ABook Of Silence

A Book Of Silence – Sara Maitland

First Published: 2008, Granta Books

This Edition: 2009, Granta Books

From the back of the book:  “In her late forties Sara Maitland moved out of the city and fell in love with silence. In this profound and provocative book, Maitland explores this fascination, delving into the darkness and euphoria that silence can bring, and considering its cultural history. She contemplates the experience of silence – from her own nights in the Sinai desert and weeks on the Isle of Skye to the accounts of travellers and mystics – and argues for its importance in a world increasingly addicted to noise.”

Thoughts: A Book of Silence asks the question: Is silence simply an absence of anything else, or is it an entity in its own right? Instead of seeing silence as a negative space that must be filled at all times, Sara Maitland believes it’s a positive experience that should be embraced. Our cultural fear of silence, and the awkwardness may people feel without background noise, incessant chatter or the visual cacophony of social media is, she thinks, counter-productive to society.

It highlights the importance of not only quiet reflection, but also absence of thought. Whereas the temporary process of meditation has picked up popularity again recently, along with colouring books and the invention of Mindfulness, Maitland wants to know what can be gained from long-term silence. What would our minds be like without constant uninvited invasions from the outside world? In trying to answer this question, Maitland researches monks, explorers, sailors, writers and hermits. She climbs mountains, moves to a remote Scottish island, visits the desert, immerses herself in a silent flotation chamber, and lives at the bottom of her parents’ garden.

I’m not sure I’d go to such extreme lengths in pursuit of something which isn’t there, but then I guess that’s the point, she’s convinced that silence is there, and that makes her quest surprisingly gripping. It has so many hallmarks of a good travel story that I’m almost tempted to put it in that category. In fact, I will, as there is travel involved, even though the subject matter is far more a matter of the mind. But the thirst for which she searches for answers reminds me of the drive to reach a physical destination, and the reading she seems to have done on the subject seems on a par with the research undertaken before a lengthy mission overseas.

I felt like I had spent some quality quiet time reading A Book of Silence, but whether or not I think of reading as a silent activity is not as black and white as it once was. Nor, for that matter, is writing. I’m communicating with you now as you read this, and you’re actively seeking out what I have to type, which may be an absence of sound, but certainly isn’t an absence of noise. I should stop breaking your personal silence now, and lock myself in a dark room or something, but I know that it won’t realistically happen, there’ll always be something to distract me with, which does highlight the idea that we can’t ever be truly silent in this hectic world we live in.

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “There was no moon but there were shooting stars, random, sporadic, but frequent, and some with long flaming tails like the great dragon of the apocalypse.'”

Buy A Book Of Silence Here

 

And Furthermore

 

And Furthermore – Judi Dench

First Published: 2010, Weidenfield & Nicolson

This Edition: 2012, Weidenfield & Nicolson

From the back of the book:  “From Shakespeare actress to ‘M’ in the James Bond films, from popular sitcoms like As Time Goes By to classic serials such as Cranford, Judi Dench’s professional life has been non-stop acting, leading to numerous awards, including an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.

Here Judi Dench writes in depth on the highs and lows of her career, with reminiscences on her family (she was happily married to actor Michael Williams until his death in 2001), fellow actors, directors and writers. She has always said she can’t work unless she can laugh in rehearsal, and what shines through is how her zest for acting is underpinned by her sense of humour.”

Thoughts:  I love Judi Dench. I’m just going to put that out there at the start, so that you’re not expecting an unbiased review. Her passion for the theatre, intelligence and reserved approach to being a celebrity are a breath of fresh air in a world where Donald Trump and the Kardashians too regularly block up my television screen.

