Book Review: “Fortune’s Son” by Jennifer Scoullar

fortune's son

Enchanting historical tale set for the most part in Tasmania, with a short interlude in South Africa. Jennifer Scoullar conjures up evocative images of the Tasmanian bush at the end of the 19th century. There is a great appreciation of the natural history of the land and some of its more unusual fauna especially the Thylacine and the Tasmanian Devils. Set against this backdrop is the romantic tale of Belle and Luke, whose relationship is torn apart by class and injustice. At the beginning of the novel, a teenage Luke lashes out at a rich mine owner trying to protect the reputation of his sister, for this act he is thrown into prison for 15 years hard labour, he eventually escapes and spends time in the bush with a big Newfoundland dog called Bear. Luke is an outdoorsy type and “The prospect of living rough with the animals as his sole companions didn’t daunt him. Bear was no longer the only one torn between two worlds.”

Sadly for the Tasmanian Tiger, extinction dawned on the horizon. Coorina, the female thylacine in the story and her cubs meet up with Luke.

Her sensitive nose tested the air over and over for the scent of another thylacine. She was ever disappointed.


The last known living thylacine died in a zoo in 1936 of neglect, the zoo thought it would be easy enough to find another, but they never found another. The thylacine was the apex predator in Tasmania, a carnivorous marsupial with a head like a dog and stripes.

thylacine
thylacine (photo: National Geographic)

I spent three weeks in Tasmania in 1988, reading about the nature brings back fond memories. There were rumours of sightings of thylacines at the time, but it has since been declared officially extinct.

 

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Book Review: “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood

alias grace

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, so I was more than happy when the Tbilisi English Language Book Club chose this as their next book to discuss. The story is about Grace Marks, a woman notorious in 19th century Canada, who was convicted along with a man named James McDermott of the murder of their employer a  Mr Kinnear, the housekeeper, Nancy was also murdered.

The novel looks at the harsh lives of poor immigrant women in the mid 19th century. Grace is born in Northern Ireland and comes to Canada in the squalid lower decks of a ship with her family, tragically her mother dies on the crossing and her drunken father puts her out to work in service in Toronto at the tender age of 13.

It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over; you don’t seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength.

It is a framed story, which starts in the penitentiary, 15 years after the crime and a psychiatrist with theories about amnesia, Simon Jordan, is interviewing Grace to determine if she were innocent or guilty and if she is sane or not. Grace is an unreliable narrator, we have no means of knowing whether she is telling us the truth or not.

Simon tells himself to stop being so extreme and histrionic. It may well be that Grace is a true amnesiac. Or simply contrary. Or simply guilty.

Grace escaped the scaffold because she has a bright young lawyer (“It was my own lawyer, Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie, Esq., who told them I was next door to an idiot.“) asking for clemency on account of her age (15/16), she was still sentenced to life imprisonment and spent some time in a lunatic asylum before moving to the penitentiary. James McDermott didn’t escape the noose and before he was hanged blamed Grace for instigating the murders.

Margaret Atwood shows how limited any real choice was for a woman, particularly a poor one in that time period. The novel is a mixture of historical fiction and murder mystery. The time period, the transport, the clothing and the life of a servant is intricately recreated. It is an enthralling read, which I would highly recommend.

My rating : 5 out of 5

 

 

New Year’s resolutions 9 months on

My resolutions were made with no great hope of success. New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Get into shape: I’m still 70 kg, no increase, no decrease. I’m walking around 10 000 steps a day according to the pedometer app on my phone, this went down in July and August, with few lessons I had less motivation for getting out of the house. I also climb the 172 steps up Ikalto Hill to home about twice a day.  (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 3 out of 10)

2. Start eating healthier food, and less food overall. I am visiting fast food outlets less frequently, I can’t remember the last time I visited Wendy’s or McDonalds’s (I used to visit Wendy’s at least once a week), I still visit KFC about twice a month.  I also eat far too many sweets. I do occasionally opt for a salad and chose water rather than a sugary drink. This still needs more work. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 4 out of 10)

3. Stop procrastinating: At the beginning of the year I was bingeing on “Grey’s Anatomy” now it is the turn of “The Wire”. I have a fuller timetable now, so less opportunity to laze around. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 1 out of 10)

4. Meet new people: Most of the new people I meet are those who attend the English Language Exchange on Mondays, this is the social highlight of the week for me. I have trouble remembering names. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 3 out of 10)

5. Give up cigarettes: This was a joke resolution, I have never smoked… (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 10 out of 10)

