Showing posts from 2013

In between Mr B’s Reading Year: Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos by Patrick Leigh Fermor (2013)

We managed to get our copy the evening before release at Mr B’s own bibliotherapy session( and what a treat we have.  This posthumous publication has been eagerly awaited, the third section of Patrick’s year-long walk from England to Istanbul (Constantinople) made in 1935 when he was 18.This book has been finalised by Patrick’s literary executors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, using completed sections and notes.They have managed a potentially very difficult task wonderfully well, creating something that is genuine.Yet again, the brilliant writing, the descriptions of people and landscapes, shines through.The lands and people Patrick meets are just fascinating.The book takes us from the Iron Gates on the Donau through Bulgaria, back to Romania, then down the Black Sea coast to Constantinople.
Interestingly, there are only scattered notes of his stay in Istanbul – no soaring descriptions of the architecture or the bustle of city life we enjoyed earlier th…

Books in between Mr B’s Reading Year: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I first read this book aged 11 or 12, when it left me with an odd fascination for hollow ways and green lanes in the English landscape – picked up by others, including Hugh Thompson Green Road into the Trees, but more particularly Robert Macfarlane and his wonderful The Old Ways.  However, my schoolboy memory was also for a great adventure.  When this special reprinting in hardback by Mr B’s appeared (, how could we not get it?!We are now the proud possessors of copy number 41 of a limited edition of 500. The Introduction is by Robert Macfarlane himself and describes a trip with Roger Deakin (Wildwood) to Dorset looking for the possible site in Rogue Male {just found Holloway (2013) describing that trip and more is out}!
On a second reading, Rogue Male turned out to be a wonderful chameleon of a book.  OK it is a man’s book, but it has achieved something that is only rarely done – it is a boy’s adventure, an adult thriller, a spy story published on the eve …

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 8: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

This a cracking read and a wonderfully full and complex story woven about Jun Do, the main character, and his life in North Korea.  It is a story about sacrifice, but it is a wonderful tale.  The environments and the lives may be bleak, in this totalitarian state, but they are human and carefully brought to life.  Starting as an orphan, he knows he is treated badly by the orphan master, but only because he is special.  He is clever, so he is trained in the army, and goes to work in the tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea.  He becomes at home and can fight in the dark.  Described only in snippets through the story, he undergoes pain training and learns to take terrible punishments.  He is bright and is selected to join a team of kidnappers, pinching people from Japan and South Korea, often for people with specific talents needed by the Pyonyang elite.  He learns foreign languages, especially Japanese and English.  Thus, he is sent to sea on a fishing trawler, where he listens to the…

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 7: The Green Road into the Trees: a walk through England by Hugh Thomson (2012)

Here is an interesting, well-written book, full of people, locations and history that give us a snapshot of southern England today.  Personal coincidences abound, so Hugh was off to a winner for me from the off.  I started reading this a week after walking with Hilary and the dogs on Chesil beach at Abbotsbury, after Mike Rufus’ 75th birthday hog roast at his thatched cottage Tilly Whim in the countryside outside Dorchester, Dorset.  The walk described in the book starts at the chapel by Abbotsbury above the beach!  The walk is along the ancient Icknield Way, taking in the Ridgeway in Wiltshire, part of which I walked as a boy, through the Chilterns, ending at Holme-next-the -Sea in Norfolk. Halfway house is Hugh’s home near the Thames, where he learns he has to move out.  Not everything has gone smoothly for Hugh’s personal life, but I like his take on things and people. 
As an ancient trackway, it is fitting that history, archaeology and landscape are recurring themes.  There are …

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 6: Thoughtful Gardening: great plants, great gardens, great gardeners by Robin Lane Fox (2010)

Thoughtless Gardening would be a better title for this book!  I haven’t been as stimulated by a book as this one, for some time.  However, it isn’t for the right reasons.  The Oxford academic author and Financial Times gardening columnist has gathered his writings into the calendar year in short column chapters.  The fact that each is short is a blessing.  To give him his due, he does have an excellent understanding of cultivars and the best chapters focus on individual groups – asters, peonies, roses, etc., etc. - where useful experience and information is passed on.  In a similar vein, some of the descriptions of individual gardens are good.  However, the overall tone is of pomposity and name dropping, rather than of passing on a genuine enthusiasm.  What comes over is a rather opinionated writer, probably reflecting a life spent in an Oxford college and London.  What really grates is that here is a writer that apparently likes gardens and gardening (one wonders if they really do in…

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 5: The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (1981) - translated by Will Hobson from the French of Anne Collin du Terrail (Le Meunier Hurlant)