And Furthermore is a collection of memories from screen and stage, spanning from drama school and her early days at The Old Vic to more recent roles in James Bond and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. An index of name-drops would read like the Who’s Who of the acting world. It seems there aren’t many big names she hasn’t worked with. Yet her modest approach to recounting their joint performances leaves you with the sense she’s spent most of her career in awe of her colleagues. There’s very little showing off in this book, which is a testament to her character after such a lengthy successful career. Having such respect that nobody questions a request to wander on during a performance of Les Miserables during the interval of your own play, and having a costume made for the one-off walk-on, really does illustrate that it’s not just me that holds her in high regard!

Having only dabbled in am-dram myself, this book offered me a fascinating insight into life on stage, but I was a little lost at times with the technicalities of the theatre world. Not that it affected my enjoyment of reading it though, it just made me Google a few terms over the course of the 299 pages. Her down to earth approach (if you discount the champagne and posh snacks) eases you from 1934 up to the present day, and the writing is light and often amusing.

One thing I couldn’t shake when reading this, is the sound of her voice as the words lift from the pages. I’ve had the same experience when reading Sir David Attenborough’s books, and I think it would be impossible to read this any other way. Many photos of her performances also add to the experience, and I found they really helped furnish my imagination when reading about parts in plays I’d never heard of.

I recommend this book to anyone who vaguely has an interest in theatre, television or film, but I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with a healthy appreciation of Dame Judi Dench.

Edibility Rating: 5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “One day I was sitting there, waiting to do something, and looked down and saw another cat basket. I said, ‘That’s not my cat’s, what’s that basket there?’ They said ‘That’s the stunt cat.'”

Buy And Furthermore Here

 

To The Lighthouse

 

To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

First Published: 1927

This Edition: 2002, Wordsworth Editions Limited

From the back of the book:  “This simple and haunting story captures the transience of life and its surrounding emotions.”

Thoughts:  I’m not sure what I was expecting with To The Lighthouse, but it took me a while to get into it. It is beautifully written, but I prefer novels with a little more forward motion. I think I’m just too easily distracted for Virginia Woolf; by the time I’ve read a few paragraphs inside one person’s head, I’m not ready to skip to somebody else’s point of view, nor can I remember who else’s there is to skip to.

That said, the writing is fabulous. With lines like

“At the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.”

it’s easy to see that this is a book worth poring over. The characters are so fleshed out that I found myself getting hooked towards the end, but if you’re looking for a packed plotline it’s probably not the right book to go for.

Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more as a literature student.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said – but what mattered if the meaning were plain?”

Buy To The Lighthouse Here

A Walk In The Woods

 

A Walk In The Woods – Bill Bryson

First Published: 1997, Doubleday

This Edition: 2015, Black Swan

From the back of the book:  “The longest continuous footpath in the world, the Appalachian Trail stretches along the East Coast of the United States, from Georgia to Maine. At the age of forty-four, in the company of his friend Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson set off to hike through the vast tangled woods which have been frightening sensible people for three hundred years. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing ticks, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.”

Thoughts:  I read this when I needed an adventure, but didn’t have the time off work available to have one. Having finished it, I now want to walk over 2,000 miles through the forests and mountains of the Appalachian Trail. So, this is a dangerous book.

Bryson’s anecdotes filled the pages with stories of Katz’s blunders as they attempt to reach Maine on foot. What Katz hadn’t told Bill on the phone was that since they last met he’d developed an alcohol problem, a strict eating regime and put on a substantial amount of weight. Perfect for trekking half way up the USA, right?

I spent most of the book waiting for them to get eaten by a bear, or fall off the side of a rocky cliff edge, despite knowing that at least Bill lived to tell the tail. I’m not entirely sure how they managed what they did.

In addition to reminiscing about the journey, Bryson introduces us to the wildlife of the Smokies, an unflattering summary of the history of the National Park Service, and some wonderful characters. The most memorable of these for me was Mary-Ellen, and it’s left me quite concerned that she may still be wandering about in the mountains somewhere pestering middle-aged men on a mission.

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked further than the average American walks in a week. For 93 per cent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. That’s ridiculous.”