6. Read more: My target for the year is 40 books, I am on target according to Goodreads, (my challenge) having read 28 books to date. But I have been cheating a little, some books are bigger than others. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 5 out of 10)

some books are bigger than others
some books are bigger than others…
goodreads reading
my reading as recorded on Goodreads

Some of the books I wouldn’t normally count as books read… Saul Bellow’s novella is just 64 pages, Pre-Raphelites and Rembrandt  mostly show the paintings, there is little text, Horton Hears a Who is the kind of book I learnt to read with (thanks Dr Seuss),  King Lear is a brief summary for children and the Edgar Allan Poe “books” are just short stories. So my actual book total should really be 21, I’m well behind schedule to read 40 “proper” books in a year.

goodreads reading 2

7. Become tidier: I need to work on this. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 1 out of 10)

8. Start saving money: and this… (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 0 out of 10)

9. Learn a new language. I have been using Memrise to learn some Georgian words and Duolingo to learn some German, Portuguese and Dutch. I don’t know how useful these apps have been. I currently have a streak of 63 days on Duolingo but if I were to meet a Brazilian or Portuguese person, there is a limit to what I can say. I’m listening to Georgian songs on YouTube, the tunes stick but few of the words are sticking :/ (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 2 out of 10)

10. Pick up useful skills or fun hobbies. I have bought a computer with photoshop but haven’t done anything with the program yet. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 0 out of 10)

11. Travel more. I began January in Tsagveri and I finally managed to visit Svaneti in July but I doubt I will get out of Georgia this year. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 1 out of 10)

12. Go see your doctor more often: the only doctors I’ve seen are the pretend doctors on “Grey’s Anatomy” and those I have taught English to. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 0 out of 10)

13. Learn to cook new recipes: I tried banana pancakes, but it wasn’t a great success, the result was more of a banana omelette.

banana pancake
my banana pancake

(How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 1 out of 10)

14. Start being more creative: need to work on this…. (How do I think I’m doing on this resolution: 2 out of 10)

Far more progress on my resolutions needs to be made if I am to avoid the usual disappointments when I reach January 1st and make resolutions anew.

 

 

Book Review: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

sapiens
Sapiens by Harari

Harari provides a lot of food for thought, and also some thoughts about our food. Like did we tame grain or did it tame us? A brief history of humankind, spends most of the book focusing on our kind of human (ie homo sapiens) and a smaller part on other human species like Homo Floresiensis or the Neanderthals, which is understandable as our knowledge of other human species is limited to a few fossils and a lot of speculation. When homo sapiens arrived in Eurasia, there were already humans there, what happened to them?  Harari tells us of two theories:

1) There is an interbreeding theory, that Neanderthals and Sapiens interbred, there is some evidence of this in European and Middle eastern DNA.

2) There is a replacement theory, where there was no interbreeding, the two populations remained distinct and Sapiens just ended up the sole human species, because of fighting, disease or just better adaptability.

There are plans to possibly recreate Neanderthals, by means of bioengineering, using fossil DNA and a homo sapiens host mother.This could also be tried with other human species.


70 000 years ago homo sapiens was a terrestrial animal of no particular significance, Harari shows by means of different revolutions how our species evolved to its current dominant state and speculates how we might evolve further into the future. There are some amusing sounding theories, like the gossip theory of language development: even today the vast majority of human communication is gossip, there is a theory that Sapiens developed such complex language to enable gossip. The maximum “natural” size of a group bonded by gossip is 150 individuals (Facebook optimistically allows for a maximum of 5000 “friends”). Complex human societies grew up over our ability to invest in stories. As an atheist Harari is of the view that all religions (and also nations and money) are based on elaborate stories. Stories he sees as the “mythical glue” that bonds humans together.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.


Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. When we think of great steps for mankind we think of Apollo 11 or Columbus, but Harari tells us the journey of the first humans to Australia, some 45 000 years ago is “one of the most important events in history”, marking the beginning of homo sapiens leaving  the Afro-Eurasian ecological system.

Some parts, however, are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism, the author’s belief and opinion definitely bleeds into the text. I preferred another book of his “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” as each chapter looked at a distinct “lesson”, so it was easier to dip in and out.

Book review: “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising
Esperanza Rising

At Tbilisi English Book Swap, Emma holds up this book and says it is fantastic, to which I respond “Ok, I’ll take it!” Emma then informs me I am probably not the target demographic, for the book (10-14 year old girls). I like to read a variety of books and had enjoyed The Green Glass Sea which Emma had brought to a previous book swap meeting and which was also aimed at children or young adults. Heck! In the summer I even read “Horton Hear’s a Hoo” by Dr Seuss, the kind of book I would read when I first discovered the magic of reading some fifty years ago…

Esperanza Rising is the story of a Mexican girl growing up on a ranch in Mexico, where she has servants and pretty dresses, but her world is suddenly torn asunder when her father is killed by bandits and her avaricious uncles take over the ranch. Esperanza and her mother flee to California, to begin life anew as farm workers in California during the Depression.

