Nice arse!

Wheatears are a group of birds which I never noticed until we started spending time around the Middle East/Mediterranean. The most important thing to know about them is, of course, that “wheatear” is in fact a corruption of the original name, “white arse”. So, croups, not crops.

We never got close enough to the desert wheatears in Oman for any photos I care to reproduce, so we’ll start with the dashing white-crowned wheatear*:

Here we have the neat, but dull female black wheatear:

And the splendid western black-eared wheateater, showing off his best side:

*All species are my best guesses.

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Reading List 13

A productive 55 books read in these six months, thanks to plague and unemployment!

Short stories

Real Time World +2 — Christopher Priest
Public Library — Ali Smith
Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women — Jo Glanville (ed.)
Beacons — Gregory Norminton (ed.)
The Lady with the Dog and other Stories — Anton Chekhov
The 4th Domain — M. John Harrison
The Collected Stories — William Trevor
The Bloody Chamber — Angela Carter
The Chronicles of Clovis — Saki
Mouthful of Birds — Samanta Schweblin
The Garden Party and Other Stories — Katherine Mansfield
The Exploding Boy — Nick Parker
The Awakening and Selected Short Stories — Kate Chopin
Anything is Possible — Elizabeth Strout
Dubliners — James Joyce

I’ve been neglecting short stories as a form, so the shortathon was an interesting change for me — I read at least one story per day, and I discovered some new authors in the process. Samanta Schweblin and Nick Parker both write great absurdist pieces, often very short; Parker self-published this one book and then seems to have gone off to start a marketing company. Modern life.

The Irish are the other stand-outs for me: William Trevor’s doorstop was unremitting, but beautiful, and I understood Dubliners much better than the first time round.

Other literature

Dead Air — Iain Banks
The Giant, O’Brien — Hilary Mantel
The Third Policeman — Flann O’Brien
Super-Cannes — J. G. Ballard
Old Man Goriot — Honore de Balzac
The Collector — John Fowles
Impressions of Theophrastus Such — George Eliot
Gould’s Book of Fish — Richard Flanagan
Flights — Olga Tokarczuk
A Journal of the Plague Year — Daniel Defoe
The Vegetarian — Han Kang
The Overstory — Richard Powers

I didn’t like Flights quite as much as I’d expected, but I’d expected a lot. It did start to make more sense towards the end. For Irish absurdism though, you can’t beat Flann O’Brien.

Non-fiction

From Bacteria to Bach and Back — Daniel Dennett
Homo Deus — Yuval Noah Harari
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race — Reni Eddo-Lodge
21st Century Yokel — Tom Cox
Flow: The Psychology of Happiness — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligence — Peter Godfrey-Smith
The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE – 1492) — Simon Schama
Thinking Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman
Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand — Marcus Chown

Thinking Fast and Slow was enlightening, but Kahneman is no writer; it was a plod to get through (not ideal as an audiobook, so my fault). 21st Century Yokel was an entrancing, vaguely autobiographical ragbag. Other Minds managed to be both educational and heart-warming.

German

Buddenbrooks — Thomas Mann
Woyzeck — Georg Büchner
Lebensansichten des Katers Murr — E. T. A. Hoffmann
Nach der Natur — W. G. Sebald

Kater Murr was great fun, and Buddenbrooks is a pretty good substitute for George Eliot.

Algeria

The Bone Seekers — Tahar Djaout

In a hundred pages or so, Djaout satirises colonialism, traditional village life, and the post-revolutionary state. A brilliantly bleak fable.

Shakespeare

Twelfth Night — William Shakespeare
Richard II — William Shakespeare
Henry IV Part 1 — William Shakespeare
Henry IV Part 2 — William Shakespeare
Henry V — William Shakespeare

Mainly the second Henriad this term — I’m going for all the history plays in chronological order.

Other poetry

Don Juan — Lord Byron
The Broken Word — Adam Foulds

All narrative poetry, it turned out (including Nach der Natur, above), which was an accident. Maybe a happy accident though — it’s an easier way into poetry for someone brought up on novels.

SF/F

The Fourth Bear — Jasper Fforde
The Inheritors — Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford
A User’s Guide to Make-Believe — Jane Alexander
Children of Time — Adrian Tchaikovsky
This Is How You Lose the Time War — Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Use of Weapons — Iain M. Banks
Europe at Midnight — Dave Hutchinson

Another accident: parallel worlds were the theme which emerged this time, in The Inheritors, This Is How You Lose the Time War, and Europe at Midnight (and at a bit of a stretch A User’s Guide to Make-Believe). Time War is an almost comprehensible love story, which manages to do a lot of world-building and move the reader in a very few pages. And while we’re on coincidences, Europe at Midnight is set against the background of recovery from a pandemic:

Fifteen years after the last deaths from the Xian Flu and people were only just starting to reconnect with normal life. The British Isles had got away comparatively lightly from the pandemic, but for years afterward the country had seemed deserted, people had buttoned themselves up in their homes, still unwilling to mix with others who might have been infected. The economy had teetered on the brink yet again. Last year there had been incidents of large-scale social unrest in the Midlands – riots in Leicester and Derby – and, counterintuitively, commentators had looked benignly on it, seeing a return to some kind of normality, an expression of shell-shock more than anything else.

So, large-scale social unrest permitting, I think my main plans for the rest of the year are: more short stories; maybe some Shakespeare comedies, which I’ve tended to neglect; non-narrative poetry; and given recent events, authors from more diverse backgrounds. I have a few big reads underway (Finnegans Wake, London Labour and the London Poor, and Alan Moore’s mighty Jerusalem) which might get done by the end of the year.

