romantic sonnet by Carol Ann Duffy: 

 

Hour

Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,

bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.

We find an hour together, spend it not on flowers

or wine, but the whole of the summer sky and a grass ditch.

 

For thousands of seconds we kiss; your hair

like treasure on the ground; the Midas light

turning your limbs to gold. Time slows, for here

we are millionaires, backhanding the night

 

so nothing dark will end our shining hour,

no jewel hold a candle to the cuckoo spit

hung from the blade of grass at your ear,

no chandelier or spotlight see you better lit

 

than here. Now. Time hates love, wants love poor,

but love spins gold, gold, gold from straw.

 

This book comes out today, a week before National Poetry Day on the 28th September. I can’t think of a nicer way to celebrate it than putting my feet up and reading some poetry along with a cup of tea to restore my sanity. I’d love to know – what would be your favourite poem to include in a treasury of verse?

The Secrets of Pistoulet

An enchanting fable of food, magic and love…

“Far away in the remote, untraveled southwestern French countryside, en route from the enchanting old city with an ancient cathedral to the mystical Pyrenees which appear like a mirage at the most unanticipated moments, there is a small village which contains two homes, an eleventh-century church, and a very special farm known as Pistoulet.

Hidden from most everything, Pistoulet is an unknown paradise with magical powers. There are unusual creatures inside and out. Everyone who passes through Pistoulet has a story which unfolds during their visit to the farm. All who spend time at Pistoulet leave with their hearts transformed.”

… and so begins a magical tale of transformation.

Not a children’s book, but rather an exploration into a children’s way of seeing the world. It is delightfully full of hope and healing through fiction and food, beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, letters, mysterious maps and diary entries.

The recipes are on little pull-out cards with titles like ‘Potage of Spirit’, and  ‘Potage of Strength’.

Because we all need a little extra courage sometimes, and Borage flowers are plentiful at least in this area of the world right now, here is a recipe for you:

TEA OF COURAGE

For those shy souls who are afraid of their own potential

When the summer sun rises high in the sky and the star-shaped borage flowers turn from pink to blue remove the flowers and the youngest leaves. Acquire water from the clearest spring which has traveled many miles from the tallest mountains. Bring the mountain water to a boil and place the borage flowers and leaves in the bubbling water. Cover and let steep until the magical power of the flower has infused with the spirit and strength of the water.

CAUTION: Serve only to those who are truly in need. This infusion has been known to turn the meekest souls into BRAVE HEARTS. Be prepared for a complete transformation of personality.

This a stop off in France on my journey ‘Around the world in 80 Books’. Published way back in 1996, this book must have been a real joy to create for Jana Kolpen and Mary Tiegreen. It is a feast for the imagination, and I defy anyone not to feel at least a little bit better about the world after reading it.

Dubliners ~ James Joyce

My ‘Around the world in 80 books’ is taking its leisurely course. This stop is in the city of Dublin, Ireland. A place I’ve long wanted to visit, and the setting for one of my course texts, James Joyce’s Dubliners.

The fifteen short stories close in on the ordinary lives of Irish people in varying stages of their lives in an early twentieth-century city that is being both pulled back by its past and forward by the future. The people are all stuck in some way, held back by their individual and collective histories, their environments and their own personal limitations.

This is my first encounter with Joyce, and having heard that much of his other works are not easy reads, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed these short stories. Even though there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout the collection, there is also this sense that things could change at any moment.

Favourite stories include – Eveline, Araby and A Little Cloud. The latter about a man ‘Little Chandler’ who dreams of becoming a poet:

‘The glow of a late autumn sunset covered the grass plots and walks. It cast a shower of kindly golden dust on the untidy nurses and decrepit old men who drowsed on the benches; it flickered upon all the moving figures — on the children who ran screaming along the gravel paths and on everyone who passed through the gardens. He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed to him.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.’

The familiar stereotype of the Irish, who love to drink and to laugh, is here too, but this is portrayed as an escape valve from the claustrophobia of their everyday lives. Chandler goes to a public house to meet an old friend who has long since moved away from Dublin. As he walks to meet his old friend Chandler is filled with the hope and possibility of escape:

‘Every step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own inartistic life. A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind. He was not so old – thirty-two. His temperament might be said to be just at the point of maturity. There were so many different moods and impressions that he wished to express in verse. He felt them within him. He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul. Melancholy was the dominant note of his temperament, he thought, but it was a melancholy tempered by recurrences of faith and resignation and simple joy.’

Sadly, the stories do not end on a positive note. Joyce himself found his creative freedom, not in his beloved university city of Dublin, but instead once he had moved away from Ireland. Yet it seems Dublin held a special place in his heart as all his work is set in and around this city. He says:

‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal’.

For me, this goes not only for the city itself, but for the people in it, whose lives I became particularly attached to the more I read Joyce’s beautiful prose.