California, during the Great Depression is familiar to anyone who has read such Steinbeck novels as “Cannery Row” or “The Grapes of Wrath“, Steinbeck’s focus was largely on the “Okies” who moved west from the dustbowls of Oklahoma and  Kansas to the promised land of California to find new hardships, when they arrived.

It wasn’t just “Okies” who moved to California, Esperanza’s tale finds camps set up for immigrants from other lands: Mexicans, Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese. Esperanza finds to her dismay that Mexicans are seen as lazy and dirty. On one camp there is a swimming pool, which Mexicans are only allowed to use on Friday afternoons before it is cleaned on a Saturday morning.

Each chapter is linked to a particular harvest: grapes, potatoes, avocados, asparagus etc… as time is not considered in months but in the crop to be handled at a particular time.

“Are we going to starve?” asked Isabel.

“No, mija,” said Josefina. “How could anyone starve here with so much food around us? “

Esperanza has to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, there is no room for little princesses working in the fields or the produce factories. This book is rich with ideas for great discussions on empathy, economics, labour unions, race relations, prejudice, immigration, rights, family, choices, hope, attitude, work, pride, and kindness. It is topical as many potential immigrants fleeing from hardships in Central America are heading to the US today, eighty years on.

Esperanza and her fellow workers face the prospect of forced deportation if they should strike for better conditions. Esperanza is told she is lucky, as her camp has toilets, in other camps they have to use the ditches for their needs.

Esperanza’s character is transformed over the course of a year from privileged and naive girl to a hard working and empathetic teen. On the train to America we see she is loathe to let a dirty young girl even touch her prized porcelain doll, but later she gives that same doll to Isabel, a young girl working in the camps who has nothing but the clothes she is wearing.

My rating : 4 out of 5

A Decade of Living in Georgia: the Good and the Bad…

I moved to Georgia in September 2009, the year after their short war with Russia. Ten years on, I reflect on living in Georgia, the country not the US state (it needs qualifying every time). I am often asked do I like Georgia? Well, my answer is “Yes and no”. Everywhere I have lived (England, Wales, Australia, France and Georgia) has had positive and negative aspects.   Some things I like, and some I don’t (as with any country, there will be the inevitable few, who will say the tired “if you don’t like it go back to where you came from!“). On balance I’d say I’m very happy here and have no plans to move. This is my own very personal viewpoint, I realise others will have different likes and dislikes, particularly with regards to the Khachapuri (cheese-bread)! I have also lived exclusively in the capital, Tbilisi, which I appreciate is very different to living in a Georgian village.

So let me look at those likes and dislikes in more detail:

Light

I love the fantastic light. Lots of clear sunny days make for good photos. Coming from England, where sunny days are rarer, this is a great blessing.

light in the stairwell
light in a stairwell in Varketili

Mountains

The mountains are spectacular, some are higher than any in the Alps (Mont Blanc is 4810m, Mount Shkhara in Svaneti is 5193m). As a draw-card, I think this is what would  really attract tourists to Georgia.

Khevsureti
Khevsureti, one of many scenic mountainous regions in Georgia

Women

I might get into trouble for the next observation; but I find Georgian women are very pleasing on the eye, strangely many Georgian men seem to fantasize about Ukrainian women. I have been married to a wonderful Georgian woman for many years now.

P1320600
Georgian model in Old Tbilisi

Georgian Cuisine

Georgians rave about their cuisine, one list places Georgian Cuisine as 4th out of 48 European Cuisines ranked behind only Italy, France and Spain. This may be sacrilegious to state but I am not so impressed and miss English roast dinners and puddings (UK cuisine was ranked 13th) . I don’t really like khachapuri, their signature dish, a cheese filled pastry, I find it too salty. I do like khinkali and churchkhela. Georgian meals are important events and most birthdays and holidays are marked with a feast or “supra”. Georgians are also proud of their wine and claim to have been the nation which invented wine back in the mists of time, some  8000 years ago, a claim for which there is substantial archaeological support in the region. Georgian Wine

mtsvadi
Mtsvadi (მწვადი), Georgian Barbecue, a popular dish at supras (Georgian feasts)

The Georgian Language (დედა ენა)

The language is a real nightmare for me, using a different and unique alphabet and having long words with tricky consonant clusters. I lived in France for six years and can get by reasonably well in French, but Georgian is a different story. I explore this in a separate blog :  The Georgian Language is one of the most Difficult to Learn detailing my travails with the language. Maybe it is just my brain isn’t as malleable as it once was.