Buy A Walk In The Woods Here

The Size of the World

 

The Size of the World – Branco Andic

First Published: In Serbian as Velicina sveta, by Prosveta, 2008

This Edition: 2015, Geopoetika Publishing

From the back of the book:  “The Size of the World offers a finely structured story about a world long gone but forever existing in its protagonists. It depicts Andic’s experience of growing up and coming of age in the former Yugoslavia, from the early 1960s till the late 1980s, presenting an image of a typical Yugoslave childhood of the time, with some notable differences that formed the author’s character and his world-view…This portrait of the artist as a young and somewhat older man is a pleasure to read.”

Thoughts:  I picked this book up in one of many busy, bustling bookshops in Belgrade. As our book stores dwindle in the UK, it was refreshing to watch people milling around the stands, picking up titles and inspecting them carefully before making their choices. My own choice was somewhat restricted by the fact that I cannot read Serbian, but a selection of translated prose gave me access to some modern and classic works, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

I’m still not entirely sure if this book is fiction or not. If it is not, then it is a piece of non-fiction written in the style of fiction, and it works fabulously.

The protagonist is now an adult, but reflections on his own childhood act as a background for reflection on his son’s coming of age as, his own ever-increasing maturity and the early experiences of his father.

A sporting theme recurs throughout, from trying to engage his teenage son, to idolising his dad as one of the finest swimmers on the beach. How can you not be one of the greatest when you’re wearing hand-decorated swimming trunks? But the sport really serves to illustrate the subtleties of family relationships. The trophy on the cabinet: Do you allow your son to believe it was from an Olympic race, or admit that perhaps dad isn’t the champion you think he is?

Alcohol is another topic to create a wake-up call. Surely, from a family of wine-makers, the traditions and tastes will be passed through the generations? How is Dad supposed to act then, when his son’s first alcoholic request (and the second, and the third,) is for beer?

Some of the memories visited are touching, and some made me cringe. There is a finely portrayed moment where the child gets it so wrong. But that’s what happens as you grow up, sometimes you put your foot in it, and it’s unfair to expect a little person to understand the difference between having some money and being a millionaire. Still, the scene on holiday where the penny drops recalled to my mind moments in my own childhood where a misunderstanding left me confused and wondering why people were pulling funny faces at my comments.

The tiny moments of victory experienced within a family are cherished in this book. When your own festive calendar doesn’t match with celebrations authorised by the state, it must be a huge internal struggle. But reading about how the family managed to balance what had to be done, with what they felt they should do, really makes me grateful for never having encountered such dilemmas.

I am very pleased with my random selection, and will keep an eye out for other translations from Geopoetika.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Only amateurs and self-important tourists count miles. For travellers by trade, they just fill in the space from here to there.”

Buy The Size of the World Here

The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

First Published: 1977, Aberdeen University Press

This Edition: 2011, Canongate Books

From the back of the book:  “Awe-inspiring, poetic and philosophical, The Living Mountain is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing.”

Thoughts: This book is beautifully written. From the descriptions of the scenery to the immersive way Shepherd walks you through the Cairngorms, it’s a delight to read. The only drawback is its brevity, at only 108 pages long, I could have read more. I would, however, skip reading the introduction. It is almost as long as the main text, and although an interesting look into the context of the book, I feel like Robert Macfarlane gives away most of the precious lines before you have a chance to reach them yourself. I’ve learnt my lesson there.

From years spent wandering in the mountains, Shepherd divides her thoughts into logical chapters, from plant-life to the humans that inhabit and appreciate  them. Her observations of the living world are astute yet poetic, and peppered with subtle commentary on human nature that give this book its substance. If I were to spend a week in the Cairngorms now, I would be looking out for the wonderful characters that she meets on her adventures, even though she forlornly added that most had passed away prior to publishing.