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Bluer Rock Thrush

A little while ago we were visited by a blue rock thrush, which was unfortunately female and so not blue. Now not one, but two males have turned up, and look rather more impressive. Still technically not thrushes, though.

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More Beggars

Chapter two: the bulbuls.

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Little Beggars

The warm weather’s really got started here, just in time for the first round of sparrow fledglings.

The youngsters still know only one way to get food:

Fortunately there’s a regular supply of dates on our balcony, so Dad can oblige:

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Oran 2 (30/30): Locusts

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Oran 2 (29/30): Mercury

Mercury above Oran
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Oran 2 (28/30): Tongue

Blue* rock thrush**.

*Not blue, because she’s only a girl.
**Not actually a thrush, but a chat.
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Oran 2 (27/30): Little Owl

Little owl
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Reading List 12

40 books read in this six months, making 75 for the year. This was an experiment in reading all non-fiction, which was rewarding in that I covered a lot of books that I wouldn’t normally read, but on the other hand I didn’t get a wildly different experience from my usual high-fiction diet. The large number of memoirs here shows that I still needed stories of one kind or another.

Food

The Pedant in the Kitchen — Julian Barnes
Eating Animals — Jonathan Safran Foer
Raw Spirit — Iain Banks

Eating Animals was horrifying, even for someone who already knows a lot of this stuff. Raw Spirit was mainly written by Banks’ inner teenager, but he’s still facetiously amusing and put me on to some new whiskies.

Nature

Underland — Robert Macfarlane
The Long Spring — Laurence Rose
Ten Million Aliens — Simon Barnes
The South Country — Edward Thomas
Crow Country — Mark Cocker

Underland was a typical Robert Macfarlane book — very self-satisfied, but good at evoking the places he visits. Simon Barnes was much more winning company, with a tour of the entire animal kingdom giving due share to the weirder microscopic phyla. Mark Cocker has the good sense to be a corvid-fancier, and managed to make an East Anglian rooks’ roost a must-see destination.

Memoir

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar — Chris Packham
I Am, I Am, I Am — Maggie O’Farrell
Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s — Brian Aldiss
The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah — Benjamin Zephaniah
A Man Without a Country — Kurt Vonnegut
The Year of Magical Thinking — Joan Didion
Die Harzreise — Heinrich Heine
Wild Swans — Jung Chang
The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise — Peter Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil

Chris Packham’s and Benjamin Zephaniah’s books were both disappointing, the former overly purple and the latter pure Pooter. Maggie O’Farrell’s and Brian Aldiss’s were much better, though both ran out of steam towards the end. Anything by Vonnegut is a little miracle, even if not his best. The Year of Magical Thinking, Wild Swans, and Abelard and Heloise were all very powerful in their very different ways.

History

The Second World War — Antony Beevor
Eichmann and the Holocaust — Hannah Arendt
Boys in Zinc — Svetlana Alexievich
Age of Revolution — Eric Hobsbawm
A History of the World — Andrew Marr
Another Day of Life — Ryszard Kapuściński

Boys in Zinc and Another Day of Life both come from what seems to be a particularly East European tradition of imaginative non-fiction writing. Both were beautiful and terrifying, whether or not any particular statement included is literally true. Hobsbawm’s book was a much more conventional history, but also creative in its focus on viewing the period through the prism of two events: the French and Industrial Revolutions.

Biography

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip — Alexander Masters
The Invention of Nature — Andrea Wulf

A Life Discarded was a little disappointing — I thought it was overly concerned with the writer rather than the more interesting subject. On the other hand, Wulf’s book does a good job of restoring some attention to the rather neglected figure of Humboldt.

Science

The Greatest Story Ever Told … So Far — Lawrence M. Krauss
The Science of Meditation — Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
A Mind of its Own — Cordelia Fine
Welcome to the Universe — Neil DeGrasse Tyson et al.
On the Origin of Species — Charles Darwin

Cordelia Fine covers a lot of the same ground as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I’m still reading; often they describe the same psychology experiments. Her tone is amusing, but rather wearing, so I had to take it in small doses. On the Origin of Species was much shorter and tightly-argued than I’d expected, and breaks out into some rather poetic passages towards the end of each chapter.

Krauss (the basic forces of nature) and Tyson (more or less all of astrophysics) provided much the heaviest doses of science, but both were just about within my comprehension. Or at least, the parts that weren’t didn’t stop me from following the rest of the book.

Politics

This is Not a Drill — Extinction Rebellion
How to be Right — James O’Brien
Chavs — Owen Jones
Understanding Power — Noam Chomsky
McMafia — Misha Glenn
Women & Power: A Manifesto — Mary Beard

This is Not a Drill was much more varied than I’d expected — it combined often inspiring perspectives of a varied selection of people involved in the protest movement with practical details of the actions they’ve carried out. Chomsky comes across in Understanding Power as even more pleased with himself than Robert Macfarlane, and varying wildly between eye-openingly right and just bonkers. Mary Beard is more reliably right, and much funnier, though her very slender book is light on the manifesto side of things.

Philosophy

Religio Medici etc. — Thomas Browne
On What Matters Vol. 1 — Derek Parfit

Derek Parfit was one of the great moral philosophers, and here produces a convincing synthesis of consequentialist, Kantian, and Rawlsian thinking. All this in a prose style somewhere between the clumsy and the elegant, but always distinctive.

Essays

The Essays of George Eliot — George Eliot
Partial Portraits — Henry James

Two nicely interlinked collections of essays — both are mainly surveys of the works of a series of authors, and James includes a fine piece on Eliot.

Coming up next: the plan is for a more balanced range of genres: there’s still a lot of non-fiction on my list I haven’t got round to yet, and novels are back, but also I want to read more short stories, poems and plays. And I’m still very gradually moving through the first chapter of Finnegans Wake.

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