P1630272
signs in Georgian

Rubbish

One thing that saddens me is despite the Georgians singing so much that they are proud of their country, so many of them litter with abandon.

rubbish
litter near the roadside

Cars

I’m crazy about cars, though strangely I don’t drive here (see traffic later in the post). I love seeing the old Soviet cars around.

GAZ Volga 24 with crates
GAZ Volga 24

Work

As a native English speaking teacher with many years experience teaching English, I can find plenty of students here, many people want to learn English and there are not a lot of native English speakers with whom I need to compete. I have taught English since 1994, first in France, then England and now Georgia. The cost of living is relatively cheap, particularly public transport and accommodation, which are much cheaper in Tbilisi than in London, but wages are also much lower.

Safety

Tbilisi feels a safe city, I have had no troubles, apparently it hasn’t always been like this, in the 1990s there was a lot of street crime. Walking around late at night in an English city on a Friday or Saturday night is more intimidating than walking around Tbilisi at night.

Public Transport

The public transport, though cheap can be very overcrowded. The newer buses are better with air conditioning and less pollution. There are just two metro lines.

on the bus blog

Traffic

The traffic is scary at times, the drivers have little respect for pedestrians and won’t necessarily stop just because you are on a pedestrian crossing. When asked by Georgians what I don’t like I usually say “the traffic !” and they nod in agreement, though apparently it is even worse in Iran.

crossing by Drybridge Market
Traffic won’t necessarily stop if you are on a pedestrian crossing

Another gripe I have with the traffic, is seeing far too many drivers using their mobile phones with seeming impunity.

driving and using phone
driving and using the phone

Religion

Religion is important here, despite the Bolsheviks trying to stamp out religion in the past, there are many new churches and most Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. I have been baptised into the Orthodox church but I find their intolerance of other denominations rather un-Christian, I feel I maybe losing my religion. For example: Georgian Orthodox church takes aim at Armenian Church. My wife is quite devout and prays twice a day, every day.

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Svaneti Museum Crosses

Smoking

Smoking is very common here, it is cheap compared to Western Europe and many smokers seem oblivious to those around them, it pains me to see people smoking around children. Smoking has recently been banned in public buildings which is good, although it often means smokers congregating around the exit, puffing away.

smoking and kids
You can poison your own lungs, but do you really need to poison the children around you?

The 1966 Italian epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone was entitled “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly“…. for ugly, we have in Tbilisi the Biltmore Hotel.

Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore Hotel

Zufa Jafaridze commented: “The ugliest building right in the center of Tbilisi, where it shouldn’t be, ruining the view and the beauty of the city, but wait, it gets even worse at night when the giant ad monitor flashes into your eyes when you go outside, it never should have been built there and I hope it will be removed.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

365:An Art Concept

365 musical
1/365

In 2000, I had an idea for an art project. I decided to make a piece of art on a postcard, then, every day for a year I would send the postcard to Jonathan Watkins the director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. I started on 1st October with the above postcard, a picture inspired by a still from the Lars von Trier musical “Dancer in the Dark“, which had been released that year.

365 postcard

I would also make a second card, which I would keep. I chose Jonathan Watkins as the recipient because he had impressed me when giving a tour of the Ikon Gallery, which was exhibiting the works of my favourite Australian artist, Gordon Bennett. I didn’t tell him before I started of my intentions. I did meet him about a month into the project, he seemed quite bemused by the idea.

365 parliament
Blue Parliament

The art was in pencil or pen or paint or collage, the canvas was always the standard blank A6 postcard. I didn’t manage to create a piece each day, but over the year I did make the full 365 works.

365 kafka
Kafka

Some pieces were titled, others weren’t. I don’t now have all the copies, I have moved too many times. When I was creating the project, I was living in Worcester, England and working for the Royal Mail. It was all very self indulgent, and gave me a chance to try out different art techniques.

365 blow painting
blown paint (red/green)

The above was created with drops of watercolour paints blown with a drinking straw. I am no skilled draughtsman, but I had some fun and now I enjoy drawing and painting with my grandchildren.

365 car fire
nothing so beautiful

I signed each card in the bottom right corner with   ج

This is the Urdu letter “Jeem”, used because my name is Jim.

365 bjork
Bjork

Here are some of the cards.

my art 365

I haven’t repeated the project.