Her descriptions of the living world are never dry. When writing about the experience of walking through heather, the scent “like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp sense of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of intellect as well as the surge of emotion.” Each time a tiny fragment of the scenery is described in this way, I couldn’t help but stop and think ‘wow, I would never have thought to put it like that.’ And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about how clever the writing was, in addition to enjoying the reading.

The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies. Whether this was due to a lack of confidence in it, indicated through letters discussed in the introduction, or the lack of market, I don’t know. But I wonder whether she would have attempted publication earlier had she known that The Living Mountain would become one of the true nature writing classics?

Edibility Rating: 4.5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “But they are not in the books for me – they are in living encounters, moments of their life that have crossed moments of mine.”

Buy The Living Mountain Here

The Magic Of Reality

The Magic Of Reality– Richard Dawkins

First Published: 2011, Bantam Press

This Edition: 2012, Black Swan

From the back of the book: “Magic takes many forms. The ancient Egyptians explained the night by suggesting that the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. The Vikings believed a rainbow was the gods’ bridge to earth. These are magical, extraordinary tales. But there is another kind of magic, and it lies in the exhilaration of discovering the real answers to these questions. It is the magic of reality – science.”

Thoughts: This is Richard Dawkins’ latest attempt to convince the world to replace their Holy Books with a subscription to Nature. He argues his points clearly and comprehensively, explaining ‘magical’ works of nature from rainbows to the origin of man. He does so by first introducing stories and myths explaining these phenomena from ancient and modern civilisations, then flattens them with his usual no-nonsense approach to quashing the ethereal and bulldozing folklore.

I found the first half of each chapter just as fascinating as the ‘scientific bit’. In explanation of the night and day, we are introduced to a legend from south-eastern Australia in which an emu egg was thrown into the sky. The sun hatched from the egg, setting fire to some nearby kindling, and the sky god arranged for this to happen every night, as people found the resulting light of day so helpful!

Each chapter introduced me to stories like these from cultures all over the world. They were so captivating that I found myself disappointed when Dawkins hit the return-key twice, paused in triumphant and dramatic silence, and proceeded to introduce The Real Explanations.

It’s not that I don’t believe him. To the contrary. I’m a biologist by training, and devour scientific literature with great interest and enjoyment. There’s just something about Dawkins’ tone that makes me feel patronised and spoken down to. At times it feels derisive, and I can visualise him sneering as he tells us what actually happened. I have a suspicion that this also indicates that as a reader, I’ve become increasingly incapable of separating my opinions on the author’s social media use from the book in question. It’s something I will have to seriously consider before opening another of his books with the intention of writing a fair review.

The Magic of Reality was written to be easily understood by the younger reader, and I think he has achieved this well. The explanations are complex and thorough, yet illustrated brilliantly, with thought experiments that carefully approach subjects that are hard to initially get one’s head around. I enjoyed walking along my imaginary bookshelf full of photographs of great-grandfathers, all the way back until we reached a fish (I must admit that my fish still had a moustache, but that’s my own imagination blip).

Overall, a good read for debunking myths from every culture on the planet, and the place to go for informative explanations of earthquakes, the seasons, life on other planets and the apparent existence of miracles. But this book has not re-ignited the enthusiasm I felt when first reading The Blind Watchmaker. There’s just a little less…magic.

Edibility Rating: 2.75 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Nobody would want to call your fishy 185-million-greats-grandfather a man. That would just be silly, even though there is a continuous chain linking him to you, every link in the chain being a member of exactly the same species as its neighbours in the chain.”

Buy The Magic of Reality Here

Being A Beast

Being A Beast – Charles Foster

First Published: 2016, Profile Books Ltd

From the back of the book: “Charles Foster wanted to know what life was really like for a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, a swift. So he tried it.”

Thoughts: Charles Foster wanted to be five different animals from the British wildlife scene, and he wanted to do so without anthropomorphising. It’s a difficult task, considering that the very nature of trying to contort your lifestyle into that of an animal, means working out how to squash their unique way of life into the somewhat different parameters of your own human one. Trying to be a swift, for example, is going to be a trifle hard without wings. No matter how hard he flaps, his arms are still going to remain human.