Candide ~ Voltaire

candidejourney

This is a set book for my studies this year and also a book for my Around the world in 80 books challenge. Written in the Eighteenth Century by the French writer Francois-Marie Aroet, known as Voltaire. (Spoilers follow)

Candide, is a breezy, drag you along by the hair kind of read, full to the brim of energetic life. It is darkly humorous, sharply witty, absurd, as well as horrifying in places. Clever without a doubt, but not really the kind of thing I would generally read out of choice.

As a young man, Candide departs on his travels from the German town of Westphalia having previously been indoctrinated with the philosophy of optimism – that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’. Yet, as he soon finds out on his travels, the author has created a world in which there is all manner of suffering.

While the subject matter is often shocking, Voltaire’s simple flowing prose style is a joy to read. I have to admire a book that dares to try to influence us in this way, to shake us roughly by the shoulders and say ‘wake up’, despite the exhausting ordeal a reader has to go through.

At the end of his journey it is ‘labour’ that is the saving grace for Candide and his friends. Each of the characters find their own particular role to play on their small farm using their particular talents such as pastry-chef, embroiderer, launderer, carpenter. Through his disillusionment and maturing, Candide discovers that through honest work a person can avoid the evils of boredom, vice and poverty. His final words that we ‘must cultivate our garden’ is free to interpretation. We might do well to pay attention to our own business, to do what needs to be done in our own little corner of the world, and/or to literally get out there and ‘cultivate our garden’ – maybe not to reject optimism outright, but that a more practical approach to living may be our best option.

Candide - Voltaire Penguin Classics Edition

Life’s Little Pleasures

Flow Magazine and Womankind Magazine

Do you subscribe to any magazines? Although I don’t buy any on a regular basis, I do like to pick up a magazine from time to time. A food or craft publication in the run up to Christmas, or a few in the summer holidays to read on the train, or at the beach.

A couple of my favourite UK magazines are The Simple Things and the crafty Mollie Makes, but this summer I was delighted to discover, a couple of new (to me) magazines that were love at first sight!

The first is Flow magazine. This is a Dutch publication that celebrates ‘creativity, imperfection and life’s little pleasures’ and includes beautifully decorated papers that you can remove and use. It is not overwhelmed with adverts which usually turns me off a lot of magazines, but includes well-written articles and inspiration about artists and what it is to live well. It is like a breath of fresh air – as if to say – here – take some time to play and look after yourself.

The other is Womankind magazine from Australia. This one is ad-free – what a welcome relief. No subtle pressure to buy anything, but a wealth of interesting reads that encourage us women to reconnect with those things that give our lives meaning and enable us to live wisely. The design is absolutely beautiful (just to look at the illustrations and photographs is enough) and each issue is themed on a different country. The one I bought recently was based on Egypt and includes articles such as what we can learn from the ancient Egyptians about Living more Wisely, The Chore Wars, Letters from Cairo, The Lost Queen, The Curse of the Pyramids, On Duality, and Goddess of Nature.

I’m beginning to sound a bit like an advert here myself, though I am not affiliated with either of these magazines. I know they are in the business of making money like any other magazine, but I think these two have really made this kind of publishing into something meaningful and worthwhile. There was no icky feeling that I was being manipulated, or sold the same old same old with just a different catchy title. So I just wanted to recommend them, and if anyone else has any other recommendations of magazines that are similarly original and genuine, I’d love to hear about them.

‘The Mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.’

~ Plutarch

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children ~ Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenI’d seen this book floating about the Internet for a while, and when I spotted it in a charity bookshop I knew it was coming home with me. Though I must confess, it was the intriguing cover and title that initially piqued my interest.

It is the story of Jacob, a teenager who discovers, under his grandfather’s bed, a secret box of bizarre photographs of unusual or ‘peculiar’ children. When his grandfather dies in a particularly gruesome way, Jacob sets off on an adventure to a remote Welsh island to find out if there is any truth to the photographs and his grandfather’s strange stories. Jacob discovers that there is an unseen world, out of sight of ordinary people, and this discovery will change his life forever.

Ever since I was young, I’ve been attracted to the ‘Alice in Wonderland’  kind of story, where a secret magical reality is uncovered; a world within a world that points to the fact that reality is not always as it seems.

In the back pages of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, there is a series of questions in conversation with the author Ransom Riggs, with some interesting insight:

One of the themes of Miss Peregrine, and I think of any novel that involves the discovery of a secret world, is awakening—the protagonist’s awakening to an awesome and wonderful and, in some ways, terrible reality he scarcely could’ve imagined before, but that was right under his nose all along. At the end of Miss Peregrine, Jacob writes that his life was never ordinary, but he ‘had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.’

By far the most interesting thing about this book is the collection of black and white photographs. These are all original ‘found’ images, used to inspire and illustrate the story. The images are strange, often creepy, with unusual compositions, shadows and reflections. They arouse curiosity and I’m afraid, for me, the story just didn’t live up to the expectations inspired by the photographs. It was a good idea, but I was left feeling disappointed.