A slightly odd book?  Perhaps, but as one critic puts it, “beautifully written and strangely moving”.  The main character, the miller, Gunnar Huuttunen, is an odd individual for sure - he howls like a wolf now and then -  but he is hard working, straight and persecuted.  That persecution from his neighbours is definitely unfair and undeserved, but circumstances unfold in this fable in an unpredictably predictable way.  How he keeps going, being sent to an asylum, escaping and living wild, is a wonder and you feel for him.  His kind, increasingly supportive, girlfriend, the horticulturalist Sanelma Käyrämö, sees him through a series of mishaps and adventures.  The great and the good of the local town, particularly the chief of police and doctor, have it in for Gunnar, for no obviously good reason.  Having evaded the army, Gunnar is ultimately tricked and captured to be sent back to the asylum.  He is with his friend, the constable Portimo, on the train, but mysteriously they never arri…

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 4: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina (2011)

We went across to Mr. B’s in Bath to listen to Alexander Fuller, brilliant author of Gone to the Dogs and Under the Tree of Forgetfulness about family life in Zambia and Zimbabwe, both of which will make you laugh out loud and cry.  This book, One Day I Will Write About This Place, was one that she recommended as a rare example of an honest and direct one by an African about their Africa. This is autobiographical, covering the early life of Binyavanga and is a chaotic romp from his early life in Kenya, through troubled adolescence, to university and even more troubled drop-out in South Africa, then back to the arms of his family in Kenya.A measure of normality and a job, but all the time, he is reading, reading, reading – so, yes, he starts writing.And he writes well.Congolese music, sights, smells – the first impressions and feelings powerfully laid down as childhood memory are here.There are his lows of dropping out in South Africa, where his beloved sister tries to keep him going, …

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 3: The Break by Pietro Grossi (2007)

“Small and perfectly formed” is one quote on the cover of this deceptive book and it accurately sums up this little charmer.  Set in a small Italian town, this seems an everyday tale where nothing much happens.  Dino, the main character, works on the town roads, with his small gang, creating and repairing perfect stone block work.  His recreation is billiards in the local café/billiards hall, run by the legendary player Cirillo.  As a boy, Dino is set the task by Cirillo of getting the ball to return to the exact spot – every time.  He perseveres.  As a man, he is quietly married to Sophia and they live frugally with little income.  Into this routine of stonework, billiards and home, slowly change comes. First, the arrival of tarmac and the break-up of the road gang. That does bring change, but going to national billiards tournaments at Cirillo’s suggestion (he will not go) is another.  Dino, as a country hick, just does his thing and wins, but it is for Sophia and the potential of fa…

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 2: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)

Bruce Chatwin writes the introduction to this travel book, marking this book, written in 1933, as perhaps the best written travel book ever and bemoaning the loss of so many sights, smells and experiences to history.   Starting in Venice, this is the description of Byron’s journey to Oxiana, land of the River Oxus on the border between Afghanistan and Russia, with much time in Persia, today’s Iran.  He makes it on to India and ends back at home in Savernake, near where I went to school, where he cryptically hands his notes to his mother to see what she makes of it – yes, it was published!  What a joy this book is to read.  What writing!  His particular interest is in the ancient architecture of the lands he travels through.  Towers, tombs, triumphal arches, even old cities, as well as mosques and mausoleums are brought to life, some over 1000 years old.  Along the way, the vistas and people he meets and how they live are wonderfully described.  This must have been a tough trip to make…

Turkey 2013: EWRS conference, Samsun, the Datca Peninsular and Istanbul

I fear our carbon footprint is growing. This trip, part work and part holiday, took eight flights to complete, but allowed us to see several parts of this diverse and fascinating country.  First up, was getting to Samsun, a city we will hear more of in the future on the northern Black Sea coast.  This was the venue for the 16th European Weed Research Society Symposium at the Ondokuz Mayýs University.  Leaving Bristol early at 06:00 we passed through Amsterdam and Istanbul Atatürk (KLM, then Turkish Airlines) before being picked up with others for our hotel, arriving at 22:30 local time.  Do-Soon Kim from Seoul and Per Kudsk from Denmark were at Istanbul, both editors for Weed Research.  We were up early on Sunday morning as I was teaching a course from 09:00 to 17:00 on “How to write a paper for an international scientific Journal” ahead of the conference.  I had a good group of attendees from 11 countries and it was a successful interactive day.  That was followed by an Editorial Boa…

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 1: Fire Season by Philip Connors (2011)

Hilary gave me this great present last year – 11 books through the year selected by Mr. B’s wonderful and award-winning bookshop in Bath - but I only started getting the books towards the end of 2012.  First book up, Fire Season by Philip Connors, is this fascinating description of times in the Gila National Forest on the Texas-Mexico border as a fire-watcher.  This is a no-road wilderness, something we can only dream of in the UK.  There are lyrical passages of life alone in the high mountains with Alice, his faithful dog, over the summers.  The characters he meets, the fire teams and some passing through on the long-distance hiking trail, are interesting and varied.  There is romance, with his wife, Martha, how they met and increasing tension as to how they can carry on living apart over the summers.  The unanswered question is will he have to return to the Wall Street Journal after ten years and do a “real” job again. Philip Connors has a great feel for nature and ecology and bring…