Foster is not concerned by such minor setbacks, and happily delves into a hole cut into a hillside with a miniature digger to live as a badger with his son for a while. Quite how long, I’m not sure, and that is something which spoilt the reading for me. I want to know just how long was invested in that hillside eating earthworms, and did he swim as an otter for months on end, or just as an afternoon jaunt one summer’s day?

Being A Beast looks at what separates our experience from an animal’s. Delivery of hot pie from a friend’s farmhouse seems to be one glaring difference, although I’m sure a badger wouldn’t say no to that either. Maybe it’s just a case of availability. Cynicism aside, I have a lot of respect for somebody who sticks out a storm in an artificial badger sett, watching the weather damage your handiwork, only to crawl out in the muddy morning and fix the damage to welcome round two. I would have been in the pub at the sight of the lightning bolt on the BBC Weather App. Perhaps this is why Foster has such a deep respect for the badgers. The otters don’t fare so well.

Otters, it seems, don’t rate highly on Charles Foster’s list of animals. They are described as “jangling, snarling, roaming, twitching bundles of ADHD” and a “pretty shabby evolutionary compromise with a short attention span, poised on the edge of ontological precipice”. And those are the compliments.

Despite his apparent dislike of the creatures, Foster does his best to get into their lifestyle. First on the list is to get his children to poo along a river bank, in an attempt to mimic leaving spraint, and then crawl around with his kids in the coming days, sniffing each others’ faeces. Poo from different kids smells different, and gets less smelly the longer it’s out in the elements. Who knew? I hope this was well thought out, with a plan to reduce any negative environmental impact. Considering that water pollution is touched on in the same chapter, shitting on a riverbank doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing to advocate, whether you think you’re an otter or not.

And then we move onto the foxes. A deep sense of awe starts to shine through again here. Foxes seem to have earned his respect, and a huge amount of effort goes in to replicating their existence. Eating rubbish from the bin bags of London’s East End, creeping out policemen by sleeping under a bush  and declaring he’s a fox, and ruminating on the televisual habits of the human population get him in the right mind set, but the highlight of this chapter for me is a fascinating look at their senses. What does a motorway sound like to a fox? What, exactly, goes through their noses? Or more to the point, how much more colourful is the information once it reaches the brain?

I was so enthralled in Foster’s exploration of the sensory world of a fox, that I felt surprised to then be reading about chasing a cat around his backyard, snarling. It seemed slightly unnecessary. Particularly as he baited it by placing a smelly chicken leg on top of a tarpaulin, then hid underneath just to scare the poor thing off. I’ve seen a lot of foxes, but I’ve never seen one do that. And I’m not entirely convinced that Mr Foster chased the cat along the top of a fence, unless it was an extremely broad one. More like a wall. Or the ground. Maybe I’m just jealous of his supreme athletic abilities.

By the time we reached the chapter about deer, I’m not sure what Foster was trying to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, this book is a fantastic exploration of the hidden lives of some of our wildlife. But as for being a deer, it’s disappointing.

He acknowledges that stag hunting can’t tell you much about what it’s like to be a deer, but you have to read eleven pages of detailed description of the last moments of a stag’s life before we move past it. He then gets chased through some farmland by a dog called Monty, but still, he’s not a deer. Next, he crawls through snow on his hands and knees to some freezing, dying deer that “smelt of pear drops”. It gets cold and dark, and he basically ends up hypothermic (but still not a deer), having a conversation with himself which is recounted with incredible clarity considering the state of delirium he must have been in. Thankfully he survives the night and wakes up surrounded by deer, which carry on being deer whilst he wanders off to warm up somewhere in a not-very-deerlike-fashion.