After a long slow build up and brief climax, the story dwindled to an unsatisfying conclusion. Not that every story must wrap up each loose end, but the open ending here leads onto the next book in the series and I wasn’t seized to rush out and buy the next installment. Although, perhaps you do get to know the characters in more depth in those subsequent stories.

I would be interested to see some more collections of the strange photographs and think they would make an excellent book by themselves.

Emily would like to see the film adapted from this book which comes out later in the year, so we’re looking forward to that. With Tim Burton directing, I am hoping he can make more out of what really had the potential to be a great young adult fantasy story.

The Bookseller of Kabul

P1040999

Afghanistan would probably not be high on my list of places to visit should I get the chance, but it was a fascinating visit via this non-fiction book by Asne Seierstad.

The author is a Norwegian journalist who has reported on war zones such as Syria , Iraq and Chechnya. This book is an account of her stay with a large Afghan family after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

I did find the journalistic writing a bit jarring after a while – I found myself wanting a more personal point of view – but it was worth reading for the detail into lives that are very different, unimaginably different, to my own.

The book brought up a lot of conflicting feelings – sympathy for the bookseller and members of his family for the suffering they had to endure under the Taliban regime, but also frustration and fierce anger over the treatment and lives of the women.

I felt especially for poor Leila, a nineteen year old girl and lowest in the pecking order of the house. She does all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for the extended family, working from dawn to midnight every day and never has time alone.

“Leila never walks alone. It is not good for a young girl to walk about without company. Who knows where she might be going? Maybe to meet a man, maybe to commit a sin. Leila does not even walk alone to the greengrocer a few minutes away from the apartment. She usually takes a neighbour’s boy along with her, or asks him to run errands for her. Alone is an unknown idea for Leila. She has never, ever, anywhere, at any time, been alone. She has never been alone in the apartment, never gone anywhere alone, and never remained anywhere alone, never slept alone. Every night she sleeps on the mat beside her mother. She quite simply does not know what it is to be alone, nor does she miss it. The only thing she wishes for is a bit more peace and not so much to do.”

Leila is treated worse than a servant and dreams of a different life where she might have gone to university or been a teacher.

The Afghani people as portrayed here, are stuck in a kind of no man’s land – half wanting to be pulled into the modern world, but also resisting that and clinging to the staunch traditions of Islam with which they’ve been brought up.

It was the dusty, overcrowded, claustrophobic atmosphere of the house where they all lived that lingers with me the most. The women of this family may have willingly, gladly even, thrown off the Burka, but there is still so much of the oppressive system deeply ingrained into their behaviour that it is clear it will take generations to shrug that off.

Reading this gave me greater understanding into how ordinary people with essentially good hearts get trapped into oppressive cycles; an interesting, but definitely not easy read.

Poems to Learn by Heart by Ana Sampson

Poems to Learn by Heart, Ana Sampson book

“Reading poetry – letting phrases wash over you and seizing on the passages that best describe a certain feeling – is a wonderful way to spend time. Committing those same poems to memory, so you have within yourself a storehouse of the most beautiful and, I would argue, useful words in the language, is hugely rewarding and a skill worth cultivating.”

~  Ana Sampson

I picked this book up in the library partly because of the exquisite cover and partly because of the title. Do you know any poems by heart?

About ten years ago I started keeping a little notebook in my bag in which I wrote some of my favourite shortish poems. Whenever I was waiting for the bus or in a queue somewhere or otherwise twiddling my thumbs, I would take out my notebook and learn a line or two.

I recommend starting with a poem that you love, here are some examples that I began with:

I’m nobody! Who are you? – Emily Dickinson

A Birthday – Christina Rossetti

Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost

Success is Counted Sweetest – Emily Dickinson

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud – William Wordsworth

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day (Sonnet 18) – William Shakespeare

In the introduction of the book, Ana describes the process of memorisation:

“Once you’ve chosen a poem, write it out on a piece of paper to get a feel for the lines. Read it aloud several times, and you may find it helpful to walk in time with the poem’s rhythm and recite the words in time with your footsteps. Take it line by line: recite the first line until it is perfect (choosing a very famous poem will help here, as you will likely already know the opening) then add the second, and so on. Do not learn a new line until you can recite the previous lines perfectly. You might find it helpful to recite the poem daily, and attaching visual cues (or other prompts) to each line of the poem will enable you to walk through the lines without forgetting what comes next. Before long, the poem is yours: caught fast in memory and ready to be recalled when wanted and needed.”

‘Tis likely a very old-fashioned thing to do, and I’m glad I wasn’t made to learn poetry by heart in school as older generations had to. It probably would have put me off for life. But I’m often surprised by how much the lines of the poem become embedded in your mind and bubble to the surface at unexpected times. Little things – daffodils in springtime, an apple tree heavy with fruit, a summer’s day… and a line or two of the poem will wander unbidden into my conscious mind.

If you are interested in learning poems by heart, then I would recommend this book. It is brimming with ideas and inspiration.