His next attempt to become a deer involves wallowing in some mud and watching an ant try to crawl up his urethra. This, shockingly, still doesn’t make him a deer, but it’s okay because after all this he surmises that he couldn’t possibly be a deer anyway, because they’re victims. And he’s Charles Foster.

I’ll leave you to make your own mind up about whether he’s successful at becoming a swift.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line:  “Wetsuits are condoms that prevent your imagination from being fertilised by mountain rivers.”

(Although I also hear they’re quite good at preventing pneumonia – Susan)

Buy Being A Beast Here

Badgerlands

Badgerlands – Patrick Barkham

First Published: 2013, Granta Books

This Edition: 2014, Granta Books

From the back of the book: “There are more badgers per square kilometre in Britain than in any other country, yet they are scarcely seen and much maligned. Travelling across our fields and through our woods, Patrick Barkham seeks out these distinctively striped creatures, and the enthusiasts, farmers and scientists who know them best.”

Thoughts: When Badgerlands arrived on my bookshelf, I had already spent the last few years keenly following the controversy over the UK government’s decision to implement a yearly cull of badgers. It is happening as a desperate attempt to eradicate bovine Tuberculosis, a disease that costs the farming industry an awful lot of money and stress. But is it really the fault of badgers or have these iconic mammals become a scapegoat for the problem? Are there other options? Why is the cull continuing despite the lack of any scientific evidence to suggest it may work?

The cull has attracted both fervent supporters and passionate objectors, and the two have come head to head in debates, online and in the dark fields of Britain, trying desperately to kill and protect badgers in equal measure. Patrick Barkham spends time with both and lets us into the picture from several different angles.

In Badgerlands, Barkham investigates not only the current cull, but reminds us of the dark history that this species has faced in our countryside. This is not the first time they have been subjected to persecution, and despite the fact that the badger is a protected species under UK law, it looks like they will be targeted for some time to come. Badgerlands takes a deep breath and asks the questions that don’t come up in the furious online arguments and can’t be found within the DEFRA cull guidelines: What do these animals mean to us as individuals and as a nation? How have they been represented in folklore, popular culture and the media? And who are the people who live deep within Badgerlands, his imagined sphere of badger-y existence?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It appeared to earnestly try and present a balanced picture of the cull, but as with anyone who sticks their head too far down this particular rabbit hole, Barkham’s opinions sneak out more as the pages turn. It is not a lecture though, nor is it aggressive in its approach, and it was refreshing to read coherent and sensible arguments, even those that I didn’t agree with.

The only flaw I could really identify was in one chapter entitled ‘Vermin’ where the figures confused me a little. When referring to the percentage of cattle killed in the UK due to bovine TB it discusses a 10.2% rise between the years 2011 and 2012, but without knowing the actual number of cattle killed in the first year this isn’t helpful in appreciating the scale of the problem. Of the 8.3 million cows in the country, it makes a big difference if 10 cows were killed in 2011, or if 1 million cows were killed. That 10.2% rise would be somewhat more significant if it were the latter!

It is not a book overloaded with facts and figures though, and for those interested in a broad overview of how these nocturnal creatures exist in our landscape it is easy to digest and littered with anecdotes and fun character descriptions as Barkham gets to know badger scientists and backyard enthusiasts, and follows them in their work.

There was one chapter that made me feel very uncomfortable, ‘Lunch’. I did push through it, but it is not for the faint-hearted. So if you have a weak stomach or are a staunch vegan who recoils at the idea of gobbling up wildlife for curiosity’s sake, this might be a chapter to skim read. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person whose first thought when seeing something new is: “I want to eat that!” then, by all means, knock yourself out and read away!

Overall, this is the best book I’ve read in recent times, and I would recommend it whole-heartedly.

Edibility Rating: 5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Most deliciously, above the attractively variegated cast of bungling politicians, pitchfork-brandishing farmers and animal rights nutters, loomed the photogenic hero: the noble, innocent, tragically flawed black-and-white.”

Buy Badgerlands here